Materialism and Gnosticism

Check out a great thread by author (and attorney) Alexander Palacio:

The description of the body-part trade, as well as its relative lack of regulation compared to the beliefs of those who provide its products, is stomach-turning. As Alexander points out, when people get in trouble, it is for contract violation, not because they have desecrated the bodies of the dead. The body, legally, is an object without any rights.

It’s odd that the extremes of materialism (in the philosophical sense, the belief that only the material is real and of consequence) end up in the same place as Gnostic heresy in denying the importance and reality of the body.

According to the materialist, you ARE your body, there is metaphysically no separate spiritual “soul” that ascends to heaven or goes anywhere else. Thus one would think that the body is, therefore, the only thing that can be sacred because it is all humans are. However, the disregard for the dead body shows that any idea of the individual person, to the extent that it exists at all, is merely a temporary fluence of matter, a state, not an object. The evidence for this state is the evidence of life: breath, consciousness, movement, etc., and when it ceases, “you” cease.

The implication of making the person a temporary state of matter, really a series of actions, is that it means that the person does not exist. “You” are not a real “thing” because you are a selection of actions. The body is reduced to a shell that the action inhabits, effectively the same belief shared by most strains of Gnostics.

I realize, reflecting on the gross practices of body disposal, that our society is totally subsumed in the materialist mindset – if it isn’t objective, it isn’t real or valuable – and that religiously most Christians have adopted gnostic positions based on those materialist precepts. My father was a good man and very religious as far as evangelical protestants go, but even he disregarded the body as a meaningless shell. His dog tags said “no preference” because (as he explained to me) he felt it didn’t matter at all what happened to his body after death. It could be thrown into a woodchipper for all he cared; he didn’t need it anymore.

The danger of disregarding the body is the danger of gnostic heresy in general: believing that Christ was not human, that he didn’t have a body, or that his incarnation and physical suffering were illusory or meaningless, or that there was no resurrection of the body. This was a major controversy in the early church and one which continues to plague us. If the body is meaningless, why did God give us one? It would be better if we were just souls, not condemned to endure the toils of the body. We can quickly fall into a belief in dualistic gods like the Cathars, etc., where our bodies are not only meaningless but bad because it is through our bodies that we experience suffering and death. It would stand to reason, therefore, that the God of the old testament was also bad, or at least misguided, a demiurge that created us as bodily beings in error or in spite of the “real” non-physical world.

Such traps have further implications for the faith. What is the point of communion? Why burn incense? Why baptize? Why make icons, statues, or altars? Why fast? These things must do nothing since God is not physical, and “you” are not physical. In fact, the strain of Evangelical Protestantism I was raised in (and my father, for the most part, believed in) didn’t believe any of these rituals were “real.” There were, at best symbolic and had no effect; at worst, anathema since they were “idolatrous.” You end up in practical Gnosticism, or practical atheism, which the body trade shows are very close indeed.

When people donate their bodies to science, they think it is for some noble use, and only when their loved ones find out the horrors their remains have been subjected to do people recoil. Burning a body to ashes and spreading it on the beach is fine, but chopping it to pieces and sewing it to other bodies is too far. To me, this means ultimately that despite the gnostic hoops people jump through, they know that the body is something special. A person is more than just a memory residing in those whose energy states continue; a person is real. Their bodies should be treated with dignity and respect, as we should treat the living with dignity and respect.

There are some moments in the recent show Cyberpunk: Edgerunners that show the tension between these two extremes. David Martinez, the protagonist, suffers the death of his mother, partly due to poor medical care, and her ashes are delivered to him by a vending machine. Yet, despite the society that dehumanizes the individual, David does not discard her remains. In fact, he feels bound to fulfill some part of her desires, as well as the goals of a friend he makes along the way who also dies. The struggle is between the nihilism of total materialism, where an individual’s humanity can be replaced by mechanical objects in the Ship of Theseus fashion, and the continuing spirit of a person as more than a temporary state of vibrating matter. Ultimately, that is the tragedy of the story as well because the faceless, mechanical world cares nothing for the memory of the dead, just as it cared nothing for them while there were temporarily “alive.” The most permanent thing you can hope for is a drink named after you in the appropriately named “Afterlife” bar.

You can find more themes on the body, spirit, and mortality in my newest book, out now:

Read the first one in the series, too! It deals with the nature of memory and reality.

8 Comments

  1. There may be a kickback against the ostentatious internment of bodies through the funeral industry. Embalmed corpses put into ostentatious coffins lowered into concrete tombs, place marked by heavy, engraved stones. It’s overboard and narcissistic and I think that the incoherence that you speak about (and maybe a lot of postmodernism and socialistic tendencies in general) is a reaction against the aggrandizement of the self so often seen in that generation. They didn’t eat well or exercise but they built shrines to their lives when they died, within which are their chemically preserved, malformed bodies.

    That said, I agree with your perspective on this other potential extreme. Humans don’t seem to find the middle ground very well.

    • There is nothing specifically wrong with having an expensive tomb. Jesus had one (though he was only in it for 3 days and he didn’t buy it himself), and so did Abraham – the cave tomb was the only land he owned. Most people, however, were buried in humble ways, and old graves were actually dug up to make way for new graves, with the old bones/remains being treated in a certain reverent way. It’s really about the intent behind it, I think. Is this for memory for your descendants or for your own desire for glory? Really, it is those you leave behind who decide what happens to your body.

  2. Great post, David. I had not realized that you were a convert. I (and I think others, too) would enjoy your conversion-to-Catholicism story if you ever care to share it.

    Regarding Alshafaltha, is there any one book that serves as an obvious “prequel” to help set up the scenario, or can a relatively new reader jump into this title?

    • A new reader can jump into the book with nothing else. It’s self-contained. It does, however, contain an artifact from “Crown of Sight,” the nature of which the characters don’t fully understand, but the reader WILL if he’s read that book. You can get it stand-alone or as part of the Carona-Chan anthology

      These books are both themselves sort-of prequels to Water of Awakening, Needle Ash, City of Silver, etc. in the same way the Silmarillion is a prequel to Lord fo the Rings. They are in the distant past.

  3. Cremation is very practical especially in urban areas. Especially how over the years having so many perish in the same area would require larger and deeper crypts to store them like the old Crypts of Paris to store bones make it more and more dangerous.

    But its interesting that you believe that it can be made quite dignified.

    • Burial histories are interesting, and “space” is not a new problem. Graves used to be dug up and the bones moved with ceremony to new resting places to make room for the recently dead. Most people were buried in simple, often unmarked and group graves. There are even ossuary chapels made out of people’s bones in Czechia.
      Cremation was standard in ancient Rome and many pre-Christian societies in Europe, but the ashes were treated with respect; they were interred in mausoleums where many were buried in one place, not discarded as if they were worthless.

      • There’s one of such chapels in Evora, somewhat near Lisbon, in Portugal. There’s a writing above the entrance that reads: “Nos ossos que ca estamos, pelos vossos esperamos”, which roughly traslates to “Us bones that here lay, for yours we await”.

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