God and philosopher reconciled II: What’s the matter with you?

In 9th grade, I went all-in on a school project on Mozart. My English teacher assigned us to do a term paper, and I decided to analyze how the movie “Amadeus” compared to the factual life of the composer. Memorizing large swaths of the script was just the start. I went to our city’s library and checked out two books on Mozart — and kept them for eight years. I already played violin, but I started a string quartet and bought copies of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for us to learn. I also transcribed several sections of Mozart scores to learn some basics of music theory, then wrote a string quartet of my own. It won second place in a city-wide youth talent competition. You could say I was a little obsessed.

I threw all that enthusiasm into the research paper, too. I went through that film point by point to tear apart all the details, correct, anachronistic the ones that were purely fiction. My grade reflected it, too. I got an A-. But that infuriated me. Why not a straight-up A? Because, she wrote in a comment, she didn’t feel I really committed to the topic.

I mean, what did she want? For me to write a symphony instead of a string quartet?

Anyway, it was at some point during that research process I came to a startling realization: at that moment, I was quite likely breathing in some of the very same oxygen that Mozart himself had breathed. Since the atmosphere isn’t losing oxygen (that I knew of then — it is, but only at the rate of about 0.7 percent every 800,000 years), then the same oxygen must be circling around the globe now as there was when Mozart penned “The Magic Flute.” Suddenly the music man I had been researching, who died nearly 200 years earlier, suddenly felt much more immediate.

This contrast between the permanency of matter and the shortness of life stuck with me. It continued to whisper to me as I read Spinoza and considered how his philosophy could equally coexist with scientists and theologians alike.

Substance à la mode

In my previous post, I covered what Spinoza defined as “substance.” In short, it’s God or nature. Longer explanation: it’s the one thing in the universe that had no inciting event. It’s the original self-starter. If you conceive of all events that ever happened in the universe as an unbroken chain of cause-and-effect, “substance” is that thing you arrive at if you go all the way back to the start that has no cause.

Spinoza looking especially cheeky.

Well and good, but then it begs the question: If that’s what substance is, what the heck are we?

Spinoza answers this by explaining that everything that you see, all the things that ever existed, even the things that are too small to see — everything is a different mode of that substance. I am one mode of God or nature. You are a different mode. All of us different extended modes of God or nature, all connected at the root.

There’s something very spiritual here, if you allow it to be. The notion that everything in the universe, or all creation, is united is both a breathtaking thought and an aspirational vision. I also hear it it echoes of the holiest Jewish prayer, the statement of faith, the Sh’ma: “Sh’ma yisroel, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad (Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

Spinoza just that he took the idea of “one” further than anyone, in Judaism at least, had taken it before. He took that idea to the synagogue door, walked it through the courtyard and out the gate and took it out for a ride. God wasn’t just one, to him. Everything was. Which means you are part of that one. And I am. Which means we’re part of it together. Which means we are, in some way, the same.

The philosophical implications are self-evident. If we are all not merely connected, but all modes of the same one substance, it fundamentally changes any idea of “you” and “me.” It is the embodiment of Martin Buber’s “I-Thou.” Harming another becomes self-harm. Killing another becomes suicide.

Same as it Ever Was – Kinda

And all of this resounds of the words I heard coming from my family’s television screen as we huddled together on Sunday nights to ponder the fantastic improbabilities that brought us here.

Carl Sagan’s portrait at the National Gallery

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be,” Carl Sagan intoned in warm, syrupy science. “Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

Sagan was not a religious man, but for the life of me I can’t believe he wasn’t spiritual in his own way. It might not be the God many people learned about in Sunday school. It might not be the God of the Ten Commandments, or of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Qu’ran, or any God at all. But it’s there.

I mean, listen: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff,” Sagan said.

At the moment of the Big Bang, just when time began, all the matter that would ever be was contained in one infinitely dense speck of space. Back then, it was all hydrogen. Since that time, it has been transformed as stars were born in and died, over and over again. But every molecule that makes up your body — every atom, every electron, every subatomic particle we might not even know exists yet — all of it already existed the moment time began.

It just took a couple billion years to get around to coalescing into your current shape. And somehow, consciousness got introduced. I don’t even have a guess to explain that one yet.

And it gets weirder!

Consider the frozen pizza I have heating up in the oven now. Better yet, just think of the cheese on that pizza, and let’s take it on faith that there is, indeed, some calcium there. I’m going to ingest it, and biological processes inside me will break it down. Some of that calcium will find its way into some of my cells and become part of my body. Which begs the question …

When does an atom stop being part of something else and start being a part of you?

Or to put it another way …

Where do you stop and where does the rest of the universe begin?

And this kind of matters, because all those atoms in your body? Not just the calcium, but the carbon and the iron and the oxygen — ALL of it — well, nearly all of it — have been shed and replaced over and over again since you were born. I’ve heard that’s not the case for some brain cells, and maybe some other cells in the body, but for the most part, they don’t make the journey with you (whatever the heck a “you” is) from birth to grave.

So to ask the really big question …

Who are you?

And if you think I have the answer to that, well.

This is my body

“Christ as eucharistic redeemer,” Juan de Juanes, mid-1500s.

To be honest, as I approached this topic, I wasn’t sure how the faith-based outlook might fit in. Then I thought of Catholic Eucharist.

I know some Protestant denominations also have a Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper, but I’m not sure if any view them in the same way that the Catholic Church does, which is that the wafer literally becomes the body of Christ — a divine mystery. I realize that can sound like literal cannibalism to some, but the Church distinguishes this from cannibalism by saying that the Eucharist is receiving “the living Christ, whole and entire, body, blood, soul and divinity.”

At any rate. The discussion about the symbolism vs. literalism of the Eucharist is fascinating, but this is not that post.

Whether or not you’re Catholic, assume, for at least a moment, the Catholic point of view. When a person participates in Mass, then, what is it that they are doing? They are literally taking God inside them. Like food. And like food, God at some point becomes a part of you. It forms, in a sense, a direct connection between yourself and God.

The margins blur together

I don’t want to make the mistake here of saying that the scientific view of the universe mirrors the thought experiments of a philosopher from 350 years ago. Or that either of them are just like what the Catholic Church has to say about transubstantiation and Holy Communion. Or even what the Catholic Church has to say is in agreement with any other denomination.

But there sure is a basis for people from any of those point of views to at least understand each other.

And in a time like this, when people find so many reasons to divide themselves from each other, maybe discovering a place or two where understanding can grow isn’t such a bad thing.

[At this point, I also feel it’s fair to point out I got a C in the second semester of high school physics, dropped out of Philosophy 201 (Logic), only took one other college philosophy class (Ethics) – but did ok there at least, and had just one college-level class in religion (Comparative Western Religion). Which I did kind of rock. I write about what I love, but I know I can get things wrong. If I did, please let me know where.]

Next up: a few ideas on how to view time and timelessness.

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