Today, nature is equated with raw matter, physical stuff that can be used and discarded or compounded into new configurations to be broken down later into simpler structures. Matter itself is neither good nor bad; it just is, devoid of meaning or purpose. For these reasons, hereafter I will refer to nature under this definition as “mere nature.” According to this model, it is impossible to describe mere nature as spiritual. At best, it can be used for spiritual purposes by a nonmaterial entity.The obvious point here is that worldviews that reduce all reality to mere nature will lack the categories for understanding the spiritual as anything other than rather odd results of material process.
So why does subsuming nature under the umbrella of creation make any difference? The word creation carries with it two different meanings. The first is that something is made. Okay, but making is important only in the context of a second, often less noticed, implication of creation. We create on purpose and for a purpose.The reference to “without form and void” in Gen. 1:2 is often overlooked as a significant aspect of God’s creative process here. The point of creation is not simply that God can make stuff, even out of nothing if God so chooses, but that he loving gives it form, fullness, and purpose. We don’t just make stuff; we make stuff for a reason. Such reasons vary widely; we create artifacts to sustain life, save time, express love, appreciate beauty, or any one of a myriad of reasons. But these reasons always involve a goal; they separate creation from accident.
If my definition is close to correct, it means that created entities are never understood apart from the intent of the creator.While Aristotle’s metaphysics has its shortcomings, our view of science has been profoundly impoverished by the fact that the fourth of his causal categories (the final cause) has disappeared from consideration within the sciences. Unless we can speak of the purpose of natural processes, we lack any understanding of why we should engage in scientific activities in the first place. This is where the older definition of nature, the one for which I’m nostalgic, comes in. To the extent that something achieved its creator’s purpose, it fulfilled its nature. In other words, in old dictionaries, nature referred to an ideal. It did not refer to how things are, but to how things should be. If you like big words, nature, because it circled within the orbit of creation, was a teleological concept. It had a purpose, a telos, gifted to it by a purposeful Creator. When it fulfilled that goal, it could be described as spiritual. Under this definition, even bodily activities as mundane as eating and drinking can glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31).
01. The Bible and Creation
The first verb we run across in the Bible is create. Here we are told that God created what we now think of as “mere nature”—“the heavens and the earth,” with a more detailed inventory of created entities that follows in short order. However, upon creation, that which we frequently perceive as mere nature functions according to its intended nature because the refrain “it is good” recurs at each new phase of creation. Things are in sync with God’s purpose.
This is the case also when God creates human beings in his image, an image I suppose to be properly described as spiritual. The first human being, Adam, is made from dirt (Gen. 2:7), so he shares continuity with other physical things. Eve is also tied in with the physical world; she comes from Adam’s body (Gen. 2:21). By emphasizing that humans are created nature, Scripture signals that materiality is not accidental or peripheral, but something intended by a Creator with a spiritual purpose for creatures. Moreover, the portrait of these people prior to their rebellion, as natural in the au naturel sense (Gen. 3:7), speaks of a harmony between the inner and outer expressions of their being. In short, nothing in Scripture suggests that humans became distorted and denatured when or because they became physical. They were spiritually unified with God in the beginning when all was good and very good.
In short, God had a purpose for the physical universe and its inhabitants, a purpose that includes materiality. Even if language about Adam’s creation from dust or Eve’s construction from Adam’s spare parts is taken as metaphorical, if God intends to exclude our physicality from what is good about creation’s goodness, I think it’s safe to say that less misleading metaphors could have been found.
02. Plato and Creation
Scripture is not the only ancient source with a doctrine of creation. Plato, like many other Greek thinkers, offers an influential version of this idea. To be sure, he has no view of making ex nihilo. Members of his three categories of reality—Forms, souls, matter—are eternal, both into the past and the future. His creation is really about things fulfilling a purpose.
Forms are divine, eternally and perfectly manifesting their telos. On the other hand, matter, which makes up bodies of all types, is never something with purpose in itself. It is mere nature that can be used by a soul or Form to strive toward a purpose, but that purpose is never proper to matter itself. In fact, the material is problematic in the quest to achieve a telos.
The real creation battleground in the Platonic paradigm is the soul, what Plato considers the real self. When I say “me” or “mine,” it is solely the soul to which I refer. In Platonic thought, to speak of my body as “me” is a mistake. I am a soul; I have a body in the same way that I might have a suitcase. The soul has a nature, but is corruptible. It overcomes the pull toward corruption when it focuses on the perfect, eternal, immutable, and spiritual. In Plato’s mind, none of these words properly describes a material body, which is only an inert substratum lacking an ideal. A good soul, recognizing its divine telos, may overwhelm the body and coerce it into service toward that end. However, the soul’s ideal is to be free of mere nature and return to its natural, disembodied state. In short, the soul is the “I” that participates in creation when it pursues the divine good resident in the world of Forms. The physical stuff of the body is disposable. Thus, freedom from embodiment does not stop me from being me. In fact, shedding the merely natural body allows me to be truly me, to achieve my genuine nature.