by Huston Smith

    Modernity recognizes little or no connection between material things and their spiritual roots. If this is so, primal peoples may well be the better metaphysicians.

    HUSTON SMITH is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Syracuse University. This article is the revised version of a paper presented at the Fourth Conference on World Spirituality in Honolulu, 1992. The specific theme of the conference was "Toward a Contemporary Spirituality of Matter: Primal Traditions, Axial Age Civilizations, and the Quest for Common Ground."

There is a perspective from which matter, along with everything else, appears perfect. This is God's perspective, as when "God saw everything that he had made," earth included, and judged it to be "very good" (Gen. 1:31).

Human beings catch glimpses of this perspective. Wordsworth's childhood, "when every earthly sight to me did seem apparelled in celestial light," is an example; and romantic love can adorn the whole world with loveliness. Theophanies and peak experiences can also arrive unannounced, for

        There are times of inherent excellence
        As when the cock crows on the left and all
        Is well, incalculable balances,
        At which a kind of Swiss perfection comes.
        (Wallace Stevens)

Mystics succeed in stabilizing these gracious moments better than the rest of us do, but for all human beings the world has its down side. To which matter noticeably contributes -- this is the first side of matter's ambiguity which this paper will address. It was the first three Passing Sights -- the ailing, the aging, and the death of the body -- that forced the Buddha to conclude that life is dukkha. "The body," the contemporary Sri Lankan monk Bhikku Sivili pronounced shortly before he died, "is hopeless."

The New Romanticism

There is a strong move afoot today to blink this harsh, remorseless side of matter. It takes off by thinking of matter as nature, and goes on to elevate nature to Mother Nature, or Gaia -- nature as Brahma and Vishnu, Creator and Sustainer, not as Shiva, Destroyer. Steaming, pestiferous jungles are downplayed in favor of the majestic Sierras. Attention is directed to the manicured landscapes of England's Lake Country, or to life-giving rain-forests, not to the ice-locked antipodes of our planet, or ravenous Black Holes in outer space that devour everything within their reach. We are encouraged to think that women's menstrual cycles, childbearing, and lactation bed them deeper in nature than men are bedded, with the result that nature's putative benevolence infuses them more, making them the gentler sex. The logic extends to primal peoples, where the archetype is the hero in Dances with Wolves, not the cruel warriors in Black Robe.

How much this romantic excursion is powered by fact and how much by the need to create a myth for our times -- one that will point in more just and ecological directions -- I do not know, any more than I know whether there is need to address that question. I merely report what I sense to be a phenomenon which seems to bear on matter's ambiguity. In The Archaic Revival, Terence McKenna argues that when civilizations run into trouble they instinctively reach back for the last sane moment before trouble set in. For Renaissance thinkers, trying to make sense of the Black Plague and the cracks in Christendom that could no longer be denied, it was the Greeks who appeared sane. Our troubles are larger for being global and planetary, so we reach back farther, to the archaic. From another angle, the more difficult it becomes to believe that we are headed for utopia -- at the moment, technology seems to be pointing in the opposite direction -- the more nostalgia seems to take over.

These speculations are interesting, but my concern is not the etiology of the New Romanticism, or even that movement per se. What we want to understand is the relation of matter to spirit. This breaks down into (a) historical interest -- was the pre-axial way of connecting matter and spirit different from our post-axial ways? -- and (b) pragmatic concern: can the two be better related in our post-axial times than they now are? Underlying these historical and pragmatic concerns, however, is (c) metaphysics. Because metaphysics deals with invariables, it seems likely that our conclusions about the metaphysical relation of spirit to matter will set the stage for our historical and pragmatic agendas. So I shall begin with what I take to be the ontological, unvarying relation of matter to spirit.


William James suggests that, "were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."(1) For present purposes I shall call this unseen order, comprehensively, Spirit. Modernity could not wholeheartedly believe in Spirit,(2) for it looked to science to tell it what exists, and science's silence regarding the unseen has made Spirit seem unreal. This has changed. Today's postmodern science speaks increasingly of the unseen, and does so respectfully. It tells us that matter derives from space (which is invisible until populated),(3) and that 90 percent of the universe -- some calculate 99 percent -- is invisible.(4) It is possible, of course, that new instruments will be invented that will bring this "dark matter" to light, but if this front gives way, another remains. No scientist believes that the wave packets that produce particles will ever be observed.

So science has come to conclude that invisibles exist, and more. They are prior to what is visible and give rise to it. The wave packets that were just mentioned attest to this, and if we take the particle (instead of the wave) approach to matter we get the same result, for protons derive from photons, and photons are only marginally material. They have no rest mass, lose no energy in moving through matter,(5) and are not objectively (inter-subjectively) visible because they are annihilated by being detected. A summary of the way the seen derives from the unseen in today's science comes out something like this:

    All matter is created out of some imperceptible substratum. This substratum is not accurately described as material, since it uniformly fills all space and is undetectable by any observation. In a sense it appears as nothingness -- immaterial, undetectable, and omnipresent. But it is a peculiar form of nothingness, out of which all matter is created.(6)

The point of this quick glance at science is to reinstate Spirit. In the Western world, science (having unhorsed Revelation some time ago) has become the arbiter of truth -- ontological truth at least, with the result that if science doesn't validate the unseen, religion (today) cannot affirm Spirit confidently. But science now does countenance the unseen, and this makes Spirit once again believable.

A parenthetical paragraph:

As I am making a good bit of science's validation of the unseen, it is only fair to acknowledge that it does so awkwardly. Committed as it is to empiricism, it isn't comfortable with things it can't "place on the rack" of its laboratory experiments. Several years ago an article in Nature went so far as to charge the photon -- from which protons derive, alternatively called the angle of momentum -- with being (per the article's title) "The Cosmic Pollutant."(7) Photons pollute the scientist's cosmos. Scientists can do nothing with them and they gum up the works. Arthur Young, inventor of the Bell Helicopter, suggests that religionists should capitalize on this complaint. In well-ordered economies pollutants from one species are nutrients for others: oxygen (poisonous for plants) makes animal life possible, while animal wastes (carbon dioxide and manure) are nutritious for plants. Part of our current planetary crisis derives from the fact that technology creates waste products, nuclear and plastic, which cannot be recycled. I join Arthur Young in finding poetry in the fact that the pollutants of science (in this case invisibles) turn out to be the life-blood of religion.

To science's concession that the visible, material world derives causally from one that is immaterial and invisible, religion adds axiology which science cannot address. The invisible world, the enduring religions argue, is not only more powerful than the visible world and its source. It is more value-laden and real. In the West, YHVH/God/Allah exceeds his creation. In the Vedanta, Purusha surpasses prakriti. In China, "only Heaven is Great." Here again William James summarizes my point. "Religion," he writes, "says that the best things are the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word." Religion welcomes science's verdict that the seen derives from the unseen and goes on to add that the unseen in its final reach is Spirit.

Seeing it as such, of course, substrates matter to Spirit. Matter can assume lovely guises, but only ephemerally -- "snow falls upon the river, / White for a moment, then gone forever." And even at its best -- this is the final metaphysical truth about matter -- it hosts Spirit imperfectly. Matter can become translucent to the divine, but to human eyes, not transparent to it, not completely. Technology does its best to counter truth, doing everything in its power to replace reality with virtual reality, but the shadow sides of its labors are more and more difficult to deny. Eventually virtual reality bumps into Reality, which demands its due. "In your struggle with the world," Kafka advised, "bet on the world."

It is important to see that recognizing matter's ontological limits has nothing to do with pessimism. To hold that there is more to life than chocolate says nothing against chocolate per se. Pessimism enters only if we equate the ontological and axiological horizons of matter with those of Reality; which is to say, if we assume that matter is all there is. Religion does not make that mistake. Invariably it places matter in the context of an immaterial something that is greater than it is, the something I am calling Spirit. Because Spirit and matter are the polar concepts, the words need to be defined.


There is a tendency today to speak of the spirituality of matter, but this makes Spirit an adjective and hence an attribute or accident that matter can, but need not, assume, which demeans Spirit right off by making it dependent on something other than itself. So I think we should stand up to the currently fashionable attacks on "essences" and charges of "reification," both of which ride unacknowledged positivistic assumptions, and insist on keeping Spirit in the grammatical mode of a noun. We should think of it as being as substantial and thing-like as matter is, while differing categorically from matter. What, then, are these two thing-like substances that I am trying to place in relationship?

Begin with matter.

Our age looks primarily to science to inventory the world, so we can appropriately begin by noting how matter appears to it. Science offers no exact definition,(8) but its working definition seems to be: whatever our senses observe -- directly, or indirectly via microscopes and telescopes that add to their range -- together with what these sense observations logically entail. (Invisible magnetic fields, invoked to explain the way iron filings line up on a sheet of paper when a magnet is placed under it, provide an example of the latter.) In both cases, matter turns out to be what can be empirically tracked.

This modern and scientific definition of matter was preceded in the West by a second, metaphysical definition that stems from the Greeks. Here the character of matter, hyle, derives from its relation to morphe, or form. By instantiating forms, matter serves as the principle of individuation. The sheets in a ream of typing paper are identical in form, while being distinct because they embody separate instances of matter. The same can be said of oak trees and the members of biological species.

As the principle of individuation, the Greek's matter involved space, but not always time, for Democritus considered his atom to be changeless and eternal. To introduce temporality into the definition of matter that I am working toward I turn to the Australian aborigines and the way they contrast their everyday, temporal world to the timelessness of what they call the Dreaming.(9) In the everyday world, seasons cycle and generations come and go. Meanwhile, as backdrop for this unending procession, the Dreaming is stable. Time does not touch it, for it is "everywhere." Legendary figures populate this background world. They are not gods; they are much like ourselves, while at the same time being larger than life. What gives them their exceptional status is that they originated, or better instituted, the paradigmatic acts of which daily life consists. They were initiators for having modeled, and in doing so molded, life's archetypal forms -- male and female; human, bird, fish, and the like -- and their ruling activities, such as hunting, gathering, war, and love. We are inclined to say that when the Arunta go hunting they mime the exploits of the first and archetypal hunter, but this separates them from their progenitors too sharply. It is better to say that they enter the mold of their archetypes so completely that each becomes that mold; no distinction remains. Similarly for other activities, from basket weaving to lovemaking. Only while they are conforming their actions to the model of some ancestral, timeless hero do the Arunta feel that they are truly alive, for in those roles they are immortal. The occasions on which they slip from such roles are quite meaningless, for time immediately devours them and reduces them to nothingness.

Using, successively, science, the Greeks, and the aborigines, I have now cornered my working definition of matter. Among the world's components, matter is that which is sensible, multiple, and subject to time.(10) Spirit, by contrast, has none of these traits. It does not impact our senses. It is single, and ultimately beyond numerical considerations altogether. And, while it is present in time, it is itself timeless. To these attributes which derive from its differences from matter, I find myself adding three others. Ontologically, Spirit is more real than everything else. Causally, it occasions everything else. And axiologically, it excels everything else by being perfect. The Indo-Aryan traditions say these things right out loud. Tribal outlooks imply them. And East Asia stands between those two in explicitness.

I am not including a separate section on psychology, but because human consciousness is the place that we experience matter's confluence with Spirit first hand, it is there that its ambiguity shows itself most clearly. Bodies die: anicca, annica. And periodically they war ferociously against Spirit as consciousness reflects it -- dukkha, dukkha. I am thinking of physical pain so severe as to eclipse all else, and of drug addicts whose screaming tissues drown the voices of prudence and resolution; torturers say that every human will has its breaking point. It was tyrannies like these that caused Saint Paul to choose "flesh" as the comprehensive word for the demandingness -- tanha -- of body and soul that wars against Spirit. "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh. . . Nothing good dwells in my flesh, [for] I do not do the good I want, but the evil that I do not want" (Rom. 7:14, 18-19).

These drawbacks are to some extent compensated for by matter's virtues. At minimum, its mere existence registers the triumph of being over nonbeing; essa qua esse bonum est. And beyond existing, matter can host Spirit in various degrees, with avatars and the Incarnation topping the scale.

Pre-axial/Post-axial Differences

A central concern of these Conferences on World Spirituality is to try to understand how the axial outlook -- which arose in all civilizations around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. -- differs from the one that preceded in its understanding of nature, and this requires noting the axial features that bear on that issue.

Axial religions tend to trace every virtue -- life, freedom, beauty, creativity, power, intelligence, compassion, whatever -- to Spirit, which embodies them in superlative degree and is the template for their occurrences in the world. The occurrences themselves are graded in the degree to which they host Spirit. Aristotle's scale -- mineral, vegetable, animal, and rational -- continues to be serviceable here; the forms that appear later in this sequence possess the talents of the earlier kinds, while adding to their repertoires. Axial philosophy and theology extend the Great Chain of Being beyond and above its human link.(11) In its upper registers the Chain includes angels and other discarnates who have no bodies at all or ones that are ethereal compared with ours.

If we think of the links of the great Chain as gradations in the degree to which matter hosts Spirit and becomes translucent to it, a second spectrum complements this first, more objective one. This second spectrum is not exactly subjective, but it does turn on the talents of the perceiver, for people differ in their ability to apprehend Spirit in the world. Mystics are defined by possessing this ability exceptionally, and I will quote one of them, Thomas Traherne, in illustration.

    The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold. The green trees, when I saw them first through one of the gates, transported and ravished me; their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The Men! O what venerable and revered creatures did the aged seem: Immortal cherubim! Young men were glittering and sparkling angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die. All things abided eternally as they were, in their proper places. Eternity was manifested in the light of the day, and something infinite behind everything appeared, which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were of gold and silver and were mine. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars. All the world was mine; and I was its only spectator and enjoyer.

Few of us can experience Spirit animating matter to the degree that Traherne did. We must work at the project by reminding ourselves of matter's place in the scheme of things, which scheme in its totality religion takes to be divine. Here I shall use the Sufis as illustration. Those of them that work primarily with ma'rifah -- intuitive understanding in its jnanic mode -- tighten the first half of the shahadah, "There is no God but God," to read, "There is nothing but God." They do so to challenge the independence that people normally ascribe to things. Drawing on the existential meaning of theism -- God is that to which we are prepared to give ourselves unreservedly -- they note that we give ourselves to all manner of things when we let them occupy us as objects in their own right; objects that have the power to interest or repel us by being simply what they are. To think of light as caused by electricity -- by electricity only and sufficiently, without asking where electricity comes from -- is to commit shirk; because only God is self-sufficient, to think that objects are self-sufficient is to liken them to God and make them his rivals.

To connect matter directly to God, recognizing the role it serves in completing God's infinity, is to rise to the perspective I noted in the opening sentence of this essay, the perspective from which everything, matter included, appears perfect. "Snow tumbling down, flake by flake; / Each flake lands in its own perfect place (Zen aphorism).

Turning from the axial to the pre-axial outlook, the divisions in the world are, to its eyes, less pronounced.(12) This comes out at once in its understanding of physical objects. "Dead matter" is a scientific construct; it is matter stripped down to the properties that experimental science can deal with. Unfettered by this laboratory understanding, the primal mind knows nothing of lifeless matter. Its world is animistic (and in this minimal sense spiritual) throughout, for Spirit lives.

From this virtual absence of a line dividing animate from inanimate, we can proceed to other axial divisions that tribal eyes ignore. Totemism all but erases Aristotle's division between animal and rational, for people belong to the same tribe as their totem animals. This nonchalance toward the animal/human division extends beyond totemism to cover the primal perspective generally. Animals and birds are frequently referred to as "peoples," and in certain circumstances can exchange forms with humans. The division between animal and vegetable is likewise muted, for plants have spirits like the rest of us. Even rocks are alive; under certain conditions they are believed to be able to talk, and at times are considered divine. Primal peoples are not blind to nature's differences; their powers of observation are legendary. The point is rather that they see distinctions as bridges, instead of barriers. Fertility cycles, along with the ceremonies that celebrate and sustain them, establish a creative harmony between human beings and their setting, with myths confirming the symbiosis at every turn. Male and female contribute equally to the cosmic life force. All beings, not overlooking heavenly bodies and the elements of wind and rain, are brothers and sisters. Everything is alive, and each depends in ways on all the others. If we start by thinking of tribal peoples as profoundly embedded in nature, there comes a point where the order reverses itself. We begin to think of nature, in the process of seeking itself, as extending itself to enter deeply into people, infusing them in order to be fathomed by them.

Perhaps the most important division in the axial outlook that does not appear in tribal ones is the line that separates this world from God, or from another world that stands over and in ways against this one. The notion of creation ex nihilo, for example, is foreign to pre-axial peoples who are oriented to a single cosmos that sustains them like a living womb. Because they assume that the womb exists to nurture them, they are not to challenge it, defy it, refashion it, or escape from it. It is not a place of exile or pilgrimage, though pilgrimages take place within it. Its space is not homogeneous; its home has a number of rooms, we might say, some of which are normally invisible. But together they constitute a single domicile. Primal peoples are concerned with the maintenance of personal, social, cosmic harmony, and with attaining specific goods as people always are. But the overriding goal of salvation that dominates the historical religions is absent from them, and life after death tends to be a shadowy semi-existence in some vaguely designated place in their single abode.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the absence of a transcendent reality that relativizes the phenomenal world leaves the primal world without God, or a God-equivalent. Typically, tribal outlooks assume that the world issued from a divine source, or in other versions, from divine arrangers who bring order out of chaos. But the holy, the sacred, the wakan as the Oglala Sioux call it, need not be exclusively attached, or consciously attached at all, to a distinguishable Supreme Being. Something may even be lost by so attaching it, that loss being the removal of holiness from everyday things to lodge it in God. The most important single feature of primal spirituality seems to be its symbolist mentality which sees the things of the world as transparent to their divine source. Whether that source is identified or not, the world's objects are open to its light. Physical sight presents the water in a lake in existential isolation, for as far as the eye reports, the body of water exists as a reality in its own right. From there, modern thought may go on to reason that the water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen, and if a spiritual gloss is desired it may attribute to the water allegorical significance. Normally, however, modernity recognizes no ontological connection between material things and their metaphysical, spiritual roots. In this respect, primal peoples are better metaphysicians, though their metaphysics, where articulated -- it need not be -- is naturally of mythic cast.


If we bring the points of this paper to bear on the problems that face us at this juncture of history, the directives that emerge are straightforward.

Toward our natural environment, we should adopt the stance of khalifahs, Allah's vice-regents on earth. Finding ourselves the "kings" and "queens" of creation, we should adopt toward the rest of nature a stance that is basically custodial in resembling the care that good rulers exercise toward their subjects.

To live up to that trust, we will have to reorder society. Its present economy is driven; it survives by consuming the ever-expanding surplus it works at producing. Advertising is indispensable to the system, for economies that work by expanding must create new needs to insure that people consume more. Advertising exists to convince people that their needs are unlimited, but as this is not the case, it seduces people into neurotic, binge/purge "eating disorders." It coaxes them to binge, thereby plundering the planet; and then they must then purge and pollute it. With respect to the topic of this conference, the key difference between the modern world and the traditional one is that in traditional societies people are the most valuable resource and the interrelations between them are carefully tended; whereas in modern society, things (money included) are deemed indispensable and often placed above people.

For these first two imperatives to be met we need a new worldview, which is actually closer to the old, pre-axial outlook than to the one we now have. If my paper has done its job, I do not need to restate what matter's place in that "new" worldview would be.


1. [Back to text]  William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier Books, 1901/1961), 50.

2. [Back to text]  See William Barrett, Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer (New York: Doubleday, 1986).

3. [Back to text]  According to superstring theories, "Atomic particles are viewed as little balls of compacted hyperdimensional space. If superstring theory is correct, everything is made of space, matter having originated when, at the beginning of time, six of the original ten dimensions of space collapsed into the tiny strings of which subatomic particles are composed." From the review of Murray Gell-Mann's biography in The New York Review of Books 42 no. 24 (December 26, 1995).

4. [Back to text]  "Dark matter" impacts no scientific detectors, but is required to account for the enormous gravitational pull on the outer rim of distant galaxies.

5. [Back to text]  A photon that sets out from Sirius reaches our earth with as much energy as it started out with.

6. [Back to text]  Richard Plzak, "Paradox East and West," unpublished senior thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 54.

7. [Back to text]  "The Angle of Momentum: The Cosmic Pollutant," Nature.

8. [Back to text]  Many science textbooks do not mention the word, and some scientific dictionaries skip it.

9. [Back to text]  I am choosing the Australians to bring out matter's temporality, but Professor David Maybury-Lewis generalizes my point by titling the chapter on religion in his Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World, "Touching the Timeless" (New York: Viking, 1992), chap. 8.

10. [Back to text]  To touch base again with matter's down side: having written the preceding sentence I chance upon Eckhart's assertion that "three things prevent a man from knowing God. The first is time, the second is corporeality, the third is multiplicity" -- precisely the components of my definition of matter.

11. [Back to text]  In Arthur Lovejoy's judgment, the Great Chain of Being "has in one form or another, been the dominant official philosophy of the larger part of civilized mankind through most of its history."

12. [Back to text]  The remainder of this section follows closely my discussion of the subject in the chapter on "The Primal Religions" in my book, The World's Religions. This also holds for my earlier discussion of the outlook of the Australian aborigines.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Cross Currents, Spring 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 1.