Whether we believe it or not, life has two dimensions: the material and the spiritual, the real and the ideal. Life is more than what we eat. That is why religions are born to give meaning to the great tragedies in life such as sickness, accidents, and death, as well as to the realization that there is more that meets the eye, that there is a reality “out there” beyond human experience.
There has always been an ongoing debate on the relationship of these two major dimensions of life. For Christians, the material life is not the ultimate goal in this world. As Christ said "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matt.16:26).
The Beatitudes also teach Christians that the poor in spirit are blessed by God, implying that a strict accumulation of wealth can be dangerous to their spiritual salvation. A true Christian must be detached from material wealth and attached to God spiritually.
But does this mean that Christians must be materially poor to be closer to God?
The Christian Meaning of Detachment
The word “detachment” from material wealth does not mean material deprivation. Material detachment is an attitude in life that sees wealth as a means to an end rather than an end in itself as many materialists and hedonists believe. A person can detach from material things if his or her ultimate meaning or goal in life transcends the worldly concerns and anticipate the coming of the afterlife.
The German sociologist Max Weber made an interesting study on the connection between religion and capitalism. To him, what drives the Protestant capitalists (especially Calvinists) in Europe in expanding their businesses is not pleasure or mere accumulation of wealth for fame or honor in society, but spirituality: becoming wealthy is a sign of God’s blessing and being predestined to be saved by Him in the next life. The Calvinist Protestant theology that guides the spirituality of these capitalists views capital accumulation as means to an end. Thus, Protestant capitalists, Weber discovered, were frugal, determined to expand their business empires without fanfare and pride, since they saw the spiritual or theological meaning of becoming rich in material wealth as a sign of salvation.
Some people who believe in the afterlife also understand that our mind and memories continue to exist after death. Our mind is said to be a repository and recorder of our all experiences while we still live here on earth. To George Mead, our mind is a social product. What is registered there reflects our human experiences.
The power of our mind is confirmed by the near-death stories of patients who briefly died but were able to revive, confirming that our minds are still be active while our bodies are in coma or being declared clinically dead for a short while. Thus, if our human mind is a recorder of memories and continues to exist after death, we can hypothesize that we can take a short glance and review our entire life after death. We can then take a panoramic view of the quality of our entire life after death through our memories and consider it as one big dream. In the Church teaching, the person who just died will not be condemned by God because of his/her few sinful acts. But by the overall orientation of his/her life: whether he or she primarily opts for the good or evil.
What brings more happiness to our consciousness during this review is probably not the wealth we have accumulated nor the fame and status we achieved in life as they are part of our past material life, but the spiritual realities of joy and loving memories we have had with our loved ones, with people we sincerely helped, and with our God. We can then smile that we live our life as we like it to be or frown for not living a “good” life as our God wants it to be.
Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, who has achieved the pinnacle of success in the business world allegedly mentioned during his dying moments that what matters most in life is not wealth which can turn a person a “twisted being” but matters unrelated to wealth and memories precipitated by love:
Indeed, memories precipitated by love can make us smile and happy while we review our life script at the end of our lives:
A scholar or scientist who spent hours of research and writing to sincerely help humanity advance in knowledge and solve some of life’s problems and saw people smiling because his/her works and findings cured their disease or helped them see the world closer to the truth.
The joy of a mother seeing her baby smiling her back; the happiness of seeing the glowing face of a dying homeless person who silently say “thank you” in his/her last breath because we have given him/her comfort and care; the consolation of a religious encountering his/her God in prayer.
The inner joy a person who stood his/her ground against a tyrant regime for sake of the truth and justice; or the inspiration of the countless unsung heroes who offered their lives for sake of their country, ideology, religion, and social reform.
Indeed, what is essential is invisible to the eye. We can sometimes be totally influenced by the material realities of life and get hooked in material accumulation for honor and pride. We sometimes take for granted or sideline the spiritual side of life which can provide us lasting happiness and spiritual joy. Surely, we are spiritually weak and sinful creatures of God. Only the blood of Christ on the cross and the grace of God can make us strong and prioritize the spiritual over the material!
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