Walking past a housing development today I reached out my hand and lightly held the wire of the fence as I walked. My mind was elsewhere; it was an almost unconscious movement, but one with electrifying results. No! It was not an electric fence, but it was almost as shocking as I felt, flooding my being, no electrical current, but a torrent of memory; memory of the kinaesthetic kind. Now I’ve always been hot on olfactory memory – the way a single whiff of some old smell will remind me poignantly of some previous time. There was a perilous moment some months back when I happened to pass in the street a woman wearing the same perfume as a girlfriend from my teenage-hood (back when I had more hormones than I knew what to do with) but my favourites are always the same – fresh pine sawdust (with an admixture of chainsaw oil and exhaust), fresh tar or sweet silage*. These scents are those of my father as he worked in, variously, farming jobs, roading and forestry. Anything that reminds me of my Dad and his return home at the end of the day is a happy memory. My kids gape uncomprehending at me as we drive through rural areas and I wind down the windows and take great long breaths of thickly silage-scented air. They just wrinkle their poor inexperienced nostrils and wait it out.
Well, olfactory memory is a poor cousin to the kinaesthetic. It’s not often that a bodily movement or tactile sensation will be sufficiently similar to a past one, or rare enough to appear novel or distinct enough to have particular memories attached to it so that it will trigger memory like scents do – but when they do… wow! At the touch of that wire in my hand I was transported back to a time when the world was much bigger and filled with wonder, promise and fear. I was a small boy living on a farm again. Just the specific tactile experience of number eight wire; the slackness of it, the chill and the flaky galvanising, captured a world where we tenanted the run-down cottage of a small farmer. Wow!
I’ve come across these memories before, not in myself, but in the experience of survivors of sexual abuse. As a counsellor people have told me about how they’ve been ‘triggered’ into terrible memories by the loving touch of a spouse or friend; or even how the memories themselves reappear in their experience as actual sensations. Imagine (if it’s never happened to you): you are remembering one of the most awful experiences of your life – and then it feels as though you’re actually experiencing it again! Horrendous.
But both the negative and positive experience reaffirms something really important to me: my life is bound together in these bundles of sensations. Tastes, scents, sights, sounds – and tactile sensations. All my memory – all the story of myself – is wound around these sense experiences. Take away sensation and you take away my world.
Now this might sound highly individualistic – bizarrely so – coming from the keyboard of someone who regularly thumps the pulpit on the theme of how relationships are the single most valuable facet of human existence; but think about it. Relationships must happen with somebody! It is bodily existence that makes it all possible. In the kalaidescope currents of interconnection – all the varied ways we relate to so many others – there must be concrete points for the connections to be made. We are only able to have relationships because of our bodily being.
Now this makes a mockery of any understanding of ‘spirituality’ as having to do with the ‘non-material’ –with some ghostly, ethereal other realm. As insubstantial. The opposition between the material world and the spiritual is one that comes from ancient Greek philosophy, and in its context, makes sense. But I don’t buy it. Like so many others today, I can’t but see the world around me – in all its material weight and glory – as an intensely spiritual place. Nor can I help but regard my bodily contacts with others – even though they are so ‘insubstantial’ as this blog! – as spiritual to the highest degree! And it’s rather fortunate that I do so, since I thereby save myself from some arguments that I could never hope to win.
How could I argue against the Apostle Paul, who looks into the future of all humanity and declares that we will one day receive spiritual bodies. Now for someone writing in Greek to a Greek-speaking and thinking congregation he’s suggesting an awesome idea – that spiritual and bodily existence can coincide.
And of course the litmus test for every Christian of what it means to be human is the person of Jesus Christ. Totally God. Totally human – in the flesh. And when resurrected, notice that not only was Jesus clung to by Mary, and touched by Thomas (who had foolishly declared he would never believe that Jesus was raised till he’d seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’ side – imagine his shock when Jesus invited him to do just that! Never dare God eh), he also made a point of enjoying a couple of fish and chip meals with his friends. So when he came right through the locked door, is that because he was a ‘ghost’ and insubstantial, or because he was more real than the door?
All matter is merely energy, of course. How much energy can God move around when he wishes? Bodily being is a specific local concentration of energy in extraordinarily complex patterns. When I die and am raised to new life with Christ, I won’t cease to be bodily. I do expect my body to be different – to be more completely spiritual, more completely conscious and connected than it presently is – but it will never be less than bodily. Nope. I ain’t gonna be no ghost.
* Silage is a fermented grass product that NZ farmers create from freshly-cut grass stored in heaps or rolls under plastic. Imagine chocolate steamed pudding for cows and you’ve got it.