In the Christian tradition God is conceived as invisible Spirit (Colossians 1:15; John 4:24) and not as matter—that is to say, God is not material or substantial, but rather is—in a way that cannot be apprehended by the physical senses—that is, by seeing, touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, which makes any description of God completely subjective. Hence God is invisible, intangible, tasteless, inaudible, odorless. A God, comprised in any way of substance, would be subject to the change, dissolution, and decay of the cosmos, as all cosmic stuff is.
God's immateriality makes it rather difficult for one to describe God with any degree of reliability. Hence a responsible description of God is simply impossible, a logical fact which renders all descriptions of God inadequate. Therefore in the community of faith believers in God are only describing inherited concepts of God's character and activities (i.e., describing what they have been taught); and they do so as if God were a human being (i.e., using anthropomorphic language). With direct knowledge of God lacking, the Church is driven to use analogical language.
The word spirit as used in English generally describes a force or energy that is not directly accessible but only accessible as we observe what we take to be animating forces in the world about us. So, for example, some describe people possessed by evil spirits, because of their behavior, or a person's mood is described as exhilarated or depressed (high spirits, low spirits) for the same reason. The only uses of the term spirit in the physical sciences of which I am aware are in Chemistry and Pharmacology, where spirit is used to describe the essence of an active principle in a solution. The language is not a scientific description from what I can tell but analogical, since the active principle is not a separate identifiable entity. The Gods are only able to be identified as active in human reality by the visible manifestations of communities of faith. Yet a faith community is not direct evidence for God, but only evidence of the community's belief that God acts in the world. Spirit does not appear in the periodic table as one of the basic elements of the universe—as of 2013 the periodic table has only 114 confirmed elements, 84 of these existed before the origins of the earth. Of course Spirit would not appear in the periodic table since it is not elemental matter. The foregoing brief discussion raises this question: if Spirit is part of our common material reality in some way, how is it related to matter, if at all?
Does Spirit simply permeate matter--like leaven, for example? A little leaven mixed into flour and water and kneaded becomes dough, which rises in the oven (Matt 13:33). There is one theological explanation for the relationship between Spirit and matter called "panentheism"—God as Spirit permeates all matter in the universe but is not to be identified with it, that is to say God maintains a Spirit identity without mingling with matter. But if that is the case why is not everything "enhanced" or "raised" to a higher level, like leaven in flour; and why are we still bothered with the problems of an imperfect universe: disease, floods, drought, famine, etc.? Our natural world does not seem "enhanced" but flawed, as Paul clearly recognized (Romans 8:19-21). Does God as Spirit interface with matter, perhaps only periodically here and there? The general regularity of the universe seems to eliminate this possibility. On the other hand some assume the regularity of the universe is God as Spirit enabling the universe. But if that is the case why is the universe flawed? Perhaps God as Spirit simply hovers over the universe similar to Genesis 1:2 and is not involved in the universe at all. There were religious groups in the early years of the Christian period who argued that there was a sharp divide between the cosmos and God. Thus the highest God had nothing to do with the creation of the cosmos; some attributed it to the work of a lesser God in the divine realm. In such systems of thought the matter of the cosmos was seen as flawed and evil.
My colleagues would describe my question as a fool's errand. My evangelical friends would say accept on faith that God as Spirit is involved with matter, even if how Spirit and matter are related cannot be quantified. My critically inclined friends would also counsel me to abandon the question for the same reason, on the basis that Spirit itself falls outside any kind of objective proof. Perhaps they are correct, but if there is no way logically to explain how Spirit and matter are related, Christianity is left open to the charge of superstition and self delusion on a grand scale—human beings through time have simply convinced themselves of a parallel "spiritual" universe of Gods; and Christianity is merely one more in a long line of inadequate religious views of reality, convincing to the masses perhaps, but whose description of reality is ultimately found to be seriously flawed.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University