Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) November 18, 2010: Is the expression "material spirit" a contradiction in terms? No, says Troels Engberg-Pedersen, professor of the New Testament at the University of Copenhagen, in his fascinating new book COSMOLOGY AND SELF IN THE APOSTLE PAUL: THE MATERIAL SPIRIT (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Engberg-Pedersen's claim may come as a surprise to Christians and other people of religious faith who like to assail atheists and agnostics for being "godless," as they put it. He delineates the "material spirit" by drawing on ancient materialist stoic philosophy, as distinct from immaterialist (i.e., non-materialist) philosophy such as Plato's.
Immaterialist philosophy postulates the transcendent divine ground of being (a.k.a. God). By contrast, materialist philosophy does not. Nevertheless, ancient stoic philosophy is materialist and provides conceptual constructs for understanding the spiritual life in terms of the "material spirit," as Engberg-Pedersen puts it.
Because of the enormous influence of Plato's thought over the centuries, most Christians have tended to read the writings of Paul the Apostle in light of Plato's immaterialist philosophy. But Engberg-Pedersen shows that ancient materialist stoic thought can expand and deepen our understanding of Paul's thought.
That atheists and agnostics can have a spiritual life may not come as a surprise to non-religious people. But even non-religious people may be surprised at how Engberg-Pedersen's analysis and elucidation of Paul's writings opens up a way to understand those writings that can elucidate how atheists and agnostics can experience the spiritual life described by Paul.
Because Paul is usually considered to be the second most important founder of Christianity, second only to the historical Jesus, Engberg-Pedersen in effect is robbing Christianity of its second most important founder and giving him over to the atheists and agnostics, if they want him. (For understandable reasons, many atheists and agnostics may not want him.)
Related Reading: For further discussion of the historical Jesus, the interested reader should read John Dominic Crossan's two most accessible books JESUS: A REVOLUTIONARY BIOGRAPHY (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) and WHO KILLED JESUS? EXPOSING THE ROOTS OF ANTI-SEMITISM IN THE GOSPEL STORY OF THE DEATH OF JESUS (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). Also see Crossan's big book THE HISTORICAL JESUS: THE LIFE OF A MEDITERRANEAN JEWISH PEASANT (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
It is well worth the price of Engberg-Pedersen's pricey book to read his detailed and impressive delineation of the key term pneuma (spirit) in Paul's writings. As the subtitle of his new book indicates, Engberg-Pedersen opens up Paul's thought enormously by discussing the material spirit (pneuma), which is to say a materialist way to understand Paul's writings about the spirit (pneuma), as distinct from the immaterialist or non-materialist way of understanding those writings. But Engberg-Pedersen's materialist way of understanding the pneuma in Paul's writings does not necessarily threaten to overturn the traditional immaterialist or non-materialist way of understanding those writings that Christian theology has favored. Instead, Engberg-Pedersen opens the way of thinking about the material spirit, as he puts it, which is to say a way of thinking about the spiritual life of atheists and agnostics today as well as a way for atheists and agnostics today to understand Paul's writings about pneuma (spirit).