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Extracanonical and Biblical Teachings: What’s the Matter with Matter?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Chairs in a circle on a white background

I’m kind of appalled now to think of the way I used to set up a game of Musical Chairs for my children at their birthday parties. I set up a row of chairs, just one less than the group of children who marched around the chairs accompanied by music. When the music stopped, they competed to find a chair, and naturally someone would always lose and be excluded. The ‘game’ continued until all but one had been excluded, and the greatest ‘fighter’ was ‘the winner.’

What was I thinking? Or maybe I wasn’t thinking! The game of exclusion and victor-over-too-few-resources was passed down through my family for generations in the guise of fun.

In stark contrast, I was reading things in the Bible at the same time, such as

  • The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10 NRSV).
  • Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered (Luke 22:35 NIV).

In many different forms of the biblical message, I learned there was a difference between a perception of the not-enough-world and the abundance of the heavenly realm as Jesus taught it. That is, I noticed how often my physical senses would report lack of something, but the things of God come generously. For instance, when we don’t have enough time, enough money, enough space, enough heat, cold, water, or…chairs, those are physically measurable problems. Those are the things that ultimately die or perish.

It dawned on me that the perception of lack might be the fundamental problem with matter that is so often mentioned in biblical and extracanonical texts. The kind of abundant life Jesus referred to extends beyond the measurable and perishable things. Although this spiritual notion of abundance is conceived beyond the report of the five material senses, it is real, here and now, providing life and providing it abundantly.

The lack of resources is what causes social entities to compete over limited resources. Sadly, that’s what I was teaching my children in that ‘innocent’ game of lack and struggle!

No wonder there is a conflict between the things called ‘matter’ and the things of the Spirit, especially if the report from our physical senses continues to cloud over the spiritual consciousness of abundance.

Modern feminists have helped us escape the esoteric world of imaginary idealism and appreciate the here-and-now world we live in. Even though Paul and other early Christian authorities teach the value of spiritual substance over material substance in the present life, the modern opposition to otherworldliness remains valid. If my children are to learn not to fight over limited resources, they’ll have to understand that the abundance of God’s provision is here now. Paul wrote:

  • What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Cor 15:50. NRSV)
  • …for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Rom 8:13 NRSV)

I thought of re-playing the Musical Chairs game-metaphor with the model of abundance (living in accord with the law of abundance, not physical senses). What would happen if we started with one more chair than the number of children? The music stops, and everyone finds a place without fighting. We add one child and one chair, and the relationship between children remains naturally in harmony with one another. This is the model that values ‘others’. How can we expect to be generous and gracious to others when we believe (through a perception of lack) that they will inevitably take the resources we need most?

The struggle with finite substance, then, could be about our perceptions of reality. This issue is raised in some of the extracanonical texts. Some examples include:

  • Gospel of Philip (56:25-57:5)

It is those who … unclothe themselves who are not naked. Flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom [of God]. What is this which will not inherit? This which is on us. But what is this, too, which will inherit?  It is that which belongs to Jesus and his blood.

  • Gospel of Thomas (Saying 76B)

Seek the imperishable and enduring treasure, where no moth threatens to devour, and no worm destroys.

  • Tripartite Tractate (83:27)

He [the Logos] sowed in them [those identifying with material and psychic tendencies] a thought…that they should think that something greater than themselves exists prior to them, although they did not understand what it was. Begetting harmony and mutual love through that thought, they acted in unity and unanimity…

What bothers me about the original Musical Chairs game is that these children had been friends who came to a party, and I put them in a position of vying against each other to win the prize I dangled in front of them. I set them up to act out a relationship with a prior belief in lack.

These gospel passages, Paul’s letters, and the Tripartite Tractate teach their readers to distrust their knowledge of limitation in matter, and to place greater trust in the imperishable, enduring, and abundant things inherited from the Spirit realm. The re-envisioned Musical Chairs game models greater harmony among the people of the world. When push comes to shove (or ‘the music stops’), those who trust there is enough good for everyone, will, like the people in the Tripartite Tractate, experience “harmony and mutual love” and “act in unity an unanimity.”