• Michael Martin

To Our Bodies Turn We Then: Virtual Farming, Virtual Environments, and Spiritual Malaise

William Blake, "The Soul Reuniting with the Body'

Recently, in response to this, I heard from a true comrade-in-arms, Jon Egan of The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Jon commented on the title of my latest book, Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything, and a certain malaise he’s been feeling. As he wrote,

Re-imagining everything is a project that sounds extremely timely. Maybe it’s a Lenten mood, but I’m feeling extremely dispirited by events both global and local at present, and a sense that Christian voices are so marginalised and often apologetic.

I have noticed (and felt) this as well, which is why I started The Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything movement (as small as it is) as well as Jesus the Imagination and wrote the book. I’m sure Jon and I are not the only ones who’ve felt it.

But why is this? Certainly, much of it has to do with being a Christian in a post-Christian culture, a culture that is often anti-Christian. The sense that the world is dissolving away. But I also think it’s something very physical, very materialistic.

Sometime in the early 1920s, scientist and biodynamic farming pioneer Ehrenfried Pfeiffer was puzzled by a similar predicament. He noticed that people, as devoted as they might have been to Rudolf Steiner’s initiatives (in addition to the biodynamic movement, in medicine, education, architecture, beekeeping, economics, and the arts) were unable to find with the will to actualize them. Pfeiffer asked Dr. Steiner why this was, and he received a surprising answer. Steiner told him,

This is a problem of nutrition. Nutrition as it is today does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. A bridge can no longer be built from thinking to will and action. Food plants no longer contain the forces people need.[1]

The use of chemical fertilizers began in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century and became standard practice of farming in most of the Western world by the early twentieth century. Steiner was amazingly prescient and proactive when he argued that such practices would lead to disaster. He even predicted the collapse of apiculture due to treating bees mechanistically, as if honey production were analogous to the assembly line. In a humorous interchange, he made a wager with a conventional beekeeper keen on the “innovative” practices of producing artificial queens and splitting hives:

“There is no way, based on the current situation with the artificial methods used in feeding and breeding bees, to predict what the significance of these procedures will mean for the future fifty or sixty years, or even a century from now…. Today [1923] it is impossible to object in any way to the artificial methods applied in beekeeping. This is because we live in social conditions that do not allow anything else to be done. Nevertheless, it is important to gain this insight—that it is one matter if you let nature take its course and only help to steer it in the right direction when necessary, but it is an entirely another matter if you apply artificial methods to speed things along. But I really don’t want to take a strong position against what Mr. Müller [the beekeeper] has stated. It is quite correct that we can’t determine these matters today; it will have to be delayed until a later time. Let’s talk to each other again in one hundred years, Mr. Müller; then we’ll see what kind of opinion you’ll have at that point. This is something that can’t be decided today.”[2]

My claim is that the artificial methods we are so accustomed and inured to, not only in apiculture and agriculture but even extending to much of our medical culture (including vaccines), our education systems, and our virtual lives and interactions, have seriously compromised our ability to be in the world; that is, to be human. And a fundamental aspect of humanity is the ability to reimagine.

Some might argue that we still maintain the ability to reimagine, that culture has reimagined all kinds of things in recent years, marriage, gender, and politics not the least of them. But I don’t think these examples are exactly reimagining so much as they are re-engineering, aided in no small part by “advances” in technology (in medicine, by propaganda via the internet). It is as though we have surrendered our ability to reimagine to avatars of ourselves, ersatz egos unrelated to the Real. And we don’t even notice it.

In this development, we have not become more human, but more like animals, especially as philosopher Max Scheler observed the phenomenology of the animal in 1928:

“The animal has no ‘object.’ It lives, as it were, ecstatically immersed in its environment which it carries along as a snail carries its shell. It cannot transform the environment into an object. It cannot perform the peculiar act of detachment and distance by which man transforms an ‘environment’ into the ‘world’ or into a symbol of the world. It cannot perform the act by which man transforms the centers of resistance determined by drives and affects into ‘objects.’”[3]

Are we not likewise ecstatically immersed in a virtual environment which we carry along with us in an iPhones shell case? Are we not enthralled to a virtual environment that is, in fact, not an object, and not a world? Are we not unable to detach and distance ourselves from this environment (which is no real environment)?

So, not only are we detached from reality in our physical nature, into which we incorporate—either voluntarily or involuntarily (and usually, for the most part, in a state of somnolence)—a frightening array of artificial substances (preservatives, additives, preservatives, vaccines, and so forth), but we are also increasingly alienated from the environment of the Real. Everything, the interior reality as well as the environmental reality, has been compromised. We should not be surprised that people have compromised immune systems: we should be surprised that we willingly participate in such a compromised system. But we’re not.

I think the polarization into clans of allegedly “conservative/libertarian” or “liberal/progressive” identities (reified to a disconcerting and comical degree in Christian blog-culture and media) so characteristic of our times is patent evidence of a people unable to reimagine the world as given by nature in favor of the ersatz world as given by propaganda, and that this inability to reimagine is precisely due to, as Steiner remarked, an inability to transform spirit into will and action. We simply don’t have the requisite bodily forces to be able to resist being overwhelmed by the virtual and artificial environments into which we have sleepwalked.

The aim of sophiology, as least as I have framed it in my work, is to reorient our being to Reality. Sophia, the between (metaxu), makes it possible for divinity to shine through the world. But only in relationship to our attention and participation in the Real. Otherwise, as in the Gnostic mythos, she is imprisoned in a netherworld. This relationship to the Real, then, is a relationship to Christ the Real.

Mine is an explicitly sacramental vision, which is why I think sophiology as I am proposing it can find a home among the sacramental imaginaries of my Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican brothers and sisters. Those of an evangelical disposition might find such a proposal foreign or strange, but if they plumb their experiences (not to mention Proverbs 8 and 9), as Wendell Berry has, they can also discern the sophianic reality of the world.

Simply recognizing the sophianic reality will not be enough. But it’s a start. Reimaging the environments of our bodies—and not the caricature of reimagination implicit to the virtual reality—will be required as well.

Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including one on The Metaphysical Poets.

[1] Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, Preface to Agriculture by Rudolf Steiner (London: Bio-dynamic Agricultural Association, 1958), 7.

[2] Rudolf Steiner, Bees, trans. Thomas Braatz (Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press, 1998), 74–5.

[3] Max Scheler, Man’s Place in Nature, trans. Hans Meyerhoff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudhay, 1961), 39.

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