Throughout history, Christian thought has struggled with the ideas of flesh, world, and spirit, and their interplay in each person's salvation. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in What It Means To Be a Christian (2006), “Christian theology... in the course of time turned the kingdom of God into a kingdom of heaven that is beyond this mortal life; the well-being of men became a salvation of souls, which again comes to pass beyond this life, after death."
This tendency of spiritualization, Ratzinger said, is not the message of Jesus Christ. "For what is sublime in this message," he stated, "is precisely that the Lord was talking not just about another life, not just about men’s souls, but was addressing the body, the whole man, in his embodied form, with his involvement in history and society; that he promised the kingdom of God to the man who lives bodily with other men in this history."
Josemaría Escrivá and Opus Dei
The most visible use of the term is found in the writings of Josemaría Escrivá, a Spanish Roman Catholic saint of the twentieth century, who said that all temporal realities have a sanctifying power and Christians can find God in the most ordinary material things. As such, it is associated with the Roman Catholic prelature of Opus Dei which Escriva founded. It is an organization which teaches that everyone is called to holiness and that ordinary life, even the most material activity, is a path to sanctity.
Escriva criticized those who "have tried to present the Christian way of life as something exclusively spiritual, proper to pure, extraordinary people, who remain aloof from the contemptible things of this world, or at most tolerate them as something necessarily attached to the spirit, while we live on this earth. When things are seen in this way, churches become the setting par excellence of the Christian life. And being a Christian means going to church, taking part in sacred ceremonies, being taken up with ecclesiastical matters, in a kind of segregated world, which is considered to be the ante-chamber of heaven, while the ordinary world follows its own separate path."
Instead, he affirmed the "high value of the material." According to him, "Authentic Christianity which professes the resurrection of all flesh, has always quite logically opposed 'dis-incarnation,' without fear of being judged materialistic. We can, therefore, rightfully speak of a Christian materialism, which is boldly opposed to those materialisms which are blind to the spirit." (Italics added; see also )
In an address to a theological symposium, Holiness and the World, which studied the teachings of Josemaria Escriva, John Paul II referred to one of his homilies:
- There is nothing that is outside of the concern of Christ. Speaking with theological rigor ... one cannot say that there are things — good, noble or even indifferent — which are exclusively profane; for the Word of God has made his dwelling the sons of men, he was hungry and thirsty, worked with his hands, knew friendship and obedience, experience sorrow and death.
In connection with this quote, John Paul II said that the Catholic Church today is "conscious of serving a redemption that concerns every aspect of human existence," an awareness which was "prepared by a gradual intellectual and spiritual development." He also said that the message of Escriva, which has contributed in this direction, stems "from a unique grasp of the radiant, universal force of the Redeemer's grace." He later called Escriva "one of Christianity's great witnesses."
Critique of American religious culture
The term is also used by some as a critical assessment of the eagerness of many modern American churches to adapt or adopt aspects of mainstream American material culture -- a trend typified by the popularity of religious-themed material goods such as tee-shirts, bumper stickers and magnets.
- Joseph Ratzinger, What It Means To Be a Christian (2006)
- (Conversations 112)
- Syposium Holiness and the World