What is Reality? For most of us, there really isn’t much thought put into this particular question. It is often thrown about by those who are attempting to introduce some “new” way of viewing reality. Sometimes it is a question asked by a concerned friend of their troubled friend who seems to be living a life that denies reality. It is a very important subject in the field of psychology, where reality is trying to be brought to light for those who think they are living in it but really aren’t. However, for your average everyday “Joe Schmoe” type, it is not something we ever really consider. What reason have we to even consider it, really? It is important to clarify what one means by reality when it comes to discussing matters of belief though. So, let us begin with what is considered the ‘common’ definition of reality and go from there. This is what can be gathered from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
- The quality or state of being real.
- The totality of real things and events.
- The true situation that exists: the real situation
- Something that actually exists or happens.
I am sure that this only confirms what you already know. Reality is a term that is used to describe what actually exists as opposed to that which does not actually exist. What are we really saying though? What are the qualifications that something has to meet in order to be reality? What is it “to be actual?” Now we can begin to see where reality may not be quite as simple as we thought. Sadly, there are many who challenge the presupposed “mainstream” ideas about what reality is. There are times where one has to “come to terms with reality,” thinking things are one way only to discover they are another. For some, this can become a serious, life altering discovery once it is made. It becomes even more of an intense discussion when we begin to explore reality from the ever-questioning attitude of a philosopher, and even worse, a skeptic.
For the Christian, reality is a rather simple subject. We do keep things simple and view reality comprehensively and generally do not worry ourselves with the details. However, it is important that Christians understand how to clearly explain reality when responding to challenges to our system of beliefs. How a person explains their view of reality is considered a “Most Basic Principle” or a “First Principle.” That is to say that it requires no rational or justification, it is simply a self-evident truth. It is such first principles that the rest of the framework of a Worldview is built. Given that our Worldview determines how we form our relationship with reality and how we make judgments about the world around us, we can see that first principles are very important to clarify and understand fully. So, let us analyze reality a bit, and spend a moment getting into the nitty-gritty details of how Christianity views Reality itself.
The Core of Reality
Reality is what is regardless of humanity’s knowledge or awareness of it. It is not changed by what a human thinks about it, and a human can only discover greater details about Reality, not make it up and it be so. Reality does not change based on humanity’s perspective or how much about it a human may know. There are some who would be led to believe that reality itself is something that is relative. What is real for one person is not real for another. This view does not separate human awareness from the real world, and considers reality from the perspective of a Relativistic philosophy. The Christian, however, views the world from a Realist philosophy. What was real in the past remains reality in the present and will remain reality on into the future. This is so whether humanity is aware of it or not.
Why is it important to clarify this? For the Christian, Truth is based on reality. The words we speak are attached to some particular aspect of reality. Reality is the measure of truth, not what one believes or what one thinks is true or not. The relativistic philosophies do not believe this to be so. Relativists (those who hold to a relativistic philosophy) do not attach truth to reality, and often explain this away by saying that language is not attached to reality, or that reality is unknowable, or even that there really isn’t a reality to speak of! When a Christian is challenged by someone of the Relativist persuasion, it is important to clarify our view of reality in contrast to theirs. As a Christian, we have the ability to say that something either is, or is not, because we are Realists (those who hold to a realist philosophy). We accept that reality is what it is regardless of what we say, and what we say is said because it is tied to the reality that is being conveyed. The relativist, however, believing that truth is not tied to reality, or that reality becomes what a person thinks it to be, can not make any claim to know reality because their view of reality does not permit it to be known or knowable. This makes conversation awfully difficult as the Relativist will believe his or her self to be true no matter what a Realist has to say, because they are the ones who decide the truth. Strangely enough, when speaking with Christians, the Relativist has the tendency to affirm their own views as absolute truth and Christian views as the absolute falsity, which is counter to their own belief in Relativism! Reality has the tendency to prove otherwise.
What is in the Totality of Reality?
Reality exists in its ultimate form as the totality of all existence. This is sometimes referred to as “the cosmos.” For the Christian, we affirm that reality consists of two realms. A Material Realm, consisting of all that is physical and detectable utilizing the physical senses; and an Immaterial Realm, consisting of all that is not physical, but knowable and experiential, directly tied to some physical reality (something like mathematics). The Immaterial is often referred to as the “Spiritual.” What makes us who we are beyond our physical humanity, that combined with our physical humanity forms our Identity. The spirit is that part of humanity which exists in reality not as a physical (material) object, but as an immaterial aspect of our humanity. This spirit is directly tied with the spiritual realm (God) and is our most true self. The objective of Christianity can be stated as the process of getting our spiritual self to have control over our physical self in obedience and right relationship with God. There is not a dualism that exists between the physical and the spiritual. The physical is not bad or evil and the spirit good or holy. Instead, the physical is neither good nor evil, and the spirit can be either one.
There are many in the world who do not view reality as existing in two realms. Some view reality as having some multiplicity of realms, others a similar duality to that of Christianity but with the moral nuances previously mentioned, and for others there is only the physical. The views that Reality consists of only the Physical Realm are often referred to as Materialist. This is a fundamental principle that is derived from their first principle of Reality. Many Materialists are Realists like Christians are, but they do not hold to the dualistic view of the totality of all Reality. They often view humanity as nothing more than a few dollars’ worth of common chemicals. No spirit, no soul, just simply a unique combination of molecules existing as a biological mechanism. They also commonly deny the “supernatural” or immaterial aspects of reality as well, and this includes God.
It is important as a Christian that we understand this detail of our first principle of reality due to the growing popularity of the Materialistic view. While we may commonly call Materialism (the absolutizing of the Material, or the use of a Materialistic view of reality as the basis for all other points of a Worldview) the attraction and obsession with material possessions. From the philosophical standpoint, however, it is a particular aspect of how one views Reality. Materialists are absolute deniers of the existence of God, and they tend to be the most vocal against Christian beliefs. A Christian must be able to identify this difference, and know how to approach certain subjects when speaking with a Materialist if we are to get to the truth. The tool of science is often used as their defense for their view of reality. However, this tool is not one that is able to measure or do anything to aid in our discovery of the immaterial realities. Science is itself a tool for gaining greater knowledge of the material realm and can not tell us anything about the immaterial realm. The underlying philosophies which make the tool of science work can not be explained or identified by science itself, as they are themselves immaterial realities! So, the Materialist has the tendency to believe that if science can not discover it, then it is not real. The most simple response is to ask them to use science to explain love using mathematics and physics or what have you, and to bring it into being utilizing them. Love is not a material thing, but it is most certainly real.
How Reality Exists
Reality exists independent of human thought. Whether humanity exists or not, reality does. It exists as the total collection of all real objects and the collection of events that occur between them and their interactions. The universe is generally the “dwelling place” (so to speak) of the Physical Realm. In tandem with the Physical Realm exists the Spiritual or Immaterial Realm. It is not that the Physical (Material) Realm exists in one spot and the Spiritual in another. Instead, these two Realms overlap one another and exist together making them a coherent whole. God exists within the spiritual realm and is able to interact with the physical realm, though the physical does not necessarily “sense” God.
The physical realm is able to interact with God, but only through spiritual means. In other words, it is humanity that is uniquely capable of directly interacting with God, even though we exist as both spiritual and physical beings. Our physical selves can affect how our spiritual selves interact with God, and indeed, it is the very purpose of Christianity to bring the physical self into submission to the spiritual self. How our spiritual self interacts with God and even with one another is manifested through physical actions and behaviors. How we show our love and reverence for God can be done through physical actions (such as kneeling and bowing our head in prayer) which aid in bringing out our Spiritual selves. The idea being that the physical self is only “subject” to the spiritual self in as much as we control our physical selves and use our physical selves to worship God.
This is where the different codes of behavior come to play in the Christian life-style. We bring each unique aspect of our physical selves (from sexual behavior to eating and dressing) into sync with our spiritual selves (our attitudes, the way we speak, our character traits, obedience). Reality exists as both spiritual and physical, and bringing these together into submission to God, to worship Him, is the purpose of reality. Doing so brings about joy and peace in our hearts as God’s gifts to us, freely offered and available to all if only we choose to accept it (choice itself being a spiritual reality). We do these things because they allow us to better enjoy what He freely offers to us, not just out of obedience, but because these things allow us to better experience His grace. This makes all aspects of reality existing as components to God’s giving to humanity His gift of grace and peace. Reality exists so that humanity may exist in relationship with God. This includes the important component of humanity’s freedom (and all that comes with that).
Reality was brought about by God, the eternal reality. While our physical realm is finite along with our physical selves, our spiritual selves exist for eternity past our creation. This means that the framework which allows reality to exist is an immaterial framework that is often referred to as “God’s Word.” God spoke and all came into being. We are able to identify and interact with (experience) this eternal Word of God which allows the Physical Realm to exist. This is why we say that the Immaterial Realm exists in tandem or parallel to the Material Realm. They comprise the totality of all existence. This is also where we consider the “Intelligibility” of the Universe, or our ability to actually understand it, discover certain truths about it, and use it to our own benefit. This Spiritual Realm (the Immaterial) is what underlies the cosmos but does not manifest itself like that of the believers in “total spirituality”. In the various views of “total spirituality,” everything in the universe has a spirit, even a rock! This is often found in eastern worldviews and few early European ones as well. For Christians, however, the Spiritual Realm only manifests itself within God and humanity. While God’s eternal word, spoken at creation, maintains the universe and brings it under His ultimate command, it is only humanity, created in His image, that shares with God in the “living being” of the spirit.
The subject of Reality is one that has several nuances that must be understood clearly if we are to communicate with others about it effectively. Not all worldviews share in the same understanding of the origin, nature, role, and destiny of the totality of all Reality. When Christians are confronted by other worldviews, it is important for the Christian to understand how others view reality in order to address their concerns appropriately. Christians can most easily “get along” with those who share in the Realist perspective. This does not mean that all Realists affirm the existence of God, however. While we know that Reality is what is regardless of humanity’s knowledge or awareness of it, this is not shared with everyone. If Christians are able to articulate this point more clearly, then getting to the root of disagreements about other aspects of our worldview with others will become far simpler. The goal of Christians in how we interact with others who do not share in our worldview, is to bring to light what the truth is. We do this with kindness and compassion, which requires us to inquire about how the challenger views reality. In doing so, we can help walk the person through understanding our Worldview, and hopefully find some common ground to start from. From that foundation, through the processes of reason and logic, we can then break down the world built walls that separate the individual from their own spirit, and do our part in aiding them to let the Holy Spirit do its work in them.