The Material and Spiritual Life: Living in two worlds

Today, I would like to ask you a philosophical question. It is question that I have never really been able to answer myself. The question is about two worlds – about a fundamental divide in human life. It is about two different dimensions of life that we all belong to and that, from my perspective, we can never fully reconcile. For lack of better words: I am talking about the material and spiritual dimensions of life.

My question is: Can these dimensions be reconciled? Or can we talk about life in a way so that the divide does not even come into existence? Current events at my company GoMore make me, once again, consider these questions. But let me first give a minimal philosophical introduction to the question.

“The human intellectual capacities only exist alongside with real human flesh and blood…There is no spirit without the material.”

Life is material. It is about flesh and blood and having food on the table. It’s about money, about having a house to live in, about our basic needs. But life is also spiritual. It is about human emotions and intellectual capacity, about imagination, about human communication and interconnectedness. It’s about art and culture – things that make us humans separate from the animals, making life worth living. Yet, the spiritual is also material. The human intellectual capacities only exist alongside with real human flesh and blood. Art and culture are expressed through the material. There is no spirit without the material. But you don’t get to learn or experience a lot of the spiritual if you are only willing to talk or think about it in terms of the material.

This divide in human life has in various ways been articulated in Christianity. When Jesus said: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God,” this was an expression of the divide. Man should take heed both the material (Caesar) and the spiritual (God) dimensions of life. In Protestantism this schism was emphasised when Luther talked about two realms: The worldly and Godly. Christianity might always have ranked the spiritual higher than the material. But when Jesus says “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” he also says that on earth you should obey and follow the rules of the earth. Even if you as a Christian have higher goals or aspirations than what is defined by the mere material – you should not try to escape the demands the material world puts on you, but deal properly with the demands and make them part of your life.

For Luther it was critical that his religious revolution within the church (what later became known as the Reformation) was not turned into a political revolution against the king or the established power. Therefore he could not support the peasants’ rebellion against the nobility. Luther was a revolutionary in terms of the spiritual, but a conservative in terms of the material. He rigorously distinguished between the two realms, and his calling was within the spiritual.

Matias Møl Dalsgaard

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I raise this point because I am puzzled by how I live (as we all do) in both realms. We are both matter and spirit. But what puzzles me is at the practical level.

I am the CEO and founder of the start-up company GoMore, a platform for ridesharing and peer-to-peer car rental. We are one of the many online businesses within what is referred to as “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption”. Our business grows when people become better at sharing their resources and properties with each other – in our case it is about sharing the car. The motives for sharing for the individual person are various. Financial gain is key for many of our users, and so are the environmental and social benefits from sharing. But no matter what the motives are, there is something inherently social and human to our business – because the business only works when people trust and find joy in meeting and interacting with each other.

We have had hundreds of thousands of successful rides and thousands of successful car rentals. Things are going well—people are kind and considerate. We seem to be on a never-ending social honeymoon with our users. But as our business grows, we also see glimpses of another world – of a non-social, poor, and materialistic world outside of our social universe: A couple of weeks ago we had our first car stolen. A person never returned the car he had rented from a kind, trusting woman.

The Material and Spiritual Life: Living in two worlds

GoMore is a social ride sharing platform. Through their website and mobile app, users can be connected with each other to find cheaper travel options, as well as rent cars from private owners.

The problem has now been solved for everybody and the car owner has been fully compensated by GoMore and our insurance company – and the story is not in itself very interesting. But what interests me is my own reaction to such an incident. First I naturally called up the police to see what they could do about it. Realising how under-funded and over-loaded the police force is – and how little they were actually capable of doing – I decided to hire a private security firm to track down the thief and return the car. This was only partly successful since the thief seems to have left the country. But the security firm knows of his whereabouts and, in cooperation with the police, they will find him when he returns to Denmark.

Now, the people working at the private security firm do not exactly have a background in the “sharing economy”. They are trained for combat, for the most part in the military, and I would have approved of almost any means for them recover the car from the thief—the firm is of course fully legal and often cooperates with the police. We try to run a social business, but when elements with absolutely no affinity to the sociality that we try to establish threaten this business – then I am willing to do “whatever it f-ing takes” to protect my people and my business.

Personally I can’t help feeling a little schizophrenic when I one minute speak on the phone with a trained bodyguard from the security firm about how I would like him to track down a thief – and the next minute discuss happy, engaging social media content with our marketing people. These two things are so unrelated, obviously so not belonging to the same dimensions of life. One is purely materialistic and about basic survival (me or the thief), the other is spiritual and about engaging people at social level. But I am fine with it – I am willing to do it all. I just wonder, does life really consist of two dimensions that will never be fully reconciled? Are there truly separate realms for the material and the spiritual dimensions as it was always preached in Christianity? Do we simply have to accept this? This seems to the case for me, but I am willing to listen to any of your objections…

Matias Dalsgaard explores dilemmas of modern lifestyle in his epistolary novel “Don’t Despair“. The book is told through his unique Lutheran-Kierkegaardian perspective, examining urban modern living while delving into the conflict between the extremes of Christian values, and that of our present day hedonist lifestyle.


Don’t despair

by Matias Dalsgaard

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Matias Dalsgaard
16 Jul 2014

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One thought on “The Material and Spiritual Life: Living in two worlds

  1. More and more I find a decrease in my mental and visual alertness. I am hoping that it is visual and be easily corrected with stronger lenses.

    Reading a review of the book, I saw the banner that displayed :living to two worlds. My brain saw living in two words. My brain saw an opportunity to show alertness and awareness but it was an opportunity not justified because I misread the title of the article.

    My brain immediately responded, “No, that’s three words”. Explanation “Don’t Despair” is, grammatically, “Do Not Despair” and therefore three words. So then I had to go back and review what is reality before posting something that would cause me to have egg on my face.

    I like the way this young man looks at the two worlds. His perception, in my opinion, are expressive of an awakening that must not be ignored. If the human spirit existing in the material world continues down the “Material Turn Only” highway, it will end with the material world. The human spirit must awaken so that it does not get into the wrong lane.