There have long been two strands of thought in religion, and these appear within as well as between individual religions. Boiled down to their essence, they relate to a different understanding of the relation between spirit and matter. That is to say, between the uncreated plane of existence and creation. Should we deny or abandon or suppress or try to rise above the latter or do we somehow incorporate it into the former to make something new that neither has on its own ? Traditional Buddhism would generally take the first path, though later versions of the Mahayana tend more to the second. Christianity has both strands within it, often fighting for dominance, and they can be seen in the different approaches to marriage and celibacy in the priesthood. The attitude to sex can sum up the conflict between the two approaches because sex is the outer manifestation at its most obvious of what this debate is all about. Desire. Is desire good or evil? Is it something to overcome or is it the seed from which, when purged of its lower and selfish elements, love can arise?
All agree that identification with this world or any of the goods of this world is a profound spiritual error. We are called to locate our being in the spiritual world. There is no dispute among religious people about that even if the vast majority of people nowadays would not go along with it. However, here we are talking about serious people orientated to the spiritual life, those who know that this world is not our true home and the body and earthly mind are not the true centre of our real being. But if this world and all that pertains to it, which must include our very self when you come down to it, are regarded as obstacles to a proper perception of reality, are they obstacles that must simply be discarded or are they to be included in a more all-embracing vision that accepts everything (everything not the product of sin and illusion, that is, which are basically no things) but accepts them in a hierarchical vision of reality with the greater being seen as greater yet the lesser also having its own place, subsidiary but vital, in the whole?
I have been attracted to the former position at times. It seems more absolute, more final, more what everything should ultimately lead up to. Gain spiritual truth by cutting everything else away. Strip the veils from reality until you are left with nothing but pure being or even non-being as some might phrase it. And I suppose this might be possible. The state of complete rest in absolute oneness exists. But does it exist as a permanent destination or is it only a temporary experience which it is not possible for man to remain in?
I submit the latter is the case. Many people have experienced the state of absolute oneness but I don't think any remain in it. The history of gurus bears witness to that. These people may once have been touched by grace but they cannot remain on that exalted plane so they have to pretend if they are to preserve their authority, pretend to their disciples but also to themselves. The one possible exception to this is Ramana Maharishi but I wonder? Did he perhaps identify with an experience and then preserve that in his mind? I don't doubt he was one of the true spiritual giants of the 20th century but his is not a path for Western people to follow because it was not balanced. He effectively rejected matter for pure abidance in spirit and that is not the way to go if we are to fulfil God's purpose in creation.
Why did God create if the goal for human beings is to return to spiritual oneness as though our life in the world was a complete irrelevance that contributed nothing? First of all, let me say that any spiritual person needs to understand that this is a creation and there is a Creator. Many people do not acknowledge that but I am writing here for people who have already come to that conclusion, the only rational one really. So God created and, we are told, saw that it was good. Creation is good. It is not an illusion. Something that is good is real. It may not represent ultimate reality, it is a creation after all, but it is real and it is good. Then God created us and he did so as a couple, two of us, two separate souls who find their fulfilment in each other. This is traditional teaching but it is also universal experience despite all the things that can go wrong. Now, the question is when we return to God, as all serious religions teach we must, do we do so by stepping out of creation completely, and remember that would include our individual selves, or do we bring creation and its fruits with us? That is to say, do we integrate our material and spirituals selves, obviously with the latter as the ruler in a hierarchical pairing (because it is the more fundamental and the closer to God himself) or do we jettison the former like the part of a rocket that carries the fuel load as it leaves the Earth's atmosphere?
The answer is given by Christ. When he ascended into heaven he took his body with him. He was not just reabsorbed into God but the human part of his being was retained, completely translated into light perhaps but retained not rejected. This tells us, or it should, that the true spiritual path demands the integration of spirit and matter not the dismissal of matter as illusion or evil. This is the mystic marriage and it is a greater thing than the spiritual celibacy of the Buddhist. It is important to realise that in this marriage spirit must be the dominant partner, the spiritual path is all about bringing the material self under the dominance of the spiritual, but the goods of creation are incorporated into the highest heaven at the end of time, not rejected. Time really does add to eternity as does becoming to being, and what they add are beauty, goodness as an active principle and love.