The Decline of Dualism
Posted by turmarion
We looked at dualism in a broad way back here, defining the term and seeing how there has long been tension between the more monistic Hebraic and the dualistic Hellenic strands in Christianity. I’d now like to look more specifically at the Christian context and its implications.
There is no doubt at all that there has been a strong strain of dualism in Christianity from the very beginning. The letters of Paul (which are believed to be the earliest writings of what we now call the New Testament) fairly bristle with the battle between the flesh (Greek sarx–used in the Pauline context to mean the material world broadly speaking) and the spirit (pneuma–an extremely important concept in Gnosticism, too, which we’ll comment on later). The Gospel of John and the first Epistle of John speak repeatedly of being hated by the world. Early Christian writings outside the New Testament, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the writings of many early Church Fathers emphasize asceticism and suspicion of the world. Celibacy, moderation in food, and simplicity of life are extolled throughout the Apostolic age and for centuries thereafter.
In the Middle Ages it was taken for granted that the highest form of Christian life was the celibacy and asceticism of monks, nuns, and (in the West from about the 11th Century onward) priests. Even heretical movements by and large shared this view. Groups such as the Albigensians, for example, were more ascetic than the orthodox, not less so. The Reformation, in some ways, did away with this, but in others, paradoxically, reinforced it. True, the Reformers abolished monasticism and a celibate priesthood. The Catholic Counter-Reformation, however, emphasized them all the more strongly. Even among Protestants, there was a tendency towards moral rigorism and a distrust of the world. Think Calvinism and Puritanism.
I should point out that none of this is metaphysical dualism, but more of an ethical or moral dualism. However, it has certain metaphysical implications, since there is the undercurrent of distrust of the material world and a preference for the spiritual.
Anyway, dualism chugged along, hitting its apogee with Descartes, whose mind/body, spirit/matter dualism was even more extreme than that of most Gnostic sects; and dualism in one form or other continued in forms such as German Idealism up into the 19th Century. However, the seeds of its eventual downfall had been sown in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment put a renewed emphasis on reason and study of the physical world without metaphysical presuppositions. The characteristic Deism of that era–the idea that God, after creating the cosmos, does not interact with it further–is an obvious harbinger of the demotion of the spiritual realm.
This took awhile to play out, but with the enormous progress in the physical sciences through the 19th Century and the weakening of traditional faith, dualism gave way, in philosophy and science, at any rate, to materialistic monism. Everything was seen as being matter and energy–no spirit realm needed. Positivism and analytic philosophy jettisoned metaphysics altogether. The masses did not necessarily buy into this, nor were even necessarily aware of it. Still, aspects of it filtered down, and dualism lost ground in many areas.
The specific area in which I’m interested is in theology. Trends in Christian theology in the latter half of the 20th Century, specifically holism, a re-appropriation of the Jewish heritage of Christianity, and certain trends in ethics are what I want to look at next through the lens of a reaction against dualism, and why I think it matters.
Part of the series Dualism.