The Decline of Dualism

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.

Posted on 21/07/2012, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’d set that “beginning” with Jesus, who probably saw matters differently than the authors of ‘the first Christian writings’.

    In Judea (& Galilee, etc) he was leading a rural movement. Which would have kept track of things via oral traditions.

    But when it came to some of his followers spreading the ‘gospel’ to ‘the ends of the Earth’, the movement had to turn urban. Outside of Palestine, peasants in the surrounding countrysides (literally ‘pagan’ meaning ‘rural’) kept on doing whatever they’d always done to make the crops grow — while conversions (like other interactions between people able to keep two religions at once in the same head) occured in cities. Probably most converstions were of sympathetic gentiles frequenting the synagogues — one reason for Jew vs Christian rivalries & resentments at the time. (The impression that Christians were promoting a cut-rate Judaism, spreading the customary Jewish exemption from Roman religious practices to people who ‘weren’t real Jews’ & who might therefore attract governmental hostility — would have been another sore spot.)

    In Paul’s letters, one obvious background condition is that different teachers were spreading different ideas as to what Jesus demanded of his followers. This is conjecture — but it makes sense to me that this would be when people would have first seen a need for written gospels. Not much later, ‘because the world hasn’t ended after all’, but early on because the message was then getting well beyond the range where many people had heard it via peasant gossip networks, and was spreading to people who didn’t automatically know the Jewish background of stories & saying.

    And around this time, that message would be shifting from a Jewish context to a Greek one. It would be written in Greek (as the gospels seem, so far, to have always been) and being heavily influenced by Greek cultural assumptions among its first readers…

    • Well, the only way we can know Jesus is through those “first Christian writings”. We don’t have access to what he said–only to what the Gospel writers, and to a lesser extent the Epistles and a few agrapha say he said.

      I’m slowly developing an outline of what I have come to believe about the Bible, and why (which is the reason for posts like these that seem off-topic), and I’m still a ways off from the conclusion. However, to give just a brief hint of where I’m headed, my focus has moved away from the Bible considered in and of itself, and more towards Christ.

      Of course, as I just said, without the Bible we can’t know Christ, so I’m not suggesting rejecting it. However, my view is that Christ is the focus and the Bible serves only as a finger pointing to him (to use a Zen metaphor). If one takes seriously the idea that Christ is the Son of God who is mysteriously the Logos present in some respect in all cultures, religions, and ages, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; and if our personal encounters with the Risen Christ are also taken seriously; then I propose that all the twists and turns and modifications and changes in emphasis of Christianity over the millennia are not just detours or wrong tracks or people trying to reboot Christ to their own specifications. Rather, they are Christ himself entering, sanctifying, and expressing himself ever more fully through the forms of enculturation in which the Church participates.

      So I don’t necessary view Hellenism an unfortunate falling away from the primal teachings of Jesus or cultural baggage that the Gentiles brought with them on the S.S. Bark of Salvation, but rather something absorbed, integrated, and assimilated as part of the Divine plan. Even if the earthly Jesus in his humanity didn’t intend for it to go that way–and one can make that argument respectably–that doesn’t mean that the Cosmic Christ, the Risen Jesus, who is after all the focus of our faith, did not or does not intend it. I’d say the same, in fact, of the encounter between Christianity and the Eastern religions and the enrichment that accrues to both from this. Christianity is Jewish in a fundamental, foundational way; but it’s also Greek and Roman and African and Hindu and Buddhist and Daoist and so on.

  2. I’d also say that these changes aren’t necessarily “progress” either — just forms Christianity has needed to take to be intelligible to 1st Century Jews, 1st Century Greeks, 2nd Century whoevers… people of whatever time & cultures it’s needed to pass through. Some reinterpretations illuminate matters for us, others not so much.

    People can know Christ quite directly, but that’s not how it’s usually done. Most of us need to keep reinvestigating the Bible — just to avoid worshiping some later interpreter’s fingering…

    Pointing can be quite ambiguous. There was a shelf in front of my desk, in the used bookstore I used to have — and when I pointed to it, I’d be pointing directly at the customer (and at what was right in front of him.) But he’d turn around and look behind.

    People weren’t given a final, definitive formulation in the first place — because that would have been misunderstood, would have become an idol, wouldn’t have spoken to the full range of people God has always intended to reach.

    That nameless religion that Stephen Gaskin was talking about — that “all the world religions are maps of” — is what Christianity implies, and what it tries to embody. “Christ” isn’t just that Jewish guy; but efforts to describe it without taking him into account — generally come out too generic, lacking certain ironic minerals somehow.

    It’s quite the opposite of ‘worshiping yourself’, but sounds like that to incautious ears.

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