Dualism and its Discontents
Posted by turmarion
We’ve looked at dualism in Christian thinking and in society at large from the beginning of Christianity to the mid-20th Century. Though the tendency in the sciences and in philosophy was towards materialism–which is monistic–Christianity remained largely unaffected. After all, it obviously could not jettison the spiritual realm. Moreover, Christian apologists spent large amounts of time attacking (wrongly, in some cases) various trends (Marxism, evolution, etc.) that were seen as undermining Christian faith, especially in the spiritual. Still, beginning around the middle of the last century, a subtle rejection of dualism–or of some dualistic tendencies, to be more precise–began to make itself felt.
I think there were several factors in play here. First, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, there was a strong movement to re-appropriate and give renewed respect to the Judaic heritage of Christianity. This was understandable. The horrid anti-Semitism that has been a stain on Christianity for centuries showed its ugliest face in the actions of the Nazis during World War II, and it was obvious that it was no longer possible to treat Jews as the hated Other while having any claim at all to morality. Thus there was a re-emphasis of the Jewish elements of Christianity and an attempt to make this awareness come more to the fore. Of course, as I’ve noted before, Semitic religions in general were historically less dualistic (Judaism is a complicated case, but we’ll defer that for now), so this movement would obviously result in some movement away from Hellenism and dualism.
Second was a movement, slow at first, but gaining momentum throughout the 19th Century and hitting nearly supersonic speed with the feminist movement and the Sexual Revolution in the postwar era, as well as the various liberation movements, towards greater personal autonomy in general and greater sexual autonomy in particular. Christianity was seen as having an unhealthily dualistic worldview in which sex, as a manifestation of the “flesh”, that is, materiality, was neurotically seen as “bad” and therefore repressed, with manifold bad results. The duality was blamed on Gnosticism (most prominently by Eric Voegelin, who blamed Gnosticism for everything he didn’t like), which was blamed on Hellenism, or on the Greeks directly.
Third was the overall milieu in which, as I explained last time, the movement in high culture and in intellectual circles was towards a materialistic monism. By and large Christian thinkers (radicals aside) were not willing to go that far–no Christianity could be materialistically monistic while claiming any semblance of orthodoxy–but a re-emphasis of the material world and its goodness as part of God’s creation did fit in a bit more with the more here-and-now oriented Zeitgeist.
Finally there was the environmental movement and the increased realization that humans had not been good stewards of the Earth. It was argued, rightly to an extent, that Christian thought had traditionally tended to objectify the Earth and environment as things to be exploited rather than as resources to be cherished and preserved. A greater focus on the material world we live in was seen as a corrective to an excessively otherworldy approach that denigrated the world and had no interest in preserving it.
None of these factors in itself was necessarily wrong or unreasonable. In all these cases there was a real imbalance that really needed to be corrected. The problem is that in most human affairs, what begins as a correction keeps going until it becomes an extreme itself, and in need of correction itself. This is what I maintain happened.
Historically, there was a re-emphasis on the Jewish roots of Christianity. As we’ve mentioned, this was both necessary and long overdue. Certainly, to the extent that this was intended to counteract anti-Semitism, it was certainly very laudable. However, there are more complexities to this than is commonly realized. First, this reclamation is not completely new; the Reformers in many ways went back to Jewish sources, in terms of emphasizing translation from the original Hebrew, rejection of the Deuterocanonical books, and in light of this, rejection of many Catholic practices as un-Scriptural. Sadly, this theoretical Judeophilia of the Reformers did not translate to less anti-Semitism in practice.
Second, this movement in modern times has often emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity at the expense of the Hellenic side. In other words, the rightful emphasis on the Jewishness of Christianity has been often made in a context of denigration or outright rejection of the Greek heritage of the faith. It is often claimed that the pagan converts to Chrisitianity corrupted or at best misdirected it by artificially superimposing upon it a foreign, and it is said, fundamentally incompatible, Hellenistic philosophical worldview upon the primal–and purportedly purer–Judaic Christianity.
Finally, this perspective tends to downplay the real and central differences between Judaism and even the earliest, Semitic forms of Christianity. In fact, Rabbinical Judaism as we know it formed, to a not insignificant extent, in rejection of Christianity.
Metaphysically, there was a consensus that there had been too much emphasis on the transcendence of God, to the neglect of His immanence. Thus the popularity of process theology, promoted to the masses in the 70’s and 80’s by best-selling author Harold Kushner. The most extreme movment away from transcendence was the so-called “Death of God” theology. Obviously, this was not widely accepted. Nevertheless, by the end of the last century, even Evangelicals had become enamored of so-called “open theology“. The common thread in all these theological movements is a movement of emphasis from the transcendent and the spiritual to the here-and-now and the material universe. God, to the extent that He figures at all, is seen as much more limited than in most classical formulations. The idea is that this makes God more accessible to humans, rather than being coldly remote, as it is often claimed. Additionally, this purported remoteness was seen as a major factor in the denigration or neglect of this-worldly affairs, such as human society, physical pleasures, and care of the environment.
All of these seem to me to be examples of over-reaction to real issues. As to Judaism, the reclamation of the Jewish origins of Christianity and of Jesus, this was both salutary, necessary, and long overdue. On the other hand, there is the danger of eliding real differences in which Judaism and Christianity are truly incompatible–the Trinity, the Incarnation, Original Sin, and the status of gentiles, to name a few. Respect for Judaism and rejection of anti-Semitism should not require a rejection of uniquely Christian doctrines or practices, or untenable claims that non-Jewish elements of the faith are somehow inauthentic or foreign intrustions.
As to theology, it is true (especially in light of Deist thought) that God had come to seem remote and unconnected to human concerns. However, the idea of God as evolving, or limited in his power and knowledge, or as capable of being hurt by us definitely seems to be throwing out the theological baby with the bathwater. There are “limited-God” theological systems that actually “work”. Gnosticism, for example, posits that the True (Alien) God does not have anything to do with the matieral cosmos, so in that respect His field of action is limited. However, in this system the human soul, as a spark of the Divine Light, is in a sense ultimately unaffected by matter, and will ultimately be fully liberated from matter. Thus, God’s action, which consists of aiding our souls to escape matter, while limited, is efficacious.
Zoroastrianism also posits limits on God (Ahuram Mazda, or Ormazd), who is viewed as the equal and opposite of the Devil (Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman). However, God still has the advantage, since as the hypostasis of good, He has one characteristic that Evil lacks–foresight. Thus, while God is limited in that he can’t just go charging in unilaterally to defeat the forces of Evil, He still is able to lay plans that will ultimately result in the destruction of Evil and the triumph of good. Thus, as with Gnosticism, God’s limitations are not fatal in the last analysis.
The modern systems, however, seem to want to make God more acceptable to us by in effect saying, “Hey, things are rough, but they’re rough for God, too.” In other words, God means well, but can’t do much about it, because He’s learning and evolving (process theology), limited in what He can do (open theology), or in the most extreme formulations, has in effect commited suicide (Death of God). I guess for some this might be comforting–Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People sold quite well–but it doesn’t cut it for me. God does have some metaphysical limitations, as I’ve discussed before–He can’t make a married bachelor or make 2 + 2 = 71.4, for example. For me, though, a God who can’t bring about a good conclusion to the sorry story of the universe despite any limitations He may have–a nice guy who’s in the same cosmic boat with us, and sympathizes without being able to do much–is very unappealing. Useless, in fact.
I say this having been very enamored of open theology at one time. My religious journey has been from the very impersonal and objective to the more subjective and emotional. I think that I realized decades ago that I was much too much in the head and not enough in the heart (a clichéd way to phrase it, but still true), and that I needed to correct this imbalance. As I realized last year upon re-reading the Bhagavad Gita for the first time in thirty years, I have corrected that imbalance, far more than I’d realized. However, when I was first exposed to open theology nearly twenty years ago, I mistakenly thought that the open God was something I needed to help effect this correction. I naively thought that the God of classical theism had to be cold, impersonal, and unloving, and I bought the open theologians’ claims that Biblical statements of Divine limitations (such as God not knowing the future or changing His mind) needed to take precedence over the (purportedly) cold, impersonal God of the philosophers. This despite my inherent Platonism!
I won’t rehearse the steps by which I broke out of this view and returned to a more classical theism, except to cite one essay that helped in the process.
Thus, while I’m all for ending anti-Semitism and restoring a proper balance between the Jewish and the Hellenistic in Christianity; and while I’m all for giving due emphasis to the here-and-now, especially in terms of care for the environment; nevertheless I think the well-intentioned attacks on the traditional dualistic tendencies in Christianity have gone too far the other way, too much in the directon of immanence and monism, at the expense of transcendence and dualism.
The one place of correction that became unbalanced which I have referenced here but have not discussed in detail is in terms of sexuality. That I’m saving for the next post in this series.
Part of the series Dualism.