Dualism: Orthodoxy, Heresy, Refrigerators, and Lawn Mowers

It’s funny–I’ll get to a point where I think I’m about to wind the whole series down, and things come up.  I’ll read something or have a conversation or have an exchange on another blog or think of something, and then I realize there are things I’ve neglected or forgotten to address or need to address.  Then the post to address that leads to another and the whole thing expands.  Sigh.  Oh, well–we’ll just have to deal with it!

Upon thinking, I realized that I still haven’t dealt sufficiently with dualism, nor have I linked it sufficiently into the overarching theme of this series, which is about the Bible.  To deal with the second of these issues first:

Here, here, here, and here I’ve discussed how dualism has come to be perceived as an outmoded and incorrect viewpoint in the modern Western context.  It is seen, especially in religious contexts, as outworn, outmoded, and no longer viable in the modern era.  My contention is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction against dualism, and needs to return.  I have also discussed how the Greeks were always more dualistic than the Semitic peoples; and though I didn’t say it explicitly, this, I think, is part of the reason for my temperamental preference for the Greeks.

My tendency is to think that Christianity in its origins and for much of its history was much more dualistic than we like to think.  For the reasons stated above, this dualism is more pronounced in the New Testament than in the Old.  This is certainly one factor among many in my preference for the former.  I’ll elaborate on this more in coming posts.  Meanwhile, I think it’s worth taking a look at Christianity itself and seeing if my assertion here is in fact correct.

As I’ve pointed out at length in my earlier post on dualism, it has become fashionable to emphasize the Jewishness of Christianity and to downplay the Hellenic contribution with its attendant dualism.  In fact, Hellenism is often blamed for this.  The narrative goes something like this:  the Greeks were dualist–which is bad–and the Jews were not–which is good.  As the Jewish, world-and-life-affirming religion of Jesus spread out into the Hellenistic Mediterranean world, it absorbed many Greek influences, not least of which was Neoplatonism, of which it got a  heavy dose.  This was a Very Bad Thing, since the innocent, life-affirming monism was overlaid with the ascetic, sour, world-denying, sex-disparaging dualistic outlook.  This ruined it all for everybody until we finally figured it out and ditched all that stuff in the 20th Century.

Aside from the Neoplatonists, the Gnostics are the usual whipping boys here, and sometimes they are accused of being the conduits through which the Neoplatonism entered orthodoxy.  There are certain affinities and similarities, although Neoplatonists like Plotinus wrote against the Gnostics.

Of course, there are strongly ascetic passages in the New Testament itself–look at Paul’s writings suggesting refraining from marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-9), urging moderation in food, clothing, and behavior (Ephesians 4:17-32, 1 Timothy 2:9-11), and withdrawal, as far as possible, from the secular world (Philemon 1:23-24).   Also, the witness from the early Church, as far back as we can go, consistently enjoins asceticism, celibacy for those who are able, and preaches an aversion to “the flesh” and a preference for “the spirit”.  So who’s not dualistic?

The modern rejection of dualism results from many complicated socio-cultural factors, as I’ve discussed.  I think much of the opposition between the orthodox and the Gnostics in ancient times wasn’t really over dualism per se, but can be understood as a family quarrel.  Better yet, let’s look at it in terms of refrigerators and lawn mowers (I know–bear with me!).

If I sell lawn mowers and you sell refrigerators, we’re not in direct competition.  A person who buys a refrigerator will still eventually need a lawn mower (unless he’s an apartment dweller); and having a lawn mower doesn’t mean you don’t need a refrigerator.  Customers might have to budget–maybe they need the lawn mower now and can’t afford to get a refrigerator, too; but even after they buy the lawn mower, they’ll eventually get the refrigerator.  No direct competition.

However, suppose I sell Briggs and Stratton lawn mowers and you sell John Deeres.  Now if someone purchases one of your products, I’ve lost a customer.  In fact, if the customer likes your product, he may buy it again in the future, so I may have lost multiple purchases.  Thus it is in my interest to try to get customers to buy my products rather than yours.  To that end, it will behoove me to emphasize any differences in our products.  Obviously, there’s much less difference between a Briggs and Stratton and a John Deere than between either and a refrigerator; but purchases of competitors’ brands of mowers will hurt me more than purchases of refrigerators, so I have to play up what differences I can.  I have a mulching mower, and he doesn’t!  Mine has a longer warranty!  And so on.

My point is that perhaps, in actual practice, the orthodox and Gnostic Christians weren’t as different as we might think.  The actual practice would be fairly ascetic for both.  By and large, most people wouldn’t have been aware of the actual theological differences  I should note that it is true that Gregory of Nyssa, in a famous writing, said even if you asked the price of bread in Constantinople during the Arian controversy, people would engage you in theological debate; but it’s always thus in huge, cosmopolitan cities.  For the population at large, I doubt this would have applied.

Anyway, Christian writers could easily dismiss paganism or (with a little more effort) Judaism, both of which were more different from Christianity; but with Gnosticism, it would be much harder.  Just as a lawn mower salesman has to concentrate his ad budget against other lawn mower salesmen, and not against purveyors of refrigerators, so the orthodox attacked Gnosticism much more vigorously and emphasized the differences, since it was the real competitor for the hearts and minds of the faithful.

All this indicates two things to me.  One, orthodoxy and Gnosticism are closer, and perhaps more nearly compatible than is often thought (a topic I intend to come back to in a future post); and two, Christianity can be seen from this to have been much  more inherently dualistic than the opponents of dualism today like to admit (or even realize).  Thus, I think that at least a moderate dualism is an important part of any theological attempts at reading the Bible and evaluation the two Testaments.

Dualism, though, is not all sweetness and light, and this is the topic of the next post.

Part of the series Dualism.

Also part of the series Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy.

Posted on 12/08/2012, in Bible, Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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