The Downside of Dualism: Body and Soul

I have been arguing for a more positive view of dualism over the course of the last several posts, while heading towards the larger end of describing my mode of Biblical interpretation, and discussing what I accept, what I reject, and why. My thesis is that Christianity has been traditionally more strongly dualistic than is acknowledged to be the case in modern times, and that a return to a more dualistic attitude would redress a current excess in the other direction, return Christian thought to its roots, and have salutary effects in many areas.  Having said that, I have to come out and say that dualism (appropriately enough!) is a two-edged sword.

The type of dualism I’m talking about there is not the dualism of Daoism, in which the opposition is not between good and evil or spiritual and material, but between opposite principles (dry/moist, hot/cold, male/female, etc.).  It is the dualism that has been prevalent in the West (by which I include North Africa and the Iranian Plateau, since ideas from these areas circulated in the Mediterranean world), that is, a dualism of spirit world/material world and good/evil, the spirit being seen as good or predominantly good, and the material as evil, less good, or at least inferior.

One obvious shortcoming of this form of dualism popped up on the discussion thread at Vox Nova, which I’ve referred to before.  One of my interlocutors, A. Sinner, had the following things to say, my emphasis:

Ah, how tragic it is to see so many people today exalting the life of the body over the life of the soul. Christ Himself says “And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell.”

A society does not need to criminalize everything (indeed, I WOULD in fact argue for the decriminalization of prostitution, etc). But, at the same time, in given circumstances, it CAN criminalize. And certainly it sends a weird message if killing people’s bodies is a crime, but killing their souls (which is what heretics do; their crime is OBjectively much worse than any murder) is not.

Given a certain perspective, this is a fair point.First, I’m not particularly interested in the interpretation of Jesus’ hard saying in this context.  There is intense debate about the exact context and meaning intended here.  Moreover, proof-texting is a perilous way to make points about Biblical teaching.  Finally, I’ll discuss my exact position on interpretation in a later post.  For now, please note that it is obvious that there are few one-handed or one-eyed people about who have taken this literally.

The larger point is that if we consider there to be two more or less incompatible, or at least vastly different realms, the spiritual and the material; and if we consider the former to be superior and good and the latter to be inferior if not evil; and particularly, if we consider, in line with Christian tradition, that the soul is immortal while the body and the material world are passing; then it logically follows that sacrificing the body as the price of protecting the soul (one’s own or those of others) is perfectly legitimate.

For that matter, it also implies that your state in life–whether as rich as Bill Gates or a Skid Row bum–doesn’t really matter, either.  If one lives correctly, in theory, one is rewarded with infinite, eternal life in heaven; in comparison with which even the lowliest, most unpleasant, most horrible situation in moral life is nothing as compared to what one can attain if one behaves oneself!

This is the problem and the paradox of dualistic thinking.  If the body and the material world are in the long run unimportant, there is no motivation for social justice, no motivation stewardship of the environment, no reason to worry about the condition of the sick, the poor, and the down-and-out.  As demonstrated, such a view also makes it very easy to justify execution of heretics, religious or otherwise.  Logically, it could even justify suicide, though this, of course (despite shaky Biblical arguments) has been traditionally prohibited by Christianity.

Ironically, Christianity, despite its strong dualistic tendencies, had tended in many ways to valorize, or at least attach importance to, the temporal body.  Hospitals, in the modern sense of the word, were mainly founded by Christians, particularly religious orders.  Christians have been at the forefront of fights against slavery, fights for social and economic justice, and fights for equal rights.  Ironically, the very religion that is accused of denigrating the present in favor of “pie in the sky when you die” has worked diligently to alleviate the situation of the indigent and despised here on Earth.  Conversely, though a few secularist charitable funds have been set up in recent years, the secularist community, not entirely  unfairly, has not been noted for its charitableness.

So how does one square this circle?

It’s worth pointing out that the Dharmic religions, which tend to be even more dualistic and matter-disparaging than Christianity and the Hellenistic philosophical systems,  have traditionally been very pacifistic (at least in theory) and have emphasized the importance of the body.  The body in and of itself may not always be valued, but it is definitely seen as a vehicle.  In short, our spirit or soul is housed in the body, for good or ill; and everything that we can perceive, all of our mental functions–all of these depend on the body.  Thus, the maintaining the body in a balanced state is necessary to the proper cultivation of the mind which culminates in freedom from the body.

It’s also worth pointing out that Dharmic religions also prohibit suicide.  The idea is that a person who wants to end his life is actually craving for death, or for the non-existence of whatever it is that causes him pain.  Of course, in the Buddhist view, pain is caused by craving (the better translation of tanha, usually rendered, somewhat inadequately as “desire”); and suicide is as much a craving as a life of dissipation.  Therefore, the suicide merely flings himself back into the process of samsara, not really solving a thing.  He’ll have to deal with it eventually in future lives.  It is true that Jains sometimes do starve themselves to death (the Gnostic-derived Albigensians of Medieval France were said to do this, too–the endura–but it’s not clear how widespread it was, and it was apparently only for more spiritually advanced perfecti), but this is reserved to the spiritually advanced who are able to do so with no desire.

Likewise, while being ascetic, the Gnostics of old realized the need to cultivate Gnosis, which can be done only in the body.  Thus, they would have had a similar view of the body as a vehicle for spiritual development.

Finally, Christianity has consistently taught respect for the body and reluctance to take human life.  In the first couple of centuries, Christians were mainly pacifistic.  Though complex theories of just wars and permission of capital punishmenet were later developed, there have always been strong strains of pacifism and refusal to harm in both heretical (the Cathari) and orthodox (the Franciscans) strands of the Christian tradition.  Logically, this should be even more imperative to Christians than to Hindus or Buddhists.  From the Dharmic perspective, one killed in war or execute will be born again, having numerous second chances.  From the orthodox Christian perspective, one chance is all one gets.  Therefore, to cut short a person’s life–to potentially deny them a full chance–seems at odds with Christian teaching.

Now I’m not holding that Christianity is or necessarily can be totally pacifistic.  I think in its underlying principles it is; but the exigencies of the world are such that war and even capital punishment, in extremis, are not altogether proscribed.  I think the area in which Christendom went wrong is in construing such permissions very widely, rather than as desperate, last-ditch options, as should have been the case.

Thus, I view the various permissions and compromises for war, violence, execution, and killing in general to be the aberrations or distortions of Christianity, not the ethos of killing, even of those who may deserve it.  I think this is sufficient to answer the challenge quoted above; but in another post I’m working on, I intend to develop my notions on freedom of conscience and belief more thoroughly.  In any case, I think the teaching of Christ and (at its best) the Church on the dignity of the human person and the right of everyone to life goes a long way towards countering the problematic aspect of dualism which I’ve discussed here.  Beyond that, certainly the embodied life is the only one we now have, the only mode through which we can seek God.  This is true regardless of one’s degree of orthodoxy or heterodoxy.  Likewise to the world in which the body of necessity lives.

Thus, viewed properly, dualism need not, in my view, mean a disparagement or neglect of the body, or a notion that it’s OK to kill people’s bodies for the sake of their souls.  It also need not imply a lack of respect for the environment or a refusal to try to take proper care of it.  What it does do is to remind us that no matter what we do, the body will die; and no matter what we do, many things, environmental and otherwise, will be beyond our power to affect.  Thus I think a careful middle path between immanentizing the eschaton on the one hand, and brushing aside all material concerns, on the other, is the path of a properly conceived dualistic mode of thought.  We may value the soul more, but the body has its place, too.

Part of the series Dualism.

Posted on 14/08/2012, in Bible, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Turmarion,

    Great post, as usual.

    I’d quibble with you that the death penalty is *inherently* wrong. I believe that Christ certainly meant to limit it drastically- the Pericope of the Adulteress tells us that much, and the very fact that its canonical status is shadowy and dubious tells us that the Holy Spirit and the early church thought it was important enough that this story be heard, that they ensured that was somehow ‘added’ to a text where it might not originally have been. But there are equally references in the New Testament to the State having the right to punish crimes against the social order, including by death. Any Christian argument about capital punishment, as much as it must take into account the story of the adulteress, must also take into account the dialogue between Christ and Pilate:

    “Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above…” (John 19:10-11).

    I think that the New Testament and the experience of Christians through history, taken as a whole, rules out both the abolitionist viewpoint (that the death penalty is inherently wrong) and the Mosaic viewpoint (that the death penalty is legitimate for a whole slew of moral violations). Between those two extremes, there’s a lot of middle ground. I used to think, based on my own intuitive feelings about justice, that the death penalty was legitimate for the very worst crimes: first degree murder, child sexual abuse, and political crimes like treason. I’ve started increasingly moving away from that viewpoint, because I’ve started to realize that my own intuitive sense of justice may be deceiving, and that maybe our own thirst for justice may itself be an appetite that Christ calls on us to discipline, as much as the thirst for food or sex. I’m starting to lean (though I still go back and forth) towards the idea that perhaps the death penalty should be abolished for common crimes, but kept on the books for crimes that violate the social contract, i.e. political crimes like treason, war crimes, genocide, spying, tyranny, etc. That dovetails with the policy of a number of countries today and throughout history (Czarist Russia, a harsh society if there ever was one, used the death penalty only for treason, not murder), and it also dovetails with the fact that (as far as I can see) the only places the idea of capital punishment is even implicitly accepted in the New Testament, it’s in the context of crimes against the social order, i.e. treason. (Christ and St Paul both tell their persecutors, in so many words, that while they were innocent, if they had really committed the crime for which they were being persecuted, treason, then the state would have the right to execute them). So I think, in short, while the death penalty perhaps should be abolished for rape and murder, it should stay on the books for the worst crimes with a political dimension. (In the last couple decades, a number of Latin American countries have followed that route, actually).

    I also think that, in practice, people as strongly dualist as the Albigensians *didn’t*, in fact, disparage our duties to the poor. For whatever reason, they were popular among the poor of southern France, and some of their intellectuals (Jean de Lugio, I think) assume as a matter of course that we have duties to the poor. I’d also disagree that the Dharmic religions are really dualist. Maybe they are in some metaphysical sense, but they don’t have the concept of moral dualism even to the extent it exists in Christianity, let alone in Persia. Hindus and Buddhists may believe in demons of a sort, but they don’t believe in the devil as a powerful and malignant force in the world in anything like the same sense even orthodox Christians do. They do disparage matter, but they don’t consider it *evil*, more ‘irelevant’. For this reason, I think the Dharmic religions are much poorer at solving the problem of evil (which is the one problem that Dualism neatly solves, although it introduces a whole bunch of other problems in its wake) than either orthodox Christianity or dualistic belief systems

    • Hector, you’re right that dualists, in actual practice, do not denigrate the poor. My main point was that to do such would be a theoretical danger, especially in light of views such as that expressed by A. Sinner, in the segments quoted. Also, I was a bit sloppy with the term regarding the Dharmic faiths. I think it would be fair to say that they’re metaphysically dualist–spirit vs. matter, or at least Ultimate Reality vs. maya–but they are certainly not morally dualistic. In that regard, I think you’re right.

      As to the part about capital punishment, that wasn’t as carefully stated as I would have liked, but my adjustment of it expanded to a full post!

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