Saturday, December 13, 2014

A World Split Apart: Dualism in Western Culture and Theology

PIU faculty member M. James Sawyer has recently published his book, A World Split Apart: Dualism in Western Culture and Theology, on Kindle. As promised, we will discuss this book here and on my Facebook page (easier to manage comments there) with a post on the first half of the book today and the second half a week from now. You can pick up Jim’s book for $2.99 at Amazon here and read it on your Kindle or computer. You can then join the discussion this coming week. Today I am looking at pages 1-16 (through the discussion about Augustine).

Jim begins by pointing out that “Western thinking is uniformly dualistic in its nature, whereas Eastern thinking is founded upon monism.” Westerners tend to think in terms of opposites which cannot be reconciled. The key one for the purposes of discussion is “spirit-matter” which are “two qualitatively and irreducibly different orders of reality.” Eastern thought, monism, deals with this by relegating the material world to “illusion” with only one half (the immaterial) of the duality being real. The only truly holistic view of reality in the ancient world was that of the Hebrews who saw matter and spirit united in a God who is intimately involved in his creation,

The Hebrew basis of thinking is one that embraces both sides of the disjuncture presented in the dualistic mode while insisting that they must be held in tension as opposed to being irreconcilable opposites. 6

This dualistic thinking is an inadequate description of reality. First, though dualistic thinking worked well in a Newtonian mechanistic model of the universe, Einstein and his successors have shown that the universe does not work that way.

The universe is open, it turned out, not closed and deterministic as Newtonian physics had insisted. Likewise, it is contingent and not necessary. Miracles are indeed possible, because God is not locked out of his creation. This is not just an a priori theological assertion—it is the necessary implicate of a universe that is open and contingent. Physicists recognize this reality today, although those in the social and life sciences have not yet abandoned their dualist-determinist thinking and tend to be stuck in mechanistic categories. 7

Second it is an inadequate description of spiritual reality too. The Old and New Testaments present a relational God who is intimately involved with his creation.

Christianity was born out of a Jewish worldview that had no such dualistic thinking embedded in it. Unlike the Platonist’s God, utterly removed and unconcerned with physical reality, Yahweh was a God who got his hands dirty. He created the material world and took a personal interest in it, communicating personally with his people through the prophets. He loved his people. Most startling of all, he revealed himself through the incarnation of the eternal Son whose name was Emmanuel—God with us. 9

However, as the church tried to make the gospel intelligible to the Greek world, Greek dualistic thinking began to influence theology. This can be seen in early movements such as Docetism, Gnosticism and Arianism. Each of these movements tried to separate God who is Spirit from creation which is matter in one way or another. It was in this environment that the Nicene Creed and subsequent theological definitions were hammered out by the church fathers in the early councils.

“The Nicene theology thus gave basic shape to the doctrine of the Trinity that was found to belong to the essential structure of faith in God and to the intrinsic grammar of Christian thought.” This conclusion shattered the Greek philosophical concept of God as static, remote, and impassible (incapable of suffering pain). God in his inner being is tri-personal relationship that is dynamic and active. 12

Divine reality is dynamic, not static; it is an interpenetrating of one another in a relational, spiritual, and intensely personal way. Theirs is a permanently shared consciousness. The life of God is a social life which becomes the source and example for community among God’s creatures. The Trinitarian persons “indwell” each other (perichoresis), make room for each other, and are “hospitable to each other, or to use another metaphor, they are united in an exquisite divine dance.” 13-14

However, “In the West, dualism reasserted itself in the work of Augustine,” who “used Neoplatonic philosophy, with its inherent dualism, as a framework for interpreting reality and communicating the Christian faith.” This led to the dualistic thinking common in the Western church today that matter is evil and spirit is good. This thinking has fueled legalism, asceticism, and psychotic apocalypticism for 1500 years of church history and made the kingdom of God only out there in the future, instead of something we participate in now as we wait for a bodily consummation of the kingdom at the return of Christ.

Next week we will pick up with Jim’s discussion of the continued influence of dualism in church history and how we need to rethink this in our theologies today.

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