Thursday, January 06, 2005

Dualism: Structural vs Analytic

I own a minivan that can accommodate a box of dimensions 4 x 8 x 3 feet. Many other things could be said of this box, such as that it is brown, old, made of compressed paper, smells musty, and is destined for Boston. The box, in so far as it exists as an actual box, is not made up of these descriptions, is not constituted by four feet of width combined with three feet of height, nor of mustiness and age. It is what it is…a particular real box. Yet in my considering whether or not I can load this box into a particular vehicle, I must concern myself with only those aspects of its nature that bear upon such an activity: its weight, width, height and length. In fact, I could not move it in my minivan if it had the same volume (96 cubic feet) but had dimensions 2 x 3 x 16 feet. In explaining why I could not move this box, I would say that its length—a single property among a myriad of the box’s properties—prevented me.

Go to an airport and you will find a whole cadre of people focused on the dimensions of boxes, as if that were the most important thing about boxes. (Lately, they are also concerned with the contents of boxes, but again, only as the contents fall upon a particular dimension or aspect…danger to the aircraft or utility as weapons.) They don’t care about whether the contents are gifts, or old, or purchased at Sacks or K-mart, though these are all possible characteristics of the contents. They are focused on a handful of properties, because only those properties matter in the context in which they work.

This breaking down of a thing into its components is analysis, and we do it all the time. We must do it, because our minds are finite and cannot comprehend anything in its totality, all at once, in a single thought or idea. We use analysis to focus our attention and conversation. We speak of the melody of a symphony in one part of a conversation and its harmony or rhythm or symphonic structure in another, though we know that a symphony is not simply the joining together of five parts melody and one part rhythm. In other words, we usually recognize that in speaking of aspects of something we are not positing that the thing itself is simply constructed of these aspects, or constituted by these aspects. We are simply speaking analytically, not making statements about structure or ontology.

We Christians speak analytically of God all the time. We speak at one time of his justice, and at another of his mercy, though we know that these do not exist separately in the godhead any more than omniscience and omnipotence. With regard to my relationship with my wife, I could speak of the romantic aspects and the economic aspects, and no one would accuse me of being a dualist regarding marriage. God himself commands us to love him with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength, though we know (or think we do) that we are not simply separable into these components but are single, unified beings.

Hence my discomfort with the popular emphasis these days on Dualism as the problem of the church, and with explanatory stories that trace our problems back to the Dualism of Bacon and Descartes. Yes, people today do distinguish between activities that look directly toward God and his worship (the romantic aspect of the relationship) and those that do not (perhaps the economic aspect.) But none of us fails to see a difference between time spent in direct contemplation of God and his word and time spent mending the gutters, no matter how theologically wholistic we may think ourselves. In thirty some years, I cannot recall ever hearing even the most vulgar TV preacher suggest that the Lord’s domain does not extend to all of life and to every aspect of our activities.

No. Dualistic thinking is merely choosing a distinguishing point along a perceptible dimension and giving one name or adjective to one side and another to the other. Considering populations in the dimension of salvation, there are the saved and unsaved. Considering knowledge of reality along the dimension of epistemology, there is knowledge that comes from God’s direct revelation and that which doesn’t. Among that which doesn’t, some knowledge comes from direct observation and some doesn’t. Some knowledge is deducible from other knowledge and some isn’t. But after saying all this, after doing all this dividing-into-two-parts for the sake of discussion, we do not believe that such distinctions are all that can be said upon any subject, or necessarily represent “real” divisions. It is simply a way of categorizing…of analyzing…our incredibly large and complex world.

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