Thursday, January 06, 2005

"It's Dual-ism, stupid!"

I can hear the objections already. “You’re talking about analytic, binary discussion and we’re talking about an ‘ism’, an attitude that habitually divides the world into sacred and profane. That’s Dualism, and that IS the problem.”

Well, yes, but why call it Dualism and not simply Sin? The problem is not that we divide things into twos, but that as sinners we are always seeking areas of autonomy. Divide it as you like, I still want a part for myself. Convince me that God wants my money as well as my prayers, and I will observe that I can’t actually give away all my money, so there must be some part that I can keep. That part is mine. Convince me that God wants “all my time, not just Sunday mornings”, and I’ll note that I cannot physically think of God all the time and get my work done also, so it must be OK to think about other things some of the time. That time will be my time.

This may be particularly the sin of religious people, since the non-religious do not have the problem of determining what portion is God’s if none of it is. I see this in God’s repeated rebukes to Israel that, while she might be observing the sacrificial rites well enough, she is not leaving the gleanings, or not observing the Jubilee, or, in short, not submitting the whole of life to God. Even in the conquest of the land of Israel we see a symbolic failure in this area. Israel was supposed to take the entire land, to consign all the Canaanites to the ban, but instead was satisfied with a partial conquest, with part of the land being explicitly under God’s rule and the rest remaining under the rule of the other gods.

I fear that by discovering and discussing this thing called Dualism we are making the problem seem subtler and more philosophical than it is. It can lead to long-winded missives like this one. It can suggest that this is something new in the church, which (I believe) it is not. It can suggest a philosophical etiology (Bacon and Descartes and the Enlightenment) and hence a philosophical cure, instead of a human-nature etiology and a hortatory and penitential cure.

Furthermore, and more subtly, it may make us suspicious of otherwise useful thought if we think we find “dualism” there. I am thinking specifically of such thinkers as Francis Bacon and Descartes. These men wrote within a Christian framework, and both explicitly (even if perhaps deceptively, as some think) gave glory to God and considered Truth to be Truth indeed. (Descartes realized that to prove the existence of anything outside himself he had to first prove the existence of God. Chew on that a while, materialist.) I have found their writings to be very useful in thinking about the nature of God’s world and our knowledge thereof. However, in Christian circles, because they were “dualists”, I find mostly suspicion and ignorance of what they actually wrote.

For example, until very recently all I knew of Thomas Aquinas was what I read in Francis Schaeffer’s works as a college student. There, I learned that he was largely responsible for this dreaded dualism, creating an “upper story” and a “lower story” in life. This is also the impression my son has obtained, thirty years later. (See May 19, 2004 entry on his blog.) Not a word about the richness and amazing scope of his thought, which ironically embraced almost all aspects of life in a way that we would welcome in a Christian author today! When discussing Truth in a mixed group of grad students (St. John’s College), it was clear to the Christians in the group that Thomas Aquinas is very definitely on “our” side. What a shame that all he is remembered for today among even our better-educated Christians is that he was the father of that terrible Dualism!


  1. Anonymous10:55 AM

    Within the context of theology, it is not clear that Aquinas is on "our side." Within the context of all thinkers in the history of the world, perhaps. He is remembered negatively not absolutely, but in comparison with what might have been.

  2. I'm enjoying your posts on this subject. You are absolutely correct that we shouldn't ignore other people's writings just because we fear they might have dualistic tendencies. We should even take non-Christian writers seriously.

    Likewise, there is nothing wrong with analysis for the purpose of better understanding creation. It is both necessary and unavoidable - we do it all the time, as you've said.

    I also don't think there is anything inherently wrong with making distinctions between things. There is a problem, however, when distinctions turn into divisions. A distinction between rational thought and nonrational thought (ethics, aesthetics, etc.), for example, helps us think clearly about how we think. A division between them, however, will lead to holding one to be more important than the other. This is the primary problem with making structural divisions - we tend to want to take one of them and make it "better" than the other.

    If we are thinking in terms of structure and direction, then perhaps we could think of direction as a type of dualism - obedience vs. disobedience. But even this, I believe, would be a wrong term. First, Christians are not obedient all the time. Second, even non-Christians can have an "admirable light of truth displayed in them," as Calvin says. So, I don't know if it would be a good term.

    One last thing, a post below is entitled "Structural vs Analytic." The analytic is part of God's created structure. I liked what you said in that post, but I didn't like the title.

  3. Macht: The title is unfortunately ambiguous. I meant to distinguish two types of dualism: the analytic (that we need) and the structural (which is problematic). I did not intend to suggest a structural dualism within the creation, nor that dualism itself was dualistic. I agree with your comment.

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