Nonduality in the Bible … and us

A reader writes:

I love reading your articles but am new to the terminology. What is “non-dualism” and is it compatible with Biblical truth? Also, why did non-dualism get marginalised?

Meister Eckhart, nondual mystic

Great questions, both of them, and both point back to Richard Rohr, one of the most dynamic contemplative teachers alive today. Rohr calls Jesus the first nondual religious teacher in the west, and also speaks of how nondual wisdom teachings have been lost in the west since the late middle ages (I would cut us a bit more slack than that and say it’s been lost since the Reformation, but I think the argument could also be made that it was the Papal condemnation of Meister Eckhart’s teachings in 1329 that pushed it to the side).

FIrst, regarding the Bible. The point to keep in mind is that nonduality is not a proposition to be taught (or refuted), rather it is a dimension of consciousness that may be experienced but is not easily described. So it’s like looking for a subatomic particle that you can’t see directly — all you can see is the evidence that points to its existence. Thankfully, evidence for nonduality is in the Bible. Let me quote a few verses to give you an idea:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Psalm 139:8)

This is an important starting point for the search for nonduality in the Bible, since it begins not with humankind, but with God. This verse, in essence, reminds us that God is everywhere, even in “Sheol,” the realm of the dead (which, interestingly, is translated as hell in the King James Bible). God is omnipresent: God is everywhere: even in life, even in death. Even in heaven, even in hell. Indeed, many mystics (for example, Isaac of Syria) proclaim that the fires of hell are actually the fires of God’s love, which is experienced as “hellish” by those who reject such love. It’s a beautiful way of seeing eternity that deconstructs the punitive idea of God tormenting the damned in the lake of fire: when we die, we all spend eternity immersed in the love of God; it is up to us whether we experience that love as radiant light or as burning flame. Put another way: God is nondual (God loves all people equally), but it is us humans who filter the love of God dualistically, dividing ourselves into  the worthy “sheep” and the reprobate “goats.”

Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is single, your whole body is full of light; but if it is hurtful, your body is full of darkness. (Luke 11:34)

Luke 11:34 is one of those verses (like Psalm 65:1) that gets mistranslated when rendered into English, probably because many Biblical scholars simply don’t get the koan-like contemplative meaning of the original text. So, while the Greek of Luke 11:34 clearly points to the eyes as “single” or “hurtful,” you’ll see translations rendering these words as “healthy,” “clear,” “good,” “unclouded” or (my favorite) “sound” (if your eyes are sound, do your ears need to be clear?). But by seeing this verse as referring to “healthy” versus “unhealthy,” such translations unwittingly reinforce the very dualism that Jesus is subtly attacking here.

The “single” eye is the eye that sees nondually. It’s what Julian of Norwich called “the fullness of joy” — the eye that beholds God in all. This is a mind bender, for naturally people who yearn for God tend to be discerning folks who reject sin, eschew evil, stand opposed to racism, sexism, abuse, violence, addiction, so on and so forth. But if we believe God is present everywhere — even in hell (Psalm 139:8), then isn’t it our job, as contemplatives, to behold God who is everywhere, even present in the face of human evil, of suffering, of hatred and addiction and abuse? This is not to say God condones or causes such things: only that God is present. Learning to see God’s presence (to behold God in all) becomes a necessary step in the journey of transformation, of bringing light into the darkness. We human beings can try to alleviate the suffering in our world because we know God is present in all things. As Richard Rohr puts it, “everything belongs.” Which is not the same thing as “anything goes”! Nonduality is not an excuse for inaction in the face of injustice or suffering: it is human nature to change things, because the cosmos itself is always changing. We get hungry; we look for food. We get tired; we seek rest. We get lonely; we reach out to connect with others. Likewise, when we encounter evil or sin, we work for healing and positive transformation. But nonduality reminds us that God is present in all things.

 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

Jesus himself speaking here; one of the most difficult teachings in the Gospel (one that our nation has pretty much collectively ignored since September 11, 2001). How can we love our enemies? Isn’t it natural to hate one’s enemies? Well, it may be “natural,” but it is also indicative of a dualistic mind that divides the world into “good” (what benefits me) and “evil” (what harms me). Jesus calls us to see the world from God’s perspective. When you stand on the north pole, every direction is south. When you see the cosmos like God sees it, from God’s point of view, everything you look at is imperfect — so you task is to love it all, just like God loves it. God loves the cosmos nondually. God doesn’t love Desmond Tutu better than Bernard Madoff. God didn’t play favorites between Mother Teresa and, say, Osama Bin Laden. God loves them all, totally, completely, fully, nondually. Of course, from our human vantage point, it is easy to see how Mother Teresa alleviated suffering whereas Osama Bin Laden created it, so naturally we honor Mother Teresa as a saint and revile Bin Laden as a terrorist. But God, who is perfect (nondual) loves all alike.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

What is Paul saying here? Of course Jews remained Jews and Greeks remained Greeks; there is no evidence of mass liberation of slaves in Christian society, and guys and gals remained, well, guys and gals. Nonduality does not erase differences; rather, it transcends them, by inviting us into that God-vantage-point, where we can “behold God in all” and learn to love all, the way God loves all. In the love of God, human-level distinctions like nationality, gender, or socioeconomic status simply lose their grip on us. They don’t go away, but they lose their harmful potency — at least, as long as we remain vigilant in our unity with the mind of Christ.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5)

‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ. (I Corinthians 2:16)

What does it mean to “have the mind of Christ”? When Paul instructs us to “let this mind be in you,” he goes on to sing about Christ, though equal with God, taking on humility and self-emptying (kenosis) to embrace humanity — even including a violent, undignified death by crucifixion. Paul seems to be saying, “If Christ, who is God, can take on the worst experience of being human, shouldn’t we do the same?” The key is “the mind of Christ,” which I believe is the mind of nondual consciousness. When we embrace the “everything belongs” mind in which we see all things with the eyes of God, loving with the heart of God, beholding God in all, we are empowered to bring Christ to all things: good and evil, happy and suffering, healthy and sick, virtuous and sinful. We bring the mind of Christ to all aspects of our life: to the “good” stuff to affirm it, and to the “evil” or “bad” stuff to heal or transform it. The mind of Christ is related to the Greek word metanoia which gets translated into English as “repent” but which, if you parse out the Greek, has a meaning closer to “change your mind” or even “go beyond your mind” (meta: beyond; noia: mind). In other words, go beyond the dualistic mind which judges and condemns, into the “beyond-normal-human” mind of Christ, the consciousness of nonduality, of Divine Love. That is the gate to holiness, the pathway to truly believing the Good News, and becoming a force for healing and transformation in a world that so desperately needs it.

On to your second question: Why did this get marginalized? Like I said above, I blame the Reformation (although that’s not to say “It’s the Protestant’s fault” or “It’s the Catholic’s fault”). The Reformation basically hardwired dualistic thinking into the Christian mind, at least in the west, since we defined ourselves so fully in opposition to “those other guys” Being Catholic meant “I’m not Protestant” and being Protestant meant “I’m not Catholic.” Furthermore, the Reformation undermined the power and authority of personal experience on both sides of the fight: Catholics taught that authority resided in the Church; Protestants insisted that authority resided in the Bible, and so on either side of the fight, the authority of personal experience (including the experience of nonduality) fell under a cloud of suspicion. Of course, Christian mysticism has long held that the authority of personal experience needs to be tested and tempered by the wisdom of the tradition (Bible) and community (Church), so nonduality does not reject Biblical or ecclesial authority! But, alas, I’m afraid that both Protestants and Catholics did, in fact, reject any recognition of experiential authority. I know that I, growing up as a Protestant in Virginia in the 1970s, was taught to mistrust my own experience. I suspect Catholics have had similar mind-trips foisted on them.

Fortunately, nonduality never totally disappeared from the Christian community, even after being marginalized: there have been mystics and contemplatives in every generation. And even before the Reformation, it was largely contained within monasteries. So I think we can give thanks to God that we live in an exciting time, when more and more Christians of all denominations and all walks of life are sensing a call to embrace the mind of Christ — to go beyond the ordinary mind of dualistic thinking and seeing — and to truly find the joy that comes from beholding God in all, and beholding all things with the loving eye of God.

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  • http://goingnakedbeingseen.wordpress.com MaryAnn Fry

    This was really well done and very helpful. Thank you.

  • Mark

    Carl, I want to believe that Jesus was the first non-dualistic thinker in the west. The gospel of John provides ample evidence to support this claim. However, there are other passages in the gospels – most notably Matthew 25:31-46 – that don’t. No matter how you parse the Greek, Jesus is here dividing the world into sheep and goats, the saved and unsaved, the elect and reprobate. How does one read this troubling pericope non-dualistically?

  • denise

    Ah, Carl….. you affirm my thinking and at the same time challenge me. I can feel my neurons stretching……. thanks!

  • HRoberson

    “Made in the image of God” (having the character, values, and love of God inherent in us, although not developed), moving to being “transformed into the likeness of Christ” or maturity, or deification.

    We come to see the world as God sees it, and yet even more. We become or move toward becoming God’s presence in the world. We aren’t just trained to see the world in a certain way; we come to let that way of seeing and being become us. Or maybe we become it.

    We become God’s love for all in this place.

  • http://meridagoround.com Eric Chaffee

    I’ve wrestled with the same issue as Mark, above. My current sense is that there are many accounts of the words of Jesus, from many sources. I seems to me that literalism (“Biblical inerrancy”) is the main problem. I am now comfortable cherry picking Bible verses, and I feel free to disagree with the Jesus on the page, or to read between the lines. I look for the inspired Word of the Bible rather than looking at mere literal words. And logos is a rich concept reasonably translated as reason, principle, etc!

    Many thanks, Carl; and to Jerry Katz, as well, for sharing this article at nonduality.com .

    ~eric.

  • Ed Scott

    Carl, can you provide any specific citations where mystics like Isaac of Syria proclaim that the fires of hell are actually the fires of God’s love (including which books they are in)? I would very much like to read what they have to say directly.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.Yeshua21.com Wayne Ferguson

    With all due respect and reference to the New Testament scriptures, we need not presume that they give us an inerrant record of what Jesus of Nazareth or anyone else said. Clearly, Jesus was misunderstood at the time. And the more time that passed, the greater the misunderstanding. Still, the institutional church preserved an exoteric message that became the carrier for the esoteric message. “Belief” in the exoteric message, preserves the institution. But it takes “trust in” and “reliance on” the living Christ — the “I Am” presence –to “enter the kingdom”, to realize “the mind of Christ”, and to enjoy the “eternal life” that we possess in him. Everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” doesn’t enter the kingdom (but many do — and just because they happen to believe some things that are false or questionable doesn’t change that).

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/jeshua/the-written-word-revisited/

  • http://www.Yeshua21.com Wayne Ferguson

    Excuse me, I meant to type “reverence” — not reference! :)

  • Jeff

    Interesting reinterpretation of non-dualism, centering it around the love of God for all instead of the usual “we are are really a universal pantheistic blob, but we don’t realize it, but continued doses of contemplative spiritual methods will grant you that realization” After all saying God is every where is not the same as saying everything is God! I think the Bible clearly teaches that as part of the gift of being made in the image of God, each of us has the gift of eternal individual existence in the eternal fire of his love. This sense of the individual self isn’t a curse to be overcome or transcended, but meant to be filled with the life of God and transfigured. The Lord identified himself to Paul on the road to Damascus as Jesus of Nazareth, whom he remains as for eternity, not as a generic Light of the Cosmos or Logos. If being an eternal human of flesh and bone is good enough for the Son of God, it’s good enough for me!

  • Peter Byl

    Thank you.

    Maybe I have not experienced non-duality

    but your article has helped clarify things never the less.

    • Carl McColman

      Peter, your words reveal your humility. Here’s a thought: just as we were created in the image and likeness of God, but have smeared that image/likeness through sin, so, I believe, nondual consciousness is our natural birthright, but we usually are not conscious of it because we are too busy functioning in the dualistic mind of everyday consciousness. This is not necessarily a bad thing: I imagine most people would be dangerous is they tried to drive in rush hour traffic while transfigured in ecstatic consciousness of Divine Union! Still, that is our birthright as children of God. So the trick is not so much about learning to experience nonduality, but learning how not to experience the judging, discerning, hyper-critical consciousness of everyday dualistic thinking. When we clear that away, even if only for a fleeting moment, we realize that loving union with God has been the reality of who we are, all along. We just keep forgetting to see it.

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  • http://andyfitz-gibbon.net/ Dr. Andy Fitz-Gibbon

    Hi Carl,

    I saw this blog when I was traveling. Just now catching up with stuff.

    Great blog! And thought provoking. Like other responders, I think it would be nice to think of Jesus as a non-dual thinker (fits in with our contemporary inter-faith spiritual journey etc). But not so simple, I think!

    Problems lie (as they always do) with hermeneutics — how we practice the art of interpretation. The Bible, and the passages about Jesus, can be taken in so many different ways. There are as many (if not more) dualistic sounding teachings as non dual.

    Scholars have for a long time wrestled with “the Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” The former — can we reach back to the first century and find out what Jesus was “really” like? The latter — Christ as understood in the faith filled telling of the Christian community. One implication is that the only access we have to “Jesus has he really was” is through the faith filled telling of the early church. In other words, there is some distortion of “Jesus as he really was.” Those who claim to have found the historical Jesus, as often as not, find Jesus to be a reflection of what they want to believe about Jesus. (For example, the nineteenth century social reformer from the first quest for the historical Jesus.)

    I think you are correct in saying the non-duality is about experience and not about propositions to believe in. Describing the experience of non-duality is difficult (impossible?) Words don’t do it. So, the question is, does what the early church said about Jesus (distortions and biases included) lead us to think that his experience of the Ultimately Real was much the same as the non-dual experience of other adepts of the spiritual life in the many different traditions?

    I would like to think so. There are hints and glimpses. Is that sufficient?

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks, Andy. There was a rather lengthy thread on a Facebook page about this blog post, with one person coming on pretty strong with the argument that “Jesus couldn’t have been nondual since he spoke dualistically.” My response is that language is by its very nature dualistic — you cannot say “yes” without implying a “no” — and so even for someone as enlightened as the Buddha or as divine as Jesus, the minute they open their mouths, they will be engaging in dualistic discourse. Of course, nondual consciousness is the consciousness of “everything belongs” which means that even dualistic thinking, speaking and consciousness has its place. Nondual awareness is not about rejecting oppositional consciousness so much as refusing to be limited by it.

      Now, as for the challenging question related to the Jesus of History, the Christ of Faith, and the Lord of Our Fondest Projected Desires: am I (and Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeualt, and others who speak of Jesus as a nondual master) simply trying to create Jesus anew in my own image of what the Son of God ought to be like? Well, I hope not, but knowing the foibles of the human condition, there’s probably at least some of that going on. Certainly Jesus himself would not have used language such as “nondual awareness” or “non-oppositional consciousness.” So your points are quite important, if for no other reason than to keep guys like me honest (and humble, hopefully). But despite all the scholarly caveats we can hurl at this problem, I still would maintain that when *we* look at Jesus in the light of what we know about nondual teachings from other traditions (e.g., Buddhism), it makes Jesus’s life, message, and teachings come alive in dramatic and liberating new ways. Are we just reading our postmodern, cross-cultural spirituality into the Gospel? Well, maybe so. But my guess is that this is something that happens anew in every generation — you yourself alluded to the 19th century social gospel Jesus. So the question becomes not just “are we reading our own stories in to the Jesus story?” but, perhaps more importantly, “What happens when we place our own stories into the light of the Gospel?” That’s probably where the juice is.

  • http://andyfitz-gibbon.net Dr. Andy Fitz-Gibbon

    Thanks Carl. Very helpful.

    I love your ending question:

    “What happens when we place our own stories into the light of the Gospel?” That’s probably where the juice is.

    There’s one to ponder!

    (For the record, Jesus as a nondual master is very appealing to me.)

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  • Jim Paradisi

    New International Version (©1984)

    that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.Union with God is nondual.No separation and all things are connected and live and have their being in God.There is only One source.

  • http://gravatar.com/ddeming Max Sabellius

    Carl, talk to me about Satan. What’s up with that?

    • Carl McColman

      Your question is quite broad. Can you be a bit more specific? Do you want me to say whether or not I believe in Satan? Or do you want me to comment on whether my understanding of Satan is primarily mythic? Or are you more interested in broader questions regarding the existence of evil, the question of God as wrathful or judgmental, or what the implications and consequences are when human beings engage in actions and intentions that are contrary to love?

      Give me a bit more to go on, and I’ll see what I can come up with.

      • http://flamingheretics.org Max Sabellius

        Carl, I believe that Satan, angels, and demons are spirit beings. They have a real existence, can travel within our Universe, enter and leave it, affect it, etc. I believe that Satan is more than mythic. Why else would people seek to invoke that spirit unless they believed in its efficacy to interact in our world? I believe in the triumphancy of Christ the Son and God the Father and in the eternal penetrance and presence of the Holy Spirit. So, my question really is … how does a Christian like me take in non-dualism? I truly believe that God is observant of all things and participatory, even when withholding participation … in all things. However, I believe that God abhors evil and that humans truly ARE capable of pure evil. And, since we have free will, we can choose evil. Yes, we must recognize the suffering of others, see ourselves in others, and be respectful of the world and all of God’s creation. But, I believe we must also hold ourselves apart from Evil and in fact struggle against it. Non-dualism makes me uneasy, since it seems to border on relativistic morality. In my opinion, some things are evil, others are good, and there ARE a great many things which should be judged contextually. But to approach the Universe from a purely non-dualistic mind-set in terms of judgment … as I said, it makes me uneasy.

        • Carl McColman

          Thanks for giving me some insight into where you are coming from. I don’t think we are all that different in terms of what we believe. When people tell me they do not believe in Satan, I ask if they believe in angels. Most spiritually-minded people say yes, they do. I then ask if they trust all human beings with their property or their safety (i.e., they never lock their house or car, etc.). Of course not, they assure me; some people are dangerous. If we acknowledge that not all human beings are our friends, and we acknowledge the existence of spiritual beings, then doesn’t it follow that, in a universe where we know bad things happen, not all spiritual beings are our friends?

          Now, on to the question of nonduality. Nonduality is not about acquiescence in the face of evil; rather, it is about seeing all things and all beings as God sees them. I am convinced that God loves Satan and the hostile spirits with the same love that God lavishes on Michael, Raphael, and all the other good angels. God loves James Holmes and Jared Loughner as much as God loves you and me. But such love does not mean that God condones or celebrates their horrific actions. Love is as much about setting boundaries as it is about positive affect.

          I think the problem we fall into when spiritually-minded people wrestle with evil is that we tend to ascribe more power to evil than it really has. Evil can (and does) cause human beings profound grief and suffering, and as a consequence, many people hate those who perpetrate evil. I myself am not immune to this; I still have powerful feelings of anger and animus toward the unknown person who burglarized my house five years ago! After five years, I’m still turning my hatred over to God. So evil can cause human beings to hate one another, but it does not cause God to hate. And that’s the clue to nondual consciousness. To be nondual is to meet hatred with love, evil with forgiveness, harm with healing. It does not mean to condone, tolerate, or acquiesce to evil actions or intentions. Rather, it is about seeking to alchemically transform the very heart of evil through the much more vast, much more powerful, and ultimately triumphant reality of Divine Love.

          Christianity teaches that all are sinful (i.e., all make mistakes), so that means that the attainment of absolute nondual consciousness is not really possible on this side of eternity. But I believe we can attain to, and live in, at least a measure of God’s nondual love. But because of the nature of the physical universe in which we live, to live in that measure of nondual consciousness does not mean that one will never ever experience suffering, or anger, or jealousy, or fear; but it does mean that even when we are buffeted about by the storms of life that we will remain anchored in the limitless love of God, and so even when we encounter the challenges of life, we are like the Weebles: we wobble, but we don’t fall down. And grounded as we are in that universal, all-affirming love, we are empowered to respond appropriately to evil and abuse and harm wherever we find it: not oppositionally returning evil for evil, but also not passively doing nothing. In love, we do what is necessary to set the boundaries to prevent evil, and to seek healing and reconciliation wherever possible.

          • http://flamingheretics.org Max Sabellius

            Awesome.

            OK, you are right…you and I are not that far apart, if at all. I agree that Satan was created and … gulp, I have to admit it … is loved by God the Father Almighty.

            Anyway, I am more at ease now, after your comment. I will continue to check back in. “See ya later” (if not sooner, IRL).

          • Peter Byl

            Thanks for such a clear explanation. very helpful.


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