What to Do About Dualisms?


Like many American Christians, I grew up with a bunch of dualisms: we need to scorn earthly things for heavenly things; the body is perishable but the soul lasts; church is sacred in a way the world isn’t. In the past few years, I’ve read Christian writers like Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry who have made me question the necessity and even the wisdom of these kinds of dualisms. Robinson and Berry both have a very deep, incarnational sense of the beauty of this world, the all-pervasive sacredness of creation, and the eternal consequences of our embodiedness. There is no division between loving earthly things and loving heavenly things because the heavenly is experienced through the earthly. The earth is a huge sacrament of God’s presence. How could we not love it? Furthermore, the body is, in the end, just as immortal as the soul, for it will be resurrected. The Bible promises us a new heavens and a new earth.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot—especially as preparations get underway for the summer issue of Fare Forward, whose theme is “mind/body” and dualisms more broadly—is how to reconcile these anti-dualistic aspects of the Christian tradition with the very real dualisms that are part of that tradition as well. This past Advent, Catholics would have heard the following prayer during mass:

May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven, and hold fast to what endures.

This is the kind of thing that I would have easily accepted a few years ago, but which now troubles me. The implication here is that the things of this world—our bodies, the world itself— are passing in relation to the things of heaven, which alone endure. But our bodies do endure, as the Church’s greatest theologian Thomas Aquinas taught.

How to reconcile this? I could, of course, just ignore the dualism inherent in the prayer, but the liturgy expresses the faith of the church, which I am bound to adjust myself to no matter what I happen to feel or think.

I think one way to look at it, maybe, is that we ought not to take these kinds of dualisms literally. It’s not literally true that the body passes away (at least, that’s not the last fact about it). Rather, I think these sayings are given us for our instruction. I know that in my life personally a deep appreciation for creation can sometimes be spiritually fruitful, but it can also be spiritually destructive. I’m not really one of those people who’s felt a restlessness in the face of the world, that restlesness which Augustine thought only God can answer. That experience isn’t in my existenital toolbox. But I do know that when I get to comfortable with the world, I get lazy. I get in a stupor. And I know the destructiveness of that, not only spiritually, but in every area of my life.

For me, these dualisms, then, can act as a reminder to stay active and vigilant, to not let myself succumb to laziness. The body will endure, but viewing it with a certain level— only a certain one—of detachment can help me, in my fallen state, be a little more virtuous.

Anyway, I would very much appreciate reader input on this. I still feel far from an answer.

[Image of Nantucket from Wikipedia]

"bla bla bla. old or not. still works.no, wait. metaphysical pluralism still rules"

What We Are: Mind, Body, and ..."
"Soul is not matter. It is beyond the physical realms, It is at quantum mechanics ..."

What We Are: Mind, Body, and ..."
"This is yet another article that derails discussion of spiritual abuse into other very important, ..."

Overemphasizing Spiritual Abuse?
"I'm very interested in the matter of secularization; do you have other book suggestions along ..."

Reading Recommendation: The Secular Revolution

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I think that dualism is inherent in the Christian tradition – just read the Gospel of John. “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you–they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63) Your negative reaction to this sort of thing might stem from past reactions to false dualisms, such as Descartes’ mind-body dualism.

    I think the trick here is to identify which dualisms are proper and which are not. The fact that some dualisms are proper can be backed up not only by the Bible, as mentioned above, but I can even see it in your own language. You spoke of the earth as a huge “sacrament” of God’s presence. You chose the term sacrament, which specifically indicates a sign of the presence of God, but not the actual presence of God. If the latter were the case, then you’d be advocating pantheism. It seems to me, then, that the only way to do away with dualisms is to become a pantheist.

    How then to distinguish between proper and improper forms of dualism? I don’t know. Maybe we should stick to the Bible and to Tradition (as in your quotation from a mass during Advent) and use them to guide our thoughts on dualisms.

  • Charlie Clark

    Many dualisms are reflections of paradox. Berry and Robinson are both committed to the body’s goodness (“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”), but the other side of the coin is the corruption of the body in the grip of sin (“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”). Both principles are present in the Scriptural tradition and both have their theological interpreters. They are truths in tension with one another, like Christ’s humanity and divinity. Sometimes, dualisms communicate paradox. The simple sentence “The body is evil” is truthful in one sense and heretical in another, because the whole truth is complicated. Dualism becomes dangerous when paradoxes are collapsed. Barth was very interested in the paradoxes in doctrine and the dialectic manner in which they proceed.

  • Hayden

    My contribution is small, but one thing that I have found helpful is trying to embrace the risen Lord as the first-fruits of the New Creation. Because Christ took on flesh and kept it (or at least has His glorified body now as He sits at the right hand of the Father), we get a glimpse (or at least the apostles did) of heavenly life, matter included. In this we also see the “already-but-not-yet” nature of the Kingdom about which Christ so often spoke. So, while it’s not an answer, in thinking about this topic I find myself trying to answer the question “how is the Kingdom already-but-not-yet present in my own life and in the life of the Church and world, and how does thinking on these terms begin to break down the dichotomy between earthly and heavenly things without altogether abolishing it?” Keller, for one, discusses this as Heaven “coming down” (“…and I see the New Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven…” -Rev.) and restoring rather than us “rising up” on an individual basis.

  • Jose

    I’m not a terribly sophisticated thinker, but it occurs to me that according to the way that I tend to conceptualize of these things, you are not really expressing opposed thoughts. Or, rather, I think that what is radical about the Christian outlook lies precisely in how it turns these supposed dualisms into unified realities.

    I don’t know how you handle the Incarnation or sacramental worship or ensoulment or anything like that without a recognition that certain dual/opposed qualities are made into one whole, and that this process is mediated by God’s love. I don’t see a conflict between “anti-dualist” and “dualist” views; I see the power and mystery (for we do call these things mysterious!) of God’s love for us creating grand, nearly-incomprehensible synthesis between disparate notions.

    Moreover, it seems to me that your “anti-dualisms” from the introduction have packaged in the kinds of “synthesized dualisms” I struggle to describe in the paragraph above. You already have assumed a radical synthesis between soul and matter, between our concept of death and a promise of new life, &c.

    But I’m not terribly accomplished at philosophy or theology or metaphysics (read: I can’t just drop in citations to the Summa at will), and I could be completely incorrect. These are just raw intuitions that are almost entirely un-polished. There might be something here, but I haven’t dug into these thoughts enough to know if there’s anything of value.

  • Peter Blair

    These are all helpful thoughts. I’m definitely will to reconsider whether, per Jose’s comment, there’s an issue here at all. Certainly my enthusiasm for incarnational theology, or whatever you want to call it, could just be blinding me to the real harmony that’s already here.

    But it still strikes me that, as Charlie says, there’s real tension. There’s a certain way of talking about the distinction between both soul/body, God/creation, and heaven/earth that implies a denigration of the second part of the pair. We obviously do need to keep the distinction in some form, or else we do slip into all sorts of heresies, like pantheism. What I’m reacting may just be a matter of rhetoric, resolvable at a deeper theological level. But I would echo the words of Christian Wiman:

    “I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God.”

    And yet, there does have to be truth to renunciation as well. The struggle is trying to articulate both of these concepts. And perhaps, as Charlie says, the necessity of holding on to both concepts is a paradox which can’t be smoothed out in some easily digestible formula.

  • Peter, your answer is in Aquinas. I mean, it’s even kind of bizarre to say that it’s “in Aquinas”, since it’s not even tucked away somewhere (in some random article in the supplement about the identity of resurrected bodies, for example). Probably half of the Summa presupposes an answer to this question in some way or another. I know you; I know you read a lot. Are you actually having difficulty over this question? Because I don’t see how you could be. If so, you should hunt down Peter Kreeft and yell at him for wasting so much of your time.

    In other news, the world is not “one big sacrament”. This kind of use of “sacrament” derogates from the meaningfulness of the term and does (in the long run) a lot of theological damage. Sort of like saying that everything is holy. Well, sure, in the loosest possible sense you can say that everything is holy, but really it’s not: something is holy by virtue of being set apart for Divine use, and it’s impossible to set everything apart, just like not everything can be special: once everything is, nothing is. Not everything that signifies God’s goodness is a sacrament. Not everything that has value is holy. Etc. Once you start erasing these distinctions, the value of what really is a sacrament, what really is holy, stops being clear, and we become fuzzy bunny theologians. The heavens declare the glory of God, but actual liturgy (you know, like the sacrifice of the mass — oh and don’t get me started about the “everything is a liturgy” nonsense) is really superior to watching the stars swing overhead on a summer night.

    • Kevin

      “something is holy by virtue of being set apart for Divine use”

      This is the essential bit. In fact, words like sacer and קדש in their original senses refer not as such to what is good or godly, but rather to that which has been set aside from the common run of mortal life. Sacer in Latin can as readily mean “accursed” as “sacred,” and the Hebrew קדש means either “holy” or “male prostitute” depending on how it is vocalized. Something like the double sense of these words is present also in our word “awe.”

      But even without philological reasons to do so, we can only conclude from the Scriptures and the tradition that Christianity is in many ways a fundamentally dualistic religion. The god of our world and the God we worship are and must be opposed. And yet Satan himself exists only because of God’s love for him, and as a creature he himself is a flashing-forth of the love that founded the universe.

      The thought of Hamann is very useful in dissipating the tension that Christian unworldliness necessarily gives rise to. In the most constrained of nutshells: he uses the metaphor of an unpointed Hebrew text which cannot be understood in itself unless the reader already understands how it is to be interpreted. Is it “holy” or “catamite”? The “text of nature” itself will not tell us, and the efforts of human masoretes can produce erroneous interpretations that nevertheless cohere with the scriptio defectiva that we have received. Only because the Christian knows, through faith, the outlines of the work’s authorial intent can he with any confidence read the created world as a message from God.

      • Peter Blair

        The last paragraph is very helpful, Kevin. My experience with the world has been on the whole unrepresentative. When you look at the broad scope of human affairs, one could read it as a heaven or a hell (I use those terms metaphorically, of course), as God-haunted or random and meaningless.

        And yet, I have known people without faith who are moved to it by an overwhelming gratitude for creation. And certainly that’s often how I’ve felt. So while faith may teach us that the world is, wonder of wonders, a message from God, it can be appreciation of the glory of the world that gives rise to faith in the first place.

        • Kevin

          Anathema! Anathema! The glory of the world can be an occasion of faith, but only the grace of God can be its cause. We are not surprised when experiences of human music or philosophy or architecture serve as entry points for grace, and it should be nothing surprising if God considers his own works as suitable for this purpose as ours.

          Or to put the same thought in another way: the true meaning of the earth and the fullness thereof is the Kingdom of God. Yet the world in its fallen state is insufficient to convey this meaning without “signal decay” to us in our fallen state. It is pointless to point to the lilies of the field and insist that they should serve the atheist as proof of God’s providence. But on the other hand if the atheist should look at the lilies and believe, we should not be surprised. The half-effaced meaning of the world is just visible enough, and our innate and primal desire for God just insistent enough, that only a very small (but nevertheless supernatural, and God-aided) step is necessary to cross the gap between them.

          • Peter Blair

            Of course, of course. I meant the instrument of grace in those occasions is a love of the world, not a renunciation of such love. But good clarification.

  • Ce

    The mind of a newborn is a blank slate upon which through cultural and religious upbringing is inundated with many voices external to the child’s self. The point being that the Mind, any mind, your mind Peter–is either a compilation of beliefs chosen consciously by your self, or a whirlpool of thoughts rotating in unconscious repetition through your being. Philosophers and religious thinkers of all sorts like to talk about dualisms: body or mind, good or evil, heaven or hell, etc. The truth Peter, is that you are the only one with the power to choose the beliefs you desire to accept into or reject from your Mind.
    You could choose to believe that the divine (spirit, creative force, the Whole) is expressed within all Life on Earth and in fact all life upon Earth is part of the Divine. Or, You could choose to reject the belief that all is Divine, that spirit is Divine, and because your essential nature is spirit You are Divine, based on either the writings and voices of those external to your true self, or simply because your essential self has not experienced the Divine within One and All.

    It’s all a trip in your head P, so enjoy the ride with the highest Love, peace, freedom, and bliss you can create for yourself in this eternal Present.

    peace n light,

  • My earlier comment was less than helpful. So let’s get at this.

    1. In the fallen state, human nature is frail, the will is disordered, the intellect wounded, the body weakened. The curse of Adam, born in every man, means that by our own power were are bound to loathsome, sinful lives. However(!) Christ has come to redeem us, and he redeems us by his death. The Crucifixion performs three functions: (1) it atones for our guilt, (2) it merits our salvation, (3) it shows us how to attain that salvation. In other words, the Christian life is lived through the cross, in affliction and death, and it is through this death that we enter into life (insert a billion scripture citations here). Death? Death. What does death signify for the Christian? It signifies the reorientation of the will to God, above all things. This is why the martyrs are venerated above all the saints. In martyrdom the efficacious grace of Christ is most clearly demonstrated in the soul of the believer, transforming his will so that he can genuinely love God above everything he has, above all the created goods to which his fallen will is so easily inclined, including his own life.

    2. But dude, all those created things are actually good! And since they were created by God, who made them good (Gen 1), to see their goodness and celebrate it is to participate in the worship if God. Right? Well, kind of, yes. But at the same time, no not really. See, we don’t experience the goodness of created things as it exists in them most fundamentally, i.e. as manifestations of divine providence and vestiges of the divine ideas. We experience the goodness of created things chiefly as pleasing to our appetites. When I enjoy a good meal or a mountain vista, or a soak in the tub, I may delude myself into believing that my pleasure is mainly on account of God’s goodness manifested in these things, but really it’s always primarily going to be a matter of concupiscence: the satisfaction of my own self-will and personal desires and the indulgence of bodily appetites. It’s true, I may be able to appreciate God’s goodness reflected in the goodness of creatures, and natural religion turns to God chiefly by means of the goodness of the world, but the fact that 99.9% of natural religion ends up being perverse and idolatrous shows the extent to which the celebration of the goodness of creation is prone to go astray.

    3. Wait, does this mean we can’t reasonably enjoy created goods but need to all become versions of St. Anthony? Well, again, no. Though in this life charity does not free us from concupiscence, and we will always, however holy, be weighed down by the unruliness of our physical appetites and the inclination to put ourselves before God, still Charity enables us to glorify God through the mediation of creatures, mindful that they are passing away, and cautious of their seductive power over our weak wills. The life of the Christian is always one of the cross, but it’s one lived in the midst of the world, in which the power of the Gospel is mediated by the efficacy of created goods. These goods (including beautiful things, miracles, health, friendship, etc.) cannot communicate the gospel, cannot give us charity or faith, cannot save us, and cannot ultimately teach us who God is (personally), but they can and do serve as pedagogical helps along the way. However, none of what I’ve just written should be any surprise. And as I said before, I’d be surprised if any of it were new to you. Where does this leave us with dualism? The greatest divide is between the creature and God. As creatures who are prone to prefer creatures to God, we need to constantly stay aware of that divide, and learn to hear in the good things of this world what Henry Suso heard in them “I am not what you seek!” Is this a real ontological dualism? Is it even remotely gnostic? Nope. Is the flesh/spirit duality that we have to confront as moral realists just a disguised manicheanism? Nope. Are either of these dualities really dualistic? Nope. Does this mean we have to hate the world? Nope. Does it mean that we can safely love the world? Nope. Where is all this in the Summa? Roughly speaking, about half of the prima pars, all of the prima secundae, most of the secunda secundae, and most of the tertia pars are elaborations on the points outlined here.

    • In #2 I come across as a little more calvinist than I’d like. Our depravity isn’t as total as I make it out to be, but in the fallen state we cannot by our own power love God above all things.

    • Justin

      What does preferring God over creatures (and created goods) look like? More specifically, what practical actions/behaviors manifest this preference given our sinful state? Can the answer be as simple as what Jesus prescribed several times throughout his life: obey my commandments?

      • To feed the hungry.
        To give drink to the thirsty.
        To clothe the naked.
        To harbour the harbourless.
        To visit the sick.
        To visit the imprisoned.
        To bury the dead.

        To instruct the ignorant.
        To counsel the doubtful.
        To admonish sinners.
        To bear wrongs patiently.
        To forgive offenses willingly.
        To comfort the afflicted.
        To pray for the living and the dead.

        Or better still, here’s a list from St. Benedict:

      • Anyway, Charity can’t be definitively manifested in outward acts. You can’t watch someone and know for sure whether they love God above all things, though you can guess. But Charity bears fruit in works of love, inward and outward, and those are signs of its presence.

        • Justin

          Thanks for the response, Elliot.

    • *Facebook-style “like” in reaction to Elliot’s second comment.*