Nonduality in the Bible … and us

Nonduality in the Bible … and us July 23, 2012

Image Courtesy Shutterstock
Image Courtesy Shutterstock

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?

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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