Nondual Christianity and the Problem of Evil

Nondual Christianity and the Problem of Evil February 20, 2019
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A reader of one of my previous blog posts sent me this question via Facebook messenger.

I read your article about non dualism Nonduality in the Bible … and us. So what about scriptures about God hating sin, wickedness, evildoers etc… Or am I misunderstanding? Also there’s a lot of scriptures contrasting God as light and Satan/evil as darkness. So how can these be understood in the mindset of nonduality?

Thanks for your question. To answer it, first we need to take a closer look at what nonduality is — and isn’t. Then we need to consider how this concept of nonduality applies to what we see in the Bible — and perhaps even consider how it equips us to read the Bible in a more Christlike way.

Understanding Nondual Consciousness

To answer this first part of the question: what exactly is “nonduality” — I’m going to draw from probably the best Christian book I know of that attempts to define this concept: The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice by Cynthia Bourgeault. Here in a blog post I can only offer a brief description of a Christian understanding of nonduality, so if after reading this post you’re left with more questions, I’d encourage you to read Bourgeault’s book.

In chapter 1 of The Heart of Centering Prayer, Bourgeault answers the question “What is Nonduality?” first by considering the merits — and limitations — of various definitions of nonduality that can be found in the writings of various Christian spiritual teachers, like Richard Rohr or Raimon Panikkar. She explores nonduality as “the capacity to hold the tension of opposites, rest comfortably in ambiguity, and resist the tendency to demonization and exclusion”; as mystical experience; or as unitive attainment — “a mystical marriage, in which one is fully joined to God in love, subsumed in God through that love.”

But she finds limitations in each of these approaches, and so she suggests the best way to understand nonduality, at least in a Christian context, is as a “shift in the structure of perception.” She writes,

Clearly there is a big shift in perception that takes place between “dualistic” and “nondualistic” levels of consciousness, resulting in these signature experiences of oneness and an unboundaried, flowing sense of selfhood. But what if this shift is not primarily about what one sees but how one sees? That it betokens not so much a new level of conscious attainment as a permanent shift in the structure of consciousness itself—as it were, a rewiring of the “operating system”?

And she goes on to say,

Imagine that there might be a different way of structuring the field of perception, an alternative way of wiring the brain that did not depend on that initial bifurcation of the perceptual field into inside and outside, subject and object… Then one would indeed experience that signature sense of oneness—not, however, because one had broken into a whole new realm of spiritual experience, but because that tedious, “translator” mechanism of the self-reflective brain has finally been superseded. You see oneness because you see from oneness… From this quantum shift in the hardwiring of perception, of course, the much celebrated spiritual and moral attainments would understandably flow, since a mind that does not need to separate and exclude in order to perceive reality will encounter far less resistance in the current of life and inflict far less violence upon others.

“A mind that does not need to separate and exclude in order to perceive reality will encounter far less resistance in the current of life and inflict far less violence upon others.” That’s what nonduality means. It’s more than just the ability to hold both sides of a paradox in mind simultaneously; more than just a gee-whiz mystical experience or even an abiding sense of oneness with God. It is the capacity to see with the eyes of God, which is to say, the eyes of love. It’s not what we see, but how we see it.

So if nonduality refers primarily to a way of seeing then perhaps we could say it better to call it a dimension of consciousness/awareness. In other words, nonduality does not change what’s “out there” so much as it changes us from the inside out, which of course equips us to respond and engage with our environment in hopefully a more Christlike way. We perceive all things from the vantage point of divine love rather than human violence. This is what makes “love your enemies” possible.

The Bible and Nondual Awareness

Many Christians resist this notion of nonduality because they see it as an eastern concept — something that may make sense in terms of Buddhism or Vedanta, but not for Christians. Yet what Christians like Bourgeault, Rohr, Panikkar, and others are saying is that while the language may come to us from the east, the actual experience of nondual awareness is present in the Christian tradition, beginning with the Bible and especially articulated by great mystics like Meister Eckhart and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Indeed, in my post from 2012, Nonduality in the Bible… and Us. I suggest that we can find evidence for this nondual way of seeing in scripture itself.

I suggest that “the mind of Christ” that Saint Paul refers to (Philippians 2:5; I Corinthians 2:16), is, in effect, nondual consciousness/nondual seeing. It is marked by the capacity to see as God sees — which means to see everything with the eyes of love, the eyes of compassion, the eyes of mercy. It’s growing beyond the limitations of our ordinary way of seeing — which is to see things in terms of discrimination, distinction, “judgment” — red is red because it’s not blue. To see nondually does not erase the difference between red and blue, but they are seen not by distinguishing one from the other but rather simply by seeing what is, without the need to differentiate. Red is red because red is red, and blue is blue because blue is blue.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus makes it clear that God loves both the righteous and the unrighteous, and we are called to do the same. We can only do that by grace, which is to say, by allowing God’s love and compassion to flow through us. But this requires not only our submission to God, but even our participation in the divine nature (II Peter 1:4), which is to say immersed in the mind of Christ: the nondual consciousness that sees everything with love.

Reading the Bible with Nondual Eyes

But this brings us to the reader’s question. How can we assume that Bible commends this nondual awareness, when so much of the Bible itself seems to be written from a clearly dualistic mindset?

I’m reminded of the old saying that a parent uses to teach a child something he or she doesn’t always do: “Do as I say, not as I do.” The Bible — especially in the teachings of Jesus and Paul — promotes nondual awareness, even though not everything in the Bible is presented from the vantage point of nonduality. Let’s unpack this a bit.

The Bible is a record of how certain communities within the human family has understood God and responded to God. The Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) gives us the sacred story of the Jewish people, while the New Testament tells the story of Jesus and his earliest followers.

Like every good story, the Bible is filled with conflict — which includes conflicting messages about God. We who are believers regard the Bible as the word of God — but this is not to say that every jot and tittle in the text carries the same weight of moral or spiritual authority.

Even the most conservative Christian understands that when Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26), he was speaking hyperbolically — not “literally.” In other words, Jesus is saying that our love for God, for Jesus himself, must be so foundational and central in our lives, that all other claims on us are like nothing in comparison. He is using extreme language to make a colorful point. But he is most emphatically not saying that the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) no longer applies to his followers!

It is logically impossible to both hate and honor our parents. To hate them is to dishonor them, all appearances or outward behaviors notwithstanding. So one of these statements cannot be taken literally. Christian interpretation of scripture is clear that it is Jesus, not Moses, who is speaking hyperbolically, not literally.

Now, let’s look at some of the language about God hating evil or sinners or what not. I’m only going to offer three examples, I imagine there are more but hopefully these three will get my point across.

Psalm 5:5: “You hate all evildoers.” The unknown author of this verse (we’ll call this person “the Psalmist”) is addressing God. The Psalmist is proclaiming, to God’s face, that God hates evildoers. Immediately I recognize that I am under no obligation to take this verse literally, since it simply records the opinion of one individual (the Psalmist).

We know for a fact that God loves everyone, even sinners: compare this verse to Romans 5:8, where Paul writes “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

So which is  it: does God hate evildoers, or love them enough to die for them? Perhaps Psalm 5:5 is just another example of hyperbole. Or perhaps this could be an example of how scripture shows us ways in which human beings are capable of misunderstanding God?

John 3:20-21: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” These words are attributed to Jesus himself. Here is a sterling example of the light/dark dichotomy that my reader mentioned (“there’s a lot of scriptures contrasting God as light and Satan/evil as darkness. So how can these be understood in the mindset of nonduality?”).

First of all, I think most readers understand that Jesus is using metaphor here. He is not seriously suggesting that physical light is inherently good and physical darkness inherently evil. If he were suggesting that, then he would be guilty of a truly unscientific mind, for we know that darkness is good in many ways — it promotes healthy sleep, gives humans and other living beings opportunities for rest and renewal, and can facilitate growth and rejuvenation of the body, etc. So it’s silly to think that this metaphorical language must be understood literally.

But even if we accept that Jesus is speaking metaphorically, we are still left with the question: how does nondual awareness respond to the plain difference that exists between good and evil? Perhaps to answer this question, let’s turn to a third passage in scripture that illustrates this dichotomy.

Psalm 45:6-7: “Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever… you love righteousness and hate wickedness.”  Once again, here we have a Psalmist saying something about God, but unlike Psalm 5:5, this verse seems to be a bit more universal in what it says. In other words, I don’t think we could find a verse in Scripture that would contradict this. Nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, does Scripture even hint that God might love wickedness. I’m reminded of the old proverb, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” So here’s the question: it is possible to hate sin nondually? If we understand “nondual” to refer to a way of seeing, then the answer is yes. Nonduality, remember, is a function of consciousness — it’s an interior transformation, not an exterior one.

The world at large is still the same world it is whether we view it dualistically or nondually. Red is still red and blue is still blue. Nondual consciousness does not erase the differences of color. Neither does it erase the difference between good and evil. In fact, I would say that the more nondual our consciousness is, the more we will be repulsed by evil. If I look at evil dualistically, I am looking at it with the eyes of judgment — which, at its worst, can mean that I am looking at it through the filter of self-interest. “How can I use this to my advantage?” “If I renounce or fight or reject this, that makes me a better person and maybe even makes me look better to others.” Admittedly, these are extreme examples, and most of us simply judge evil and move on. 

But what if God responds to evil not with the eyes of judgment, but rather with the eyes of love? Yes, I know Psalm 45 says God hates wickedness. But the Bible is also clear that God is Love. How can a God-who-is-Love hate anything?[1]

I’m not a theologian, so I can only offer a layperson’s guess here: but I believe that God, who is pure love, simply offers a mirror to all creation: which means any creature who embodies wickedness experiences God as “hatred” because wickedness by its nature is a form of hatred. This follows the mystic Julian of Norwich, who in her book Revelations of Divine Love says she saw no wrath in God, but rather that the “wrath” human beings see in God is actually a projection of our sinful wrath! God loves us unconditionally — even when we sin. But because we are imperfect, we often project our own imperfections onto God: we see God as wrathful, or as hating, or as vindictive. But logically, if God is Love, how can God be those things?

Once again: the Bible is the record of how human beings respond to God, therefore the Bible also documents some ways we get God wrong. Projecting our own dualistic hatred and wrath onto God is one of those ways; and the Bible documents that.

I’m not suggesting that God is an “anything goes” God. To say that God meets human sin and wickedness with unconditional love is not to say that God’s judgment is absent, but it is to say that the judgment of God-who-is-Love is expressed through unconditional care and compassion and a desire for reconciliation and healing, not condemnation and separation.

Now, bring this down to the human level. When I (as a human being) by the grace of God enter into nondual consciousness, I am invited to respond to evil and wickedness in a similar way. I am called to meet hatred with love. To love my enemies. That doesn’t mean I let my enemies walk all over me — sometimes the most loving thing I can do is to separate myself from those who hate me. But to the extent that I relate to others nondually, I am motivated by God’s love and mercy rather than my own fear and need to control.

From a nondual perspective,  my response to evil is more likely to be one of sadness rather than wrath, of compassion rather than condemnation, and desire to respond by helping those who have been hurt or who need rehabilitation. Seeing evil with the eyes of judgment, we respond with condemnation. Seeing evil with nondual eyes, we respond with discerning compassion.

Consciousness is a Rheostat, Not an On/Off Switch

Finally, I think it’s important to remember that since nonduality is a dimension of consciousness, there is no hard-and-fast delineation between seeing dualistically and seeing nondually. Just like there is no hard and fast delineation between the consciousness of a child and the consciousness of an adult — after all, what is adolescence but a kind of “brackish” time when we flow back and forth between the mind and heart of a child and the mind and heart of an adult? And even a small child can sometimes display wisdom beyond their years, and even a 72-year-old can sometimes behave like a child.

Consciousness flows, it doesn’t have discrete “levels” or “stages.” Nonduality is like standing at the north pole, where every direction is south. Nondual consciousness is so immersed in God that we look out into all things with love. But love does not erase our capacity to discern, or even to “judge” — as long as it is a judgment in service to love, and not in service to itself. I believe when Jesus said “judge not” (Matthew 7:1) he was inviting his followers to move beyond dualistic judgmentalism into nondual compassion. But even compassion has to discern the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. So it’s not that judgment disappears, but rather that we “judge” (discern) from a higher, more loving, more compassionate place: a place of union with God. A nondual place.

In nondual awareness, red is still red and blue is still blue. Evil is evil and good is good. To see nondually means to discern what is good and what is evil — but to do so with the eyes of love and compassion, not with eyes that are quick to condemn and susceptible to malice.

I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if you have further questions.


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[1]A mystic like Julian of Norwich would say that sin/evil/wickedness actually is not a “thing” — it has no substance — and therefore it’s not a contradiction to say that God hates it, for Love only loves that which exists.

 

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