The Death of Dualism

“Dere be two sides to de gospel,” said the old Negro preacher, “de beliebing side, and de behabing side.”

He was right: The gospel has a God side as well as a human side to it. And in case you hadn’t noticed, it is this very fact that has led to theologians wanting to throttle each other for centuries. Was Jesus God or man? Are we saved by divine election or by free choice? What is more important: Grace or works? Or, in the Negro preacher’s words: Beliebing or behabing?

An Age-Old Division

These are but some of the debates, and they all prove an interesting point: Like the ancient Gnostics, we have noticed that there is both a spiritual and a material element to life. But we struggle to work out the relationship between the two. We struggle to understand how they exist together, and, in our efforts to do so, we often embrace the one at the cost of the other.

Diagrammatically, the relationship between the spiritual and the material is oftentimes presented as follows:

According to our diagram, grace represents the spiritual, the higher, the heavenly, the invisible. Nature represents the material or fleshly, the lower, the earthly, the visible. This would put God above the line, and people below the line. The big question is: How do they fit together?

The Gnostics believed that they had found the answer: They reckoned that the lower storey of “nature” was very much like a prison. The spirit or soul of man was being held captive here, and what was needed was some form of “escape”. This escape could only take place by a denial of everything that was “natural” or fleshly. Celibacy, self-castigation and strict dietary rules are some examples of efforts to escape the lower storey of nature.

Had Plato lived in the second century, he might have sued the Gnostics for stealing his ideas. Plato was much concerned with the division between the upper and lower levels of life, and so the term “dualism” is narrowly associated with Platonic thought. Raphael’s famous painting The School of Athens is mostly interpreted as presenting the tension between the heavenly and the earthly dimensions: Plato and Aristotle are seen in the center of the picture, with Plato’s finger pointing up and Aristotle’s hand gesturing down. It has often been said that every great Greek philosopher can be seen in the picture. The challenge to understand the relationship between so-called “first causes” and its earthly manifestations was a common one at the time.

The Birth of Christian Dualism

Many years later, these ideas would infiltrate Christianity under the guise of monasticism. It was basically the same old Gnostic idea, heavily influenced by Platonic dualism, with a Christian whitewash over it. It was also a fulfillment of a chilling prophecy that Paul gave to Timothy long before:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:1-5

Along the same lines, Paul wrote to the Colossians:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 16:23

Note that the effort to deny the lower storey of matter, through “severity of the body”, is accompanied by efforts to make manifest the higher spiritual storey, through visions and an obsession with angels.

A Stairway to Heaven

Christian dualism is what you get when you subscribe to a mystical and otherworldly view of spirituality (not in the Barthian but in the Platonic sense). It is rooted in the assumption that our salvation, according to this definition, has come in its fullness and that we can and should live on this planet as super-spiritual beings. Due to the fallenness of our environment, however, we are held prisoners, and thus we dedicate our lives to planning and implementing our escape. This we do by creating various spiritual compartments in our lives that allow us to act out our otherworldliness. We have done so over the centuries, from the early years of Monasticism to that which we call the “full-time ministry” today – the ultimate modern compartment of super-spirituality, and, as such, the object of envy for millions of Christians.

Some of us have crossed the threshold between matter and spirit, between worldliness and divinity, and we live our lives on a different plane.

Dualism and the New Covenant

Of course this is not what the Bible teaches. Christianity is an integrated lifestyle – being in the world, but not of the world. The Old Testament picture of compartmentalised religiosity has been done away with as a result of the dawning of a new, better covenant: A covenant where the Sabbath is no longer restricted to one day of the week, but where it becomes a lifestyle of rest due the finished work of Christ; a lifestyle where the ritual of sacrifice is no longer restricted to certain times and events, but where it becomes a permanent reality in heavenly places; a lifestyle where prayer is no longer something we do only at set times, but something we are admonished to do at all times; a lifestyle where our giving is no longer restricted to one tenth of our income, but to everything we own; a lifestyle where we no longer fast at certain times for certain purposes, but where fasting becomes a lifestyle of continuing sacrifice – where we become the sacrifices, as Paul puts it; a lifestyle were the ministry of the priesthood is no longer limited to a select few, but where each and every believer carries the title of priest; a lifestyle where the art of loving is no longer something we do only where we find those who qualify for our love, such as the image we find of the “neighbor” in the book of Leviticus, but something we do at all times to all people, such as the image we find of the neighbour in the parable of the good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount – where we do not look for a neighbour but we become the neighbour – living a life of love, as Paul instructed the Ephesians; and lastly, a lifestyle where we need not break into the holy of holies because our God is hiding there, but one of continuous fellowship with a God who is with us.

Compartmentalised spirituality has become the great enemy of the church, partly due to its extreme form of godliness and the religious pride it injects, and partly due the excuse it offers the rest of the spiritual plebs for just being the unspiritual creatures they are. The one side of the dualistic coin is legalism, the other side is worldliness – and these two have proven to be the greatest barriers to the life preached by Christ.

Dualists are people who do not realise that the call to discipleship is not a call to “doing” but a call to “becoming”. They do not see that God’s restorative action in our lives took place not because he introduced more or better ritual, but because he introduced the concept of the “new creature”, something unheard of in religion. And by introducing this concept the death of ritual was announced, for ritual no longer served any purpose. We now understand that its only purpose was that of a shadow, a symbol, pointing ahead to the good things that were coming.

The Great “There” Promised by Dualism

Dualism fuels the religious rat race, for it offers a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a higher state of being, an Archimedean point of absolute spirituality. Of course there is no unanimity as to exactly what this state consists of – the only unanimity amongst dualists being their collective discontentment with ordinary humdrum spirituality, and their subsequent desire and efforts to escape from it. And so we are always on our way somewhere, but we never arrive. We are always on a fast train to nowhere, which is why the trip feels great but the destination not. And whether we are chasing revivals, new waves of teaching, apostolic reformations, or whatever, like astronauts we always find ourselves coming back to earth after a season in space – only to begin planning for the next trip.

To use C.S. Lewis’ quip, “we live in the Shadowlands”, forever searching for that glorious spot of sunlight that so constantly evades us, forever searching for a stairway to heaven. Like the Samaritans, we believe our worship will be possible once we have identified the place to do it, and in the process we have created many mountains and even more Jerusalems. Feverishly active as both travelers and tour guides on these pilgrimages, Jesus’ crystal-clear teaching seems to have completely passed us by: “…a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”

Spiritual worship is possible worship, for it requires nothing but inner submission to God. It is the only fitting response to Jesus’ unorthodox and earth shattering statement “The kingdom of God is within you”, made to a group of religious separatists who were forever arguing the benefits of tradition, ritual and ceremony. By pointing inward, Jesus once for all settled the debate as to where God’s seat is to be found. An inner kingdom demands an inner response, an inner journey, and an inner kingdom places God within reach of all people. We no longer need to go to the mountain, the mountain has come to us. We are still pilgrims, yes, but our pilgrimage is a spiritual one.

Like the foolish Galatians, we have been bewitched. We who started of with the Spirit have halted in the flesh. Unwilling to accept that there is such a thing as a free meal, we have stubbornly refused to live by manna alone, and instead have slaved away at erecting a golden calf.

What Actually Happened on the Day of Pentecost

As a young Christian, eighteen at the time, I joined a Pentecostal denomination, and it took me nearly another eighteen years to find out what the day of Pentecost was all about. Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense when I think about it in hindsight. For many years I had the notion that the Spirit of God was a vague, impersonal, disembodied vapour who did little more than “energise” people. Certainly no-one ever taught me to believe this in so many words, yet this is what I perceived. In retrospect, it is clear that these beliefs came about as a result of the continual “search” for the Spirit that I observed in my denomination – as if He had disappeared. Phrases and prayers like “Come, Holy Spirit”, “I sense the Spirit of God in this place” and “Allow the Spirit to touch you” all contributed to my belief that the Spirit was far away and hard to find, yet that He appeared at times out of the blue, like a distant uncle popping in for a surprise visit.

Many years later I realised that the Spirit of God is not a force, nor an entity apart from God, but in fact God himself. And this changed my perception of Pentecost. Rather than an outpouring of raw power that had to be repeated over and over again, Pentecost became the day that the God of the heavens came to visit, and stayed. God was finally with us. The Spirit was no longer restricted to the holy of holies, but now made his dwelling with men and women. In order to become spiritual worshipers, the Spirit was needed, and it was on this glorious day that the Spirit came. It was not the beginning of a new era of successive visits and outpourings, but the birth of spiritual worship – a continuous relationship with the God who is with us.

And, as you would guess, it was the day that dualism died.


2 thoughts on “The Death of Dualism

  1. Carla Swanepoel April 25, 2011 / 11:40 am

    This is brilliant, last night when we got home from a short getaway to Sedgefield, I was drawn to one of my books called Philosophy by David Papineau, and I was reading about Ontology. So the next step was Aristotle and I was reading about his explanation of matter, form and essence and also very intrigued by the painting of the School at Athens. But the things that kept me up last night was his belief that the body was the matter and the soul the form, this was very contradicting of my experience and also I believe of Biblical interpretation of body, soul and spirit. SO your article has relieved alot of disonance from my side, and also inspired me. I belief this was no coincidence.

    Thank you.

  2. naturalchurch April 25, 2011 / 2:53 pm

    Hi Carla, I’m glad it meant something to you. I wrote this many years ago. For some reason I felt this morning that I should post it on the blog. So that was certainly not a coincidence!

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