Dualism: “Christian” Enemy of Christian Culture
Posted on October 11, 2015
One of the greatest enemies of Christian culture within the church is dualism.
Broadly speaking, dualism is the division of life into two overarching spheres or principles, generally antithetical to one another. Likely the earliest dualism was Gnosticism, which posited two gods, the good god of the mind and spirit and the evil god of nature and materiality. The Gnostics perceived salvation as deliverance from the material world by means of secret knowledge (gnosis) to a few, select initiates. Gnosticism was a pagan invention, but it did not leave the church unaffected. Prime early heresies in the church were gnostically tinged (an example was Docetism, which denied that Jesus had an actual body).
Dualism comes in many forms, but it almost always privileges one aspect of created reality and devalues its polar opposite. Dualism is an example of apostate thinking, which always begins when sinful man turns away from worshipping the true God and absolutizes one aspect of the created order. In the church, this dualism comes in at least five forms.
Ideal-Historical duality. We immediately think of Plato. He taught that the eternal world of Forms (or Ideas) stands behind our material world. More than about anything else, the ancient Greeks feared disorder and chaos. They had suffered from deprivations of war and the violence of anarchy. They saw the world as constantly changing, and this fact frightened them. Above all else, they wanted order, immutability, and permanence. This is what Plato’s doctrine of the eternal Forms provided. All the flawed, impermanent things on earth had a perfect, permanent Ideal in eternity. Every earthly chair reflected the ideal chair; every historical expression of justice or beauty was a diluted clone of its eternal Form. You might think that one impetus this doctrine gave rise to was reordering this world in light of the world of the Forms. This rarely happened. What usually happened was a desire for escape from this present world to the Ideal world. This is why death was the great longing for philosophers. Plato believed in preexistent souls. Your eternal soul is encased in a human body and at death is released to return to the ideal world. You can easily understand why Socrates wasn’t afraid of death and, in fact, invited it.
Plato’s fanciful dualism has been widely discredited philosophically. Almost no educated people believe it today — except Christians. Most don’t know what Plato believed, but they do see eternity and time in expressions remarkably analogous to Plato’s. They know about and long for heaven, and they see earth as a pale reflection of the eternal state. Like Plato, they don’t use this view as a springboard to conform the earth to heavenly patterns (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”). Rather, like Socrates, they long for escape — not to the world of the Forms, but to their heavenly home.
It’s not hard to grasp how this earth-heaven dualism hinders Christian culture. If one of the Christian’s prime objectives is escape from earth, Christian culture can hardly be a priority.
Immaterial-Material duality. I noted that Plato saw the body as a form of prison from which man’s main goal was escape at death. This is one exhibition of the immaterial-material duality. Many ancients, following the Gnostics, posited materiality as evil or at least sub-par. The truly good and virtuous things were beyond our sensory world. It’s not hard to see why Christians would purchase stock in this view. After all, God himself is immaterial; so are faith and hope and love and prayer. Most of the things we hold most dearly are immaterial. But not all. Recent Christianity cares about redemption, but it has a deeply impoverished view of creation (nature). To many Christians, nature just isn’t that important — the only thing important is getting souls saved. They actually don’t want escape from sin; they want escape from their bodies; they want to escape from their humanity; they want to escape from this world. They think that prayer and Bible reading and quiet contemplation are “spiritual,” but trees and the ocean and good food and making lots of money and enjoying nature and basketball are not spiritual. But in the Bible, the conflict is never between physical and non-physical; it’s between righteousness and sin. Sin is the problem; materiality is not the problem. The most evil being in the world is pure spirit, and the godliest man who ever lived (Jesus Christ) lived and died and rose again in a body. If you don’t care about the material world, you can’t care much about culture, even Christian culture.
Soul-Body duality. The Immaterial-Material duality fosters the Soul-Body duality. Plato held to a tripartite view of man, but almost all the ancient Greeks posited a soul-body division of some sort. To the ancient Greeks man is made up of several distinct, and potentially independent, parts. The soul is the principal part of man — it is his insubstantial existence, which conforms to eternal, supra-temporal Forms. It existed before his body did, and it will exist after the body is gone. The body, in fact, is simply the house of the soul. In fact, it is the prison of the soul. According to the Greeks, the body is unnatural for man. It is an alien part that prevents him from realizing what he could if he were not imprisoned within it. The body was a troubling vexation to the pagan Greeks — it constrains man to time and space, subjects him to sickness and weariness, and gives him all sorts of fits. The soul, however, is the “good ghost in the machine.”
Traditional Christian anthropology has been either bi-partite or tri-partite. In any case, it has preserved the soul-body duality, which it inherited from the Greeks. The ancient Hebrews, by contrast, held, as the Bible itself does, a unified view of man. They were not materialists, certainly not in the modern sense. They believed that man consists of both materiality and non-materiality. However, these two were interwoven. Man isn’t man without his body.
A soul-body duality need not (and often has not) hindered Christian culture, but it certainly can, and it has. The soul corresponds to heaven, while the body corresponds to earth. Man is made for heaven, not earth, so Christian culture isn’t a priority.
Internal-External duality. Perhaps even more of a hindrance is the internal-external duality. This duality gets to the heart of dualism’s aversion to Christian culture. Man is made for a vertical relationship with God, and this relationship is a heart matter. Most Christians realize that the Bible places great emphasis on man’s heart. Some believe this term is a synonym for emotion, but this belief is false. They speak of “head” religion versus “heart” religion, a false antinomy. The heart is the inner core of man’s being — “heart” is roughly synonymous with “the synthesis of belief, intellect, will, intuitions, and emotions that govern the person.” In other words, “head” religion is heart religion. Even if Christians do understand the right definition of heart, they sometimes set it in radical opposition to man’s exterior. In fact, they even buy into the vast interiorization project that has afflicted our world since Romanticism. This “interiorization project” is a retreat from the objective realities of God’s created world into the subjectivism of human experience. Romanticism revolted against the cold, sterile impersonalism of the Enlightenment, which highlighted objective, universal reason; objective, universal experience; and objective, universal standards. Romanticism tried to recover the uniqueness of the individual, but it did this in an unbiblical way — without God’s Word. Therefore, it simply replaced autonomous, objective, universal, standards with autonomous, subjective, individual standards. For Enlightenment, man was the measure of all things. For Romanticism, men (individuals, each one) were the measure of all things. We sometimes call this historical transition “the inward turn.”
In the church’s version, this meant that internal piety — prayer and Bible reading and love for God, a vertical devotion to God — was most important, and external piety — especially the visible church and its ordinances or sacraments, and visible adherence to God’s moral law took second chair, at best. Less important still was concern for God’s moral law in society itself. After all, God wants the heart, not external adherence to law, which can easily lead to Phariseeism (or so it has been thought). So, God judges everything by our pious interior, and isn’t as much interested in our visible actions, and particularly with the visible actions of the society in which he’s placed us. If anything, the external world is dangerous, since it can seduce us from God, whom we find in the internal world. The fact that the Bible says it’s man’s heart — his interior, not the external — that’s the source of his sins seems not to be a part of their mental calculation. But, in any case this Christian “interiorization project” obviously leaves little room for Christian culture, which is manifestly external and as a result, that project is a hindrance to Christian culture.
Private-Public duality. This dualism is largely the effect of a creditable development in the West, the rise of classical liberalism, whose roots are in medieval Christendom and Protestant Christianity. Perhaps the fundamental distinctive of classical liberalism was its insistence on a zone of privacy for the individual. The state and the rest of society do have claims on the individual, but these claims aren’t exhaustive. Man must be free to practice his religion, express his opinion, protect his property, assemble with like-minded people, and so on. Classical liberalism is therefore the source of much of our modern political liberty. It also happens to have been shaped largely by early Protestant Christianity with its stress on man made in God’s image, the inviolability of man’s God-given conscience, and the right of the individual to interpret the Bible for himself.
In time, however, this liberty surrendered its Christian roots. It degenerated into a radical individualism and privatism. The zone of privacy came to mean liberty from Christian society and its law and morality, the very factors that fostered liberty in the first place. The zone of individual privacy from moral law expanded, while the zone of privacy from state interference on other matters (like economic ones) contracted. The state became known as the “public” realm, purged of Christianity, and the individual’s own moral and religious choices became entirely “private.” This was a far cry from classical liberalism.
Privatization is the intentional reduction of Christianity by Christians to the very places that secularists declare it’s safe to exist: the prayer closet, family devotions, and church on Sunday, or, at most, church social programs throughout the week. Privatization has had supporters from very early in church history (mystics, for example), but it became a widely accepted and practiced view only in the last two centuries. Christians come to believe that culture is inherently evil and cannot be Christianized, that the most spiritual Christians are those least engaged with the culture, that the Christian life can be exhausted by Bible reading and prayer and personal evangelism, and that anything much beyond these is “worldliness.”
Privatization, therefore, works in league with non-Christian forces to reduce Christianity to what Stephen Perks describes as a “personal worship hobby.” Remarkably, many Christians and secularists agree about this privatization. Secularists say, “Christianity should stay private.” Christians respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “Christians should stay out of politics.” Christians respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “God’s Word has nothing to say to our society.” Christians respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “Unbelievers should be calling all of the shots in society and culture.” Christians respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “Christianity is a ‘private worship hobby.’” Christians respond, “We agree.” This is an odd and unsettling alliance in opposition to Christian culture.
When Christians purge these forms of dualism from the church, Christian culture might then start to become again a historic reality.