Thursday, 30 December 2010


What do I think about dualism, seeing as the issue has arisen? I've always wanted to avoid a dualistic approach, because inevitably it involves split ethics, action and duplicity.

For me, the heart of Christianity is dualistic. I don't mean a battle between evil and good, or the kind of set-up in Zoroastrianism (which still does have a supreme deity). The notion of a God-man is itself dualistic, however much the concept is fused, and it isn't entirely fused. It is also dualistic in effect to divide something into three even if also one.

Now surely all religion involves dualism somewhere, and a battle against dualism. Yin and Yang in Taoism is a perfect example of accepting the dualistic nature of life and then showing how the aspect of one is in the other on each side. So no one can ever be a purist.

Gnosticism, of which part of Christianity formed a part, is dualistic, in regarding the spirit as pure and the material as dirty. Here proto-orthodox and orthodox Christianity was at its least dualistic in intention, in affirming (including through ritual) the goodness of the material world, and indeed the dualism of the God-Man was to fight the dualism of the Gnostics. Some esoteric Christians today talk about the Christ-principle and have no interest in the historic Jesus, and of course that is a dualistic extraction - though they would argue that the purity of the Christ-principle is their form of non-dualistic unity.

I would be at the other end, but I am not. I would be, in affirming a purely human Jesus. This must mean a man who was born of two parents, grew up and learnt, made mistakes, was not successful in tackling his own ego, was not morally perfect, and died a tragic death. Whatever religious experiences his followers then had, they didn't involve the consciousness of the person who had died.

People would say how do I know, but the actual need for proof in any historical or scientific basis is on the other foot. I think we know how human beings come about, live, die and how the generations move on. People who make exceptional fantastic claims are the ones who have to make the proof, but what the fantastic claims do is undermine the chap's humanity.

Of course one way to avoid dualism of a fantastic God-Man is to simply wallow in the text, the text formed in the heat of a charismatic and culture-crossroads early Christian communities. It is then less about a man, less even about the supernatural, but just about texts and beliefs and communities: what has become known as postliberalism. That postliberalism also links to a Karl Barth who made a non-dualistic theology by having his God so high and dry and one way that such a God may as well have disappeared.

But that form of postliberalism is self-limitation, a cultural freezing, and that's not how it came about. There is far more to the inspiring, interesting, potentially transcendent religious world than the biography-like activities of one man in one place. The cult of this individual cuts off rather than expands out.

Mark Harris at Preludium recalls his trip to India a year ago, and adds the wisdom of Ganesha and other Hindu deities to his current nativity scene. But they are not aspects of wisdom to attach to an Incarnate figure in Palestine: such does violence to both religious figures. Ganesha is a God, and not only that but a God in the statue where made, displayed and blessed. The mantra of 33,000, 33, 3 and 1 Gods in Hinduism is again a dualism, but a dualism so plural and spread out it almost becomes non-dualistic, and then again there is the battle within the religion where some (but not all) say that Brahman subsumes all. And if Hinduism is pantheistic, then the non-dualism of that results in a form of atheism.

Of course if Mark Harris adds Ganesha as a deity, he is expanding out the trinitarian nature of his faith. To call it wisdom is a protection, but I suspect it is to keep on the right side of the line. In my house I too have Ganesha and I have Hanuman and Krishna and Buddha and the lot, and Jesus too.

They are just part of the tapestry of the religious outlook. So I am a religious humanist. The way I avoid dualism is to be clear: given that I would preach against the moral perfection or even superiority of Jesus of Nazareth, then it has to be that the Jesus character lessens away as any form of commitment. Yes a lived ethical life is important rather than just a set of ethics, but this is open to anyone's struggle. Each religious figure in story form indicates something of a pathway, and has parts not covered and in the end it is about our lived lives.

And also in non-dualistic terms, though highly plural, is that I assert signals of transcendence rather than just transcendence, via a whole series of different language games and potential realities, pointing towards but never quite demonstrating a quality beyond that might be transcending.

This is, of course, all very minimalist and is about questions. On the other hand, there is so much to express awe about in the natural world, in the cosmos and in what we think we know about it all. That's why I am attracted to the notion of the beauty of equations and the results of fractals. Another key for reflection is paradox at the deepest level (expressed in many a Buddhist sutra). Our cultures are rich and can be deeply mined for for our reflection as transient beings. In thinking about what points to transcendence, we can think of pain as something that is endured, but that the transcendent pointer beyond such pain is joy. If we can make and see joy in the other, and in the self, then we are making some deep progress. Reality, of course, is often so much grimmer - and that is an unavoidable dualism.


Erika Baker said...

Strange, I would see dualism if you had humanity on one end and God isolated on the other. The doctrine of the incarnation, this idea that God came together with humanity, that he truly knows us and that he says we can know him, that does away with dualism for me.

The idea of the Three is One is based on the same. And in a human context we're quite happy to see individuals to assume 3 completely different role (wife, mother, working woman) yet be one person. But in a religious context we seem to struggle with a smililar concept.

Unless you literally believe in the magic of three individual persons merging into one, or unless you think that you have to literally disbelieve it, you can just go for what the image suggests.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Well I don't believe it and I guess we all see dualisms in what we don't believe and tend not to see them in what we do believe.

Grandmère Mimi said...

People who make exceptional fantastic claims are the ones who have to make the proof, but what the fantastic claims do is undermine the chap's humanity.

Adrian, I don't feel under any pressure at all to prove what I believe about Jesus. I believe because of the effect that my faith has on my life, that it changes my life for the better, that my faith makes me a better person. Not better than anyone else, but better than I would be with no faith.

You may say that I'm delusional, and there's no way I can prove to you that I'm not, nor do I care to try. What I judge by is the effect that a life of faith has on me, which seems to me all to the good.

Erika Baker said...

The fantastic claims only undermine the chap's humanity because people want him to be a God walking on earth.
But the doctrine itself doesn't say this. It speaks of someone who is wholly man and wholly God. Fill that with your meaning if you like, but don't judge it by the meaning others give it but by what is possible from the doctrine alone. Otherwise you are just setting up simple strawmen to knock down.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

If he is "wholly God" he is God walking on earth. I deny any such ontological view - the transcendent (should it exist) cannot be limited to one human being. I deny the doctrine, simple as that.

Erika Baker said...

I know you deny the doctrine.
But that doesn't have to stop you from trying to understand it in a different way.

And it’s not actually what the doctrine days. If he’s wholly God he’s God walking on earth denies the second part, that if he’s wholly human he is not God walking on earth.
You just cannot approach a seemingly paradoxical statement like this as if it were literal scientific and biological truth.

If someone says to me that I'm just like my mother, they don't actually mean that my mother is walking around in my body.

When people say Jesus was so open to God that he embodies everything we can know of God, that seeing Jesus is like seeing God, then you don't actually have to say "They're saying that God is walking on the earth in the body of Jesus".

You are not only allowed to be a little more imaginative than literalism, the paradox of the doctrine actually requires you not to be literal here.

We only have words to express ourselves and our words revolve around our human concepts and experience. We have no choice but to use those words to convey everything we try to convey. That's why, when literal science won't do, we resort to imagery, figures of speech, similes, metaphors.
In day to day life you do it too. Perfectly beautifully on your blog in almost every other post.
I simply don't understand why you can't extend that concept to your understanding of doctrine.

You'd still be free to disagree with it.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The doctrine does not say Jesus is just like God, it says he is God.

How do you know he was so open to God? Who says? What does that involve?

The carol Tannenbaum says of the Christmas tree, that it speaks of God unchanging. So given Jesus is God, which part of him is also revealing as does the tree?

The answers to such assertions always come back to the same place: they are doctrinal assertions.

Being poetical about Jesus, expressing faith about Jesus, should you want to do this, does not involve the need for doctrine. But doctrine has this peculiar characteristic: it comes before everything. It warps the appreciative and the poetical. I can be as poetical as the next person, but just as I don't need a doctrine of a painting to appreciate it, nor do I need this doctrine.

Erika Baker said...

I'm sorry, Adrian, but this is simply not true.
I don't have a problem with you rejecting the doctrine or with not having any use of it. But I would be really pleased if you could at least not falsify it.

The doctrine does not say that Jesus is God. It says that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

You may not find it possible to fill that with meaning. But to reduce it to something it does not say in order to then swat it down is not right.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Adrian, I don't understand why you bang on so about doctrines. And even a Christmas carol. I enjoy singing a good many hymns in which I see the theology as all wrong, but I like the music, and I like to sing them. I'm with Erika; what's with the literalism?

I accept that you don't believe the doctrines, and I'm not trying to convert you. Those of us who do accept the doctrines, interpret them in different ways. We have lots of leeway for doing, so long as we don't insist on a literal interpretation.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I'm the last person to be worried about literalism, but are these doctrines without definitions? Fully Man and fully God means things by fully and by Man and by God. Or why not say subordinate, not made but begotten? Why bother to make the distinctions? Perhaps it's all just words words. People used to fight over these differences. Now they just seem to be optional. Of course this is a good thing, but can we agree then that they seem to be optional? As I say, I look with a different perspective anyway.

Grandmère Mimi said...

...are these doctrines without definitions?

Of course not. But Erika's definition may not be exactly the same as mine, and that's OK.

People used to fight over these differences.

Certain people still do, but a good many of us focus less on doctrine and more on trying to live out the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, to practice the Golden Rule, to love God and love our neighbor.

Erika Baker said...

"I'm the last person to be worried about literalism, but are these doctrines without definitions?"

I see you as someone almost obsessed with literalism, for some reason completely unable to move beyond the absolute meaning of the words into a space where they can be filled with something deeper.

Are the doctrines witout definitions? No, they have clear boundaries. To say that someone is fully human and fully divine makes it impossible to claim that he is a God walking on earth. It also makes it impossible to say that God is nothing but a human creation.

But within that space you can fill them with your own meaning.
As Mimi says, the meaning she gives them is probably different to the meaning I give them. But the important thing is that both our meanings lead us towards that central mystery at the core of it all.

I sometimes imagine the development of the doctrines like the writing of a good contract. You make sure that your language is as precise as it has to be while leaving as much freedom to the acting parties as possible.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

"You make sure that your language is as precise as it has to be"

In what sense is this language 'precise' given your use of it?

You want it both ways. I'll just accept that these things are imprecise and ill defined.

Erika Baker said...

Well, to say that someone is 100% human is pretty precise.
To say that they are also 100% divine is pretty precise.

To leave a wide field for interpretation is ill-defined for you because you need precise literalism, but is genius for me because I need space to fill it with my own meaning.

The only thing that troubles me is that it makes what I have found inaccessible to you.

I suppose that's the one thing about faith that does deeply trouble me, and that's the question why it seems to be accessible to some minds but not to others.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I suppose that's the one thing about faith that does deeply trouble me, and that's the question why it seems to be accessible to some minds but not to others.

Erika, that troubles me, too.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Who left the field wide open for interpretation once the precise 100% each had been declared? At what point, for example, did the interpreters of 100% man and 80% God, or 50% God or any other wide interpretation become accepted as a public matter?

Erika Baker said...

No, 100% human and 100% divine means just that. No 80/20 mix but 100% both.
And whether any other interpretation has become publicly acceptable is debatable. Of course you cannot stop people from believing what they like, and why would you.
But we're looking at the actual doctrine itself and that clearly sets some tight boundaries within which you can then interpret.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Adrian, I doubt that any theologians ever debated 80%/20%, or 50%/50%. Jesus is fully God and fully man, or he's simply human. The decision came down to fully God and fully man. As Erika says, the boundaries of the doctrine were clearly set.

But she's also right when she says:

Of course you cannot stop people from believing what they like, and why would you.

Why would you, indeed?