Richard Rohr on Dualism…

My friend Maggie sent me a link to a quote from Richard Rohr the other day. We are both looking forward to hearing him speak at Greenbelt Festival in a couple of weeks.

(Yikes- a couple of weeks! Aoradh are doing various things at GB, and we have a lot of work to do before we will be ready!)

Anyway, the quote tapped into the theme of dualism- which I mentioned before- here, and has also been a central idea in McLaren’s recent book


As applied to theological understanding, this debate goes something like this-

Western civilisation has been hugely influenced by Greek philosophy, and in particular the work of Plato.

This is not a new idea- I have been in a number of emerging church discussions that have highlighted the contrast between the philosophy of the ancient Hebrews with the potential skew in perspective that comes from wearing our Western Platonic goggles. But it is an idea that appears to have become increasingly important as we seek to re-engage with the ancient scriptures, and as some of the core tenets of our faith are being reshaped.

Plato (in contrast to the polar opposite- you could say ‘dual-‘ position of Aristotle) regarded all that was of the earth as temporary, worthless- a mere shadow of the ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is not material- it is the essence behind the fumbling form and shape we humans give to things.

The end result was a culture skewed towards division. Enlightened thinkers tended to view the world as made up of the profane, and the sacred. The sacred was unchanging ultimate reality, whilst the profane was changing, shifting, worthless.

The tendency to divide every subject into two seems to have been pervasive- left/right, good/bad. evangelical/liberal etc- the dualities multiply and abound.

As these ideas mingled with the founders of the early church- who after all were at the centre of the Greek/Roman world that embodied this dualism in terms of their philosophy and origins- then it potentially had some powerful effects on religious thinking-

  • The sense of the material world being of lesser importance than the ultimate reality of an orderly, dispassionate unchanging God.
  • The resultant need to focus on winning souls, as a priority over any other religious activity.
  • The in-out stuff- the us and them stuff. We are enlightened and saved- you are not.
  • Enlightenment means becoming aware of our imperfection, set alongside the perfectness of God.
  • In the creation of this ‘ideal state’- a Christian version of Pax Romana– it is only citizens who count- only people who have converted.
  • And in return, Christians can confidently expect prosperity and blessing commensurate with being a citizen of this ideal kingdom.

The interesting and difficult question that McLaren is suggesting that we need to ask in ‘A new kind of Christianity’ is about considering the faith of the Ancient Hebrews- their understanding of God. He (and others) propose that this Ancient Hebrew God was very different from ours.

For a start, many of the simple dualities that we take for granted are challenged by the stories of the Old Testament.

  • This God is not unchanging- but appears to be persuaded, and is willing to engage with the most gritty earth bound issues in way that can only suggest wild and uncontained passion.
  • Winning souls or converts is simply not an issue. The Jewish people appeared to have no idea of heaven or hell- but rather were to be a source of blessing to others in the here and now.
  • They were a people set apart- but not in the idealised sense. Rather they had a difficult and tortuous relationship with their identity and calling- constantly getting caught up in becoming too superior, too big for their boots, too independent and self sufficient.
  • There does not seem to have been the same ideal of ‘perfection’ either. God was unknowable, unfathomable, mysterious. His ways were not orderly and predictable- and so engagement with him was dangerous. Purity was about keeping laws, about living a communal routine governed by festivals and ritualised repentance/sacrifice. In this context, there was not a simple dual version of saved/unsaved- rather a process of engagement and belonging to community.
  • The Hebrews saw themselves as the ‘Children of God’, and as such were a Holy Nation, belonging to God. But they constantly incurred the wrath of God through their lack of respect of the ‘other’, the aliens in their midst. There was also a lot of war making and slaughter apparently commanded by God, which is frankly confusing and difficult to understand, and fit poorly with the words of Jesus.
  • Finally the Hebrews clearly looked to God to be the source of their prosperity and nationhood. But it did not end well did it? The succession of advancements and cataclysmic downturns that categorise the history of the nation of Israel might suggest that God is not interested solely in national or even local prosperity- that this can never be commanded, or guaranteed through orthopraxy.

Back to the Rohr Quote-

Jesus’ teaching on moral equivalency between himself and God and everybody else includes the neighbour, the outsider, the foreigner, the Gentile, the sinner, and finally, the enemy.  This is total non-dualistic thinking.  It was from this level of non-dual thinking that we find Jesus finally saying in John 17:21- 22:  “Father, may they be one.  May they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you.”Jesus lived his human life inside of a unitive consciousness, and yet he could make use of the dualistic mind to make clear distinctions, as well. (“You cannot serve both God and Mammon” [Matthew 6:24].)  And this, too, is the goal for all of us: unitive (non-dual) consciousness is the only way to deal with the big issues like God, love, suffering, death, and infinity.  But then we can revert to dualistic consciousness to make practical decisions about turning left or right, or whether to buy apples or oranges.

Adapted from Experiencing the Naked Now (webcast)