DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Dualism

Assumptions lurk at the heart of every person's understanding of the world in which we live. Christians are no exception.

At a personal level, each of us during childhood takes on beliefs about ourselves, about the world, and about other people. These beliefs are, as it were, scripts about how to live out our lives. We are stuck with them, for better or worse because they are made at an emotional level long before we mature enough to think them through.

Some personal scripts can be life-denying. Failure to deal with them can damage or even destroy an individual. Ideally we should first recognise our scripts, then understand them, and finally consciously negate those aspects we don't want. 

Organisations are similar. They also have "scripts" passed down from previous generations or leaders. These are interpretations of the world which once matched the organisational environment well. They eventually become received wisdom taken as fact even though they no longer relate to the environment. And when mismatches between received wisdom and the external world become too great, an organisation may die.

An important feature of both personal and organisational scripts is that they tend to be beyond awareness. They have to be dug for. The Church is no exception. One such assumption, buried deeply beyond awareness, is that everything is fundamentally polarised. 

The doctrine of polarisation extends to almost all aspects of Christian teaching. Christians are on the inside, while unbelievers, heretics and other religions are on the outside. There is good and evil, God and Satan. There is Christian wisdom from God, and secular wisdom from human beings. Right and wrong are polarised into self-contained categories, black and white with little or no grey between them.

Although Christians will recognise these and many other dichotomies, they will seldom reflect that buried deep beneath all of them them lies a belief that reality as a whole is divided into polar opposites. As L S Rouner puts it:

... dualism is the view that reality is of two distinct and irreducible kinds ... [1]

As it stands today, very few Christians consider this narrow, technical sort of dualism important. Nevertheless, the splitting of reality into distinct polarities extends far beyond technical dualism into many other dimensions of human experience. Technical dualism may be of little importance but practical, everyday dualism remains a powerful force.

Practical dualism shows itself in the way dualists use everyday language. Gilbert Ryle in the 20th century showed how certain types of language by which dualism is expressed prove to be invalid.

Ryle is best known for the phrase he coined to explain his conclusions. Through wrong use of language, he said, many have come to believe in a "ghost in the machine". The human mind or soul is as unreal as a ghost would be if were thought to be driving and directing a machine. Those who propose a ghost in the human machine have, he said, made a "category mistake".

A category mistake occurs when we attempt to put something into a category which differs from its true one. Ryle gives an example: Suppose a stranger is being conducted around a university. He is shown this chapel and that college. "But where," he asks, "is the university?" The question reveals a category mistake. He assumes that "university" is in the same category as "college". Of course, the word refers to the way in which the various components are organised, rather than to an element which is organised.

Another example he gives is that of "team spirit". A person sees the various tasks of a cricketing team. The bowler bowls, the batsman bats, and the fielder fields. "But whose task is it," he wonders, "to promote team spirit? I don't see anyone doing that."

Proposing that we humans consist of a body and a soul is to make the same category mistake. That which we name "soul" or "mind" isn't a separate thing at all. There is a category mistake 

... because the mind, strictly speaking, is not a "thing" at all. Rather it is a phenomenon that emerges out of an organization of things. [2]

Ryle's book has been hugely influential both in philosophy and elsewhere. As J O Urmson remarks,

The whole character of philosophical discussion of the mind has been decisively changed, even in quarters where Ryle's conclusions are strongly challenged, by the appearance of The Concept of Mind. [3]

Perhaps the most pervasive instance of practical dualism in Christianity today is a perception of the world which divides the average Christian congregation from the community around it: "We are in, and they are out".

A congregation may run dynamic social programs, and experience close affinity with non-Christians at neighbourhood level. But there is nevertheless a deeply-felt assertion by most churchgoers that they are saved and others are not. That is, they define themselves as relating to life in a way to which others have no access unless they also become Christian. The attitude resolves into a "them and us" polarisation, one often keenly felt by the excluded.

When this dualism is writ large on the regional or national stage, it becomes a determined effort to ensure that religion and politics are kept separate. The Christian pole of social life is there to serve "holy" ends. The political pole is grounded in the necessary but "dirty" facts of power broking.

Another pervasive Christian dualism divides reality into the natural and the supernatural. On one hand are the things we can see and otherwise experience in life. On the other is an entire reality which we will experience only after death - or, if we're holy enough, in various mysterious ways before death. The two realities shade imperceptibly into each other. Certain people have a gift of inhabiting the border country between the two. But the two realms or dimensions are nevertheless distinctly separate.

The dualisms above are only a few of the many which, if we step aside from our preconceptions, underpin much of the way we relate to the world. Behind them all, however, is one which subliminally affects the way many people - not just Christians - think about all the other polarities. It is, in effect, a type of dual personality.

The first is a Sunday personality. It is childlike. It accepts that it is unable to either ask or answer certain questions about life. For those it depends upon a superior type of person who is trained to understand what God has revealed to humanity, and who is in touch with the deity to a degree unattainable by ordinary people. And even though daily life presents challenging ethical problems, the Sunday personality relies on its spiritual parents to pronounce on what's right and wrong.

This personality does not accept the findings of science when they flatly contradict the teachings of faith, otherwise known as the doctrines of the Church.. So, for example, when a person dies, the Sunday personality does not expect that person to rise from the dead. But when the Bible - backed up by all the machinery of the Church - pronounces that resurrection from death has taken place more than once, the reversal of death is blindly accepted.

Similarly, the Sunday personality will accept that both Jesus and Peter could walk on water because the normal laws of physics can, given the right circumstances, be suspended. But offered an escape route across the water from a sinking ship, the same person would reject the suggestion that he or she might walk safely to the shore.

The second personality generally comes alive on weekdays. It usually starts functioning the moment the so-called "religious" environment is left behind. It accepts "science" as a way of knowing the world, while usually acknowledging that many mysteries remain unexplained.

God as a real person to whom one can relate like any other is relegated to the special domain of the Sunday personality. In daily work, for example, a person must rely on intelligence, common sense, hard work and luck to get ahead. God helps those who help themselves. 

But when crisis or tragedy strike, the weekday personality may abandon the normal world and switch over to the Sunday personality, the one who does the  praying.

Examples of this deeply hidden dualism could be multiplied over and over again. It is a dualism which will, I'm certain, always be with us. Such is human nature. Particularly when stressed beyond a certain point by uncertainty about life's purpose, people will tend to polarize whatever dimensions of human experience are most under pressure at the time.

The question arises: Why should the human tendency towards dualism matter? So what if the ordinary person splits his or her life into various polarities? The stratagem has been proven genuinely useful. Life goes on much as usual even though dualism is pervasive. It doesn't seem to be particularly harmful.

There is no quick and easy answer to this question. The best I can do here is to indicate the general direction which might indicate why dualism is increasingly a less-than-adequate response to life.

A standard defence against dualism is to insist that only one or other pole of any polarity is correct. For example, suggest that God is an unbreakable unity and you'll be told that God is a trinity. Insist that God has many aspects, and you'll be warned not to divide the God who is a unity. Again, you might remark that we should accept that nothing is wrong with a Church divided into many parts. Disunity is a fact, comes the reply, but the real Church is an invisible unity.

This sort of polarised response is not confined to Christians. All religions do much the same. And so do most politicians and philosophers. Politicians make a living out of policies which are distinctively polarised from those of the opposition. Philosophers by nature seek solutions which support one definitive answer over all others. Conflict between polar opposites a familiar thing in our lives.

The all-pervading dualism we're addressing here arises, in my opinion, out of a natural tendency to analyse. Analysis is one important way of understanding coping with our environment. Greek philosophers analysed thought patterns; Christian theologians analysed doctrine. And now scientists analyse nature.

Analysis identifies parts of a whole. The unity of a physical body is reduced to its components so that we can work out how the whole operates. We dismember a novel the better to comprehend its overall intentions. We dissect the human body to be able to diagnose illness.

Similarly, science reduces the whole to its parts. How does our sun work? Assemble a huge number of disparate facts, and eventually we'll know roughly how the sun's nuclear processes operate. That is, break the sun down into its components if you want to know what it is and to predict how it will operate in the future.

But reducing things to their parts often results in losing sight of the whole. And when the whole is lost sight of, the parts can be all the more easily perceived as polarised. Conflict between poles follows almost inevitably when the overall connections between them are no longer in the equation.

Such damaging tensions are, says Fritjof Capra,

... an inevitable consequence of the ancient dichotomy between substance (matter, structure, quantity) and form (pattern, order, quality) ... [4]

This dichotomy is what I mean here by dualism. It is the ubiquitous opposition of apparently contrary poles which results from a focus on the parts at the expense of the whole. Break the human race into its components and before you can say "Jack Robinson" racial animosity, that hatred of the different, raises its poisonous head. Take a business and break into its human parts and very quickly worker will be pitted against boss, and unions against management.

Thus practical dualism remains almost as pervasive and powerful today as it has always been. But since the early decades of the 20th century there has been a gradual switch from the parts to the whole in such a way that the place of the part in the whole is not lost but enhanced.

Fritjof Capra again:

The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties, but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole ... Ultimately - as quantum physics showed so dramatically - there are no parts at all. What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships.

Do you want to know how the sun works? Analyse its components - but at the same time see it as part of a vast solar system. The sun gives life to all it touches and is part both of the solar system and also of an even larger galactic system. No part of either system is of enduring value without every other part. The whole cannot exist without all its parts. The whole is made up of diverse parts, none of which can exist without being in the whole.

What about the human race? It comprises a vast array of different beings. Racial differences are very often less important than individual differences. Humanity has meaning both as a whole and in each of its parts. But even that meaning is of little account without its context as but one element in a much larger and more complex system we call the Earth.

So dualism has served humanity well. It has allowed us to understand our world to a degree - but with the increasingly unfortunate result of polarisation and conflict where there is no need of either. When the part is made into an absolute, bitter and often fatal conflict is inevitable - and perhaps even leading to the destruction of the whole. 

And when the world around us is set against itself in a series of polarities, it's but a short step to setting person against person and all the pain and destruction which follows.
_________________________________________
[1] A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
[2] Zeno and the Tortoise, Nicholas Fearn, Atlantis Books, 2001
[3] Article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Collier-Macmillan, 1967
[4] The Web of Life, Flamingo, 1997


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