Forgiving Dualism

We are all accustomed to lament the stark dualism of many pre-modern theologians and to advocate a much more holistic, “incarnational” approach to the Christian life.  N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope is one of the most recent, most lucid, and most thoroughgoing of recent critiques of Christianity’s otherworldly tendencies, and summons us back to the New Testament doctrine of the resurrection of the body rather than the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Those of us who have embraced the contemporary call to “incarnational” Christianity often find ourselves taken aback by just how deep the dualism seems to run in the Christian tradition, and find ourselves frustrated at times when we encounter starkly dualistic statements that seem to evince a Gnostic contempt for the body.  (I, for example, have often been frustrated by such statements in Reformation political theology.)

Perhaps, though, we ought to be more forgiving, as Margaret Miles pointed out in a lecture at the recent St. Andrews conference on Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture.  Her observation was not original, I’m sure, and once stated, it was blindingly obvious, but I confess I had given it very scant attention before: when pre-moderns speak of the body as weak, corrupt, prone to decay, as a prison to be escaped, when they seek to focus our attention on the life of the soul and to draw us away from affairs of the body, much of this reflects the very simple fact that for them, the body really was all these negative things. 

Until the past couple centuries, the vast majority of illnesses could not even be diagnosed, much less cured.  The cures that there were were often extremely painful and debilitating, and anaesthetics were not available for injuries or for surgery, nor were most of the medicines we now rely on to alleviate the symptoms of our own relatively minor illnesses.  Chronic pain and illness were the norm for many European adults, and death was ever-present, often coming from minor infections.  Those that had the fortune to avoid death themselves lived only to experience the death of all those around them, including half of their children and generally two or three wives who might die in childbirth.  Most of the pleasures we rely on to ease our bodily existence were of course unavailable.  Is it any wonder then that pre-modern Christians often sought to distract themselves from the sufferings of bodily existence and seek solace in the life of the soul?  When we read of them seeking to purge themselves through suffering, we think they’re masochists, forgetting that, since suffering was inevitable, they figured they might as well embrace it and use if for spiritual growth.  For them, it was self-evident that the soul was better than the body, and it was a focus on the soul that provided the only means of transcending the sufferings of bodily existence.  

This being the case, it is surely no coincidence that the turn to a more thoroughgoing affirmation of the body, and the consistent attack on body-soul dualisms, has burgeoned just in the last two centuries, as medicine and science finally began to push back the domain of death and ease the travails of life in the body.  In a time when bodily existence, despite its lingering weaknesses, is often downright liberating and exhilarating–indeed, often more so than the life of the soul, which is still prone to all the emotional agonies that flesh is heir to–it is no surprise that we should take to calling for an “incarnational” embodied theology, one that situates God’s work in our bodies and not merely in our souls.  

This is of course not to in any way deny the Biblical roots of the anti-dualist turn, nor to claim that an anti-body dualism characterized all pre-modern theology, or is the inevitable result of bodily suffering.  Indeed, some of the most resolutely anti-dualist Christian thinkers struggled with long and exhausting bodily tribulation (such as John Nevin, for instance).  But this simple historical observation may help explain the stubborn tendency of past Christian theology to veer in a dualistic direction, and may help us to read this move much more sympathetically.

3 thoughts on “Forgiving Dualism

  1. Bradley

    Yeah, good point.Come to think of it…. in traditional decentralized tribal societies (where the people generally live healthy, pleasant, long lives), I recall that dualism isn't generally an issue. How interesting. I would be cautious about applying the theory too widely of course, but there does seem to be some truth behind it.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Byron, good question–it seems to me that, admitting that a decisive shift starts with the twin streams of Romanticism and German idealism in the early 19th century. Of course, these too have certain "Gnostic" impulses, as the name "idealism" suggests, but they were a conscious reaction to the hegemony of rational mind in the previous century in favor of a much more embodied understanding of the human experience, and they contributed to a great sacramental and liturgical resurgence in the various churches. John Nevin, the 19th-century American theologian who has been a focus of much of my research, deployed these strands against the dualism that he recognized in all forms of American Christianity and argued for the absolute co-dependence of spirit and matter in the world and in religion. Curiously, though, a rather contrary strand–the scientific empiricist impulse of late 19th and 20th-century Anglo-American thought, also seems to have done a great deal to shift our society's focus to the body…of course, obviously sometimes to an unhelpful extent, reducing everything to materialism.


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