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Dualistic Thinking in the Bible

by Berry Friesen (May 18, 2015)

Each morning, my wife receives an email from Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who leads the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.  I often read them too. Recently, Rohr has been writing about how spiritual maturity requires liberation from the trap of dualistic thinking.

What is dualistic thinking?  It’s the tendency to interpret the experiences of life as right or wrong, good or bad, friend or enemy, attractive or unattractive.  Dualistic thinkers are continually assessing, evaluating and deciding whether to put the various aspects of life into this box or that.

Rohr says dualistic thinkers often project their worldview on to God, who then serves as the enforcer of their categories.  In this act of projection, God’s radical love and acceptance are distorted and obscured.

If Not Empire, What? might be described as an extended exercise in dualistic thinking. So it’s important to carefully consider Rohr’s point of view.

We focus on the aspirations of biblical writers to create a good society (see chapter 7, pages 39-42). Obviously, this is a choice we made as authors, but it is more than that. As we read the Bible, we see biblical authors less occupied with convincing us YHWH loves us than with describing a way of life that leads to social justice, peace and prosperity—and contrasting that with a way that leads to disaster (empire, for example).

In short, biblical writers often reflect dualistic thinking.  Should we view this as a mark of their spiritual immaturity?

In his May 15th reflection, Rohr’s message addressed an important aspect of this: statements of Jesus that reflect dualistic thinking.  He finds them especially in The Gospel According to Matthew: "You cannot serve both God and Mammon" (Matthew 6:24); "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24); and the dichotomy in Matthew 25 between sheep (who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned) and goats (who don't).

Rohr doesn’t criticize or discount these words from Jesus; he even says they reflect “Jesus' foundational and even dualistic bias . . . against false power and in favor of the powerless.”  But Rohr goes on to say such words rarely are effective in changing people’s behavior.   They do “not create loving people, but fearful people, which is an entirely different game.”

So Rohr is saying that dualistic thinking has its place, but it isn’t transformative like love, forgiveness and acceptance can be.  Love, forgiveness and acceptance are expansive, creative and integrative.  They do not shoehorn life into binary categories, but remain expectant and open to pathways and options that may pleasantly surprise us.

What then is the place for dualistic thinking?  Here our book seems to be on the same page with Rohr.  If we’re discussing the good society and what it values, our conversation will be structured around values and choices.  Some paths lead toward shalom, others away.  The Bible repeatedly and resoundingly confirms this.

Now if one thinks (as I did as a youth) that the bottom line is whether I am welcomed into heaven or get sent to hell, then the dualism goes all the way down (and all the way up). Everything boils down to getting that decisive matter right, leaving little space for the surprises the transformative power love, forgiveness and acceptance can produce.

But as it turns out, the Bible doesn’t usually frame matters that way.  Instead, on the whole it tells us that the bottom line is our life here on Earth.  And along with many discussions of a good society—and many denunciations of an evil one—it gives us Jesus and his kingdom as the transformative way to create the good society.

The best I can do to articulate the paradox is this:  the loving, forgiving and accepting way of Jesus integrates what we desire with how we aim to achieve it.  Dualistic goals remain; good and bad do not evaporate in a gnostic pipedream that says everybody and everything turn out well in the end. But the animating power of it all and the means of pursuing it are seen in Jesus.

Of course, the Christian religion often portrays Jesus as simply another category in a chart of binary choices.  But the way of Jesus—the faith of Jesus—cannot be captured in that way.  Compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to injustice are inherently open to all, even those who do not speak Jesus’ name.

"There are two kinds of people in the world,” said Robert Benchley, the American humorist: “Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't."  Indeed, we cannot entirely escape dualistic thinking, nor should we try. Yet the way of Jesus opens up possibilities for shalom far beyond the binary choices we can imagine.  As biblical writers repeatedly said, “The just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38).