Augustine and Ecology (I): Dualism

[First in a short series related to discussions among members of the Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia on the Church and Ecology]

Dualism refers to any philosophical or religious system where two fundamental realities (such as matter and spirit, or good and evil) are understood to co-exist, either eternally or at least in general experience, and often in some tension.

In the strictest sense dualism is incompatible with orthodox Christian theology, which claims the transcendent God is the only ultimate and self-existent reality. ‘Dualism’ can also be used more loosely, however, of systems where strong but less absolute distinctions are made between aspects of being. The most common, and most relevant, dualisms of this sort involve a distinction between material and spiritual principles or realities, especially where the spiritual is valued more highly than the material.

The most radical forms of dualism tend even to correlate spirit and matter with good and evil, respectively. The ancient religious tradition known as Manichaeism, for instance, suggested that matter was inherently bad, and that the believer’s hope was effectively to escape the material world. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), bishop of a relatively obscure North African town, but one of the most influential of all Christian theologians was for some time an adherent of this movement, admiring its ascetic seriousness and the account it gave of the obvious evils present in the world. His awareness of this position later helped inform his very different cosmology, whose articulation is one of his great contributions to Christian thought.

Although the Christian account of creation is fundamentally different from Manichaean dualism, readers of the Bible will recall echoes of such radical distinctions. Most obviously, the Pauline language of ‘flesh’ and the Johannine terminology of ‘world’ use these particular ideas as metonyms – words related to the thing they are concerned to speak of, but used as though they were the thing itself.

This is rhetorically powerful but easy to misunderstand. Although John’s Gospel at times speaks of the ‘world’ as shorthand for human and cosmic evil (John 7:7, 8:23, 14:17) at other points it is clear that the ‘world’ is precisely what Jesus has come to save (above all, of course, 3:16; cf 6:33, 8:12 etc.).

Similarly, Paul’s use of ‘flesh’ to speak about forms of human life that are self-serving and egocentric does not actually entail a rejection of human embodiment (see Rom 7-8; cf. 1:3, 9:5); Paul can also speak of the body as a temple (1 Cor 6:19; cf. 3:16-17) and he looks for the renewal of embodied existence in the resurrection (1 Cor 15).

Yet this language does reflect a widespread ancient view that matter itself was not only a lesser sort of reality than spirit, but inherently problematic. Greek and Roman philosophers tended to see matter as eternal, not created; it had existed along with spiritual things for ever, but was formed or animated into the cosmic order we know by the infusion or imprint of spiritual or heavenly reality. This logic does not make matter evil, but certainly draws a stark distinction between its value and that of spiritual and intellectual things.

Some forms of Christian belief have even seen the very fact of material existence, and human embodiment in particular, as reflecting the biblical view of the human and cosmic condition as sinful or fallen. Yet of course the Judeo-Christian account of creation depicts the material world, including human bodies, as an intended part of the divine order. The fact of material existence says nothing in itself about what ails us as human race, or as fallen universe.

A more authentic Christian understanding rejects a strict dualism of matter and spirit, granted that it may make other important distinctions between them. It would be better, at least initially, to think of Christianity as a distinctive sort of ‘monism’, a system affirming one sole ultimate reality. All spiritual and material realities alike then come into being through God’s gratuitous creative work, and all are contingent, having their original source and their ultimate meaning from and in God. God is the sole self-existent reality, utterly transcendent of creation, but bringing it into existence as a free act.

In that case, the differences between one element of creation and another may be significant for many purposes, but not relative to the shared dependence all things have on God. Recognition of God’s uniqueness and transcendence has a levelling effect on assumptions that would devalue one set of created things relative to another. Theologies which assume that the spiritual is in itself superior to the embodied or material, and which derive ethical norms from such observation, are dubious. Yet this recognition does depend on making a very strong (even 'dualistic') distinction between God and creation itself.

'Dualism' is therefore not necessarily the easy target some eco-theological discourse makes it; it is just as important to consider what sort of dualities are being proposed, and why.


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