Thursday, December 30, 2010

Death to Dualism

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the biggest theological challenge for The Salvation Army is to overcome dualistic thinking. In many ways, we should be well prepared for this challenge - our mission explicitly encompasses both spiritual and temporal aspects. However, I can't help but wonder if this very articulation of a dual mission is itself contributing towards an unhelpful theological framework.

Part of the difficulty lies in some thinking that we've inherited from our founder "no one ever got saved while they had a toothache". This simple statement reflects a continuum of assistance that begins with helping people's physical needs and concludes with the guarantee of eternal life. It's a way of thinking that is bolstered by an interpretation of Maslow's heirarchy of needs, which has a foundation of material necessity and builds towards a pinnacle of spiritual fulfillment. So what's wrong with this?
  1. It suggests that assisting people with material problems is only (or at least 'more') valid if we're moving them towards the spiritual goal of conversion. This places us in an ethically inferior position to people of secular persuasion who just offer help because it's the right thing to do.
  2. It invariably prioritises 'spiritual' work over social work.
  3. It fails to fully recognise God's presence in the world, redeeming suffering and calling us to partnership in this task. Instead, it implies a removed God, waiting in Heaven for us to send our converts skyward.

There's a lot of talk about holistic mission but I think this worthy goal is fundamentally flawed whilst we continue to separate the material and the spiritual. Somehow we need to move beyond thinking that physically helping people is a means to spiritual outcomes and even beyond dividing our work to include both social and spiritual tasks. We need to rediscover the spiritual reality that is implicit in a compassionate response to someone in need. For the person with an unbearable toothache, in that moment, 'salvation' is relief from pain.

I've suggested previously that this is what the idea of 'sacrament' is all about - seeing beyond what appears to be physically present in the moment. Good sacramental theology understands that such thinking doesn't denigrate the physical but in fact infuses the material with spiritual significance. It's a 'panentheistic' way of thinking for those of you who like the big words.

I'm fully aware that this prompts more questions than it answers but I'm happy to do that. I'm also quite prepared to acknowledge that I don't have all of the answers. However, I do think that it is exactly these kind of questions that we must be asking because most of the time we're not even aware of our dualistic presuppositions.

I'm not sure William Booth finally resolved this question but I think there's a hint of the right direction here:

Someone asked Booth “what about the Salvation Army proper? Has
it suffered from the competition of the Social Work?” “I know what you mean,”
Booth responded; “but in my estimation it is all the Salvation Army proper. We
want to abolish these distinctions, and make it as religious to sell a guernsey
or feed a hungry man as it is to take up a collection in the barracks. It is all
part of our business, which is to save the world – body and soul, for time and
for eternity” (The War Cry, 1889, quoted in Fairbank, Booth’s Boots, 1983, page


Cameorn said...

The Army used to talk about 'soup, soap and salvation.' Yet in most cases this is interpreted as 'soup and soap to get salvation.'

We also seem to have imbued the word 'holistic' with 'spiritual first' connotations. Caring for the 'soul' seems to be a necessary part of being holistic, but caring for the body (or other parts of the person) are quite optional.

Hang on, I blogged about this thinking a few years ago:

It's interesting that you locate this problem theologically as a false sense of dualism. I'm slowly rejecting more and more of dualistic thinking, especially as it relates to the person. I'm not sure it makes sense to speak of a 'soul' or 'spirit' that is somehow distinguishable from the body, except as an emergent property of that body. For me, the proverbial glass of water is as spiritual as any gospel presentation.

David said...

Thanks for that - wow, is that your insight, Jason?

John T. said...

Dualism is part of the cultural baggage of Hellenism and the Roman empire. Closely connected to this Hellenist philosophy is cultural assumptions about the nature of God. The pre-christian Hellenist Gods were personalities that inhabited the heavens or other places and only sporadically visited this earthly realm - e.g. Jupiter/Zeus from which the greek word theos is derived.

The god of Israel (eloihim and Yahwey) however is with the people - camping (tabernaccling) with the people. "Immanuel" means god with us.

The very notion of "revelation" is a dualist notion - as if God inhabits some other realm and only reveals godself to people in special times. But the biblical God is ever-present and the only reason people cannot see god is because people are blind - not because God hides.

Hellenist christendom has simply re-branded its old cultural and religious assumptions of the nature of god and reality but it has nothing to do with the culture or philosophy of the bible writers.

The cultural construction of religion - which is much broader than the issue of dualism - is of most relevance when we try and build community with or even evangalise to people from cultures outside of western civilisation, such as Aboriginal people who have a holistic cosmology not unlike the spirituality of the tribal indigenous Hebrews.

The imperial/colonial church has imposed the culture and tradition of Western civilisation over and above any biblical spirituality. This goes to the core of belief including the prescriptions (and anathematisations) of the Nicene Creed.

You have opened a big can of worms if you are prepared to pursue the implications of rejecting dualism.