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
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
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
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
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
... dualism is the view that reality is of two distinct and
irreducible kinds ... 
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
damaging tensions are, says Fritjof Capra,
... an inevitable consequence of the ancient dichotomy between
substance (matter, structure, quantity) and form (pattern, order,
quality) ... 
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
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.
 A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM
 Zeno and the Tortoise, Nicholas Fearn, Atlantis Books, 2001
 Article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Collier-Macmillan,
 The Web of Life, Flamingo, 1997