Monday, 11 September 2017

The Temptation of Non-Duality

The spiritual philosophy of non-duality is increasingly popular today but, while it claims to give a pure and unvarnished description of reality, I believe it rests on a metaphysical mistake. It derives from India, where it is known as advaita, and it basically reduces everything to undifferentiated oneness, regarding anything other than that as, to all intents and purposes, illusion. Thus it is prepared to offer multiplicity a conditional reality for those in a state of ignorance but ultimately sees it as unreal. A subtler grasp of how things are sees oneness and differentiation existing right down to the wire, being two parts of the one whole with the latter not in any way unreal, though still seen in the overall light of God. God is the source of everything, of course, but what he creates is real. It is important to get this right because our understanding of spiritual reality affects everything we think and do and feel and are.

Non-duality is a very easy philosophy to adopt and consequently think one has 'cracked the cosmic code'. It's also convenient in that it does away with God which suits the modern mentality very well. But if understood to mean that there is the One and nothing else has any reality at all, it rests on an error. Certainly all serious religion acknowledges the unity of God and see all life as his but rather than using this to deny the reality in creation a more alert understanding sees that God gives his life to creatures and that they then have their own life, given by him but still theirs, and that this is perfectly real. The absolute oneness posited by non-dualists only exists in the realm of the complete unmanifest and unexpressed. Move one metaphorical (or metaphysical) inch away from that and this oneness, though underlying all, is immediately qualified by other expressions of truth which must always be considered if one is to understand the whole. In fact, for the created being, which we all are, they are in a certain sense primary.

The contemporary Westerner is so indoctrinated with the scientific world view and so much in reaction against traditional Christianity that when he belatedly turns to any kind of spirituality he frequently, wittingly or unwittingly, requires that to fit in with his pre-existing human-centric atheism. Consequently God has become something of a non-necessity in contemporary spirituality which is why Buddhism is so attractive to many people nowadays. It seems to offer spirituality without the disadvantage of God but this is precisely one of its flaws  and why, whatever its historical necessity and appropriateness in its original time and place, it is not so suitable for Western people today. The cultural context is different and Buddhism tends to fortify existing deficiencies rather than correcting them as it might have done in the theistic context in which it arose. So much does depend on cultural context which is why Zen Buddhism would have been helpful for culturally conservative medieval Japanese while not being so for beat poets in the 1950s who were reacting against conventionalism already. They needed something with more structure that would counteract their particular excesses and we do too. That is why we need God. Of course everyone, Buddhists included, needs God but he may perhaps be set aside for a while if the concept of him has solidified and the image become more important than the reality which was the case at the time of the Buddha.

Non-dualists and Buddhists don't sufficiently appreciate that our nature is not a unity but a trinity, all parts of which make up the whole. That is to say, they focus on the uncreated part of our being, the part that never leaves the divine world, ignoring that this is only a part of what we are. In reality we are not just spirit overlaid by various unreal 'sheathes' but spirit, soul and body, all of which contribute towards the wholeness of our being, and if we deny any part of this then we are not living in truth. To mistake the highest part of our being for the only real part is an error which you might categorize as a kind of intellectual absolutism. In fact, our spiritual goal is not to return to unmanifest existence as though our life in a body was an irrelevance but to learn the lessons of incarnation in a material world, the primary lesson being that of self-sacrifice in love, and this we can only do by giving all parts of reality their full significance.




13 comments:

Count Gunther said...

Excellent post!

Bruce Charlton said...

"They needed something with more structure that would counteract their particular excesses and we do too. That is why we need God. Of course everyone, Buddhists included, needs God but he may perhaps be set aside for a while if the concept of him has solidified and the image become more important than the reality which was the case at the time of the Buddha."

Agreed. We need to be clear about what *we* need, now!

That is one (of many) problems with traditionalism/ conservatism - the current situation is (mostly) unique and unprecedented - the answers will not be found in the past (not least because the past was exactly what led to the present).

William Wildblood said...

Also agreed! I think we are approaching a similar position to that at the time of Christ when a new gospel, supplementing but also supplanting the OT was required because humanity had developed to the point of being ready for that. This doesn't mean that Christianity in its essence is outdated but it can be deepened, or perhaps elements of it that have not been emphasised enough in the past can be brought out and expanded.

Chris said...

Hi William,

Do you think that certain strains of non-duality represent more of a "temptation" than others?

For example, the panentheistic devotional forms of non-duality that affirm real differences would seem more acceptable to the traditional Christian.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, I think you're right, Chris. Any form of non-duality which is prepared to accept real differences on the level of the soul is ok. But then it's not non-duality in the strictest sense.

The bottom line is that oneness and difference co-exist. Also, as far as I am concerned, that the personal God is not subsumed into an impersonal absolute but is fundamental to the root of existence. But anything that accepts that creation is real (not neither real nor unreal, a piece of evasive sophistry in my view)is correct in my book.

Chris said...

Hi William,

So, from your pov, those traditions that insist that God alone exists but with real and permanent attributes would not exactly be "non-dual"? This perspective seems to be claiming that creation is something like the "body of God"- basically a qualified non-dualism.

William Wildblood said...

Looking at your comment again Chris I think I may have misunderstood it. Are you saying that the panentheistic forms of non duality are like a Trojan horse in that because they seem more easily aligned with Christianity they can be used to undermine it? If so I would have to say it all depends. It depends on whether the idea of the Trinity is subsumed in the non duality or not.

William Wildblood said...

Crossed comments! It's arguing over words really isn't it? All I would say is that all existence comes from God but he has created us as real individuals and what God creates is fully real.

Chris said...

William,

That was not quite what I was getting at, though it may turn out to be true. The tree I was barking up was whether or not non-duality as such is the "temptation" or is it more precisely non-theism that is the problem. Even though Advaita and, let's say, Vishishtadvaita, are both non-dual traditions, I'm inclined to say that the latter, though it claims that "all is one" is still more like the Occidental religions. This being the case because it is theistic and therefore fundamentally bhaktic.

William Wildblood said...

Chris, you're right. It is non-theism that is the problem. Advaita is fundamentally non-theistic even though it allows a creator of some sort a provisional kind of reality while Ramanuja's system is much closer to Christianity, about as close as you could be without actually having Christ at the centre.

Chris said...

I'm not convinced that non-theism is necessarily problematic . At the very least, it represents the rejection of philosophical materialism and it brings consciousness back into the discussion. Those developments are basically good and can act as a stepping stone to theism. That's how it was for me. ( I think for CS Lewis as well). Still, I'm tempted to say that a serious non-theist is preferable to a cultural Christian, or a deist or agnostic.

William Wildblood said...

I would agree with that. And I would say so much depends on motive which shows what is in the heart. But really it's all about what is true. The more our thoughts conform to what is actually true the better off we will be.

Chris said...

Indeed.

Vincit Omnia Veritas.