The term dualism is perhaps best defined generally, as follows:
A system or tendency of thought which attempts to explain (and interpret) reality (or an existing situation) in terms of two principles, which are usually understood as being opposed to each other or in conflict.
Many different sorts of dualistic structures are attested in religion and philosophy; however, from the standpoint of an ancient worldview or way of thinking, as being most relevant to early Christianity and the New Testament Scriptures, there are four in particular which may be isolated:
1. Cosmological—There are two opposing principles which control and govern the world. In terms of the phenomenology of religion, this is expressed as two beings (deities), or groups/classes of beings—that is, the divine powers, personified or understood as persons. Frequently in cosmological and theological myths, the basic world order and structure of the universe is given shape by way of conflict (and battle) between deities; often such conflict is thought to continue, in some form, throughout time and history—whether during the natural seasons and cycles, or in a progression of world history. For Western students of myth and religion, the Theogony by the Greek writer Hesiod contains what is probably the best known account of cosmological conflict. Typically the classical Persian (Zoroastrian) religious cosmology is cited as the most obvious system expressing a theological dualism—perennial opposition between Ahura Mazda (Spenta Mainyu, the good Spirit) and the Angra Mainyu (evil Spirit). Later Jewish tradition contains a somewhat similar kind of theological dualism (YHWH and the Angels vs. Satan, etc, and the ‘fallen’ Angels) which early Christianity inherited. The Community of the Qumran texts (cf. especially the “Community Rule” [1QS] and the War Scroll) expresses a strong dualistic worldview which is closely tied to their own group identity—as the “sons of light” vs the “sons of darkness”, etc.
2. Metaphysical—There two contrasting (and opposing) principles which make up the structure of the universe. Usually this is understood as a (sharp) contrast between physical matter/material (evil) and immaterial soul/spirit/mind (good). Not surprisingly, such a worldview tends to be more common in philosophical and wisdom traditions with a strong ethical (and ascetic) emphasis (cf. below). When scholars and writers refer to “dualism” in the context of early Christianity and “Gnosticism”, typically a form of metaphysical dualism is meant. According to the basic gnostic approach, the immaterial (divine) soul is trapped within the evil/fallen world of matter, and must be “rescued” or freed, by a combination of knowledge and a strict moral/ethical mode of behavior. However, it should be noted, that much that is associated with “Gnostic” dualism is commonly found in ascetic philosophy and religious tradition worldwide, from the Greco-Roman milieu (i.e. Platonism and the ‘Mystery’ cults, etc) to Hinduism/Buddhism in the East, and beyond. Early Christianity generally was cautious in this regard, and the New Testament writers (as well as later Proto-Orthodox authors) took care to check and moderate metaphysical and ascetic tendencies; even so, they occasionally made use of the same sort of dualistic language.
3. Anthropological—The human being is made up of two contrasting principles. In many ways, this sort of dualism is closely aligned with the metaphysical (cf. above); however, it is often found even in philosophical and religious traditions which do not especially emphasize a contrast between the immaterial (mind/soul/spirit) and evil matter. Early Christians, of course, inherited the basic Old Testament (and Jewish) view that the world (i.e. Creation), as the work of God, was fundamentally good. It was not so much the world (i.e. physical matter) itself that was fallen and corrupt, but the created beings (whether human or Angel) which were under the control of sin and evil. This view tended to focus the contrast (and conflict) within the person—the body vs. the soul/mind/spirit, or occasionally, the corrupted mind/soul vs. the ‘higher’ divine element. This contrast is best known in the New Testament from Paul’s letters—the opposition between “Spirit” and “flesh”, but occasionally formulated in other ways as well.
4. Ethical—The human being chooses (and must choose) between two contrasting/opposing principles. Here the common pairs—good vs. evil, true vs. false, light vs. darkness, above vs. below, et al—in dualistic thinking and expression are applied specifically in terms of human behavior. There are “Two Ways” for the person to follow: one leads to life, the other to death. The religious/philosophical standard and ideal, of course, emphasizes the “good”. Nearly all religions and philosophical traditions contain some form of ethical dualism; early Christianity made frequent use of this manner of expression.
To these four types of dualism, I might suggest a fifth:
5. Religious—Within a particular religious tradition, there are understood to be two contrasting modes of existence. Sectarian religion and religious group-identity often emphasizes the characteristics of ‘true’ and ‘false’ adherents and forms of the religion, etc. A rather different, special form of religious dualism could be termed spiritual (or spiritualist[ic]), which finds unique expression in certain strands of Christian tradition, due to the emphasis on the presence and work of the (Holy) Spirit. In this mode of thinking, the (inward) role of the Spirit is set in contrast to the outward, external aspects of religion (organized group setting, ritual, priesthood and ministerial office, etc), with the Spirit taking priority and precedence, occasionally to the exclusion of outward forms.
There are two other kinds of dualism which are sometimes discussed in modern philosophy and treatments of the subject, and which are perhaps worth mentioning here:
- Epistemological—A fundamental contrast between a situation or object as understood by the human mind as opposed to its “real” status and nature.
- Existential/sociological—A basic contrast between order and chaos, the rational vs. irrational, etc, as an underlying (if often unconscious) principle and ideal in the structuring and management of human society.
These various definitions and explanations should be useful for readers today, since terms such as “dualism” and “dualistic” are often used carelessly, especially when applied (and assumed) in a pejorative or negative sense. Christian readers may end up taking offense when one suggests that there may be “dualism” found in the New Testament Scriptures, if it is not clear just what is meant by the term as it is used in context.
For more on the specific kind of dualism associated with Gnostic thought and practice, cf. my recent article on “Gnosticism”, as well as the current series on “Gnosis and the New Testament”.