A Letter to an Inquirer Stating the Errors of Radical Non-dualism
Or Christ vs. Shankara
I have come to the point where I have realized that radical non-dualism1 is one of the greatest dangers facing seekers of our time. Interestingly, Islam seems to be very susceptible to non-dualistic metaphysics. Perhaps, this is why Guénon and Schuon became Muslims. On the other hand, there are hardly any radically non-dualistic Christians, and those are outliers. Even Meister Eckhart doesn’t go so far as the Vedantins, but Eckhart’s errors were corrected by John Ruusbroec among others. Whatever truths there may be in non-dualism have been expressed lucidly by Saint Maximus the Confessor and Saint Symeon the New Theologian, but without the egregious errors of the Vedantins and the Akbari Sufis2, and without denying the personality of God. In fact, Christianity is a great antidote against the proponents of undifferentiated being, since it prioritizes the hypostases. And, Eastern Christianity, I have also come to realize is the heir to the Hellenic tradition I love so much.
One of the really interesting things that I have realized is that D. H. Lawrence criticized Western Christianity, particularly Protestantism, but in his criticisms he was putting forth very old Orthodox Christian ideas, perhaps without realizing it. Other than the fact that I think that DHL and Origen/Maximus/Symeon drank from some of the same wells, I think the similarities come down to a utilization of similar sources: the Bible and the ancient Greeks. Much more of the ancient wisdom than I first expected made it's way into Eastern Christianity, but more than that, it seems like the Orthodox also absorbed and adapted various practices from the mystery religions of Dionysus and Demeter. The Liturgy suffused every aspect of the life of Greek peasants as recently as the 1970s. More recently, certain elements of Orthodox doctrine and practice seem to have ossified, probably due to an influx of Protestant converts and reactions stemming from the onslaught of communism in Eastern Orthodox countries during the last century. Nevertheless, there are some really amazing and vibrant Orthodox works that have been written in the last century, such as those of Bulgakov, Florensky, and Yannaras. More so than the theological works, the poets, such as Solovyov, Elytis, and Sikelianos show that they have imbued the truth that “every thing that lives is Holy.” Since the Orthodox never really had to engage with radical non-dualists, there have not been many direct criticisms, but the various late essays of Philip Sherrard (see the essay Christianity and the Metaphysics of Logic in his book Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition) really do show how wrong Guénon, Schuon, and certain Vedantists were in their metaphysical views3. Any time the transcendent OR the immanent is denied, it is a disaster for the person who denies one of these sides of Reality4.
Two of DHL’s poems, namely, Maximus, and Man of Tyre along with Cavafy’s poem One of their Gods really show poetically how various forms of the Divine can be right in front of us. A flower is holy and partakes of God, but is not God. God is both transcendent and immanent. God is in all, but God in all is not the limit of God. All is in God, but as some Orthodox may state, one achieves his or her eternal immortality through existence within Christ, but that is not an absorption. This is where the old Orthodox authors (and certain poetically minded Catholics) would really scandalize the Protestants, since all this imagery is very erotic. But how true it is. Two lovers become one, yet are two. It is a paradox that expresses reality in a far deeper manner than our artificial logical methods of thinking can account for5.
I do think, along with Sherrard, that a lack of access to the Greek sources, particularly Plato, impoverished the Western tradition. I wonder what the trajectory of Western Christianity would have been if more people paid attention to Eriugena’s Periphyseon.
Late Hellenistic religion may have descended into anthropomorphism, but for the pre-Platonic Greeks, Zeus was not an old man on a mountain, but one aspect of the Holy. I always felt Islam’s view of the Holy to be rather limiting, and modern Protestantism goes even farther. Lawrence wrote a marvelous and hilarious essay called On Being Religious about how silly and tame the Protestant idea of God is. God is out there, but he is also looking over one’s shoulder wondering why the person is oblivious.
I definitely understand why some would sacrifice the immanent for the transcendent. Despite both being part of reality and necessary, there, ontologically, is no immanent without a notion of the transcendent, so defense of the transcendent must take priority, especially in these materialistic times6.
I think a distinction must be made between Islam as most Muslims understand it, and Sufi Islam. The fact is, for most Muslims, God is radically transcendent. The problem is that without the doctrine of the incarnation, that radical transcendence opens itself up, via a back door to an inversion in which it becomes radical immanence. This is precisely what Guénon and Schuon did, but they pulled off this perversion of Islam because they were never really Muslims, as such, in doctrine, but were both Hindu Advaitists disappointed by the fact that they could not, at that time, convert to Hinduism.
It isn’t a popular opinion, but I follow Aurobindo in finding the Upanishads a perversion of the living Fire based religion of the Vedas. Additionally, even within Hinduism, the radical non-dualism of Shankara is often viewed with scorn, and the philosophies of Ramanuja, et al. are followed. It is only with the advent of New Age gurus coming to the West that this whole non-dualistic fad came to be7.
Explaining this further, in simple language, think of it this way: if one takes the Islamic perspective and states that God is radically transcendent, but also radically one, then there are really only two paths forward, one being the traditional dualism of classical Islam, which recognizes a divide between the Creator and His creation. The other option is the path that the radical non-dualists take, namely stating God is one, and there is no duality. If God is one and there is no duality, then one falls into the vedantic fallacies, which state that all is God, tat tvam asi, and that all of manifestation is maya, an illusion. Hence, the radically transcendent becomes the radically immanent: we are God self-reflexively looking at God, and once the illusion disappears, all is absorbed into an undifferentiated absolute. Obviously, both of these views are mistaken.
On the other hand, the incarnation and trinity, in my view, preclude either of these understandings of transcendence and immanence, preventing the possibility of radical non-dualism, hence Guénon and Schuon leaving Christianity. The cross is not just a symbol, but THE symbol. The vertical axis represents transcendence, whereas the horizontal axis represents immanence. If God is both transcendent and immanent, and the transcendent Father became man, and hence immersed Himself in the realm of immanence, neither a radical division between Creator and creation, nor a radical unity between them is possible, namely it precludes the possibility of going too far to either one extreme or the other. The Holy Spirit is symbolized as the center of the cross, the great mediator between transcendence and immanence, existing in a perpetual flux. As stated in Hebrews 10:31, God is “living”. God is not static, not pure being, but is being and becoming. I am stretching the limits of language here, but perhaps G. M. Hopkins stated it best in That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
I am what Christ is, and he was what I am, NOT I am Christ and he is I. Panentheism, not pantheism. God is in all and all are in God, but not that God is all and all are God. Any form of Christian pantheism wouldn’t make sense, because it would deny the Father. Any form of Christian deism, which seems to be all too prevalent today, also wouldn’t make sense, since it would deny the Son (which incidentally many liberal Protestant churches do by rejecting the divinity of Christ). All true Christian metaphysics must veer towards the center, the Center of the Spirit, mediator between the threefold aspects of Reality. This is something the early church fathers were aware of. When God manifested Himself into Creation in the form of the Son, it was a profound gesture of love, which demonstrated that God loved His creation and its creatures enough to enter into it and become a creature Himself. When Jesus died and was resurrected, it was another profound gesture of love that demonstrated beings in the flesh may ascend to spirit. So, there is this amazing two-way street, where there is a positive view of reality and the self, and where even the greatest sinner can have hope (on which see the marvelous Unspoken Sermons by George Macdonald). Additionally, and only tangentially related, is how the doctrine of theosis precludes any understanding that the body or creation is something evil. If the body is resurrected (even if not literally, but as a subtle spiritual body), and since God chose willingly to become man, He demonstrated His love and reverence for human beings, as well as all of Creation in a way that much of Christendom has failed to appreciate.
I will stop here.
Reading this may give you a newfound love of Creation or prompt you to shout “Idol worship!” I think I am presenting the Eastern Orthodox view, as well as I can comprehend it—but from the perspective of an outsider. It sometimes takes an outsider to see things most clearly. But, as you said in your inquiry, there is a fine line between the truth and heresy or blasphemy. I think it will come as no surprise that my favorite Christian theologians are Bulgakov and Origen, both of whom came close to being anathematized by Orthodox authorities (the case of Origen is murkier than that of Bulgakov). Even Maximus, whose writings I adore, and who is counted orthodox, had his tongue and a hand cut off for heresy, prior to being vindicated at the sixth ecumenical council. If I am labeled a heretic, so be it; but understand that my sincere desire is to find the good, true, and beautiful – and not lead anyone astray by my search.
Thank you for taking the time to read these reflections and thoughts.
I differentiate radical non-dualism from qualified non-dualism, because there is certainly truth in limited forms of non-dualism, which respect the person. On the other hand, radical forms of non-dualism are pro-Machine, since they are reductive, reducing everything down to a simple logical proposition, and humanity destroying, just like the Machine. Radical non-dualism is nihilistic, since after death the person is destroyed, absorbed into the undifferentiated Brahman. This is no better than radical atheistic materialism. Orthodox (lower-case “o”) Christian forms of non-dualistic metaphysics may claim that there is one source or ground of being, but God is not impersonal, and through God’s love, individuals were created that may never be destroyed(c.f. No Coward Soul by Emily Brontë) . One may technically exist as a god within God or Christ, but that said person would still exist with memories and personality. A man or woman who achieves theosis, is on a path of becoming towards God that makes him or her infinitely more godlike, but yet never God. There is one, but there are also many, and this is the great truth of the ancient Greeks and also the Trinity. Without this paradox religion falls either into gross dualism or nihilistic non-dualism.
Followers of the philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabi
There is really no substitute for a close reading of Sherrard’s essay, so rather than reiterate Sherrard’s arguments, I will leave it to the interested reader to seek out this readily available text.
Guénon and Schuon may, throughout their texts, pay lip-service to both the transcendent and immanent, but their metaphysical understanding of Reality is informed almost exclusively through readings of Shankara. Shankara, ultimately claims that the immanent and transcendent are collapsed within an undifferentiated unity. If only one Absulote exists, and if you and I are illusions, then that is nihilism pure and simple. Guénon and Schuon seldom took things so far, but the end stage of their thought trajectory is the undifferentiated Brahman. It is much easier to turn Allah into the undifferentiated Brahman than to pull the same trick with Christianity, hence my implicit and explicit criticisms of Islamic metaphysics.
See, for instance, the works of John Moriarty, and various texts describing ancient Egyptian logic. Our modern, binary, logic is not the only form of logic!
Both the immanent and transcendent should be defended. One sometimes must weild a double-edged metaphysical sword to fight the radical immanence of modern-day Spinozans, on one hand, and the radical transcendence of dualistic-thinking exoteric religionists on the other.
Why western people choose to engage with false gurus, such as Nisargadatta Maharaj, rather than Christianity or Islam, makes no sense to me. Perhaps Slavoj Žižek was correct when he claimed that Western Buddhism and Hinduism were simply highly complementary to late-capitalism. True Christianity is fundamentally incapatible with capitalism, so white, upper-middle-class middle-managers feel much more comfortable with the weekend retreats offered by degraded forms of eastern religions.