Setting Out Delving In

So here’s the thing;

If we see the world in dualistic terms then matter/material is, in some way, separate from the spiritual/immaterial. If this is, in anyway true then that which cannot be measured tangibly in space/ time cannot fully participate in the stuff of this world. We can talk about mixture, of transcendental union but essentially they are different.

If we see the world in monistic terms then matter/material is, in some way, connected/related to the spiritual/immaterial. If this is, in anyway true then that which can be measured tangibly in space and time is able to fully participate in the source of life/sustaining power of this world. We can talk about the fear of pantheism, of matter being God but essentially they are the same.

The power of the story of Jesus is not that one man could be God but that one God could be man. The shocking truth of the incarnation is that the Divine spark, the power behind our genesis became enfleshed. This is not the same as the Greek myths of a divine dress-up/play acting; this is matter humming with immaterial essence.

It is easy to speak of a dualistic existence and incorporate the mystery of the incarnation but what if it’s more beautiful than that? What if the incarnation isn’t the Divine intervening, breaking through into reality for the first time? What if it was the fullest revelation of a truth that He was there all along? What if matter is, in some way an echo of the Divine?

This does not mean that we worship those echoes. This does not mean that we, who consist of matter, are gods. What this means is that the immaterial/spiritual is the measure of reality. As I say that, however, I’m struck by how quickly the division between the material and the immaterial crops up in my dialogue. What if there is no distinction? How do we speak of God in monistic terms without it turning to pantheism which belittles the personal God who loves and was expressed in the incarnation Himself?

The Stoics offer a metaphysical suggestion.

 They [the Stoics] think that there are two principles of the universe, that which acts and that which is acted upon. That which is acted upon is unqualified substance, i.e. matter; that which acts is the reason [logos] in it, i.e. god. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers)

For the Stoics, all that exists must be corporeal and therefore both these principles are ‘bodies’ but made of different elements. The world is made up of the different states one substance in different states of being. This substance, for the Stoics, is expressed purely in a purifying fire. The passive principle is associated with earth and water denser expressions of this ‘fire’, the active principle is associated with air and fire. The question must be asked, within this understanding of a united world, what then differentiates one element from another?

The Stoics… explain all the formal or identifying characteristics of objects by reference to the presence, within their matter, of a divine principle that activates and shapes them. (Anthony Long and David Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers: vol.1)

For the Stoics, humans, as bodies, are matter, or the ‘passive principle’, with the divine, or ‘active principle’, within it.

The understanding of the interaction between the passive and active principle does not help, however, to distinguish elements from each other. Indeed, the elements themselves, as part of a unified world order, are from the same ‘designing fire’.

The introduction of the concept of tenor (tonos), or tension, helps here.

In his books On tenorshe [Chrysippus] again says…‘The sustaining air is responsible for the quality of each of the bodies which are sustained by tenor…’ Yet they maintain that matter, which is of itself inert and motionless, is everywhere the substrate for qualities, and that qualities are breaths and aeriform tensions which give form and shape to the parts of matter in which they come to be. (Alexander of Aphrodisias, On mixture and growth)

This opening theory sounds, at first, as ancient and ignorant hocus-pocus and memories of early medicinal practice jump up as a naive reminder that we’ve moved on and developed. What if there is something behind it that might help us to work towards a notion of God’s logos as eternally present in matter, expressed most fully in the incarnation. The incarnation, not as a metaphysical, mysterious mixture of Divine and matter for the first time but the pinnacle of reality which points us to a character of the Divine in whom we find our truth and essential being?

So here’s the thing;

There’s a pull on my heart to explore an alternative to the dualistic and escapist view prevalent in in some circles and to try and offer a God humming through His creation. It could lead me to heresy and the darkness of self-delusion but within a community of wise and loving interaction I feel safe in the knowledge of potential forgiveness and the quote of Ernest Hemingway rings in my ear,

Only those who are prepared to go too far can possibly know how far they can go.


  1. Love this, Ned! Love that you’re doing this thinking (and sorry I’m not still at Cranmer to be enjoying the fruits of it at meal times!)
    Have you read any John Macquarrie? I think that some of his stuff on the doctrine of God (especially In Search of Deity – the earlier stuff is really different) might chime with your explorations. He terms what he writes as panentheism. Not quite as radical as monism, but not dualism and not too muddied by the social trinity! I have always really loved his take on the 2 natures of Christ: not about static ‘natures’ at all, but – what if God is always going beyond himself into creation… and what if human beings are the point at which the natural realm which is always going beyond itself becomes personal… if these two movements were to meet it would look like Jesus Christ.

    Hope you can keep going with this thinking. I think the church/theologyare much, much more dualistic than we generally admit to ourselves!

    1. Thanks for this, George.

      I haven’t come across Macquarrie so thank you for highlighting his work. I think monism is probably the wrong concept, certainly as pure monism. Emergent monsim seems to balance dualism whilst not going fully down the pantheistic road. Panentheism I have heard about and will continue to explore the possibility. Would you recommend Tillich on this issue?


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