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“That God may be all in all”: Christianity and Nonduality

Timothy / Τιμόθεος

Jan 16, 2021


Interest in the ancient Christian doctrine of deification, or theosis, has exploded in recent decades among Western theologians. Put simply, this doctrine asserts that salvation is, in some way, a process of the soul ‘becoming God,’ or as Clement of Alexandria (150–215) put it, “being assimilated to God as far as possible.”[1] Previously deemed the unique heritage of Eastern Christianity, the doctrine of deification was largely forgotten in the West throughout the last few centuries. Recent scholarship and ressourcement of the early Church Fathers has revealed, however, that deification was commonly taught throughout the early Church, in both the East and the West.


The rediscovery of deification in Western theology has led to an excited clamour of theologians re-reading their own traditions, discovering promises of ‘becoming God’ in the writings of both the Latin Fathers and the European Reformers. The Finnish School of Luther studies, for instance, has shown how Luther’s teaching of salvation owed more to the ancient doctrine of deification than previously thought. Rather than justification through faith being a purely juridical forgiveness of sin, Luther publicly taught that “God became man so that man may become God,” and that “through faith we become gods and partakers of the divine nature and name.”[2]


This rediscovery of deification in Western Christianity is exciting for several reasons. Firstly, it tells us that the authentic, historical teaching of Christianity on the afterlife was — and is — much more sophisticated than the caricatures of heaven and hell that most westerners encountered as children. Deification presents the spiritual life (both before and after death) as a process of becoming one with God, being assimilated to God, partaking in the divine nature, and ultimately, in some sense, ‘becoming God.’ According to Gregory of Nyssa (335–395), this process is an endless journey of desire and ecstasy: “There is no limit that would interrupt growth in the ascent to God.”[3] In a cultural milieu where traditional depictions of heaven and hell are derided as childish (as, indeed, they often are), the doctrine of deification offers, for many people, a more compelling spiritual alternative.


Secondly, this discovery has opened up vast possibilities for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. The rediscovery of deification in Western Christianity has opened up common ground with the Eastern Orthodox Churches that was previously unacknowledged, as the work of the Finnish School demonstrates. Beyond Christianity, too, this view of salvation as a process of ‘becoming (one with / assimilated to) God’ has potential parallels with the ‘nondual’ metaphysics of Vedic and East Asian religions: that is, metaphysics that reject distinctions between Creator and creature (and subject/object, knower/known, self/other, etc.), or which view all of reality as a single underlying unity. Nondual metaphysics are exemplified in Advaita Vedānta Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, both of which are, in turn, exemplary of their broader traditions. These ‘nondual’ parallels offer potential common ground for interfaith comparison.


Contemporary claims of “nondual Christianity”

Beyond the doctrine of deification, allegedly nondual elements within Christianity have been noted by many authors in recent decades. Figures such as Richard Rohr, Willigis Jäger, Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault have argued that the Christian contemplative tradition shares many elements with the nondual teachings and modes of experience found in Vedic and East Asian religions. According to this theory, the unitive stage of Christian spiritual life, in which the soul is mystically united to God, is roughly equivalent with the experience of nonduality that practitioners of Buddhism and Advaita Vedānta aim to realise.


Rohr, a Franciscan priest, frequently uses ‘contemplative’ and ‘nondual’ as synonyms, an identification found also in the Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgault’s writings. These two authors are frequent guests at the “Science and Nonduality” conferences, alongside various Buddhist and Hindu academics. Willigis Jäger, a Benedictine priest, became a Zen master and founded a Zen lineage in Germany. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian abbot and founder of the Centering Prayer movement, was also involved in interreligious dialogue on the basis on nonduality and contemplation throughout his life.


Fr Richard Rohr — photo courtesy of Whitaker House

Richard Rohr has written “I am convinced that Jesus was the first nondual religious teacher of the West […] In his life and ministry, Jesus modeled and exemplified nonduality more than giving us any systematic teaching on it.” Although Rohr has often courted controversy, he may have a point in this regard. The Incarnation is a union between Creator and created nature — that is, the human nature of Christ — that transcends, or reconciles, the Creator-creature distinction.


Even the eloquent Martin Laird, an Augustinian priest and Professor of Historical Theology at Villanova University, makes assertions of nonduality that preclude a strict Creator-creature distinction. “Union with God is not something we acquire by a technique, but the grounding truth of our lives,” he writes in Into the Silent Land. “We are and have always been one with God.”[4] For Laird, separation from God is an illusion which contemplative practice gradually eliminates. In An Ocean of Light, Laird writes, “Our ‘hiddenness with Christ in God’ contains no separate ‘me,’ but a self-forgetting, self-giving ‘we.’ […] Contemplative practice gradually dispels the illusion of the separation of God.”[5] Laird has highlighted the commonalities between this spiritual vision and the nondual teachings of Buddhism, notably in his 2019 speech “Contemplation and Meditation” at the International Symposium of Bhutan Studies.


Nonduality in the New Testament

The basis for these claims about “nondual Christianity” lie in the Bible. Throughout the New Testament, salvation is frequently displayed as a process of unification and becoming One. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus prays “that they may all be one, as thou, Father, art one in me, and I in You, that they may be one in Us” [John 17:21]. In his Second Epistle, Peter writes that through the promises of Christ we will become “partakers of the divine nature” [1 Peter 1:4], a passage usually cited as the basis for the doctrine of deification. John, in his First Epistle, writes “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” [1 John 3:2], and when this happens, Paul tells us, “we will all, beholding the glory of the Lord, be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory” [2 Cor 3:18] and God will be “all in all” [1 Cor 15:28].


Beyond these passages, various New Testament passages arguably imply a blurring of the Creator-creature distinction, especially in the incorporation of individual believers into the unity of Christ. According to Paul, “as many of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female: for all are one in Christ Jesus” [Gal 3:27–28]. In this vision, individual identities seem to fall away; as elsewhere, incorporation into Christ is depicted as a unifying process that transforms the creature into ‘part’ of the Creator: “you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it” [1 Cor 12:27].


The many beyond the One: Challenges to nondual interpretations

There is clearly a strong current within Christian theology that views union with God as the ultimate spiritual destination. This is apparent from the writings of the Fathers on deification, the words of the New Testament, and the priority of unio mystica in contemplative mysticism — literally “oneing,” as Julian of Norwich (1343–1416) called it.


This is not the same, however, as the Advaita or Mahayana nondualism, and comparisons with nondualistic metaphysics must be very carefully qualified. Despite the overarching emphasis on union — oneing — with God, Christian theology maintains several features that preserve dualistic, even pluralistic, distinctions, affirming the real existence of the ‘many’ beyond the One.


For starters, Christianity has continually affirmed the distinction between Creator and creature. This distinction was at the heart of many early Christian controversies, especially the Arian Controversy in the fourth century, which surrounded the identity of Jesus Christ: Is Jesus a created being, as Arius (250–336) preached, or uncreated, and equal to God the Father? At the Council of Nicaea in 325 and again at Constantinople in 381, the Church reached a consensus: as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed states, Jesus is “one in being with the Father, begotten, not made.” The theologian and bishop Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390), who was present at the Council of Constantinople, stressed this distinction endlessly. In his poem On the Son, Gregory writes “but if […] you should consign Christ to the realm of creatures […] then you have robbed the Father of His Son. For everything which once lacked existence is subject to dissolution again into nothing,”[6] a fate that may await unredeemed creatures, but is impossible for Christ.


‘The Creation of Adam,’ from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco

Furthermore, while the promise of Christian salvation may be union with God, this is not a direct and unmediated realisation of nonduality as in Advaita Hinduism or Mahayana Buddhism. The union which Christians hope for is a mediated union, mediated by the God-man Jesus Christ, in whom the reconciliation between creation and Creator is accomplished and the subsequent divine union is made possible. Before God can be “all in all,” Paul writes, first Jesus “must reign, till he hath put all enemies under His feet […] And when all things shall be subdued to Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subdued unto Him [that is, the Father] that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all” [1 Cor 15:25–28].


In this respect, attempts by writers such as Rohr, Jäger and Bourgeault to depict Christ as a messenger of a nondual ‘perennial philosophy’ risk falling short of Christian orthodoxy. Searching for commonalities between contemplative traditions is a laudable process in interfaith dialogue, but it should proceed on honest premises. For Christians, Christ is the very locus and means of divine union, not a teacher of an interfaith metaphysical system or a ‘higher consciousness’ that can also be found in Advaita or Zen.


Christian metaphysics also differ from the nondualist metaphysics of Eastern religions in another important manner. In Christian cosmology, the created cosmos is real, not illusory. People, animals and objects of nature have real and substantial identities, ousia; persons have real souls. In this respect, no similarity to Advaitan nondualism, or Buddhist Śūnyatā (emptiness), can be found.


Traditional Christian eschatology teaches that in the final consummation of the world, the substance of creation will continue to exist, albeit in a transformed and glorified state. In the book of Revelation, John the Presbyter receives a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” while the One seated on the Throne cries out, “Behold, I make all things new” [Rev 21]. In the Eschaton, the created cosmos is transformed, retaining its substance and identity. As the theologian David Bentley Hart has written, “the promised Kingdom of God will be nothing but this world restored and transfigured by the glory of God, in its every dimension, vegetal, animal, rational, and social.” In Christian cosmology, the reality of the multitude of created substances and identities is affirmed; they are not illusions to be dispelled by spiritual awakening.


The saints in heaven, from Fra Angelico’s ‘The Last Judgement’

Between the One and the Many: Deification and Paradox

What are we to make of this? It seems fair to assert that there is, indeed, a “qualified nondual” element within Christianity, a strong theological current pointing towards a final union — of God, of mankind, of creation, when God will be “all in all.” This is not, however, the nondualism of East Asian or Vedic religions. Christian metaphysics differ drastically from the nondual system of Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist doctrines of emptiness. Christian theology affirms the Creator-creature distinction; the divine union with God is mediated by God’s Incarnate Son, in whom the reconciliation of all things is achieved; and whatever this final union looks like, it preserves the manifold substances and identities of creation.


How can we reconcile these two theological elements, these opposing pictures of the One and the many? The One God calls the multitude of creatures to Godself: deifying union is promised through Christ’s mediation, but the plurality of created identities remains. Perhaps these two promises are irreconcilable, or perhaps they find their resolution in a mystery that we cannot imagine. Some theologians have attempted to resolve this tension through creative innovations. The Greek bishop Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), for example, developed the “essence-energies distinction” that became paradigmatic in Eastern Orthodox theology partially in response to this problem. According to Gregory Palamas, created beings can partake of God’s divinising energies, while God’s divine essence remains unknowable and inaccessible to us creatures. The possibility of deification, partaking in the divine nature, was thus affirmed, while the essential Creator-creature distinction was maintained, the tension balanced by Gregory’s mystical system.


Nonetheless, a tension remains: between unity and plurality, deification and created identity. Christian theology, however, has no problems with paradox. The mysteries of Christian faith often maintain tension between contrary affirmations, paradoxes that preserve the mystery at the depths of theology. Just as we can worship the mystery of one God in three Persons, or a saviour who is fully God and fully man, so too can we adore the mystery of God who calls all of creation to the destiny of divine union. How this will happen, or what this will look like, nobody knows. Nonetheless, we trust that when God becomes “all in all,” we will not only remain ourselves, but become our true selves most fully: being our same created identities, transformed, while also “becoming God.”


[1] Clement, The Seventh Book, 27. Quoted in Michael J. Christensen, “The Problem, Promise and Process of Theosis” in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions, ed. Michael J. Christensen and Jeffrey A. Wittung (Baker Academic: 2008), p. 25.

[2] These quotes are taken from Luther’s Christmas Sermon of 1514 and a later sermon on Matthew 8:1–13, translated in What Luther Says: An Anthology, edited by E. M. Plass (Concordia Publishing House: 1957).

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 2.239.

[4] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, pp. 15–16

[5] Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation, pp. 56–67

[6] Gregory of Nazianzus, Poemata Arcana: “On the Son,” translated by D.A. Sykes, Clarendon Press: Oxford.