Arts and Culture

Holistic Spirituality and The Death of Dualism

by Father Robert Lauder

Fifth in a series

In trying to explain the difference between what might be called a traditional spirituality and a more contemporary spirituality in his excellent essay, “Are We Relating to God in a New Way?,” which first appeared in the Review for Religious, November-December, 1993, Father Gerald M. Fagin, S.J., contrasts a contemporary spirituality, which is holistic, with a more traditional spirituality, which was dualistic.

The spirituality that was presented to me, and I suspect to most seminarians and laity in this country during the 1940s and ’50s, was dualistic. Even back then, I had a sense that the spirituality was dualistic, but I could never have expressed it as clearly and accurately as Father Fagin does in his essay. I think that I was also looking for a spirituality that was more holistic, even though when I was a college student and a seminarian, I probably would not have been able to say what the word “holistic” meant.

Noting that from its earliest days Christianity was tainted with a dualism that separated the spiritual and the physical, Father Fagin points out that there was a strong undercurrent that suspected the physical to be evil and the source of temptation. Even today this can be spotted, for example, in homilies during Lent. The impression is given that the body is the source of all our trouble in efforts to allow our relationship with God to deepen.

Mindful that there was a distrust of the body, Father Fagin writes the following about the traditional way of relating to God:

“Holiness was often identified with a flight from the body and from the emotions. The body was seen as a hindrance to the spirit, and the emotions were dismissed or suppressed as irrelevant and debilitating. Reason and volition were the only reliable means of directing our spiritual lives. … Faith was seen primarily as an act of the intellect and holiness as an act of the will. In the end, the spiritual life was often perceived as set apart in a higher realm divorced from the growth of the whole person.”

One Life: Spiritual and Secular

Re-reading Father Fagin’s essay, I am amazed how accurately he describes the way I once thought of the spiritual life. Now I even have difficulty with the term “spiritual life” as though a person was existing in two separate, distinct lives: one that is spiritual and the other that is secular, earthly or whatever term we choose to use to contrast with spiritual. I now believe that there is only one life, and it has been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ and sanctified through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The contemporary spiritually is obviously more holistic than the traditional. It will stress the growth of the whole person, and this growth is integral to spiritual development. Father Fagin notes that psychological health is presupposed for spiritual maturity. Faith is a response to God’s revelation not just by a soul or spirit but by the whole person. Father Fagin points out that the shift from dualism to wholeness is based in an understanding of the human person as a unity instead of a duality of spirit and body.

In the past, less emphasis on the holistic view of the human person led to the neglect of some truths about our way of relating to God. On this, Father Fagin says:

“There is, of course, an element of truth in the dualistic approach. Physical and even psychological wholeness are not indispensable to Christian holiness. God can and does work through our brokenness. The ideal of self-actualization and human growth must always be relativized by the gospel call to self-emptying surrender.”

Both the traditional and contemporary approaches to God can miss important truths about our relationship with God and can lead to misunderstandings. From my own experience of both approaches and my knowledge of philosophy and theology, I find the contemporary approach contains more truth about God and more truth about us.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

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