During Vacation Bible School, I recounted the story in Acts chapter two and the day of Pentecost to third graders at my church. When I finished, one of the boys raised his hand and said, “Let me get this straight…” From the way he began, I knew I was in trouble! He went on to say, “So, you are telling me that the doors to the house were shut, but a big wind blew through the house, something that looked like tongues on fire fell on each person’s head, and then, they spoke in other languages.” I told him that was the gist of the story, yes. Then, without skipping a beat, he retorted, “Well, I don’t believe that for one minute.”
After chuckling a bit at his boldness and honesty, I carefully thought about my response. I am his pastor and knew my answer would be pivotal for his faith formation. At the age of nine, he was already thinking deeply. If I informed him that he was mistaken and firmly asserted that the story happened exactly as scripture indicated, I didn’t believe he would simply take my word for it. Plus, if I corrected him, he would probably be less likely to speak up in the future. I wanted him to know our church is a safe place to ask questions and express doubt.
Consequently, I said, “I know it sounds wild, but I have experienced God’s presence in powerful ways, and so I believe with God, anything is possible. I believe it could have happened just as scripture indicated or the tongues of fire could be a creative way of talking about how powerful God is.” I assured them, “Either way, it is true.” Then, I asked the kids to think about why Jesus’ followers would tell a story like this? What did it mean? While my explanation and these questions might be beyond the capability of most nine-year-olds to fully digest, they got them thinking creatively and engaging the story.
At that moment, I wanted the children to know there is more than one way to think about the Bible. I also wanted them to know having doubts doesn’t mean we can’t continue to engage with scripture and have a relationship with Jesus. Beyond this, I didn’t want them to get locked into a dualistic mindset—where they would begin to feel that the only choice was between two polarities, whether to take the Bible as literal or figurative. Plus, I hoped they would eventually come to see faith as more than the choice between belief or doubt.
In the church, we often get stuck in the rut of dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinking categorizes the world into binaries or opposites like good/bad, win/lose, us/them, literal/figurative, or belief/doubt. A dualistic way of thinking can help us make quick decisions. After all, we are bombarded with a lot of information daily, and we must be able to categorize things to assess them rapidly. For example, if we are walking across the street and see a car speeding toward us, we don’t have time to deliberate; we need to think fast and make a quick decision. Am I safe or in danger? In a few seconds, we need to evaluate the hazardous nature of the situation and then sprint toward the safety of the sidewalk. Dualistic thinking works well for simple problems, but when it comes to more complex issues, like the nature of the Bible or having faith in God, dualistic thinking isn’t adequate.
When reading the Bible, I want to help the people in my church move beyond a dualistic framework. For example, we might feel constrained by the dualistic choice between a literal or metaphorical reading of the creation story. But neither of these options is satisfying. While I am skeptical that God created the world in seven days, I do believe God created the world. So, I don’t read the creation story as literal, but I see it as more than a mere metaphor. To complicate matters further, there are two creation stories. (I grew up attending worship and Sunday school weekly and still remember the day I learned there were two creation stories in my college Old Testament class- mind-blown!) There is Genesis 1, the more well-known seven-day creation story, and then Genesis 2, which also recounts the creation story beginning, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens….” The order of creation is different in each story. In Genesis 1, the animals are created first and then human beings. In Genesis 2, man is created first, then the animals, and finally, saving the best for last, the woman. Clearly, these stories were never intended to be a scientific account, but that doesn’t mean they are not true. Just as great poetry can be true, the creation stories are true.
The truth in these stories is often more profound than a binary choice allows. For instance, Adam and Eve probably didn’t literally cover themselves with fig leaves, yet this story has so much to teach us about our response to shame. We all try to cover up the things we are ashamed of and hide from God, which means the story is absolutely – true. Consider the book of Jonah, which contains an important lesson about God’s love for all people. God sends Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, the sworn enemies of the Israelites. God clearly loves the Ninevites. The story of God’s love for them is absolutely- true. However, I am ambivalent about whether Jonah was literally swallowed by a fish. Even if it did literally happen- that’s not the most essential “true” part of the story. Instead, God’s love for all people is.
All of this is to say, a dualistic mindset is lacking when approaching a book as diverse, substantial, and theologically rich as the Bible. But, of course, the third graders in my church aren’t quite ready for a conversation with this much nuance and theological complexity. I was just planting seeds of non-dualistic thinking in my discussion with them. A non-dualistic framework resists attempts to categorize the world into opposites or binaries and makes room for mystery, subtlety, and intricacy. Yes, night or day, but what about dusk? Yes, warm or cold, but what about tepid? Yes, love or hate, but what about indifference or passion. Most of life (not just the Bible or faith) is more complex than dualistic thinking allows.
Plus, as we grow up and experience the ups and downs of life, a non-dualistic framework is essential for our faith formation. If you have inherited a dualistic mindset and think faith is a choice between belief or doubt, what happens when tragedy strikes? For many Christians, the sudden death of a loved one or a devastating medical diagnosis understandably results in doubt. Try as you might to cling to the certainty of your beliefs; you may begin to question God’s benevolence or even God’s existence. So, where does this leave you if you think the only options are belief or doubt? You will probably, wind up feeling like your relationship with Christ is in jeopardy- and experience a crisis of faith. Or worse, instead of knowing God’s love for you, you conclude the problem must be you and you drown in guilt and self-hate and move further away form your Creator. However, from a non-dualistic perspective, doubt is understood as part of faith. It is normal to cycle through periods of doubt, but instead of giving up, we continue to pursue God and anticipate the Holy Spirit will guide us through. I have found that walking through times of doubt can lead to greater trust in God. So, the move from dualism to nondualism pivots from certainty to the humbler attribute of trust.
As the senior pastor of a congregation, I have confidence that the adults in my church can handle a non-dualistic approach. Therefore, when I preached the book of Jonah, I shared about my ambivalence and named that the truest part of the story is God’s love for all people. When I taught the book of Genesis, I talked about the two different creation accounts. When I spoke about the story of “doubting” Thomas, I praised Thomas for asking hard questions, being honest about his doubt, and continuing the journey of faith. Reminding them that Thomas was still with the disciples the next time Jesus appeared. He didn’t give up or disengage. Instead, he stayed and came to a greater level of understanding and trust. As a pastor, I proclaim all this because I want to help my congregation see the Bible and their faith through the lens of non-dualism.
If you are a pastor who wants to help your congregation move from a dualistic view of the Bible and Christian faith to a non-dualistic framework. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
1. Recognize when you are falling into the trap of dualism. Other common dualistic frameworks in the church are the body/spirit, science/religion, and evangelism/social justice divides. We have pitted science against religion, elevated the spirit over the body, and disconnected our evangelism from God’s call to build the kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven, which means working for the healing and liberation of the world. None of these should be thought of as either-or choices. They are both/and. While it isn’t within the scope of this post to dive into each of these binaries, I must note Christians have made a mess of things by suggesting they don’t belong together.
2. Begin to see yourself as a spiritual guide rather than someone with ultimate authority. The shift from dualism to nondualism is transitioning from an authoritarian approach, where we tell people what to think and believe, to pastoring with a shepherding model. As shepherds, we become spiritual guides who seek to help people think for themselves and take ownership of their beliefs. We try to equip church members to grow into mature disciples of Jesus with the ability to discern God’s voice and will for their lives. Ultimately, nondualism is about helping our congregants become wise, discerning followers of Christ. We are trying to help them cultivate wisdom.***
I hope the third graders at my church will grow into mature followers of Christ who understand that the literal/metaphorical binary is too restrictive for the Bible. I want them to learn that faith in Jesus is much more than a choice between belief or doubt but is a way of life that requires discernment and wisdom. So, if you are interested in moving your congregation from a dualistic framework toward nondualism, below are a few resources you might want to check out. I also invite you to leave a comment, ask a question, or share other resources you have found helpful regarding nondualism.
*For a revelatory discussion about the meaning of the word, truth, check out Jared Byas’ book, Love Matters More.
**To understand the role that doubt, and dualistic thinking plays in faith formation, see Brian McLaren’s helpful book, Faith After Doubt.
***In his excellent book, How the Bible Actually Works, Pete Enns argues the purpose of the Bible is to cultivate wisdom among disciples.
Carol McEntyre (DMin, Drew University; MDiv & MSW, Baylor University) has served as the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Columbia, MO, since 2012. Her love for people, passion for preaching, commitment to inclusion, care for the oppressed, and dedication to a life patterned after Jesus can be seen in all — or hopefully at least in part of what — she does at First Baptist. Carol enjoys the great outdoors and can often be found walking the trails in Columbia or camping with her family.