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Shifting from Divisive Dichotomies to Unitive Dialectics: Non-Dual Christianity Part I

Updated: Aug 16, 2022


The term “non-dual” is a popular buzz word in various spiritual communities; however, understanding what is implied when this adjective is placed in front of Christianity and what this distinction means on a theological level is not well-known.[1] Non-Dual Christianity is a recent classification first introduced by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar, in his 2009 publication, The Naked Now.[2] In 2016, Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest, released a further unpacking and refining of the emerging stream of consciousness in her book, The Heart of the Centering Prayer: Non-Dual Christianity in Theory and Practice. Prior to Rohr and Bourgeault’s publications, several modern theologians explored similarities and differences between “non-dualism” within Christianity and Eastern religious traditions, like Buddhism. Nevertheless, Rohr and Bourgeault were the first to present explanations of Non-Dual Christianity.

As popularity of the term increases, more voices will contribute to the understanding of what it means to identify as a Non-Dual Christian. While the praxis of Non-Dual Christianity is rooted in long-standing traditions, wide-spread acceptance and acknowledgement of Non-Dual as a type of Christianity is in its infancy. This research is oriented towards an expansion of the parameters presented by Rohr and, primarily, Bourgeault. What does it mean to self-identify as a Non-Dual Christian? Where did the theological traditions embraced by this group come from? How does one become a Non-Dual Christian? I will engage these questions and point to the idea that Non-Dual Christianity is a result of an emerging consciousness renaissance taking place among humankind, both within and outside of Christian communities. Taking a closer look at the history and emergence of Non-Dual Christianity in the U.S. provides evidence of an evolution in consciousness that is poised to move humankind away from the divisive dichotomies of dualistic worldviews and towards the collective healing potential of unitive dialectics found in non-dual states of being.

What is Non-Dual Christianity?

The Heart of the Centering Prayer is currently the most comprehensive writing available that tackles the task of establishing parameters for Non-Dual Christianity. Bourgeault begins by taking a closer look at various non-dual lenses within present-day Christian thought. First, there is Rohr’s position of non-dual as an ability to resist dualistic “‘either/or’ dichotomy” thinking by possessing “the capacity to hold the tension of opposites, rest comfortably in ambiguity, and resist the tendency to demonization and exclusion.”[3] While the willingness to expand one’s consciousness beyond polarized dogma and worldviews is one characteristic of non-dualism, Bourgeault carefully observes that “nonpolarization” does not provide a full definition of the larger concept.[4] The next two non-dual definitions Bourgeault presents spring from the term’s association with mystical experiences and mysticism. Mystical experiences often provide a temporary moment of non-dual insight; yet, they do not necessarily result in a sustained shift in an individual’s perception of and interaction with reality. Within teachings from Christian mysticism, we learn of those who reached a place of unitive consciousness and sustained this without an intense mystical encounter. However, Bourgeault ultimately determines that the above definitions of non-dual fall short of capturing what it means to reach a non-dual place of consciousness. She explains, “there is a big shift in perception that takes place between ‘dualistic’ and ‘nondualistic’ levels of consciousness.”[5] This shift is the changing of how an individual both views and interacts with reality.

Within this model, Non-Dual Christians are those who self-identify as Christian and embody a perspective of reality and existence that operates from a unitive level of consciousness. One of the most distinctive characteristics of Non-Dual Christianity is that it requires “a permeant shift in the structure of consciousness itself” where one is not on a quest for “personal spiritual attainment” but learns to interact with and see the world through “the lens of the continuing evolution of consciousness.”[6] Recent teachings of Bourgeault explain this shift in consciousness as a willingness to recognize the cosmic responsibility of openly participating in the vertical and horizontal axis of Divine exchange.[7] While this definition is helpful as a starting place, it leaves one with perhaps more questions than answers about Non-Dual Christianity. This blog series is not designed to provide a full accounting for these questions. But, we can explore the evolution of two streams of consciousness which function as traits of Non-Dual Christianity: the unitive state with the Divine found within the teachings of Christian mystics and the positions of nonpolarization presented by liberation theologians.

Part I: Christian Mysticism

Jewish mysticism was present alongside of Christian mysticism as it developed the earliest centuries of the Common Era. Islamic mysticism appeared no later than the 9th century and carried elements of Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian mystical traditions. And, all three are rooted in much older traditions. Before entering a discussion of Christian mysticism, it is vital to consider observations made by a renowned scholar in the field of study, Grace M. Jantzen (1948-2006). Jantzen said that because 20th-21st century scholars tend to approach the topic of mysticism from the assumption that “there is something like an ‘essence’ of mysticism,” their studies have resulted in many deluded conclusions.[8] To understand Christian mysticism, we must first define what "mysticism" means. A starting place for this definition is to acknowledge that what mystical and mysticism mean has changed drastically over the centuries and can mean lots of different things to different people.

Jantzen suggested looking at “how the mystical has been understood in a variety of times and places within the Christian West.”[9] For instance, in Antiquity “mystics were simply those who had been initiated into the mystery religions.”[10] Initiates were granted a form of gnosis not available to the uninitiated. During the Middle Ages, much as a result of the re-emergence of Pseudo-Dionysus, Christian mysticism embodied a significant shift as it grew to indicate the teachings of “those who could discern the spiritual meaning of Scripture underneath the literal meaning.”[11] However, as Jantzen carefully pointed out, the idea that Middle Age mysticism can be confined to the definition of spiritual-level interpretation of Scriptures is a result of a patriarchal-based religious system and disregards the female mystics of the Middle Ages. Jantzen contended that the primary way female mystics were granted religious authority to teach and record their spiritual-level interpretations of Scriptures is if they were granted the mystical knowledge to do so by the Divine. This meant that it was necessary for these female mystics to have mystical visions or experiences that could be rigorously qualified by her male superiors to be direct communication from the (Christian) Divine realm and heavily regulated by Church officials.[12]

Jantzen urged scholars “to be suspicious of an understanding of mysticism which…makes mysticism a private and ineffable psychological occurrence and…detaches it from considerations of social justice.”[13] While this observation may seem out of context amid a discussion of Middle Age Christian mysticism, its importance in terms of Non-Dual Christianity will become evident. The concept of unitive consciousness is found throughout the teachings of female mystics of the Middle Ages. Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and many other European women monastics who had mystical experiences which did result in shifts of consciousness. Additionally, their teachings on how to achieve unitive states of being most often required two aspects: contemplative and communal praxis.

Contemplative praxis attended to the axis of vertical exchange; communal engagement and acts of charity nourished the axis of horizontal exchange. Through contemplative practices, the female mystics taught that one can achieve individual communion with the Divine. However, this individual union was not enough. One must also reach the realization that all Creation, and the beings which dwell within, are connected through the Creator and, in Christian mysticism, a part of the mystical body of Christ. Therefore, just as Jesus did in his earthly ministry, one must engage in what we now identify as social justice – caring for the poor, sick, and marginalized. Presence of this “both/and” mentality within the writings and lives of female Christian mystics of the Middle Ages was often overlooked during the 20th Century. Jantzen drew attention to this tendency as she challenged the academic model of mysticism that was dominant throughout the 20th Century, the Jamesian model.[14]

Modern Mysticism in the Christian West

In 1902, William James (1842-1910), the well-known patriarch of American psychology, published The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. A lengthy section of this highly influential text was devoted to mysticism and mystical experiences.[15] James determined that mysticism was defined by mystical experiences which were ineffable, noetic, transient, and passive.[16] Jantzen was not the first to challenge the Jamesian model of mysticism. Evelyn Underhill published her epic work, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, in 1911 as direct rebuttal to the newly emerging school of Jamesian thought.[17] Underhill rightly challenged James’s foundational qualities of mystical experience and redefined mysticism by stating that it is: 1) “active and practical, not passive and theoretical,”[18] 2) “an entirely Spiritual Activity”[19] 3) a practice whose central “business and method…is Love,” where the term “Love” defines “the deep-seated desire and tendency of the soul towards its source”[20] 4) a way of life that “entails a definite Psychological Experience.”[21]

Underhill’s claim that mysticism is active instead of passive is supported by mystics of the Middle Ages who were well-aware of the fact that mysticism is an active, not passive, praxis. Underhill drew upon mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, St. Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and Catherine of Siena to exemplify the activeness of mysticism. Another important facet of Underhill’s writings is her contention that “[m]ysticism…is non-individualistic.”[22] She highlights the fact that the practice of mysticism requires the active willingness of the individual to relinquish the dominance of the human awareness. It is the individualistic drive within which, when left unchecked and permitted domination over our thoughts, emotions, and actions, results in feelings of “hard separateness” and isolation.[23] Underhill argues that the non-individualistic path of mysticism “is essentially a movement of the heart, seeking to transcend the limitations of the individual standpoint and surrender itself to ultimate Reality.”[24] She states that it is impossible to understand mysticism when one focuses on the strictly intellectual aspects separated from the heart-based practical, lived experience. Instead, she emphasizes that: "[m]ysticism, in its pure form, is the science of ultimates, the science of union with the Absolute, and nothing else, and that the mystic is the person who attains to this union, not the person who talks about it. Not to know about, but to Be, is the mark of the real practitioner."[25]


Author: Crystal Little,

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of the Centering Prayer: Non-Dual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016), 43-4.

[2] Richard Rohr, Science and Duality, “Christianity and Unknowing, Richard Rohr,” Youtube video 32:39, posted [February. 7, 2017].; The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad, 2009, 2017).

[3] Bourgeault, Heart of the Centering Prayer, 44.

[4] Ibid., 44-5.

[5] Ibid., 48.

[6] Ibid., 48-9.

[7] Cynthia Bourgeault, Wisdom Way of Knowing, “Mega-Wisdom School B: The Divine Exchange with Cynthia Bourgeault, Welcome and Introduction,” Vimeo video 1:02:05, posted [March 12, 2018].

[8] Grace M. Jantzen, “Feminists, Philosophers, and Mystics” in Philosophy of Religion: Toward a Global Perspective, ed. Gary Kessler (Boston: Wadsworth, 1999), 195.

[9] Jantzen, 195.

[10] Ibid., 195.

[11] Ibid., 195.

[12] Ibid., 196.

[13] Ibid, 197.

[14] Ibid., 198-203.

[15] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, 2nd ed. (New York: Routlege, 2002), 294-332.

[16] Gary E. Kessler, Philosophy of Religion: Toward a Global Perspective (Boston: Wadsworth, 1999), 192; Lynn Bridgers, “The Head and the Heart: William James and Evelyn Underhill on Mysticism,” University of New Mexico., 29.

[17] Bridgers, 27-8.

[18] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, 4th ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1912),, 96-7.

[19] Underhill, 100.

[20] Ibid., 101.

[21] Ibid., 107.

[22] Ibid., 85.

[23] Ibid., 85.

[24] Ibid., 85.

[25] Ibid., 86.

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