Non-Duality in the Bible

I grew up in a British military family in which religion was not spoken about, and on emigrating to Germany, I came into contact with evangelical Christianity that had gained influence after WWII but has since waned and is really irrelevant for the wider society. I joined a pietist group - classical Pietism supports a personal, individual living faith that is based on the Bible and is life-changing, in that it has an impact on everyday life – and learnt to read the Bible and finally to preach. I also followed a “calling” to nursing but this had a life changing effect on my faith because love became a most real experience, which I felt was being channelled through me. This sounds first of all very positive, but it also led to an understanding that was critical of the church as an institution, its past and its present forms, and made me very aware of the underlying psychological dimension of how Christianity is lived.

It also changed my reading of the Bible, and conversations with a local philologist who had studied ancient Hebrew and Greek, awakened a realisation that what we were reading in our bible groups wasn’t just a translation, but an interpretation. It became abundantly clear that the original meaning of the Hebrew Bible contains nuances that are difficult to capture in translation. Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic, have, for example, different grammatical structures and word orders compared to classical Greek. Besides the Bible was written in a specific cultural context, and certain concepts or references can only really be understood by people familiar with that context, and translators must make decisions on how to convey these cultural nuances in a different language. We have seen problems arise when other cultures corrected the translations of works like Tao te Ching by Christian missionaries.

Like any language, Hebrew and Greek have idiomatic expressions and wordplay that may not have direct equivalents in other languages. Translators must carefully consider how to convey the intended meaning without losing the original linguistic flavour. My philologist friend pointed out that some passages in the Bible are open to multiple interpretations, and translators may need to make choices based on their understanding of the text. This can lead to variations in translation and interpretation. So, while translations strive to faithfully convey the meaning of the original text, it is important to recognize that some nuances may be lost or altered in the process. Therefore, studying the original languages and cultural context can provide additional insights into the richness of the biblical text.

This was a point that Neil Douglas-Klotz (Saadi Shakur Chisti), a spiritual teacher and psychologist (Edinburgh) who combines Christian and Jewish roots with the wisdom of the Middle East, has addressed in his books, Revelations of the Aramaic Jesus, Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’ Words. He had been raised hearing various languages (German, Polish, Yiddish) which he relished, but ended up learning Aramaic and other ancient Semitic languages, his interest and passion driven by childhood spiritual experiences of Jesus as well as later ones when he began to chant the first word of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic: Abwoon. It made him (and me) realise that there was a whole other side to Jesus that translations couldn’t covey.

I discovered a non-dual aspect that had until now been buried under dualistic Neo Platonism, and it set me off on a journey. As Douglas-Klotz says, speaking about Genesis, which he sees as a song rather than a report, “According to the story, before the beginning there is one Knower (or Knowing), one Consciousness, one Mysterious Loving, one . . . well, you can fill in the blank here because the desire to name anything is simply an expression of one side of the polarity, the one that wants to individuate itself and know other things.” (Revelations of the Aramaic Jesus: The Hidden Teachings on Life and Death) and from this One consciousness, comes the many, the “nephesh” in Hebrew, the living souls. It becomes apparent that we are not far away from older traditions like Vedanta, in which the One Consciousness is Brahman and the many are Atman.

This became important to me because it seemed to reveal that the exclusivity that Judaism and Christianity has proposed was contradicted by scripture, and the “calling out” of Abraham and his people was always only provisional. Jesus, as the final remnant of the Abrahamic line and as the Cosmic Christ, is the point where the divine Unity comes together again, the One and the Many, diverse as we all are, but all expressions of the divine that individuated itself to know other things.

What do you think?

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Rob, welcome to this Forum.
Thanks for introducing yourself! It sounds like you’re still in Germany. I was in Munich in the ‘87/‘88 school year in college and in Vienna after college in the ‘90/‘91 school year. I think your description of the religious, or maybe rather spirtual, and my experience agree.

I see myself as a fairly standard-issue American Protestant (as if that tells you much of anything). With a background in foreign language (one) I understand that translation between languages, cultures and time-periods creates serious challenges and that those are reflected in the translations of the texts we read. That was always a conceern of the pastors in the church where I grew up, one of whom was a Hebrew scholar and taught a LOT about the nuances of Hebrew. So, I’m used to being around Christians who are aware of those difficulties and accept them in stride.
How we handle that information is a different matter.

Until you encountered the philologist, was your church not teaching about the challenges of translating? That would certainly erode confidence in what is know-able from the Bible.

@Christy is a Bible translator. It would be interesting to hear some of her thoughts regarding the problem of translation.


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Hi Kendel,
Thanks for your reply, I was taught in a Pietist community which in recent times had a leaning towards evangelical theology, and was particularly sceptical of anything they deemed ‘critical’ and so when I emerged out of that group, I naturally looked into those critical studies. I went through a phase in which I distanced myself from the church, but have since accepted that it is a valid expression of religiosity, provided that one accepts that it is one perspective.

What the conversations with my friendly philologist uncovered was the validity of a mystical interpretation of the Bible, and the books by Neil Douglas-Klotz have indicated that, assuming that Jesus taught in Aramaic, he will have retained this in his approach. Douglas-Klotz’ transliterations of well known texts from the Aramaic certainly carry the reverence I feel is warranted, but bring in an aspect that I suspect was virtually eradicated in the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church under Constantine, namely non-dualism.

It is clearly a point of contention to say that Jesus was the “first-fruit” of a spiritual harvest, because it implies that he was a human being, but I interpret the moment in time in which he appeared as kairos, an opportune moment in human history, for a paradigm change in religiosity. History seems to confirm that, when we see how the church spread out. However, as is often the case, those in power manage to subvert the initial message and use the popularity to support their own agenda.

I see a glaring contradictions between the teaching of Christ as recorded in Matthew, and the policies of the Roman Church, which were about substantiating a world-wide institution to unify the religious outlook of the populations. The protestant churches adopted much of this, although they “protested,” but the real protestants were the mystics - many who suffered the oppression of being called heretics, and suffering terribly.

So you see that I remain somewhat critical of the established church and organised religion, unless I find those pockets of faith in which the love of God is held high, and the community understands that they are called to be channels of that love in the world. That, unfortunately, makes the available places of worship fewer and far between than would be conducive to the mission of Christ. I remain hopeful though, and use my resources to point to what I see as the Good News of the love of God.

Kind Regards

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Hi Rob.

Here’s my linguist perspective on some of your points.

Understanding any act of communication, even in your own language involves interpretation. Communication theory has moved away from the idea that words encode meaning and speakers decode messages. The reigning model is called inference based communication. Basically it means that all communication is a speaker’s attempt to get a hearer to make the right inferences about the meaning the speaker wants to communicate. So words are just triggers for concepts and depending on how closely we share similar concepts with others (and other things like cultural frames, scripts, worldview, conventions), we can infer what others intend to communicate. But it’s all interpretation and inference, all the way down.

There are different models of translation too, so different translators are trying to accomplish different things with their translations and also have different ideas about hermeneutics (getting meaning out of texts). Translators are usually trying to be faithful to something, but what that something is, varies. In modernity, there was this idea that translation could be approached objectively and scientifically, “accuracy” was a value, and the idea was translators needed to be faithful to the original text. This had a huge impact on modern English Bible translation efforts. Many Evangelical constructs like inerrancy and ideas about verbal inspiration are tied to this idea that the meaning is in the text and can be uncovered or dissected through rigorous research and study.

With postmodernity, there was a shift away from the text itself and the idea that objectively accurate translations were possible. Subject focused theories replaced the object focused theories, it became clear that meaning is constructed or negotiated between speakers and hearers and a huge part of the context necessary to understand intended meaning is cultural and related to social location. So then translators wanted to be faithful to the original speakers and their intent. If you are interested, Kevin VanHoozer wrote a book called Is There Meaning in this Text, attempting to engage postmodern linguists and philosophers and apply their insights to Christian hermeneutics. It’s dense and kind of a slog, but his idea that the Bible is not just a collection of texts that report on and describe true things, it’s a divine “speech act” that changes reality and invites us to participate in the ongoing “theodrama” of God is an interesting attempt to bridge traditional Christian ideas about the Bible and theology with what is now accepted about meaning-making.

With post-colonialism, which is where translation theory is now, there is still this idea of faithfulness to the original speakers and the idea that we shouldn’t “coerce” the text into saying what we want it to say or what is more comprehensible to us, but we should welcome it on it’s own terms. There is also the idea that we need to be faithful to our present day hearers and be aware of how texts could harm in the present. So you get people “decolonizing” the Bible or transforming elements of the original that could be considered oppressive.

All that to say, translation is very messy business and OF COURSE the translators have idealogies and agendas and guiding theories they are operating in.

Absolutely, yes.

The problem with this idea is that all the tools one would use to “study the original languages and cultural context” are translations and interpretations, usually ones written by white European males. Your lexicon is a translation to English and your grammar books are written from a Western worldview with English as a default interpretive frame. No one can go study ancient Hebrew or Aramaic or Koine with a speaker of those languages and we simply do not have access to the minds of the ancient authors or their worldview. We have reconstructions and guesses. Of course you can learn a lot and it does help us understand the context of the Bible and the ancient worldview better, and we do know some things, but it’s good to remember that all of it is bieng filtered through a lens to explain it to you in English, that lens is unavoidable.

Christy, thanks for this really interesting overview.

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Hi Christy,

Thank you for your very interesting contribution regarding my points.

Your point about any act of communication involves interpretation is well taken, I taught communication to nurses in my professional life, and although my teaching was in German, the fact that it shouldn’t be presumed that the implication of a statement was understood was touched on. We worked with written and illustrated information brochures that we also verbally explained, and because we had a majority of older patients, or people with reduced cognitive abilities, it was vital to make ourselves understood.

However, the teaching process itself seems to be what is meant here. Having used a method that was based on active exchange, I was leading the listeners to the subject matter through their own answers to questions posed in a way that suggested a conversation rather than a test. Once we reached the concept, I gave it a name (or the accepted name). When preaching, I used the method of rhetorical questions and answers, presenting a criticism, and denial and a synthesis of the subject raised, which generally worked out, but as you say, it depends on interpretation.

I started with a German and English Bible side by side when I was being taught in Bible class, then it was to be sure I had understood the text, but I soon started collecting Bibles, each with their own agenda, including a German Old Testament (or Tanach) translation by Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai, a professor for Hebrew, who sought to render the Words in the way that a Jew would recognise them. That is why the first books are named Bereschit, Schemot, Wajjikra, Bemidbar, and Debarim, and the other books are in the Jewish order. I think you can see that I was attempting to account for the different models of translation you mentioned, and with the variety of English translations, including the Thompson Study Bible, including a Strong’s concordance, I was trying to get as close as I could to the originally meaning.

I have had my run-ins with postmodernists, who criticised by attempts, but I have sought out some eccentric personalities with a philological training who have explained some of the nuances in the texts, or read the book by Mathieu Pageau, The Language of Creation, that looked at the “cosmic symbolism” in Genesis. The combination of these people, the various translations, and my own devotional reading has given me confidence that I have understood the message, but I only offer my insight as another perspective and no longer teach.

With regard to the Bible as a divine “speech act,” or “theodrama,” I can understand how one could arrive at such an interpretation, although I find it a stretch of the imagination, especially when it implies an ever more complicated explanation as to what life on this planet is about, and a method of divine communication that seems construed. The biggest problem though is that Christianity has a militant side that critics often cite as the downfall of religion, comparing it to the equally militant movements in Islam, and the two oppose one another, becoming a major factor in a growing meaning crisis. Added to that, the scandals that have rocked the church have added to reasons for turning away from traditional meaning-making systems, especially those with religious and mythological frameworks.

Jon Vervaeke, a cognitive psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, argues that the loss of traditional sources of meaning has left many people feeling adrift and searching for a new sense of purpose and significance. He explores practices and concepts from various philosophical and spiritual traditions, including mindfulness, meditation, and the cultivation of wisdom, as potential tools for addressing this crisis. Vervaeke advocates for a reintegration of wisdom traditions, such as those found in ancient philosophical and contemplative practices, into modern life. He believes that these traditions offer valuable insights into how to navigate the meaning crisis and find deeper and more enduring sources of meaning. VanHoozer’s notion of restoring biblical authority and finding a new exegetical practice that takes into account the meaning of both the reader’s situation and the literal sense may offer some solution, but I see the problems in not overcoming the contradictions of the militancy in Christianity.

I appreciate you pointing out the problem with my attempt to study the original languages and cultural context. Of course, we are using translations and interpretations written by white European males, but there are attempts such as that of Niel Douglas-Klotz, to reach back using the Syriac Bible into the Aramaic of Jesus, which does bring forth a wealth of ideas based on the complexity of the language. Whilst not completely satisfying because it amounts to a translation from the Greek into Syrian Aramaic, it helps show the otherworldliness of the culture in which Jesus grew up in comparison to the Greek culture. Your point that it is always being filtered through our English lens applies in all cases.

Thank you for your insights, I find it very helpful.



I always tell people that reading a wide variety of translations, in multiple languages if you can, is the best way to understand the text. It might not get you to “the original meaning,” but it will at least give you an idea of the range of possible meanings. Where translations differ significantly, you know the intended meaning is debated or unclear or simply doesn’t translate well given the options of the receptor language. But even if you have a really good idea what it says, we have to come to terms with the fact that some of the intended implications are probably lost to us becuase we do not share the same cognitive environment as the original hearers.

It is encouraging to me as a Christian that the message of the Bible has always involved translation in its communication. Abraham most likely did not speak Hebrew, yet the account of his covenant with God has been translated and recorded in Hebrew. Jesus most likely preached in Aramaic, but the Sermon on the Mount is recorded in Koine Greek. The apostles quote Scripture from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that is known to be a “bad” translation in parts. Pentecost is a translation event. Where Evangelical Christians have gone awry in my opinion is elevating the text (the Bible) over the Speaker (God through Christ and his Spirit). The text isn’t divine, it reveals and invites dialogue and relationship with the divine. So it’s okay if the text can’t be perfectly understood or perfectly translated, and it’s okay if the text itself isn’t perfect and is limited by the humanity of the languages and authors that produced it. The text is not God’s only way of communicating with us.

Comtemplative practices are indeed a source of truth. I don’t think VanHoozer was setting out to correct Christianity so much as to be conversational with current paradigms for discussing cognition and meaning, because unfortunately many theologians and Bible scholars ground their assertions in very outdated models of how human brains and languages work.

There is definitely always something to learn from scholarship, and even white European males produce some good scholarship. My intent in bringing it up is not to discount research and study, but just to say we need to come to terms with the fact that our knowledge will always be subjective. I think that’s fine and we need to make peace with it. God has been contextualizing his message for his church across times and cultures for centuries. The gospel can speak to each of our worldviews, we don’t need to unlearn our language or enculturation to encounter Christ, he meets us where we are.

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Hi Christy,

Thanks for your reply, and I agree that my aspiration may not get me to the original meaning as I originally wrote, but as I said, the collection of Bibles does enable to do as you say and gives me an idea of the range of possible meanings. The point you make about not sharing the same cognitive environment as the original hearers is a point I have often made to others, especially when I have seen their ideas having a naïve assumption behind them. I find that both young and old display sometimes a tendency to assume that their traditions are identical with the past, just because they read the same book.

The points you make about Abraham, Aramaic and the Septuagint are important, and especially the assumption about the divinity of the text, which reminds me of the saying that it is like a finger pointing to the moon but isn’t the moon. I use variations of the recitation modus intermittently which I feel has the benefit of resonating in the person, and combined with silent meditation, assists in opening and aligning with the spirit of the word. I have used the Lords Prayer in Syriac to feel the Semitic origins, because I believe that we are in need of relocating to enter a different frame of mind. It may all be psychological illusions, but my understanding is that the mind of God is foreign to us, and the “emptying” process is important to receive the divine communication.

My contemplative practise takes place in my SPOT (special place of tranquility) where distractions are minimized and allows me to turn my attention inward and toward God. I then meditate on specific scripture passages, religious symbols, or divine attributes, and allow them to guide my thoughts and prayers. Sometimes I use a “sacred word” or the repetition of short prayers or verses from the Bible, known as the Jesus Prayer or the Prayer of the Heart. This way I turn away from intellectual analysis towards experiencing God in a profound and intimate way.

I struggle with consistency, which is often stressed by experts in contemplative practice, but I attempt to hold regular, daily periods of contemplation, which help deepen the connection with God over time. It is also a source of humility, facing God as it were naked, with no pretences. There was a time when I would speak a lot during prayer, but with my age I have become silent after reciting the verses, or words. This is the way I interpret what you said about Christ meeting us where we are.

Of course, it can happen anywhere, like CS Lewis having an encounter on a bus and Abraham (or Abram) saw God in three strangers. I noticed that when I was in Bible meetings, this mystical aspect, seeing beneath or through the appearance, was a fascination for me, and when I was nursing, especially when nursing the dying, I often had the feeling that I was seeing beyond the frailty. I think that these experiences on the edge of existence gave me a special sensibility, but of course, it is hard to convey and most of the time I kept it to myself. I had a Catholic colleague though with whom I confided.

But I am going beyond our subject. Thank you again for your insights.


Talking about non-duality and translation issues takes me back to the via-negativa of pseudo-Dionysius and whether Moses entered a dark or thick cloud.

And did he?

Our interpretation of word pictures and theological history aside, Moses knew the Lord

Well, you are right in that in Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings, particularly in his work “The Mystical Theology,” he emphasizes the limitations of human language and understanding when it comes to describing God, who is considered beyond human comprehension, which I do as well. Similarly, I agree that instead of trying to define God in positive terms, in which one can easily fall into the danger of describing God as a thing, one can better approach an understanding of the divine by negating human concepts and attributions, stripping away all that is finite, created, or imperfect, leaving only the ineffable and transcendent nature of God.

I appreciate that this, as with all attempts, is limited, and I find consolation in the words of Meister Eckhardt, who said, “You, man, who feels he cannot get close to God, find comfort in that fact that God is close to you.” While this quote captures the essence of Eckhart’s teachings, the exact wording may vary in different translations and interpretations. Nonetheless, it reflects his emphasis on the immanence of God and the idea that individuals can experience a close relationship with the divine within themselves, even if they feel distant from God.

Rob, Your conversation is mostly beyond my areas of experience, but your las tpost reminds me of a sermon from Kierkegaard that might resonate with you. Itnis over here:

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This is a favorite quote of mine from The Divine Names,

Here of course I am in agreement with the Scripture writers. But the real truth of these matters is in fact far beyond us. That is why their preference is for the way up through negations, since this stands the soul outside everything which is correlative with its own finite nature. Such a way guides the soul through all the divine notions… Beyond the outermost boundaries of the world, the soul is brought into union with God himself to the extent that every one of us is capable of it.