We are very pleased to present this guest essay on the possibility of a polytheistic monism by Christopher Scott Thompson. Under the religious name of Gilbride or “Servant of Brighid,” Christopher has been active in the pagan community for a number of years, serving as the vice president (and briefly the president) of Imbas, a board member of the Fellowship for Celtic Tradition, a flamekeeper of Ord Brighideach and now the Cauldron Cill, and a member of the Kin of the Old Gods temple. He is a member of Clann Bhride, an organization of Brigidine devotees, and writes the column “Loop of Brighid” at Patheos Pagan.
Because of the substantial length of this piece, it has been divided into four parts for easier discussion. We at Sermons from the Mound look forward to a thoughtful discussion!
Some heathens and polytheists express hostility toward a perspective they define as monism, seeing it as the complete opposite of polytheism, a modern or at least relatively new “corruption” of polytheism, a version of henotheism, a backdoor to monotheism or even a synonym for monotheism. Some believe that polytheistic monists see the gods as mere archetypes or concepts without real existence or power. Some believe that a monist viewpoint is unethical because it denies personal autonomy. Some even assert that “polytheistic monism” is a contradiction in terms.
In contrast, I hope to show the following:
1- Monism and polytheism are not opposites because the two terms refer to different things.
2- Monism and monotheism are not synonyms or even related concepts. Some forms of monotheism can also be monist and some forms of polytheism can also be monist.
3- Monism and henotheism are not synonyms although a henotheist theology can also be monist.
4- Polytheistic monism is an ancient theology and is not derived from any form of monotheism.
5- Nothing in polytheistic monism denies the reality or power of the gods.
6- Polytheistic monism does not deny personal agency or autonomy.
7- Polytheism can and should be polyvalent, acknowledging the simultaneous validity of different perspectives on the gods and the universe.
I’ll finish the article with a massively self-contradictory yet hopefully somewhat poetic account of the particular approach to polytheistic monism that makes sense to me.
I will not be attempting at any point in this essay to convince anyone to adopt a polytheistic monist theology — only that it is a valid theological option for those who find it appealing.
Many polytheists see polytheistic monism as a version of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth concept. Campbell’s monomyth treats all the different mythologies of the world as mere variations on a single archetypal pattern. Similarly, some neopagans see the gods as mere variations on a single God or Goddess or both, all religions as “different paths up the same mountain” and so on.
The main objection to polytheistic monism seems to be this idea that the gods are “all the same” in a monist theology. Some people who call themselves polytheistic monists might in fact believe this, but there’s nothing in the term that actually implies that. Monism is not the idea that “all the gods are really one God” but the idea that “all apparent phenomena are really one underlying thing” such as consciousness or energy or mind or what have you. The “one underlying thing” might or might not be seen as a divine Source, depending on what type of monism we’re talking about, but even if you do see the “one underlying thing” as being divine in some sense, that doesn’t prevent you from also believing in multiple gods in another sense. This is no more outlandish than believing that you are a single person while also realizing that every cell in your body is a separate living thing in its own right.
For this reason, polytheistic monism is not the same concept as Campbell’s monomyth and doesn’t need to flatten all differences into a homogenous oneness. The theological acceptance of some form of mystical unity does not have to translate into the assertion that all the gods are really just one God or that all the world’s religions are really the same.
I can believe that all apparent phenomena are really manifestations of a universal mind or consciousness on one level of understanding while simultaneously perceiving that separate phenomena are in fact separate on another level of understanding. This type of polyvalent thinking was common in the ancient world and remains common in living traditions with multiple gods.
For instance, some myths describe the Hindu goddess Kali as a wrathful manifestation of Shiva’s wife Parvati who appears when Parvati is angry with Shiva. Other myths portray her as a manifestation of the goddess Durga who does battle with demons. Some myths portray her as Shiva’s loving and obedient wife, while others treat Shiva as being totally powerless and inert without her. Still others portray Kali as the supreme reality, “one without a second,” with no mention of Shiva at all. Many Indian villages have their own local form of Kali, who is not only seen as being separate from the Kali of any other village but can even be opposed to all the other village Kali goddesses. So which of these versions is correct and authentic? They all are, of course. Kali is fully capable of being all of these things at the same time even though they contradict each other. Like many other deities all over the world, she demonstrates what I like to call “divine fluidity.”
Here’s another example. In the religion of Santeria, each orisha or spiritual power has multiple “paths,” and each path has a different name, personality, description and set of powers. For instance, Eleggua can manifest as 101 different spirits, some of which are male and some female, some benevolent toward humanity and some otherwise. So are the 101 different “paths” of Eleggua a single being or separate beings? They are both at the same time.
Is the Morrigan one goddess with three names or three separate goddesses named Nemain, Badb, and Macha? She is both at the same time. Is Brighid one goddess with three aspects or three sisters who were all named Brighid? She is both at the same time.
The gods are not bound by the binary “either/or” logic we feel compelled to impose on them. As such, nothing in the concept of an underlying divine unity contradicts the idea of separate deities with real existence and real power. You may agree with the monist worldview or you may not, but either way the idea of a divine Source neither contradicts polytheism nor supports it.
Monism and Monotheism
Monism is a philosophical stance about the nature of the entire universe, not necessarily about the nature of deity. It is compatible with any stance on the nature of deity, including atheism, pantheism, panentheism, polytheism and monotheism. However, out of these five it is arguably least compatible with monotheism.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Monotheism is the belief in the existence of one god or, stated in other terms, that God is one… The religious term monotheism is not identical with the philosophical term monism. The latter refers to the view that the universe has its origin in one basic principle (e.g., mind, matter) and that its structure is one unitary whole in accordance with this principle—that is, that there is only a single kind of reality, whereas for monotheism there are two basically different realities: God and the universe.
In other words, if you assume a creator God responsible for making the universe, you are already talking about two entities (God and the Creation), so a monotheist cannot possibly be a monist. Most monotheists definitely aren’t monists, but the two perspectives aren’t as incompatible as they might seem to be.
For instance, you might believe that the universe itself is God (in which case you are a pantheist) or completely permeated by God while God is still somehow “more than” the universe (in which case you are a panentheist) while still believing that only this divine universe is worthy of worship (in which case, since you acknowledge only one God, you are a monotheist) and that there is nothing outside of God (in which case you are a monist).
The viewpoint I’ve just described isn’t particularly uncommon and would fit pretty well with what is often called the “Perennial philosophy” as well as with Vedanta and some versions of Sufism. But it’s far from being a majority viewpoint among the world’s monotheists and would be seen as highly abstract and strange by many and heretical by some.
The majority of the world’s monotheists probably think of God as a Creator who is separate and distinct from His creation, and as such they are not monists. “There is only one God” is a completely distinct concept from “nothing exists except God” and the first viewpoint does not imply the second. Although monism can be made compatible with monotheism from a mystical perspective, the two ideas on their own have nothing in common.
[To be continued…]