Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson (Part Four)

[This is part four of a four-part essay.]

Polyvalent Polytheism

The debates about the word “polytheism” have led to a lot of negative feelings within the pagan and heathen communities, caused in part by the sweeping judgments and assertions both sides have made about the other. Some monists have taken the attitude that their theology is more enlightened or more fundamentally correct and that anyone who worships a god as a distinct entity without considering it part of a universal whole is somehow unenlightened, misguided or just plain wrong. Some polytheists have taken the attitude that their theology is the only legitimate way to approach the gods, using words such as “impious” or “disrespectful” to describe theologies with monist leanings.

I’ll tackle what I think is wrong with the monist viewpoint first. Monist theology tends in the direction of apophatic or “negative way” mysticism. For instance, Indian monist philosophies use the phrase “neti, neti” (not this, not this) to indicate the non-conceptual nature of ultimate reality. Any mental concept you can think of is inaccurate as a description of the Brahman, so if you say “is the Brahman such-and-such” the only appropriate answer is supposed to be “neti, neti.”

If you apply this logic to monist theology you quickly realize that the terms and assumptions of monist theology are also mental concepts, and therefore just as inadequate to describe the ineffable Absolute as any other mental concepts:

Is the Brahman an ineffable Absolute? Neti, neti.

Phrases like “ineffable Absolute” or “the Source” or “the One” are attempts to use concepts to hint in the general direction of something that is supposed to be beyond all concepts. So how can one fundamentally inadequate hint at the ineffable be more enlightened or accurate than another?

Another example can be found in the Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius, a strange but poetic work of Christian Neoplatonism. According to Pseudo-Dionysius:

Neither does anything that is know it as it is; nor does it know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to it, nor name it, nor know it; neither is it darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to it, for although we may affirm or deny the things below it, we can neither affirm nor deny it, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of Its absolute nature is outside of every negation- free from every limitation and beyond them all.

Pseudo-Dionysius, as a Christian, is obviously a monotheist or perhaps a monotheistic monist, but he’s still using the language of apophatic mysticism. If the ultimate reality is neither darkness nor light, neither false nor true and if no affirmation or negation can be applied to it, then how can it be One rather than Many? Describing it as either one or many is only a convenient fiction in either case.

My personal opinion is that monist theological language was developed by mystics in an attempt to hint at what they saw in their mystical experiences, but that as soon as you begin to describe the ineffable in terms of mental concepts you are no longer operating from within the mystical experience. Therefore, while I see validity in the monist theology I don’t see any intrinsic superiority in it. It is only a way of talking about something no one can really talk about.

Having said that, I also see the strict polytheist opposition to monism as being flawed, because I don’t agree that a monist theology is impious or disrespectful to the gods or that it contradicts the worship of multiple gods in the first place.

In Indian philosophy, the monist Advaita Vedanta school considers the Brahman to be real and the universe of multiplicity we actually experience to be “Maya” or illusion. The Shakta or goddess-oriented sect of Hinduism has been influenced by Vedanta monism, but generally rejects the idea that Maya is illusion. Instead, Shakta theology usually considers the Maha Devi or Great Goddess to be equivalent to the Brahman in Her absolute or Formless state, and to be equivalent to Maya in Her relative or manifested state. The Devi, in turn, can manifest as any number of distinct goddesses such as Kali or Lakshmi. These individual goddesses are all actually the Devi in one sense yet are all distinct goddesses with different personalities and motivations in another sense. Some of them don’t even get along with each other!

In other words, the theology of the Shakta sect shifts fluidly between two seemingly contradictory viewpoints- reality as a formless ineffable unity and reality as a multiplicity of distinct forms. Monism and polytheism. The Brahman is not any more real than Maya — it just depends on your perspective. Shakta worshipers express this concept through the worship of a Great Goddess just like many neopagans do, but where some neopagans see the thousands of different goddesses in the world as being interchangeable names or epithets for a single Goddess, the Shakta sect sees the goddesses as being genuinely distinct beings and aspects of the Maha Devi at the same time.

This is what I refer to as polyvalent thinking, and in my opinion polyvalence is a lot more appropriate for a polytheist theology than a binary “either/or” type of logic. That doesn’t mean that all monists should acknowledge the validity of strict polytheism or that all strict polytheists should acknowledge the validity of monism — polyvalence means that you accept the simultaneous validity of multiple perspectives, not that you automatically embrace every possible perspective. If something just doesn’t seem true to you, it doesn’t seem true to you. But I prefer to embrace polyvalence and avoid binary thinking wherever I can.

The Jain religion of India developed a formal system of polyvalent logic called Syadvada. Syadvada logic has seven truth-values:

1- In some ways it is.
2- In some ways it is not.
3- In some ways it is and is not.
4- In some ways it is and is indescribable.
5- In some ways it is not and is indescribable.
6- In some ways it is and is not and is indescribable.
7- In some ways it is indescribable.

Applying this logic to polytheistic monism we could come up with these results:

1- In some ways reality is One.
2- In some ways reality is Many.
3- In some ways reality is both One and Many.
4- In some ways reality is One but indescribable.
5- In some ways reality is Many but indescribable.
6- In some ways reality is both One and Many yet still indescribable.
7- In some ways reality is just plain indescribable.

This is the basis of my theology.

Monad and Multiplicity

Imagine a single point like an atom containing everything that is, was or ever could be, and then erase the mental image of a point in space. This is the monad.

Every moment is now and every place is here, and there is no differentiation of before and after or of this and that; there is no differentiation of any kind. It is all things that are or ever will be, all possible universes, all things that are imaginary and even everything impossible. No affirmations can be applied to it, and no negations. Any word you can think of to describe it, it is not that thing. Any word is also inadequate, because it is that thing infinitely. It contains nothing relative within it because there is no within it, has relation to nothing outside it because there is no outside it, and can be changed by nothing. It doesn’t even exist as we understand existence, yet no existence is possible without it.

It is beyond perception, because perception requires contrast. To know it is to not know anything; it is the state of agnosia. The existence of a self requires an other, and thus to observe or be observed at all, reality must divide in the moment of observation into an infinite number of individual selves. When reality observes itself (because there is nothing else that could observe it) it begins to emanate, to split into self and other, affirmation and negation.

As there is nothing at all but reality each self is Reality Itself. From the perspective of being a self, however, the selves don’t know this. If they did, they couldn’t perceive anything, because they could only perceive everything.

This process is infinite and contains all selves in every universe; and the whole process occurs instantly with every moment that we perceive anything. I can see that there is a difference between myself and the rest of the universe; between any specific entity I observe and every other entity; between any of the parts of which an entity is made and all its other parts. Perception mandates particularity and this creates the universe.

It is only through differentiation and opposition that perception is possible, and it is only through the act of perception that relationship is possible, and it is only within the context of relationship that we can speak of existence. Therefore it is the act of observation that creates the universe, which flowers into being an infinite number of times in every moment that passes, as an infinite number of selves observes and creates.

The fire of a nuclear explosion is no comparison, the fire of a sun is no comparison, and nor is a supernova. The becoming is a constant creation in which all entities are co-creators. The becoming is an apocalypse, a fire that creates and consumes and creates again. It is an incomprehensible hunger, a spiritual eros. The becoming is a passion, the intoxication of a maker of worlds. The becoming is all that is, in the process of becoming what it is, as well as all that is not, in the process of becoming what it is not.

One way to speak of this (although like any other possible way to speak of it, it’s only an analogy) is to say that God is the only fact, the unchangeable monad, the Absolute from which all that is relative derives — and God does not exist in the first place. Not, that is, until God perceives God, at which moment being explodes into becoming and the universe flares into life. God can only know God through the existence of God’s own creation, which contains an infinite number of eyes with which God can observe God. God creates the world all over again an infinite number of times in every moment, as each of God’s infinite eyes perceives God.

Whether you choose to call the monad “God” or not is irrelevant in my opinion,but I think it’s appropriate to use that word if you choose to. Now, one of the most common misconceptions about monist forms of mysticism is that the goal is to dissolve the self like a drop of water returning to the ocean from which it came. The great Sufi poet Rumi was familiar with this analogy, and this is what he had to say about it:

Plunge, plunge into the vast ocean of consciousness,
Let the drop of water that is you
Become a hundred mighty seas.
But do not think that the drop alone
Becomes the ocean.
The ocean too becomes the drop.

The self doesn’t disappear or dissolve or become meaningless; it just knows itself as what it always was. The entire universe.

The moment of this knowing is a joy so vast that the world itself seems to shine with euphoria, a love that transcends all passion and leaves desire redundant. It is a sense of perfect freedom, of flying weightlessly, of standing high on a mountain in winter and watching the snow fall on a forest of spruce or of standing on a vast open steppe with your arms raised to a seemingly endless blue sky. It is the understanding that there are no limits, that all the barriers have fallen down, that the only thing left to do is to soar.

It doesn’t last, and in my experience it doesn’t really make you any different than other people except that it convinces you of certain things most people wouldn’t believe without having had such an experience. Is it an experience of oneness or unity? You could call it that, but I really don’t think so. Unity and oneness are both just concepts, and the experience I’m talking about is not really conceptual. You could just as easily describe it as a flow or an explosion or a flowering or a soaring. Calling it an infinite multiplicity would be just as accurate as calling it a monad. People come up with concepts after the fact, but the fact itself remains ineffable.

Now, if we think of all of the infinite selves within this flowering reality to be eyes of God, then each is equally an eye of God. Each, in fact, is equally God. But it is difficult for me to know myself as God or to experience my reality as the whole of the universe. It is easier, for some people, to see this reality in the beloved Other than in the Self. That is the mystical logic of a polytheist monism.

The specific deity I love is not just an aspect of God or a mask of God or another name for God, but all of God. Not just a drop in the great ocean, but the whole ocean in every drop. And so are all of the other deities even though they are separate and individual beings with real identities and real powers, and so are all of the other selves in the entire universe even though they are all equally and fully distinct at the same time. By loving the deity I love with the most passionate devotion of which I am humanly capable, I seek to love the entire universe.

I don’t claim any superiority for this perspective. It is only one perspective, and the fullness of reality includes all perspectives in unlimited freedom. I’d rather not even talk about enlightenment, a concept that implies some sort of superiority for one perspective. I just want to cultivate the ability to love the goddesses I serve, and to soar when I get the chance to soar. That is my polytheistic monism.

Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson (Part Three)

[This is part three of a four-part essay.]

Does Polytheistic Monism Deny the Gods?

Polytheistic monists are sometimes accused of denying the real existence, power or agency of the gods. The extent to which this is a valid accusation depends on the specific theology we’re discussing.

Some people do consider the gods to be archetypal tendencies or potentialities within the human psyche. You could argue that this view denies the power and reality of the gods, but it isn’t a monist theology in the first place. If you acknowledge the existence of two distinct categories of reality — the mental and the material — then you are a dualist and not a monist. If you don’t believe in a mind-body dualism then there are two possibilities. If you think the mind is merely a function of the body, then you might be a monist in some sense, but not in the religious sense we’re talking about here. If you consider the body and all other material phenomena to be manifestations of the mind, then saying that the gods exist within the mind is just the same thing as saying they really exist. Of course, you can believe the gods really exist without believing they have real power and autonomy, as that’s a separate question. So the accusation might be partially valid for a polytheistic monism of this type, but I would argue that this isn’t really a type of polytheism, because a powerless archetype isn’t really a god.

Some people believe that all the gods are merely faces or aspects or masks of one universal God. As we have seen, this viewpoint is a very ancient one, but it is not actually a form of polytheistc monism, because it isn’t really monist in the first place.

It would only be a form of monism if you go one step further and assert that nothing at all exists except for God. If you believe that nothing exists except for God, then the gods would all be faces of God — but so would every person you have ever met, every animal and plant, every atom in the universe. And if all of those things are actually God from the perspective of absolute reality, yet each of them is a separate being from the perspective of our daily experience, then the gods are also each separate beings with the capacity for real agency and power despite being simultaneously “nothing but God.”

Some people believe that the entire universe is actually one underlying thing such as consciousness or mind, but prefer not to call that God. The same logic applies to this theology, because you can believe that while still believing in spiritual entities called “gods,” each as distinct as you or I despite still being “nothing but mind” from the perspective of absolute reality.

Some people believe that all of reality is mind or consciousness or a universal God while also not really believing in the existence of gods as individual beings with agency and power. They might refer to “gods” while not believing that such entities exist in any real or meaningful sense. I would agree that this a type of monism, because the person believes that all reality is actually a single thing, but I would deny that it is a type of polytheism.

A polytheistic monist theology would have to be a theology that takes its monism and its polytheism equally seriously. If you believe that nothing exists in the absolute sense except for God or mind or consciousness or the Source, then you are in fact a monist. If you also believe that multiple deities exist in the same relative sense in which you or I exist and with the same sort of autonomy and agency, then you are also a polytheist. No other theology is really polytheistic monism as I understand the term.

Monism and Autonomy

One aspect of monist theologies that really bothers some people is the assertion that we are in some sense “all one.” The ethical viewpoint of many polytheists (especially those with leftist political views) is based on personal agency, autonomy, and sovereignty. Monists have often argued that their viewpoint is a strong basis for ethical decision-making, because if we are all somehow one, then to harm another is to harm yourself. Critics of monism have argued that the opposite is just as true. If you are me and I am you, then how am I doing anything wrong by exploiting you for my own pleasure or utility, harming you or even killing you? “You” don’t really exist as a separate entity in the first place, according to this viewpoint.

Ellis Amdur, a martial arts writer, has argued that this type of thinking was behind the Aum Shinri Kyo’s sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system. Our bodies kill off diseased cells all the time — to an enlightened mystic at one with the universe, killing a few dozen misguided people could be seen as analogous. Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a particularly brutal warlord in the Russian Civil War, was also a mystic who believed he could cleanse people of their bad karma by killing them en masse. It seems to me, however, that a murderous narcissist indulging his own ego fantasies is not operating from some enlightened perspective just because he says he is.

In my opinion, all of these perspectives — including the monist argument — involve a category error. If we are “all one” in an absolute sense but separate in a relative sense, then the relevant perspective when we are dealing with each other as separate entities is the relative perspective. If I punch you in the nose, it doesn’t really matter that in some deeper sense we are “all one” — neither of us is conscious of that deeper sense while I am punching you.

If I see that you have a nice fat wallet and I want to take it, am I operating from some enlightened, objective perspective in which we are all one, or am I operating from a relative perspective in which I want things I don’t have and can choose to take them from you? In my opinion, monist “oneness” could never be legitimately used to rationalize unethical behavior, because a person doing something unethical is not operating from a perspective of “oneness” in the first place.

However, the argument that monism is a basis for ethical decision-making is just as weak. First, monism doesn’t say that all people are actually one. It says that all of reality is actually one — literally all of it. Unless you can avoid ever harming anything under any circumstance, you can’t possibly avoid harming yourself in this sense. If you restrict this consideration to entities capable of experiencing suffering, you’re no longer basing your argument on some objective “oneness” but on the subjective suffering of the other entity. Either way, ethical obligations derive from our relative separateness, not our ultimate oneness.

However, people who claim to have experienced mystical unity often become more caring and compassionate individuals as an apparent side-effect of the experience. I don’t think this can be completely irrelevant, and it probably happens because the experience broadens and enlarges the sense of self while weakening personal selfishness. In my opinion, ethics must be based on the sovereignty of the autonomous individual, but a sense of shared commonality can be ethically positive.

[To be continued…]

Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson (Part Two)

[This is part two of a four-part essay.]

Monism and Henotheism

The term “henotheism” was coined by the philologist Max Müller, one of the founders of comparative religious studies. Henotheism refers to a viewpoint between polytheism and monotheism, in which the existence of multiple gods is acknowledged while one God remains supreme.

The late pagan philosophy of Neoplatonism could be considered henotheistic, as the Neoplatonists considered the gods and the material universe to be emanations from the One, which emanates first “Nous” or consciousness and then the World Soul, followed by human souls and finally matter. Later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus conceived of the One or Monad as emanating a series of realms from Itself like ripples in a pond, including a realm containing all the gods of mythology, and a realm beyond that containing the material world.

Afro-Caribbean religions such as Vodoun and Santeria could be considered henotheistic if we think of the loa of Vodoun and the orisha of Santeria as being equivalent to what a pagan would call a god. However, both of these traditions reserve the word “God” for the Supreme Being, who is considered too remote from human affairs to be helpful with daily problems. Some polytheist writers attribute this theology to the influence of Christianity, but they provide no evidence for the assertion and similar ideas are found in African religions.

Hinduism is such a varied and complex mix of traditions that it includes every imaginable theological perspective, but henotheism is one of the most common — particularly in sectarian Hinduism. Followers of Shaivism consider Shiva to be God; followers of Vaishnavism consider Vishnu to be God and followers of Shaktism consider a goddess such as Kali, Durga or Lalita to be God. Yet most members of these sects acknowledge the existence of the other gods, so they are all forms of henotheism.

In fact, most of them acknowledge that it is equally valid to consider one of the other gods as the supreme God, even though the gods as separate deities remain distinct. Again, polyvalence and divine fluidity are the norm rather than the exception in religions with multiple deities.

Still, henotheism is not identical with monism. You could easily believe in one supreme God and many lesser gods without also believing that the entire universe is nothing but God. To return to the example of Santeria, the orisha or spirits are not seen as aspects of the supreme God — they are simply powerful spirits.

However, many sectarian Hindus also subscribe to Vedanta or similar philosophies, and believe that their chosen deity is ultimately identical with the Brahman, which is what Vedanta monism calls its version of the Source or the Absolute reality. Monist concepts like this can be found in the scriptures of all the major Hindu sects. One says that Vishnu is ultimately identical with the Brahman, another says Shiva, another says Shakti, but the same scriptures tell plenty of stories about plenty of other deities.

Some say that Shiva and Shakti are ultimately identical, which makes sense if they are both identical with the Brahman — yet the same scriptures often include stories where Shiva and some manifestation of Shakti get in a lover’s quarrel, or where she dances on his corpse to display her supreme power, or where he calls for her and she comes running to acknowledge his. So are they identical with each other or are they separate entities? And if they are separate, then is he really the supreme deity who is identical with the Brahman, or is she? The answer, as always, is “all of the above.”

Just as with polytheism and monotheism, henotheism is compatible with monism but not identical to it. You can be a henotheist and a monist, a henotheist but not a monist, or a monist but not a henotheist. You can be a henotheist in some senses and a monist in others. Theology cannot be restricted to binary logic.

How Old Is Polytheistic Monism?

Some polytheists have asserted that polytheistic monism is a modern or “New Age” development influenced by the dominant monotheistic religions. When the ancient origins of polytheistic monism are pointed out, these are sometimes attributed to influence from monotheist religions. As we have seen, monotheism and monism are not synonyms or even particularly similar ideas, but a brief history of polytheist monism should help clarify the issue.

The oldest religious scripture in any of the Indo-European languages is the Rig Veda, composed sometime between 1700 and 1100 BCE. By contrast, the Homeric Hymns were composed between 600 and 500 BCE. If we were going to use either text as a basis for guessing at the religious ideas of the Proto-Indo-Europeans the Rig Veda would be the much safer bet as it is more than a thousand years older. Yet here is what the Rig Veda has to say about the nature of the gods:

They call him Indra, Mitra, Varu?a, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garuda.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.

Note that this is not monism in the philosophical sense of the term. It doesn’t say that everything in existence is actually one thing such as consciousness or energy or the Brahman or God. It just says that all the separate gods of Vedic polytheism are actually just names for one single God. This is exactly the position some polytheists accuse polytheistic monists of holding and is usually seen as a New Age concept. Unless a text composed at least 3000 years ago can be considered “New Age,” we can now dismiss that viewpoint as counterfactual.

You can believe all the gods are separate and distinct beings if you want to, and you can believe all the gods are aspects or faces of a single God if you want to, but neither viewpoint is “New Age.” As the Rig Veda shows, the idea that all the gods are aspects of a single god is at least 3000 years old. Considering how ancient the Rig Veda is, it isn’t impossible that the ideas it contains are much older and that some version of this theology was held by at least some of the original Proto-Indo-Europeans.

However, this still isn’t a monist theology in the sense in which I am using that term. There are hints at monism as such in the Rig Veda’s Nasadiya Sukta or “Hymn of Creation”:

Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

A clearly-expressed monist philosophy can be found in the Upanishads, which date to between 1200 and 500 BCE depending on who you ask. Different Upanishads express different theologies, but one of the theologies found in the Upanishads is of an ineffable, impersonal Absolute called the Brahman underlying the multiple phenomena of the universe. This is monism as such, although Hindu philosophical schools developed many different variations on the concept over the centuries. Advaita Vedanta, an extremely influential school of Indian monist philosophy, dates to the medieval period but bases its concepts on the Upanishads and Vedas.

Even if we assume the Upanishads are no older than 600-500 BCE, that still makes them about as old as the Homeric Hymns and only a century or two younger than the Iliad. So monism cannot possibly be a later development from monotheism or a corrupted form of an earlier, purely polytheistic religion.

Some people attribute the monist ideas in Neoplatonism to Indian influence, and that’s certainly possible. Neoplatonism flourished late in pagan antiquity in places like Alexandria where many different religions mingled, debated and shared theological concepts with each other. The Neoplatonist philosophers were definitely aware of the existence of Indian philosophy whether they knew much about its content or not. However, given the ancient origins of Indian monist philosophies, it’s also possible that there were always monist strands of thought in the various religions of Indo-European origin. If some early form of monism was known to the Proto-Indo-Europeans then monist ideas could have persisted (along with many other theological positions) among religious thinkers in the ancient pagan world before emerging within Neoplatonism.

[To be continued…]

Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson (Part One)

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!

Monism and Polytheism

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…]