[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.
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…]