Are monism and polytheism a matter of temperament?

Are monism and polytheism a matter of temperament? August 16, 2014
One or Many?

Recently, my kids admitted to my wife that they have never felt “the Spirit” at church.  “Feeling the Spirit” is probably the quintessential Mormon spiritual experience, so this is a big deal in our family which is Mormon and Pagan.  Like my wife, I myself have “felt the Spirit” many times in my life — although I would now use different (more Pagany) language to describe what I was feeling then, and obviously I now have a different interpretation of what those feelings meant.  In my daughter’s case (she’s 12), it may just be a matter of age.  But in my son’s case (he’s 15), I’m starting to think it may be a matter of temperament.

I have often wondered what the difference is between myself and other members of my family who show little to now interest in spiritual matters.  Are they spiritually insensitive?  And if so, is that a bad thing?  Or maybe I am the one who is defective.  Maybe spiritual sensitivity is just weakness or delusion.  On a larger scale, I wonder about the a-religiousness of most Western European countries: Denmark seems like a pretty nicce place to live, but I have difficulty making sense of their general apathy about spiritual matters.

A related issue is the differences among those who are spiritual, but express their spirituality differently.  There has been some debate in the Pagan blogosphere recently about monism vs. polytheism.  This issue to my attention again recently on Facebook when David Dashifen Kees posted the following question: “Some people are colorblind. Can people be god blind? I.e. unable to see some or all types of deity?”  While Kees was just curious and hoping to generate discussion, I often see language like this from devotional polytheists which suggests that other kinds of Pagans are deficient in some way (i.e., “blind”).  To be fair, Naturalistic Pagans like myself sometimes talk like polytheists are delusional.  Cat Chapin-Bishop (who we are now fortunate to have at Patheos) posted a wonderful response to Kees entitled, “My Polytheistic, Mystic, Monist Heart”.  She raises an interesting question:

“… too often, we judge one another on how we perceive the Mysteries around us. But what if our differences in understanding are neither good nor bad, neither distortions of experience nor reflections of utterly different experiences, but simply how each of us has been allowed to get a brief glimpse of something that doesn’t fit into words at all?”

I recently heard Rabbi Lawrence Kushner say, “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”  The word “gnawing” stood out to me.  Jung described something similar when he said that “a secret unrest gnaws at the roots of our being.”  This “gnawing” suspicion or unrest is something I am intimately familiar with.  A “gnawing suspicion” is not conceptual; it is visceral.  It is a feeling, an intuition.  And I am coming to believe that intuition of unity in the mystic, the intuition of diversity in the polytheist, as well as the absence of these intuitions in the atheist, are constitutional, maybe biological.  It’s not something we earn, so much as something we are blessed (or cursed) with.  And as Cat Chapin-Bishop argues, this should be sufficient reason for us to be charitable with one another regarding the differences in our spiritual perceptions:

“If my own life’s story is anything to judge by, however, there is indeed such a thing as true love–even if it can’t be weighed or measured or graphed. But can I claim to have earned it? That it implies I am a better person than those whose experience with love hasn’t lived up to our culture’s hype? Even I am not that arrogant.

“I will admit, I would not want to live differently, in my spiritual or my romantic life. For myself, at least, I think of my own spiritual and romantic perceptions as ‘best, in the sense that I wouldn’t want to trade with someone whose life story is different in those ways. But Can I take credit for the different spiritual insights I’ve been lucky enough to have had? Maybe–at least that I’ve been open to having them, to ‘tasting’ them. But not, I think, to how they have tasted to me.”

In 1929, Aldous Huxley published an essay entitled “One and Many”, in which he discussed the merits of polytheism and monotheism.  While technically he is an agnostic, Huxley makes the argument that a new polytheism is needed to balance the excesses of monotheism.  I’ll write more about Huxley’s polytheism in a future post, but for present purposes, what I found interesting about Huxley’s essay was his use of the terms “unity-perceivers” to describe monotheists (and monists) and “diversity-perceivers” to describe polytheists, and the terms “unity-feeling” and “diversity-feeling” to described their respective experiences.  In Huxley’s view the difference between monists and polytheists, then, is not a matter of choice, but a matter of perception or feeling, which he describes as a “gift” or a “talent”. 

Huxley writes, “Monotheism and polytheism are rationalizations of distinct psychological states, both undeniably existent as facts of experience, and between which it is impossible for us, with the merely human faculties at our disposal, to choose.”  He explains, “Those in whom the unifying tendency predominates, whether in the form of a mystical gift for feeling the world’s oneness, or of a talent for generalization and abstraction, worship one God.  Those who are conscious predominately of their own and the world’s diversity worship many Gods.”  Huxley goes on to state that, not only is “God” (or the Divine) different for different people, but it can be different for the same person at different times: “Even the same [person] is not consistently the worshipper of one God.  Officially an agnostic, I feel the presence of devils in a tropical forest.  Confronted, when the weather is fine and I am in propitious emotional circumstances, with certain landscapes, certain works of art, certain human beings, I know, for the time being, that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”

While I am a unity-perceiver by nature, like Huxley, I think that, after 2000 years of monotheism, our society needs a healthy dose of diversity-perception.  But I think that there are both advantages and disadvantages to each perspective, and that is why we need both.  I think it would be beneficial if we as a community would stop looking at one another as deficient because we perceive divinity differently.  It’s natural, when we discover something beautiful, to want to share it, and even to get frustrated when other’s can’t see it.  (“It’s right there!  I’m pointing right at it!”)  But the fact is that our perceptions are selective.  And by attending to one for of beauty, we necessarily cut ourselves off from other forms (at least temporarily).  The problem comes when we start insisting that our limited vision is all there is to see, rather than a piece of the puzzle.  The polytheists among us may be better able to apprehend the diversity of the world, while the monists may be better able to take a wider view.  In the extremes, the first can be myopic and the second reductionistic.  That’s why we need each other: our respective visions complement each other.  And what then to make of the people who see nothing where others of use see the One or the Many?  If nothing else, I am grateful to atheists because they continually cause me to question my perceptions, to look again, and think again.

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  • Julian Betkowski

    I think that it is a little strange to consider Aldous Huxley to be a polytheist, since has was a strong proponent of the Philosophia Perennis, which is strongly monistic. The underlying thesis suggests that all of the world’s religious and spiritual movements refer to a single perennial truth, which is pretty precisely at odds with the sort of polytheism that I put forward in the article of mine that you linked to.

    That said, I do recognize a great deal of elasticity in the idea of polytheism, and that a sort of fractured monism could still be compatible with ideas of essential difference. I think that problems emerge when the difference that seems to fill the world of experience with so much richness is denounced in favor of a potential unity.

    I personally feel that the virtue of what I might refer to as a Robust Polytheistic Worldview is the way that it encourages us to come to terms with the complex relationships that occur between individuals and different sorts of beings. Polytheism, in my view, should inspire us to think about systems and interconnections, as well as discrete individual being and experience.

    I think that there is something interesting in the idea of the universe as a whole as an experience being, and so a polytheism that drives us to respect and honor experience itself is not necessarily incompatible with a genial monism. The tension emerges when we are told that everything must refer to only a single dominant truth, as this does not appear to reflect the way that truth seems to proliferate and diverge across the range of experiencing beings. For example, it is seems sensible to refer to life on Earth in terms of a single organism understood through the complex systems of relationships that compose it. It becomes problematic to then insist that only the totalized concept of Earth is true. The truth of the Earth is composed of myriad other truths, many of which may be contradictory, but no less valuable or worthwhile.

    • Well put, as always, Julian. I like the analogy to the Earth/Gaia as a single organism. There are levels of analysis, and no one of them should cancel the others out.

      I’ll be writing more on Huxley’s “polytheism” in the near future.

  • Xiaorong

    This is a really interesting article, John; thanks for your thoughtful analysis as always. I’ve just never been able to perceive gods and deities and perceiving “the Other”, even when I tried (I was raised an atheist, so I’m not sure if this was biological or cultural in origin). Instead, I’ve found a lot of power in panentheism (I love the way Carol Christ puts it, where she perceives the world to be permeated by a “matrix of love”, of which she is a part — I have had this experience myself).

    The one thing I wonder about, though, is conflating the experience of monism and monotheism as all unity-seekers/perceivers. Depending on what kind of monotheism, I’m not sure that it is about perceiving oneness, but about seeking a single transcendent Other, which seems qualitatively different from seeing a diversity of Other experiences (which may be immanent or transcendent), or perceiving unity (an expanded sense of Self). Then again, I could be wrong — having never been a Christian or other kind of monotheist myself.

    • Thanks! I agree with you. Monotheism is not monism. I think Huxley conflates the two. He writes about “monotheism” when what he is describing is really monism.

  • Thanks for the shout out, John. And thanks for the Huxley quote: I’d never encountered that essay–something else to add to my ever-lengthening reading list.

    I find myself mulling over the implications of this bit: “Those in whom the unifying tendency predominates, whether in the form of a mystical gift for feeling the world’s oneness, or of a talent for generalization and abstraction, worship one God. Those who are conscious predominately of their own and the world’s diversity worship many Gods.”

    I wonder if this is true, and what it might imply about those who see in both ways at different times… I admit, I’m skeptical, but I do think it’s interesting to ponder–as long as we don’t lose that open mind that atheists remind us to have, as you point out. (Funny how easy it is for us to begin to worship our own notions, whatever our theology allegedly is.)

    I really like what you say about how easy it is to become frustrated when we can’t easily share our transcendent experiences with one another. “It’s natural, when we discover something beautiful, to want to share it,
    and even to get frustrated when others can’t see it. (‘It’s right there! I’m pointing right at it!’)”

    • Thanks Cat. I’ve been trying to find a way to write about this for a while, and your post gave me the impetus I needed, so thanks for that.

      I agree with you that it need not be a binary choice; there are people who can move easily between the two perspectives (I envy them).

  • Anna H.

    Excellent post. For me, I’m a bit of a “dual perceiver.” Philosophically, I tend toward a unifying tendency, not only with Deity(ies) but with humans and all forms of sentient life as well. Functionally, I’m a polytheist. So I may speculate intellectually that on some “level,” there are unifying features amongst, say, Deities of war, but this philosophical speculation does not affect the relationship I may seek with any individual Deity; I undertake the relationship without reference to any other Deity. I do this with human beings, too. Then again, I dabble in botany as a hobby, and I think Linnaean taxonomy has influenced the way I perceive the world.

    • I think that’s a not uncommon way for Pagans to approach this issue. Can you tell me more about Linnaean taxonomy? (I’m always looking for a good metaphor.)

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    I’d say there are two kinds of people in this world: those who say there are two kinds of people in this world, and those who know better.

    But quite seriously, thus far very few of the efforts to push people into sheep/goats categories appear remotely credible to me when I squint at them, and such attempts tend to erase the richness of human diversity and contexts in favor of quantification and categorization, without the understanding that categorization is an abstraction we impose on complexity, not something fundamental to the complexity.

    • Good point. These are two perspectives that are not mutually exclusive. It would be better not to characterize them as types of persons, as Huxley does.

  • I wonder what impact Huxley’s psychedelics use had on his thinking around this issue… I’m not sure of the timing of the writing versus the timing of his experimentation, which was substantial. For that matter, I wonder what impact psychedelics use has on individuals’ theologies.

    Do you mean 2000 years of monotheism, not 200?

  • Courtney

    We may have biological tendencies, but our temperaments can also change throughout our lives. A couple years ago, I went from being an atheist with no interest in spiritual matters to a strong “unity-perceiver.” While this has brought benefits into my life – including feeling like I truly belonged and was a worthy part of the universe, and galvanizing my desire to make a positive impact every day – over time, it’s become overpowering. Some of the downsides are:

    -OVER-estimating my own importance. Not to say that the world revolves around me, but I feel a pressure to affect the world in grand and unrealistic ways.
    – Focusing on the horrors of the world, feeling that they are intimately connected to the whole and therefore poison other humans’ every joy. That is, I blame humanity or even the universe as a whole for the bad eggs that humanity has hatched. Strangely, I can’t make myself see joy and goodness as a thing that uplifts the rest of humanity; only the opposite.
    -Being open to the idea that perhaps there is purpose behind sentient life and humanity being here (although I don’t believe our exact biological and mental specifications were planned out) has made the suffering in the world much less sensible to me than when I was an atheist and was sure we were just the accidents of an uncaring universe. This has caused me to be more petulant toward the universe, vainly demanding of the powers-that-be, how could our world reach the state it has?

    Perhaps this is why I’ve been drawn to learning about polytheism, because I need to be balanced out. Bear in mind that logically, I’m able to argue against all of the things I’ve said above, but nevertheless I FEEL them. With that “gnawing.”

    When I’m at my most sensible, I’m utterly convinced that there are two main forces that constitute everything, and that they can loosely be characterized as Waking and Dreaming. Waking is the purpose, the consciousness, that which DOES of its own will; and Dreaming is the space that Waking exists “in” – the things that happen TO the Waking, by sheer chance and the actions of other waking entities. Similar to your idea of the God and Goddess, from what I understand, although I’m reluctant to gender these forces.

    • I really like your characterization of these two forces as “Waking” and “Dreaming”. Jung believed that what I thinking you are calling Dreaming was God, and God is unconscious. It is what we associate with fate — i.e., unconscious deterministic powers of the universe. Philosophical naturalists would just call it the Universe. And then there is us — we are the consciousness of God or the Universe — which is what I think you mean by Waking.

  • We touched on some of these matters when we had lunch last summer. And personally I’m still as confused as ever. But I love this confusion. You mention “…intuition of unity in the mystic, the intuition of diversity in the
    polytheist, as well as the absence of these intuitions in the atheist…” and I confess I feel all three of these in roughly equal measure. Does this mean they are in some sense not so contradictory as they appear? Well, my mystical side says, of course, these seemingly divergent perspectives are really just different aspects of the same underlying reality. My atheistic side makes sense of gods as metaphors anyhow, and the polytheistic metaphor just seems more beautiful and a better reflection of reality. So that’s my temperament — kind of all over the place. I think I prefer to stay this way. These mysteries deserve to be celebrated, and should not drive wedges between people.

    • I agree. I really admire people who can take these different perspectives.

  • In fairness, I was describing myself, not others, which was unclear from my Facebook post. I, perhaps like your children, have never felt the spirit. In some ways, I’m worried that I never will and what that mean about me and my spirituality. Regardless, thanks for the shout out 🙂

    • Good point. I needed a segue after mentioning your name. I’ll remedy that.

  • ericjdev

    This is something my brother and I talk about often, he being the firstborn and I second in a family of nine(LDS). Three of my siblings are devout LDS and the other 6 of us landed on different philosophies but no two in common and ranging from atheist(my sister) to hard polytheist(me). For all the time i’ve spent contemplating it I don’t think I’ve made any progress in terms of understanding. I love what you’ve written here, it’s very thought provoking and very well considered.

    • Thanks! It’s interesting how that works with siblings. My brothers are atheist and Muslim. And my sister came to Wicca independently of me. My father is agnostic and my mother is Mormon or Messianic Jew, depending on the day. Go figure.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I’m wondering why you only attach the label “mystic” to monists here, and select quotes from people that indicate the same thing, rather than allowing for the fact that there are polytheists who are mystics as well, just not in the sense that monotheists and monists have defined the term (which, by necessity, excludes anyone who isn’t a monotheist or a monist).

    • yewtree

      I think it is difficult to talk about this without sounding as if you are coming down on one side or the other of the fence. Plus I think the term mystic arose to describe monists in a culture of monotheism, so it is not surprising that such definitions are offered. Mystical polytheists can clearly exist, though.

      My own view is that there may well be an underlying unity, but it doesn’t have a personality, so if I want to have a relationship with a deity, I need to address myself to a particular personality. We are all (humans, deities, spirits of place etc) distinct identities – but not discrete entities because we interact with each other and change each other. No entity is an island…

      (Classify that!)

    • Hth

      I think that’s a good question, and one that I struggle with myself, as a polytheist with strong mystic tendencies. In my experience, once I get deeply enough into the presence/apprehension of a specific god, things sort of — open out, and become very, very large. So large that the deity I’m with seems to sort of enfold or encompass…if not “everything,” then very close to everything. And that strikes me as what people describe as monism.

      I don’t know what the appropriate theological vocabulary is for the type of polytheist-mysticism I’ve experienced. I’m not sure one exists yet? Every individual god (at high enough levels of “god” — I think there are more localized deities and spirits who don’t open up into that scale) is simultaneously the One Thing, and yet they aren’t each other. I don’t feel like either monists or polytheists have been able to help me make sense out of those experiences, so maybe there’s a lot of room left to pioneer some new language around this stuff.

      • Hth:

        Great response! Thank you. I agree we need some new terms.

        I have also heard several polytheists talk about their experience of gods in very expansive terms, that at least approximates the monistic language used by mystics. (It made me wonder about the antipathy shown by some of these same people for explicit monism.)

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Actually, if one understands Plato in a non-monotheistic light (and it has been interpreted in a fashion to favor monotheism for much of history, and currently is still interpreted as such in academia, no matter how “secular” it might think it is on these matters), then what you’ve described is pretty close to what modern Platonist polytheists see as how deities work, and what the true meaning of “monism” is (i.e. it’s not “all is one,” it’s “one is all,” which is to say, individuality is the reality, and each individual deity, by a function of its divinity, can contain an “all” within itself). I’d highly recommend Edward Butler’s work on this matter, in particular that found at the following link:

    • Good point. I just automatically adopted William James’ definition of mystical experience (monistic, noetic, ineffable, and transient). But the possibility of a polytheistic mysticism is intriguing. What makes polytheistic experience “mystical” — as opposed to “religious”?

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Given that it was polytheists who originated the term mystikos for “initiate” (into the Eleusinian or other Mystery traditions), your distinction between “mystical” and “religious” simply demonstrates that you’ve adopted the monotheist thinking on this matter. There is no distinction between mysticism/mystical experience and religion/religious experience, it’s just that the latter category is more expansive in its possible dimensions (cleaning a temple is just as “religious” as having a direct encounter with a deity), whereas the former simply designates parts of religious experience that have a certain character, e.g. secrecy of the rituals, special relationships between initiates and particular deities, etc.

        While I would argue that any and all encounters by polytheists with deities are not “automatically” mystical, at the same time, the sorts of relationships that many polytheists have with their deities in the modern world can’t accurately be characterized as anything other than forms of mystical engagement, including any and all types of spiritwork, etc. But, again, not all encounters with deities are of necessity “mystical”; in many cases, they might just indicate “effective practice” a lot of the time, since that’s what many practices are intended to do (i.e. put one in touch with a deity in some fashion or other).

      • It was a mystical experience that turned me into a polytheist. That “glimpse” into the Divine/Divnities shattered my monothestic worldview so that I could percieve the multiplicity of beings and powers and divine forces. For me it was almost like a light switch experience where I only saw “white” before, then I saw “colors”. So, the mystical experience can work the other way, it isn’t always an revelatory insight into Unity, but can be an insight into Poly-ness of things.

  • Falkenna

    It never occurred to me until my recent reading that, from a truly mystical point of view, monotheism or polytheism would be seen as significantly different, except insofar as the experiencer’s “filters” adopted the teachings received from others. I have had experiences of unity from a young age but never identified this with God; likewise I have been a polytheist from a fairly young age. I am completely baffled as to how this can become a source of serious conflict among Pagans (rather than a source for discussions such as this). But it does unfortunately support my view that there are natural strata within humanity who will respond in a similar way to very different data – eg, that there will be fundamentalists in any religion.

    Which brings us back to your question of temperament. There has been research to suggest that about 20% of people spontaneously experience strong religious experiences multiple times during their lives. These can be detected by the workings of certain parts of the brain, and a helmet has been created that can stimulate those parts of the brain, and the result is an experience described by the wearer in mystical terms — except for another 20% of people, who are unable to have these experiences with or without the helmet. For me, I have no problem with the idea that we are hardwired for spiritual experiences, even if this necessitates the corollary that these can be approximated mechanically. It doesn’t mean that the connection to the universe is necessarily false; and we all know that the filters of what we have been taught can drastically distort that connection (eg being told by God to kill hundreds or thousands of people). Presumably the evolutionary purpose of the former 20% is to be the spiritual leaders of the people, and of the latter 20% to provide reality-testing and balance, *exactly* as several people have said above. The other 60% may or may not have experiences, influenced by a lot of factors.

    This also suggests in a more general way the multiple types of difference which may be at least partly temperamental.

    This is a very simplified account and I apologise if even that is not explained clearly. I plan to write on this in greater depth in due course.

  • K Randall

    This may be beside the point of your article, which is interesting, but I keep coming back to the intro in which you say your children admitted they have never felt the spirit…in church. I never felt the spirit in church either, but I certainly felt it in the woods. Maybe “church” just doesn’t provide the experience for them.

  • I think that we are too attached to labels and to stuffing our experiences and beliefs into only one box. My religious and spiritual beliefs aren’t neat and clean like that. Intellectually speaking, I’m agnostic–I can’t help it, I’m a scientist by trade and training (my current extracurricular reading is the role of religion in the evolution of humans). But experientally and devotionally in my religious practice, I’m a polytheist–what I do in terms of religion, and the manner in which I experience the gods is polytheistic. Emotionally though, with regards to my world view, I’m a pantheist (and on some days, when I’m feeling charitable, a panenthiest).
    All three of those only describe how I view deity…there’s so much more to religion that a person’s opinion about divinity. I’m also a a hylozoist (where as others might be an animist or a materialist or a dualist), I practice (bioregional) witchcraft, some aspects of shamanism, and many of my practices and rituals are influenced by all sorts of traditions, paths, crafts, and beliefs…some of which aren’t even religious/spirital in nature–Druidry, Buddhism, wildcrafting, reconciliation ecology, etc.

    I’m no one single thing, I’m willing to bet there are more folks like me than not. They just tend to ignore the hullabaloo and do their own thing (in my case, I enjoy a little bit of hullabaloo–its like a nice dash of paprika).

  • Kenneth Apple

    I don’t feel deity as personal, but I definitely experience the world polytheistically. That is I do not feel an underlying ‘oneness’ but an underlying ‘many’. I look at the world and I can’t see an all powerful being with a plan. A bunch of beings with human like weaknesses and emotions at odds with one another and humanity caught in the middle, well I’m not theistic, but that at least mirrors the world I live in.

    My only other thought, off the main thrust of your post, is on the spiritual apathy of the Danes, and one could say of Europe in general. Might it be that our society as hyper religious. We are bombarded with messages from the religious right which in some sense force us to take sides. The growing numbers of ‘nones’ might be America swinging the same way as the Danes.