Monism – Your Mileage May Vary

Monism – Your Mileage May Vary June 17, 2014

In my corner of the internet there is some discussion (and some insulting, some deliberately not listening, and some jumping to conclusions) about monism and polytheism. Here are my two cents.

Juneau old growth forest – where I first experienced Otherness.

Monism is the idea that there is one unifying source. It is NOT the same as monotheism. Monotheism is the idea that there is one god and one god only. Almost all monotheists are monists, but not all monists are monotheists. Can polytheists be monists? Yes, yes they can. How important are such labels? Not very (most of the time). Using my own experience I want to talk about these two things: what being a monist polytheist means to me and how important the current arguments are to me and in general.

These days I identity as a polytheist, a monist, a non-dualist, and a bit of an animist. These are imperfect labels to try to succinctly communicate my ideas, experiences and practices to others. But there is no One Polytheism or One Way to be an Animist. Your mileage may vary, even if we both are hewing to a fairly similar interpretation of these terms.

After years of practicing a rather liberal, mystic Christianity I was hesitant to call myself a polytheist. But after a few experiences I could not disregard or write off, where different gods showed up in my life (not as in, a general idea of a particular god; more like a specific god walked in through my front door and around my living room and then left) I embraced the term polytheist. It was incredibly freeing to take on this word and its view point: that there is no singular god, that your mileage may vary and that is OK!

But I’m also a monist of sorts because that ALSO is my experience. Mystic traditions almost always talk about One-ness. Let us not arrogantly assume that this One-ness is the same to all people, in all times and places. I do think it speaks to a kind of spiritual truth or shared experience, but what exactly is this One-ness? Ask 5 different mystics and you’ll likely get 4.5 different answers.

In my 20 years or so of trying to be a Christian I often felt what I thought of as God, but never had the Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ that I was supposed to be having. Jesus never showed up for me. Looking back, I now wonder that if I’d had more of a polytheist vocabulary that the ‘God’ I was experiencing might have been Land spirits. But I did experience a transcendent yet immanent Other – and this Other was beautiful but non-personal.

I still feel that vast, non-personal Other. I can make sense of this Other in a variety of philosophical and theological ways. It is not the standard Christian understanding of God. The closest I can come is perhaps the Star Goddess of the Faery tradition, the Source from which all emerges and to whom all things return. But S/he is not personal. I would never pray to her for comfort. So many other gods are active and involved in lives and the world – why not go to the gods and spirits that are interested in human doings? It would be a bit like one microbe in my lower intestine trying to get my attention. (Totally flawed comparison, I KNOW.)

The gods are distinct. This I have experienced. I’ve also experienced a bit of the mystic One-ness of things. These days I’m listening to others’ experiences, thinking about them, but trusting my own experience. And so should you. If you haven’t experienced anything of a One-ness, then don’t call yourself a monist. And certainly don’t go around saying monism isn’t a thing. Or that your version of monism is The Right One. If we’re having an academic discussion about what a specific theologian said in his context for his audience (and it’s almost always a he) then that’s one thing. But people experience the gods and the world in so many unique ways. This is not to say that all terms are subjective and meaningless. Not at all. Monism means what it means – but we experience that and fold it into our personal theologies differently. Monism and monist tendencies do not mean and should not mean a ‘flattening’ of experience or a universal experience. (Julian Betkowski’s recent post explains that so much better than I can.)

Theoretically I think there is an underlying Oneness to the world. But I set that to the side and I work with what I’ve experienced, which are the gods, in a very polytheistic way.

Are these labels important? Oh, yes and no. Yes, because words help us communicate with others. If someone asks what my religion is, I can say Pagan (a HUGE umbrella term that does not fit exactly right, but says enough for a cursory conversation). If someone wants to know more I can say I practice an American form of Traditional Witchcraft with Hindu devotions. More labels that can mean various things. If they still want to know more I can say Faery/Feri witchcraft, which is STILL a label that needs explaining. And so we can continue to break down terms. I find it fascinating to discuss identities and practices in specific details. Then again, I spent many years formally studying theology. As a wide umbrella Pagan community I think it’s great that people are parsing these words.

But in the end, no, these labels aren’t what is most important. What’s most important to me is your experience. I do not expect some one who has never experienced Kali to have devotions to her. Just as I never experienced Jesus and hope no one expects me to worship him. I don’t want people taking on definitions of terms just because some educated dude said that’s what polytheists experience, or that’s what Pagans of X flavor do.

Part of what makes polytheism so delightful is that allows for a lot of personal and varying experiences. And the same goes for monism.

Your mileage may vary.

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  • yewtree

    Great post.

    I have experienced a transcendent Other which I interpreted as a different thing than the underlying energy of the Universe.

    It is all very complicated.

    I am not sure what label to apply to my experiences, though polytheist seems to fit – deities, humans, land-wights, etc are all distinct beings with the same degree of distinctness as each other. Although the bigger and less local a deity gets, the fuzzier its boundaries and identity seem to become, but we can definitely say that one deity is distinct from another deity.

    I just wish all these discussions could be had in a spirit of learning from each other’s different viewpoints and clarifying our own thinking by testing it against others’ ideas, rather than it seeming as if we are trying to arrive at One True Way to be a polytheist (which I don’t think anyone actually is trying to do).

    • Agreed! I love theology but there must be a humility, that we are all grasping at words to describe experiences that can rarely be pinned down. I love it because it helps me understand, but check back in a few years and I might be writing something very different!

      • yewtree

        The Greeks divided the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries into two classes: the Arrheta “inexpressible,” which could be known only by experiencing them; and the Aporrheta, the “not to be spoken,” that which could, and so must not be, communicated by words or deeds to the uninitiated.

        Personally, I think the nature of deities is Arrheta, an ineffable mystery. So all our theology ought to be apophatic and framed in humility. We may have an encounter with a deity, and we can describe the encounter, but we cannot thereby assume that our encounter, or our description of it, describes everything about the nature of that deity.

  • Henry Buchy

    I find the whole thing hilarious. Part of the trouble is that folks define these terms in an exclusionary manner. They aren’t labels as much as concepts, but the manner they are being defined makes of them labels. My view is primarily animistic and dualist, neither of which preclude also having a monistic view in respect to substance or matter.

    part of the problem, I see with the ideas of monism is the stumbling block of “oneness= oneness of identity.” Just because something is made of the same stuff doesn’t mean they are the same.

    Also, I’d totally disagree with what you say about the SG in Feri, though I won’t discuss that here.

    Since the ‘Hindu’ school of philosophy I received instruction in is labeled “dualist and atheist” in the west, I also have entirely different views on what folks refer to as ‘Gods’, although the atheist label doesn’t do justice.

    • Henry! Finally I can’t quibble! “They aren’t labels as much as concepts, but the manner they are being defined makes of them labels.” YES.

      “”oneness= oneness of identity.” Just because something is made of the same stuff doesn’t mean they are the same.” YES.

      I may be completely wrong about the SG.

      • Henry Buchy

        I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that I disagree. It is about how we experience things, and how one is trained, that can be tricky. Not sure how this will ‘translate” though I’ll say it anyway. Sometimes we get the experience we expect, or are led to based upon what we’ve already conceptualized/taught/ been given. In some ways it’s a species of confirmation bias, though more ‘behavioral’ in that we experience what we expect to experience, or have been trained to experience, rather than denial of evidence that may be otherwise, because we just don’t experience it in that otherwise.

        • It’s very true. I may be applying SG to my experience because I want a name for it.

  • “Ask 5 different mystics and you’ll likely get 4.5 different answers.”

    I think it’s more like “Ask five different mystics and you’ll likely get 8 different answers, a smirk, a wink, an interpretive dance, and a slightly licked lollipop (depending on how mad the mystics are).”

    I am curious about your statement that most monotheists are monists. Maybe in order to be theologically sound they SHOULD be, but in reality, I do not think most modern monotheists have had a monist experience of the world. Obviously I cannot know but looking at the way the modern large monotheist religions operate in the world and what that says about how monotheists think and feel about how deity operates, immanence, sacredness, unity, etc I question it.

    • Ha! In grad school I actually took a class where the final project was a theological interpretive dance. I KID YOU NOT.

      Doctrinally most Christians are (all?). Most Christians don’t know what monism means (most people don’t), so I don’t think most people would be able to say if they are monists or not, to apply that word to an experience they may or may not have. I only encountered this kind of mysticism in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Their believers tend to have more of a grasp on theology than any other branch of Christianity I’ve ever come across.

  • Sarah Sadie

    See, now this is the post I wish I could have written. : ) And here’s what I hope we all walk away with in the end: “But in the end, no, these labels aren’t what is most important. What’s most important to me is your experience.”

    • Oh but your post is SO GOOD.

      • Sarah Sadie

        Well, thanks! : ) It was fun to write. And it actually did help me sort through some of this stuff I’ve been reading, which admittedly, makes my head spin.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Actually, though–and this has been missed by almost everyone involved in these conversations–most Christian mystics, who are by definition monotheists, are not monists. There is a great article on this by Louis DuPre which pretty much states that if you are a Christian (and thus a monotheist), but are a monist, then you can’t be Christian, because the unitive experience for Christians is a union of love and of will, but not of substance or being; if it were the latter, then there would be something of the One God in the individual mystic, which very few of them state (and those who do usually end up burned at the stake, etc.), and in fact most of them vehemently deny, instead saying they are nothing and God is everything, etc.
    So, there’s nuances to these matters that are even further from what has been (over-) stated in several sections of this wider discussion.

    • Really great point about Christian mystics and monism. Many mystics did fall into the monism side of things, but it was *not* orthodox and ‘official.’ Process theology, which has had a great influence on Christianity in the 20th century, allows for monism. I’m sort of partial to it in many respects.

      This is why at this point in my life, I’m more interested in listening to what each individual is experiencing rather than trying to make expansive statements of what is or is not. Again, polytheism has been very freeing for me as I step farther away from Christian theology.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    This is pretty much exactly what I was trying to say, but I tried to back it up with philosophical and historical arguments. The argument from experience is probably the only argument anyone really needs.

    • Thank you! I didn’t feel the need (or have the child-free time and space) to write something academic about this topic. Besides, you and several others have already been doing that! I wanted to write from experience because, a) that’s what I can do right now and b) I think this is where some (not all) of the issues between people are stemming from. Are we having a high level, academic discussion, where we explore the ancients and other systems of belief to explore our own traditions? If so we better make that clear, because not many people are prepared to engage at that level. Not that we should abandon this endeavor! Or are we feeling our way forward in a discussion about the many ways people interpret their experience? In which case, everyone can chime in.

  • TheEssentialSalts

    Monotheism doesn’t imply monism, the creator-god is usually separate from creation. There is a strong distinction between the mundane, material world and the divine. Even the soul itself is not of the same substance as god, it is created, immortal and personal to each human being, meaning one soul is distinct from another. Monotheism has always stressed the transcendent aspect of god, in Christian theology, God’s immanence is expressed as the Trinity. So the only thing that could possibly be interpreted as a type of substance monism in Christianity is the Trinity, since the three Persons (the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit) are in substance, essence and nature, One (God). Therefore, most monotheists are in no way monists, seeming as the largest monotheistic religions are all Abrahamic and share similar ideas regarding these theological matters.

    Leaving that matter aside, before I discovered polytheism I had a powerful experience of oneness and unity. I’ve grown to learn that these types of experiences can be interpreted any way you choose, and incorporated into countless world views. The thing is, they remain just that, experiences, beautiful ones, and inventing theories about them is pointless. They may seem to uncover the true nature of divinity, but I believe and feel that this is incomprehensible to the human mind, since the Gods are Ultimate. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, if I wouldn’t have had that powerful experience of unity back then, which more or less made me seek divinity in a more serious way, I probably wouldn’t have discovered and sought to truly understand polytheism as a religious and spiritual world view.

    Regarding monism and polytheism, I don’t see why you couldn’t, strictly speaking, be a monist and a polytheist at the same time. You could say everything in existence is made out of some form of fundamental substance, and that wouldn’t make the Gods one being, or make you one with them even if you’re all made of the same substance. For me, monism is more a philosophical concept than a theological one.

    • You are quite right, that theologically and doctrinally monotheistic Christianity isn’t monistic – and monists, like most mystics seem to be, end up being ignored or censured, because they are ‘out of line.’ But I would wager that many people (untrained in these terms) would probably see their belief in a more monistic way. Maybe that’s just because I’ve been around more liberal Christians than conservative ones….

      I think you *can* be monist and polytheist at the same time! It makes sense to my brain and my experience. But this is not some people’s experience, nor does it make sense to them.