Monism and Polytheism
I just finished reading Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson. He argues that monism and polytheism are not at odds and compatible. After reading his article, I am not convinced. He states 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.”
The problem with the assertion that “all apparent phenomena are really one underlying thing” is that for anyone who believes in things such as multiple worlds, the Otherworld, the Creator Gods, and the like, then monism is not acceptable as an addendum. As he notes in the article, separating God from Creation makes them two separate entities and is not monism. This would make beliefs such as Norse/Germanic beliefs about multiple worlds and the Otherworld incompatible with monism.
“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.”
What is polytheism? The belief in many Gods. On the surface the idea of monism and polytheism are compatible. If we believe that the Earth is a Goddess Herself, and the rest of Creation quite another thing or Being Itself, then to my understanding of his assertions, I am not a monist. If I believe that the Universe is a God or Goddess unto Itself containing all things within it, then I am a monist.
Mr. Thompson uses the idea of all cells within our bodies being distinct, yet part of the body. Yet my cells do not have consciousness as I do. If we are nothing but the cells within a body, as monism argues, then the Gods might be organs, veins, blood, muscles, brain matter, and so on. They are not distinct in this regard, but in tandem with one another. I am a distinct and separate person from my fiancee and my son, and only when seen in the abstract can we lose that individuality, whether a sociologist is compiling data on populations or an economist is looking at financial data. So too, the Gods are separate and distinct in polytheism and only lose that individuality and identity when viewed in the abstract.
This is not to say there is no underlying energy, or understanding of connection between all things in polytheism. Wyrd is the phenomena that links all things together. However, the phenomena of Wyrd does not negate the individuality, that is, Wyrd is not all things; rather, Wyrd links all things with one another. It also does not ‘flatten’ (lacking a better term) the Worlds or distinct phenomena into one way of being.
If monism is “a philosophical stance about the nature of the entire universe, not necessarily about the nature of deity” at some point it must be recognized when making a sweeping stance as monism does, it is, in fact, making a claim and taking a stance on the nature of the Gods. If “nothing exists except God” then to say something to the contrary, i.e. “the Gods are many”, is in direct conflict with this idea.
“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.”
Yet, if I am understanding monism right, flattening differences into a homogenous oneness is precisely what monism does. The theological acceptance of some form of mystical unity also does not equal monism; it merely states that you believe all things are connected in some fashion, whether by a concept as Wyrd, or all of us being born from a Creator/Creatrix Being. Distinctiveness and individuality are not lost with such beliefs.
Monism’s stance is directly contrary to this: not only is there a unity, but there is nothing but that oneness, that unity. If one believes that all things are part of and manifested from one source it makes little sense to understand these things are anything like truly separate. If one’s perception is all that is separating one from perception and reality, then what lies between is either delusion or illusion. One can ask the question “what is ultimate reality?” in such a philosophy and if one takes this understanding far enough, circular logic as it is, there is no real answer because any answer one comes up with may well be delusion or illusion. If I cannot trust my perception, even after investigation, introspection, etc., there is little hope in trusting my perception to find any truth at all.
Looking at the idea of distinctiveness in a larger frame, for instance at the cosmology of the Northern Tradition, the monist would say that Yggdrasil contains all the Worlds within Its branches, and so, their philosophy holds. The seeming oneness contained within Yggdrasil would not hold when one understands that these Worlds are separate and distinct. It would be no different than to say the because Earth and Jupiter are part of the Sol system and are planets, then the differences between these planets are arbitrary. To go further, not only does monism need to account for all worlds, but also all possible worlds, since its claim is that there is no separation of reality. The multiverse theory breaks monism, or monism makes such little sense in accord with it that it denies comprehension.
As a polytheist I believe and perceive there is real separation between Odin and I, in the sense that we are distinct from one another while being connected by Wyrd and spiritual ties otherwise. The ties of Wyrd are often analogized as threads in a tapestry, woven by each thing. Monism takes out the colors from the tapestry altogether, in favor of a uniform tapestry. There are threads, but they are of a uniform color. Polytheism recognizes the distinctive threads, their colors, and that each contributes to the tapestry individually, as groups, and that the tapestry in incomplete without these threads woven as they are, as a whole. In the end, I cannot understand how one can take a monist and polytheist stance together, as the former philosophy denies the latter theology’s positions on the Gods and cosmologies we, together with Them, inhabit.