This is part 1 of a two part series of articles on the nature of pagan monism, it's history and importance to modern paganism. Since I have written that I am a monist, I felt that it was important to define exactly what that was, and how I used it in my study and practice. Part 1 is an introduction to the concept of pagan monism, where I will attempt to lay down the basic elements of that system of philosophy in a manner that will make sense to the average Pagan and Wiccan.
I have been a pagan monist now for many years. Even so, I have always elected not to name or give attributes to that element of the One which I have tangibly experienced from time to time when I have worked my most intense magical rites or engaged in deep forms of meditation. It was only when I read the book “The Shape of Ancient Thought” by Thomas McEviley that I discovered the more intrinsic and varied aspects of that belief which I had adopted, and that the progression from polytheism to monism was a natural one and not an anomaly as some had led me to believe. This revelation helped me to advance my understanding of this phenomenon from that of a mythic perspective to one that unfolded into a kind of religious philosophy. Thus, with the aid of this book, I transformed myself from a religious faith-based adherent to an occult philosopher with a much wider view.
Monism is the belief that everything (as the Many) has its origin and source in the One, which can be called the Unity of All Being. I had conceived of that union as being mythologically represented by the sexual union of the Goddess and the God within my Wiccan duo-theological construct. That One was both the child (product) of their union as well as their origin and source. Despite being paradoxical, this explanation seemed natural to me and I have held it in my mind and heart for the many decades of my religious and magical practice. It has always been a mythological construct, and in order to make it more powerful and universal, I have found myself moving towards a philosophical perspective and away from the mythological.
Monism, however, is not to be confused with monotheism, which represents the belief in one deity as opposed to any other, and an elevation of that single deity into an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent being, thereby acting independently and completely outside of all of creation. Monotheism is a very special case of monism, but it requires a completely closed system in order to withstand the rigors of logical analysis. Monotheistic religions are problematic since they must define all other experiences of deity outside their definition as either erroneous or diabolical, since they hold a monopoly on the one true definition and attributes of a singular and supreme being. Monism, on the other hand, is completely inclusive and can accommodate and even validate all variations of religious experience.
Monotheism devalues the material world, since that superlative being who created it is perfect and thereby totally transcends it. Nature is perceived as flawed and imperfect in contrast to the single deity, and all material beings are subject to death and decline, while the deity itself is immortal and ageless. Anything tainted by nature is considered to be rendered outside of the purview of the deity, and thereby the material world and living bodies are perceived as the source of corruption and evil. It is also a trap for the soul that resides in each and everyone of us. If nature is inherently evil and the deity is good, then there is a functional duality established between them, and it is most critically realized within the core of every human being; since the place where soul and body meet is a battle ground for good and evil. It is not unusual, therefore, that monotheism requires an adversary, a devil, or even a host of demons who are allowed to torment humanity as a form of tempering and a method of proving the integrity of each individual soul.
Monotheism also seems to devalue the individual by eliminating all consideration that there is an aspect of deity within each and every being, and this ultimately invites the duality of matter and spirit to emerge from within the core of humanity, since it easily explains the gulf between individual souls and the one (supposedly) true deity. That deity within human nature becomes nothing more than a soul, which can be elevated or consigned to destruction without any further consideration. The gulf between deity and humanity is absolute, and it can’t be bridged except by another deity (avatar) or by the perfection of faith and practice, and even then such a bridge is illusionary.
Despite perfect faith, pious good works or the elevation of an intermediary (Jesus), the monotheistic god is still absolute, and humans are minute, flawed and incapable of achieving union with their deity. Still, that absolute deity judges the individual soul and either rewards or punishes it. The soul is, of course, always in the state of being “other” to the deity, much as a master craftsman is to his created artifice. What this means is that we, the members of the human race, are forever doomed to wander the world bereft of the greater truth of spiritual union with that aloof and totally transcendent deity. Deity and humanity are, in a word, mutually exclusive.
A monist, in contrast to a monotheist, sees deity as a finite but important and valid manifestation. It is an essential spiritual emanation of the One, which is the only element that has any transcendental attributes. All Deities are real and all religions are valid to a point, but no single deity or creed has a monopoly on Spirit or the greater spiritual truth. The fact that monism (in some cases) also proposes that there is a corresponding attribute of deity within each human being, where everything is connected to that greater union through the intercession of the lesser union, and that there is no actual difference between the greater and lesser union (other than what we perceive as differences), represents a world that is devoid of duality. In short, everything is unified within the One, but that unity is greater than the sum of its parts. It also means that the union within us is accessible and can cause us to directly experience spiritual phenomena within its own domain. It also represents what Ken Wilber has called the “Eye of Spirit,” which is based on activating the God/dess Within and perceiving the world through it.
I believe that we perceive Spirit and Godhead through the sensibilities of our internal godhead, and without it, we would be spiritually blind. When someone talks about their religious experiences which occur between them and their Deity and thereby objectifies them, or that they feel an intimate impression of that Godhead in their personal lives, then what they are talking about are the effects of their own internal godhead whether or not they are able to perceive it as such.
If someone thinks that their God guides their steps or causes catastrophes (an act of God in the material world) to teach them some kind of moral truth, then they are projecting that internal deity out into the material world. Religious people have a sensorial connection to that internal deity and it acts as the very foundation for their faith. Conversely, atheists and agnostics are unable to sense or feel a connection to their internal deity, and so for them, that deity has no basis in reality. Monism seems to have the answers to these and many other questions, so we should begin to discuss the nature of monism in greater detail and so share and revel in this knowledge.
Monism has a long history, longer in fact than the proclivity for monotheism, even though its various tenets were not thoroughly worked out until just before the time of the birth of Christianity. We can find the belief and practice of a form of monism in all of the ancient cultures that were nominally pagan back to the bronze age, and how it emerged as a full-fledged system of religious philosophy is both interesting and fascinating.
The idea that all gods somehow blend into a single super deity, or that there is some kind of greater unifying aspect of being above and beyond the host of deities within the accepted pantheon has been a commonly perceived phenomenon for many centuries before either monism or monotheism occurred. Egyptians called this unity “Neteru,” which is the word for god but without any qualifiers. Other cultures selected their chief deity as an amalgam of the super-deity, such as Brahman in India, Marduk in Mesopotamia, Zeus in Greece, or Amen-Ra in Egypt. Perhaps this indicates nothing more than an ordering principle at work, but what it represented was the first mythological stirring of monism.
Whichever ancient culture we happen to focus on, there appears to be a process in motion where the many gods and goddesses of a national pantheon are blended into a single deity. As everything becomes defined as a part of this vast meta-deity, including all of the material world and everything in it, then everything becomes imbued with the spirit and essence of that meta-deity. Such an all-inclusive definition of deity produces a world that is defined by a kind of spiritual pantheism. What has driven this process is the political amalgamation that has brought diverse and unique cultures clashing together to create a meta-culture (empire) that allowed for common laws, extensive trade and communications, and also elevated the chief deity of that conquering culture into a trans-cultural meta-deity. That process of coalescing a pantheon of deities into a single meta-deity is called “macranthropy,” from macranthropus or “cosmic person.”
Macranthropy, or the creation of a meta-deity from a pantheon of many deities, allows for the paradox of both focusing on a single unified deity as well as focusing on the individual deities within the pantheon. Unlike monotheism, a plurality of deities is allowed since they are seen as facets or attributes of the one meta-deity. The one meta-deity transcends all of the other deities in that pantheon, but it doesn’t negate or eliminate them. In fact, any of the deities in that pantheon could be used to establish a meta-deity. The starting point is, of course, a kind of henotheism, or where an individual focuses exclusively on just one deity within a pantheon for a specific purpose or achieving a goal. Macranthropy establishes a correspondence between the smaller or more numerous elements of a subset of the universe (microcosm) and the One, which is the transcendental point of union greater than all of the individual elements that it contains (macrocosm). All of the other anthropomorphic gods are seen as parts of a single anthropomorphic body of a meta-deity, thereby the shape of the universe itself is analogous to the human body.
As the idea of macranthropy evolves within a culture, then over time that transcendental meta-deity becomes divested of any attributes. It is no longer represented by any kind of exalted aspect of deity, and the notion of the macrocosmic union is rendered into a philosophical abstraction which is called the One, or the Good, or the Unity of Being. The meta-deity has been demythologized and now becomes a transcendent place holder instead of a super-godhead. Even though this process of abstraction has occurred, it has not subjugated or eliminated the notion that there are many diverse gods (or religions) that one might engage with or even worship as powerful and animated beings.
(As you can see, monotheism was never able to get beyond the more evolved notion that the Unity of Being has no attributes and therefore cannot function as a godhead. Monotheism, in my opinion, got stuck at the half-way point between a meta-deity and the philosophical notion of the One, which is much more subtle and complex. It was easier to just establish one’s concept of a single meta-deity as the singular universal godhead than attempting to demythologize that point of unity in order to realize its essential truth. Later on, a comprehensive theology had to be developed that explained and established the dogma of this singular godhead. That development was never able to completely dominate or eradicate all of the other religions in the world, so it remained an inconclusive sectarian perspective on the nature of spiritual truth.)
When the One becomes emptied of any attributes of a specific godhead or deity, then it becomes possible to realize it through the process of philosophy and contemplation - worship is no longer possible or desirable. Everything is left intact in such a cultural environment regarding the State and family based pagan religions, except now there is a known element that is truly transcendent. Further insights will lead certain select and inspired individuals to realize that the One is also resident within the center of each human being, and that there is no difference between the macrocosmic One and the microcosmic One - they are the same.
I am getting ahead of myself here in this narration on monism, so lets examine the history of how monism emerged from religion in ancient Greece so we can establish the foundation of this special religious philosophy, keeping in mind that what happened there also happened in India and earlier in other places as well (Egypt and Mesopotamia). I want to present a very brief and simple history of philosophy in Greece and also focus on the basic elements of the concept of the One, the Many, and how they are resolved and interrelated within the notion of the Few. This will bridge the teachings of the early pre-Socratic philosopher Thales all the way down through Plato. I will attempt to show how powerful and useful monism is to modern pagans, and how it can shape and strengthen the philosophical basis of modern paganism.
To Be Continued...