As a result of a variety of ideas that have been swimming about in my mind, and of things that I’ve recently seen or read or heard about, I wanted to spend a few moments here reflecting upon some matters I’ve touched upon previously, but which I think can be usefully extended here in both contrast to and in comparison with each other.
Theological viewpoints, arising as they do from religious contexts, do not often easily deal in half-measures. If we think of religions as being rather all-embracing views of the universe (or the cosmos, or the world, or however large or small one wants to phrase it), what is in it, how it works, and how we are to best live in it and do our part within it, they are by nature rather comprehensive. And, I really don’t think this is a bad thing at all. Religious viewpoints do have relevance to things like politics and to sexuality, contrary to what a lot of the wider secular (but often only apparently so) overculture tries to tell us. Certainly, it sucks when our elected political officials attempt to impose their religious views on others through legislation, and when that occurs it should be opposed vehemently, and not just by those of us who are not of their religious views…But, contrary to what some atheists and others say, I don’t think this is a flaw that is inherent to the religious framework, but instead only to certain religious frameworks that look down upon diversity and which seek to enforce their viewpoints and insist upon their accuracy to the exclusion of all others.
If I may just take a slight tangent to illustrate how this can (and, in my opinion, should) work: one of the only good lines in the film The Matrix: Reloaded was when, at a back-rooms meeting of the council of Zion, someone criticized Morpheus for having a religious viewpoint and acting in accordance with it, and said “Not everyone believes as you do, Morpheus.” Morpheus responded, “My beliefs do not require that they do.” Unfortunately, most of the rest of the film (and the one that followed it) was not as good…
So, all of that to say: I think it is fully possible to be a politician, a business owner, or any number of other possible occupations or roles in society, have strong religious principles, and not seek to enforce them on all others around one. I think the mark of truly durable and powerful religious frameworks is the ability to have contradictions, confrontations, and serious and often contentious conversations within them without the need to silence one faction, or to throw out the entirety of the framework simply because one part of it does not have a consensus amongst those who subscribe to it. Being able to negotiate paradox, when it truly is paradoxical (as opposed to simply illogical or insistently ignorant), is the mark of a useful and productive religious viewpoint, in my opinion.
Not surprisingly, however, it is often particulars of belief that are the contentious matters, and not so much practice–though, one does influence the other in often very strong ways. Wiccans, for example, might be quite insistent on casting a circle at the beginning of a ritual because it is their belief that the energies raised during a ritual need to be contained, but also because outside influences that might negatively impact what is going on within also need to be defended against in the course of events. If one is not of that opinion, casting a circle isn’t going to be thought necessary nor useful, and thus arguments might arise between people of different viewpoints on this matter, particularly when more than one type of modern pagan practitioner is present at a ritual and either is giving it or is planning it…but that’s another matter…somewhat…
[It would be good, at some stage, to return to my own ideas of what belief is, and how it is best defined as a useful term; the way it is used in modern religious discussion generally is not one that I particularly like or find useful, and the way it is used in modern paganism is likewise not to my own tastes. However, lest I lead us down too many tangents at present and lose the thread of my overall points here today, let's just assume that we're using something along the lines of the usual definition of "belief" for the purposes of the arguments to follow here.]
There are some larger groups of beliefs, however, that are held within various forms of modern paganism that, I think, can be both usefully and unproductively applied when they are either held but aren’t fully embraced, or are universally applied. Let me start with one that I’m not a fan of, and that I think can often be used as a subtle theological bludgeon while appearing to be a bouquet of perfumed flowers, namely monism; and then let me proceed to one that often gets praised and claimed as a label and a positive form of belief in justification for all sorts of things, but then gets applied to an area the size of a postage stamp when in reality it applies to everything, namely animism.
I’ve been writing about monism on this blog from a very early time (the first days of the second month of this blog, in fact!), and it is a thing that I find is something of a problem a lot more in many forms of theology across religious boundaries than it is an illumination. It is, in other words, an issue of both interfaith and intrafaith relevance–it is often used as a justification for interfaith understanding (i.e. “we’re all really one”), but it is often thought to be the pinnacle of mysticism, and therefore the “goal” of many spiritual paths, even within various forms of modern paganism. I would argue that it is actually neither. And, of course, those who are of a monistic viewpoint will immediately say “Well, then you really don’t get it!” But, it’s ironic that they would do so, because then in that moment, they also really don’t get it, because if they are “right” about monism being in some sense “absolute truth,” then there is no difference nor distinction between myself and them, and any thought or inclination that would suggest otherwise–including that by me–that is taken as in any way anything other than an illusion by them is therefore “wrong”!
Monistic experiences of mysticism are something that pops up worldwide, across religious boundaries, to the point that even hardcore atheists like Sam Harris will admit that they are a scientific reality that looks remarkably similar across cultures and has a physiological and chemical reality in the human brain. (He would then prefer that we talk about that scientific thing, which would of necessity be “all the same,” rather than getting bogged down in different religious explanations or descriptions of such experiences, since those are different and thus, in his view, necessarily divisive. See the end of this video and the beginning of this one of him discussing it with Reza Aslan and Jonathan Kirsch for more details.) It is often assumed that these experiences of being “at one with the universe” are what the entire “point” of religious and spiritual activity happens to be. And, yet, from within one of those experiences, what is there that needs to be done? Nothing. What is there which can be done? Nothing. And, when those experiences end, what ends up happening? Often, sadly, nothing. If you are at one with the universe, and therefore know that the underlying reality of the universe is unity (note the shared roots in both words…a “oneness”–!), then you might not want to eat animals because they are also you, and you might not want to fight other humans because they are also you…but, you should also not mind being run over by a car, because it is also you, or being robbed blind by someone on the street who assaults you, because your stuff is also their stuff and your pain is also their pain, even though they may not realize it at the time. The fact is, these monistic experiences often happen to be “lower-level,” as it were, forms of mysticism or mystical realization, which must then be tempered over time and which change; and yet, for those caught up in them, that’s about all they can think about or talk about.
There’s a lovely story that Joseph Campbell told in The Power of Myth (or perhaps Transformations of Myth Through Time, which has been reincarnated in a series called Mythos) about a young Hindu who was told by his guru that his ultimate identity was divine, and he was very happy with himself because of this. Leaving his guru, he encountered an elephant being driven by an elephant-driver coming toward him on the road, with the cry of “Get out of the way!” The young man, however, hesitated, because in knowing that he himself was divine, and that the elephant itself was also divine and the ultimate symbol of divinity (at least in his understanding), what was he to do? As he hesitated, and the elephant driver repeated his warning several times, the young student did not move out of the way, and the elephant came up to him, picked him up by the trunk and tossed him aside easily. The student, once he regained his composure and was very confused, returned to his guru to ask what happened and why, and the guru said “Did the elephant driver say anything to you while you stood there?” The student said he was told to get out of the way, and the guru exclaimed “So, why didn’t you?” And while we might laugh at this story, I have seen a ton of people who think they’re one with the elephant either not realizing they’re about to be trampled, not caring that such is the case, or losing all “faith” and confidence in everything when they find out they can be, and have been, tossed aside very easily despite their oneness with the elephant.
I think there are better and worse ways of dealing with the matter of monism. For example, I think that the way T. Thorn Coyle has explained it, including recently, is fairly useful, and is in any case far more functional and ethical than I’ve seen it done in other situations: there is non-dualism (which I think is fairly synonymous with monism, though it goes one more than monism by positing dualism and then goes one-less by emphasizing emptiness as the actual reality…!?!), but there is also polytheism. There is a rather amusing (at least to me) occurrence of the possibly conflict between these viewpoints, of strict monism in contrast to non-dualism with polytheism, in this panel from PantheaCon ’09, when Thorn and Lon Milo DuQuette had an interesting exchange on the matter (which I joked about in the satyr-play of our Bakkhoí Antínoou sacred drama at PantheaCon last month!).
Those who appeal to “quantum physics” (without often understanding much about these things) as pointing toward the “reality” of monism that underlies all of these religious expressions of it in mystical thought, I think, are missing something. Sure, we all may be made up of matter and energy that is ultimately similar, or from the same source…and yet, one atom of carbon is not the same as the other, because some have neutrons which give it radioactivity whereas others do not…much less carbon atoms and silicon atoms, or any other possible elements and molecular formations. If indeed the big bang theory is true (and, note, that’s why it’s a theory), and not just a scientific theory created somewhat along the lines of the generally (though not exclusively) monistic single-source creation myths, and thus everything that now exists is, in essence, an emanation from an original unity, doesn’t mean that therefore everything is “the same” just because it comes from the same place. How many born-and-bred New Yorkers are exactly the same as one another? How many people do you know that are simply and forever the sperm or the egg of their mother or father? Change is the reality, adaptation, evolution, variation, to infinite degrees; and while some might lament the entropy inherent in such a phenomenology, it is the source of all diversity that there is, and I’d have it no other way, personally.
So, while I can to an extent buy “source monism” as a valid theological concept, continued monism doesn’t really fit my perceptions, even if some might want to argue that therefore my perceptions are invalid because they don’t see “beyond” to the “reality” of oneness behind the surface-level illusion. If that were the case, then there is no difference between me, the gods, and a speck of dust…and, I think there’s a great deal of difference between each of those things, which must be dealt with in a realistic manner in order for anything useful to occur. Because I’m a process theologian as well, that’s the end-all, be-all of spiritual activity and realization, in my view: the gods are evolving, and so am I, and being aware of those evolutions in them and trying to foster those evolutions in myself is really where the entire notion of spiritual progress and being on a “spiritual path” is all about. If monism is true, movement isn’t necessary, and in fact is more or less impossible. Even those who are unenlightened and complete dullards (as I most certainly must appear to the hardcore monists) are included in the overall picture, and are technically just as enlightened as the highest gurus and as the gods themselves…and if those who are such hardcore monists don’t admit this, then they’re really nowhere near as monistic as they might have thought, and perhaps ought to re-evaluate their notions on this matter…!?!
I have to say, one of the best means via which I’ve come to this understanding of mysticism and monism is through the writings of Louis DuPre, who wrote an article that I read back in 1996 called “Mysticism and Monism,” which was written from a primarily Christian viewpoint. He argues that in Christian mysticism, monism is impossible, because the eventual union that one achieves with the Christian god through mystical practice is not one of substance, but instead one of will and of love–it is a union that still makes a distinction between the state of being divine and being human. The only human who achieved a greater degree of union than this was, of course, Jesus, who was fully divine and fully human, and thus could rightly say “I and the Father are one.” (Whether or not one buys that is irrelevant for the moment.) How do monists in other religions explain why, once one has had this revelation and this understanding of being at one with everything, that one cannot suddenly transmute a pile of carpet samples into foil-wrapped chocolate oranges, or replace one’s left arm with four green and spike-lined tentacles to facilitate fishing, or any other thing that one might consider desirable at any given moment? (I prefer these examples to some of the more common ones, incidentally, simply to illustrate the point more vividly.) Perhaps ironically, here’s one area in which I think the Christian theological example is a lot more useful and realistic than that of many other religions and forms of mysticism, not because it thus “correctly” explains why Jesus could do miracles, but instead it explains why the rest of us, for the most part, can’t.
In terms of Antinous, and the practices of the Ekklesía Antínoou, this has some interesting implications. No, Antinous didn’t create the world, and isn’t the ultimate power in it–and, that’s not only okay, it’s fantastic and it’s beautiful. When one undergoes any mystical experience with Antinous (including the Antinoan Mysteries), one does not achieve union with him, so much as one moves closer to being like him. One is still oneself, and he is still himself, even though–with any luck–one’s own inherent divinity is given a chance to expand more in those moments, and hopefully afterwards as well. It is not the goal of the mystic and the gnostic and the practitioner within modern Antinoan devotion (and certainly in ancient Antinoan devotion) to become one with the god Antinous, in my opinion, and despite what many scholars on ancient mystery religions have tried to argue, as it is (at least for the modern situation, in my view) to become more divine in oneself through this devotion, and through practice of virtue. As wonderful as it might be in many respects to “be Antinous,” the reality of it is that none of us are, or ever will be…but that is not to our own detriment. In a polytheistic universe, one would have to ask, if one were to become Antinous, then who would be you? You have your own role to fulfill, so do it, and do it as well as you possibly can, because only you can. This is the goal of the working of the Serpent Path, to seek to have a likeness and identification with Antinous only to the extent that we are able to do some of the same things he has done, and then to seek our own greater divinization, rather than seeking unification or annihilation of our own identities within him.
And while we all might become like other gods through the means of “polycentric polytheism” that Edward Butler has discussed, just as Antinous did in his various syncretisms, that doesn’t erase our identities, nor those of the other deities and beings involved. It is this lack of distinction between one’s individual divinity and the divinity of larger beings that has lead to many abuses, not only in some forms of modern Antinoan devotion, but in many religious contexts worldwide.
So, perhaps these feelings of oneness and union with the universe are not really best interpreted in a monistic fashion, as experiences of truly being one with the universe, but instead of finding the harmony that is only possible with realizing one’s place in the universe, a universe that is varied and diverse and beautifully pluralistic, and in which every single thing, from the smallest quarks and muons to the largest galactic clusters, has a part to play and a function to execute. And, it is in the doing of those things that one is a part of the larger whole. Or, at least that’s how I’m seeing it at present…
As for animism, that’s another thing altogether, and a rather simpler one. Animism is the belief that all things possess a soul or a spirit (Latin anima is “soul,” whereas animus is “spirit/heart/mind,” but that’s another discussion to be had later!), and it is often a belief that underlies many nature-based religions, shamanism, and a variety of other systems (e.g. Shinto–though there are some interpretations of Shinto that make it polytheistic, monistic, or some combination of these as well…!?!). It is assumed, however, in many forms of supposed animism within modern pagan contexts that there is still such a thing as animate nature and inanimate things. I see people talking about being animists and saying that the spirits of trees, rocks, rivers, animals, and so forth are important to them; but what about houses, cars, computers, coffee mugs, shoes, and other things (apart from, of course, the magical tools and such employed by the individuals concerned)? For animism really to be animism, there is no “opting out,” and for it to be real, it has to be comprehensive. All of the things that we have are made from things that come from nature, and if encountered “in nature” would be considered to have spirits, from the rocks that form the metals that are refined and worked into any number of machines, to the trees that make up wooden objects and the paper in books, to the animals and plants that become leather, wool, cotton, and other materials that make up much of our clothing, and even to the dinosaurs and other long-dead organic life that over time became petroleum and in turn becomes various plastic and other polymer-based items. In an animist system, there is no such thing as an inanimate object, from the most giant and majestic redwood or blue whale down to the most miniscule prion, and from the smallest mass-produced plastic paperclip through to the largest city blocks, highways, cities, and even larger entities like power grids and even nation-states. What are the goddesses Roma, Britannia, and many others if not personifications of these larger political realities?
Though many pagans look at their various deities as if they are gods of nature–Zeus of the skies, Dionysos of growing things, Demeter of the grains and cereals–how many of the ancient gods are also, and are perhaps primarily, gods of human culture? Zeus is not only the thunderer and the father of gods and men, but also the giver of laws; Hephaistos might be a god of fire (and perhaps even of volcanoes!) to some extent, and yet his primary association is with metalwork and craftsmanship; Athena may be associated with olive trees, but to ignore her cultural and craftsmanship associations as even more important would be to commit a great disservice against her; Hermes’ association with communication may be far more comprehensive in nature than simply human communication, but a great deal of his further associations with this phenomenon, including magic and language, are largely human concerns; and Ares, though he may have to deal with a certain set of animalistic urges, is a god of war, and war is almost entirely and singly a human concern.
This is not to say that the natural world (and particularly our place in it and harmony with it) are not of major concern, now perhaps more than ever, nor are nature and natural things not worthy and wonderful and supremely important in themselves and for themselves. However, just because human dams are built in concrete and steel does not mean they are any less “natural” than beaver dams, all things considered, or that because human nests can be 5,000 square feet and cost millions of dollars that they are any different than a robin’s nest.
Nature doesn’t have to be found “out there” in the forests or the mountains or on the seashore, or even only acknowledged when it is a spider in one’s bathtub or the grass that shoots up in the cracks between the sidewalk; nature is never any further than one’s own heartbeat and breathing and continued cellular processes. Doing anything apart from recognizing this is the case is to simply further the Cartesian divide between “humans” and “nature” that has been at the root of so many of the difficulties of the past few millennia; and as many modern pagans have sought to do something about this and to heal that division as much as possible, I think a necessary first step that has generally not been taken in doing so is to no longer reify that division by acknowledging it at all. This does not mean that we must, therefore, become overly materialistic because we are humans and it is “human nature” to do so; it does not mean we have to seek to exert our “human nature’s” will over the rest of nature, because it is equally as good or important as ant nature or wolf nature or spotted owl nature. But, it does mean that we should take our stewardship of our particular human sections of nature much more seriously, and mindfully, in relation to other parts of Great Nature (if I may use the Shinto term), from the seasonal tides to the sources of our own nourishment and continued living.
And, to bring in the question of monism once again: simply “realizing” that one is “at-one” with the wider universe doesn’t mean that we and wider nature are “the same,” and that there are not reciprocal responsibilities between us that should be upheld in a spirit of respect and coexistence. These monistic experiences (interpreted in the way I suggested above) can be used for us to realize that we have a place in the wider scheme of things, but it does not then allow us to run roughshod over anything and everything else because we’re one with it…
I suspect, therefore, that much of the difficulty in understanding when it comes to monism is a terminological one. The idea of “union” and such that is posited in monistic mysticism is often understood as “oneness” rather than “being united.” Perhaps because I’m from the United States of America, I have a different view of this than many might, but nonetheless, here’s where nationality really does help to understand the situation a bit better. The United States, and its motto of E Pluribus Unum (“from the many, one”), does not mean that a Texan is the same as a Californian, but instead that the two share a larger political reality that means there are certain similarities between them, certain rights and responsibilities held in common, certain actions that can be lawfully undertaken by each of them. However, the Californians enjoy certain rights that perhaps Texans don’t, and vice versa…and on and on through all of the other states, individual municipalities, and so forth. So, there is a very large difference between being “united” and being “one”–and perhaps union with all-there-is is really more just like having the feeling of being united and connecting with that larger reality than it is an actual union or a “becoming one.” As Lon Milo DuQuette wrote about the Holy Guardian Angel, when one achieves “knowledge and conversation” with that being, one is transformed, but not into union with it, but instead the two become a larger and different reality together than they do apart from one another. The same is true of any relationship or partnership (from the most casual sexual encounter, where the experiences undergone are not possible without both [or more] people, to the most intense and solid and enduring marriage), any association with a group or organization, or any larger activity that involves the working together of many people, from friendships to households to occupations to towns, cities, counties, states, countries, and larger international alliances.
So, I think the “all-or-nothing” of animism is a good thing, and should be realized and enacted much more than it commonly is at present; and I think the “all-or-nothing” of monism is, under certain circumstances, prone to a better understanding than it has commonly received previously, which is far less “all-or-nothing” (or even “all-and-nothing”) than it has hitherto been thought.