A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog

Of Divine Love, Monism, Monotheism, and a Reply to Ali and others

I spent yesterday flying back to California.  It’s weird to take off from Paris at 10 am, and arrive in San Francisco at 1 PM.  My body also thought it was weird and is still catching up.  

One of my readers in particular responded in such a long and thoughtful way to my post on monism and monotheism,  that I want to devote a lengthy response to it.  Other readers also made interesting comments, and I want to address them as well.  (I am ignoring the compliments and agreements here – but thank you all for making them!)  Be warned, it is a fairly technical discussion.

Ali wrote:

I experience myself as an individual . . .  yet I clearly respond to different situations and circumstances in different ways, . . . I do not experience myself as becoming an entirely different person every time my mood or focus shifts; instead, I have a sense of consistency that underlies these changes . . .  that remains somehow constant. . . .  And at the very same time, both with myself and others, I also experience a sense or intuition of depth, of there being some “deeper” aspect of self from which our unique personalities spring. I could spend a lifetime “getting to know myself” and perhaps never fully plumb those depths, just as I could spend a lifetime coming to know another person intimately and still never fully experience the vast complexity of their personality.


Applying this idea of personality as infinitely “deep” and complex to a conception of deity doesn’t seem that far of a stretch for me, and saying that God’s personality is “perfect” is less a statement of fact about a simple and definable character, than an expression of relationship in which the monotheistic deity is held as the most perfect source of understanding and meaning.

A god who can be “perfectly wrathful” as well as “perfectly loving” reminds me, actually, of some of what Emma Restall Orr [here  and here– GdiZ] says about her definition of deity (and the paradox of a “force” or personality that can be both utterly loving and supportive and supremely indifferent and dangerous). (This is not to say that the “Catholic God” and the “Calvinist God” are the same… just that they aren’t automatically different just because they cannot be reduced to the same simple description.)


Very interesting reply, Ali.  But I am not convinced.  I will skip over some important issues, but you or others can bring them up and we can discuss them.   To the degree people want we can treat this as a joint discussion by all concerned.  (I am trying to balance doing this issue justice and the limitations of online blogging.)

Consider this.  If there is A perfect response to every issue, what might it be?  I would assume it would incorporate all knowledge that it is possible to have of the matter, combined with some standard to apply that knowledge.  Certainly this would seem true if monotheism was a coherent view.  If there were two perfect responses, then for perfection to exist there would need to be two responders, each responding perfectly in a different perfect way.


Let’s take the ‘God is loving/just’ example.  To love is to perceive and appreciate intrinsic value in another’s existence, and to value it.  It may be more than that, but it has to be at least that.  To be wrathful is to be angry.  To be wrathful with love is to be wrathful in support of love as a HIGHER value than wrath itself.  The classic case is a parent angry with his or her child’s misbehavior, but for the ultimate good of the child.  

If wrath is a higher value, or even an equal one to love, it is hard to say the being is ever perfectly loving because I would argue that being loving can never be subordinated to being wrathful and still be regarded as perfect.

Now let’s take it another step.  What about being wrathful towards, say, Saddam Hussein, because even though as an intrinsically valuable soul, he is loved, he has done extraordinary harm to other equally loved ones and so must be stopped.  Regretfully, God, the loving father, whacks Saddam.  (To possible critics- I am not being disrespectful, only trying to ad a little mirth with the reverence…)


First, at one level this makes lots of sense, and I might be excused if I were a monotheist, with wishing God did a whole lot more whacking.  Take Karl Rove… Please.

But at another, deeper, level it gets tricky.  IF God is loving, He will know that while Saddam might need to be whacked, he became as he did because of events in his life over which he had no control.  They could be either genetic or environmental or both.  From what little I know, Saddam’s childhood was pretty unpleasant.  Little kids have little wisdom in interpreting unpleasant events, and often draw false conclusions.  They also develop values reflecting the cultures in which they grew up.  Having done so, their lives are set on courses at least partially mistaken, and if they end up in political power, they can do hideous things. (I am inclined to blame his parents in part for what George W. Bush did.  But his parents were once children…, and so it goes)


One more step:

If we accept that we are discrete souls as we have so far, a perfectly just God would know that (so far as we can tell) everyone is powerfully influenced by events over which they have no control.  Many people are born under such flawed conditions that they will likely become very flawed expressions of human potential, some worse than others.  We only have a partial responsibility, if that, but we are entirely intrinsically valuable.  

By failing to ensure that his creations have a good starting point from which to develop their character, and worse, failing to ensure that we all have analogous starting points, God therefore shares responsibility for bad actions, and for Him to punish only those who are the final physical or mental perpetrators is both unjust and unloving.


If on the other hand he is perfectly loving (or just), why does this situation exist?

One response might be that not everyone with a seriously flawed upbringing emerges as a seriously flawed human being.  True enough.  But why?  I know that many studies indicate that children in hideous environments can often be rescued if one adult in their lives treats them respectfully and with love.  This only ads to the injustice o the situation for children who do not encounter such a person, as some do not.  It also suggests that there is something in human life that when given a reasonable chance, develops towards health rather then pathology (leaving those terms undefined).  An ounce of love overcomes a pound of hate, so to speak.


To return to Ali’s critique:

On the other hand, monism always struck me not so much as impersonal, but as homogeneous. A professor I had once described it as “fudge”–it has the same consistency everywhere, no matter how small a bit you break off. . . . Even if the universe is “made up” of some ubiquitous spiritual force or energy… so what? I’ve heard atheists make the same argument: if you try to define “God” as merely the most basic stuff of the universe, then you can also effectively ignore it as irrelevant. It seems that monism only “works” in conjunction with a polytheistic and animistic belief, or some supporting belief system that addresses the complexity and particularity of the world in which we actually find ourselves living and moving and interacting.


Final step in my response:

The atheist and the monists argument have in common that there is a fundamental foundation.  They differ just as importantly.  The atheist’s concept has no interiority.  The most subatomic of subatomic things or processes have no interiority and no unity.  The monist emphasizes the interiority (love) and that there is some kind of unity across the whole that incorporates this love.

It seems to me that we are left tending strongly towards monism (or atheism).  Love trumps all other values and is an intrinsic aspect of any perfection involving dualism.   Love is a more fundamental aspect of reality
than any more differentiated value (wrath, masculinity, femininity, etc.) and therefore the mystical experience/description of God (other than the nondual, which is another issue) as love means that love trumps all aspects of personality whatsoever.  Personality is a means by which love differentiates what can be loved, so as to maximize the possibilities for manifesting love in ever richer and more complex forms.


What about being loving and dangerous?  I do not see that as a problem from a monist perspective.  I discussed it in my Pagans and Christians book, but rather than simply urging you to buy it (much as I’d like that!) let me briefly say that partial manifestations (you, me, spirits, storms, tigers) can indeed be dangerous with their and our common foundation being loving.

Is all this important?  Yes and no.  If one has a monistic experience, it is personally important.  If we engage in interfaith dialogue it can be.  But in terms of personal happiness and spiritual development, it does not seem to me to be particularly important except when a person takes a partial aspect of the whole (Yahweh, Sekhmet, etc.) as the ‘true’ irreducible whole rather than an expression of it.  It seems to me what IS important is the degree that the love unifying everything can manifest in and through that particular expression of that whole that consists of you or me.  That is what is important.  Because every particular aspect of this whole is limited in knowledge, ignorance,  errors and mistakes are inevitable,  but the gradual expansion and differentiation of love ultimately redeems the mistakes.


I did not come to this point of view all by myself.  Two major biographical events are important.  First, when the Wiccan Goddess told me I was worthy of Her love, I had a moment of automatic pride “I’m special! I thought”  She then responded “All beings are always worthy of my love.”  So, from Her perspective, every being is loveable, always.  (I am not quoting Her, only putting what was not verbal into verbal form.)  This is in keeping with the Charge of the Goddess.

Second, during a particularly grim period of my life I had a mystical experience that indicated divine love was the ultimate source of everything, from Gods and Goddesses to ants and bacteria.  The experience was deeply personal, but seemed equally appreciative of every ‘person.’  


Bringing both of these experiences into some kind of intellectual understanding has since been an important part of my life, even though neither were intellectual experiences, they were experiential.  I’m a theorist by training, and it’s in my blood.  It’s like puzzle solving, even when I know the puzzle as a whole is ultimately far beyond my understanding.

But I am also saying there is no reason why you or anyone should take my word in this.  We each have our own experiences.  So I am trying to translate these experiences into a more impersonal form other people might better relate to.  Love plus differentiation is what makes for a God or Goddess as contrasted to a lesser spirit. Love is the foundation for them both (and for the lesser spirit, though it (and we) are not as clear on the concept.)


Pitch observes
I get what you mean by “personality.” But I think that what you are talking about is closer to a “role” or an “archetype.” Something with a different and maybe more widely shared structure and process. “Daddy”, “Dad”, “Father” sort of thing, not any individual person who is a parent.

Either way, Pitch.  A parent is not a child.  A perfect child can never be a perfect parent, and vice versa.  Further, for human children, it seems to me that for various reasons we need more than one adult in our lives, if for no other reason than to teach us there is more than one true perspective in the world.  I do not mean to criticize single parents, not at all.  But from what I know of single parents, they are usually careful to make sure other adults play important roles in their children’s lives.


So for Aron G, and his question, Yes.  It takes a village to manifest a world…

For Your Name
I used to look at monism and diversity that way.  I no longer do.  I think the paths leading to the mountain top metaphor, where we all converge, is misleading.  To be sure there is such a path, and many Buddhists and Vedantists are on it.  I wish them well.

But when I look at Buddhism or Hinduism, or Christianity when the state is prevented from enforcing orthodoxy, or certainly our own traditions, what I see is ever increasing diversity. For example, Buddhism has three major branches.  Within those branches are others, all differentiations of their particular branch.  It seems the same everywhere.  I see no tendency to climb the same mountain.  


Here is where I have a serious disagreement with the perennial philosophy types who it seems to me rank spiritual traditions on how much they emphasize our getting to the Nondual.  Maya can be seen as illusion.  It can also be seen as a work of art, delight and growth. To take this discussion farther will require a separate discussion, which I plan on doing.

Makarios – I keep hearing that the Orthodox traditions are different in this respect from the Western Christian approaches.  Can you (or anyone else) recommend a good SHORT source that discusses this?  

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Your Name

posted March 7, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Makarios: if you want a SHORT online introduction to Orthodoxy:
Please be aware that many of the theological terms that Orthodox use are the same as Western Christians, but almost all of them – i.e. Sin, Salvation, Tradition, Baptism – mean something different.
Other sources for info include the Frederica Matthews-Greene link on BeliefNet, and
Peace be with you.

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posted March 8, 2009 at 1:58 am

I’m not sure how short a source you’re looking for, Gus, but a good starting point might be the discussions of the Eastern Orthodox perspectives on panentheism in In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World. Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke, eds. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004 (pp 157-198). ISBN 0802809782, 9780802809780

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posted March 8, 2009 at 4:59 am

When I was taking intro to Philosophy a long time ago we were discussing Hobbs and Calvinism and the stern Patriarchial, wrathful idea of God and a young woman said, “The God I believe in wouldn’t want to be like that.” I have always liked that simple answer.

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posted March 8, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I think I see the mountain top philosophy differently. Due to personality types, nature and nurture, etc. we all have different experiences. We also have different ways of processing these experiences. That is why there are so many different paths and that more and more will be produced. As life changes, we have new experiences so new ways of seeing will present themselves. Being at the mountain top doesn’t mean to me that we all converge and have the same beliefs or that it’s all the same. It’s more a recognition that people do process thinking and feeling differently so everyone is going to have a different relationship with spirit. And in seeing this, realize that there is no wrong way to experience relationship. The word relationship may sound too personal but having an impersonal relationship is still a relationship. And though I’m still working this out myself, I appreciate the chance to have a dialogue about this in order to help me learn. If I have misunderstood you please help clarify. I am here to learn. Thank you for your interesting blogs.

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posted March 9, 2009 at 2:40 am

“I know that many studies indicate that children in hideous environments can often be rescued if one adult in their lives treats them respectfully and with love. This only ads to the injustice o the situation for children who do not encounter such a person, as some do not. It also suggests that there is something in human life that when given a reasonable chance, develops towards health rather then pathology (leaving those terms undefined). An ounce of love overcomes a pound of hate, so to speak.”
I second this, and add a further piece of experimental evidence. The infamous Milgram study was re-run in the years since then, but with a twist – instead of a single experimenter urging you to keep delivering shocks to the ‘test subject’, you had two experimenters arguing with each other about whether to continue. It virtually reversed the results of the original study – this time, nearly every participant refused to continue, siding with the ‘good cop’ experimenter.
So it sounds like the principle at work is even broader than you propose – a person in a wholly hostile environment has little to no chance of retaining their humanity, but even one person in that environment ‘on their side’ is enough to tip the balance. And it’s not just upbringing, it keeps on being true all your life. You’re right that this has some unpalatable implications – that some people have no chance, morally speaking – but on the other side, it also implies that we each have a chance to be that one person to someone else, by merely being kind to someone we might not even realize is suffering.

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Ananta Androscoggin

posted March 9, 2009 at 11:21 am

Agreed that the paths-up-the-mountain metaphor is not an Ultimate answer, but it is a useful illustration for early stages of understanding for many. The question for each individual’s growth is when have they reached a point where it must be left behind and new understandings can be built on the earlier levels.
This has me wondering how I managed not to read anything about monism (other than in passing) during the past 40 years, given how erratically a very wide variety of different books find their way to me.

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Your Name

posted March 9, 2009 at 5:58 pm

The mountain analogy also has the ability to be looked at in an inverted fashion. (I actually like trying to see it both ways at the same time.) From an inverted perspective the commonality is at the base and connects each of the climbers (from and through evolutionary history) as being inherently connected. Diversity of form then is what results over time as forms evolve out of their common ancestery.
Looking at the analogy in this fashion, we have ascension into diversity. I would also though make the argument of return to unity via negation. (Some may think of this as nihilism, but without the connotations of meaningless that are often ascribed to it.) Mysticisms actual tend towards nihilism, or at least the negation of the illusion of form as ultimately real. This is a place where exoteric religions can become problematic, as form often displaces experience, as the outer form becomes an idol, (i.e. that which is related to as God and in place of relating to God). This has always been my big bugbear with dogmatic traditions; that and the capacity which exists to unduly influence people.

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Gus diZerega

posted March 9, 2009 at 6:43 pm

I think we are using different words to get at the same meaning, Laura. I agree with your point about personal if by it you mean that the divine knows US personally, not that the Ultimate itself has a personality in our sense of the term. In my experience, Gods and Goddesses do have individuality, and of course can also know us personally.
But I would disagree that there is “no wrong way to experience relationship.” Maybe someone needs to experience an abusive relationship for some reason or other, but it is certainly inferior to one that is based on love, whatever we might reasonably mean by that term.
Wonderfully put Aquari. Can you give us the source of that second experiment?
Ananta and Your Name- We are all on the same page, I think. Monism is not well known because ‘monotheism’ has pretty much eliminated all other concepts from normal spiritual discourse. In a sad way, it shows that totalitaranism of a sort can work across generations. Suppress and kill all alternative conceptions for enough generations, and people will only have the approved “New Speak” available to them to describe their spiritual experiences and yearnings. The same holds for panentheism – a little known term that succinctly describes the views of many Pagans once they learn of it.
I like the way you describe also inverting the mountain top – but then it is not a mountaintop. I still think the mountaintop metaphor is a risky one to use, since the top is ‘higher.’ I recall reading a book by Andrew Cohen some years back where he viciously attacked spiritual traditions that were not primarily oriented towards the goal of getting to the top. Maybe I’ll do a post on it someday.
I think the language of love is a safer discourse to use. To me, at a spiritual level, love is why we have diversity. Further, love incorporates recognition of both boundaries (duality) and unity (opening my heart). It can exist in many ways, and I think being able to incorporate them all is the very best any human can do (not that I have succeeded).
ALSO, thank you very much, Makarios and Your Name for the sources on Orthodoxy. I hope to learn more abut it soon since the Fates have put me in this Beliefnet space

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posted March 10, 2009 at 12:47 am

Can you give us the source of that second experiment?
When I wrote the first reply I couldn’t recall where I had read this. Once I went looking, I was surprised to discover the source was actually Milgram himself – he ran several variations on the experiment over time, under different conditions. I also discovered a third variation, where instead of two authority figures disagreeing on how to proceed, there were two other planted ‘participants’ in the room who would refuse to continue after a pre-arranged point. That one decreased compliance, too, but only slightly.
Milgram’s conclusion from this seems to be that it’s not a matter of ‘role models’ per se. It’s this: if all the sources of information around us seem to be giving us a consistent message (or we have only one source of information, and thus one message), we tend to accept that message uncritically. Witnessing defiance by our equally uninformed peers is not enough to inspire much doubt by itself. But if we receive conflicting messages from competing sources of information, we are forced to critically examine the situation in order to decide which to accept. A ‘good influence’ succeeds by presenting that alternative message – ‘there is another, better way to do things’, or ‘I accept and respect you, no matter what anyone else thinks’.

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posted March 11, 2009 at 12:03 am

Hey Gus,
Sorry I took so long to come back. The first part you mention is what I meant. As far as coming from an abusive relationship, I have experienced abuse before. But in my mind, I wouldn’t be the person I am now if I didn’t survive and grow from that experience. There has been a lot mentioned in this blog about abused victims that I’m just not comfortable discussing, but here I go. Having been there and having worked with philanthropies and such to help charities I think I have a different outlook. Suffice to say I don’t think it’s as clear cut as many would like to believe. I believe personality types and different forms of intelligence may make for different outcomes. I know I’ve read some hideous autobiographies of people who have survived and have become wonderful, people who are capable of living a full life and contributing to society. I think using a blanket statement against those who have lived through this is depressing and rather pessimistic towards human nature (and yes I have read the blog- you are zeroing in on children who had no love at all, I’m speaking for them as well.) I’m not saying that there aren’t those who do turn out to have problems. I’m just leery to base a judgement on one or two experiments. The last time I remember studying about this I had found a statistic that only 1 in 8 children actually carry on abusive patterns when they get older. I will try to look for this study for you if you would like. It may take me some time. I believe that many who do suffer as children and don’t have a violent characteristic in their personality tend towards dissociative disorders. Now, of course we are going to want to experience a loving relationship over an abusive one. But if this was a lesson for me to learn in this life time, then I’d rather make lemonade out of lemons and not focus so much on the lemons. When you’re discussion is so focused on the fact that there are those so damaged that they can never be helped, it appears to place a stigma on the victim. Being almost 42, I can tell you my experiences have been that most people who find out about my past usually treat me very differently from those who don’t know. I’m even talking about people who have known me for a while and then find out, it’s like flipping a switch. There have been very few people in my life who knew and didn’t judge me as damaged goods. And I think this has a lot to do with how society sees victims in our country. And I can tell you honestly, this is taking a lot of courage for me to write to you about this. I know some don’t make it, but by using this kind of language, and by zeroing in on those who do continue abusive patterns, those who do grow and succeed still have to fight that stigma. (And I believe the statistics for abused girls are probably way off, so many are just not reported due to the secrecy of the situation and the taboo for them to come out and talk about it.) I tend to shy away from talking about it myself because I am very sensitive to people treating me in a negative manner. I refuse to be labeled as damaged goods. And as someone who is speaking out for this demographic, I hate to see the world give up on anyone who has lived through this.

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