A Pagan's Blog

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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