(Adapted from a presentation to a theological conference)
The following outlines my sense, primarily as a social theorist, of the direction in which a universalist theology could develop, if it intends to underpin a form of society in which every person, of whatever culture or creed, feels they have a place, but which is true to the life, example and teachings of their particular philosophical or spiritual tradition. I propose that there are two main requirements for this to be realised: a philosophical basis for a universal spirituality and a set of universal socio-cultural values.
As I am not a theologian, my approach to religions is principally in understanding their efficacy in promoting good societal outcomes, which from my perspective is the extent to which they promote individual flourishing, social harmony and human progress. However, I wish to approach that obliquely and take as my starting point part of a biblical verse, Genesis 3:8, “And they heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day”, which is a literal translation from the Hebrew. The particular context is that Adam and Eve, after the fall, hid from the presence of Yahweh in shame. The author of the verse, however, seems to suggest that Yahweh was predisposed to taking a daily constitutional in his creation. How we understand this extract – literally, figuratively, symbolically, poetically, metaphorically or sceptically – is a matter of personal interpretation. Perhaps we can agree, though, that as an expression of a literary imagination steeped in an oral tradition passed on through generations, it has the power to transpose us from the mundane to a world of transcendent possibility.
Such a possibility sits uneasily with the dominant monotheism of the Christian West and Islamic world. Phenomenologically, the peregrinations of Yahweh are no different from those of Enki, Krishna, Zeus or Odin, literary gods based on oral traditions that are similarly open to interpretation as a source of ontological grounding and moral insight. Monotheism, however, forbids the possibility of existence of any gods but the one God and, therefore, by inference, the spirituality of traditions other than those based on its presuppositions. Ironically, then, the monotheistic religions fail to agree amongst themselves and have historically been in a state of near-perpetual conflict.
My thesis here is that the problem with monotheism is not the belief in a God from whom one finds spiritual sustenance and moral guidance; it is with its philosophical underpinning of monism derived from Greek philosophy, ultimately that of Parmenides of Elea. Parmenides pushed the pre-Socratic search for the basis of reality in a single substance to its ultimate logical conclusion in claiming that the ‘One’ is being itself, that the only thing that exists is being, that nothing exists outside of being and that the appearance of plurality, motion and change is an illusion.
An important inference from this is that thinking and reasoning are a part of being, there only being the ‘One’. In the words of Parmenides, “‘To be thought’ and ‘to be’ are the same [thing].” (fragment 3, tr. Herman, 2004) and “It is not possible to say or to think that it ‘is not’,” the denial of non-being (fragment 8, tr. Taran, 1965). There are two important corollaries to this philosophical monism: that being is the only thing that can make an appearance in our mind, since it is the only reality; and that the inability to see or to acknowledge this reality is evidence of error. It is a small step from this to the absolutist claims to truth of the monotheistic religions and the condemnation of ‘otherness’, which give theological justification to the horrors that have been committed in their names.1
Whether there is direct evidence of the influence of Parmenides on the development of monotheism is unsure, but there is circumstantial evidence as there is a conceptual lineage concerning the ‘One’, from Parmenides through Plato to Plotinus, who as the father of Neoplatonism influenced many early Christian theologians, including Augustine.
I would argue that a universal theology should not be based on Western philosophical and theological concepts founded on monistic presuppositions, but on philosophical and spiritual traditions that have understood being as plural, relational and dynamic. These would include the pre-Socratic philosophies of Heraclitus and Democritus, developed in response to Parmenides’ absolute monism, and the Taoist philosophy of Yang and Yin, which sees the underlying reality as the dynamic unity of opposites. The theological positions which are most closely aligned to this are pantheism and what philosophers such as Whitehead and Hartshorne refer to as panentheism.2
Pantheism is a total identification of the divine with the world, a position advocated by Leibnitz and the default position of many erstwhile atheists, while it is compatible with the phenomenological approach to the sacred espoused by the anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1957, 1963). As a spiritual tradition, pantheism is most beautifully expressed in the ancient Vedic Sanskrit saying tat tvam asi – That Thou Art – an articulation of empathetic identification alien to monotheism, though not, in all fairness, to some of the mystical traditions that have sprouted from the biblical and koranic religions. However, these mystical traditions are not actually pantheistic, but panentheistic. The failure of pantheism, as I see it, is that it is another form of monism; if everything is divine, then nothing in particular is.
The virtue of panentheism is that it unites the experience of transcendence and that of immanence, that of the divine beyond experience with the experience of divinity in the world. It thus compensates the weaknesses of monotheism and pantheism, the epistemological vices of “nothing but” and “everything”. While immanence in principle accepts as valid every experience and assertion of the sacred, transcendence creates a critical space for moral sensibility, based on cultural values.
A post-monotheist age, to be more than a theological fiction, must correspond to a social reality in which people are free to choose their own spiritual path, whether they do that individually or collectively, but in which there is recognition of an underlying philosophical unity in diversity that promotes collective tolerance, respect and even appreciation. This could be called something like an elective panentheism. As a social theology it would need to both engender and, reciprocally, be grounded on universal values. I suggest, below, what some of those might be, as they are common to the great philosophical and religious traditions, and exemplified by great figures throughout history. At the end of each section I have indicated in parentheses a small sample of related disvalues, that is, traits in opposition to the value, which may be contextually useful.
Uncertainty and the acceptance of our ignorance. This is why we think, why we talk to others, why we read and why we pray. The basis of wisdom is the acceptance of ignorance, a philosophical tradition that goes back to Socrates, but a religious teaching found in all the great religions which must, nonetheless, be cultivated as a practice by the individual. [Sample disvalues: arrogance, self-righteousness]
Openness to the mystery of being: nature, our minds, other people, other cultures. The more we know, the more we realise we don’t know. This is based on the values of humility and curiosity, the foundations of discovery. Science is an exemplar of this approach to nature, but all forms of knowledge arise through openness. [Sample disvalues: closed-mindedness, xenophobia, racism]
Sensitivity to truth, beauty, goodness, wisdom, and other great values; sometimes referred to as absolute values, they have been at the basis of all cultures. Though critiqued in modernist philosophy through the twentieth century, there is a growing understanding of these as important (if strictly unrealisable) aspirations that motivate social progress. [Sample disvalues: deceit, ugliness, evil, stupidity]
Support for the great institutions and accomplishments of cultures that allow individuals to flourish; prime among these is the family, which is reckoned foundational to all social life and, in some senses, a paradigm of all social structures, nurturing the individual within the collective. [Sample disvalues: mockery, promiscuity, disloyalty]
Respect for the everyday and the desire of people to live in peace. Barring those who are pathological by nature, the desire of ordinary – and even extraordinary – people is to nurture the mundane longings of loving one’s country, landscape and culture, achieving one’s own place, settling down, marrying, having and raising a family, achieving a modicum of accomplishment and respect from one’s peers, growing old among family and friends. [Sample disvalues: aggression, expropriation, enslavement]
Opposition to evils that deny fundamental human freedoms and the dignity and full expression of human life; basically, that which denies or denigrates the values discussed here. There have been many ideologies, movements and lifestyles that disavow these universal values and many examples of heroic figures who have opposed such negative forces at the risk or cost of their lives. [Sample disvalues: ignorance, indifference, cowardice]
Humility and generosity in the face of good fortune. The wise never take their good fortune for granted; external achievement should be matched by the development of character. [Sample disvalues: pride, arrogation, meanness]
Acceptance of the place of misfortune and tragedy in life, while attempting to solve and mitigate it as much as possible. Human life, like all life on earth, is framed by death and the possibility of injury and sickness. Some of this is natural, while some arises from human stupidity or malevolence. While acceptance is psychologically healthy to some degree, this should be balanced against a desire to lessen human suffering in whatever way we can, and many in society fulfil this function. [Sample disvalues: complaint, resentment]
Empathy, compassion and concern for the suffering of others; Humans are naturally social beings as well as individuals, and we naturally develop the ability to identify with others’ feelings, although that can be enhanced or diminished based on attitude and circumstances. [Sample disvalues: indifference, cold-heartedness]
Commitment to being at least not a burden and, ideally, a contributor to society; Any society can only create the opportunities for us to prosper; the responsibility finally rests with us, on or willingness to make effort. [Sample disvalues: laziness, apathy, lack of concern for self and others]
Believing, as I think most people do, that the only societies worth living in are as free as possible, the human proclivity for evil cannot be ignored. That is why all societies have laws. Laws, though, only set the boundaries of permissible acts. Values establish the core of a culture’s aspirations for a way of life and, if properly transmitted, can reduce reliance on the application of law. My hope would be that a post-monotheist age would see the emergence of a value-centred culture to which every philosophical and religious tradition contributed and from which they took their moral sustenance.
- The litany of the sins that can be laid at the feet of the monotheistic religions includes genocide, torture, persecution, excommunication, dogmatism, schism, war, terrorism, the sacking of cities, iconoclasm and the destruction of cultural and historical artefacts. While these acts have not been restricted to the monotheistic religions, the scale and intensity at which they have occurred within these faiths should raise questions of whether there is something intrinsically wrong at the heart of the belief. The philosopher John Gray has also asserted that monotheism is the cause of atheism (Gray, 2003). At one time, in light of this history, atheism might have seemed a rational response. However, atheism has proved to be just as destructive of human lives and property when allied to monistic views of truth.
- Panentheism as a philosophical term originates from the early nineteenth century, but the concept long predates that. As a mode of religious belief and experience it has appeared in many different traditions, including Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and in some ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy (Culp, 2017).
Culp, John, “Panentheism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/panentheism/>.
Eliade, M. (1957). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Eliade, M. (1963). Myth and reality. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Gray, John (2003). Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. London: Granta.
Hermann, Arnold (2004). To Think Like God: Pythagoras and Parmenides: The Origins of Philosophy. Las Vegas, NV: Parmenides Publishing.
Taran, Leonardo (1965). Parmenides: A text with translation, commentary and critical essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.