All religious systems attempt to characterize the structure of reality. Inevitably they find their foundation is what is called ontology (the study of being). The ontology chosen stems first of all from an intuition about the structure of reality. Those intuitions have always struggled with a sense of being both an individual and a part of the whole. Historically this struggle has been characterized as the question of the One and the Many. In philosophic terms, it dates back at least 2000 years BC. It was probably first dealt with in depth by philosophers in the Indus Valley (circa 800 BC) of what we now know of as India. There, early philosophers seemed to diverge into two schools, dualistic and monistic. The dualists claimed that there are two distinct ontological realms, the realm of God or some form of ultimate reality and the realm of reality as we experience it. The monists claimed that there is only one ontology, one being and that we are part of that One. As these philosophies spread to the West probably through Persian trade routes the question of the One and the Many was taken up by early Greek philosophers as well. There too philosophers, for the most part, opted for either a dualist or monist ontology. Plato, in most of his works, was a dualist positing both a realm of ultimate reality and the mundane reality of life. In fact, Plato thought that this realm was so corrupt and God was so perfect that God had no direct contact with this world and used a demiurge instead. Interestingly enough, however, Plato in his work Timaeus sounds much more like a monist. Parmenides was an early philosopher who, through logic, claimed that there can only be the One reality and that we are a part of it.
This debate continued through all of history with new formulations like Idealism and Realism springing up to address the issue in new terms. Interestingly enough, the debate has taken on a fresh force with the advent of modern physics with many of the top physicists like Bohr and Schrodinger asserting a monistic view. While in the East, monism took a stronger hold in the religions of Buddhism and Hinduism, in the West with monotheism a dualistic view of reality became dominant. This resulted in what we now know as the classic theism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is not to say that there are no monistic trends in Western religion. Every age has had reactions to dualism in theism but for the most part, dualism prevailed. It may be that we are entering a time of change in this respect. Particularly among professional theologians, there is a resurgence in monistic thought that is called panentheism. Panentheism says that the world is “in” God but God is also more than the world. While there are forms of panentheism that, in my view, are still dualistic (as in process theism) there are other strains that assert the oneness of reality. I believe a monistic form of panentheism fits experience very well and solves many problems in theology. The question that arises is how to characterize a monistic system. Dualistic systems have a much easier time in their characterizations of the relationship between God and the world because it is very easy for people to conceptualize distinct individuals and their interaction. Monism, on the other hand, faces the difficulty of explaining how The Many can be part of the One and still be distinct in some sense. If there is no distinction between the One and the Many it is difficult to understand our sense of separateness and freedom.
The idea of a wholeness in the One and the Many is particularly difficult for those in the West because they do not have a history of nondualism in their culture as there is in the East. To be sure, the great Western mystics are part of this history but for the most part, their sentiment has been ignored in Western culture perhaps because of the emphasis on rationality and the skepticism in a science-informed culture. That, however, has not deterred theologians and philosophers from grappling with the issue. Once again the question of how to intelligibly characterize the unity of the many has become of paramount importance. These thinkers have opted for at least two approaches. One is to use philosophic language and the other is to draw on metaphor. I think both are helpful. Now there has been no shortage of metaphors to elucidate how a distinction can be made between the One and Many. One of the more popular ones in panentheism is that “the world is the body of God”. This metaphor is apt because humans can all relate to having many parts, cells, organs, the brain, etc. that are distinctions but also part of the whole. I believe there are some drawbacks to this metaphor, however. Mainly it fails to address the issue of our minds and the mind of the One. The metaphor I use to try to overcome this is the Author/Story metaphor. In this metaphor, the mind is One, the mind of God but the characters in the story God creates share in God’s mind and some of its abilities. Now although God is the author of the story (the creator, as any fiction writer, will attest the characters in the story seem to often have minds of their own and can even surprise the author. This would seem to imply some level of independence of the characters and their will from the author.
At any rate, metaphors can offer a rough and ready picture of how to understand individuality within a monistic ontology. But what about philosophic language? This comes down to what terms to use to characterize this distinction. The main term I use is “aspect”. While I may use this term differently than others, it is not original to me. It has been used of late in philosophy of mind (dual aspect monism) and has also been employed by philosophers like Hartshorne, Dooyeweerd, and in the non-physics thought of people Erwin Schrodinger. I think it is an apt term because it is able to draw some distinction without creating a dualism. I also think people can relate the term because we all recognize that we have distinct aspects to ourselves while remaining a unity. In my theology, God has aspects. The great Hindu philosopher Ramanuja called these attributes of the One. Vishishtadvaita Vedanta in Hinduism has an ontology called a qualified monism. This is similar to an aspect monism. If there is only The One and that is God then God has both a living aspect of which we are a part and an unknowable abysmal aspect that is the “more” in panentheism. In process philosophy, the abysmal aspect is called God’s primordial nature while the living aspect is found in God’s concrete aspect. The notion of aspects in God is also obvious in the trinitarian concepts in Christianity.
There are also some explanatory advantageous to an aspect monism. Dualistic systems have difficulty explaining how free will could work. This is also true for the issue of consciousness (subjective experience). However, with an aspect monism, both these attributes can find their source as aspects participating in God. If we are an aspect of God then we can share, in a limited way, in God’s ultimate freedom and Mind.
Another great advantage of an aspect monism for theology is that there is no great divide to be crossed to commune with God. There is a seamless flow between the aspects of God. Instead of a divide, there is an infinite depth to all of reality. Religions often divide reality into the sacred and the mundane or profane. While these terms can have a use, if they lead to a dualism they create many problems for theology. We can think, instead, of the sacred as that which dwells in all things and seeks to embrace its depth in God. Another significant advantage of an aspect monism is that it dispels the typical conflict between religion and science. If reality is monistic there is no need to talk about “interventions” of God in this realm. Instead, God’s activity is intrinsic to reality in God’s living aspect. Divine action is not something imposed on the world from the outside but rather the ubiquitous activity of a living God in every moment of life. Interestingly enough, much in modern physics today supports this idea. From the standpoint of a personal sense of self and action, if we are aspects of God then we are not fallen creatures but participants in the divine life with all its challenges and opportunities of spirit.