Thursday 25 July 2013

The asymmetry of monism and pluralism - and the paradoxical nature of the Holy Trinity


It ought not to matter whether a Christian is a philosophical pluralist or (as the vast majority of intellectual Christians in post-Apostolic times have been) a monist.

(A monist regards ultimate reality as a unity, a pluralist as more-than-one.)

Christianity is not constrained by philosophy - whether Christian doctrine fits, or does not fit, into specific philosophical categories should be a matter of supreme indifference.

But in practice it does matter, and historically it has mattered a great deal - indeed philosophical disputes within Christianity have led to vicious, tragic, stupid, futile and irreversible schisms - such as the Monophysite controversy in the fifth century of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Philosophical disputes have been the bane of Christianity.


But the fact is that my opening statement is itself a pluralist statement, and a monist cannot (qua monism) regard pluralism as a matter of secondary importance.

To a monist, pluralism is an error; and any other monism than his own monism is also an error - and he cannot have a sense of proportion or perspective about the consequences of such a perceived-error: if you regard reality as specific unity and other people say it is a different unity, or else not a unity at all, then the consequences of such disagreement seem to be almost infinite in their scope.


So although the pluralist may see himself as a healer and conciliator of philosophical disputes, he will probably find himself under concerted attack from all monists of every stripe who - even if they agree on nothing else - agree on the falsity of pluralism!

And that, indeed, is precisely how I conceptualize my own situation as a Christian pluralist!


From my perspective, I regard Christian monists as occupying a variety of real Christian positions; but from the perspective of the various monists, they regard me as not being a Christian at all.

I think such anti-pluralist monists are wrong, objectively wrong, in rejecting pluralism as a Christian possibility - because they are in fact (despite whatever they may suppose they are doing) asserting that the philosophical principle of unity should structure Christianity.

Christianity should rule philosophy, rather than vice versa - and (given human limitations and the incompleteness of all rational systems) this will very likely mean that to get the Christianity right entails messing-up the philosophy: so be it.


But this is an analytic point which many Christian monists apparently cannot accept, nor even comprehend - since they are rooted in their monism.

To the primary monist, pluralism is necessarily incomplete or incompetent; or most worryingly dishonest - on the basis that pluralists 'must be' some kind of covert monist who is concealing his monism for strategic reasons.


Also, to the Christian who is a primary monist the paradoxical doctrine of the Holy Trinity being both three and one is the core of Christianity - something upon which all else depends.

Because for Christianity to be acceptable to the monist, entails the absolute unity of God -  while to be a Christian entails the divinity of Christ.

(And the Holy Ghost as well - but historically the difficulty has been Christ - because Old Testament Hebrew monists had no problem about conceptualizing the Holy Ghost as an aspect of one God.)

Hence the paradoxical/ incoherent definition of the Holy Trinity as absolutely one AND absolutely more-than-one is a principle that must be asserted as a definitional dogma requiring public assent: an incomprehensible 'truth' to which all monists who are Christians must submit. 


Perhaps the definition or comprehension of the Holy Trinity marks a cleavage point among monists:

between on the one hand monists who are Christians (monism comes first) - and who insist on the paradoxical definition of the Trinity, and place it at the centre or forefront of Christianity - and who will in practice make paradoxical Trinitarianism definitional of Christianity...

and Christians who are monists, who put Christianity first and are able to tolerate imperfect monism - who are prepared to accept that there is an intractable problem with applying monism to the Trinity; and who will therefore tend to down-play and work-around the paradoxical definition of the Trinity - will tend to regard it as a mystery rather than a higher-logic; and will not exclude from definitions of Christianity those persons or denominations who cannot or will not make public assent to paradoxical Trinitarianism.


So, in theory, by putting Christianity first and accepting imperfect philosophy, Christians who are monists can regard philosophical pluralists as being also Christians; while monists who are Christians will exclude philosophical pluralists from their definition of Christianity.

In other words, the cleavage shows-up in the way that Christianity is recognized, defined and demarcated: monists who are Christians will define Christianity in terms of philosophical concepts - and that is one way of identifying them.


BillR said...

With all due respect, I think this piece hangs on giving some very idiosyncratic definitions to the terms monist and pluralist, and by using those words in their new contexts, one is able to make the point one set out to make.

All in all, a very dualistic approach to religious philosophy, don't you think?

Bruce Charlton said...

@BR I get it from William James

"I myself have come, by long brooding over it, to consider it the most central of all philosophic problems, central because so pregnant. I mean by this that if you know whether a man is a decided monist or a decided pluralist, you perhaps know more about the rest of his opinions than if you give him any other name ending in IST. To believe in the one or in the many, that is the classification with the maximum number of consequences. So bear with me for an hour while I try to inspire you with my own interest in the problem."

Agellius said...

Not having known what "monism" and "pluralism" were, I wiki'd the terms. Here are the definitions I found:


"Monism is a philosophical position which argues that the variety of existing things can be explained in terms of a single reality or substance."


"In metaphysics, pluralism is a doctrine that many basic substances make up reality, while monism holds existence to be a single substance, often either matter (materialism) or mind (idealism), and dualism believes two substances, such as matter and mind, to be necessary.

"In epistemology, pluralism is the position that there is not one consistent set of truths about the world, but rather many. Often this is associated with pragmatism and conceptual and cultural relativism."

I can easily see how this definition of "monism" fits into what you're saying. I'm more doubtful that this definition of "pluralism" is the one you're using. Can you clarify?

Even in the Mormon scheme of reality, i.e. even if there are multiple, separate gods in existence, nevertheless they all partake of a single reality, do they not? There is still one grand scheme that rules their existence, i.e. they must have physical bodies, they must marry and produce offspring to attain the higher degrees of glory, etc. Isn't this ultimately a monist metaphysics, notwithstanding that there are many gods?

Agellius said...

On another point, you write that "Christianity should rule philosophy, rather than vice versa - and (given human limitations and the incompleteness of all rational systems) this will very likely mean that to get the Christianity right entails messing-up the philosophy: so be it."

It sounds very devout to say that Christianity, i.e. divine revelation, should rule philosophy, i.e. human wisdom. But if reality is to be considered rational, then reason must be at least one test of truth. In fact you seem to make this point, though not intentionally, when you argue that the Trinity must be rejected because of its being irrational.

But granting that that adherents to the doctrine of the Trinity know deep-down that it is irrational, might they not consider themselves to be obeying precisely your precept: Putting what they believe to be revelation above mere human wisdom?

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

for Christianity to be acceptable to the monist, entails the absolute unity of God - while to be a Christian entails the divinity of Christ

Precisely, if we replace monist by monotheist.

For Christ to be really God, it must be by nature, eternally. Any other possibility makes Christ lesser than God, which is the case with the Mormons, notwithstanding the fact that, morally, they are remarkably good people – I would say this is despite, not because of the main tenets of their theology. Another consequence of what you call pluralism is that it lessens God. Consider for example the anthropomorphic take of Mormonism: such a god is no God at all.

The philosophical error of pluralism is maybe a reaction to Spinoza, as errors and heresies almost always come in pairs, on each side of the truth, which holds the middle. The heresy of pluralism is a form of Arianism, negating the full divinity of Christ, as well as a reaction against what you call monism and should call strict monotheism. Indeed, if you want Christ to be God and cannot accept that there are three personas (hypostases) in the Godhead* you have no other choice but reduce the attributes of God to fairly the same as what you are ready to attribute to Christ.

*I looked up ‘Godhead’ as I am unfamiliar with the term: it stands simply for ‘divinity.’ There are only three occurrences of the word in the KJV (Acts 17:29, Romans 1:20 and Colossians 2:9) only one occurrence in the Douay-Rheims bible (Colossians 2:9). The other two passages in the Douay-Rheims have the words ‘divine’ and ‘divinity,’ translating respectively ‘divinum’ (adj.) and ‘divinitas’, (n.) in Latin, ‘theion’ (adj.) and ‘théotès (n.) in Greek. The term in Colossians translates ‘divinitatis’ and ‘théotètos’: ‘divinity’. The Latin and Greek terms are in the three cases exactly equivalent.
As theology was all in Greek or Latin until High Middle Ages at least, Godhead is a mere adaptation of the original term and the meaning should respect the original concept. The Mormon concept appears far from being sound compared not only to the Fathers and Scholastics use of ‘divinitas’, but to the Catholic use of ‘Godhead’ by English-speaking theologians, particularly in translating the Fathers.

Interesting reading on heresies : John C. Wright published nearly twenty posts in the last weeks to explain what decided him to enter the Catholic Church rather than any Orthodox or Protestant one. The first is titled ‘A Universal Apology Point One: On the Character of Heresy’ (July 15) and is followed by 14 other ‘points’ and a few related posts between. There is a number of long and interesting answers to commenters, particularly in the first threads.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks to my monist commenters! You see how your points exemplify the subject of my posting - the asymmetry of monism and pluralism - and the way that while I acknowledge the potential Christian validity of each of your distinctive philosophies, you do not do the same with mine. Which could, if you are not careful, come to mean that you regard those who do not share that specific philosophy as unChristian intriniscally.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Monism and pluralism are asymmetrical, obviously. What I protest against is the conflation of monism and monotheism, and of pluralism and Trinitarianism. Even if you are not convinced that it is rational, we Catholics are both monotheists and Trinitarians, which is not more averse to right reason than the philosophic notion of transcendantal Being acknowledged as one and manifold at the same time.