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You might be a monist

That’s right, my dear reader, you might be a monist.

You probably wonder what that is. I would prefer to tell you only about the alternative, since monism is a rather boring philosophy, and we take it for granted today. Yet sometimes it helps to articulate the exact opposite of what Christianity is in order to understand ourselves more truly. I promise that once you uncover your monist tendencies and purge your spirit of this contemporary habit of thought, the world becomes a much more interesting place.

Monism is the belief that only one kind of thing exists, that reality is one and homogeneous. You might think of reality as a single uniform substance, or perhaps a large or infinite number of identical atoms. You might, on the other hand, attempt to take the opposite, “pluralist” viewpoint, believing that reality contains irreducible difference. Yet as my favorite philosophy professor would be quick to remind us, we have not yet arrived at the alternative to monism (partly for reasons I won’t get into now).


The alternative to monism is the belief that reality contains both sameness and difference, unity and diversity. We might call this position “realism,” because our experience of sameness-in-difference (say, of different people who are all nevertheless similarly “human”) is not in fact an illusion as the monist (who claims difference is illusory) or the pluralist (sameness is illusory) would have it.

A common name for one alternative to monism is “Platonism.”

Contemporary Christians have often been taught to dread Platonism, and not without reason. The fear is that the explanation for the similarity between, say, two people is given in terms of an abstract “form” that both share. This abstraction has greater weight and importance than the two particular persons, whose differences in the end fade into the background. Difference is unaccounted for, and Platonism slips backwards toward monism.

A number of theologians, however, from Maximus the Confessor to Leibniz to (my favorite) Lionel Thornton have tried to take the “reality” of sameness and difference with equal seriousness. Here difference is assumed, but the phenomenon of similarity is explained not with reference to an abstract form shared by two people. Similarity is rather explained functionally with reference to a “center” or a “whole” in which many share, like a diverse set of radii extending from a single point.

Scriptural and theological realism

A common biblical analogy is that of a body, in which the diverse parts all gain their separate identity with reference to the place they have in a single organism. In order for a hand to be what it uniquely is, we must understand it in the context of the whole body. In this way of thinking, sameness and difference are equally “real” and truly inseparable.

The theological payoff comes first in our understanding of Christ, who is the unifying figure holding all of redeemed humanity together by virtue of his unique difference from the rest of humanity. This is commonly taught in those passages of St. Paul where Jesus is said to be the “head” of the Church or the “Second Adam” through whom life has been made available to his spiritual progeny (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22, 47; Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22, 4:15, 5:23). In this way of thinking, Christ does not cease to be a unique member within the body of the new humanity. His uniqueness is due to his universality.

The telltale sign that a theologian has slipped into monism, and thereby into an anti-realist position, is that Jesus is not valued as a particular individual, but as a cipher, or an instance of a more general abstract reality. A good example is the way some theologians turn Christ’s Cross into the supreme example of, say, the suffering caused by the inescapable law of natural selection or mob violence or any number of other things. Here the Cross becomes a cipher for suffering in general, a suffering that may even be conceived of as intrinsic to Creation and God himself. From Valentinian Gnosticism to the mythology of Jacob Boehme to the metaphysics of process theology, the outworking of God’s relationship to himself and the world is thought to be fundamentally agonistic, and the particularity of Jesus’ suffering becomes at best a stand-in for a truth “behind” the phenomenon of the Cross. Basically if you follow (and of course, conveniently, you can’t follow) such an abstract Jesus, you might be a monist.

Another theological payoff is in our understanding of our vocations within the Church, the “Body of Christ,” for by “holiness” the Bible doesn’t simply mean “super-goodness.” Rather it means to be “set apart,” to have a definite and unique place in the cosmos. This individual niche is not something constructed by ourselves for ourselves as if by “works.” It is rather a gift that we can either accept with thanks or reject.

Rejecting one’s place within the whole plan of God, however, results in spiritual monism, spiritual homogeneity. The sharp outline of one’s identity blurs as sin makes one uninterestingly indistinct from any other sinner. What good after all is a severed hand? Dead and detached, it simply returns to the dust.

It may be objected that the “plurality” of social atoms that make up our fallen world achieve difference precisely by being severed from any overarching, God-given unity. Yet one traditional argument points out that extreme pluralism and monism are logically convertible. I mean to say that if reality is made up of irreducibly different things, those things still have in common the property of being self-identical. To be irreducibly different all of these things must, therefore, not be self-identical. Which means that everything is not itself but everything else, which means we have arrived back at monism: there is only one self-identical reality. If you are a sinner, then, you are monist.

It would be too much to explore in detail the manner by which monism typically explains (or explains away) qualitative difference through quantitative addition: Mind results from the addition of material particles; wholes are no greater than their parts; lines — to the dismay of that majority of mathematicians who remain Platonist — are really the sum of their points.[1]

Realism and time

I will focus, however, on the most interesting consequence of accepting realism regarding the phenomenon of time. For if difference is not the product of little quantitative additions on the lateral axis of history, the realist is free to find similarities between different things that are widely separated in time without using causal concepts like “evolution” or “emergence” to account for it.

This is not, of course, to deny the fact of evolution. It is, rather, to understand similarity in terms of a common function. A hand and a spleen are similar because they are related within a single body. The relationship of part to whole — rather like the relationship of a line to its points or the center of a circle to its radii — is not temporal.

This is all rather heady, and one might delve further by reading Book XI of Augustine’s Confessions. But it bears on several theological topics, and I will mention a few here.

The first was already implicit in the notion of the body of Christ. If the members of that body are related to one another by relationships and terms that transcend the temporal, then we have begun to understand the doctrine of the communion of saints. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not dead but alive and present to us (Matt. 22:32).

Second: our doctrine of the Eucharist. If time is not a condition for the emergence of different kinds of things, then the proximity of eucharistic bodies to one another is not hindered by large temporal (or spatial) gaps. Eating at the Lord’s Table now is to eat at the Lord’s Table 2,000 years ago.

Finally, if Scripture is analogous to a body (i.e., if Scripture is a unity), then we are excused from making developmental demonstrations our primary method of exegesis. Each part of Scripture is related to every other part directly. So Abraham “saw” Jesus (John 8:56), though he lived more than 1,000 years earlier. The rock who followed Israel in its wilderness wanderings was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). Noah’s flood was also baptism (1 Pet. 3:21).

How I would love to expand on this! For now space only permits me to make the accusation that if you do not like allegorical exegesis, you might in fact be a monist.

I hope that the reader has now caught a glimpse of what is logically entailed by taking the phenomena of sameness-in-difference seriously, as well as how this issue relates to Christianity, which is fundamentally a “realist” religion. One begins to understand those stubborn particularities of our faith that are not easily digested by a culture enthralled by monisms, which constantly divert our minds from reality.

Odd as they are, the doctrines of Christ, the Church, the communion of saints, the sacraments, and Scripture depend upon a realist approach to phenomena.

Jeff Boldt is a doctoral candidate at Wycliffe College, Toronto. His other Covenant posts are here.

The featured image is in the public domain. 

[1] For suggestive references to the irreducible “discontinuities” between different mathematical realities, see the latest translation of the polymath, Pavel Florensky.


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