Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

Theism or Monism

THEISM AS A WORLD-VIEW is common to Christianity, Islam and Orthodox Judaism. It makes a distinction between God and his creation. In modern scientific language it could be expressed as follows. This universe is a limited, four-dimensional, space-time continuum. God is, however, eternal, which means that he is not limited in either space or time, though he does touch space and time at every point. God is, was, and will be, quite apart from the universe which he made from nothing by an act of will.[1]

Thus space and time had a beginning only when God willed them, and they will have an end when the existing four-dimensional universe is 'rolled up', or 'burned up' to give place to another kind of reality.[2]

According to Theism the destiny of man is not therefore limited to this space-time universe. Man is made for fellowship with God in eternity beyond the existing dimensions. Death is the gateway to the beyond, just as death for a seed is the gateway to its real destiny as a flowering plant. The Theist admits the difficulty of describing what he expects to be in eternity, but he might point out that this is no more difficult than the problem of an unborn baby describing to its twin what life will be like after leaving the womb.

If Theism is stated in this way, it is obvious that any science which limits itself to the observable in space-time is neutral. Science has no means of pronouncing on the origin of space-time, or even of energy-mass, or on the possibility of a Creator and a destiny outside both space and time. If science goes beyond its limitations, it becomes philosophy, and philosophy can only set out the various options. True philosophy has to admit that the eternal, and even such common things as love and truth and beauty, are all impossible to prove by scientific methods.

Now let us turn to Monism, which is equally incapable of proof but certainly easier to visualize. It starts with the assumption that there can be only one eternal principle in the cosmos, and so denies a Creator above and separate from his creation. There is a single primordial cause which unfolds itself as our universe. It therefore requires no outside power to intervene in it. Though Monism is at least as old as the Upanishads of the sixth century BC, it fits in very well with many modern views of emergent evolution. Even Marxist philosophy has to be written in monistic terms. Within Monism there are four philosophical categories. Hindu philosophers have discussed these for centuries, and it seems logically impossible to add to them. They are as follows.


The oldest and simplest form is Pantheism, which asserts that God is, and unfolds himself in, everything there is. In other words all that there is is God. God is not a Creator from outside, but the sum total of all the reality of which we are a part. That being the case, the 'way of salvation' for man is to become one, or feel one, with nature. He must avoid artificiality, ignore man-made rules of right and wrong, and be as true to nature as he can. The Taoism of Lao-Tse (born c. 550 BC) is perhaps the earliest example, though we might have to place him like Spinoza in the subtler category called Modified Pantheism. Modern examples are the nature worshipper who goes out into the countryside and forgets himself in the world life, the followers of D. H. Lawrence, and those who want no restrictions on their natural instincts.

Modified Pantheism

If Absolute Pantheism seems too crude, Modified Pantheism makes the refinement that God is not the whole of nature, but the principle behind nature. In this case the way of salvation is not to become one with nature, but to discover the basic principle behind nature, and to ally oneself with that. Thus, instead of just living according to instinct, we discover that the universe has an underlying moral, or progressive, principle with which we decide to unite our own efforts. Mahavir (599-527 BC) the founder of the Jains of India and Confucius (551-479 BC) in China both gave an ethical ground to reality. Spinoza (1632-77) developed an elaborate system of ethics based on Modified Pantheism. Marx declared that the principle behind history is the class struggle till the classless society is achieved. In making this universe the only reality Marx is a Monist, and in calling man to live according to its discovered principle he is a Modified Pantheist, As we saw in the last chapter, Marxism is basically religious, and many have found satisfaction in sacrificing their own interests for the greater end of its cause. The same can be said of the Modified Pantheism of Nietzsche (1844-1900). His was the principle of the superman; Nazi Germany was its outworking.

A very common type of Modified Pantheism is the religion of those who believe in progress. The principle of evolutionary progress is discovered from science and history, and the devotee then gives himself to furthering the principle with a fervent faith in progress as the be-all and end-all of life. Others assume that the universe has a natural inbuilt principle of justice and kindness (especially to animals!), and they go to great lengths to uphold the rights of others or to behave like gentlemen. In Honest to God Bishop Robinson dispenses with the need for a theistic Creator, but he finds love as the basic principle or ground of his monistic universe. His way of salvation is therefore to ally oneself with love, and do the most loving thing in all circumstances.[3] In earlier chapters of his book Bishop Robinson wants his monistic God to be personal, not just a principle, and in this case his world-view is better classified as Modified Monism, which we must look at after our next variety of Monism.

Absolute Monism

At the other extreme from Absolute Pantheism the Hindu philosophers placed a view which might be called Illusionism, but we will stick to the terminology of Vedanta philosophy and call it Absolute Monism or Non-Dualism. It is fully argued by the philosopher Shankara (7th or 8th century AD) though this type of thinking goes back a thousand years before that. Shankara held that the only reality is God, and all this world is imagination (Maya). Indian philosophy professors delight in confusing their students by asking them to prove that they are not dreaming. Since dreams appear so real, it is logically impossible to prove that our own existence is not a dream. The way of salvation in Absolute Monism is to realize the dream nature of all we think we know and get through to perceiving God or the Absolute, which is identical with one's deepest self. This way is called the way of knowledge, and Yoga meditation is prescribed to attain this realization and unity.

In its strict form Shankara's philosophy is logically unanswerable, but practically unreal. Man cannot live his daily life happily in the assumption that nothing of what he does or reads or sees, or the friends around him, is real. There are various Hindu ways of softening the harshness of the philosophy by saying, for example, that dreams are real, though they are not reality. Among the Greeks it was Parmenides (c. 515-445 BC) who first stated Absolute Monism, with the revelation that 'Being Is'. In denying the validity of sense perception he apparently held that reality or 'Being' is beyond sense knowledge. Such extreme illusionism failed to take root in the West, though it is still discussed in India. Modern man wants to live his life existentially in a real world with his own responsible decisions. The nearest present-day equivalent is Christian Science, whose disciples may not doubt their own existence but are expected to doubt the existence of their pain and disease.[4]

Modified Monism

We now turn to the Philosophical position which lies between Pantheism and Shankara's extreme Illusionism. Hindu philosophers call it Modified (or Qualified) Monism. In it God is related to the reality around us as the soul is to the human body. The four main monistic positions can be set out as follows, though there are refinements and sub-divisions for each of these.

Absolute PantheismEverything there is is God.
Modified PantheismGod is the reality or principle behind nature.
Modified MonismGod is to nature as soul is to body.
Absolute MonismOnly God is reality. All else is imagination.

Modified Monism has great philosophical advantages, and it is probably the philosophy which will dominate modern Hinduism and will be propagated more and more in other countries. It avoids the perils of Pantheism, by which God must be identified with the evil in the world. It gives an explanation for the 'depths' which man instinctively feels must lie under the reality around him. It allows for the ascription of personality to God, since God is the World Soul. Its greatest philosopher was Ramanuja (c. 1016-1137) who provided the philosophic defence for the Bhakti devotees of a personal God. Like the soul of man, God is visualized as having intelligence, thought and moral character, which is why he requires moral qualities in his worshippers. As regards creation Ramanuja makes God both the Creator and Soul of the world. Creation is not by a supra-natural God, but by emanation as a form of creative evolution.[5]

It is interesting that in Modified Monism we find the attributes of God which so many modern theologians seem to be seeking. Since the philosophy is monistic, there is no need of an external Creator-God. Instead God is part and parcel of our universe, and yet its deepest reality. Ramanuja and modern Hindu Vedantists would have no difficulty in calling God 'the infinite depth and ground of all being'. They also answer the question raised by Bishop Robinson in his chapter entitled 'The End of Theism?'. Is it possible to remove God from being Creator, make him part and parcel of this universe, and yet retain him as a personal God? Ramanuja answered that if God is the Soul of the universe, we can obviously ascribe personal attributes to him.

It is significant that Hindu Vedantists gladly recognize Jesus Christ as one of the greatest incarnations. As a person he truly expressed the World Soul and his oneness with it. Dr Radhakrishnan, President of India, and the greatest Vedanta philosopher, claims that Jesus Christ was a true Vedantist when he said 'I and the Father are one'. He takes this to mean that Jesus Christ had a genuine experience of complete unity with the Absolute. Bishop Robinson re-echoes exactly these words when he says, 'Jesus is so completely united to the Ground of his being that he can say, "I and the Father are one ... The Father is in me and I am in the Father".'[6] There is in fact nothing in the Bishop's section on Christology[7] which could not be accepted word for word by Dr Radhakrishnan or any Hindu Vedantist.

In mentioning Bishop Robinson so often, the purpose is not to score debating-points, but to illustrate the fact that in the study of religions it is no longer possible to look at them as different homogeneous species. It is obvious that some Christians now have a philosophical position identical with Vedanta Hinduism. We have not argued whether Christian Theism or Hindu Vedanta is superior, but we have seen that they are different. True philosophy should clarify the options, give them suitable names, and help the ordinary man to see what worldviews are open to him. Which he adopts will depend on how he 'sees', since world-views are 'seen', not argued.[8] I personally cannot criticize Bishop Robinson for 'seeing' like a Vedantist, though I do question the logic of naming as Christian a philosophy which for 2,500 years has been named Vedanta. The Hindus admit many philosophical positions and 'ways' within Hinduism, but their philosophers are very careful to distinguish them by their proper names. Now that the Christian church has tacitly agreed to admit a number of contradictory philosophies within its fold, we can make progress in the study of religion only by being similarly consistent in the use of terms.

To clarify the basic issues at stake in the difference between Christian Theism and Hindu Monism, it will be helpful to consider their relationship to evolution. At least 2,000 years before Darwin the Sankhya-Yoga philosophers of India set out their view of the universe in evolutionary terms. They visualized the evolution of our present cosmos as a rope opening out its strands to all the variety of nature and life as we know it. Since they were Monists the rope had to be eternal, and it kept opening out in the process of creation, and then retwisting its strands in the process of dissolution. Thus we are part of an eternal pulsating universe. Just now the universe seems to be in its expanding and creative stage, but it will eventually start folding up again, and so on ad infinitum. This view has recently been adopted by Professor Fred Hoyle, when he publicly abandoned the steady state (constant creation) theory.

Western evolutionists have usually avoided discussing what existed before the original lump from which the universe is said to have evolved. It is however possible to imagine a high energy lump of compressed neutrons shooting out in Einstein's curved space, and therefore eventually coming back alto itself, and so on. All this could have gone on for ever without God. This is a monistic view of evolution and dissolution.

We must now conclude with the main practical differences between Christian Theism and the various monistic world-views. A basic difference is in the importance of man as a person. All monistic views inevitably have to merge the individual in the whole, and he has no continuing identity. Christian Theism starts with three Persons in the unity of the Trinity, and man in the image of those Persons, so that he is capable of fellowship with them. Salvation is not a merging or destruction of personality as in Monism, but a perfecting of personality so that the person can continue as a person in the city of God. Christ is the eternal Son of God, but Christians are adopted sons of God. In Christ they share in the 'immeasurable riches' of God's grace. What God has done for his Son, he will do for them.[9]

In Monism sin is at the most an ignorance of the principle, or soul, or nature of the cosmos. Christian Theism however makes sin a personal revolt, an act of disobedience or hostility against a personal God. As a result Theism requires repentance, whereas Monism advises illumination to understand.

In daily life Monism suggests the need for union with nature, or the principle behind nature, or the World Soul. Christian Theism requires the disciple to walk with Christ, to be guided, to converse in prayer, and to have fellowship with others of the family of God.

At the centre of the two views is a different attitude to Jesus Christ. Monism views Jesus Christ as part and parcel of this universe. At the highest he was in perfect harmony with its principle or World Soul, a good example, a continuing inspiration. The Christian sees him as the one who made the world from nothing, came into his own creation, died on the cross to enable Christians to be freed from sin and fit for eternity, went through death, rose again, left space-time to return to eternity, and will one day come to terminate this universe and usher in the eternal city of God.

Chapter 10...


1. Since Einstein, the interchangeability of matter and energy have become commonplace with the formula E = MC2. It is possible that studies in the effect of will on matter might expand the formula to something like W = EC = MC3, where will can create both energy and matter, and energy and matter can eventually be redissolved into will.

2. See Isaiah 34:4; 1 Corinthians 15:52, 53; Hebrews 11:13-16; 2 Peter 3; Revelation 21:1-8.

3. Honest to God (SCM Press, 1963), Chapter 6.

4. For a good introduction to Hindu philosophy see M. Hiriyanna, The Essentials of Hindu Philosophy (Allen & Unwin, 1949).

5. E. C. Dewick, The Indwelling God (Oxford University Press, 1938), pp. 44-47.

6. Honest to God, p. 74.

7. Honest to God, pp. 64-83.

8. In Latin, Greek and Sanskrit the words for "knowing" are the same as those for "seeing."

9. Ephesians 2:4-10.

Chapter 10...