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From One to Many: Navigating the Landscape of Monistic and Theistic Mystical Traditions

Monism and theism are two philosophical standpoints with significant implications in various world religious traditions. Let's delve into the essential characteristics of both and then discuss their intersections and contrasts within various religious contexts.


Monism is the belief that there is only one ultimate reality or substance that underlies all existence. This unity might be understood in various ways, and different forms of monism have emerged over time, including materialistic monism and spiritual monism.

  • Materialistic Monism: This form posits that only physical matter exists, and everything can be reduced to material interactions. It often aligns with atheistic or secular worldviews.

  • Spiritual Monism: This perspective views the ultimate reality as spiritual or consciousness-based. In this view, the physical world is a manifestation of an underlying spiritual unity.

Monism in Religions

  • Hinduism: Advaita Vedanta, a significant school of thought within Hinduism, embraces non-dualistic monism. It teaches that the individual soul (Atman) and the ultimate reality (Brahman) are identical.

  • Buddhism: Some interpretations of Buddhist thought lean towards monism, particularly the idea that all phenomena arise from a singular, empty nature.


Theism, on the other hand, is the belief in one or more deities who created and govern the universe. Theism can be classified into different types:

  • Monotheism: Belief in one personal God. It is prevalent in religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

  • Polytheism: Belief in multiple deities. This is found in religions like Hinduism (though not all schools), ancient Greek religion, and other indigenous traditions.

  • Pantheism: This is a form of monism where God is believed to be identical with the universe. It's a viewpoint that can be found in certain interpretations of Hinduism and in some philosophical systems.

  • Deism: Belief in an impersonal creator who does not intervene in the world. This was popular during the Enlightenment among intellectuals.

Theism in Religions

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism: These Abrahamic religions embrace monotheism, with a belief in a personal God who is separate from the creation but actively involved in it.

Relationships and Differences

Monism and theism can intersect in beliefs like pantheism, where the universe and God are considered one. However, they can also stand in stark contrast, especially when comparing materialistic monism with personal theism.

  • Ontological Differences: Monism asserts an underlying unity, while theism often emphasizes the distinction between God and creation (though this varies between religions).

  • Epistemological Differences: The understanding of knowledge and revelation might differ, with monism often leaning towards direct mystical experience, and theism relying more on revelation, scriptures, or a personal relationship with the divine.

  • Ethical Implications: In monistic systems, ethical actions might be seen as aligning with universal principles, while in theistic systems, they may be more related to divine command or covenant.

Monistic Mysticism

Monistic mysticism emphasizes the fundamental unity of all reality. It's rooted in the belief that all differentiation and multiplicity are illusory, and that underlying everything is a single, unchanging reality. Here's how it is generally characterized:

  • Non-Dual Experience: Monistic mysticism often strives for a non-dual awareness, where distinctions between subject and object dissolve. In this state, the mystic recognizes their identity with the Ultimate Reality.

  • Transcendence of Ego: The individual self or ego is seen as a barrier to recognizing the underlying unity. Therefore, practices may focus on transcending or dissolving the ego.

  • Philosophical Background: Schools like Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism exemplify monistic mysticism. The goal is to realize that Atman (the individual soul) is identical with Brahman (the ultimate reality).

  • Ethical Implications: The realization of unity may lead to compassion and interconnectedness, as all beings are seen as manifestations of the same reality.

Theistic Mysticism

Theistic mysticism, in contrast, maintains a distinction between the human soul and the Divine. It focuses on a personal relationship with a deity or deities, and is characterized by:

  • Personal Encounter: The mystic seeks to experience, love, and know God in a deeply personal way. This could be through prayer, meditation, or other devotional practices.

  • Divine Grace: Often, theistic mysticism emphasizes the role of divine grace in the mystical experience. It's not solely a human effort but relies on a higher power's benevolence.

  • Communion, not Union: While union with the Divine may be a goal in some theistic traditions, there is often an emphasis on communion or fellowship rather than total merging or identification.

  • Philosophical Background: This approach is common in many Western religious traditions, such as Christianity's mystical theology, including works by mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila.

  • Ethical Implications: The relationship with the Divine leads to a life of virtue, obedience, and alignment with the divine will.

Connections and Distinctions

Though these two types of mysticism may seem opposed, they are more like different approaches or orientations to the mystical journey. They can sometimes even be found within the same religious tradition but interpreted differently.

  • Emphasis on Unity vs. Relationship: While monistic mysticism stresses a complete oneness with the Divine, theistic mysticism tends to maintain a personal relationship with a higher being.

  • Different Paths and Practices: The techniques and practices might differ, reflecting the different goals of union (monistic) versus communion (theistic).

  • Compatibility with Different Traditions: Monistic mysticism might be more compatible with Eastern thought and some Western mystical and esoteric traditions, while theistic mysticism often aligns with Western religious traditions.

Mystical Practice from a Christian Perspective

In the landscape of Christian mystical practice and contemplation, the interplay between monism and theism offers a rich and nuanced perspective. 

The Christian tradition predominantly aligns with theistic mysticism, emphasizing a personal and loving relationship with God. 

The goal is not merely to understand or become one with an abstract Divine principle but to enter into communion with a personal God, as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

However, there are aspects of Christian mystical thought that resonate with monistic ideas, particularly in contemplative practices. In deep contemplation, the boundaries between the human soul and God may seem to blur, leading to experiences that echo the non-dual awareness found in monistic traditions. The mystic's profound sense of unity with God, while still grounded in a personal relationship, may resemble the dissolution of separateness central to monism.


Christian mystical practice and contemplation engage with both theistic and monistic dimensions. While fundamentally rooted in the personal theism characteristic of Christian doctrine, these spiritual practices also encompass experiences of unity and interconnectedness that resonate with monistic perspectives. 

The resulting synthesis provides a rich, multifaceted spiritual path, reflecting both the immanent presence of God within all things and the transcendent nature of a personal Divine, embodied in Jesus Christ. 

Through the intimate connection with Jesus, the Christian mystic navigates the complexities of both unity and relationship, embracing a spirituality that acknowledges the oneness of all existence while honoring the distinct and personal nature of the Divine.

This interweaving of monistic and theistic elements within the Christian tradition offers a complex and profound avenue for spiritual exploration, potentially enriching the broader study of religious thought and mystical experience.

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Christian Mysticism

Monism and Theism Mystical Traditions

The Greatest Mystics


General Esotericism


Spirituality and Esotericism

Spirituality and Mysticism

Christianity and the Qabalah

The Christian Church Inflection Point


Spiritual Practices


Jesus’s Role in Spiritual Practices

Spiritual Growth and Healing

Spiritual Exercises of Loyola


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Rudolf Steiner


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