East and West

materialism, metaphysics and religion

Historically, metaphysics in the Western (or Western and Middle Eastern) world has tended to maintain a tension between religion and secularism - between monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahai'ism on the one hand, and philosophical and humanistic materialism and scientism in the modern world on the other.  The philosophical and metaphysical distinction between dualism and materialism that has so much shaped Western thinking goes back to the ancient Greeks, Pythagoreanism and Platonism representing the dualist position, Atomism and Epicureanism the Materialistic, and Aristotleanism and Stoicism as a sort of holistic or quasi-holistic "third way" between the two.  To some extent this is also the case in China as well, although not to so great an extreme.

In India however, the tension has tended to be between Monism and Dualistic Theism.  That is, between full-fledged Monistic mysticism in which God or Godhead is understood as non-different from the Self (e.g. Advaita Vedanta, Kashmir Shaivism), and dualistic mysticism and exoteric religionism in which God is seen - as in the monotheistic religions of the West and Middle East - as eternally separate from the self and matter.  In this intellectual, cultural, and spiritual environment, Materialism and Atheism has played a very small part, and many atheistic philosophies - e.g. Buddhism and Jainism - are also profoundly mystical.

A secondary distinction in Western mystical and metaphysical understanding is between Theistic Dualism and Emanationism.  In the former, God creates the Universe out of nothing.  In the latter, the Cosmos comes about through a series of gradual emanated stages from an unmanifest Godhead, a series of successive planes or worlds or angelic hierarchies, as represented in Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Medieval Christianity, Sufism, Kabbalah, and Theosophy.

The counterpart of this in Indian thought is the distinction between strict Monism (e.g. Advaita Vedanta) and emanationist Monism (e.g. Shaivite and Shakta Tantra).  This is because in India, the emphasis is not primarily on the concept of a hierarchical reality and emanation such as characterises such Western-Middle Eastern mystical systems of thought as Neoplatonism and Kabbalah as on realising the formless Absolute beyond all manifestation, higher or lower.

In Chinese thought the metaphysical tension seems to be between Materialism and Monism, the result being a Holistic understanding of reality not as a hierarchy or a duality, but as the complementary play of the bipolar forces of yin and yang.  Although China assimilated foreign religions and ideologies like Buddhism, Marxism, and most recently Consumerism, she has shown little inclination or interest in the theistic religions of other lands, perhaps because their rigidly dualistic nature is at variance with the intrinsic Chinese tendency to holism.

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page last revised 3 June 2001