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I have considerable sympathies for nondualism and have started in recent years to think that it might be true. But there is an important qualifier to any such view. Namely: I do not think that there could possibly be an omnipotent omnibenevolent God. The problem of suffering is just too intractable.

Many nondualists, especially Sufis, would identify the nondual ultimate with that God. And I cannot accept that view. For similar reasons I am skeptical of a Vedānta view where the ultimate is sat: both being and goodness. There is too much being that is not good.

For this reason I have been inspired by a wonderful passage in Nishida Kitarō’s “The logic of nothingness and the religious worldview”:

It is another paradox, but God as the true absolute must be Satan too. Only then can God be said to be truly omniscient and omnibenevolent. This is the God who as Jehovah required Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac (see Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). This is the God who has required the negation of the person itself. A God who merely opposes, and struggles with, evil is a relative God, even if he conquers over evil. (Last Writings 74)

This is Christian (and Jewish) language that no orthodox Christian could endorse; in some eras one could have got burned at the stake for saying it. But I think it is quite right. Hegel, rightly trying to see the truth in everything, looked for the truth in both Christianity and Enlightenment atheism; I’ve argued that one should go further and see the truth in Christianity and Satanism. But what Hegel does get about Satan, I think, is that evil does need to be a part of the ultimate; the ultimate cannot be pure goodness. If, with Augustine, one identifies badness with nonbeing or absence, one still has to wrestle with the obvious presence of that same badness that one has defined as absence. (Coldness is in a sense a form of nonexistence, but it still exists.) Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta runs into a very similar problem: if all existence is a unity constituted by truth and goodness, and perceptions of multiplicity are just explained as ignorance, then how can that ignorance possibly exist?

The visions of nonduality that I find compelling are those which find ways to acknowledge badness, evil, error, ignorance, falsehood, even non-being as part of the ultimate in some meaningful way – such that, as Nishida says, God must be in some sense Satan. This is what makes Krishna a more compelling God-figure to me than Yahweh or Jesus as usually conceived: he is not omnibenevolent, the multitudes he contains include morally bad ones. (Nishida’s reading of the Abraham story, in this regard, is quite powerful – but it does necessarily imply the heretical conclusion that God is not omnibenevolent!)

Another way to put this, perhaps, is that a true ultimate should not have an opposite. Goodness, a benevolent God fighting Satan, even truth – these could not be real ultimates, for there are things they do not contain. Hegel’s Spirit (Geist) is a powerful concept for that reason: it has no clear opposite, it contains oppositions within itself.

I was led to some of this thinking from an unusual place: James Maffie’s long and fascinating account of Aztec philosophy. On Maffie’s account, the Aztecs identified a supreme principle called teotl that contained within it both order and disorder – though the Aztecs valued order over disorder, and thought the order itself was a proper balancing of order and disorder. Even so, order itself was not the supreme principle, it had to be something larger.

I’m not in much of a position to judge the accuracy of Maffie’s account of the Aztecs. But I have found something constructively compelling in that account: like Hegel’s Geist, teotl is a nondual ultimate that finds room for badness and error, for that which we devalue. I suspect the same may be true of Daoist dao 道, which Laozi says is in the piss and shit, and about which Zhuangzi tells us to avoid affirming and negating (shi/fei 是非) distinctions. This is not a view that classical monotheists could endorse: for Augustine one has to shi God and fei nonbeing – the latter being that evil that later Christians would personify as Satan.

For Nishida’s part, he finds a Buddhist candidate for an ultimate which deals with the question in a different way (a way expanded on by his disciple Nishitani in Religion and Nothingness). The ultimate they point to is śūnyatā, emptiness or zero-ness. This is why I think it is appropriate to use the term nondualism (a translation of advaita) rather than the Western term “monism”: here the ultimate is not a One but a Zero. Unlike Hegel’s Geist, emptiness does not contain everything – but it still grounds everything, it is in some sense their principle. And it is not inherently good; it just is – and, in a crucial sense, simultaneously is not. For it underlies both being and non-being.