I’ve just started reading Jordan Paper’s The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology. The author is a retired academic who has studied Asian religion for much of his career. But more than that: he is a man who happened to grow up in a Jewish household around the time of the second World War, found no connection with his birth faith and, through decades of experiences with Buddhist, Daoist and Native American rituals, came to identify as a polytheist himself — not just in the realm of idea, but in terms of real-life spiritual interaction with the Gods.
The crux of Paper’s thesis is that polytheism is most likely the “natural” state of human spiritual experience — contrary to what most monotheists believe. Until monotheism became ascendant, there was little need for confessional theology, since polytheism is based on experience rather than the written word or sublimated idea. I am reminded of a quote from Starhawk in The Spiral Dance:
“People often ask me if I believe i the Goddess. I reply, ‘Do you believe in rocks?’ It is extremely difficult for most Westerners to grasp the concept of a manifest deity. The phrase ‘believe in‘ itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that She is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks — we may see them, touch them, dig them out of our gardens, or stop small children from throwing them at each other. We know them; we connect with them.”
Granted, my concept of deity is somewhat different from that of duotheistic Wicca. I cannot believe in just One God, who is technically genderless but in effect always male. Similarly, I cannot believe in just one Goddess and one God that encapsulate a universe divided into two equivalent poles. Just as I interact with and experience many different types of men, women and “genderqueer” others (forgive the jargon, but I mean to indicate people who are not particularly on one pole or the other), I interact with and experience spirits and deities who evince different qualities, personalities, etc.
It’s not a matter of belief, per se. I don’t believe in the Gods — I honor them, praise them, make offerings to them, speak to them. And, most importantly, I listen when they speak to me and notice when they do things for me. I am quite aware of the modern view of the situation: That if you talk to God, that’s religion, but if God talks to you, you’re nuts. In my view, if you talk to a god and never hear anything back, either the god isn’t interested or you’re doing it wrong. If the god isn’t interested, go find another — or re-evaluate your priorities. Maybe no one in the spiritual realm really gives a shit whether you win the lottery or can afford a sweet ride. Maybe you need to re-evaluate what you’re truly looking for in a mate before you ask the divine to send you that amorphous quality known as “true love.” And most of all, you need to evaluate what you’re willing to give in return. If the answer is nothing, then you get nothing. Cue Gene Wilder from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
In short, polytheism is about experience and relationship — as is embodied life in general.
Even when I was small, I never understood monotheism. It seems to over-simplify an extremely complicated universe filled both with categories, species, classes and individuals. When you break this complexity down, it become more complex, more strange, not less: quarks and strings, dark matter and dark energy, being in more than one place simultaneously, affecting bits of poorly-defined stuff in remote locations. Why, then, do we think the spiritual reality is somehow comprised of clean edges and a single line: good or evil, heaven or hell, us or them? Why do we believe in One Male Person?
Granted, multiple images of the divine even seep into some forms of monotheism, at least in terms of Christianity. Judaism and Islam seem to draw on a “purer” stream of monotheism, in that the divine is never shown as a physical human person; however, this non-embodied person is viewed as male just the same. There is still the idea of the opposite pole — not the Wiccan Goddess, but an antigod that we’ll call the One Male Asshole. This One Male Asshole, however, is certainly not a god, but rather a “false god,” according to monotheistic views. The Asshole was created by the One Male Person, just as we are; for some inexplicable reason, the One Male Person seems disinclined to reorganize the Asshole’s atoms into something more conducive to the Overall Plan. Probably because the Overall Plan is, essentially, endless dualism; you need the villain to complement the hero, so to speak.
Christianity’s One Male Person edges slightly into polytheism, since the divine is conceived of as being composed of three separate individuals. As result, the One Male Person is sometimes a baby or a tortured carpenter, sometimes a white pigeon or a tongue of fire, and often a grumpy old guy with a beard, but never, ever a woman. In all three Religions of the Book, the One Male Person has thrown off the veil and revealed himself to select humans — but has since stopped doing that, at least until the end times. “We’re done with the experience thing, bro,” seems to be the message.
To know this sort of god, you have to take the word of those ancient intercessors — or rather, the Word, as penned by Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith or, if they were too busy or otherwise deceased, their associates. Faith in this type of god requires belief — not the feel of a rock in your hand, the answered prayer, the subtle voice of the god whispering from within and guiding you to action.
Granted, there are people who have a “personal relationship with Jesus” as they put it, and they have more in common with their polytheistic counterparts than they think. And I’ve also met Pagans who have a much more theoretical bent, usually because they cannot hear the divine or experience it directly. I’ve often wondered how they came by this disconnection: whether they resist opening themselves to said experience, don’t know how, question all their experiences until they doubt the very reality of the chair they’re sitting on, lack some sort of inner sense (a kind of “head blindness,” so to speak) or a combination thereof. I can’t say.
And likely this is due to a blindness of my own. I’ve always existed in a numinous, speaking universe, populated by many individuals: some human and many not, some embodied, some not. I cannot imagine a world constructed otherwise, literally because it is beyond my experience. In both atheistic, science-based modernity and in monotheistic culture, I’m an outlier — whether deluded, possessed by demons, or just plain nuts.
In short, it’s interesting to contemplate that my world view — ex uno, plures — may not be such an anomaly after all, when seen in the spectrum of human experience.