For the longest time, I have wanted to read a book on the philosophy and/or theology of polytheism. I had the topic in my head, but it wasn’t until right now that I tried to figure out what the actual subject of the book would be, and when I realized it, I immediately grew ashamed of myself.
I read a list today of “22 Questions that Keep You Awake at Night.” The one that resonated was, “What things am I doing now that will be considered racist or sexist by future generations? Would my ‘legacy’ (whatever might it be) be ruined by something I consider just normal behavior?”
The racist thing I did today was reduce the polytheistic religions into one monolithic POLYTHEISM.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t racist. But it was definitely mono-ist.
There should be no single theology of polytheism. Each polytheistic worldview has developed over centuries and millennia its unique understanding of the universe. The difference between a Hindu’s understanding of the universe and an Ancient Greek’s is vastly greater than the difference between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim understandings of the universe. To imagine a unified form of polytheism is to colonize it. It ignores individual differences in an attempt to dominate many different kinds. This results in a gross misunderstanding of each individual worldview.
To imagine a theology of polytheism is to simplify confusion and chaos in order to satisfy my Western need to grasp polytheism’s single true form.
The genius of polytheism is that it recognizes a natural place in the universe for confusion and chaos. Monotheism seeks to zero them out, to reduce them, mathematically speaking, back into the One. But confusion and chaos are real in a way that extends beyond the One.
I like to imagine sometimes the birth of God, and by God, I only mean, the first awakening of consciousness. I imagine it in a void, but it’s the void of ignorance more than the void of matter.
I am. Yes. Confirmed. But now what?
And then consciosness opened its eyes, whatever eyes they may have been. And the light flooded in. And the consciousness saw. And what it saw was good.
This — this goodness — matters.
Because it’s easy to imagine a consciousness waking, opening its eyes, and the light flooding in, and the consciousness seeing something bad. Like a baby that opens its eyes on a sexually abusive father, or a heroin-injecting mother, or a falling bomb.
And I think to myself, “Yes, that too seems possible.”
Monotheism believes it is the story of one consciousness, but three different cultures interpret that consciousness in three different ways. The different ways are the stories that fathers tell their sons, and in three interpretations of monotheism, each story traces back to a man the Western world knows as Abraham: All of the prophets are sons of Abraham, from Moses to Muhammad and including Jesus Christ, himself the son of a daughter of Abraham.
The consciousness that opened its eyes and saw that it was good, somehow, at some point, figured out how to communicate with what it found. That process, of course, takes time. Consciousness may be a prerequisite for language, but language is not a prerequisite for consciousness. Consciousness needs to first learn to move itself in space. In fact, without learning to move, it would never develop the muscle control necessary for communication (do you realize how intricate your body control has to be to shape the rate, tone, rhythm, and volume of the air that exhausts from your lungs, i.e., to speak? It’s crazy intricate!).
All of which is to say, a lot of time has to pass, immeasurable time, during which the consciousness has to develop into a being with dominion over its local environment, and then, recognizing that dominion, it has to develop the first instance of creativity, to take what it has found and make it better, to find, in its own dominion, inspiration, and to use that inspiration to breathe more life into what it has found.
This all takes time. Time that the consciousness could have also used to explore beyond its dominion.
And that’s what I imagine monotheism to be. It’s a consciousness with a God complex. Instead of continuing its exploration, it settled down and built a garden, and it put little toys in that garden, and then it programmed the toys to act a certain way, and when the toys didn’t do what it expected, it flung them out of the garden like a spoiled child.
But what else could it be? Childhood can be measured by the number of strangers we’ve been introduced to. A baby who gets passed around, with no single caregiver, has to grow up faster than a baby who can luxuriate in the arms of its mother all the time. Teenagers who travel, engage in conversations with lots of people, and open themselves to the strangers in their books are more mature than teenagers who have never strayed farther than the end of the block.
The rest of the story of monotheism is that spoiled consciousness’s desire to reclaim its flung away toys. What it intends to do with them is still up for debate.
I don’t see the consciousness that proclaimed itself to Abraham actually being the one true God. I see it as being a localized consciousness with an inbred hatred for foreigners.
Polytheism may produce its own hatred for foreigners — I don’t know — but I sense in it a recognition that the boundaries between “us” and “them” overlap. The 500 polytheistic nations that existed in the Americas before the arrival of the white man maintained a wide variety of understandings of the origin, form, and meaning of the universe, life, and everything, but they also blended together, sharing certain aspects with one neighbor while differing from another. They fought and argued and hated, but they also intermarried, feasted, and celebrated.
While there may be a hatred for the foreigner in the abstract, there is also within the polytheisms a recognition of the sanctity of the individual.
That seems like a pretty broad statement to make. And I’m sure that it is. Immediately, I think of the images from Western movies and the stories from Western history where a stone-faced Native American warrior uncaringly slices the throat of a white woman. There doesn’t seem to be lot of sanctity for the individual in that act, and I’m not going to pretend there could be.
Instead I’m going to say that maybe less than the sancity of the individual, what it recognizes is the existence of the individual.
Monotheism must reduce to God: If we are, it’s only because He is.
But polytheism accepts the existence of the other. It accepts it. It doesn’t smother it or smoosh it into itself; it doesn’t attempt to swallow it. It accepts it as one might accept a guest.
If you want to understand monotheism, you have to look at it in terms of its environment. It developed in a desert — consciousness opened its eyes, and what it saw first was water (Gen 1:2); the light came later (Gen 1:3). Everything about monotheism comes from those moments. To my mind, they’re more important than the act of universal creation itself (Gen 1:1) because Gen 1:1’s claim can only be supported by God Himself, while Gen 1:2-3 at least have the evidence of water and light.
Monotheism has to be interpreted through the lens of the desert, where survival’s greatest enemy was the parched landscape. Desert customs of hospitality were established to protect watering holes or tents (as with the Bedouins) while also allowing strangers to have access to the safety of them. The customs ensure that both the host and the stranger were safe. In addition, children had to learn the harsh lessons of the desert from their father so they wouldn’t have to learn them from the desert itself.
In the morals of desert hospitality and desert parenting, one can find the morals of monotheism.
But polytheism dominated the rest of the planet. The Greeks and the Romans, the Africans and the Polynesians, the East Asians and the Norse, the 500 nations of the Americas. Polytheism found purchase in the snow covered mountains and lush golden valleys, in the jungles and the forests, in the plains and on the islands, and each environment was rich with diversity in ways that can hardly be dreamed of in the desert.
I don’t think of the monotheistic God as the one true God. I think of Him as a desert dweller who has yet to consider the abundance of life beyond Him.
Standing here, where we are, we look back and we see the face of this consciousness, but we see it as just another conscious face in a diverse sea of consciosnesses.
I don’t deny this consciousness its power.
I just deny it its status.
It needs to look around and appreciate its powerlessness in the face of all the confusion and chaos.
And then, maybe only then, will it start to dance.
PS: After writing the above post, I discovered A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism, written by a leading member of the Ancient Druid Order of America. I was hesitant because I’m not looking for something that is New Age-y, but after reading the sample of it on Kindle last night, I think it might be exactly what I was looking for. Here’s hoping.