Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Many & The One : A Look at the Common Purposes of Polytheism & Monotheism

The following is my response to Ule (a.k.a. Robin Artisson), who left an interesting comment to a recent post of mine (which was, in retrospect, a bit whiney of me, for which I apologize). Please take the time to read his comment (second to last) before reading this post, if you can.

Ule, Believe it or not, I agree with much of what you say in principle. I agree that religion should not be "a free or easy thing," that through it we should strive for spiritual integrity and growth, and that intolerance for or marginalization of a person's spiritual life, beliefs and practice and her or his relationship with the Divine (however it is presented or perceived, in whatever deities or non-deities, etc.) is a kind of violence against that person. (I've even used the metaphor of unique personal love to talk about the idea of "accepting Jesus" when I was confronted by a belligerent costumer my first month working as a waitress.) I think we can agree that, all other things set aside, we both want the same thing for the future.

Where we differ, I think, is our view of the past and how it shapes our reactions to the present, to the circumstances and people of today. Clearly, you believe strongly in a pre-monotheistic past that embraced tolerance and respect for all deities of all traditions, while affirming the unifying themes, struggles, joys and sorrows underlying the human condition throughout the world's diverse cultures and times. You see monotheism as a perversion of this ideal form of tolerance, a denial of how others experience the spiritual realm and a marginalization of an individual's personal experiences with their gods--all of which is, as you said, a very insidious and harsh form of violence. (If I'm getting any of this wrong, please correct me.)

If you'll bear with me, I think that we disagree partly because, though I agree that these forms of denial, marginalization and violence have all become a tragic part of the modern religious life, I do not happen to blame monotheism alone for the situation. One reason is that, no matter what anyone else says, monotheism itself has simply never had that effect on me. It may be that I am an exception (which, by and large, I don't think I am) or that I'm just lucky (which I know for sure I am), but I was raised in a loving, tolerant Christian family--one in which I was encouraged to explore other religious traditions, to ask questions and challenge "received ideas" from the Church, to admire and find value in the literature and arts inspired by other spiritual traditions, and to always explore my own personal relationship with deity. The very first Sunday school lesson I can remember learning was about the nature of paradox (the one-in-many/many-in-one, no-where/now-here nature that the term 'God' implies, and how it was a failure of imagination and a lack of the hard work required of religion to simply sit back and accept 'God' as some jealous tyrant in the sky).

I no longer really consider myself a monotheist, preferring the term "panentheism," the immanent within the transcendent and the transcendent through the immanent--which, according to my strict, Catholic father, is a perfectly acceptable belief within the dogma of the Catholic Church, in any case. But even when I did still consider myself a monotheist, I too experienced the frustration of having my beliefs dismissed and attacked as "fake" or "demonic" or a psychological failure of an uneducated mind. These attacks came from materialist/atheist rationalists, of course, but the experience was much the same as the one you describe as the conflict between polytheism and monotheism. And my reaction, for a long time, had the same bitterness and anger that you express. (Unfortunately for me, I loved math and science, and I was pretty good at them, too. I couldn't just turn my back and declare them uniformly bigoted and ignorant of "what really matters" in the spiritual life. For better or worse, they had already proved themselves to have some usefulness and insight to offer.)

My point, in all this rambling, is that you and I have shared a common experience--it just happens to have been at the hands of two different abusers. I have no doubt that there are monotheists out there who would still persist in the ignorant intolerance of accusing your spiritual life of being a sick aberration of the mind, or even of soul. Simply because I have not had that same experience with other Christians (admittedly because perhaps many of them hear the label and assume I agree with them, and so they stop listening) does not mean that your experiences are not valid and have some truth. My personal experiences, on the other hand, and the time I spent in college researching comparative world religions and, in particular, the origination patterns of counterculture religious groups (both modern and ancient), lead me to suspect that the real culprit is Cartesian duality and the modern rationalist trend that, for the first time in history, distinguished "religion" as a separate category, to be analyzed, criticized and eventually discarded by the "educated" person. Before this point, I do not think human beings consciously treated religions as "entities" (or even emergent systems) in their own right, distinct from the people who practiced them. The idea that religion itself can have a kind of consciousness, with intentions and ulterior motives, able to conquer and manipulate its "believers," is mostly a post-Enlightenment notion. I am hesitant to draw a stark line between the corruption of monotheism and an idyllic polytheistic time before it, projecting all the problems and frustrations of our current cultural intolerances onto a single Religion from the past (especially if the concept of Religion-capital-R wasn't even prevalent at the time).

In the end, perhaps monotheism is just a quirk in the spiritual development of the human species. After all, Hinduism and Buddhism are centuries older than the oldest monotheistic tradition, and yet they have continued to thrive and evolve uninterrupted. Indeed, they have developed to a point where postulating the Brahman, the "unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality" is not seen as conflicting with an experiential and practical polytheism (even though this conception of the Brahman is remarkably close to what I was taught, growing up Catholic, was the nature of the monotheistic 'God' as the ground of being and creation).

The conflict between polytheism and monotheism is, to me, just the ancient paradox of the many versus the one, the value of the unique individual versus the value of the unifying transcendent. Polytheists accuse monotheists of intolerance for denying all other gods and spiritual experiences, while monotheists accuse polytheists of short-sightedness for not recognizing the basic unity of divinity. The truth is, neither accusation is really accurate, nor are they fair. Monotheists--except for the most fundamentalist/extremists among them--do recognize the importance of individual experience in the spiritual life (I've heard plenty of monotheists say that there as many versions of God/Jesus as there are believers, since each person's relationship with the Divine is unique). Meanwhile, polytheists--except for the most fundamentalist/extremist among them--do appreciate and value the unifying sense of Spirit that underlies all human spiritual experiences no matter how diverse or different.

The question for me, really (and I would like to think, in the end, for you as well) is not so much who's to blame for the current spiritual and personal violence we commit against each other on a daily basis, but how do we overcome it and work towards a better future? Even if monotheism is a 'mistake,' the history of Christianity itself should serve as an example of how dangerous and self-defeating angry, forced and fearful conversion can be. The fact is, like it or not, monotheism happened. Where do we go from here, how do we work with the people who are sharing the world with us today, speaking strongly for our personal ideals and experiences while preserving their right to be thinking, engaged spiritual beings who, for their own reasons, may not always agree with us? How do we provoke a dialogue that will bridge the separation between monotheism and polytheism, recognizing them not as intrinsic, entrenched enemies, but as uneasy partners in the grasping, slow evolution of the human spirit?

Those are questions for which I don't have simple, final answers. But they are the questions I'm most interested in answering, much more so than whose fault is it and how should they be punished or pitied.

Whew, that was a long one! You might be relieved to know I'll be taking a short break from the obsessive blogging fairly soon in order to go visit my folks for Thanksgiving (and then book it back here to work on Black Friday (I shudder in anticipation)). If you've been feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the heady, ridiculous rambling (both textual and auditory now, huzzah!) on this blog as of late, hopefully now you'll have a chance to catch up, or perhaps just throw your hands in the air, declare, "I'm done with this!" and go have a nice conversation with the nearest tree. Either way, thanks as always for reading.


  1. I've been struggling with questions of monotheism / polytheism on my own weblog for some time now, although perhaps in more layman's terms. But I don't think the problem is the very idea of monotheism but the way it is often constructed.

    An overly simplistic view of Christianity -- one which sees God primarily in human terms -- lends itself pretty quickly to political abuse and manipulation, which we can see in the rise of the conservative Christian right. I don't believe that these folks see God as transcendent, they see God as an all-powerful military or political leader ("King," "Lord"). This lets followers treat God as the first among many; in fact, I'd argue that the Fundamentalist position is not monotheistic at all but a particularly obnoxious form of polytheism -- one which views the cosmic struggle of one "true" God against the many "pretender" Gods.

  2. Hinduism and Buddhism are centuries older than the oldest monotheistic tradition

    Well, Hinduism may be... and Shinto may be also. But Buddhism has a pretty definite starting point, about 500 years before Christ. Judaism in a more-or-less recognizable form predates that point by a few hundred years.

    A small point, but important.

    Interesting discussion you have going on here!

  3. I agree -- a fascinating discussion. I mean, you've got religion, tolerance, historical argument, and anthropology all thrown together...! What could be better?

    I agree (quite strongly) with Ule that polytheism is the natural state of humanity, for reasons derived from neuroscience, linguistics, and just being a father. Briefly: the human mind naturally breaks the world up into categories and relationships; it does not naturally or easily work with ideas like "many-in-one". Also, the preference children show for polytheistic belief systems, even when raised by strict monotheistic parents (e.g. Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus...), is quite striking. And then you have to ask: why would a lone God build us to be polytheistic?

    However, something I also believe is that the multitude of real deities can be experienced as a single entity. The analogy I use for myself is of substances like water. There are obviously a huge number of lakes and streams and oceans in the world, and the natural inclination is to think of these things as separate entities. However, with effort or training, you can look past that separateness to the underlying fact that it's all just WATER after all, and in that sense it's "all one". For myself personally, I tend to view Spirit as a substance from which deities and spirits are made. I think that if you focus too much on their commonalities, or "one-ness", you miss a lot of richness in variation between them; but Spirit is tolerant, and will try to work with you regardless of your beliefs.

    Which naturally brings us to tolerance. Since Spirit works hard to connect to people no matter who or what they worship (or whether they worship), it seems only natural that we should try to do the same. The question of whether I'm being "violated" by someone believing I'm going to hell is completely irrelevant. Furthermore, in my experience at least, Spirit never tries to change someone's beliefs; Spirit's goal is spiritual development, regardless of framework. I try to make that my goal, as well.

  4. Thud, You make a good point about the kind of implied polytheism of some Christian groups (Wild Hunt just posted an article about a similar debate, in which two Christian theologians point out the very same difference between a "true monotheism" and a form of "henotheism"). On the other hand, I don't know if the inclusion of angels, demons and other "lesser spirits" disqualifies a system of religious belief from being monotheistic. One could, within monotheism, argue that these "pretender Gods" are just that and, according to the view of these Christians, all the more reason to adamantly reject them as actual deities. I'm not sure there's a big distinction between accusing one's deities of being lesser gods or demons, and of being merely psychological fantasies, in any case.

  5. Erik, thanks for the catch. :) I think that sentence had started out being about something else, and I ended up not talking about Buddhism at all, anyway, so..... you know, it was pretty late. ;)

  6. Jeff, I like your water metaphor for Spirit (I'm also reminded of the number of religious traditions that connect the idea of Spirit to that of air, breath, and even space/void--though air imagery is not as useful in discussing ideas of distinctness and diversity, I suppose).

    I was also struck by this idea that monotheism has to be learned, in a sense. I think I agree with this idea, too--in fact, I'd say that children are not only naturally polytheistic, but pantheistic/animistic, as well. This brings to my mind a parallel with some of the philosophy that I've been studying recently, in particular phenomenology. This philosophical school makes a distinction between the "natural attitude" (in which direct perceptions and experiences occur and are then reasoned about using propositional, categorial thinking) and the "philosophical attitude" (in which the transcendent "I" steps back and holds the life-world itself at arm's length in order to understand its aspects and relationships, including the relationship between the "I" and the life-world). What is interesting is that the philosophical attitude is one that has to be learned and cultivated and, though it certainly has its uses, phenomenologists emphasize again and again that it cannot replace the natural attitude, its propositions, categories and immediate perceptions. This is the mistake made by thinkers like Descartes and Hobbes, who try to replace the "natural attitude" with the philosophical one. In the natural attitude, for instance, one must have a reason to doubt as well as to believe (e.g. do we have a reason to doubt that our eyes correctly perceive the color of things, or do we take the everyday attitude that, for the most part, we are seeing accurately?), but Descartes takes the analytical distance of the philosophical attitude and tries to render it the essential feature of the natural attitude. By doing so, he destroys the experiential foundation for the very things he was originally trying to contemplate philosophically, which is how we end up with the "thinking I" being the only thing we can consider "real," cut off from any kind of shared, public world. A whole bunch of mess follows. (Are you getting the feeling I don't like Descartes? ;) In short, the philosophical attitude cannot merely subsume the natural attitude, because it relies on it for its very existence--it contemplates the relationship between particulars and universals, but it cannot replace the one with the other.

    It occurs to me that this is a good metaphor for the relationship between a natural polytheism/pantheism and a learned monotheism. Perhaps the paradoxical many-in-one does not come naturally or easily, but I think the work of contemplating such a paradox can be valuable and provide insights. The problem arises when monotheists seek to replace the experiential spiritual life (after all, all experiences are of particulars and so, in some sense, give themselves naturally to categorial analysis) with an abstracted system of belief in a singular, non-experiential 'God'. But again, I don't think this is an inherent function of monotheism, anymore than I think that philosophy necessarily destroys the natural attitude (indeed, phenomenology, as well as ancient and pre-modern philosophies, show that this is not the case). Furthermore, I don't think most monotheists are so well indoctrinated that they have successfully cut themselves off from the natural experiential spiritual attitude--I think they've just been well-trained in using the language of monotheism to describe these experiences, which may obscure their unique, particular nature.

    But I'm done babbling for now. Some day I'm going to write that essay about the parallels between 20th century phenomenology and the development of modern Druidry, I swear!

  7. Ali: "On the other hand, I don't know if the inclusion of angels, demons and other "lesser spirits" disqualifies a system of religious belief from being monotheistic."

    I'm not thinking so much in terms of "lesser spirits" (although from a polytheistic perspective a god who claims to be the only one is just a god with an attitude problem). I'm thinking more in terms of the militaristic view Christian dominionists have of their religion. As far as they are concerned, there's a real cosmic struggle. And while God's Army is destined to prevail, in the meantime it's still important to fight and preserve Christian heritage. That doesn't strike me as a monotheistic worldview at all, because it suggests that there are circumstances under which God's will could be thwarted.

  8. Ali,

    A paradox is still a paradox. That's why Christianity has a trinity. It's the two sides making up the reality, not the one. Otherwise it wouldn't be necessary to quibble. The problem with monotheism is that it equates oneness/unity with one/unit. One is a balanced state, the other is a set. Zero vs. one. Bottom up process vs. top down order. Essence vs. ideal form. Basis vs. apex. The problem is that bottom up process doesn't cohere into one unit, but many, which balance out. The eco-system and its organisms. The organism is linear/vector, while the ecosystem is scalar. One is time, the other is temperature. The organism is a frame, a noun, while the ecosystem is a process, a verb. A frame can only move in one direction, but in a process, 'for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.' By defining reality in terms of the top down order of the frame, it is necessary to pare away all that doesn't fit in that frame. While this is necessary for an organism, otherwise unchecked growth is cancer, any organism is still mortal and goes from beginning to end, while process is constantly going on to the next and shedding the old. To the hands of the clock, the face goes counterclockwise. The units of time start in the future and proceed into the past, as the process of time goes on to the next. Reality is both, but the concept of one can't apply to the process. Can't have your cake and eat it too.

    John Merryman