Friday, February 22, 2008

A Quandary of Cats

As I promised one reader in the comments of the previous post on John Michael Greer's book, A World Full of Gods, I'm going to take some time to explore and elaborate on what I think is the main flaw in his reasoned argument against monotheism and in favor of polytheism. After tonight's post, though, I'm hoping to return to a more poetic-creative form of writing for a little while, not only because I sorely need to keep those writerly muscles in shape, but because I find myself growing increasingly cantankerous with all this political and religious polemic in the air. February in Pittsburgh tends to be a dreary month--the sun slants slightly higher and longer than before, but more sleet, rain and snow blow in from the west and cake the streets and buildings in treacherous gray sludge. Even on the occasional warmer days, the sludge and mud persist, and you get to thinking that those obnoxiously bright morning birds must be wrong. So, after this, enough with the nitpicking for a little while. I need to ready myself to receive spring as she deserves.

I agree with Nettle's statement on the previous post, that "one god" versus "many gods" is not just a disagreement about number, but indicates a fundamentally different way of defining "deity." I suspect this distinction is why I found Greer's book so very frustrating--he treated it as exactly that: merely a disagreement about number, and nothing more.

The most telling example is Greer's "Many Cats" analogy for deity. In this inventive tale, several neighbors all endeavor to cultivate relationships with a mysterious being they call Cat. The "monofelists" believe there is only one Cat, and because they disagree about its appearance (sometimes black, sometimes tabby, for instance) and its food preferences (one neighbor leaves out milk, another kibble, yet another canned food), each accuses the others of merely imagining things, feeding rats by mistake, or simply having a less than perfect understanding of how Cat truly looks and behaves. The "afelist" of the neighborhood doesn't think there's any such thing as a Cat at all, while the "polyfelist," who is portrayed as clearly the most reasonable and knowledgeable of the group, laughs and says there are actually several cats in the neighborhood, each with its own territory, food preferences and personality.

Now, this allegory is, indeed, very helpful in illustrating Greer's personal conception of what deity is (or, in this case, what deities are), but rather than exploring the difference between monotheism and polytheism, it takes for granted a polytheistic worldview. What Greer fails to address is the possibility that, as he himself has pointed out earlier in the book, people actually experience deity in vastly different ways; in other words, the "monofelists" are assumed to be experiencing a limited or singular example of something that is inherently multiple and, furthermore, could easily be known as such with minimal effort. There is no way of illustrating from within his imaginary world, for instance, what an experience of deistic unity or transcendence might be like, and so the reader is left to assume (most likely without even realizing the bias) that such things cannot be aspects of deity, but are instead something else.

Greer's Many Cats analogy immediately strikes me as a very different version of the Blind Men & the Elephant metaphor, and perhaps a fairer comparison between monotheism and polytheism might be found in comparing these two different stories and how they conceive of the nature of deity as fundamentally different. In both situations, the foolishness of supposing that one person knows everything is apparent, but the nature of what is unknown and/or not personally experienced is vastly different. In the Cats story, there is nothing all that mysterious about the Cats themselves, and each person's ignorance lies in their unwillingness to listen to others. Greer seems to suggest that if "monofelists" simply treated others' experiences as being as valuable as their own, they would naturally reach the "polyfelist" conclusion. In the Blind Men story, however, our very ability to experience the Divine in its Fullness is what is limited. Our own limitations--not just those imagined of others, but those we ourselves experience and recognize--gives rise to our ignorance, so that even when we do listen to each other and give one another as much credence as we give ourselves, we can still only guess at what it is we think we know. Even if the Blind Men worked together to run their hands over the entire elephant, in other words, they would still be missing a certain kind of experience: in this case, the visual experience of seeing the elephant as a whole.

The difference between the two stories is in the supposed limitations, or lack of limitations, of human experience of Spirit. In the Many Cats example, the "polyfelist" is just as sure of her definitive knowledge of what Cats really are as Greer accuses "monofelists" as being. But it is still rather easy to imagine such a "polyfelist" having a moment of heightened experience in which she catches the briefest glimpse of the unity and interconnection of all beings--including Cats-- that transcends her previous understanding of each Cat as a separate being (and in fact, both Greer and Jordan Paper, author of The Deities Are Many, say that polytheists can and do have such "mystic" experiences). What if, upon mentioning such an experience to her "inclusive monofelist" neighbor, the "polyfelist" discovers that this kind of transcendence is precisely what the "monofelist" has been referring to all along?

So what kind of experience is this unity and transcendence, then, and what is being experienced? Does it not point to a kind of relationship to Spirit that belies the certainty of both the "monofelists" and the "polyfelist" as Greer portrays them? Is it not possible that unity and transcendence are just as likely to be attributes of deity as any other attribute of power, personality or presence? Greer describes the "retreat to a ground-of-being definition of God" as the result of monotheists backing themselves into a corner, but in my personal, direct experiences of this kind, it is precisely the opposite: it is a moment in which a new kind of experience transcends and unites the multifaceted and varied nature of previous experiences of deity, without denying or replacing them.

(Another, specifically Christian example of such a phenomenon is the experience that "everyone is Christ." This does not mean that people do not have unique personalities, individual and autonomous wills, or conflicts of interest, and that we should instead paste the "Face of Jesus" on top of everyone's true face and ignore all differences. Instead, it means just the opposite: recognizing the sacred uniqueness of every being, including ourselves, and as a corollary, respecting that uniqueness and individuality as itself a manifestation of a common, deeply-rooted Spirit. This might seem, again, to be mere dissembling or, even worse, to be downright illogical. Yet I have had personal, direct experiences of "seeing Christ" in other people.)

If Greer claims to respect such experiences as essential, even foundational, to one's religious life, then I do not see how he can so easily dismiss them as mere doctrinal semantics. He may, of course, have polytheistic explanations for these experiences--or even go so far as to claim that these experiences are themselves essentially polytheistic--but to me, this is as underhanded a strategy under the guise of "open dialogue" as that of monotheists who claim there's no such thing as a true polytheist.

I find it amusing when Greer, towards the end of his book, accuses monotheists of digging their own graves, setting up the potential for disbelief in other gods so thoroughly that it was only a matter of time before their own deity came under fire as well. I have already written in this blog about my understanding of atheism as part of the process of the spiritual life, and I hold to my assertion that to challenge simplistic, overly-anthropomorphic views of Spirit is entirely healthy, even if one must tread dangerously close to utter nihilism or reductionist materialism. I am also reminded of several scholars of Christianity's early development, who note that, for polytheists of that time as well, monotheism was effectively a form of atheism, denying the existence of the gods and goddesses so poignantly loved and worshipped in polytheistic traditions. But then, according to most monotheists today, polytheism itself is a form of atheism in rejecting the underlying unity and coherence of the animating Spirit in favor of "disjointed" and fragmentary forms. Funny, that after millennia, we are all still wrestling around in Square One.

It seems clear to me that neither monotheists nor polytheists are atheists. especially now that, thanks to philosophical systems like materialism and humanism, we have such clear, self-proclaimed examples of what atheism and non-theism look like. Rather, monotheists and polytheists simply disagree about the definition of deity itself, what it should include and how it can be experienced by human beings. Any exploration of either view, in particular an exploration which seeks to compare one against the other, must recognize this most basic difference. Only then can we begin to approach these religious worldviews on their own terms, rather than in the terms of those imposed upon them from the outside.

And now, for your viewing pleasure
(because you stuck with me this far, dear reader),
I give you:


  1. Hey, Ali!

    Great metaphor at the end. Though I tend to think that the Cat/s wake us up because we are hungry, there is no denying that, for some of us, the only tool that will do is a baseball bat. :D

    I do agree with you, though, that Greer's monofelist/polyfelist illustration says more about Greer than it does about Spirit. I'm not sure I agree with you, though, that the primary difference between monotheists and polytheists is "the definition of deity itself, what it should include and how it can be experienced by human beings," or, at least, if that's the case, we need some other terminology for those of us who are able to see the divine simultaneously as many and as one--as you yourself did, in your "everyone is Christ," analogy.

    Sometimes it makes sense to me to see Spirit as One, and sometimes as many. I don't actually find much to alienate me from the perspective of animists or nontheists (providing they are nontheists who aren't just atheists in disguise, denying all spiritual realities and opting for a purely empirical view of the world). I'm coming to believe that both monotheism and polytheism (as well as the other views) are a bit like thinking of light as a particle or as a wave; both have value and truth, yet neither is adequate as an explanation for the behavior of light.

    It's easy to see that thinking like this is going to make me tres popular with real, hard polytheists. But I think that, in practice, there's more of us out there who accept that we don't have good definitions or understanding yet, and are happier to listen to Spirit than to insist on classifying it.

    Or maybe I've just been whacked with that baseball bat too many times???

  2. My own current favorite metaphor is that all spiritual beings -- including ourselves -- are made of the same substance: call it Spirit. And this substance is the transcendent unity. Just as all physical things are made of quarks, all gods and spirits are made of Spirit. You can engage as a monotheist, and you will experience that unity of substance. You can engage as a polytheist, and you will experience the multiplicity of forms that Spirit makes.

    One reason I like this metaphor is that it parallels the physical world so closely. I've long been a believer in the "as above so below" principle.

    By the way, your title is fantastic. Is there a mass term for cats, like a pride of lions, a murder of crows?... If not, I nominate 'quandary'.

  3. I grew up in Pittsburgh and have a body memory of Oakland in February. But, as the Irish say, "It never rains in a pub."

    I guess my real question is whether you believe that the One permeating all existence in any way negates or lessens the Many that some of us have experienced directly? If you do, then there's probably nothing left to say, but if you don't believe that, I have a possible line of inquiry for you.

    What if, all sentient beings needed both - the One energizing and the Many nourishing? While Catholic theologians do triple salchow's to avoid saying it, the Saints, tied to everyday and not so everyday concerns, are clearly the Many. God, Jesus and probably the Holy Spirit are more distant. Visions of Mary pop up, but God and Jesus have not been directly seen (in Catholic theology) for some time. If you see Jesus on the street, the Inquisition wants to know!

    What I've seen in OBOD druidry is the image of the tree (no surprise there, eh!) The tree cannot live without the sun, but neither can it live without its roots deep in the Earth along with Water and the Sky.

    I would ask JMG directly, where he stands on this. I've asked him even more obscure questions and he always gets back, usually with way more detail than I would expect (and that's for an OBODie who doesn't even belong to AODA). Is his intent to push polytheism over monotheism and panentheism or is it to balance and make a place for polytheism.

    The other thing to consider is whether you're actually describing a monotheism. Is a vibration, like Om, a God who would have a theism?

    peace and health,

  4. Once a girlfriend and I (a straight man), strolling along a street full of bars, thristy for a drink, walked into one of maybe the only two lesbian bars in San Francico.

    We got our drinks, but getting them and drinking them down was, all in all, a difficult experience.

    We didn't have a clue, when we entered, that the place was a lesbian bar. And the barkeep and patrons didn't expect us, a heterosexual couple, or anybody like us, to come in for a drink. So there was no quick, whispered exchange that might have turned us around and out of the establishment quickly.

    Instead, there was a lot of overly polite yes, we will serve your kind, drink-up-and-get-the-Hell-out service.

    We got right away that we were in the wrong bar. But we were not socially sophisticated enough to make an exit on our own.

    I saw myself, at the time, as politically progressive and culturally radical, and I probably was. But that, I discovered to my surprise, had nothing to do with me, a good looking woman alongside, walking into a lesbian bar for a drink. And getting out without wounds.

    My world and the world of lesbians and lesbian bars might have touched at this point or that one. I mean the bar's door opened on a public street full of pedestrians. But they were, essentially, different worlds.

    Isn't expecting a polytheist to appreciate the finer points and subtle shadings of monotheist spirituality like asking me--or me asking myself--to appreciate the finer points and subtle shadings of the world of lesbian bars?

    Yes, each of us may find ourselves moved by similar lusts and passions. But not in the same ways or toward the same outcomes.

    Spiritually, each of us may find ourselves moved toward or by a Goddess. but not in the same ways or leading to the same outcomes.

    What I'm getting at, I guess, is that I can't see any reasons why you, or anybody else, cannot be a monotheist, a Christian, and a Druid, experiencing the fullest possible spiritual transcendence or ecstasy.

    But I can see why a polytheist, a Pagan, and a Druid might not appreciate that as completely as you do (as your own expereince).

  5. Cat,

    I'm glad you liked the video. :) It actually wasn't supposed to be some deep allegorical story--it just happened to be a cartoon about a cat that I'd come across recently and thought was amusing. Though I like where you went with it. ;)

    I think I actually agree that definition of deity isn't the only or even the primary distinction between monotheists and polytheists--or rather, it is "primary" in the literal sense of being the first thing that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with, before we can move on to other aspects of these two main religious views (along with others, of course, such as animism, pan(en)theism nontheism, atheism, etc.). I definitely think that both polytheists and monotheists have ways of understanding and incorporating the idea/experience of the divine as both-many-and-one; polytheists have experiences of transcendent unity among their deities, and monotheists have experiences of their God as multiple and many. I think you're right in pointing out that perhaps it is the terminology, the language, that we use that often causes the most confusion; on the other hand, having more words and terms, each for a different experience, may not be as helpful as just being willing to sit down and hash it out. One benefit of using the same word to apply to many ideas is that it forces us to question what someone else "really means" when they say something, and in doing so, it forces us to examine our own language. Of course, it's very easy to assume that we already know what we mean as well as what others mean, and we can end up talking past each other if we're not careful. It's a double-edged sword. ;)

  6. Jeff, I like your metaphor of Spirit, too, and I think I'm most inclined towards that idea as a panentheist myself. I talk in this blog a lot about my childhood Catholicism, but I should mention that my childhood fascination with science (in particular physics and biology) played just a big a role in shaping my spiritual life. I mentioned in one post recently about the idea of "eddies," and the relationship in my mind between the Buddhist concept of "anatma" and the biological and chemical nature of organic individuals as being in constant exchange with the surrounding environment. If the physical world is so amazingly complex and intricate, I see no reason why Spirit shouldn't be the same. :)

    As far as a cats go, I did a quick google search to discover that common terms for groups of cats include: a clowder, a clutter, a litter (of kittens), a glaring, a pounce, (and for house cats specifically:) a dout and a nuisance. I think "a quandary" could be added to that already respectable list, though. ;)

  7. David,

    To answer your final question first, yes, what I am describing is, at least in essence, a legitimate form of monotheism, and one that plenty (though not all) of monotheists today would understand and affirm. As I've said in the past, I personally lean more towards panentheism, but my roots are pure monotheism, I was raised in the Catholic Church, for which my father (who himself attended Catholic school all of his young life) taught Catechism classes for several years. I've had long discussions with him about the doctrinal definition of "God" according to the Church, the various debates over subtle distinctions in theology and philosophy over the history of Christianity and Catholicism in particular, and so I can safely say that, according to the socio-political institution of the Catholic Church, at least, yes, this is monotheism and not some other kind of theism or nontheism. The fact that it is complicated (and sometimes sounds very similar to other religious and spiritual ideas) just stems from the fact that the numinous is, in general, a slippery thing to talk about.

    All that said, I'll go back to your very first question and say that, no, I don't believe the One cancels out or lessens the Many, and it is very true that examples of multiplicity and diversity of the Divine are found in many monotheist traditions. I think it is important to remember, though, that monotheists don't just become "accidental polytheists" because of, for instance, saint veneration. Such veneration is very particularly defined and practiced within Catholicism and is consistent with the inner integrity of that tradition as monotheistic. Both polytheistic and monotheistic traditions can, I believe, incorporate experiences and ideas of the One-In-Many or Many-in-One from within their particular worldviews without necessarily having to borrow or tack on extraneous ideas. Recognizing this is an important step towards actual tolerance of multiple spiritual paths--understanding that any given religion has the potential to be internally consistence and spiritually fruitful, for some even if not for you personally.

    And yes, eventually, I will most likely confront JMG directly about this topic. I participate in an AODA Yahoo Group to which he sometimes posts ideas and responses, and so I've grown used to his knee-jerk replies of "whatever works for you, we're all-accepting here in AODA." I'm not sure I really trust that automatic fallback position anymore, however, so I will eventually write to him directly to ask him about some aspects of his book that I disagreed with in particular. Quite honestly, though, right now I'm not feeling up to it. I actually have been feeling a bit stressed out about these recent blog posts, worried that I might be offending or stepping on the toes of other AODA members--so much so that this anxiety translated into a recent dream about my boss firing me from my day job because I was "allergic to water and worshipped the wrong god." To which I kept insisting, tearfully, "But I'm mostly water! And I don't think you can do that!"

    Weird. My brain. :)

  8. Pitch, I think your example is actually very apt, though probably not in the way you intended. I would assume, for instance, that your uncomfortable experience with accidentally going to a lesbian bar didn't lead you, consequently, to conclude that all lesbians were actually just angry feminist man-haters who must have been abused as children. Rather, what you discovered was that the lesbian bar scene was not your particular social scene (and no wonder!). But as you said, this does not mean that you don't appreciate that, as human beings, both hetero- and homosexual individuals experience the same kinds of passions, lusts and loves towards others.

    A straight man going with his girlfriend to a lesbian bar by mistake is, it seems to me, most akin to a polytheist wandering into a Christian church service. The awkwardness that ensues is due, in part, to the unfamiliarity of the social interactions and customs on the part of the newcomer, and on the part of the group, the sense that this is a sacred or special community that shares certain needs and common interests that may not be understood or shared by strangers. The "gay bar" phenomenon is, I suspect, a reflection of the desire for people to find a special place where social interactions can be pursued without so much of the awkwardness of gay-straight navigating (without worrying, for instance, if that woman will be offended or made uncomfortable if another woman hits on her, or that you might risk rejection from picking up the "wrong signals" from someone who is not actually interested in your gender). Women going to a lesbian bar do so usually knowing full well that this particular social dynamic will be in play, and often they go with a particular purpose (such as mingling among eligible and possibly interested singles) in mind. Likewise, a church service is a social activity that has a particular purpose in mind shared by all its members (such as worship of or experience with a particular deity), and so awkwardness is felt by both parties when a stranger with a different or contrary goal accidentally involves himself.

    However, this doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of social or community situations in which awkwardness can be avoided and understanding can be intentionally sought for and fostered. Religious people can attend interfaith meetings, where the specific goal is to interact with others who do not share one's own beliefs and experiences, in order to learn from them. Similarly, GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) clubs and organizations can hold "awareness" events that encourage interaction and understanding among all people, regardless of gender or sexual preference. Furthermore, one can have close friendships with people who have different spiritual or sexual lives than you, and by interacting with these people intimately and honestly as individuals, as friends or family members, you can gain insight into lifestyles and social situations that you might not otherwise have known. (For instance, as a straight female myself, I have several friends, both male and female, as well as two family members, who are gay.) You can also read books, articles and even (*gasp!*) blogs in which authors intentionally choose to explore questions of community and communication as open-ended prods toward dialogue across normally rigid or mute social boundaries.

    Of course, as a straight, male polytheist, you will probably never feel at ease in a lesbian bar or a Christian church service. On the other hand, no, asking you to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of ways of life other than your own--and to acknowledge that those who speak for those ways have the right to explain themselves and correct your misunderstandings or misconceptions--is not the same thing as expecting you to participate, freely and comfortably, in the particular community activities of such a given social group. You can certainly have the freedom of the former without the imposition of the latter.

    At least, in this blogger's humble opinion (else why would I bother to write?)

  9. Amusingly appropriate quote-of-the-day:

    "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

    - Aristotle

  10. Ali,

    I appreciate your response to my comment. My story about the lesbian bar was about as good an example of unexpectedly encountering different worlds as I've experienced. (And I think that when this happened to me was somewhat before it became a thing to do for straight couples to visit lesbian or gay bars. The patrons and bar folks were just as surprised to find us in their establishment.)

    You raise a good question about appreciation versus participation. It strikes me that this is, at least a little, what you have been finding a problem in regard to JMG's take on polytheism. How to keep participating in good conscience.

    An aside. I'm not much of a church goer or a bar hopper. But most churches or church services don't bother me much. Nor do lesbian or gay bars.

    And, although it doesn't show up in my comments or blog posts, I'm strongly supportive of Pagan interfaith. I think that it speaks well of the movement as a whole that Pagan representatives have in relatively short time risen to positions on national and world leadership in interfaith.

    Times change. So do I.

    Lastly, I wish you good luck in coming to terms with this matter. You've provided a clear and incisive account of a matter that many, many Pagan and Pagan-friendly folks encounter. Reading your blog posts and the various comments have helped me work out some things about all this monotheism/polytheism stuff.

  11. Hi Ali,
    Thank you for going into more depth on the subject. I feel like I understand your objections much better now. I haven't really spent much time talking about spiritual matters with monotheists, so the way it all works for them is sometimes a mystery to me, and I now feel like I have a better grasp on the subject. I hope you do write that book someday. I think it's needed.

    This AODA member is entirely unoffended. So there's one, anyway.


  12. Physicist Niels Bohr said it well:

    "There are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth, because its opposite is falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth."