Thursday, 16 September 2010

Pretty Poly..

Recently, I took a diversion into polytheism. Yes, thats right, I began to think in terms of many Gods. I still believed in some absolute ground of being and unity, but thought divinty could have a plural manifestation. So i said 'one in essence and many in existence'.

The biggest obstacle to acceptance of polytheism - assuming we accept any God at all, which is of course itself hugely problematic - is the theist's insistence upon divine omnipotence. Eventually this obstacle was not such a problem for me, because I didn't believe the divine was omnipotent in the sense of 'able to do absolutely anything'. (I didn't believe this because it made the problem of evil insoluble) If we accept that God must be omnipotent however, there could only be one omnipotent being. But omnipotence can be qualified to not include the logical impossibility of one omnipotent thwarting another omnipotent being. Either my considering that in the case of any conflict omnipotent beings must reach a stalemate or perhaps we can imagine that omnipotent beings may not have contrary wills - as one might expect from beings which are also defined as 'perfectly good'.

The only polytheistic tradition in the West that is well documented with an extant and extensive authentic literary tradition, is that of Ancient Rome and Greece. Some of the images of the divine gods of the Classical period are 'vital', 'dynamic' and aesthetically pleasing. However much of the mythic material is hugely problematic for me - the Gods are capricious, unethical and involved in intrigue and love affairs. The myth can be of course be interpreted as allegory. Certainly the Classical Philosophers were embarassed by the myths about the gods and sort to read them in a way that reflected that philosophical concerns.

However in the last week, two more corrosive problems have troubled me. Firstly, the fact that the Classical Gods could be 'defeated' for 1000 years by the monotheists. Where did the Gods go? There may be an answer here, that the Gods turned their back and allowed ignorance because of impiety or because of a cycle of the ages reaching it's nadir.

Secondly, it is apparent that the Gods' characters are not static. The ideas about the God's natures change. New Gods are imported, old God's relegated in popular piety and the change reflected in myths of one generation of God's usurping an older generation. And the are more than one polytheistic pantheon we can worship. I realised that polytheism does not solve some of the cardinal problems of theism viz

* Why God's do not intervene, at least to protect their devotees.
* Why are God's 'silent' for centuries
* How do we deal with unpalatable and unpleasant characterisations of Gods found in myths and ancient stories
* How do we resolve/tolerate religious pluralism

The problem of multiple pantheons - each culture having its own gods in other words - did not seem to cause a problem for Roman religion. But treating Foreign Gods as aspects of one's own Gods, or as the same Gods by different names, or adding them on to the existing pantheon, actually begins to undermine the notion that the gods are independent, distinct beings. Hard Polytheism cannot account for multiple pantheons. It might think that practically the problem is avoided by toleration, however intellectually, this does not satisfy. The problem of religious pluralism is most easily solved by a 'soft polytheism' where the gods are really manifestations of a single deity or a God and Goddess.

Something else I found intrigueing was that in various polytheisms - Celtic, Greek, Indian and Taoist, there are notions of a 'Triad' of gods or at least a belief in the Threefold nature of the divine. Of course the Christian Trinity could be added to the list. However it is not at all apparent that all these very different religious cultures influenced each other directly. It is rather as if the Threefold nature of the divine is almost from some primitive ur-religion or archetypal, taking some peculiar character though in each culture.

I am moving quickly now to believing in one supreme ineffable deity, manfiest in threefold nature, the 'gods' are theophanies or the personification of divine attributes and actions. This God is not from any particular tradition, I would rather tap the archetypal notions.

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