The Mirror of the Gods
Last week in my medieval studies class, we were reading Bonaventure’s “Journey of the Soul into God.” It’s one of the first places where I’ve seen mysticism unhesitatingly defined as direct experience with a God, so it immediately piqued my interest because of that. We spent a very enjoyable class discussing the text itself, specifically its structure. It seems on the surface like such an arid philosophical treatise but reading through it, it’s written stylistically as anything but. Bonaventure uses various rhetorical strategies to evoke enthusiasm and experience in his readers, and lush language, sensual motifs that make this a rich and rewarding read, even for a polytheist.
My interest is less in Bonaventure’s Christianity, than in the rather Pythagorean worldview he espouses at one point in his narrative. He’s working from Augustine’s ‘de Musica,’ which in turn draws heavily on Aristotle’s “Poetics.” (So really, if a Christian can be inspired by a polytheist text, than that rubric can surely work in reverse!). By this point in the text (2.10), he’s already been writing about his God as a divine Artificer in ways that echo elements of Plato’s “Timaeus.” After expounding for a bit on how every sensation is an experience of God, and that part of the structure of knowing is taking delight in the presence of God, not as a rarified experience but as something open and available to everyone, he starts talking about numbers.
Now, I’m not a maths person. Having dyscalculia, I struggled all my school life to acquire basic math skills and while I can handle measurements for cooking, balance a checkbook, and understand compound interest, that’s about as far as it goes with respect to my math functionality. So when I first got to this discussion of numbers, I groaned inwardly and prepared to skim it as quickly as possible. Then I actually read what Bonaventure was saying though, and especially after our class discussion, I was floored. It opened up a way of connecting to my Gods that I’d never, ever considered (or if i had ever considered it, I’d assumed it was forever closed to me because of my poor math skills).
Basically, Bonaventure posits that the harmony, balance, proportion, ratio, and math of the universe, the cosmic order and structure itself is both a means to know “God” but also that the entire cosmic order, the deep structure of all that is exists in the mind of God. Think about that for a moment. The unfolding, interlocking order of creation exists in the minds of Gods, in the shared consciousness of the Divine Assembly, or in the mind of the God or Gods who functions as the architect of the universe. We exist not separate and apart from our Gods, but held within Them. I do not quite know how to express how profound I found this. I’m still pondering it, chewing on it. I have a deep emotional response to this idea of numbers as a vestige, a trace we can follow to our Gods.
It’s a complete shift in consciousness to look at not just the natural world, but it’s order, structure — the science of the thing—as a reflection of the Gods. I think one of the most traumatic things that monotheism accomplished was setting us apart not only from the nature world, our world full of Gods as the philosopher Thales put it, but separating us from any sense of connection to the Gods. There’s such a tremendous disconnect inherent in the monotheistic worldview with its emphasis on separation, sin, and salvation. I think the Christian mystics or mystic-influenced writers like Bonaventure tried to counter this but sadly stood in the minority.
I talked to my friend Edward Butler about this philosophy of numbers, as it were, (because I am in no way a philosopher and often need advice in navigating the more philosophical concepts) and he told me that this idea that we are *in* the Gods, that there is nothing outside of Them is a core Platonic concept and the fact that “the cosmos can be grasped through mathematics is considered by Platonists to be one of the prime expressions” (if you’ll pardon the pun), “of the divine presence throughout the cosmos, and mathematics is equal to philosophy as a mode of cognizing the operations of the Gods, which is to say, cognizing everything, since Being Itself is the Gods’ work.” (2)
Isn’t that just astounding? Go outside and look at the light filtering through the leaves of trees and the Gods are there. The patterns of snowflakes reflect Divine cognition and care, (it’s snowing where I live right now and recognizing this makes it more endurable lol). The way things grow, the organic structure of everything all reflects the Gods directly. The cycle of seasons, that it’s cold in winter, hot in summer, that bacteria is able to effect decay and that decay nourishes the soil and brings it to greater fruitfulness is all a reflection of the Divine. The big bang and stars and black holes and chemistry and all the ways in which science works is all infused with the laughing cognition of our Gods, delighting in Their artistry.
Think about what it means that science: biology, physics, the natural sciences, math, all of it is a reflection of the minds of our Gods. When we then explore those things we are glimpsing our Gods. And because we are talking about concepts that are based on harmony, ratio, and proportion we can include art in that category too. Why is art and music and dance and sculpture and writing sacred? These things reflect the glory of the Gods. They flow from the minds of our Gods into our world renewing and transforming it again.
I want to quote Edward again more fully, because the purity of these structures, the unfiltered purity of math as an expression of the Gods is significant (and I don’t want to muddy the waters with my own inaccurate accounting):
“The mathematics that mathematicians still do, just like the philosophy that philosophers still do—actually more so, because mathematicians have not gotten distracted—is a way of grasping what the Gods are doing, even if it doesn’t talk about the Gods explicitly. In a sense, if we can only recognize the Gods where They are explicitly spoken of, we show that we no longer understand or believe that Being comes from Them.
One of the most important implications of the role of number, Platonically speaking, has to do with the priority in procession of number over other concepts. In essence, this means that there is an intelligible grasp of reality that is more primordial than conceptual reduction. This has many implications for the polytheist, but one of the first is that the “numerical difference” of the Gods is preserved from being reduced to their conceptual commonalities (chief of which is, of course, that of being-Gods). Number, especially for the Greeks, is figure, configuration. So it’s about the possible kinds of relation of individuals to one another—which is grounded in the relations Gods have with one another, which establishes the space for our experience as well—and the possible kinds of configuration inside each individual, which has its ground in the way Gods relate to Their own powers.
The purity of mathematics, the fact that we can go so far with it without drawing on anything else, testifies in itself that it is a particularly divine science, because it resembles in this sense what the Gods can do in virtue of not needing to seek anything outside Their own nature. The importance of mathematics to Platonism is one of the most well-attested things about it. Plato’s Academy supposedly had a sign above it that said “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” Platonism and Pythagoreanism are virtually indistinguishable intellectual movements in antiquity.”(2)
Aside from the fact that I would never have been allowed in with my poor mathematics skills, one of the things that leapt out to me immediately in my conversation with Edward is this: if we only recognize the Gods when we speak specifically of “Gods,” we’re missing something. Our understanding is lacking. Our conception of being and becoming is lacking. If we have to actually name the Gods to recognize Their order and work, then there is a problem with our perception. The way we look at the world is flawed. The Gods are not something outside of our world. They are not apart from it or us, and those structures and systems of math and science, philosophy and the arts are pathways by which we can reach Them. (3)
Also, so much of what we must do as polytheists today is reclaim fields like philosophy and the sciences from monotheistic damage. I may write about this in later posts, but I think there is an unconscious attitude that’s filtered into polytheism, that attitude of modernity that devotion is not rational (or practical). I’ve seen it manifest in a hostility toward devotion at worst and even in some of the best cases, as a self-consciousness and even shame. It is as though an equation has been set up in which to honor our Gods rightly we must hand over the reins of rational thought, science, philosophy, etc. to others (opposed in many cases not just to polytheism but to devotion and religion in general). It’s time to repair and heal our faulty world view and take these disciplines back. These are not areas that we should ever cede.
I cannot begin to express how deeply Bonaventure’s passages on numbers as a reflection of the Gods affected me. There was a moment in class where I felt as though a veil had been ripped off my eyes and I could see with crystalline clarity the order and structure of things, of everything and the way it led to the Gods. I did not cry in class but oh I wanted to, with the sheer beauty and enormity of what was being revealed. This too is restoration.
When I teach devotional work, time and time again i’m confronted by people who simply don’t know how to get started. They struggle and falter and often grow disheartened. How different might that process be when I can say “look around you. Look at the order of everything. It is a reflection of the Gods.” or even more fully to say that we are not external to the Gods, but as part of that cosmic order, we rest in and flow from the minds of our Gods, working together, creating together, that everything external to our beings is a reflection of the Gods. The Gods are right there, all around us. The very workings of our minds, our ability to recognize and comprehend was a gift carefully structured by Them, that leads back to Them. We are infused with Their grace simply by Being. Start there. Meditate on that. Let that awareness unfold and carry you into the labyrinth of devotion.
What this means, at least what I think this means, is that we are never actually cut off from our Gods. We cannot be by the mere rubric of Being. We may have to re-learn awareness of this. We may have to unclutter and deprogram our minds but the cognition of the Gods is unfolding all around us and through us and in us. We are it, connected to it, through the organization of our cells, through the firing of our synapses, through our own experience of Being. Perhaps realizing this, realizing that disconnection is simply not actually possible, will make those first faltering steps of devotion a little less difficult, and perhaps it will sustain when fallow times happen. Perhaps it will infuse this entire process — of devotion, of restoration, of everything—with joy, because there is such tremendous joy in that pristine, unfolding order. That, most of all, is what brought me to tears: the sense of joy and delight which the Gods take in the act of creating. I tasted it for a moment, in that glimpse of structure and equations, and that moment was enough.
1. Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God; The Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis.” Translated by Ewert Cousins. Paulist Press, 1978. (The Classics of Western Spirituality Series).
2. Email correspondence with Edward Butler on March 1, 2015. Edward is awesome. I pester him with way too many philosophy questions.
3. All the more why I insist that it is a false dichotomy when people equate “putting the Holy Powers (Gods, ancestors, spirits) first as neglecting one’s family, community, and kin. It’s precisely the opposite. It enhances and flows through everything and demands greater engagement not just with the Holy, but with everyone and everything in one’s world.