We are not One; Neither are our Gods
I just finished reading one of the article submissions for Issue 4 of Walking the Worlds and I came away quite dismayed. We put out a call on several academic list-serves (both to Classics and to Philosophy) and we’ve been getting some interesting pieces for consideration. We’ve also been getting quite a few that completely miss the mark. As I was reading through this latest, I couldn’t help but find some of the rhetoric familiar but I couldn’t place where I’d heard it before until one of the other editors pointed out that it’s the same type of language you hear from would-be-allies in interfaith settings who want to be inclusive but can’t quite fathom actual polytheism as being on par with their own monotheistic tendencies. It gets quite tiring but I’m going to talk about this in brief today because I’m pretty sure my own experiences with this well-meaning interfaith trend aren’t isolated incidents.
I do quite a bit of interfaith work. I even taught for an interfaith seminary for a year. I can honestly say that without exception the most accommodating attitude toward polytheism tends to be some variant of either ‘well, our Gods are all One anyway so that’s ok,” (until we point out that no, They’re not), or “I’ll respect your right to have many Gods because God is ineffable and you’re just not evolved yet enough for Unity.” Some of the best interfaith allies I know suffer grievously from this latter attitude.
I think that in most cases these people mean and want deeply to be inclusive, to live up to the interfaith ideals around which they’ve worked hard to build their lives. I really do and that complicates this issue for me because I don’t know how to effectively educate them out of what is at its core a deeply disparaging and condescending position. And as much as I actively dislike interfaith work (and I often question its usefulness), with the situation in the world being what it is today I think that it’s important to at least find ways to meet on common ground and discuss and share knowledge and perhaps solutions to issues facing us all. So I persevere but it is deeply discouraging to see the same offensive tropes come up again and again and again in people who A) know better and B) would probably be horrified to realize the depth of their actual intolerance.
99% of people in the interfaith community with whom I’ve talked have no comprehension of just how monotheistic in general and Protestant Christian in particular their baseline model for normalcy in liturgy, prayer, and education actually is. In addition to being effectively clueless about polytheism, they are in general equally clueless about the importance of vocations in prospective clergy as well as anything approaching mysticism. I have always maintained that to do effective, really effective interfaith work there can’t be a “normal” model. You have to deal with people as they come. To have one accepted model means that there will always be a plethora of religions that are outsiders, that don’t fit and that means that those who do will be in the power position of granting or denying “tolerance.” Not a very good place from which to begin interfaith dialogue is it?
I suspect the problem is that our “allies” simply can’t imagine a world where monotheism isn’t the norm. The corollary to that, of course, is that anything that isn’t monotheistic is deviant from that norm. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: once upon a time (only this isn’t a fairy tale but actual historical reality) the entire world was polytheistic. Monotheism was, at best and when it existed at all, an aberration. Even those philosophers like Socrates and Plato whom we’ve largely been taught are atheists were in fact devout polytheists. The polytheistic world was one of culture: art, philosophy, theatre, literature, architecture, science, and reasoned debate. It was only with monotheism that these things ground to a screeching halt to be partially rediscovered during our Scientific Age.
There was a time when walking down a city street meant passing a multitude of temples large and small, where the sights, sounds, and smells of reverence dominated the spatial landscape. One can still see this in parts of India today as historian Edward J. Watts points out in his rather sympathetic book The Final Pagan Generation. (1) The landscape was infused with a sense of the sacred and that sacred was a diversity, not unity of Beings. Even after Christianity began rearing its ugly, lowbrow head, it was still largely incomprehensible to Pagans of the time that exclusivity of belief would be demanded. It was outside of their way of doing things, outside of the way things had been done for millennia. That of course, was their downfall but that’s a subject for another post.
There was a time when it was the Christians or other monotheists who couldn’t imagine a world that wasn’t polytheistic. There was a time when polytheism was the only norm. I’ll be honest too, I’d very much like to see our world return to that. That too, of course, is an article for another day. We must of needs deal with the shit storm we have here and not the one we wish. Thus John Halstead.(2)
To return to point, when I am dealing in an interfaith capacity with the condescension, however well meaning and however subtle; when I am dealing with allies who very much want to be supportive but look at our religion like one might examine a bug under a microscope or an animal in a zoo (as a novelty, an exoticism, or worse those who look at it in self-congratulation as a clear expression of their tolerance), I always strive to keep this in mind: once, we were the norm. Once the world was polytheistic and it could be again. It is you who represent the aberration and look where it has taken our world: to the brink of its own destruction; and when I engage with interfaith allies, I do so in a way that verbally normalizes polytheism yet again. I simply do not acknowledge their “normalcy” or their majority. It is an imperfect solution but it is the best I have yet been able to manage.
I would like to come up with tips for those non-polytheists who wish to be allies in this fight but I’m a bit at a loss. I simply become so dismayed by the lack of simple comprehension and the reification of “unity” as something necessary and matter of course. I almost feel as though I have been tasked with deprogramming lunatics. The best I can come up with is this: “Understand that your way of doing things is the novelty. Though it be two thousand years old, in the span of religious life on this planet that is put a drop of water in an ocean of reverence.” I don’t think that’s a very good way to approach this though so I turn to you. What would you tell our erstwhile allies? Can we get up a ten-point list of suggestions or something? Help.
- Watts, p. 18-20.
- Was that too low a blow? Sometimes I just can’t help myself.