Philosophical Monotheism? … um, NO.

I have the deepest respect for my colleagues like Edward Butler who are philosophers and polytheists. Until today, I had no idea of what you guys face every day, and the fight that you’re engaged in to reclaim our philosophical traditions from monotheistic depredation – and it is outright depredation.

I’m still stunned at what I experienced today. I was in a theology class and we got around to discussing Aristotle. We were each giving a brief presentation on what we’re going to write for our final papers and I was up. One of the students could not comprehend why I would not embrace Aristotle as a monotheist, paving the way for later Christianity. (Excuse me while I throw up). Another was convinced that ὁ θεòς in Aristotle was absolutely referring to a monotheistic God. Nothing I said about how the singular was common classical usage when discussing the particular manifestation of a particular God at a particular moment made a dent in their dogged insistence that the writers they admired from the ancient world must, of course, be monotheists. (No, sweetheart. Actually we have medieval scholasticism to thank for twisting and corrupting ancient philosophy in such a manner. Many of the philosophers were deeply pious). What some of these students did to henadology would make a polytheist weep.

Everyone else in the class was absolutely convinced that A) Aristotle, Plato, Cicero (and we mentioned one other philosopher but I don’t recall at the moment which one. I think it was a Roman, and yes, I know Cicero isn’t a philosopher per se but he came up in the conversation) were atheists or monotheists only paying lip service to religion which was B) only state run, no belief, no devotion, nothing of substance. And then I had to listen to them discussing the natural victory of Christianity. I had to listen to the blanket erasure of both my religious traditions and the philosophical schools that those religions birthed. It was revolting. I’ve seen complete lack of understanding of polytheisms as religions with their own theologies in Classics, but not to this degree. I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced the incredible blindness that I saw today.

This all started when I mentioned the “inherent plurality of polytheism” (it’s relevant to my paper topic). I think those words and concepts are pretty self-explanatory but apparently not. Not a single person in the class grasped what I meant, not even the professor. It was completely outside of their learned experience to consider ancient polytheisms as legitimate, richly textured, living faiths. They were absolutely incapable (not unwilling I think, but incapable) of seeing them as anything other than brittle state funded apparatuses and place holders for monotheism. I think I’m still in shock.

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Posted on November 29, 2016, in theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Well that’s obnoxious. And infuriating.

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  2. I understand your feelings completely. It’s nowhere on the same scare as that, but I still remember talking with an ex coworker and it came up that I’m pagan. She looked at me blankly and asked me what paganism actually is.

    In her world it was the abrahamic religions and witchcraft with nothing in between. I was dumbfounded at having to explain it to her.

    But I can understand it because I was forced to go to a religious high school, although fortunate enough to attend a public school (many people would raise an eyebrow at that) in elementary years. The difference was very noticeable. We actually learned more about world religions in those early years. One of the first plays I was part of in my life that my class at the time put on was a telling of Baldr and the mistletoe.

    In high school it was very different and the only way I got to hear more about pagan religions were in history classes otherwise it was their beliefs they pushed at all times (Catholicism).

    So yes – the education system is very rigged in a lot of places to portray the polytheistic faiths as placeholders for monotheism, and the practitioners as simple minded barbarians and savages. And anyone who questions is seen, of course, as troubled and/or a trouble maker.

    Your story above saddens me a great deal – but unfortunately doesn’t surprise me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, in my field everyone assumes you’re either an atheist or a Christian (because you were raised Christian and kept with it out of tradition). When people find out I’m a pagan biologist, I like to remind them that PAGANS INVENTED BIOLOGY. One of those pagans of course being Aristotle.

    So it’s news to me that Aristotle was some kind of proto-Christian. Hrm!

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  4. I am sickened, saddened, and sorrowfully unsurprised to hear this…

    In my various history classes, world religions, and so forth, of course I make it clear that this is not the case (and I do so without explicitly identifying as a polytheist, lest I look like I have “an agenda”–as if any scholarship from any viewpoint doesn’t, but of course, being in a maligned minority, we have a BIGGER AGENDA than the hegemonic monotheists and dominionists do by simply stating facts and making options known…!?!), and that these ancient religions were extremely vibrant, vital, and varied. Unfortunately, in the online world history classes that I teach, the correctives I give on this misinformation in our textbook gets unread and unheeded by most of the students, and then they look for sources that back up hegemonic triumphalist Christianity and/or other monotheisms, and I call them on it every time. I just had to go through this with many in my online class saying that the Zoroastrians were monotheists, and when I asked a question about the pre-Constantinian Roman Emperors and religion, people only talk about Christianity (as if its existence was prominent in the fields of religion at the time, which it most certainly wasn’t!), and I always comment to them, “I didn’t ask about Christianity, I asked about religion, and there were many more than just Christianity.” Feck…

    Forget even trying to raise some of these issues within certain fields of medieval and/or Celtic Studies. “Well, how do you know any of that? How do you know they were polytheists and not monists?” (Or, another concept that I’ve heard in the last few years: “inclusive monotheists,” i.e. solar quasi-monotheist syncretists…feck!) The question they never ask is why their monotheist assumptions that are entirely unchecked and non-reflective are, in fact, correct or even relevant when talking about non-institutionalized, non-centralized, and non-Christian phenomena. But, I could go on for ages about that…

    Something I’ve found that intimidates a lot of them into silence over these matters, though, is my insistence on being identified as “Rev. Dr.” in academic circles, since I do hold both of those titles (and I’m sure you hold the first one, at very least, in a legal sense as well!). No matter what religion/s they assume I might be “revered” in (!?!), they are less likely to question some of my thoughts about religion when I very clearly know both Christianity and Greek and Roman (and other) polytheisms, and then am applying concepts from the latter to matters Irish and otherwise. It may be cheating, to some extent, to bank on the cultural baggage of that title, but fuck ’em, because the deck is stacked against us being taken seriously at all, and if they want to question my credentials in that, we’d go down a road they’d not be remotely comfortable with, so there we are…Anyway, not saying you *should* do that, or even suggesting that you’d want to, but it’s a little thing I’ve noticed is a way to quell some of the inherent dissent and dismissiveness on many occasions. 😉

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    • I don’t think it would help, PSVL. I suspect my being a woman counters any authority gained by the Rev. (which yes, I do legally hold). Today was surreal. I knew that there would be people confused by my topic, but I didn’t expect that unexamined monotheistic triumphalism. I’m still in shock, truly.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Oh, feck…damn, I forget that the whole Jesuit/Catholic/etc. thing entirely invalidates women in any kind of authoritative position. (The religious studies department at my Jesuit university, when I was attending, was dominated in the ministry program by women who were wanting to become lay ministers, so even though the ordination matter remained then as now, women were at least accorded the “they show up and do the work” respect, as it were.)

        Keep giving them Helheim, in any case. This is one of a million examples of The Filter in action, I suppose…it’s like dealing with hosts from _Westworld_ who just can’t fathom any discussion of things outside of their programmed loops.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. I blame Polyhymnia Athanassiadi for pushing “all great classcial thinkers were monotheists” line.

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  6. In gender theory, etc., what you are doing is called “making the nonrecognizable recognizable.” Just in case you need more terminology. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  7. A couple of things interest me here: 1. Christianity, strictly speaking, is not monotheistic at all. Want to blow their minds? Make them hip to Christian Gnosticism. There are so many divinities and sub-divinities within this very rich Christian tradition as to make them dizzy. 2. The argument of polytheism as flimsy and weak “state religion,” even if true, still does not account for Nordic, Germanic, etc. traditions where the “state” really didn’t exist.

    The thing is, you’re smack dab in the middle of educational orthodoxy. You’re not likely to change many (any) minds. Keep fighting the good fight, though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • i’m pretty sure they know about Gnosticism. I’m in a class with Jesuit seminarians. lol.

      but yes, i agree. christianity is not precisely as monotheistic as they think they are.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not to mention Catholism pretty much cannibalized the indigenous religions they encountered. What they couldn’t Christianize, they destroyed.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I feel for you!😞

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Grhrhghnmm…. >.< You have my sympathy.Did you outright tell them of your own faith?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This isn’t very surprising. I’ve been shutting down a conversation about religion with a Catholic coworker despite ler interest in comparative theology for the past few weeks precisely because I know it’s a waste of energy. At least in those kinds of conversations, there’s usually an assumption on the part of the Christian that a fruitful discussion in which le speaks ler mind and is heard will end with someone converting. I’m at the point in my life when, as a working professional with a side writing project and quotidian religious obligations, I have to make choices about how much I’m going to engage in that kind of comparative theology. For instance, I’m not going to read non-polytheistic religious texts because it’s not a productive use of my time with everything else going on in my life, but someone who wants to have those conversations with me will generally expect that I read ler holy texts and religious commentators. So thank you for jumping into the fray voluntarily.

    But speaking of communication, I don’t think that it’s just an issue communicating with Christians. Across the polytheistic blogosphere, I would say that about 70% of the flame wars and grudges I have seen over the past few years have their roots in miscommunication caused by ill-defined terminology (or a cultural/intergenerational gap), and we’re all culpable to some degree.

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  11. Edward P. Butler

    The people under whom I studied philosophy had no religion as far as I could tell, which meant that philosophy *was* their religion, that is, it was to them what religion is to the pious. It meant that they were never “off duty”, so to speak, as philosophers, and hence to interpret in a simplistic way what philosophers have said would offend them to their core. This was why studying philosophy wasn’t trying for me. The worst possible way I could imagine studying philosophy would be with people who have a monotheistic theological agenda. I could never have put up with it, it would have made philosophy revolting to me.

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  12. Edward, after what I experienced yesterday, I absolutely agree.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m a tenured philosophy professor, who has written 17 books, most of them about philosophical paganism, and none of them assume the ancients were monotheists. I wonder if your professors would be interested in any of my titles. (Well, probably not. But it wouldn’t hurt to ask.)

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  14. From what I’ve seen of academia, they tend to treat our traditions like early paleontologists regarded dinosaurs, as lumbering primitive brutish things doomed to eventual failure. They are fascinated by them, but at the same time so sure of their own superiority that it makes me want to puke. I also think some of the hostility many academics show toward our restoration has to do with this mindset. If you’ll excuse my attempt at metaphor, they want fossils they can did up and use to toss theories around, not a living breathing dinosaur that could prove them all wrong.

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  15. It is revolting. Academia has done so much to drill in this approach if studying classical religions in their studies. I would wager not one student has ever had to look at it from a practical pokytheustic stand point rather than their monotheistic lens. Immersion into approaching material ad if what they were reading is their faith would be good for them. Besides didn’t Plato and Xenophon vigorously defend Socrates piety why do that if philosophers were a bunch of non believers ugh.

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  16. “Inherent plurality of polytheism” makes perfect sense to me, and it seems almost self-evident. I’m sorry you had to deal with this. If it’s any consolation, I suspect you’ll write a brilliant paper that will open at least the professor’s eyes.

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  17. You know what occurs to me as a possible way to put the shoe on the other foot sometime?

    Do a paper for a class with those same people or professors on, let’s say, one of the female German mystics of the Middle Ages (or, really, anyone who was a pre-reformation mainstream Christian…any of the Italian humanists, Origen, Clement, Tatian, Pseudo-Dionysius, etc.), and interpret it in a polytheist way, e.g. as if one of those female mystics was a Northern shaman, and then interject at one point, “Well, she was in a long line of Northern seer-women, and given that she’s Catholic and Trinitarian, that’s really just polytheism by another name, so we can ignore that whole ‘Christian’ thing since she knew nothing directly of Jewish messianism of the first century CE.” When they critique it, don’t pay anything they say any mind, and act as if what they’re saying is ridiculous (chances are, it will be!)…and then at the end, say “Huh–I wonder if people interpret things in ways that favor their own viewpoints rather than the viewpoints of the people they’re studying? If only more people understood that and how perilous and erroneous it is!” followed by a gigantic wink.

    You get the idea…! 😉

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  18. I’m a newcomer to polytheism, and I know exactly what you are going through. It’s sickening now that I’m aware of it (amazing how that works!) I used to be big on monotheist philosophy, and I blame it on a Christian upbringing and later discovery of HP Blavatsky. My philosophy professors were big on pushing Aristotle, if not as a monotheist champion then as an atheist champion (exactly like what you were talking about).

    My conversion away from that line of thought began with my discovery of how chauvinistic Aristotle was. To be a true monotheist, you have to believe in harmony through unity, and he did not. This is the same problem with the notion of Judaeo-anything being actually monotheist. The idea of Plato as a monotheist is a bit more understandable, but still spurious. A bone of contention between the master and the student was the woman’s capabilities and roles in society, Plato believed women the intellectual and spiritual peer of man where Aristotle believed them to be essentially servants at best. He thought that everything should be measured by physical qualities, and actually gave very little for mental or spiritual (which is where I suspect the atheist misunderstanding originates). Plato’s ‘The Republic’ spells out his views to some extent, and while a pretty ugly concept it does at least give some insight to his views on balance. He placed surprisingly little import on gender where societal roles are concerned, unlike his student Aristotle.

    If you want to rile Christian philosophers, explain to them how intellectually lazy Kant was. In my view, his greatest accomplishment was rewording Christ’s golden rule (do unto others…) to sound oppressively complicated and take credit for it as his own idea.

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