When I started my MA in Religious Studies years ago, I remember sitting in the very first class (Theory and Methods) and being faced with this question. We were asked to define religion in a way that encompassed all of them and the final consensus was that such a task is functionally impossible. (1). While that class did not really parse out the essential, ontological differences between polytheistic religions and monotheistic religions, I often find myself pondering just this question. It leads of course to – and in fact is predicated on—the question ‘what is the purpose of this thing we call religion?’ It’s here that I think the greatest and most fundamental differences between polytheism and monotheism lie.
Monotheism provides a sacred text, believed to be revealed, that provides rules and precepts whereby a believer can ensure salvation of his or her soul. The ultimate goal, as I understand it (being an outsider to that worldview) is salvation of individual souls and restoration of those souls to the presence of God. The purpose of those monotheistic religions is, at least in part, to provide a pious scaffolding whereby believers can be led down the proper paths to reach that goal. It’s rather like an equation: do x+y and you will be assured of eternal life. This is, of course, something of a generalization, but at their core, especially within Christianity, this is what you have.(2)
I’m not here to argue that. It is what it is, however; the ontological purpose of polytheisms is different. It may be that this is a significant difference between what we might call “religions of the book,” i.e. religions that have a revealed (and closed) scriptural canon, and those that are not religions of the book (animist, often polytheistic traditions). Nor am I ruling out exceptions – exceptions to any standard always exist.(3) As a general rule, however, our polytheistic traditions are not focused on salvation. Individual mystery cultus may be, but in general writ large, we do not draw a moral compass from our traditions (4).
Within polytheisms, the purpose of ‘religion’ is to learn how to be in right relationship with our Gods. It is about tending to the Gods in the way They wish, and by doing so, ensuring the overall health of our households and communities. The rites and rituals whereby we do this exist within our traditions and if we maintain right relationship, our world will be better, it will benefit from what the Romans called pax deorum. (5) Over a thousand years ago, Roman author Aulus Gellius wrote: Dii immortales virtutem adprobare, non adhibere debent.(6) We are not, therefore passive recipients of salvation. We have powerful agency in developing and determining the nature of our devotional relationships. It’s up to us to choose rightly and while we may (and probably should) ask our Gods for help, ultimately, we must consciously choose devotion over and over again. There is a potentially productive tension here that I think Christian theologians miss when they write about free will, predetermination, and grace (I’m looking at you, Augustine). Yes, we have wyrd or fate, a scaffolding partly created by our choices, partly inherited from our ancestors, and partly determined the moment we’re born by a number of other factors and we are defined by how we meet it, bear it, and in some cases, rise above it. We are honed by the fate we carry. Yet the Gods are there waiting for us to reach out. They absolutely offer grace and blessing but we ourselves must reach for it too. We are charged with not being passive recipients of Their gifts. Our traditions are less about salvation and more about fruitful working relationships that bleed out into our world at large. If we are doing that, everything we can to maintain that right relationship, as our Gods wish, as our traditions teach, then worry about salvation is pointless (I suspect it probably is anyway – salvation from what? Rebirth? Union with our ancestors? Joyous entry into the hall of our Gods? From what exactly would we seek to be saved? Are we seeking salvation from the flow and twisting turns of our wyrd? Was that perhaps a draw of religions like Christianity? Is it really more comforting to think oneself potentially “elect” than to deal like an adult with one’s wyrd?).
As I write this, I can’t help thinking of a quote from Plato:
If a good man sacrifices to the Gods and keeps Them constant company in his prayers and offerings and every kind of worship he can give Them, this will be the best and noblest policy he can follow; it is the conduct that fits his character as nothing else can, and it is his most effective way of achieving a happy life. “…but for the wicked, the very opposite. For the wicked man is unclean of soul, whereas the good man is clean; and from him that is defiled no good man, nor god, can ever rightly receive gifts,” (Plato, Laws IV, 716e).
In parsing some of this out with Dr. Edward Butler this morning, he noted,
“There is the community of humans and the Gods, which needs not to be fouled by the selfish and perverted intentions of the bad man, on the one hand, and there is the purely human community, which needs to develop its standards and morality on a relatively autonomous basis, on the other, precisely so that humans can be made fit to participate in the community that includes the Gods. This is why morality is not simply given by commandment and why there is independent philosophical reflection upon ethics, morality, and political/economic organizations, as well as psychology. The always relative independence of these fields of thought from theology does not make them atheistic, though, and this is the difference with how these disciplines organized themselves in modernity, where they were left no choice by hegemonic monotheism.”
And with that, I’m going to return to my original point: our religions are not about us. They’re designed and transmitted to us that we may know how to engage with the Holy Powers rightly, productively, and well. This in turn does benefit us greatly, but that is not, I think, the point. If such proper engagement is anathema to a person, then that person should not seek entrance into our communities and traditions. It is important to keep our traditions clean and properly ordered and with everyone focused and desirous of that end, that goal is in itself difficult. Modernity has not been a good teacher of things sacred. There is a huge learning curve when we wade eager but untaught into devotional waters. That is where our surviving texts come in handy. We can reach across the centuries, and across the devastation of our traditions to those whose entire worldview was influenced by and inculcated with polytheism and we can learn.
1. It also highlighted how hard it is to really move away from your own religious tradition – those who grew up in monotheistic traditions for instance, had a horrible time conceiving of traditions that do not center around some type of revealed tradition as ‘religion’. This makes perfect sense: our traditions pattern how we see the world, the Gods, and what religion means to us.
2. The Hebrew bible is a narrative of liberation from slavery, tribal history, and laws by which to maintain their covenant with their God. The New Testament is the story of Jesus, letters detailing the spread of early Christianity, and precepts for right living. The Qu’ran praises God and likewise offers precepts for living according to that God’s will. In each case, rules and regulations for “right” living according to that tradition are encoded in their scriptures. There are exceptions within polytheism. As my colleague Edward Butler pointed out (with my gratitude – I’d been afraid I was doing a disservice to Kemeticism and Hinduism, for instance),
“In Egypt, for instance, I think that we see the divinity of texts and a focus on soteriology outside of a delimited “mystery cult” setting, and the same is true of India. The Vedas are every bit as divine in themselves as the Torah or Qur’an. I think that the difference lies rather in how such texts are used, and in particular the ongoing productivity of divine textuality in polytheisms. Think of the magnet analogy Plato uses in the Ion. The ongoing presence of the Gods in polytheist communities means that new texts are continually generated, but without erasing or writing over the previous ones.
With textuality, part of the difference is also between cultures that are more oral, like Greece, and those which are focused more intensely at an earlier period on the written word, like Egypt and India. One can see Plato in the Phaedrus wrestling with how to incorporate writing more into Hellenic culture and theology. A written text in one way is less flexible than an oral tradition, but it also permits for a different kind of engagement where commentary and interpretation have a status of their own, rather than being invisibly and anonymously absorbed into the tradition, which is what you tend to get in more oral cultures.”
I think he’s absolutely correct. Within polytheisms, new revelation can constantly occur. It’s not a closed system because the Gods are still engaging quite actively with us, and we with Them and that has an ongoing transformative power, not just for our traditions but for the world. We have the potential to constantly reaffirm and restore Their creation and order.
3. Nor am I saying that there are no writings relevant for polytheisms. We do not, however, have something accorded the same weight as monotheistic Scripture, as a matter of course…as much as some Heathens try to take medieval poetic and literary output, which we call ‘lore’ and frame it as such. Scripture is something considered holy in and of itself. The beautiful and insightful writings that we have may contain windows to the holy, stories about the holy but are not in and of themselves inherently holy and that’s an important difference. They lack, and rightly so, the normative authority of ‘scripture.’
4. This is not to say that polytheisms lack moral referents. That is in part, what philosophy is for – to teach us how to live virtuous lives pleasing to our Gods. That is why we are encouraged as a matter of piety in some cases, to become involved in our communities – because this is what an adult does, it – preserving our world for the future- is a logical extension of honoring our ancestors. I think in many ways, many polytheisms lacking the religious dichotomy that polarizes so much of monotheistic thought have an easier time infusing the world with a sense of the sacred. It is good (and according to some polytheistic thought, Divine in and of itself) in and of itself, not something to be endured until we die. It’s been said before that morality in polytheisms came from the respective cultures in which those polytheisms thrived and that is true, but it’s quite a different thing to draw morality from a culture inculcated on every level with polytheistic awareness and to do the same with a monotheistic culture or one dominated by modern secularism.
5. These things should themselves come via inspiration of the Gods and ancestors – we have diviners and priests, spirit workers, shamans, and oracles to help with this, as well as what we know from literary sources about practices in ages past – there are many ways in which our traditions navigate this. This is part of a healthy tradition. Cicero, drawing on somewhat dubious etymology posted that the word ‘religio’ came from ‘religere’ in other words ‘to be bound to the ways of one’s ancestors.’ That pretty much defined the Roman view of religion and I think there is much good sense in that. If our traditions are there to help us maintain right relationship with the Holy Powers, and if we accept that the structure of those traditions came in large part from the Holy Powers, then we must in good sense and good faith hesitate to change those structures for our own convenience. We must consider carefully how our tradition teaches us to adapt to modernity, rather than throw our pious practices away because they do not immediately accord with modernity.
6. The immortal Gods ought to support, not supply, virtue. – Metellus, quoted in “Noctes Atticae” 1.6.8 by Aulus Gellius.
By E. Butler, PhD
(To give a bit of context for this, Edward and I were discussing a couple of our upcoming articles and he mentioned some push back he’d had recently vis a vis the word ‘polytheism.’)
Edward: I posted a link to a collection of stotras (devotional hymns) attributed to Shankara, the famous Advaita (Non-dualist) Vedanta philosopher, remarking that, though there are questions about the validity of the attribution, the sheer number and diversity of the Gods addressed in the hymns made Advaita look quite polytheistic to me. This is in accord with my conviction that the issue between Advaita and Dvaita positions in Vedanta, being a dispute about the nature of brahman, have nothing to do with the number of Gods.
So, [a certain ‘scholar’] chimes in with how it’s wrong to use a modern, Western category like polytheism with regard to Hinduism.
Galina: these modern secularist fools are trying to take away even the words by which we can define our faith. The word ‘polytheism’ occurs in ancient material; it just happened to enter ENGLISH in the 17th c.
Edward: This is yet another stupid fight we have to wage. As far as I’m concerned, any language that has a plural term for “God” has polytheism, or had it, period. It doesn’t matter to me when the term itself was first used, it’s logically entailed by the use of the plural terms.
The other nonsense issue I’ve seen come up lately is the notion that we shouldn’t translate foreign terms as “Gods” because they’re all sui generis. Only when polytheist civilizations encountered one another, there’s literally not a case I know of where they didn’t use the same term they use for divinities to refer to the foreign Gods. Angirasa Srestha found a passage, for instance, that refers to “Devas of foreign lands”, and Egyptians spoke of Netjeru in foreign lands, and of course we know that for Greeks and Romans the other people’s Theoi or Dei were Theoi and Dei, and so forth.
It’s like being swarmed by ants, though, dealing with this shit. Everyone gets zealous about protecting other cultures from contamination once those cultures start appropriating Western concepts for themselves. Don’t let them get hold of the master’s tools, force them to use their native resources exclusively, after you’ve disrupted those intellectual resources for centuries.
What we need to take away from this, though, is that we need to fight for the proper sense of universal categories like “Gods” and “polytheism”, a sense that doesn’t interfere with the uniqueness of nations and pantheons and individual Gods, but that grounds a stable theoretical discourse and for solidarity across traditions.
(and he is absolutely right. – GK).
This was the companion piece to an article I shared here. They’re older pieces, originally written a couple of years ago, but they’re relevant to some of the client work I’ve been doing lately so I’m sharing them again.
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.
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.
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This week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and colleague Dr. Edward Butler. Edward has been doing crucial work in reclaiming our philosophical traditions as specifically polytheistic traditions. He’s a specialist in the Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus and also one of the editors of Walking the Worlds Journal. Thank you, Edward, for taking the time to answer these questions.
GK: Please introduce yourself, Edward. I’ve known you for years and I’m familiar with your work, but I”ll bet a lot of my readers aren’t. What is it you do as a philosopher?
Edward Butler: When I first began to study philosophy in graduate school, I’d already been a practicing polytheist for a number of years. I had a notion of the need for defending and articulating polytheism, but I was by no means certain whether my work in philosophy would serve this function directly or only in a more oblique fashion. And I was comfortable with that, because I felt a vocation toward philosophy in any case.
But I found rather quickly when I started on my own initiative studying the ancient Platonic tradition, that if I ignored what all the secondary literature was telling me, and just read the philosophers themselves, that this was a philosophy that didn’t merely accommodate polytheism, but was radically polytheistic to its core. This was a very original reading in the context of modern scholarship. As originality is one of the principal requirements for a doctoral dissertation, I felt that if I could just follow through on what would be considered by modern scholars as a daring argument I would be successful.
The idea for what would become my dissertation, “The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus”, came to me as early as the first semester of my graduate coursework in philosophy, but everything I studied subsequently in the history of philosophy helped me to understand the significance of the argument, a significance beyond narrow religious interests, having to do with the most basic issues in metaphysics.
Metaphysics is a very intricate structure built up over millennia by many individual hands, and even a relatively small change in the understanding of a key concept can change the way this entire structure fits together; undoing a historic misappropriation of arguably the most important concept in metaphysics, namely the nature of unity and multiplicity, has the potential to change how a great many other pieces in this machine fit together.
GK: How did you come to polytheism?
Edward Butler: I was raised in an agnostic/atheist home, but I seem to have been on the path to polytheism already when I was very small. Two of the earliest books I remember reading, and I read them again and again, were the D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and Book of Greek Myths. When we had an Icelandic exchange student staying with us one year, I pestered her about whether people in Iceland still worshiped the old Gods (she said that some did). I also remember a book on ancient Egyptian art with images I stared at. I was fascinated with archaeology. All of these interests stayed with me, but I think that at a certain point they went into a kind of dormancy again until I was sixteen or so, when I began having numinous dreams. I was engaging in a bit of psychic adventuring, I suppose you could say, and it eventually resulted in a theophany from the deity I have regarded ever since as my patron. I’ve built up a diverse personal pantheon since then.
GK: I absolutely adore D’aulaire’s books. I think they were my introduction to both the Greek Gods and the Norse as well. I still treasure my copies! Seriously awesome children’s books aside, what are your thoughts on piety and polytheism? How does your awareness and education as a philosopher impact your devotion as a polytheist?
Edward Butler: I’ve never found piety and philosophy to be in conflict for me. On the contrary, it was engagement with the Gods that steered me in the direction of philosophy as opposed to the predominantly artistic orientation that I’d had before. And yet, at the same time, I saw philosophy as a fundamentally creative endeavor, and thus as an extension of the artistic search for expression. From this perspective, philosophy is just a unique and particularly demanding medium. One cannot simply make any moves that one likes. There is more constraint than freedom, and yet its very nature is liberating. My role as a philosopher is to seek truth; but I’ve never had the slightest notion that this would lead me away from the Gods, rather than toward Them—how could it? The notion that philosophy and piety should be in some natural tension is a product of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship established between philosophy and religion by Christianity, nothing more and nothing less.
GK: Seeing you approach philosophy as your vocation has certainly impacted my own respect for the field and my growing awareness of just how important it was to our ancestors. I know not everyone has had the benefit of engaging discussions with you so I’m going to ask: Why is philosophy so important to polytheists?
Edward Butler: Philosophy is more important for modern polytheists than it was for ancient polytheists, because there is no surviving polytheistic tradition which is not critically endangered by monotheism’s weaponization of philosophy. For those reviving sundered traditions, the need to be able to critique the intellectual legacy of hegemonic monotheism is even more urgent. People will come up against limitations in their ability to conceptualize their experience of the Gods and the nature of their relationship to Them, and that makes them vulnerable to the omnipresent dismissal of that experience in the contemporary world, the treatment of a relationship to real Gods as naïve or incoherent. Polytheists need philosophy in order to get past those bottlenecks in understanding that hinder their devotion, or threaten to undermine their worship altogether.
Philosophers were already doing this, so to speak, therapeutic work in antiquity, but it is more urgent today, where theism as such, which simply is polytheism, has been under sustained assault from what I increasingly see as a kind of atheism. That is, I increasingly see monotheism per se as atheism, because its founding moment is not any positive religious experience, but rather the moment in which that experience is understood to negate any other experience to the degree that it does not fall within certain intellectually defined parameters. This appropriation of primary religious experience makes monotheism as such distinct in a certain sense even from the actual religious experience of people in the monotheistic faiths, because insofar as they follow the logic of monotheism through to its ultimate conclusion, it will negate even their own religious experience. The proper understanding of philosophy’s purpose and implications is necessary to arrest this process.
Beyond this, however, there is the simple fact that polytheists invented philosophy, not only in Greece, but in India and in China and everywhere that we have a tradition sufficiently intact to see it. In all of these places there is a wisdom tradition that is at least nascently philosophical. These traditions were not separate from theology, but they expanded upon the basis provided by theophany, by the experience of living immortals, to perfect the arts of reasoned inquiry and to found the sciences. Polytheists must not let these traditions be alienated from them through the great historic lie that philosophy, reason, leads ultimately to monotheism. To believe this lie would in itself impair the flourishing of our traditions, and could even doom them, because it would cut us off from our own histories as well as from the innate faculties that have made humans such extraordinarily successful creatures. Polytheists have a duty, I would argue, to develop their wisdom traditions to the fullest extent possible. It’s not sufficient to worship with your heart, you have to worship with your head as well.
GK: I’ve been consistently appalled at the stripping of the Gods from the ancient philosophers, something I encounter all the time in academia. The first time I really came face to face with it in a theology class I think I walked out shell shocked. I don’t think until that moment, I truly realized what a crucial battle it was that you’re fighting. That being said, what advice would you give someone just starting out, both in exploring philosophy and in venerating the Gods?
Edward Butler: My own practice has always had an improvised quality, and so I can’t tell people that they ought to seek out a more structured tradition, but I do respect the work that people are doing to build those kinds of traditions back up, or maintain and strengthen those already in existence. Ultimately, it is one’s relationship with one’s Gods that is the beginning and the end of all practice, and so all I can really say is to pursue that with all the tools available to you and follow it wherever it leads you.
With respect to philosophy, I would say that I think it is important to be at least somewhat interested in all philosophies. You cannot say in advance what problems might end up being most important to you, and what approaches might prove fruitful. There will be plenty of time later to be dismissive of this or that approach, but it’s crucial early on to allow yourself to feel the force of arguments with which you may not intuitively agree. Have enough courage to recognize that while you may not yet have the tools to defend your intuitions to the degree you might like, you shouldn’t as a result hide from the arguments people have made. Learn to appreciate arguments for their elegance, even if you disagree. Seeing an argument in the purity of its structure, you will grasp its potential for application and transformation far beyond its nominal intent.
GK: Can you tell me a little bit about your current work? I know you have some fascinating things in the works. What projects are you currently working on and what do you have coming up?
Edward Butler: I’m currently working on a project supported by a grant from the Dharma Civilization Foundation, about ideological issues in Western Indology. It’s an adjunct to the book The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee (Oxford University Press, 2014). The short book I’m writing is designed to make that text more accessible to a wider audience, and especially for Hindus who want to be engaged in the intellectual defense of their traditions. It also broadens the perspective of the argument put forth in The Nay Science in the direction of the intellectual defense of all polytheist traditions, both continuous and indigenous as well as revived and diasporic.
In connection with that project, I’d also like to continue to deepen my engagement with Indian philosophy. I made a start of this in a conference paper (“Bhakti and Henadology”, available from my site), but there is further work I need to do in that area. A great deal of mischief has been wrought by monotheizing Western interpretations of Indian philosophy, and since these misreadings bear such close resemblance to the kinds of distortions that plague modern readings of ancient Greek philosophy, I believe that I have a particular contribution to make in disrupting them and helping to open a space for a more fruitful relationship between Indian and European philosophies. This is an effort to which polytheists of every tradition cannot afford to be indifferent; none of us can ignore the historical situation in which we find ourselves, and in which the fate of all polytheisms are bound up with one another. And in this, ideas and ideologies are as important as facts on the ground.
Other projects will, I am certain, pop up on their own. So much of my work recently has been driven by what others have asked me to do, and that will likely continue.
GK: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Folks, you can follow Edward on twitter @EPButler or at his website https://henadology.wordpress.com. He’s also the author of two books: “Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus” and “Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion.” His academic work may be found at his academia.edu page and also in Walking the Worlds.
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A friend just asked me what I was planning on reading in between school terms and looked positively shocked when I answered. LOL. Before the term ended (and after some of the crap that I dealt with here) I reached out to my friend Edward Butler for suggestions on what I should read to give myself a crash course in Plato and Aristotle (because I’m taking a course this coming term in philosophy — Intro to Augustine–and because, as previous posts have noted, it’s becoming more and more relevant to my theological work). He recommended some texts which I’ll share in a moment. An academic colleague and I also decided we’d each read the other’s favorite Euripidean play (mine is the Bacchae, his was Medea and talk about it when term starts again) so I’ll be doing that too.
I just want to say, before I continue, that it is crucially important for us to reclaim our philosophical traditions. Philosophy, Literature, the Sciences, Medicine, these things were born in the polytheistic world. In an effort to appropriate them, Christian scholasticism attempted to erase the Gods from the inventors and proponents of these disciplines. We see that in academia today with the dogged insistence by those who should know better that of course men like Plato and Socrates were atheists. Of course they couldn’t possibly believe in the Gods … when we have ample evidence that they did, quite piously in fact. There is an ongoing agenda of erasure and appropriation here and it’s high time we step up and stop it. Edward has been doing powerful work as a philosopher for years and years now (shout out to you, Edward, for your inspiring work). I”m sure there are others too. This year my goal is to better educate myself so that I can likewise do my part. For those of you unfamiliar with Edward’s groundbreaking work, check out his book here. He also has an academia.edu page and recently had a piece published for the general reader in “Witches and Pagans” in their issue on polytheism. go. read. This work is awesome.
Now the texts I’ll be reading over the next two weeks, for those who likewise might want to join me are (aside from Euripides’ “Medea 😉 ):
“Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals” by Richard Bodeus
“Aristotle’s Metaphysics” translated and with commentaries by Hippocrates Apostle
“The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics” by Joseph Owens
“Plato’s Gods” by Gerd Van Riel (there are some translation issues with this one, just minor things that annoy me, like translating τέχνη as ‘technique;’ and at one point he insists that the Greeks didn’t have a commitment to personal belief in religion (p. 12) and then spends the next six or seven pages contradicting that rather reductionist statement, as the evidence clearly DOES contradict it. That being said, it’s still a really good book).
Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Plato’s “Timaeus” (been a good 20 years since i’ve read either) and probably ‘Ion’ and ‘Euthyphro’ in the original Greek.
If anyone wants to add any suggestions, by all means do. I’m not a philosopher and I’ll admit to being rather nervous about taking a philosophy course this term, but it’s unavoidable for anyone wanting to work in theology and if this past term taught me nothing else, it taught me that immersing myself in Plato and Aristotle and really understanding them as polytheists is essential going forward.
i’m going to end with a quote from Plato’s Laws that I just love:
If a good man sacrifices to the Gods and keeps Them constant company in his prayers and offerings and every kind of worship he can give Them, this will be the best and noblest policy he can follow; it is the conduct that fits his character as nothing else can, and it is his most effective way of achieving a happy life. (Laws IV, 716e).
Edward Butler and I were interviewed for the Dan Schneider Radio show this morning. Those interested, may access the interview below. We discuss all manner of things related to polytheism.
The current issue of BBI Media’s “Witches and Pagans” is all about polytheism and it is awesome. (1)
Of particular note is the article “Polycentric Polytheism” by Dr. Edward Butler. If I could hold every single Polytheist and Pagan in the world down and make them read this article, I would. Hell, I’d happily hold down every academic working in Classics or Religious Studies and make them read it if I could. It’s positively brilliant and provides a solid and thought provoking philosophy of polytheism that is both spot on and terrifyingly elegant.
I highly suggest picking up a copy of this issue just for Edward’s article. Read it, share it, discuss it, contact him and discuss it some more. It’s a very, very important piece.
1. Despite having the occasional article by authors who have no business writing anything whatsoever about polytheism, it is an outstanding issue.
I just read Edward Butler’s latest at polytheist.com — which can be found here–and as always it has given me a great deal of food for thought. I highly recommend taking time to read this carefully. He highlights another layer of restoration with which we as polytheists must, of necessity, engage. I give you a snippet here:
“Modern commentators have inevitably, in attempting to grasp the genesis of these disciplines in ancient polytheist thinkers, either separated these theological concerns from their proto-scientific activities, as though these were in some tension with each other, or have used the presence of polytheistic theologies in these thinkers as proof that their concepts had failed to cross a crucial threshold of scientificity. A perspective informed by polytheistic metaphysics can, by contrast, restore the integrity of ancient thought. Moreover, in restoring the continuity between polytheistic theologies, wisdom traditions and the beginnings of scientific speculation, the polytheist can correct an excessively Eurocentric account of the development of the sciences, because the fundamental intellectual and ontological basis of the sciences is seen to exist in every culture, though historical contingencies have led to certain aspects being developed further in some cultures than in others.”
There is some ground that we should never, ever cede. Working in both Religious Studies and Classics I have absolutely seen the academic dismissal of the polytheist perspective in approaching these philosophers and it is both unfortunate and something that I think we must endeavor to correct, if only in our own approach to these works, works which evolved out of a deeply pious and polytheistic culture. Let us take these philosophers at their own words and instead of explaining away their piety, explore what it means that these men of science were also men who could proudly exclaim that we live in a world full of Gods.