Lenses of Engagement in Theistic Discourse
… thinking about Polytheism (big P) as being about potential, as well as actuality. Simply allowing for the possible presence of multiple divinities is sufficient, in my rendering, to qualify as Polytheism. The total number of Gods is both unknown and immaterial, and fussing over how many are required/actual/known Gods there are is unhelpful. A system that acknowledges a single “known” deity while also allowing for the possibility of other “unknown” or even “false” Gods could be understood as Polytheistic since it acknowledges the possibility of other Divine presences. Polytheism then is, necessarily, ambiguous and tense, possessing multiple centers of /truth production/, real or imaginary.
I agree with a lot of what the author is saying here, and it is part of what I’ve been trying to communicate: Polytheism, when approached in a certain way, is about a radically inclusive and exponentially expansive set of virtually unrestricted potentialities; the only requisite in this is that it is defined in the correct fashion, which is merely “the affirmed and acknowledged religious regard for many gods”, and does not necessitate worshipping any specific number of them, or naming any specific combination(s) of them.
A person could be a Polytheist without knowing ANY gods, or having ANY system of divine organization (e.g. nations of spirits, choirs of agents, pantheons of gods, etc), so long as their basic core -theistic lens is one which “affirms and acknowledges with religious regard” that there [are/may be] many gods.
In this way, “there are many gods” and “there may be many gods” are logically identical statements, as neither positions the agent-observer outside of the potentiality of the uncountable divine, nor prohibits them from relation in the future (or present) with any such combinations.
The issue is not in struggling to define Polytheism, but rather, to help people to clarify when they are in fact not discussing -theistic engagements at all. For example, when a Catholic attempts to argue that their religion is Monotheistic, they are confused about what the terms mean. (Clarifying piece: I defend VICIOUSLY the rights of Catholics to -identify individually- as Monotheists, and do not see it as any person’s place to obstruct self-applied identifying language. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re using the most accurate language available, however, and in respecting identity term selection, I can still call for a critical discussion of the meanings of words.) The Catholic faith is one with many spirits and divinities, including angels (the vast majority of which are divinities and lesser-deities themselves) and so forth. It is therefore by definition NOT Monotheistic, in a literal sense. Nor is any other tradition so aligned.
However there are some who would argue that the Monotheism of Christianity is maintained by recognizing that all of the religious and spiritual elements — god, angels, etc — are metaphors for the universe, and the “God” exists outside of such considerations. Which is of course a perfectly reasonable (and vaguely gnostic) suggestion, however, it is not actually a -theistic premise at all. It’s an “other-than-theistic” or even “non-theistic” stance. It is not Monotheism, or any other kind of -theism, in that stage of thought or regard: it’s Monistic. Which is further to say that a “God” concept which “exists outside of such considerations” is not, in fact, a god; in calling it that, one slides into fallacious assertions right quick. In this same grain, a thing being called an automobile — say, for example, a large rock on a hillside — which has no wheels, nor axles, nor means for ground transportation or movement of any kind, which also cannot be entered into, or controlled, or moved, is not an automobile; calling it a car does not in fact make it a car, and leaves it still quite established as a large rock. There is nothing wrong with rocks, unless of course they are being positioned as cars, in which case there are lots of things wrong with them; notably their lack of car-ness.
The existence of an other-than-theistic mode of consideration — such as is found in gnostic process — does not force Monotheism, nor negate Polytheism; because an other-than-theistic mode of consideration is NOT assessing theistic things. It would be like saying that a person going into the forest to study rocks is denying the existence of the trees, simply because they’re there for geological reasons not directly focused on the squirrels residing in the trees. Different lenses of consideration, examination, and engagement are necessary — and nuanced — and how we should be driving the discussion, so as to avoid all this bullshit.
If people got more comfortable accurately identifying what it is that is being talked about or engaged — theistic vs other-than-theistic considerations for example — then we’d really be able to “get somewhere” in theological discourse. But people get stuck in the familiarly circular trap of just dick-swinging on all of this.
If archetypes are being discussed, regardless of whether they’re being called by the same names as gods, it is not gods who are being discussed. It is a realm of psychological theory. Not religion. Not -theism. When a Humanist is discussing “Odin as archetype”, they are no more discussing Odin the god than a boar-bristle beard brush for sale on Amazon called “ZEUS” is, in fact, the god Zeus. A hair-brush whose product model is called Zeus is not the god Zeus. An archetypal concept called Odin is not the god Odin. Discussions of archetypes are, and should be, discussions about archetypes… if only the ones having them would learn to identify them as other-than-theistic, rather than attempting to assault the fabric of OTHER conversations or modes of agencied engagement (which ARE theistic) for self-referential purposes.
The collective conversation (from the standpoint of Polytheists’ engagement) needs, I think, to lead the charge in assessing -theistic from other-than-theistic distinctions. When some yahoo is rambling about how gods are “just archetypes”, that’s not ANY different than somebody claiming that “Zeus is JUST a beard-brush! With such luxurious boar bristles!” Which is to say, they’re having a non-sense discussion, which should not be engaged with (if one’s intention is to push Polytheistic or even just -theistic considerations and theological topics forward).
Not every conversation needs to be a -theistic conversation, and so it is possible to discuss archetypes without “offending and insulting” Polytheists; the easiest way to do this is recognize that the conversation is not a -theistic one, but a psychological or conceptual mythological one, and establish that as the narrative framework, rather than trying to drag OTHER topics (such as theistic ones) into a framework where they don’t fit. That is like the geologist in the forest trying REALLY hard to pull squirrels into geological classification: it just doesn’t work. Squirrels are not rocks, no matter how “rock colored” they might be, or how “rock hard” their frozen corpses may become in February.)
But this isn’t, of course, just about — or even primarily about — outward/external discussions, but internal frameworks of understanding, relations, and regard.
It is insufficient for the geologist to merely stop talking to wildlife rescue professionals about how squirrels are actually rocks and they — the rescuers — are just confused and wrong and not trying hard enough. The geologist must strive to internalize these as divergent spheres of consideration: rocks and mammals are not the same thing, and probably are different enough to warrant distinct disciplines. Which is why there are distinct disciplines to discuss and describe them.
Similarly, the person discussing beard brushes needs to not only stop asserting that Zeus is a beard brush, but similarly, stop looking at their beard brush as though it is a god, or at gods as though they exist to boar through a gnarly beard.
This is a basic critical standard that I really think we should start offering up as a basic requisite for opening one’s mouth, proverbially or otherwise, in discussions which are to be taken as serious.