Stay In Your Own Lane Monotheism

The condition in which we leave polytheism is the condition in which the next generation will find it. By comparison to the responsibilities and opportunities that we have to and with our traditions, answering objections to polytheism may not seem all that important. But, it is.

Some polytheists have and will struggle, not only to understand polytheism – which affects the life of devotion – but even to believe it. This can be especially true for those whose devotions are not well established and only all the more so if they are subjugated to the psychological manipulations of aggressive evangelization, but also for those who are confronted by the human condition and the questions it invariably raises, whether through tragedy and loss or simple observation. Moreover, many will likely be deprived of a life with the Gods because the idea of polytheism will never enter their minds, or will, but with the caveat that it is fantastical or primitive. Addressing objections such as these can be done for the sake of those who may otherwise suffer the injustice of having the opportunity to “meet” the Gods – at least in this life – taken from them.

It can be an act of devotion and trust, an exercise in wonder, a symbol of love. Apologetics is a science and art that should flow from one’s life with the Gods. The idea that answering objections is purely or even primarily an armchair activity in the pejorative sense is simply not true.

It’s in this spirit that we’ll take a look at three objections to polytheism that one can expect to encounter sooner or later, particularly in highly Christianized regions. I last heard them during a nearly 5 hour exchange with one my best friends and they struck me as earnest and deserving of a reply. We’ll touch on some of the others at a later time.

I firmly believe that most objections to polytheism arise out of a misunderstanding of what monotheism and polytheism as such involve, and we’ll see this with two of the three objections we’ll consider here. I hope posts such as this prove useful.

Counting Gods

Monotheism and polytheism assert the following, respectively:

M: There is only one God.

P: There are many Gods.

In each proposition, one is counting how many Gods there are. This is the very grammar, structure, syntax or architecture of these propositions: they quantify the amount of Gods that exist. Thinking about M & P in this way can be fascinating, and (I think) reminiscent of 20th century philosophy of language. What are the constructions “There is only one” and “There are many”? Existential quantifiers in their own right? Or mere shorthand for complex formulae? The logic involved here is worth chewing on. But, our concern will be with the meaning of each proposition, not their logical forms.

The intelligibility of M & P rests on several conditions. For starters, it hardly makes sense to give a count of how many Gods exist unless there is some sense of “existence” that can be attributed to Gods. But, does “existence” signify limitation, and can limitation be attributed to Gods? If so, would something like “supra-existence” be more appropriate? Can one even engage in such inquiries without having some understanding of those on behalf of which the inquiries are being made? A number of positions and ideas are taken for granted by monotheists and polytheists in the mere act of believing their respective views, and it’s important to draw them into the light. At the bedrock of these assumptions is the idea that divine plurality makes sense: how could there be any discussion about the amount of Gods that exist unless Gods could be talked about in the plural?

But, is a plurality of “Gods” even coherent?

Right off the bat it is apparent that M and P do not make use of the same notion of divine plurality: true, both purport to give a count of how many Gods exist, but M denies that any but one God does. As such, the plurality that M conceives of is one in which the members are separated from “existence.” It is only by conceiving of the Gods in this existentially neutral fashion that one can then say “only one member of this plurality exists.” Otherwise, one would utter the contradiction that “there exists only one member of the plurality of Gods that exist.” In order for M to make any sense, then, it must presuppose that Gods are, at least in principle, separable from “existence” – and this is true no matter how “existence” is understood.

It is only by drawing a line between divine “individuality” and divine “existence” that M can concern itself with merely hypothetical or abstract divine individuals. M requires that the individuality of a God does not include existence, such that if any deity is to exist, something must be added to her individuality. The only existent deity according to M must therefore be a compound of the separable elements of his or her identity and existence; that is, he or she must be a combination of the ‘who’ that he or she is and the ‘what’ of existence. In this respect, M proves utterly ruinous to the age old attempt by theologians to explain how the divine is both transcendent and immanent: on M, “God” is not at all transcendent, differing from everything else not in kind, but only in degree.

By contrast, P does not deny anything, and so it need not treat of a plurality of merely hypothetical individuals who would be combinations of ‘who’ and ‘what’ if they existed: unlike M, P can concern itself with absolute individuals, who are utterly simple and without any composition of any sort because they are perfectly peculiar and unique.

This difference between M and P sheds significant light on how each understands divine plurality. For M, Gods are not pure ‘whos’ or perfectly peculiar and unique individuals, and so they can only be considered as a group or in the plural because they all share in some one thing: some ‘what’ of which they are each a ‘who’. The ground or center of divine plurality in M is not a God or a ‘who’, but a ‘what’. Thus, for example, M collects all of the Gods that it says do not exist into a group on the basis of their common failure to ‘exist’. And indeed, this is the model or structure of plurality throughout the world: people form a group on the basis of their common humanity, and the same goes for horses and equinity, cats and felinity and so on and so forth. Here again we see M failing to function “theistically”, positing what is really no different than anything else and thus rendering itself indistinguishable in principle from non-theistic positions such as naturalism which understand all things to be of the same type – say ‘composite’, ‘natural’ or ‘physical’ etc.

By contrast, P can concern itself with pure ‘whos’ or perfectly peculiar and unique individuals. In so doing, P makes use of a model or structure of plurality that is fundamentally unlike that found throughout the world: pure ‘whos’ cannot be unified into a plurality by sharing in any ‘what’; otherwise, they are not pure ‘whos’. The ground or center of divine plurality in P must therefore be a God. But, it cannot be any one God exclusively because the role of being the ground or center of divine plurality is not a ‘what’ of any amount of ‘whos’.

How is being the basis of divine plurality not a ‘what’ – such as a status or activity? Because we’re talking about pure ‘whos’. As such, “being the center of divine plurality” is not a ‘what’ that one has or does; but, rather, it is simply who one is. Similarly, saying that the Gods are unified into a plurality by sharing in a God cannot mean that this God is shared like a ‘what’: she is not like a piece of land that they all have rights over, or a color that they all display – separable from each, but attributable to all – she is rather in them all as part of who they are, and they are all in her as part of who she is.

Having considered M and P to the extent and depth most useful to our humble purposes here, we are now prepared to respond to the three objections to polytheism I mentioned earlier. As will be indicated by these samples, polytheism is oftentimes (to be generous) objected to in ways that presuppose the Gods are not or would not be all-in-each and each-in-all. Polytheists will thus be confronted more often than not by objections to a monotheitized polytheism. It’s not a straw-man any of us should fall into defending.

Objections

Objection #1: Even granting polytheism for the sake of argument, why wouldn’t you worship and devote yourself to the deity who loves you so much that he became human and died for you?

Response: No deity is the deity of just x, y or z: all of the Gods are in each, such that each God is a unique way of being the other Gods. The objection assumes that while YHWH loves us unconditionally, the other Gods do not. But, if any God loves us unconditionally, then all of the Gods do, in their own way, precisely because each is a unique way of being that unconditionally loving deity.

Objection #2: Even if all of the Gods do love us unconditionally, show me a better way to live than living for YHWH – here I have tangible Scriptures, susceptible to concrete interpretations (preventing folks from just “making” up what they think YHWH said), institutions geared toward bettering me as a person and unparalleled community to grow in.

Response: There is a difference between living well as a human being and living well as the individual that you are. The standard for being good at being human is set by what it is to be human, and embodying that to a significant degree. The standard for being good at being you is set by who it is that you really are, and embodying that to a significant degree. One can know what it is to be human and who it is that he or she really is independent of exclusive or even primary devotion to YHWH, let alone participation in all the bells and whistles of Christianity. As such, while it might indeed be best for you to live for YHWH, it certainly is not, nor need be for others.

Objection #3: But, it’s nigh on impossible to just choose to be good at being human or to be good at being the individual you really are, at least without divine intervention.

Response: Even if this were true, and it was YHWH’s intervention that we relied upon, it would still not follow that we should turn to YHWH in any exclusive or even primary way: just as every act of devotion to one God is (at least ontologically if not intentionally) an act of devotion to all of the Gods; at least insofar as they are all in each other, every act of divine intervention from one God is an act of divine intervention from all the Gods, at least insofar as they are all in each other.

2 Comments

  1. True, with henadology, and the careful distinction between ontological and henological registers, one can have a dialectically stronger defense of polytheism, by appealing to all-in-all, all-in-each. But how is the representation of monotheism here not itself a strawman? For every monotheist philosopher that has presented a form of the ontological argument, from Anselm through Scotus to Spinoza and beyond, what God is requires that there be a single God. So their monotheism cannot be construed as implicitly using an abstract concept of divinity that separates what from who. But even philosophers and theologians who reject the ontological argument still believe in God as the necessary existent and even like Thomas believe that the essence and existence of God are not to be distinguished. It is just bad apologetics to pit a naive monotheism against the most articulate understanding of polytheism that we have from Greek philosophy. Proper apologetics pits naive monotheism against naive polytheism and articulate monotheism against articulate polytheism, for in both cases, the articulate version is merely an attempt to unfold what is contained in simple faith. This is just bad methodology.

    As for the answers to the objections, if you concede the divinity of Christ, even just ad hominem, there is a troubling phenomenon to be explained if you are to insist on the divinities being all in all, namely the existence of a clear theomachy, not merely in a mythical narration, but in the actual effects of the divinities on the ground: the presence and action of Christ is exclusive and destructive of the action of other deities on a number of levels, going from the unconditional allegiance of Christians that is destructive of their participation in the activities of other deities, (here we can witness numerous accounts of conversion), other the material destruction of temples and other sunthemata of other deities by members of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. And if you go into Scripture then the plagues of Egypt are clearly described as the Lord judging and condemning the gods of Egypt, to name just one example.

    (The point can be made particularly dramatic in the following way: If the gods participate in this wrath of the Lord against them, then they are wrathful against themselves. And since what the Lord objects to is love, allegiance, fidelity to other gods, it is precisely the personal connection, the connection to the unique who, that is the object of His wrath. Thus the Gods hate their own individuality so they hate themselves. But a god that hates his or herself cannot be happy. But an individual that is not happy is certainly no god. For whatever else the gods are, they are happy.)

    This is not to say that there might be polytheist explanations of the appearance of theomachy. But the problem is so apparent that it must be dealt with before comfortably including the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob into the all-in-all, all-in-each.

    1. Apologies for the delay Antonio, I didn’t see the notification until now. Thanks for the comments, I’ll see if I can do them justice.

      As far as apologetic method goes, I have sought simply to analyze the propositions of monotheism and polytheism themselves apart from how monotheists or polytheists have understood them. What I’ve found is that the proposition “There is only one God” intrinsically involves a separation of what from who. This is what one ends up being committed to, unwittingly of course, when she affirms monotheism, and this is so, I would argue, no matter how naïve or erudite one’s defense or understanding of monotheism is. This isn’t to insult the intelligence of monotheist thinkers: these issues take generations to get right, and I do not believe a lot of these thinkers were really after “monotheism” in the first place. I believe Thomas Aquinas, for example, would have reacted to this analysis of monotheism and polytheism by saying that both are incoherent! For him, it makes no sense to talk about how many “Gods” there are one way or the other, there is just “God.” We can talk about whether Zeus is God, or Odin is God, or YHWH is God; sure, but not how many “Gods” there are. And this is due to the doctrine of divine simplicity generally accepted by the Scholastics: there can be no difference between nature and supposit in God. As such, to be “divine”, “henadic” or whatever else *just is* to be *this* God, this henad, or whatever else. There is no sense, in this understanding of things, in talking about *that* one in addition to *this* one, whether monotheistically or polytheistically, because all the divine attributes *just are* this one. This position has been called monotheism, but it does not involve the separation of what from who that monotheism does: instead, it identifies what and who in God, thereby either collapsing them or somehow positing both.

      As far as how Abrahamic myth and history can coherently be incorporated into a polytheist worldview, I think you’re right: there appear to be a number of difficulties that deserve careful thought. However, they do not seem any more problematic to me than coherently incorporating any other myth or history into a polytheist worldview: every tradition involves claims or practices that seem, at least on the surface, to treat Gods problematically — as finite, immoral, fickle, etc. While I have not done so myself, I would hope to apply the same principles to the Abrahamic traditions that Platonists apply to any tradition — for example, by finding in myths a level of meaning at which descriptions of Gods are really descriptions of their effects. A difficulty in this regard for the Abrahamic traditions would be in identifying their mythologies, since myths would be understood more as how a God’s individuality in all things is enacted by a people, rather than as just “stories.”

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