Lady Sheherazahde Lachesis (sheherazahde) wrote in _wicca_,
Lady Sheherazahde Lachesis

"A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism" by John Michael Greer

The first chapter is free as a preview on Goodreads

First Thoughts

I just started reading this book, and it is what people say it is. The author is a long-time Druid and it is a very scholarly discussion about the differences between monotheistic beliefs about the nature of god and polytheistic beliefs about the nature of gods.

What he says is the truth but it is not the whole truth.

He doesn't seem to be aware of the Pagan Monotheism of classical Rome and Greece. Personally I think the recent spate of books on the subject misunderstand classical pagan monotheism.

But there is evidence that classical pagans did believe that their many gods were "representatives" of a much higher universal God. Part of the understanding the Romans had with the Jews (that gave the Jews a waiver from honoring the gods of Rome) was the idea that the Jews worshiped the one highest God, who was also the God over the Roman gods. The Romans agreed that the Jews' one God was the same universal God their gods reported to, that all gods reported to.

This is a sort of syncretism that Greer and many modern polytheist reject. Which is OK. It doesn't bother me, or God.

The distinction he makes between the characteristics of the monotheistic God and the polytheistic gods are valid.

Personally, I believe that there are two distinct ways that human beings experience divinity. One is as the universal, omniscient, ubiquitous, omnipotent, all loving presence that wants nothing and does not intervene in our lives. And the second is as the more limited powerful beings, persons, that Greer describes. The many gods and goddesses and spirits.

My main criticism of monotheism is that human beings are not well suited to worship the One God. We want intervention so we always end up worshiping the lesser beings that can actually do something for us.

Christianity fell into worshiping Jesus just a few centuries after he died. And then the Catholic church "solved" the problem of not having enough gods to meet everyone's needs by calling their many gods "saints".

Protestantism, by rejecting saints, has created a real problem for itself that seems to be only solvable by creating a new sect that worships a different version of Jesus every time they have a disagreement.

Buddhism has the same problem with worshiping The One True Reality, their many gods are called Bodhisattvas. Like Catholic saints they are officially not gods but they serve the same function and are as Greer defined gods: entities who are the proper object of human worship (or veneration).

He briefly mentions Wiccan dualism but declines to elaborate because he is not a Wiccan. As a Wiccan I guess I should write a book on that.

Wiccan dualism isn't really about gods. It comes up when we talk about gods but it has less to do with any doctrine about all gods being manifestations of one god or goddess than it does with the importance of balance. Most pagan religions aren't "about" gods. We have gods, but our religion is about life. Wiccan sophiology (the study of wisdom not the study of gods) is about maintaining the balance between complimentary forces. It has more in common with the Taoist idea of yin and yang than anything else. Wiccans are not required to believe anything in particular about the nature of the gods. But Wiccan ritual and Wiccan sophiology encourages us to try to maintain a balance.

I like to contrast the masculine/feminine duality of Wicca to the good/evil duality in Christianity. Christianity adopted the Zoroastrian belief that the world is a battleground between two opposing gods, one good the other evil. Two men fighting for possession of the world. Wiccans on the other hand like to view the world as the combination of two complimentary forces seeking union. A man and a woman having sex. The Great Rite, a central ritual action in Wicca, the union of opposites as an act of creation.

Second Thoughts

The first chapter (all I have read so far) is about basic definitions of god. The classical monotheist definition: "unique, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent creator of the universe" and the polytheist definition: "real, not necessarily worshiped by me, multiple, finite, exist in this world" (my paraphrasing).

He gives a possible compromise definition of "an entity who is a proper object of human worship" and goes on to discuss how polytheists and monotheists disagree about who qualifies as a proper object of human worship.

His reasoning is starting in a very different place than mine. Both of the definitions he uses require that gods be persons.

I have been gradually persuaded to use the word "God" (with a capital G) to refer to the pagan concept of a unique, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent essence of the universe that is not a person. While "god" (with a lower case g) refers to non-corporial finite entities who are persons.

I like the old root of the Germanic word god - from PIE *ghut- "that which is invoked". Or that which is worshiped.

As opposed to the latin root of the word diety "from PIE root *dyeu- "to shine" (cognates: Sanskrit diva "by day," Welsh diw, Breton deiz "day;" Armenian tiw; Lithuanian diena; Old Church Slavonic dini, Polish dzień, Russian den), literally "to shine" (compare Greek delos "clear;" Latin deus, Sanskrit deva "god", literally "shining one;" Avestan dava- "spirit, demon;" Lithuanian devas, Old Norse tivar "gods;" Old English Tig, genitive Tiwes, from Proto-Germanic *Tiwaz "god of the sky.)"

Third Thoughts (A paragraph by paragraph description of that Greer actual says.)[with some commentary by me.]

Chapter One: The One and the Many

Greer begins with a discussion of how monotheistic ideas about god or gods dominate the study of religion and how that is a problem because polytheistic religions don't think about gods in that way.

The polytheistic beliefs about gods have not been entirely excluded from Western thought. He details several ways in which polytheism has been treated in scholarly discussions by Carl Jung, David Miller, Vine Deloria Jr., Walter Wink, George I. Mavrodes, John Hicks, and Michael York.

Greer argues that, for the most part, Western theology is primarily about arguments between atheists and classical monotheists.

This is a problem because most religions are not monotheistic. Including modern Pagans. The Western study of theology has failed to consider polytheism as "a way of relating to divinities that could make authentic sense to modern people in the industrial Western world".

* * * (section break)
"Any understanding of religion that seeks to be relevant to today's world, in other words, must refuse to limit discussion to those religions which insist on divine unity. From the wider perspective of a global view of human religion, the monotheistic traditions have a distinctive and rather eccentric concept of divinity. Outside the confines of monotheistic faiths, it bears remembering; gods are routinely understood and experienced in ways radically different from those that have become habitual within them. Refusing to consider these more diverse experiences of divinity guarantees that the resulting view of religion will be parochial and one-sided."

[I couldn't agree more. I like to say that Christianity and Islam are atypical of the human experience of religion.]

Greer then begins a criticism of the theory that there must be "some single reality underlying the wild diversity of gods".

His first criticism is that "If all polytheistic systems are by definition guises behind which monotheism waits to be found, this greatly simplifies the task of the monotheist who hopes to make his own tradition's kind of sense in a field full of conflicting data."

[I agree with him that this is what some monotheist theologians are trying to do. But I think he is conflating trying to find a single reality underlying all religions, and trying to find a classical monotheistic god underlying all religions. I definitely believe that something exists outside of me, and that all people are experiencing this thing, and that religions are attempts to describe this experience that we are all having. Therefore, there should be some way to build a picture that uses all the data that everyone is reporting. A way to find the single reality underlying all religions. I just don't believe that single reality is a personal god. I believe it is the impersonal God that is found in sources as different as the oldest Sanskrit sources and Classical Roman paganism. Many people define God as "the ultimate reality", and by that definition religions such as Buddhism are centrally concerned with achieving union with God.]

Greer's second criticism is that a monotheistic search for a unified theory of god ends up with placeholder concepts such as "the Sacred".
"Thus a statement such as "people of all religions worship the Sacred" means nothing more than "people of all religions worship something that is worshiped" - which is true, of course, but adds little to the discussion."

[The dry wit of the that last comment makes me laugh.]

Greer then critiques specific attempts at unified theories. Such as that of Paul Ingram who proposed a "primordial tradition". Greer says that Ingram claims his approach allowed him to get outside of any one tradition but it only really changed what tradition he was looking from. And that Ingram's mistake was in assuming that there is only one source of all religious experiences, and that pruning off all the differences would produce "an authentic core of spiritual truth".

The problem with this, Greer points out, is that the pruning process relies on personal judgement and "Mystical texts and traditions can be used to justify quite literally anything".

Greer points out that Immanuel Kant made the same mistake in claiming that "the true essence of religion is the claim that all moral duties are given by God". In spite of the fact that many religions including Buddhism explicitly deny this.

Greer than returns to his argument there is no "common tradition" because "there can be more than one Sacred". That different religions reflect real differences in real experiences of the Sacred. "Thus the full diversity and complexity of religion must be embraced if any sort of sense at all is to be made of the world's religious experience."

[I think he is conflating "the Sacred" with "gods" here. For instance to the Classical Romans a tree struck by lightening, a graveyard, and a boundary wall were all sacred, but none of those things were gods. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have texts they consider to be sacred, but those texts are not their god.]

He then gives two examples of non-monotheistic understandings of divinity. Classical Greek worship of nymphs, and modern Japanese ancestor worship.

Some classical Greeks were known to devote themselves to the worship nymphs or groups of nymphs despite the fact that nymphs have none of the characteristics of the monotheistic idea of a god.
"Nymphs were believed to have powers and knowledge surpassing that of human beings, but nothing even remotely like omnipotence or omniscience was ever attributed to them, and they ranked relatively far down the diffuse hierarchy of ancient Greek divine powers."

In Japan dead ancestors have none of the qualities of the god of classical monotheism. And yet ancestor worship persists in modern Japan in spite of the presence of other more "advanced" (monotheistic) religious expression.

[From the Introduction to "The Art of Warfare " Translated by Roger T. Ames. p72:
"...the character shen does not sometimes mean 'human spirituality' and sometimes 'divinity.' It always means both and, moreover, it is our business to try and understand philosophically how it can mean both. Given the prominence of transcendent Deity in our tradition, human beings do not generally get to be gods. Reflection on the range of meaning represented by shen reveals that gods in the Chinese world are by and large dead people - they are ancestors who have embodied, enriched, and transmitted the cultural tradition. They are cultural heroes, as in the case of Confucius, who do the work of our transcendent Deity by establishing the enduring standards of truth, beauty, and goodness. Culturally productive ancestors such as Confucius are not like gods - they are precisely what the word 'gods' conveys in this alternative tradition. Gods are historical, geographical, and cultural. They grow out of the ground and when neglected, fade and die. Such gods have little to do with the notion of a transcendent Creator Deity that has dominated the western religious experience, and unless we are sensitive to the 'this-world' presuppositions that ground the classical Chinese world view, we stand the risk of willy-nilly translating Chinese religiousness into our own."
Essentially saying the same thing Greer is saying- the Chinese idea of "god" is not the monotheistic idea of "god".]

Greer says that Western theologians claim that human beings require an omnipotent and omniscient god. But his two examples demonstrate that this is clearly not the case.

Greer argues that this assertion that only the most powerful god is good enough to worship is "vanity" [Although I think the word he was looking for was hubris.]

Greer then goes on to paint of a picture of a less than omniscient and omnipotent, but still very powerful, god appearing to humanity offering salvation and eternal bliss, and these classical monotheists rejecting Him because He isn't good enough for them.

Clearly many pagans are more than happy with less than omnipotent, omniscient gods. [As the classical Romans explicitly state.]

The willingness of our ancestors to be satisfied with less than the best possible god is usually dismissed by monotheists with what Greer calls "naive progressivism". The belief that modern educated people have moved beyond that. The example of the modern Japanese ancestor worship and the modern Pagan movement in the West belie that belief.

* * * (section break)
Greer then gives George Mavrodes' "list of concepts central to a polytheist understanding of the gods" as a sort of ad hoc definition of Polytheist theology.
* realism (gods exist),
* pure descriptivism (a god is still a god even if you don't worship it),
* pluralism (gods are distinct beings, not manifestations of one entity),
* finitism (gods are not omnipotent or omniscient),
* a common world (all gods and people are capable of interacting with each other).

Greer points out that the differences between these gods and the god of classical monotheism are so great that one questions the validity of using the same word to describe both.

[I feel that abandoning the use of the term god to monotheists would be bad for polytheists. It would the same as admitting that polytheistic gods aren't really gods. But Greer is not advocating that anyway.]

Greer argues that "what is going on here is not a confusion between distinct concepts, but rather a meaningful disagreement about the nature of a particular entity."

He proposes that there are two "levels" to this disagreement one being human relations with the gods and the other being the nature of the gods themselves.

He then defines "god" as "an entity who is a proper object of human worship". As this is a definition that both classical monotheists and polytheists can agree on. Polytheists don't worship all gods but they accept that it is reasonable for others to worships gods they personally don't worship.

So the first level of disagreement is what kind of entities are proper objects of human worship. For classical monotheists only the "unique, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent creator of the universe" is a proper object of human worship. Polytheists however do not have the same standards. While is is possible for more than one being to have some of the qualities that monotheists attribute to their god, most polytheistic deities have none of these attributes.

Which brings us to the second level of disagreement, the nature of the gods themselves. Greer argues that "most polytheists do not hold that an assortment of lesser gods exists alongside the omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent god of classical monotheism; they hold that that the multiple, finite gods polytheism postulates are the only sort of god there is."

He points out that many polytheists, when encountering monotheists assume this new god is just another of the many and offer worship on those grounds. "The fierceness with which missionaries and theologians have denounced such syncretisms shows that they, at least, have recognized the issues at stake."

He then points out that for polytheists gods are part of the natural world, while the monotheistic god is outside and somewhat opposed to the natural world.

He then names this view of the gods "traditional polytheism" and compares it to "classical monotheism" in that neither are the only form of their category.

[I would call what Greer is describing "strict polytheism" because it is a polytheism that denies the possibility of multiple gods existing beside single unified divine spirit, an idea that has been documented in the oldest Hindu texts and classical Roman paganism. Just as Greer does not believe that "classical monotheism" deserves to call itself "classical theism" I don't believe that "strict polytheism" can claim the mantle of "classical polytheism". (Although it is still a perfectly valid belief system.)]

Greer then lists other "live religious options" that he is not going to discuss (because he has neither the time nor the interest) such as: animism, pantheism, panentheism, and nature religion.

At this point he mentions Wicca in a footnote:
"I have also neglected duotheism common to many Wiccan traditions, in which all gods are conflated into one god and all goddesses into one goddess. There are many capable scholars in the Wiccan community, and they may consider this an invitation to make their own voices heard. "
[I had my say on this in my first entry on this book.]

He then lists many specific faith traditions that are amenable to strict polytheists, and argues that the claim that strict polytheists gods exist is as least as coherent and meaningful as the claim that the classical monotheist god exists. "If the latter is worth considering, so is the former."

[A good point. Atheists might be able to get away with rejecting both, but monotheists had better have a good reason.]

* * * (section break)
He then begins to introduce the next chapter by outlining some of the issues he will be discussing in the book. He is going to contrast polytheism with classical monotheism and atheism. "One result of this examination will be a argument that polytheism provides a better explanation of human religious experience than these alternatives."

To "suggest that one way of thinking about gods is more in accord with the evidence than another way, is to run afoul of deeply and honestly held opinions".

[In other words he knows he is going to upset people.]

He makes the point that monotheists and the atheists have been claiming that polytheistic gods don't exist and polytheists have the right to respond to those claims and make their own claims.

So, "how do we know anything at all about the gods"?

Chapter Two: how do we know about the gods?
Tags: book review, last lecture series, theology

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