Polytheism, the fundamental theology

I wondered what Brandon was up to in reviewing John Michael Greer’s World Full of Gods, bit the answer becomes very clear in his account of the book’s fifth chapter, which contains an absolutely marvelous argument for polytheism, which summarizes as:

It’s extraordinarily implausible, however, to suggest that an experience of the Risen Christ, an experience of Kali, and an experience of a buffalo spirit are just all experiences of one supernatural thing or amorphous divinity. If we just take the religious experiences at face value, then, the natural conclusion is polytheism.

What I love about the argument is that it’s the first time I’ve been able to see why (setting aside Eden) polytheism had to come before monotheism. Polytheism is the simplest account of the variety in religious experience. All of our knowledge has to be led back to some experience or another, and religious experience first suggests that we have our god and you guys have yours.

Both atheism and monotheism should recognize that they simply are not taking the variety of religious experience at face value. Both are in the dangerous position of taking an argument for granted that they have long forgotten; both could only grow after another more knowable theology had been critiqued or at least passed over. Irrespective whether the atheists or monotheists are right, their doctrines are secondary and can come only after a development.

I’m reminded that the some of the other ways in which the pagan world saw a greater diversity among peoples than we allow: there was no one calendar and so “world history” could only be seen as a self- contradiction. If it meant anything, could only mean the same thing as “world cuisine”, namely that there is a great diversity of foods that don’t reduce to some most fundamental meal.


  1. Brandon said,

    May 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I wonder if there’s an analogy here to the development of metaphysics; i.e., polytheism has a sort of natural priority in our religious practice in the sense that explanation of everything in terms of material causes has a sort of natural priority in knowing. (There may be more of a suitable conformity, perhaps, between Thales’s two famous statements, All is water and Everything is full of gods, than we usually realize; that is, they may be structurally alike as accounts of experience.)

    • May 23, 2011 at 9:34 am

      That’s exactly what I was thinking about while I was writing this, and it’s a line of thought that I’ve been trying to focus more on recently: philosophy too easily gets trapped in thinking that we are supposed to abandon the ideas we refute, though some refuted ideas are the foundation of truer ones, and so to abandon them is to cut out the foundations of what we know.

      I see Thales as advancing a dualism (matter can’t move, so the gods are necessary). I see all monisms (materialism/ idealism) and dualisms as growing out of the same failure to appreciate what we mean by one thing or more than one thing, and so in this way I would want to unify Thales’s materialism and invoking of the gods. I wonder if his invoking of the more than one god is simply cultural, and that if he were in some other culture he would have said, in the light of the same evidence “all things are full of God,” or “God is in all things”.

  2. skholiast said,

    May 22, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Somewhere or other CS Lewis (I think) says that pantheism is the natural tendency of all theology, or words to this effect. I think this is possibly true. It’s either this or Buddhist-style atheism. But this is the end-point, not the starting point. The only thing that intervenes in this dialectic, it seems to me, is revelation.

    • May 23, 2011 at 9:36 am

      Tocqueville would say that this is true among democratic people, or those who are striving for equality.

  3. Edward said,

    May 23, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Brandon, your comment reminds me of something James’ said in his post about calling a theist a type of atheist:

    ” The monotheist critique is a claim that reason in all its amplitude must be allowed to enter the discussion of the gods. Our modern atheist response is frequently a claim that this must be pared back to only one mode of reason – namely that mode that deals with things proportioned to our understanding. This strikes me more as a return of the old polytheism in a new guise – one that seeks to accept only those things that are in proportion to the human mind. The only difference is that the old polytheism used metaphor, while the new guys insist on using the mode of science most connatural to us.”

    Perhaps both materialism and polytheism constitute a refusal to understand more fundamental principles. On this understanding, monotheism cannot be seen as some arbitrary lessening of the number of gods there are, a sort of regression, but instead it is a progression, a deeper understanding of what “God” actually means.

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