|by Jay Kinney|
The original impetus for this issue's theme, "One God or Many?," was our awareness of an apparent schism in the ranks of our readers. On one side could be found the esoteric and mystical explorers who found inspiration and truth in the traditions and symbols of the monotheistic religions. On the other side were advocates of divine multiplicity: Neo-Pagans, including Wiccans, Druids, ceremonial magicians, and the many varieties of Goddess advocates, as well as proponents of Afro-Caribbean religions, shamanism, and even transpersonal and depth psychology.
The informal perspective of this magazine since its start has been a broadly inclusive one - to our way of thinking, followers of One God and many gods have more in common with each other than they do with gung-ho proponents of materialism, scientism, atheism, and secular humanism. By acknowledging unseen forces and higher power(s), both monotheists and polytheists seem to at least acknowledge that there is a spiritual quest to take part in, that there is more to life than meets the eye.
The problem with such an inclusive pluralism, of course, is that it is always in danger of coming apart at the seams as a result of enthusiasts tugging in (apparently) opposite directions. In our experience, proponents of the One or the Many are usually so convinced of the correctness of their perspective that they have difficulty envisioning things any other way. So why bother trying to forge understanding between these opposing groups? For the simple reason that part of our vision is the intuition that both monotheists and polytheists are on to something - that true reality in all its depth and ambiguity manages to validate both camps' basic assumptions.
Presuming that neither group is deluded per se, how can one account for, say, the Sufi mystic's experience of union with the Unity of Being and the Voudoun follower's palpable experience of the orishas as distinctly different deities? Several theories have suggested themselves over the years.
One approach, that of Jungian psychology, identifies our images of both God and the gods as manifestations of archetypes in the collective unconscious. Taking a page from Plato, Jung sees archetypes as ideas or patterns of energy in the psyche whose existence is not limited to the life and times of any one individual. People and events in our lives and our dreams often reflect certain archetypes manifesting in our psyches, and by working with these symbols we grow towards self-integration. Interestingly, Jung posited one archetype, that of the Self (representing unity and wholeness, and not to be confused with the ego), which he saw as the psyche's symbol for God and which he considered to be central in the individual's struggle for self-knowledge. Later advocates of a polytheism of the psyche, such as James Hillman, considered this model of Jung's to be too restrictive. They championed the psyche as a plethora of archetypal voices, with none privileged over the others. This perspective shared some parallels with the cutting edge scientific inquiry into chaos theory, which supported a decentralized model of intelligent randomness at work in the Universe.
This approach, however, in both its classic Jungian form and later "polytheistic" variant, is susceptible to the charge of psychologizing reality. A spiritual cosmology that tends to see material existence as largely grist for the psyche's mill, is always in danger of reducing theosophy to psychology, where one never quite climbs out of one's head.
A more literal approach would be to accept different pantheons of gods as actual deities or forces external to humans. In this view, Isis-Venus-Astarte-Tara, etc. are a recurring force commonly seen in various cultures, but named differently according to local custom. As it so happens, this has been the pragmatic approach actually taken by polytheistic religions as they've relocated to new lands. This world view, shared by many Neo-Pagans, can even admit an overall unifying "God behind the gods", so to speak, though such super-deities rarely command much of a following. Both Nisi Shawl's report on African-based religions in the Americas (page 18) and Sam Webster's personal account of a Neo-Pagan's world view (page 45) share the view of the gods as existing outside of the mind. By contrast, Richard Smoley's inquiry (page 56) asks whether many such external beings aren't also in some sense produced by human psychic energy.
Like the Jungian approach, this literal polytheism would seem to have certain built-in limitations. First, the characterizations of the gods are almost always in human or animal form (or a mixture of the two) and in many pantheons the gods have tended to act like brawling adolescents. This would seem as unsatisfactory a way to picture higher realities as medieval depictions of God as an old chap with a beard.
But even if one gets beyond that drawback, many polytheists, especially Neo-Pagans, seem just as planet-bound as the Jungians. Even the goddess Gaia, who has reemerged as a symbol of the planetary ecosystem and is not to be trifled with, begins to shrink when looked at from the vantage point of the universe's millions of planets, stars, and solar systems.
Proponents of monotheism have at least two explanations of their own for the One and the Many. The first, and the more esoteric, is the theory that God is One but His different attributes are often perceived as gods in their own right. Thus various of the 99 names of Allah (the Compassionate, the All-Powerful, etc.) could be cross-linked to the ten sefirot of the kabbalistic Tree of Life, and with some effort to the Christian Trinity (plus the Virgin Mary). Traditionalist followers of those religions will balk at the notion that one can draw such parallels or can see polytheism as somehow contained within monotheism, but esotericists driven more by intuition than by theology persist. Frank Donnola's essay on page 14 explores this area.
The second explanation, considerably less felicitous, is to see the gods of the polytheists as lesser beings in the monotheistic cosmology, such as angels or demons, who are mistaken for deities by the credulous or confused. Peter Stenshoel's profile (page 38) of the recently founded Christian think tank, the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, investigates the view that sees the gods as counterfeit entities that lead one away from the God of Christianity.
But perhaps more relevant than these rather abstract issues is the question of what are the results of favoring one theology over the other?
In naming this magazine GNOSIS, we chose to emphasize the experiential knowledge of the sacred and the divine. Based on widespread accounts from mystics and other proponents of the inner life, and on a few modest insights of our own, we took it as a given that it was possible to experience those things of which religions have always spoken; that, in other words, one need not take these matters purely on faith but could verify them, at least if one made such a wish a central motivation in one's life. In light of that, what notion of divinity the seeker holds has a crucial effect on what experience he or she is longing for. And here may lie the real heart of the schism, if there is one.
On the face of it, it would appear that the Sufi who fosters a single-pointedness in his longing for "the Beloved" or the Christian mystic in constant prayer to the Sacred Heart are searching for a different order of experience than a Santerìa initiate enacting a ritual to get a new car, or a Wiccan group raising a cone of power directed at closing down a nuclear power plant. Does this difference imply a rating scale with good guy monotheists on a higher plane than lowly polytheists? Not necessarily. Perhaps a more worthwhile way to consider matters is to pull back from the monotheism/polytheism dichotomy altogether and consider instead a spectrum that reflects the different attitudes at work towards the ego and, in turn, the ego's ways of relating to God or the gods.
At one end of the spectrum (which we can call End "Alpha")] is an interest in subordinating (or in more attractive language, aligning) the individual ego to the larger Whole (God/the Universe), of surrendering to what is often called the Divine Will. The most extreme formulation of this end of the rainbow is monism, with its assertion that ultimately there is only one Being and our true identity, underneath all the veils of ignorance and fascination, is of that one Being. The most profound mystics of every tradition, from Ibn 'Arabi to Ramana Maharshi, have alluded to this as both the ultimate truth and a state of realization that can be experienced.
At the other end of the spectrum (which we can call End "Omega"), one takes the ego as a given and as one's fundamental possession, and sets out with the intention of influencing God or the gods to change the details of one's daily life or the material world. In classic studies, such as Frazer's Golden Bough, this latter orientation was labeled "magical," while that at the "Alpha" end of the spectrum was labeled "religious." However, this seems too simplistic.
Even if one refrains from passing judgment on each end of the spectrum's relative merit, it is apparent that followers of both monotheism and polytheism can be found at each end (and all along the way, in varying degrees of relative orientation). As far as I can discern, one end of this spectrum isn't good and the other evil. There are virtues and vices associated with each end.
At the "Alpha" end, a devaluation of the ego, and thus the individual, is a continual danger. Rejection of the body, of the senses, and of other beings as distractants is not uncommon. When coupled with perfectionism, there is a strong urge to judge oneself harshly or project that judgment outward and condemn all others as impure and imperfect. Even if the seeker successfully avoids these pitfalls and maintains a balanced outlook, disaster can strike at the moment of monist completion. For the experience of Oneself as identical to God, if not digested well, can lead to madness or solipsism. If the ego is merely suppressed instead of genuinely transformed, it may very well reassert itself, coopt the experience of enlightenment, and deify itself. On the other hand, some of humanity's most beloved saints and benefactors are those who have surrendered to the sacred and have been transformed into living examples of joyful service and love.
At the "Omega" end of the spectrum, there are also distinct pluses and minuses. The unmistakable image of the black magician given over to manipulating forces for his own gain and the harm of others is the most familiar negative image associated with this approach. Yet, plenty of well-intentioned Jews, Christians, and Muslims pray, light candles, etc. in seeking personal help or simple practical solutions to problems. By the same token, numerous Neo-Pagans enact rituals for the general good of humanity, nature, and the planet. Common to all of these is a vision of something different and the rallying of will to help make it happen.
This is not always bad, to say the least. It is precisely this approach, when applied to daily existence, that has enabled humanity to crawl out of the caves and invent the wheel. Still, the danger present here as a way of relating to the divine, is severe loss of perspective and thus imbalance. In taking one's ego as the pivotal point in one's life, a centrifugal force is evoked such that one tends to collide with and bounce off other egos, like a roomful of spinning tops. Combine this with a hopper full of unsatisfied desires, fears, and latent or overt hostilities and you've got a recipe for personal disaster. Again, at the most extreme, madness or megalomania are distinct possibilities, especially in traditions where "overshadowing" or possession by the gods is invited.
Given the risks involved, the casual reader would be justified in wondering whether there was any point in occupying any position on this particular spectrum at all. Better perhaps to live a normal life filled with simple, less dangerous pleasures and goals. And for many people that is indeed the best approach of all.
However for those of us who have been smitten by a glimpse of the unseen, who share a longing for closer contact with the sacred and divine, there is probably no turning back. We can't take someone else's say-so, but are driven to keep inquiring, drawn by the greatest mystery of all. Is it One? Is it Many? Both? Neither?
In bringing this issue together, we have had our own inklings (each slightly different), but our goal has not been to coerce our readers into joining a specific camp. Even the Qu'ran, with its strict monotheism, says, "There shall be no compulsion in religion." Instead, we've tried to serve you by presenting the conflicting views of many camps in a way that their contrasts and contradictions will shed additional light on them. Just possibly, a close reading will reveal that in a world where the biggest idol is the bottom line, believers and "knowers" of all persuasions, as we've suspected all along, are likely to have more in common than they usually assume.
(c) copyright 1993 by Jay Kinney