By Michael Hardy
Dec. 1, 2013
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters. And God said “Let there be light,” and there was light.
These are familiar words to most of us, the first lines of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It establishes the primacy and power of God at the very start, as he wills into existence the heavens and the Earth.
Now, there is good reason to believe, as most scholars do, that these words are not the oldest in the Bible despite appearing first. Nevertheless, they are there in those opening lines for a reason. Jews and Christians who seek to read their scriptures from start to finish encounter their singular God right away, in all his omnipotent glory, the one who makes worlds through sheer force of will. The first chapter of Genesis brings God forth in power, might and majesty, which colors every subsequent story about him. Muslims also share this mythology, with some variations added in the Koran.
Now, consider some words that may be less familiar, the story of creation that the Hellenic poet Hesiod relates in his work called Theogony.
At the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros, fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos.
The differences between this polytheistic creation story and the Judeo-Christian monotheistic one are apparent in this comparison. There is no single God creating things. Hesiod tells us that Chaos “came to be” without further explanation, and through sexual union in the divine realms came Earth, night, day, heaven and ocean. These are the primordial gods of the cosmos, and from them come still more divine powers.
In an Egyptian creation myth, water exists before anything else. The god Ra emerged from the chaotic water and began to give it form, creating other gods and shaping the cosmos. In some mythologies, such as the Norse, Babylonian and Hindu, creation requires the sacrifice of a first being.
When we talk about different religions, when we compare faith traditions or individual beliefs, one of the aspects that we consider is the view of the divine power. We talk about monotheism, atheism, polytheism, pantheism and other prefixes for the word theism with an assumption that we all understand the definitions. One God, many gods, no gods, etc. However, the really important contrasts between these perspectives are not merely mathematical. It’s not about multiplying the number of deities from one to many, or subtracting from one to zero, not in its essence.
The creation mythologies provide an immediate example of this. The God of the Jews – and later, Christians and Muslims – is shown from the very first words of the scripture to pre-exist. Before anything else was, God is. God creates the heavens and the earth and then gives them order and form. God is omnipotent, able to create a universe from nothing. God decrees the way things are to be: there is to be light, darkness, a sun and moon, land and water, plants and animals and, ultimately, human beings.
None of this way of thinking has a place in Hesiod’s story. There is chaos, and it organizes itself enough to bring forth the Earth and the power of love – Eros – from which comes all else. We see a similar pattern in other mythologies, no matter what specific stories they tell. The gods may shape the entire cosmos after they come to be, but they do not exist apart from or before its essence.
So what difference does this make? Isn’t this still basically about a number?
In our lives, we experience death, pain, injustice. People lose their livelihoods or their lives. People are persecuted for their beliefs, or their race or sexuality. Natural disasters injure, kill and impoverish billions of people. Epidemics of disease, or famine and drought, cause untold suffering, sickness and death. In every way, the world is less benevolent and more capricious than perhaps we think it should be. Explaining why this is the case is a challenge for any theistic religion.
For the past few millennia, in the Western world anyway, the most common religious answer has been that this world is only an imperfect, fallen creation in need of redemption. Religion has offered a set of principles to effect that redemption, the salvation of the world, principles derived from the revelation of God rather than our own senses and observations. The material world is profane – that is, ordinary – while the sacred lies in heaven, in the God who created the universe but stands outside of it, transcendent.
The extent to which anything in the world can be held sacred, in this view, is only inasmuch as it reflects the will of God – obedience to God’s laws, submission to God’s sovereignty. It could be argued that this is the basis of a moralistic approach to religion, a binary division of right and wrong, sacred and profane, godly and ungodly, virtue and vice, sin and righteousness.
This dualism is the prevailing view of the world today, and it pervades even schools of thought that reject the idea of deities. Atheism is usually defined as the lack of belief in God, or a belief that there is no God. It is contrasted to the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and left at that.
As much as this monotheistic dualism has dominated the western world’s view of the world for thousands of years, it was not always this way. Polytheism was the norm for a long time. Even the ancient Jews, generally assumed to have been monotheistic from the start, were actually polytheists – they believed the god Yahweh was one of many gods, the one who had chosen them as his people and forbidden them to worship the gods of other peoples. The idea that Yahweh was the only god, and the supreme omnipotent creator of the universe, developed much later in Israel’s history.
In the mythologies of most polytheistic religions, the gods are usually born from the universe; they are within it, part of it, not its external creators. To the polytheist, all of nature reflects the sacred, even the things that seem harsh, violent or tragic.
As author Dan McCoy puts it in his short but profound book, “The Love of Destiny:”
Where monotheism is a moralistic worldview, polytheism is a sacral one. The sacred is not remote from the world; it is the very essence of the world. All that is profane speaks to us of the sacred if we listen attentively enough, for the world we inhabit is the very flesh of spirit, its organic manifestation. The plural character of life, which mocks the moralist’s attempt to reduce it to an absolute good and true side, and an absolute evil and false side, is an expression of that which prevails on the divine plane, with its plurality of gods and goddesses. The polytheist does not wring his hands over the struggles and contradictions with which he is confronted, but confronts them in turn. Her overcoming of the world and being overcome by the world is the sacred’s overcoming of itself. She stares unflinchingly into its terror, its pain, its ruthlessness, and its unfairness – and, understanding that these are inseparably coupled with prosperity, joy, pleasure, and love, she is capable of seeing the sublime at work everywhere and of affirming the whole without exception.
McCoy, I think, summarizes the really important difference between monotheism and polytheism very well here. To the monotheist, the world with its pain and suffering and injustice is a thing – an object to be manipulated, to be used, to be exploited and, when it can be done, to be fixed. To the polytheist, the world with its pain and suffering and injustice is itself a spiritual entity, with which we must live in relationship. The monotheist sees the world as a broken thing in need of being redeemed. The polytheist sees the world as a living, interconnected system where pain and pleasure, life and death coexist in necessary balance.
This is an oversimplification in some respects. Any individual will have his or her own attitudes in conjunction with those implied by a religious point of view, and no one fits neatly into a categorical box. As an overall assessment, however, McCoy’s description is apt.
In a sense, religion in general is concerned with what is sacred, that is, divine or set apart for reverence – and what is profane, that is, ordinary, for common use. The French scholar Mircea Eliade, who did most of his work in the mid-20th Century, notes that neither state can exist in pure form. Eliade did not grapple specifically with monotheism vs. polytheism; rather, he saw a divide between what he termed religious man and profane man.
We should remember that as Eliade uses the term, “profane” is not meant as an insult; it merely refers to a concern with the ordinary over the sacred. As Eliade saw it, profane man has desacralized the world. A tree is a tree, a river is a river, the sun is a ball of hydrogen. Religious man, by contrast experiences breaks, discontinuities, that connect the ordinary to the sacred.
However, neither kind of person can be completely within the worlds Eliade describes. Religious man lives in the ordinary world, and enacts rituals to establish a sacred space, a sacred time, to render ordinary objects into something more. In our rituals with ADF, for example, we light a fire, fill something with water and establish a representation of a tree, or, ideally, designate a real tree. In ritual, these things become portals to the world of the spirits, sacralized by our intention.
Profane man, on the other hand, sees the world as entirely ordinary, yet even he acknowledges some places or times as set apart – a birthday, the site of his wedding or his father’s grave, for example. These are vestiges of a religious sensibility that even the most secular person is likely to retain.
As I said, Eliade is not primarily concerned with distinguishing monotheism from polytheism, but coupled with the work of other scholars, we can see some connections. The monotheist, seeing the world as the unfeeling creation of a transcendent higher power, finds his sacred time and space in designated houses of worship – a church, a synagogue, a mosque. If he finds spiritual power in nature, it is as the product of the Creator. Nature is to God as the Mona Lisa is to DaVinci. The polytheist, on the other hand, finds spiritual power in nature because it is itself divine.
I’ve been using the terms monotheism and polytheism as a kind of shorthand here, but this divergence of worldview is broader than that. Monotheism informed the Enlightenment and the rise of secularism, while polytheism is related in its view of the sacred to animism and pantheism. In any of these isms, the difference, I would argue, is less about the specific beliefs regarding the number or nature of deity, and more about whether the material universe is regarded as inherently sacred or inherently profane. Even those who believe in no gods perceive the world as mechanistic or as alive, as sacred or profane. Dan McCoy counts modern science as a monotheism, not because of any scientific tenet regarding a deity, but because the assumptions that underlie science arise from the monotheistic view of the world.
The person that Eliade would call “profane man” experiences the world as a predictable place, governed by scientific laws and rules of society. If the man believes in God, his God is transcendant and apart from the creation. The sacred, for the profane man, may not be entirely absent, but it is not of the world; it is reached in prayer and in church ritual. In addition, God establishes morality and sets rules for his people to follow. And if he has his people, there are also people who are not his people. To this person, the world is subject to binary divisions.
The person who sees the divine power as infused in nature – whether he believes in the many gods of polytheism, or the diffuse god of pantheism, or a naturalistic humanism – perceives the world as a wondrous thing, alive with potential and power, every leaf, stone and creature holding inherent worth and identity. The sacred may not always be obvious, but it is always present, in any place, at any time. For this person, morality is more relative, polyvalent, not dictated by any single higher power but deduced from a blend of empathy and self-interest.
I do not argue that one of these views is superior to other, or even that either of these broad descriptions is likely to exist in pure form in anyone. I only wish to suggest that, like so many things, these simple labels for varying theologies have great depths of meaning that might not be apparent at first glance.