I have been listening to Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God and I am intrigued by the number of philosophers who insist that there is only one God. An interesting, and strange thing to insist upon. Why does it matter?
We have, I think, a self-limiting problem with the word ‘god’. It is used to describe a subset of divine agents as well as a supreme state of being.
In the Christian Bible God was there in the beginning and made a list of things. Gods were not in that list. But elsewhere in Genesis God is made to speak in the plural – we.
Now consideration of gods and God shouldn’t be confined to Christianity. I use this faith as a reference only because it is the faith tradition the philosophers were most familiar with – and so it would have been their primary source of ideas. This is despite their familiarity with the Greek philosophical tradition – grounded in polytheism. The Greeks, to be sure, were not necessarily fond of their gods in any case, so maybe didn’t inspire a lot of inquiry.
Monotheism is confusing
The Christian Old Testament had its roots in the polytheistic traditions going back to Sumer. The early Jews were resistant against monotheism. In fact, the Old Testament contains quite a few exasperated rants against their recalcitrance. This, incidentally, is better discovered by listening to an audio version of the Old Testament. I found reading it pummeled my critical faculties into submission. I don’t think the OT is suited to being read at all.
Monotheism is an innovation which makes little rational sense and has more utility as a political device or a means of social influence. The idea disrupts tradition and sets up a distinction against other cultures. There is certainly utility in the idea if the intent is to create a distinct community identity – which may have a perfectly good rationale – given that in polytheistic societies it was not unusual for a community to follow just one god – the god of a city for example.
Monotheism still needs sub-agents, so it has developed archangels and angels. In short, you can’t have just a single homogenous notion of deity and express complexity with any ease or clarity. The Jewish Kabbalah is an excellent instance of how a metaphysical model can be developed to deal with complexity under a monotheistic system.
But we don’t know what gods are
The problem with the idea of polytheism is that it assumes that there is some kind of equivalence between gods and God. True, we have the shared word, but beyond that there’s the fact that the gods are represented in human form – or some human hybrid or some animal.
But representations such as these can’t be assumed to be more than symbolism and the use of narratives to convey ideas. We do this, for example, with Justice. We don’t literally mean justice is a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales. The symbolism conveys meaning in a potent and concentrated form.
The Egyptian Greek gods stood for complex ideas represented in symbolic and narrative form. At their foundation is an assertion that reality is grounded in spirit – what we might call consciousness these days. Our ancestors did not have available to them the notion of abstract rational ideas that described a mechanistic reality.
So, we have 2 classes of beings who might be gods – fundamental principles or values and actual discrete volitional agents. In fact, these were often combined – like the god of war or the goddess of love.
The question is whether such agencies could exist as objective beings. And, because we haven’t really accepted that such beings might exist, we have not explored the idea intellectually. Mostly, where these gods are accepted it is their symbolism and innate (but unexamined) reality that are affirmed.
The idea of the One
There is an important distinction between one God and the One, though the former seems to impose upon the latter. The One might be called God, or Goddess as a primary expression of all being – infinite and eternal. But that’s more a case of gilding the lily than making a useful distinction – save that Goddess fits a sound narrative and symbolic form. The One, as an idea, is beyond description and characterization on a rational level. In the shorthand of the mystic traditions, it is that it is. This has been expressed also as “I am that I am”, or more simply “I am”. Such assertions are not literal utterances. They are attributions that convey an essential idea – there is a fundamental absolute being that is beyond all conception or description.
So, the idea that there is only one God is redundant as a rational idea. It is neither useful nor necessary outside of making a political statement – a denial of polytheism. There can’t be conflicting supreme deities. But it does appear that the polytheists of old were not above promoting their local god to the top job. But that can’t be the One – because that can’t be a job.
The God of the Old Testament cannot be the One, if for no other reason than the presence of the words “In the beginning” and the description that God was separate from that which he acted upon. The God of the Old Testament is a creator god of the old polytheistic traditions – a subset of the One. He cannot be understood without the context of the polytheistic narratives as a whole story of creation – all the way down to the creation of values and principles.
Opposing monotheism means opposing the legitimacy of the god of the Abrahamic tradition. Accepting many gods legitimizes the awful faith of pagans. But supporting monotheism simply condenses the vastly complex affair of creating reality into a too simple notion. It could be said, in fact, that monotheism led to the creation of modern rational thought and science as humans struggled to find an alternative way of making sense of the complex reality they experience.
So, do we need gods?
First, let me create a definition of ‘god’ here, so we can think about the same thing. A god is a coherent volitional agency functioning at a scale greater than the human. For example, we know a human is coherent volitional agency operating within an environment that has both internal (bodily fact and subjective awareness) and external domains. We know this because we have direct experience of this being true.
These days we assume that our solar system is only a system of interacting physical processes. We do not assume it has a character or intent. We have no direct experience of this, so we assume it not to be true.
However, our early polytheistic ancestors did not make such a presumption. The sun, moon and planets constituted a coherent system – and we see the remnants still in astrology.
The monotheistic conception of God has given no coherent sense of how that God acts in the world, in our reality. What has been produced is an incoherent cacophony of prayers, priestly intercessions, and confused conceits of being favoured. A typical problem for monotheists is that of attribution of cause and effect. What favours them is of God and what does not is of the Devil or down to sin. The one concept of the divine has to do all the work of explaining reality and how to live in it. That’s a heavy burden.
The polytheists had a far more coherent model. But was it more effective? Probably not in the long run. I’ll come back to this.
If we play with the idea of the solar system as a coherent and intentional being, we are dealing with a hugely complex thing – beyond any capacity we have to imagine its full nature.
By the mere use of the word ‘system’ we are acknowledging coherence. But beyond a purely mechanistic conception our thinking grinds to a halt. We could dare go further, but we must cast off the shackles of materialism.
How does God work?
The standard conception of God, post creation, is influence by supernatural means. Depending on your beliefs, this supernatural influence may be exerted by God, Jesus, Mother Mary, or saints and priests.
By contrast, the gods of the polytheists are exerting intentional creative effort constantly, if capriciously at times. Unlike the monotheist’s God, humans are not the primary concern of the gods. They have their own lives and priorities. The monotheist’s God has done his work and is now chiefly concerned with how ‘His children’ behave. Little wonder the Deists found this idea unfulfilling.
Now we are caught up in the subtleties of faith, virtue, and obedience. The monotheist’s sense of their God as a stern but loving father essentially makes it all a supernatural psychodrama.
In short, the monotheists’ God lurks around his now automatically running creation with an unhealthy passion for those he made in his image to behave as he imagined. It’s not a very edifying notion, and the extent to which this influence works it is so subtle as to seem non-existent.
On the other hand, the gods are active agents in the reality they co-creators of. Their creation was not deemed perfect at the end of a set of phases. To the extent that humans have a necessary concern about how the gods behave, to ensure that avoidable misfortune is avoided, there is no sense of dependency upon them – other than that they maintain the fabric of reality.
The problem we face as humans is the habit of assuming that the gods are inordinately interested in us. We must break that habit. We don’t assume the planets, or the Sun, are interested in us, yet by what they are, and what they are doing we exist. There are subtle and knowable physical forces that impinge upon us constantly. In fact, the same is true of our galaxy. Might it, at some vastly deeper level than we can imagine that the galaxy is also a coherent intentional agent?
If we imagine our reality governed by intentional agents rather than mechanical processes, we are doing more than merely paying lip service to the oft asserted notion that consciousness underpins all. We are allowing that that conscious may be organized as discrete agents below the level of the One True God because this model of organization fits the ‘as above, so below’ credo. Rather, as below so above. We can infer only from the small to the large.
If we reflect upon the Epicurean Nature’s God, we can imagine that if nature is the expression of the divine it may divide into discrete agents as part of the sensible organization of reality.
Gods not only make sense, but they also seem necessary. However, this does not mean that we understand them – neither their intent nor their nature. We can infer that they may be real only.
It might be reasonable to ask, why then bother with the notion of gods? Well, they either exist or they do not. If you assume they do not the chances of discerning evidence of them will be greatly reduced. Allowing that they may exist at least reflects a modesty and a curiosity which may be rewarded simply because it permits the opportunity of awareness. Yes, of course, this will be also permission for self-delusion.
Can we move on please?
We can see that over the past 3 millennia there has been a steady evolution of human consciousness in various places at various times. There is no sense of uniformity. Its more like chaotic progress. Today many millions of people live with the idea of many gods, and a great deal of others with the idea of only one god. A lesser number think there is no god, no deity of any kind at all. And there are many who do not care.
There is a growing enthusiasm for the idea that reality is underpinned by consciousness. But what does that really mean beyond asserting that matter isn’t the foundation of being. It may mean to some that ‘consciousness’ is merely a sub-material thing that is just as inert as the materialist’s matter. Ultimately it is hard to distinguish between intentionality and chance in any distinct way.
Consciousness is, I think, just as problematic a term as god/God. But these are early days in our efforts to fuse science with the precepts of the mystics and the religious. We are forced to use ill-defined terms because we are yet to achieve intellectual clarity in the way we think about non-material ideas. And even here one need only see how we employ the word ‘space’ to have meaning for both the volume of a cupboard and the universe.
We must move on from the language we are using. God and gods have so much baggage and intellectual muddiness they are less and less utility. Note, please, that it the language that’s a problem, not the underlying ideas. We can’t deal with them until we sort the language out.
In a strange way, we are far more likely to encounter gods than God. This is because as we explore systems and improve our understanding of them, it will be the smaller systems we will get to know first.
I have been encountering spirits my whole life – coherent intentional agencies that have interacted with me in sometimes shocking ways. Once that interaction was so compelling, I felt I was being irradiated by an intense sunlamp that left me struggling to remain coherent and barely capable of movement. My companion was similarly affected and entered a trance. What happened next was a flooding of my mind by a consciousness that was utterly beyond human. There was no malevolence, just an intensity so great it was oppressive and disorienting.
I have also spoken with discarnate humans whose intelligence and power were beyond doubt. One asserted that the gods were real, that they were “of the One, not as the One”. They were not, he assured, human inventions.
My direct experience is that there are coherent intentional agents who primarily exist in another dimension and interact with ours. This is routine apparently. They are part of an ecosystem, and sometimes a community. They function in nature and in direct relation to humans. I have no idea how that situation scales up – planet, solar system, galaxy? How large can a coherent intentional agent get?
If our reality is as fecund and teeming with spirits as the ancient Greek thinkers affirmed, and I think it is, the conceit of ‘being alone’ seems utterly foolish. Monotheism has collapsed our vision and dulled our senses. Materialism has made us wrong-headed and dull witted. The systems of thought we loosely call polytheistic seems to me to be more in accord with my own experiences, but that does not mean their models of reality suit our needs.
There’s a lot about modernism that is refreshing and corrective. It has broken thought ways that had become moribund and brought new ways of apprehending reality. But it has its own conceits and dogmas. The west has been recovering polytheism for the past 150 years or so. This process has been enthusiastic, romantic, rational, and silly as we have struggled to rediscover that sense of animistic complexity and coherence that I think we intuit lies beyond our materialistic and religious dogmas.
I am for gods. I wish there was a better way of naming them though. Some have offered the Egyptian ‘Neter’. That works for me.