For some time I’ve been on the lookout for a book that could succinctly get close to the heart of ‘polytheism-in-general’, something I could point an interested party towards which would undo a little of the ludicrous bias and preconception, and get to the reality as it is lived by human beings on this planet. Well, Jordan Paper’s The Deities are Many will do the job nicely. Jordan Paper’s attitude is, quite correctly, that polytheism, being the natural outgrowth of the human system, never needed a ‘theology’ as such — but could do with one because it has to converse with monotheism all the time, and monotheism constantly uses ‘theology’ to beat it down into a position of inferiority at best.
What Paper has chosen to write is, he says inevitably, also an apologia therefore. He seems quite well-qualified to write it, as an academic who also has had strong personal experience with both Native American and Traditional Chinese religions; more importantly, as someone who is prepared actually to *write* about those experiences publicly, as, for example, John Michael Greer in his over-intellectual A World Full of Gods was not. Polytheism does not rest on an intellectual but on an experiential foundation, and ‘faith’ has more or less nothing to do with it, compared with the systemic tie to presences and experiences that are lived. So any theology has to weave experience in, and Paper does so, giving examples of the different ways in which spirits and gods have interacted with his own life. As a religious studies professor, he puts aside the need to ‘skirt advocacy’ for the space of this text.
Since there is actually no such thing as ‘polytheism-in-general’, Paper restricts himself mostly to the Native American and Chinese systems he knows, but he does mean to provide a general theology, and succeeds well. He begins with the cosmic spiritual presences, earth and sky, sun and moon, directions, and so forth, and then works his way through the concepts of beast spirits, ancestors and human deities. His concept being that polytheism grows naturally out of human culture, ethos, and worldview, he has to make the attempt to show how. As a generalized explanation it is fine, and never overrules the specific cultural forms. He is also moving at times on the nature of the living world of ‘animism’, a term he nonetheless dislikes as vague.
Because this is also a work of advocacy, he uses the structures he has erected to right the wrongs done to polytheism, in particular by ‘religions of the book’. Having just finished Emma Wilby’s excellent Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits, I was happy to see this done, and it left me feeling that monotheism is often an attempt to claim the world as human rather than as itself, to see all things as somehow the work of human hands. Paper is very good on the processual nature of polytheism — “in a polytheistic tradition, the tendency is to understand the world around us not as created but creating.” Note the use of the word ‘tendency’, since arbitrary musts about spiritual truth aren’t a part of the polytheistic understanding. He’s very good, too, on the Chinese idea of Tao as a process that itself is self-created and ongoing.
This results in his having to continually put right monotheists who insist on seeing their ideas where they are not really to be found. In both America and China, missionaries needed to see in the indigenous traditions a ‘proto-monotheism’ that wasn’t there, and Paper patiently demonstrates how little understanding there was, how much snobbery, how much propaganda, seeing polytheism as inseparable from primitivism and evil. There is really nothing in his exposition I could imagine anyone arguing with. In being translated, for example, as ‘Mandate of Heaven’, a Chinese traditional concept like Tienming suddenly acquires the aura of a Jehovistic command. Whereas the literal meaning is simply ‘pattern of the sky’; again, a system-process which one could fall in with or else go against, as in Tao Te Ching, not a judgment from Sinai. There are many such corrections given.
The impression, I have to say, is not only of colonial one-upmanship but frankly of outright stupidity in the blockheadedness of our culture’s misinterpretation at times. As Paper himself says: “The concept of a single truth tends towards intolerance, for why, logically, would a culture not feel endangered by falsehood, especially one that is counter to the single self-defining characteristic of the culture?” One need look no further for the source of the hair-trigger condemnation reflex our religion has left us with, I am certain. The ramifications of this ‘one truth and everything else leads you to hell’ idea have been huge — we see exactly the same attitude in modern scientism very often, for example, as we saw it in communism. In addition, Paper is at pains to show how mystical experiences of Unity in no way necessarily detract from the reality of a polytheistic culture, a position I would agree with strongly, as would many shamans, some of whom he cites.
What makes this book worthwhile is that it really does touch the spirit of polytheism, as well as showing some of its profundity and beauty, then combines that with real sense, rationality and scholarship; it must undo in anyone, I think, some of the reflexive distaste for polytheism engendered by monotheistic book-faith. I was left feeling that, here ‘on the ground’, on earth, polytheism is how religion is more or less always done in practice — although I had pretty much come to that conclusion already, I suppose. Still, I’ve attended so-called ‘interfaith’ meetings where to be against polytheism was a way for the ‘real religions’ to bond! For goodness’ sake, it’s surely time for that to change, and this book will help. I can hand it to anyone and put conversation on the right footing.