The present post picks up on something that I wrote about in relation to Lupa’s presentation at PantheaCon in February, and was prompted by a post by Dver a few weeks ago as well. And, now I find that it might also have relevance, in the way I’m going to discuss it, to a recent announcement by Cherry Hill Seminary on their new director of ministry.
Now, you may be looking at these diverse matters in those other posts and going, “Okay…what do these things have to do with one another?” Let me try and explain.
Back at PantheaCon, we discussed the possibility of human totem animals, and it was suggested by Lupa that because human experience is so varied, what really seems to amount to human totem animals is, in fact, what we consider the gods. While I found that idea fairly all right at the time, on further reflection, I’m not quite sure that’s it. Yes, the fact that pretty much all of our deities are fairly anthropomorphic in many respects obviously represents our human and humanizing understandings of the gods, flawed and incomplete though they may be, are an important dimension of our ability to apprehend the gods and to interact with them. But, I don’t think that Zeus, for example, represents a particular dimension of the human experience, per se. (Archetypalists would disagree, of course, but I’m not talking about them at the moment!)
So, the possibility that there is a “human totem animal” (because we are animals, after all, like any other) that is not something that is “the gods” as we experience them still remains. But, what would it be? Some sort of primate (as suggested in the earlier link in this discussion about the PantheaCon session)? Perhaps, but I suspect it might be something that has been mis-labeled and misunderstood, but experienced widely, by a lot of people in a lot of different religions.
People who confuse monism with mysticism–both within modern paganism and in other religions–often talk about “the Ultimate” or “all-that-is” and so forth, as a kind of ultimate and primordial being who is, in essence (so they say) synonymous with what monotheistic religions call “God.” Of course, from a polytheist perspective, that’s not remotely tenable, since the Hebrew God/Iao and Allah both are deities who, though perhaps the heads of their own respective pantheons, certainly aren’t “the all” in the way their latter-day followers seem to think they are. Many liberal and mystically-inclined Christians also like to talk about “Christ-consciousness,” which is a species of this same sort of monistic thinking, with the caveat that “the all” is here equivalent to their Jesus, which again is not very tenable from a polytheist perspective. And even within certain ancient forms of polytheism, including Graeco-Egyptian magic and certain species of gnosticism, we have Abrasax/Abraxas, who is a super-syncretistic deity, and often gets compared to or equated with Iao, but who is a kind of “god-behind-the-gods,” and yet it also not exactly “all that is” either; at most, I’d think Abraxas is a sort of mediator between the knowable divine realms and beings and the unknowable and impersonal energies and motivations that are the real and ultimate powers of the universe that truly are responsible for why there is “something instead of nothing,” to put it in physics terms. Though there are dimensions of hyper-reality, and the super-natural, the unknowable, the mysterious, and the ineffable involved in every deity in a polytheistic pantheon–including the most human of those gods, like Antinous–the same is also true of nearly every human being on the planet, and every experience there is to be had on earth.
And yet, there are people in modern paganism, in the various monotheist religions, in Buddhism and Hinduism and Shinto and Taoism, in new age groups, in unspecified and ill-defined “spirituality,” and even in atheism who report experiences of feeling that they have been in contact with “all-that-is.” While not dismissing their experiences, I am not that interested in accepting the reality or the accuracy of the theologies they have placed over their experiences. (My approach is the same with the two major monotheistic religions, ultimately: I don’t doubt the reality of their gods, I simply doubt the accuracy of their theologies in relation to their gods.) I don’t think being an “Atman of Brahman” or being in touch with one’s “Buddha nature” or the various other ways that different religions label these experiences is quite what is happening when these experiences occur. (And, I really don’t think that because all of these experiences “seem the same” to those who have them and who insist they’re the “ultimate” in religious experiences, that therefore the “core” of these religions is all the same, necessarily…)
Instead, here’s my theory.
There is a human totem animal, who–like all totem animals–is not only the ancestral spirit of all humanity, but also the sum total of human experience, perception, thought, and emotion that has ever existed in the world. At present, there are around seven billion creatures contributing to that overall aggregate…and, thinking back to all of the ancestors that have ever lived, there’s probably tens of billions more (if not somewhere in the trillions) who have done likewise. That’s a lot! But, because we’re all human, we all are therefore related to that primal ancestor and human totem, and thus we have potential access to its store of wisdom and experience regardless of our own religious outlook or affiliation or practice–it’s there to be accessed, and our deepest spiritual instincts (which I do think most of us share–not everyone, but most people who are religious, anyway) will most naturally lead us in that direction. Because of this, what happens to people in various religions–particularly those who suggest there is an “Ultimate” and a deity with that nature, but often with particular characteristics (like the major monotheistic faiths do simply by virtue of the fact that they extrapolate this universalism and ultimacy from a very contextually and culturally-based set of scriptures and theologies that cannot, by definition nor nature, refer to such a being), that when their own spiritual practices lead them to an experience that is beyond that individual deity from the cultures concerned, and that individual religion’s theological constructions into something “beyond” it, which is this human totem animal, they no longer feel able to describe what they’re experiencing, because it’s essentially sensory and mental overload. Their religion has not prepared them to interact with a spiritual being of that sort, and they have no way of understanding or contextualizing it within their own religion’s theology, and because of the mix of languages and such involved in tens of thousands of years of human evolution and existence, their experiences are therefore “beyond words to describe” and so forth because they cannot sort the words coming from that being, etc. They thus make the jump (which would seem logical based on their own theologies) that they’ve contacted “the Ultimate” and “all-that-is,” and indeed it seems like it might be just that because of the immensity of the wisdom and perceptions of such a being; but, it really isn’t anything remotely like what “all-that-is” really is…which is totally beyond human ability to perceive.
I note something else which is consequent to most of these experiences of “all-that-is”: namely, nothing. No one ever comes away from such experiences with great insights on the meaning of life or how to fix all the world’s problems, because they’re not there to be found–as the sum of human experiences, the human totem has a great deal to say and to teach, but those things aren’t part of the human experience yet, so they certainly don’t come from the human totem! The people who have these experiences instead return to some of the core values of their tradition, which are often the very ones shared by many traditions (which have, therefore, very little to do with their particular religion), and that include things like compassion, cooperation, and care for the community. The human totem, if nothing else, would be overflowing with that, because it likewise knows what destructive impulses have done to humanity–its myriad children–and would not really like that type of behavior to proliferate.
There’s probably a great deal more to say on this subject, but I suspect that this is an idea that will totally not appeal to most people who have had an experience of “the Ultimate” and “all-that-is,” because it will suggest that their experience–valid though I am very willing to say it is–is not-quite-as-Ultimate-as-they-had-hoped, and is hopelessly bounded in the humanity that they often wish to suggest it isn’t in favor of divinity, or a more broadly-based concern for all of life or universal essence, etc.
But meanwhile, I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of polytheists on this matter, as I always am!