Posted by: aediculaantinoi | January 14, 2013

Polytheism, Transcendence, and Number

In the aftermath of my last “Queer I Stand” column, and some of the other posts that either responded to it or inspired it, I had a thought the other day that I think bears mentioning here, and which I might develop further in the future, in regards to polytheism.

One of the things I saw mentioned in a few places was that part of religion for most people involves an experience of “transcendence.” While I understand that this is the necessary case for most forms of creedal monotheism, not all such movements are fans of trascendence, or see transcendence as a necessary attribute of the divine beings to whom they are devoted. On the whole, modern paganism is not a religion of trascendence so much as a religion of immanence: it values embodiment, the importance of the physical world and the experiences available through the senses, the importance of divinity as revealed through nature and the cosmos, and a variety of other such “this-worldly” concerns. And yet, a huge amount of paganism is also just as much about, if not more about, otherworldly and thus non-physical, supernatural, and as a result “transcendent” matters…of which many would include the gods as a pertinent and prominent example. This is where such distinctions and characterizations, I think, start to fall apart, and where “nature worshippers” could claim they’re “more pagan” than those who worship the gods, since the gods are transcendent whereas nature is immanent…however, for the moment, I’m going to sideline those arguments in favor of another issue that I think is worth exploring further.

The transcendent experience that was being referred to in some of the discussions, as I understood them and as they were stated by the commenters who introduced them, was not so much an either/or situation between gods and nature, but instead the fact that the gods are beyond mortal grasp, and are thus transcendent. Honestly, I’m not so sure this is the case, nor does it have to be the case in order for the beings we deal with to be classified as “gods.” Certainly, there are aspects of deities that are large, powerful, and difficult to comprehend–but, there’s also math problems that are difficult for non-mathematicians to comprehend, epic poems in other languages that are difficult for non-readers of those languages to comprehend, and other such matters that are fully and entirely human, and can be grasped with the proper training and time.

Because we do not have an unbroken tradition of encountering and understanding divine beings in the Western world, it’s no wonder that modern polytheism often has a difficult time understanding the gods. We certainly seem to know when we’ve encountered a god as opposed to just a random spirit, ancestor, local land wight, or a variety of other things; if this is the case, it suggests that we are able to “know” our gods in at least some ways when they appear. If a god was entirely beyond our understanding, this would not be remotely possible. (And, for monotheists, this is also the case–if their god is ineffable, then how do all of the mystics who have encountered that god seem to know that it is their god and not something else?)

There are, of course, questions of discernment that go along with all of this, and there are people who make few to no distinctions between all discarnate entities, so that ancestors are practically indistinguishable from gods and so forth. If they are correct in this interpretation, then that either implies that once we are no longer incarnate, we have as much power and many (if not all) of the characteristics of gods, heroes, and other such divine beings; if they are incorrect, then the differences between gods, ancestors, land spirits, heroes, and other such beings must be more subtle or particular, and yet significant, in ways that have simply eluded the individuals lacking such discernment. If the latter is the case, then it must be a skill that can be learned and a form of discernment that can be sharpened and honed over time with practice, experience, attention, and devotion.

But, then we get to the issue of “unknowability” and the apophatic. In monotheist contexts, in which the ultimate and singular divine being is said to be “beyond understanding” and when it is experienced is often described in ways that indicate “no words can describe it,” I suspect a few things are going on. One possibility (which I try not to resort to, but nonetheless it is an option) is that the person actually didn’t have such an experience at all, and is simply aping this language from other mystics, in their own tradition or other ones–and because this language is resorted to so frequently in mystical theology, it’s the basis for most monistic interpretations of a universalizing underlying reality behind all deities in all religions, etc. (Let’s just not go there, shall we?)

Another possibility is that the person involved simply lacks the skills to be able to put such an experience into words; it can be done, it’s just the person involved doesn’t know how to do it. I suspect there’s more than a little bit of this going on in many cases, as not all mystics in those monotheistic traditions (or other non-monotheistic traditions) are apophatic in their approach; and even those that are often have moments of profound poetic expression that demonstrate a glimpse of such experiences can be conveyed in words (e.g. John of the Cross’ poetry).

A third possibility, though, is that such experiences can and do occur, but they are difficult–if not impossible–to put into words simply because our sensory capacities, temporal limitations, and comprehensive abilities are not up to the task. That is a situation which can occur with experiences of gods, but also experiences of things like really good sex, or standing on a beach on a clear night and looking up at the immensity of the universe as reflected in the night’s sky of a thousand stars. These things can be described, to a certain extent, after the fact, and their general characteristics can be understood on an intellectual level by others; but, the experiential level is lacking in mere description. This is why mystery traditions (including the Antinoan Mysteries) are experiential in nature, and though they can be conveyed in words, they lose their appeal and their power in mere words. While the previous two matters may be involved to some greater or lesser extent in many cases, the difference between description and experience, and between mere intellectual understanding and the vividness and immediacy of experience may be the reason why there is such a difficulty, and such a consistency of discourse, on these matters. It’s impossible to know what it is like to, for example, have one’s lover die suddenly if one has not experienced this; sympathy and empathy can aid one who has not had that, as can intellectual understanding and imagination, but it’s not the same as the actual experience. Fair enough.

All of that having been said, since our gods are not necessarily infinite, eternal, transcendental, and all of the “omni-” attributes attributed to the divinities of monotheistic religions, it should be possible to experience them in a way that is full and comprehensive, even though nothing but that experience itself can really encompass that fullness or that comprehensiveness. While such experiences might be “transcendent” in terms of the incorporeality and supernatural-ness of the beings concerned, or it may simply be transcendent in that it is (for lack of a better term) “trans-mundane,” they are still ultimately limited by the nature of the gods concerned, and our own human nature.

I have no problem with that. While some people may prefer to have something of their gods be unknowable and a mystery (beyond an informational level–there’s an awful lot more mysteries involved in Antinous and Polydeukion on those informational levels than many other more powerful mystery gods of the past!), it isn’t really necessary for polytheistic deities to have that as an essential characteristic in order to be considered “gods” in the fuller and more specific sense.

In polytheism, thus, it’s not so much that any individual god has transcendent aspects (though some have more than others) that makes an experience of polytheistic deities have that transcendence and “mystery” and sense of immensity that is reported by mystics in monotheistic traditions. If there is only one god to know, then having such an experience once would not necessitate anything more, and yet no mystic is ever satisfied with a once-only access to their god–and rightfully so, I think! Instead, I think that polytheism has a more interesting potential approach to this matter of transcendence and immensity that has been little appreciated by many polytheists, due to the often inadvertently henotheistic tendencies that we fall into with polytheism, for whatever reason such arises.

It isn’t that our gods are infinite and transcendent of our understanding; instead, it’s that there’s always more gods than we’re ever able to be aware of. That is where the unknowability within polytheism lies: not in any individual god’s character or power, but in the fact that no matter how large and all-encompassing any one of our individual deities seems to be, there’s a far greater number of deities out there who are all equally multi-faceted and complex, just waiting to be known, just lurking around the edges of our perceptions, having their influences on our lives and environments as much as the god or gods who occupy most of our attentions. This is something I’m reminded of constantly in my dealings with Antinous: no matter how much I get out of our relationship, there’s always other deities involved, and to ignore them would be very rude of me as a polytheist and as a person, I think.


To return to the naturalistic situation I used earlier, but this time in a metaphorical fashion, think of standing on that shoreline at night, looking up at the stars. No matter how clear it may seem, and how many stars there might appear to be above you, there’s always more of them out there, literally right in front of you. Choose any one of those points of light, no matter how faint, and behind it, there’s literally entire galaxies of stars that you cannot see. Choose any apparent space between two stars that seems empty and black, and there will also be literally billions of stars and galaxies in that space, too, as the Hubble Deep Field images (of which a sample is shown here above) revealed a few years ago. When one contemplates that, one cannot help but feel small and unsteady in the universe, and feel one being drawn upwards toward the heavens while also feeling like the ground is falling away from beneath one’s feet at the immensity of it all. Rather than this inspiring a Lovecraftian fear of Cthulhoid insignificance, I’d instead suggest that it can inspire a feeling of transcendence that is entirely dependent not on infiniteness (for, as HUGE as it is, we are fairly certain the universe is not infinite…or else how could it be expanding?), but on vastness of number.

So, there’s my thought for the day. What do you think?


  1. Part of the problem here is that terms with a logical function in philosophy took on a much vaguer, and at the same time more psychologically weighted sense through appropriation by Abrahamics. By all rights, the attribute of “transcendence” applied to anything ought, in the first place, be specified so that we determine what is being transcended. Secondly, and this is obviously a related point, that transcendence ought to be understood as meaning nothing more, and nothing less, than that the thing in question exists at all outside the bounds of the thing it is transcending.

    For example, to say that ideas “transcend” their positing in psychological experience is simply to say that, for example, even were there nobody to notice it, four times four would still make sixteen. So to say that deities have some sort of transcendence ought not be too controversial, except for people who wish their wholesale reduction to something else—and if they want that, then they need to specify what the Gods are supposed to be instead. Ironically, this reduction in the name of anti-transcendence leads in this fashion to the denial of immanence, in the sense that the reductionist wants to tell us that the Gods as we experience them are not what they appear to be. So you can see the sort of slippage going on here: a certain kind of transcendence is necessary to a certain kind of immanence.

    What has really happened is that “immanence” and “transcendence” are being sloppily used as shorthand for broad attitudes toward the God/s and the world on the order of, more or less, “nature and the flesh are good and divine” for the former and “nature and the flesh are evil and profane” for the latter, and this is just sad nonsense, really, because these issues have absolutely nothing to do with immanence and transcendence. The Gods can be regarded as thoroughly transcending the world while having created it out of love and being absolutely devoted to its flourishing, or, as in Gnosticism, a God or Gods can be regarded as having “fallen” into a state of complete immanence in a world regarded as a hellhole.

    Similarly, “ineffability” and related concepts had a technical purpose once, in connection with the irreducibility without remainder of any God to a theoretical, conceptual account. This is far different from saying that a God is not adequately apprehended in symbol, icon, myth, and the theological discourses connected with these, and in the experience flowing from ritual agency. Indeed, the whole point of the concept of the “ineffable” as it originated in Platonic thought was to leave space for all of this, lest the philosophical, conceptual discourse be thought to subsume actual religious life, which was the last thing any of the Pagan Platonists wanted, as you well know.

    • Thank you so much for these clarifications! Ignorance on my part is no excuse, of course; alas, ignorance of the more specific and useful meanings of these concepts is endemic to modern paganism, and to so much of the attempted theological discourse in modern polytheism…

      • You’re not ignorant by any means, and I recognize the value of having this debate in the terms as they have been framed in the culture and in terms of the issues as people have internalized them, where the heat is, so to speak.

        I’m a fan of transcendence as philosophers describe it, though, because properly applied it preserves polytheism against any of the several varieties of substance monism, but also because by separating ideals from off from where we live, transcendence actually prevents the perfect from being the enemy of the good, as the saying goes. Both of these, of course, are just what “immanence” is supposed to do, which goes to show how confused these terms have gotten!

      • Indeed–but thank you for steering us to a more reasonable and reasoned track with these matters! Today, Antinous the Navigator’s name is Edward Butler! (And he’s even showing himself a few weeks earlier than typical, too!)

      • A high honor indeed. Dua Antinoös, noute aiai!

  2. [...] [I had intended originally to start off this blog with a series of posts on prayer. However, reading happens.] [...]

  3. What is your take on panentheism? As some one who generally dislikes an either/or answer, I have found panentheism to be very satisfying personally and theologically. I think the gods are immanent, but I experience something that is also transcendent and points me toward what I suppose an ultimate monism – although I don’t get too wrapped up in that anymore. I’m far more interested in engaging with relationship: be it gods, spirits, land, people. I suppose I am a non-dual polytheist (I’m still, slowly, working out my theology), and panentheism makes sense here.

    • I don’t have any problem with panentheism–in fact, I think a great deal of animism is almost more accurately described as panentheism (though it may depend on how many divine beings are involved in terms of whether or not that’s the case). Ultimately, there’s still “something” there with which to have a meaningful, two-way relationship.

      That’s something I should have elaborated more upon, and clarified, in my post over at Patheos. When I say that nature is indifferent to offerings and dances and so forth, I mean the actual tectonic plates, weather systems, and so forth. In other words, our interactions with those things do not result in miracles (generally!). However, one can relate meaningfully with the spirit of the tectonic plate, or the wind, or the rain, or the river, etc. It doesn’t mean that the storm won’t still blow, or that the earth will shake, or that the river will not flood and mess up your fields or your property on occasion…but, it certainly lessens the impact when these things do happen to know that “it’s not personal,” etc. (It’s worked really good for the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America…but, that’s another story!)

      Anyway, I may have to do a further update on that at some point. We shall see.

  4. [...] this year, I wrote on “Polytheism, Transcendence, and Number”; and, likewise, over at, Aidan Kelly recently wrote about “There Is More Than One [...]

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