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?