Earlier this year, I wrote on “Polytheism, Transcendence, and Number”; and, likewise, over at Patheos.com, Aidan Kelly recently wrote about “There Is More Than One Infinity.” As you can imagine, number is very important to me–I’m a polytheist, after all!
But, I’m also wondering if, for those who are not already doing so, if particular linguistic shifts can begin to bring about a change in theological position and one’s own thinking in regards to these matters.
Namely, I’m wondering: can simply turning some general statements of monotheistic religions into plurals rather than singulars make them viable within polytheism?
One of the things I most commonly encounter amongst modern pagans, and some of my earliest experiences with a particular Wiccan, struck me as odd the first times I heard them (even though I was not a monotheist myself): instead of saying “Oh God” or just “God!” when things were unusual, strange, or surprising, the individual concerned would say “Goddess!” Of course, that makes sense within a more goddess-centered Wiccan context…but, it still preserves the singularity of the monotheist statement. (And, the goddess monism of many Wiccans, thus, is accurately reflected in the linguistic usage here.) For myself, now, after over twenty years of being a pagan and a polytheist, I tend to say “gods” or “dear gods” when things are strange, troubling, or unexpected.
There’s a case where simple pluralization works quite well and effectively, not only in conveying the sense of either sacredness to such occurrances (though not often!) or the call to divine powers for help, but also doing so accurately within my own theological framework as a polytheist.
But, what about other things? For example, the first statement of the various creeds used in many Christian churches: “We/I believe in [one] God.” For polytheists, is it enough to say “I/we believe in [many] gods”? Of course, a great deal depends on the understanding of “believe” in this statement (as I’ve outlined here recently), but if those considerations are taken seriously, then there’s not a lot of problem with it.
What about something a bit more complex? For example, the statement paraphrased from Deuteronomy, “I am the Lord your God, worship no god but me,” which is taken as a declaration not of henotheism (which is what it actually is!) by many monotheists, but instead as a declaration of the singularity of gods in general, which is not at all applicable to polytheism. Can we just change it for our own situation, then, to “We are your gods, worship no gods but us”? Again, no, I don’t think it’s that simple–and yet, this is the position of a HUGE number of polytheists, particularly in certain recon communities, who only think their own chosen culture’s pantheon is viable; while they may not demean or discredit the existence of other gods, at the same time, they also don’t think “their own people” should be worshipping them, which leads to anti-syncretism (even when syncretism is demonstrably historical within their traditions), and so forth.
Obviously, the answer to this question is simple and (mostly) twofold: no, mere pluralization isn’t a good strategy because A) such pluralizations are context-dependent, and preserving some bits of the original monotheistic context might create distorted situations or understandings in a pluralized polytheist usage, and B) it is never a good idea to take the religious norms of one system and assume they apply to another, are applicable to another, or are even remotely appealing to another.
And yet, in many cases, it seems like this is exactly what many modern pagans and polytheists are doing in some of their assumptions about how theology, community, and the regulation of both should be carried out.
I’d be interested in hearing your own thoughts on some of these matters.