The question in the subject line of this blog post is an open one, and one that I’d be interested in hearing your own opinions about in the comments below, whether or not they are in response to the remarks I am about to make. (And how long those will be, who could say?)
I just finished teaching another quarter of a world religions class, and while the class as a whole came along relatively well in their overall knowledge of religion and the characteristics of different religions, there were still some concepts that didn’t quite land for them, as evidenced by their answers on some parts of the final exam. One of these is the notion that to have a “god” in any religion actually means to have a “creator god,” and if any god in a given religion is not THE creator of all the universe, or is not omnipotent, omniscient, and all the other “omni-”s so beloved of monotheistic thinking, then they’re not “really” a “god.” Of course, this is nonsense, but no matter how much I emphasized this (or how much I emphasized that the notion of “belief” is really not at all essential to most world religions outside of the two major monotheisms), they didn’t seem to be able to get past this hurdle of monotheistic theological thinking, no matter how much in rejection or disagreement with particular monotheistic religions some members of the class happened to be.
But, many religions–even if they have gods in them–don’t necessarily have a “creator god.” Of course, there are the obvious iterations of this in two different religions that arose during the “kshatriya revolution” in India, Buddhism and Jainism, both of which do not have any concept of a creator god whatsoever. Jainism, for example, believes that the universe has always existed, and always will, and no one being created it or oversees it, and the “laws of nature” (including karma, which is a physical force) simply run their course with people unless they can free themselves of it through various practices. In both Buddhism and Jainism, there are gods, but they are just as much bound to the laws of karma and the cycles of rebirth as any other being is. This is, of course, very different to what Hinduism had, with their creator god Brahma, who is nonetheless somewhat inferior to both Vishnu and Shiva in a variety of ways, despite being an equally all-wise being, and the creator of the universe in each new cycle of it. What thus emerges, in Buddhism and Jainism, is that not unlike anything and everything else in the universe, the gods are a kind of “emergent property”; they do not have the same powers, nor are they revered as they are in other religions and all the forms of polytheism, but nonetheless, they are “in the same game” so to speak as any other sentient being in the universe.
This notion of deities as an emergent property of the universe is in line with process theology, and would be compatible with many other forms of polytheism, which do not posit the gods as having pre-existed humanity in many cases. Greek myth has many deities that do not emerge until mortals exist: Dionysos (at least in the more “traditional,” non-Orphic forms of him…and even then, he yet has his final emergence as we know him now after being born from Semele) and Pan being two such examples. The various Greek theogonies, as outlined by Hesiod and Orphic fragments, has the “first being” of the universe be Chaos, from which emerge other deities; and though those deities (e.g. Ouranos and Gaia, in one relatively commonly known variation) then go on to give birth to a variety of others, they themselves are the forces and the fabric of what they represent–Gaia is the goddess of the earth as well as the earth itself, and Ouranos is the god of the sky as well as the sky and heavens themselves. Norse myth has its own creation stories, of course, and the deities who are involved in it; but, likewise, it has its eschatology, which to a certain extent–not unlike Buddhism and Jainism–puts the gods in the same game as mortals ultimately, as it were, even though they are orders of magnitude greater in power, wisdom, age, and complexity than mortals are.
Celtic religions seem to represent quite a departure from this. While we cannot be certain of these matters since no myths of this nature survive, and yet they could have existed, nonetheless the trend from Irish and Gaulish sources seems to be that there was no one singular creation of everything, and that the universe simply exists, though it goes through cycles. Strabo reports that there was a belief amongst the Gauls that both the soul and the universe are eternal, but that the universe is occasionally overcome by water or fire; we can infer, thus, that the souls of beings in the universe are also occasionally overcome by death, but they persist and reincarnate along longs that are not traditionally associated with the concepts many people think of when they hear the word “reincarnate”–there doesn’t seem to be any notion of karma, nor any pejorative assessments of having been in animal forms in previous or future existences, etc. In many respects, this kind of thinking is in line with some Jain and Buddhist notions, and has some further sympathies with ancient Hindu/Vedic notions of the cyclical nature of the universe. While that was fine for the ancient Gauls and the Irish (whose closest analogue to a “theogony” is a series of conquests of the island of Ireland, which seems to have always been there), many modern Celtic Reconstructionists have been rather insistent that there must be a creation myth of some sort; why there “must” be is not exactly clear to me, other than that comparatively speaking, other polytheistic cultures often seem to have them, but nonetheless, different strokes for different polytheists, I suppose…
And, of course, there are various cosmological myths and schemas proposed by Egyptian mythology. Whether the creator deity is Re, or Atum, or Amun, or Ptah, or a group of deities, it’s a pretty regular feature of Egyptian theology to have a creator deity or deities; I am not aware of a schematic echo of this in an eschatological notion either, but in any case…And, Near Eastern mythologies also seem to have different stories of creation. You get the idea…
Something which is a departure from any of the above in certain respects, though, is the development of Gnostic mythologies, in which the “Demiurge” or creator deity is not a true deity, but instead a flawed creation that then goes on to create a flawed universe. Gnostics, looking around at themselves and the world-at-large, and seeing suffering and imperfection and mortality and all of its troubles abounding, could not envision that any of this, if it was the result of deliberate creation by a deity, was at all good, and therefore the deity responsible was not good either. It is not to that creator god that they are devoted, but to a higher set of divinities from a divine pleroma that they aspire to contact and to cultivate in their own lives, through the teachings of whatever liberator they believe has been sent from that uncreated and perfect realm into this lower and inferior one to guide and exemplify the divine life. It is a fascinating reversal of sorts, an affirmation of earlier creator-deity-centric cosmologies with a simultaneous rejection of the importance, primality, or worthiness of that deity as evidenced by the nature of the creation in question.
I don’t entirely agree with any of the above notions, but I also don’t wholly reject any of them. Cosmological myth and narrative interests me a great deal, of course (as does almost all myth and narrative!), but I do not put any stock in saying that one or another of these myths is “true” (except insofar as all myths are true on some level) or “literal” or are “historical”; they certainly can be “true” and “historical” in a religio-cultural sense while not being true in a factual, scientific, or historico-chronological sense.
While I have no entertaining narrative to encase my thoughts in at present (nor may I ever create one, since there are already so many that are better), I would personally come down on the side of deities being an emergent property of the universe rather than an originating phenomenon of it. The deities can be literal, actual, existing, non-metaphorical beings without having been the things which created any given phenomenon or force in the universe. I suppose I have to credit the Tetrad++ Group for some of this to a degree: they didn’t exactly “exist” before they were discovered in 2011 and were given names, but the phenomena to which they are connected and over which they have influence and interest had existed for at least a century before that in the forms that at least two of them are now known. They didn’t create gender-variant identities necessarily, but there’s no reason for them not to be taken very seriously as associated with those identities quite intimately and deeply and inextricably at this point, like Zeus for rain or Poseidon for the sea.
So, those are my thoughts for the moment. How about all of you?
(And, note–no, this WILL NOT be a debate: express whatever opinion you want, but don’t do so in the form of “I disagree with ___” or “Your’e wrong about ___”; simply state your own opinion and why you prefer it, and we shall all learn from each other and understand each other even if we don’t end up agreeing on any of these matters.)