Thursday, May 03, 2007
Polytheism for Jews?
I would sooner be a polytheist than an atheist. Of course (not of course) I am a monotheist. I believe this to be the most rational position of all: That there is a spiritual power underlying all reality and that this power is essentially One. This principle of unity is considered rational in empirical science as well, indeed it is held by many to be the determinant of rationality, that, although we perceive the world as subject to a multiplicity of theories, there is/ought to be a unified theory underlying them all, if only we can discover and understand it. But we do perceive a multiple world.
We do not, however, perceive a world empty of spiritual power as atheists insist. I can defend this view, but not for the purposes of this exploration.
Monotheistic religions tend also to acknowledge a multiplicity of spiritual powers subordinate to God -- the angels. According to a Jewish tradition (cited in the Midrash) for every blade of grass, there is an angel standing over it urging it to grow. If this is granted as true (if only for the sake of argument,) then it is also true that each tree has its angel, and then, every leaf, and then every forest, and then, perhaps, plant life in general. If so, then animal life ought also to have its own angel. If so, the weather should have its own angel, volcanoes, the sun and moon, music, love, fertility, etc. Another tradition holds that each nation has its own guardian angel, If so, then within each nation, sub-societies should have their own angels as well, and each family, and each trade, and international corporations, etc.
I used to think the doctrines of angels to be silly, and opposed to the principle of unity from which monotheism derives its rationality. Yes, we perceive a world wherein God works through multiple channels, but that is a limitation in our perspective; in the final analysis, all is One. When I discovered the following argument, I had to change my position on the matter: Reflect on Descartes' famous argument: I think, therefore I am. Self-consciousness is proof of the existence of the being who is conscious. Therefore, if angels are self-conscious, then even if they are really modifications of God, they have real existence in the same degree as we do. Though I can't prove that angels exist on such an argument, just as I cannot prove you exist as a consciousness, the angel can prove its own existence to itself, just like as can prove your own existence. Therefore, it is not my place to outright deny that the angel, or any other consciousness, exists. It's not merely a question of definition.
According to polytheistic systems with which I am most familiar, which are African and Hindu religions, aside from the vast multiplicity of gods posited, there is also posited a One Supreme Being, of which all these other gods are merely modifications. The theological difference between monotheism which includes angels and such polytheisms is not in the existence of the entities in question, because what monotheisms call God can be identified with the Supreme Being and the angels can be identified with the multiple gods. Neither is it the choice of which gods or angels exist: I don't believe it to be of serious theological significance how we decide to split up God's tasks; we can always split them up differently to explain different things (much in the same way we can draw the lines between different scientific disciplines differently, for example, the domains of biology, chemistry, geology and ecology may overlap or separate depending on the problem we attend). And I think that polytheistic systems typically agree, as, for example, the Romans at the height of their empire had lists of over a million gods from all over its territories, and did not care which gods people worshipped. The divine, like any comprehensive phenomenon, can be split up in lots of different ways. Just like we can split the angels up in lots of different ways, if the angels are the gods, then they too can be split up in lots of different ways.
The difference between polytheism and monotheism thus construed is not in the ontology of the matter, not in what reality is thought to exist, but rather in the nature of the way humans ought to relate to that reality. Monotheism does not bar the existence of very powerful created spirits. But they are thought to be irrelevant to human devotion - or more, that human devotion to such spirits is inappropriate..
With this as background, here is my problem. I am a customer in a restaurant. I know intellectually that the source of the food I am being served is the owner of the restaurant, (and following the chain, the farmers, or the capitalists, or the chefs of the past who invented the recipes –again, there is a measure of arbitrariness in how we split it up. Ultimately, the end of the chain would be God. But for the illustration we'll pretend the restaurant owner is the end of the chain). So I should really be thanking the owner for the food. This may be true enough. But does that mean that I should not also thank the waiter that is serving me now? Similarly, if I am eating an apple, I know I should ask God for and thank Him for the apple. But should I not also thank the tree or the spirit of the tree, or pray to the tree spirits and weather spirits etc? Why should a relationship to the One Supreme God exclude relationships – real relationships – to other spiritual beings?