No theology is perfect, but I believe polytheism, the belief in a multiplicity of the divine, is uniquely suited towards preparing the United States for its future. In his book “The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology,” York University Professor Emeritus of Humanities Jordan Paper concludes that “polytheism at best is a very positive human experience and is never less than benign. We do not find the angst, let alone the doubts, that many experience with regard to their relationship with the divine in the monotheistic traditions.” As America slowly moves into a post-Christian era, a nation where both immigrant and home-grown religious minorities are growing, and an ever-larger percentage (currently 15%) of our fellow citizens claim no specific religion at all, only a theology that can embrace the full tapestry of human belief will be able to change and thrive with these often tumultuous times. Modern Pagans are pioneers into this future, and have already encountered and accepted a multiplicity of belief systems, finding ways to not only coexist, but to create vibrant communities that encourage participation and engagement.
Do you believe in a pantheon of distinct, individual, powers? No problem. That there’s an underlying and unifying divine force that manifests in a million aspects? Bring it on. That there’s a distant unknowable creator aided by a powerful array of divine intercessors? Are you free for lunch next weekend? That all divinity springs from, and is connected to, a sentient natural world? I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter. That divine beings are simply innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic symbols or representations of unconscious experience emerge? I bet you are super-fun at parties! Is your god male? Female? Both? Genderless? Do you concentrate on a singular deity, a divine couple, or perhaps an entire family of gods at once? How about the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Polytheism is the endless affirmation of belief, of perspective, it is the cosmic “and-and,” rather than “either-or.” It, like the United States, is a great melting pot. A place where all can find a home.
But what about monotheism? Critics of polytheism are quick to point out the sins of the Roman Empire, how they persecuted the Christian minority, at least until the Christians took power, and then they started persecuting heretics, Jews, and pagans with a fervor unmatched. The simplest answer is that the persecution of Christians wasn’t really about theology, but politics. In a global power where there’s no separation between church and state, a theology that tries to undermine the state religion is seen as a threat to order and good government (a lesson Christian emperors quickly learned). While there is much we can learn and emulate from the ancient world, I think the Enlightenment values of America’s Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, were correct in erecting a wall between government and religion. Banning religion tests for office, and ensuring that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” With that wall, so long as it remains high and strong, we need never worry about a polytheistic or monotheistic theocracy becoming corrupted by power. Which leaves us with the question, what theology is best equipped to live in a pluralistic and secular world? In my mind it must be polytheism.
Many of my friends, family, and individuals I greatly respect are monotheists. They reject the idea of any power outside of their God, with many seeing anything not of their God as belonging to his adversary. Monotheists have done some wonderful things, but any culture that becomes dominated by an exclusionary theology will, even if it is unintentional, become oppressive. There is growing evidence that the human mind is hardwired for religion, for belief. Religion, for all its goods and ills, will not be deserting us any time soon. In our increasingly global and interconnected world both isolation and exclusion are becoming difficult at best, and untenable at worst. The point of polytheism is not that everyone must become polytheists, but that everyone should learn to embrace the true pluralism that is at its core. As Christian cultural dominance is slowly shrugged off with each passing generation, as we move into a multi-religious post-Christian society, it is the Pagans and polytheists who can lead the United States away from the evils of apathy and extremism and towards a future where we can all find the room we need to grow and thrive.