The Problem of Many Gods

The Problem of Many Gods June 27, 2017

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I’m in the process of putting together a digest of my blog posts on atheism, so I was perusing the articles that I’ve written with an “Atheism” tag and I realized that there are a couple of pretty glaring gaps: basic theist-v-atheist questions that I’ve never gotten around to writing about. The problem of many gods is among them.

Alright, so the problem in its basic form is that for most people our primary reason for belief in God is not the cosmological argument, or the argument from miracles, or (Heaven forfend) the ontological argument. It’s that we’ve had some sort of profoundly convicting personal experience of a being categorically greater than ourselves and we have some kind of relationship with that being.

So there are numerous epistemological problems raised by this form of evidence, and there’s no way I can get into all of them in a single blog entry, but the one that I want to deal with specifically is the fact that God seems to be substantially inconsistent across cultures and between individuals. If we’re talking about some real person or person who are outside, beyond, over there, then they should have a consistent personality and way of behaving. Yet clearly what we see in fact is that some people experience God as male, others as female. Some people’s gods forbid killing or eating meat, others demand animal sacrifice. Some people believe that God is calling them to feed the poor and tend to the needy, others think that God has ordered them to kill some random stranger on a Greyhound in order to prevent an alien invasion.

So this sounds pretty fishy, yeah? I mean, it almost sounds as if God doesn’t exist at all and really what we’re looking at is just a form of projection. Either the individual, or a culture at large, creates a psychologically compelling simulacrum of it’s own idealized self and worships this as a deity. Basically, it sounds like maybe we’re all just Narcissus, captivated by the beauty of our own reflection in the pool, thinking we’ve fallen in love with someone else.

To answer this problem, the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that, yes, this is absolutely true. It’s a thing that happens all the time. And all serious religions (i.e. those that have a mystical tradition) are aware of this as the single most difficult obstacle in the spiritual life. Whether you call it pride, idolatry, ego-consciousness, whatever, it’s the same basic problem. Human beings are fundamentally limited, both in terms of our moral and epistemological capacities, and in our quest for exstasis, for contact with whatever truth lies beyond the self, we constantly end up accidentally engaging in instasis instead.

Now, there is good and bad in this. On the one hand, God is within as well as without. If Christianity is true, then we are the image and likeness of God, and conversely the images that we paint of ourselves (especially of our “higher” selves) do encapsulate something of that likeness. At least to start off with, we create representations of God out of the substance of the self and so long as we don’t get carried away and start thinking of these representations as the thing in itself, they serve an important purpose. Namely, the allow us to have God-constructs that we can relate to much more directly than we can relate to an infinite, incomprehensible, categorically alien, absolute Other. The immanent God that emanates from within a particular human heart is a necessary medium between the self and the transcendent. You have to have icons, or you’re just left staring into the void.

On the other hand, there is an inevitable tendency within the spiritual life to slide from iconography towards idolatry. So you might start out thinking that God is like a King, then think that God is a King, then that the King is like God, and finally that the King is God. Depending on how much of a corrective your religious tradition offers against this kind of (word?), you may or may not put the brakes on at any given point during the process. But that is the natural progression.

This means that when you’re looking at human religious experience, across individuals and across cultures, you’re looking at a variety of God-constructs that are in various states of decay in terms of their relationship to God qua God. The further that any of these constructs deviates from truth, the more it will express itself in marked contrast to all other God-constructs. The more that it faithfully represents (rather than replacing) God, the more similarity it will bear to other mystical traditions. In general, there’s a tendency for the mystics, who spend a great deal of time deliberately and rigorously opposing the illusions thrown up by ego, to demonstrate a much higher degree of concordance than those who are engaged in more egoistic activities like, say, theology, Church politics, or religious blogging.

Now, if you happen to want a life in which you do things other than sit in a cave and meditate on the unknowable, but also you do want a spiritual life, then in one or way or another you’re going to have to rely on a succession of God-constructs that lead you, for a while, in the direction of God and then veer off into various forms of self-worship (including the self-worship inherent in the worship of one’s own cultural forms.) The essence of the spiritual life is to learn to recognize that process happening, and to learn how to let go of an idol when it is no longer leading you towards truth. But most people are not good at that, and so you have the panoply of human religious experience which basically represents a constant and highly varied movement both towards and away from God.

To me, this has long seemed like a more or less necessary aspect of spirituality. If the core goal is to overcome subjectivity, and its ultimately restricted field of activity, then the primary obstacle will always be subjectivity and its illusions. Reaching out into the beyond will always be a fraught experiment, even if (as the Gospel states) the beyond is doing most of the work by entering into the human condition and transforming our subjectivity from within. The kind of contradictory projections and constructs that we encounter in religious life are exactly what we should expect to encounter if God is real. But it’s not the experience of these projections that forms the basis for spirituality. It’s not talking to God, but rather finding oneself in the presence of something that is so profoundly, indescribably, and incontrovertibly other than oneself that forms the basis of conversion – I mean, at least for someone like me.

These experiences are extremely rare. They can’t be orchestrated. They’re frustratingly difficult to describe and practically impossible to induce (hence my complete non-interest in studies of people having religious experiences – I can’t think of a methodology where you could be able to gain access to the real thing rather than to its self-generated representations within the psyche.) But from what I’ve read and seen in the works of those who have come the closest to describing it, there is no question in my mind that we are, in our desperately inadequate ways, attempting to relate the same ineffable truth.

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