God Is Not One. No really… God Is NOT One!

God Is Not One. No really… God Is NOT One! October 24, 2010

I find it amusing that following the selection of Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One some Christian writers have scurried to assure people that he doesn’t really mean that. Of course God is One!

Prothero has said the question of whether God is one is a theological question that he can’t answer, but his book’s message is that not all religions are one. We are not all on the same journey headed towards the same goals. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus points out in his review of the book that this idea of religion being a universal concept is quite disrespectful.

I haven’t read the book all the way through, but since the contention seems to be a theological and interfaith question, and not a question of history and tradition, I feel comfortable commenting on this. It’s an important issue.

Universalism, as spun out by Theosophy, Joseph Campbell and the inclusivist movement among mainstream religions, is a well-intentioned philosophy that seeks to bring people together. It tells us to brush away the detail and focus on the major, over-arching themes. Such a philosophy is too easy (religion never is easy) and robs us of all identity and beauty.

Imagine this: with a few barrels of turpentine and some chisels and hammers we could make the Sistine chapel an interfaith facility. By removing all the detail it becomes a building like any other. I think prior to Michaelangelo it had been called “a barn” by one pope. That would be all it would take to make the chapel acceptable for use by all faiths, simply to remove the partisan detail.

Isn’t that a horriffic thought? It curdles the blood. Imagine for a moment applying the same concept to all that is Divine. Maybe you worship a Goddess with many aspects, or perhaps you worship highly individualized deities. If you are Christian, imagine stripping Jesus of anything that does not correspond with Horus, Attis, Tammuz or Odin. Imagine sanitizing your faith, wiping it clean of all intricacy and detail. Imagine combining Christmas, Channukah and Yule into some strange synthesis holiday based vaguely upon Santa Claus.

I love the intricacies of my religion and of my Gods. I love that Hephaistos prefers wine and that Inanna drinks beer. I love the graceful mystery of Wiccan cosmology, and the journey I take to reconcile the macrocosm of my community, my tradition and my coven with the quiet truths that live within my heart.  I adore the moment when the blade and chalice meet, that lovely symbol of opposites uniting. I am passionately grateful when, in the most unspiritual tone imaginable, my Gods tell me to get to work and stop whining. I love the symbolism of the five-pointed star within a circle: a human in harmony with the cosmos. It is a sigil of my relationship with the universe, or at least of how my relationship with the universe ought to be. In the secret places of my heart, I do believe my Gods the best, bravest and most wonderful of all. It’s simply a by-product of my love for them, of my devotion and perhaps a little unspoken hubris lurking in my soul.

By homogenizing all that is Divine into One, you strip all these things from me. My Gods no longer have faces, my symbols lose their meaning and so do yours. My chalice is not the same as the communion cup is not the same as the cups of the Passover seder. It is a horror not to be wished. Why do we do it? Because understanding is hard.

It is not an easy thing to understand another religion or another culture. To see from another point of view without losing your own perspective. Religion is already hard. Spiritual work is tough stuff. Just studying your own faith and knowing your own soul is the work of a lifetime. Comparative religion and interfaith dialogue is even harder. How easy it is to say it is all the same! How thoughtless and indifferent to the rich tapestry of religion you can become while appearing magnanimous. All that is required is the hubris and gall to say others do not understand their own religion. That the things they hold holy and sacred are trivial. How easy.

God is not One. God is not even God, but simply one concept among the multitude of that which is Divine. Turning all these strange and exotic dishes into mashed potatoes is sad and not very nutritious. It reminds me of a line from Auntie Mame: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” It also reminds me of how sad Orual was in Til We Have Faces when the formless God-image of her youth was changed for something more modern and Greek. The new priest in her kingdom considered the details of her faith as expendable trivialities.

No soul-work is easy and slacking off in our interfaith work is no answer. How much harder is it to acknowledge all of our differences, that we all worship different things, with different values and goals, yet still encourage and support another? How much more rewarding would that be? I think it’s worth a try.

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  • Although, I should say, my tradition does have an important saying regarding All Being One. While I’m sure we each understand it differently, on the most basic material level we are all made of star-stuff. All of us are made of atoms but it is our differences that define us, and that is a glorious thing.

  • Bravo.

    The concept that Hestia and Thoth are two archetypes of one entity has never sat well with me, although I admit, I do believe there’s a set number of deities who are known by different names and They in turn are part of a greater whole.

    My journey is not the same as a Christian. We might share similar goals: live a good life, be humble, be worthy, etc. but I am not looking to be received into a monotheist paradise nor to have my soul “saved” from unknown things that bump in the night.

  • Kauko

    To be honest though, a lot of the same complaints you’ve listed above could be directed toward Wiccans who feel free to just include any deity from anywhere in the world without any repect for what that deity may actually represent within the context of the place and time it was/ is worshipped and claiming that they are all just aspects of a universal Goddess and God.

  • _Till We Have Faces_ was very influential on me as a teenager — I’m delighted to see you mention it here. I wonder what it would be like to read it with adult’s eyes, and a much greater knowledge of religion. I do remember that it felt like it was half Pagan and half Christian…

  • Til We Have Faces is a great book. I’m a big fan of C. S. Lewis. I found it a very sad book as a teenager. It would be interesting to look at it again with fresh eyes.

  • Excellent article, Star. You’ve summed up many of my issues with interfaith work in a nutshell. I also, btw. found “Till We Have Faces” extremely influential. I even used it for many years when training within my FOI Lyceum…I had a list of essay questions I would give as my students worked through the chapters). :)

  • I say there are many gods and goddesses because I have experienced them as unique, individual beings with their own likes, dislikes, goals and personalities.

    Clearly, Baptists and Buddhists have different beliefs and practices, as do Wiccans and Wahabis. John Michael Greer’s excellent book “A World Full of Gods” makes a strong case that many limited gods explain the world we live in better than one omnipotent God. For most people most of the time, what Star is saying is true.

    But if you practice long enough and diligently enough, if you can separate the Divine from the cultural trappings we robe it in, you will end up in the same place that mystics of every age and every religion have found.

    I say God/dess is One because I have experienced – for brief, fleeting, unspeakably amazing moments – the Unity of All.

  • John, no offense intended, but what you are basically saying is that polytheism isn’t a “grown-up” belief. That, in essence, polytheists are ignorant. I can’t accept that.

    As lovely as I find mystic paths I can never truly embrace them, because it always seems at some point mystics become condescending and patronizing. Even my beloved Hafiz sometimes gets under my skin with his condescension.

    The Oneness you experienced may be correct for you but the way you express it really rubs me the wrong way. I know you don’t mean to offend, but consider how that sounds to someone whose deepest experiences have taught them that there is no One but Many!

  • John, i happen to be a polytheist and a mystic and the deepest experiences of unity that I have had with many different Gods have all served to convince me of Their multiplicity. Interconnectedness does not necessarily mean undifferentiated unity. There is a sublimity and grace in the interconnectedness of multiplicities. The stubborn insistence that at the core of the matter all Deities are One, is little more than monotheism under a different name.

    i find it offensive and I agree with Star: it comes across as immensely arrogant and condescending. Monotheism is, in the world of religion a fairly young movement. It seems far older than it is because of the blessing of literacy but, in the scope of religion it is an aberration. Not a pinnacle.

  • Robert Mathiesen

    John, mystics of every age and every religion do *not* always end up in the same place. Here is how I know that.

    The most profound mystic experience in my own life, which lasted about 6 hours, back around 1955 when I was about 13 (and a dogmatic atheist), without warning suddenly expanded my perceptions a thousand-fold and obliterated all distinctions of time and space, so that everything in our own vast universe, from its beginning in the distant past to its end in the distant future, was right at hand for me, and could be examined in every detail by my expanded sensorium. Over that universe there also brooded a single sentient observer, not particularly interested in it or caring much about it. And all this everything, including the observer, were somehow “made” of what I can only call “living fire,” though those words are a very crude and poor approximation to it.

    But that was not the whole of the experience I had. At the same time I also was brought to know (not through my senses) that beyond our own vast universe, and far beyond my own sensory perceptions (expanded as they were), lay countless greater, even more “fiery” universes. Moreover, the sentience that was observing our universe was just one of a countless number of such “beings” (“being” is way too specific and limited a word for any of them), and it was very far from being the “brightest bulb in the chandelier” among them. It was as if our universe was a children’s room, only, in some enormous library, and our observer was a librarian who could deal wioth children, but would not have been suited for most other rooms of that library with their more discerning patrons.

    What this all means, and what I should make of it, I do not know to this day. It lies beyond the power of my thought to untangle such an experience. Nonetheless, it was the most important experience of my life, and it has shaped every change that I have undergone since then.

    I said nothing about it for a few days. Eventually I told my mother about it. Rarely did she say much that wasn’t wholly ordinary, but her response to me that day has stayed with me ever since. She said, “Robby, you poor kid! You’ve seen everything the way it really is. Now you’ll have to live with that knowledge for the rest of your life. I really feel sorry for you.”

    Being curious about what had happened to me, I read widely in mystics of various religions. None of them seemed to be describing what I had experienced, though there were a few similarities with individual narratives, not the same similarities in each case. From that perspective it also seemed to me that these mystics were describing a number of different kinds of experience, but I won’t insist on that latter point. I do, however, insist that my own experience was not the same as theirs, and therefore that not all mystics end up in the same place.

  • Star, no offense taken, but I’m not saying that polytheism isn’t a grown up faith. I’m currently experiencing the presence of a very strong goddess in my life, and that experience is at least as strong and as mature as my experiences of Unity.

    Mystic religion is not inherently superior to mythical, ethical, or practical religion – it is simply different. The bard who tells the tales of the Mighty Ones, the activist who feeds the hungry, the priestess who waits with the dying, and the monk who sits in meditation are all vital parts of a healthy religious community.

    Galina, you said “Interconnectedness does not necessarily mean undifferentiated unity.” I agree. Instead of saying “God/dess is One” I should have said “All is One.”

  • whereas i would say, John, that while all may be connected in some unknowable way, all is NOT one. Nor does it have to be.

  • Galina, “All is One” is what I’ve experienced. But in the end, it’s a mystery, and you may very well be right.

  • John: as a mystery, it is by virtue of its nature inexplicable. maybe in some way we’re both right. As a shaman, i’ve learned to live with multiple worlds, states of being, and Divine paradox!

    the important thing, to my mind, is that we’re doing what we need to do in honor of the Holy Powers: making offerings, prayers..whatever is correct within one’s tradition and devotional life.

  • Parag

    Its like saying its hard to understand how all apple leaves appear same from far, but are far from same when observed minutely…..
    We have to accept this fact that All Life is One…