Archive for December, 2013

‘Nuff Polytheist Street Cred?

Last spring I went along with members of my Unitarian church to visit the Hindu Temple of Minnesota. It’s actually the largest Hindu temple in the United States! It’s a beautiful building, and I was very honored and grateful for the opportunity to see it. I just wish I’d had more time to explore, because the tour guide spent way too much time (in my opinion) explaining Hinduism, after we had already learned the basics- from another member of the temple who teaches classes there. He kept emphasizing, and wanted to make sure we all understood before we entered the sanctuary filled with shrines of gods, that Hindus are really monotheists. It seemed as if he were desperately trying to convince us of this, and essentially apologizing for his religion’s polytheistic veneer. That he was worried that Unitarians, who rejected the Trinity and affirmed the Unity of God, would pass judgment on Hinduism. Obviously, he doesn’t know us very well.

However, I have gotten the impression that Hindus, in general aren’t especially concerned with whether they are “really” polytheists or monotheists.

As for Neo-Pagans, at one point we were just polytheists worshipping different gods, but then one day it became a big deal who believed the gods were “real” individuals and who saw them as aspects of a whole. And then we had to get into a perpetual debate over who was a real, bona fide polytheist. Not one of those fake fluffy Neo-Wiccans.

There is a difference between viewing the Gods as psychological Jungian archetypes vs. different aspects of the Divine or the Consciousness of the Universe, or something. “Hard” polytheists often claim all “softies” are proponents of the former. Soft polytheists are also said to not view the Gods as “real”. My inclination is to ritually treat the gods as separate beings, and to take an agnostic position about whether they are ultimately One, because in the truest sense of agnostic, its on such a distant level from human comprehension.

We can’t claim to be any better than monotheists in this regard. They’ve spent thousands of years arguing how separate the persons of the Trinity are, how divine Jesus is, or whether honoring Mary, saints and angels is idolatry. In the end they could call Trinitarian Christians “soft monotheists” and Jews, Muslims, Unitarian Christians and Bahai’is “hard monotheists”. But does it really matter? Don’t they all worship the same God? And sorry Hindu assimilationist apologists, and Great Mother Goddess worshippers– but most of these monotheists do not see you as part of their fold.

I think what matters, as far as as figuring out who has what in common with me, and who I might want to include in my community, or be a part of theirs- is functional polytheism. Of the aforementioned Hindus, some  focus on meditating on the Oneness of the Universe (Brahman) and others more on puja devotions towards particular deities. You could say that these folks are functional polytheists.

So call yourself a polytheist. Or don’t. But don’t go out of your way to claim that your gods are all really One in some way that doesn’t really reflect your religion. Practice intellectual honesty. And tolerance, respect- don’t make absolutist statements that ridicule or condescend towards other peoples’ beliefs. Above all, be true to yourself, your gods and your communit(ies) and culture.

December 6, 2013 at 5:28 am 2 comments


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