Are Your Gods Too Big?

I am a big believer in the importance of mythological consciousness. I believe that humans, in general, are more vibrant and happy when their lives have a certain dose of the impossible and the absurd.

That said, I have a lot of sympathy for Atheists.

Case in point:

“A new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute asked people about the severity of recent natural disasters. About six in 10 (62 percent) said climate change is at least partly to blame.  About half — 49 percent — cited the biblical end times (as in, the apocalypse) for the recent natural disasters. That latter number is up five points from 2011. […] In addition, 39 percent of Americans say God would not allow humans to destroy the Earth (53 percent disagree). So, apparently, most of those who believe we’re in the end times also believe God would intervene. Basically at least four in 10 Americans see little reason for a human response — or, at least, doubt things will wind up being catastrophic.” — From The Washington Post, emphasis added. EndTimes

I was flabbergasted when I read this, at least at first. Then, I settled back into my chair. Having an all-powerful god means never having to take responsibility for anything other than pleasing that god.

How nice for these people that they can ruin the planet for future generations without a shred of remorse, because they have made their deity so powerful in their own sight that whatever happens was “meant to be.”

Peachy. Let’s all stop using birth control and have 19 kids like the Duggars and tool around in diesel powered cars, because either your god will destroy the world, or he won’t.

WHY WOULD ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES? GOD DECIDES EVERYTHING!

:: twitches ::

I can see where someone might say that the belief in a divinity is what will ultimately be the death of us all. I can see where someone might look at all the numbers and decide that religion is simply an opiate, that it is an obstacle to humans seeing, accepting and understanding the problems which endanger the survival of our species.

But, it isn’t theism, or even the Abrahamic God, which is toxic. It isn’t that followers of this deity can’t be responsible, or view their choices as meaningful.

If we look at Judaism, for example, wherein many sects consider humanity, in aggregate, to be God’s other half, and where the traditional laws are seen as an extension of the human responsibility to “finish and perfect creation,” you do see a lot more in the way of environmentalism and concern for global justice. I am certain that there are branches of Christianity wherein similar views hold sway. It’s not the deity. It’s the humans. It’s their theological choice to make their deity too big and too responsible for everything. When the deity is infinitely big, and infinitely responsible for outcomes, the result is a human who views themselves as correspondingly small, and devoid of responsibility.

The deity is not toxic. The theology is. And Polytheists can sometimes be every bit as guilty of that exact theology as Monotheists.

The Problems With Gigantic And Plural

I kind of see a “my pantheon is bigger than your pantheon” subtext to a lot of dialogue between Monotheists and Polytheists. Polytheists really want to compare each of their deities, in size and scope, to the Hebrew Pantheon-of-One. YHVH is infinite? Well, so are each of our gods. YHVH is “the place wherein creation exists?” So are our gods, each of them.

The thing we need to bear in mind is that there was, in ancient times, no uber-pantheon that contained all gods. Each early culture used its mythology to try to describe the entire world. This is why you see absurdities like ancient Romans insisting that the Norse worshipped Mercurius, or the Greeks trying to explain Kemetic polytheism away by saying that all their gods were the Greek ones in disguise. The goal of a pantheon is to contain all the forces of nature and culture, as they exist at the time of the pantheon’s manufacture. Later, there was obviously interchange and syncretism.

Each pantheon is, in total, representative of the Universe as some culture understood it. When a culture has only one god, the one god must be, out of necessity, representative of the Universe as that culture understands it. No culture needs a dozen universes worth of deity. It’s just bloody excessive. It’s also theologically problematic on two counts:

1. Something bigger than the entire universe (stated dress size of the Abrahamic deity) cannot fit inside of it. Isn’t one of the main selling points of Polytheism that its gods are close at hand and easy to experience? We call them for parking spaces and individual instances of impotence. In terms of closeness to the humans, our gods need to be in shagging range. No, really, this is kind of important.

2. It undermines the traditional Apotheosis narrative (possibly only a Hellenic problem).

Better, Not Bigger

For the last two thousand years or more, the growing trend surrounding divinities is, “bigger is better.” You want a deity who knows everything and who can solve any and every problem. You know, kind of like it’s better to have bigger and more powerful stores that take responsibility for every kind of need and sell every kind of merchandise… walmart is poverty Oh. Whoops. Ok, backing away from the snark for just a moment, I need to clarify. Monotheism, or even the belief in a single creator, is not the same as belief in a deity who can do it all. Example:

ז  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת-עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם; וְאֶת-צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו, כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-מַכְאֹבָיו. 7 And the LORD said: ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their pains;
ח  וָאֵרֵד לְהַצִּילוֹ מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם, וּלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ מִן-הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא, אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה וּרְחָבָה, אֶל-אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ–אֶל-מְקוֹם הַכְּנַעֲנִי, וְהַחִתִּי, וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי, וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי. 8 and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
ט  וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי; וְגַם-רָאִיתִי, אֶת-הַלַּחַץ, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto Me; moreover I have seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them.
י  וְעַתָּה לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְהוֹצֵא אֶת-עַמִּי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם. 10 Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth My people the children of Israel out of Egypt.’

— Exodus, Chapter 3, Verses 7-10

Notice how the Hebrew deity does not:

– Descend on a cloud to solve the problem el solo

Instead, the Hebrew deity:

– Recognizes that PR is not their strong suit

– Asks for help … from a mortal

This is extremely different than the –apparently– relatively popular notion among modern day American Christians that God’s just going to do whatever to the United States or the World, and that humans cannot and should not be involved, since God is so very big and powerful and capable of everything that it would be silly to try and help out. Another thing that strikes me: a truly omnipotent creature doesn’t need to cooperate with anyone.

Cooperation, of course, is exactly what the Hebrew deity is demonstrating in their partnership with Moses, and is a very natural theological notion for Polytheisms. After all, when you have many deities with very different perspectives, often with overlapping job descriptions, working together to run things for a nation of followers, if cooperation is not the glue that hold that together, I can’t imagine what is.

Seriously, at the end of the day, if the god of Truth and the god of Lies can sit down together to write a song, you can sit down with another Polytheist who follows a slightly different regional interpretation or who does purifications in a slightly different way than you do.

The idea that different deities have different strengths and therefore need one another requires, at the outset, a number of beings who are, separately, fallible and finite, but together, perfectly wise and all-powerful, just as the Hebrew deity’s partnership with Moses requires, at the outset, a Hebrew deity who can’t do it all themselves and needs their counterpart divinity, Israel, to actually get a thing done. It’s like that parable about the single stick versus the bundle of sticks.

By accepting the ancient view of gods as finite and imperfect, we make room for them to model the virtue of cooperation, and the art of sharing power.  So the next time some person uses the term, “small gods,” don’t take it as an insult. Actually, “small gods” are agile, closer at hand, promote personal responsibility among their followers, are capable of taking feedback, model good leadership, show us how to share power, stand as a shining example of cooperation and support the ideal of diversity. I’d take that over aloof and omnipotent deities any day.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: An Imaginary Dialogue Between Atheism & Polytheism | Under Two Trees

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