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Multiplicity:  The problem of many and one

In the last column we discussed the problem of existence, how Pagans could approach the ontological questions of existence in a way that includes multiplicity of beliefs.  Now I want to discuss the problem of multiplicity of Gods and Goddesses, not just existence. 

Why many, instead of one?

That is a fundamental question associated with Pagan belief.  First we need to define what exactly we mean by “many”.  There are several interpretations of what we mean by the word “many”.  We may mean that we have only one God or set of Gods and Goddesses, but we accept the existence of others, within the context of differing beliefs.   On the other hand we may mean that there is just one, ultimate, Godhead [1] which enshrouds and encompasses all the various manifestations of Deity.  But there are many different manifestations of deity.  Finally [2], many can mean many.  Or, that there are multiple, independent, Deities within a single pantheon, that each individually hold a claim to a unique divinity.  This can, of course, be extended to say there are multiple unique pantheons, each representing a particular path of way of relating to deity. 

The first definition of “many” is, in my opinion and understanding, co-existent with the concept of Paganism.  Because there is no one canonical doctrine, Pagans look to their heart, community, or practical experience to define the pantheon and creeds they believe in.  Thus it is incoherent for a Pagan not to accept the reality of multiple pantheons and belief systems that arise from the direct experience of others [3].  Rather it is essential to the concept of Paganism, both historically [4] and in the current neo-Pagan movement that they do.  Unfortunately this argument leads us more in the direction of investigating Pagan concepts of belief, rather than Pagan concepts of multiplicity.  That is a subject for another column. 

Wicca is commonly described as being in the second camp.  While the Lord and Lady, and all the other various Deities that surround traditional Wicca, are seen as uniquely addressable entities, there is a fundamental mystery at the heart of the pantheon, a Mother Goddess if you will, which is a uniary foundation for deity [5].   This unknowable mystery is the Godhead from which the various aspects or “personalities” of pantheons spring. 

There are at least two ways to interpret this concept of multiple manifestations of the Godhead:  single personality, multiple aspects, or multiple sparks from a single fire.  The first case seems to be similar to certain existential concepts of the Trinity, [6] where the father is the godhead while the son and holy spirit are ways to express and sustain the world.  This line of reasoning is also found frequently in Wiccan writings, where the various Goddesses in different traditions  are reflections of the one, unknowable, mystery [7].  In this case Morgan and Kali are different ways of describing one aspect of the Goddesses’ personality.   

The second concept of multiplicity, multiple sparks of deity emanating from a single all-encompassing source, is more commonly found in esoteric writings [8].  In this case all spirit is similar, while some spirits are more evolved or further along on their path than others.  This common essence of spirit is reflected in the tradition of seeing the God and Goddess in every man and woman, of their being a spirit inherent in everyone that is a piece of the divine nature.  In this sense we are all Gods and Goddesses, and the actual Gods and Goddesses are representations of what we become.   Likewise the Morgan and Kali individually share the same divine spark that illuminates and sustains all the Gods and Goddesses, as well as ourselves. 

The first view of multiplicity, that the Gods and Goddesses are multiple aspects of a single personality, can be criticized from several different lines of reasoning, not the least of which is syncreticism.  While syncreticism is a separate topic, in this case seeing all the various traditions Gods and Goddesses as reflecting different aspects of the singular Lord and Lady risks making the various traditions into one, mixed up, melting pot.  If the Morgan is just another aspect of the same elements of the Lady’s personality that are represented by Kali, then it can be seen as just fine to mix and match traditions and pantheons as one would see fit.  While this syncreticism is an inherent element of Paganism, it also begins to break down at the limits.  If all is the same and all the traditions can be mixed, then the individual powers of different traditions begin to degrade.  At the most extreme, the meaning, power, and significance of coherent unique traditions  breaks down.  Likewise, taken to its extreme, this line of reasoning risks falling into Pantheism, a fine sort of place to be philosophically speaking.  But it is not the one we are discussing here. 

The second concept, a single fire with multiple sparks, provides a coherent metaphor for explaining the multiplicity of deities in the world.  In this view, the element of the Godhead is within each of us.  We are all divine.  This gives rise to one of the most common criticisms of neo-Paganism: self-centeredness.  While this is another topic for another column, the accusation of self-centeredness is an almost incessant drumbeat from serious Christian apologists attacking neo-Paganism and New Age religion [9].  The argument is that we have elevated ourselves to the level of god, and thus taken on the role of determining what is right and what is wrong.  We no longer see it necessary to “submit” to a higher level of moral authority, opening up the door to much mischief.  Which we then take advantage of. 

This is a serious argument, with pragmatic, ethical, and epistemological aspects that are best dealt with in a separate section.  However the pragmatic and ethical arguments against inherent (or inherited) divinity, do not address the argument for or against multiplicity.  I would argue that this characterization of divinity is a strong path for understanding multiplicity, and can be used to explain multiple, interdependent deities.

However the most difficult problem is, I believe, even more interesting.  The most difficult problem is one of multiple, independent, and aware deities, each acting and interacting as uniary deities.  Thus, in this case, we have multiplied the Christian ontological problem by an infinite number.  It is to the ontological argument that we now turn, to see what we can do with it when the Gods and Goddesses multiply. 

In general most of the ontological arguments have focused on existence, not uniqueness.  Some of the proofs that extend to uniqueness follow the standard “no greater being argument”:  That inherent in the concept of a perfect being is it having attributes that are perfect, such as perfect existence.  Since existence that is not unique would not be perfect existence, hence the deity is unique.  Or some variant of such arguments.

I think there are two substantial problems with this argument [10].  The obvious one is the definition of “perfection”.  What one culture or way of thinking, perhaps one steeped already in Greek philosophy and monotheism, would think of as “perfection” another might not.  Perfection is not an inherently objective term, rather it is contained within a cultural and social context within which it is used.  Perfection is relative. 

The second part of this argument accedes the point of needing perfection to be inherent in deity.  However it does not give into the equation of perfection with unity.  The argument can still be made the divinity must be unique, without an implicit need for it to be singular.  One could equally well argue that zero is as perfect than one, perhaps even more so.  Likewise you could ask whether one is better or worse on the scale of things than many.  If we are talking candy bars, or dollars, I suspect that most would rather have many than one. 

Both of these lines of argument strike at the heart on uniary deity by placing it in the relative social context within which the argument is made.  The question of many vs. one, and the questioning of basic assumptions of hierarchy in arguments such as “perfection” will I suspect apply to many different formulations of the uniqueness argument [11]

I would contend that many of the neo-Pagan traditions that associate multiplicity with an ultimate, uniary, reality may be doing so not because of some inherent justification for doing so, but rather they are building their arguments within the social and philosophical contexts of neo-Greek philosophy and monotheism.  We do not have to embed our arguments within this social context if we do not want to.

Finally, if the cultural preferences for one instead of many are stripped away, the ontological argument can, in some ways, be broken into pieces.  The divine has many attributes, locations, and manifestations.  It can have the attributes of love, charity, fear, anger, loss, or transcendence.  In any one of these attributes the most perfect, the most beautiful, the quality for which there is no greater quality, can be thought of as defining the concept of the various Gods and Goddesses.  They are the perfect projection of the attribute or element of nature that we are capable of projecting.  While the nature of the perfection is beyond our understanding, the quality of “beyondness” can be used to define the concept of the God or Goddess.

For example, the sun or sky is a common attribute associated with various ancient Pagan Gods.  Bel, Sun/Sol, Ra, and Apollo all have associations with the sun.  They are not the sun; rather they can be seen as having the perfect representation of the sun associated with them.

Pagan Gods and Goddesses are multifold not only in their numbers but also in their attributes.  Instead of encompassing all, which leads to a transcendent god that exists beyond all, the Pagan Gods and Goddesses are less than all, but still beyond the world.  Their multifold attributes gives them differentiation, personality, and loss. 

By differentiation I mean that each God or Goddess has the characteristic of being different from the other Gods or Goddesses.  This multiplicity rises out of the fact that they don’t have each and every possible attribute that we could assign to them.  If they did have all the attributes, they would be pretty much the same.

By personality I mean that out of differentiation, and out of complexity of characteristics, personality arises.  By personality I mean a distinct viewpoint, a distinct way of working in the world. 

By loss I mean that the Gods and Goddesses are incomplete, as are all things that exist in the world.  There is nothing that encompasses everything, just as we ourselves cannot be everything within the context of our lives. 

We specialize and represent multiform views, abilities, emotions, and goals.  The Gods and Goddesses also specialize.  Unlike a transcendent god who by being beyond the world encompasses it, the Pagan Gods and Goddess reflect the complexity of the world and that which is in it.  They differentiate between the sky and the earth.  Their attributes may encompass motherhood, and care for dogs and horses. 

As with humans, these multiform attributes of the Gods and Goddesses create uniqueness.  They create a mixture of interests, skills, and attributes.  In humans we call this personality and individuality, an attribute we can extend to the Pagan Gods and Goddesses. 

This peculiarity does not necessarily eliminate the ontological argument from Pagan consideration, but it does require us to remove the part of the ontological argument that makes uniary deity more perfect than multiform deity.  I argue that multiform deity, with specialization, multiple attributes that create personality, and loss of things that are not included in the particular God or Goddess, can be argued as perfection.  This is perfection that occurs by better reflecting the world, not by abstraction or composition of the many into the one [12].

This concept of “loss” or lack of certain attributes in the Gods and Goddesses can be used to develop a better understanding of the role of light and dark, or “good” and “evil” in a Pagan theology.  While details of that discussion can be left for later, the acknowledgement of lack of attributes, whether termed loss as I do or imperfection as others might, means that the Pagan concept of deity is more intrinsically accepting of the complexity of light and dark, or good and evil, or life and death.  Seeing loss as inherent in the concept of deity, of the concept of spiritual perfection, means that it is easier to also accept the balance between life and death, light and dark, as a part of the concept of deity.  The existence of many Gods and Goddess creates an interesting intellectual grounding though which we may be able to understand many of the different aspects of the Pagan faith [13]

So can we “prove” the existence of the Gods and Goddesses?  Not only do we not need to, I have argued that the entire concept of “proof” is an exercise that is not terribly relevant to Pagans.  We literally have nothing to “prove” because for us experience trumps proof.  Likewise we don’t have anyone to “prove” anything to, you either are Pagan or you aren’t, and only the Gods and Goddesses are worthy to change your mind. 

However in examining the ontological argument in the context of “many” against “one,” I believe we can have an interesting discussion about the attributes of the Gods and Goddesses, and how those attributes shape and guide our thoughts about deity, ethics, and our religion.  Understanding, instead of “proof”, is a useful goal for discussion of philosophical proofs about the Gods and Goddesses. 

End Notes

[1] While in Christian belief the godhead refers to the trinity, I’m using it a more general sense to refer to any unitary amalgam of multiple Deities.   I capitalize the Pagan use of the word, using lower case for the Christian meaning.   Often this is referred to as the “unknowable mystery” in Witchcraft, or the “limitless light” of esoteric and Cabbalistic terms.  I choose to use the term Godhead as part of the continued project of reclaiming theological vocabulary from exclusively Christian use. 

[2] Well, not quite “finally.”  There are other ways in which Pagan, particularly Wiccan, deities are defined.  These include the concepts that Deities are manifestations of the Jungian archetypes that arise from the collective unconscious [for example, see Vivian Crowley, Wicca, Harper-Collins, 1996] or Cabbalistic approaches that marry more traditional Occult concepts to Pagan deities [Stewart Farrar, What Witches Do, Phoenix, 1991],

[3] One possible extension of this line of reasoning is that it is not necessary that Pagans accept belief that arises from something other than direct experience or inner recognition of truth.  For example, if someone were told what to believe, and believed it solely because they had been either indoctrinated, duped, or pestered into believing something, and thus had no inward confirmation of the truth, then it could be argued (and I would) that, from a Pagan perspective, that form of belief is inconsistent and in error.  It is in error in the sense that it has not been arrived at in a way that one individual could convince another of its sincerity from their perspective.  It is inconsistent in the sense that it is inconsistent with a fundamental aspect of our belief, that of multiplicity in spiritual matters being derived from authentic spiritual experience.  I would, of course, not use this argument to justify pestering the poor soul some more just to convince them of their error...

[4] See the famous example of the Romans tolerating a wide range of beliefs, as long as you also sacrificed to the state religion. [see, for example, Franz Cumont, The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Dover, 1956]

[5] See, for example, Starhawk:  “These [Goddesses listed in the Charge of the Goddess] are not seen as separate beings but, rather, as different aspects of the same Being that is all beings.” [Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, Harper, 1999, p. 108]. Or “At one end [of the Witch’s spectrum of reality] is the unknowable ultimate, the Ain Soph Aur or limitless light of the Cabalists, from which all stems.” [Farrar, p. 33]

[6] I make no representation that I have the first clue about anything Christian, or any book religion in general.  I would assume the doctrine of the Trinity is fraught with complexities and nuances that a humble Unitarian would not begin to be able to understand...  For a better (but not necessarily totally comprehensible) explanation of the Trinity see the John Macquarrie section in [Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Blackwell, 1994, p. 264].

[7] “...many modern Witches believe that the Divine Source is comprised of masculine and feminine aspects or polarities.  In an attempt to better understand the Divine Source, the polarities are labeled “Goddess” and “God” and each one is further divided into the various aspects and natures attributed to a variety of gods and goddesses.  This is designed to reveal a better understanding of the whole by examining its parts.” in Raven Grimassi, Spirit of the Witch, Llewellyn, 2003, p. 153.  Also, similarity, “The view of the All as an energy field polarized by two great forces, Female and Male, goddess and God, which in their ultimate being are aspects of each other, is common to almost all traditions of the Craft.” (though she goes on to note that subsequent experience has show a more complicated, multipolar, world) in Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, Harper, 1999, p. 50.

[8] And thus it is commonly found in Witch traditions that draw from esoteric sources, such as the Cabala.  For example, here are two sources that both draw from the occultist Dione Fortune and Cabbalism:  “In [The Mystical Cabala], Dion Fortune, who was an initiate of that tradition, discusses the real nature of the gods as ‘magical images’, made not out of stone or wood, but shaped by the thoughts of mankind out off the substance of the astral plane which is affected by the energies of the mind; hence it is sometimes referred to as ‘mind-stuff’...” from Doreen Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, Phoenix, 1978, p. 30 and “At one end is the unknowable ultimate, the Ain Soph Aur or Limitless Light of the Cabalists, from which all stems.  Next, the spiritual plane:  the God and Goddess, by whatever names they are known or in whatever aspects they are personified–what may be called the manifestations off the Ain Soph Aur in humanly comprehensible terms, the hierarchy of lesser spiritual beings, and the souls, or essential individualities, of men and women.” from Stewart Farrar, What Witches Do, Pheonix, 1991, p. 33.  Admittedly this is a bit of a refined distinction, reflections of light vs. different aspects, but I believe it is an important one, since if the Gods and Goddesses represent different aspects of the ultimate mystery there is less individuality than if it is merely the raw material from which they are formed. 

[9] I strongly disagree with anyone who refers to the neo-Pagan movement as “New Age”.  They are two distinctly different movements with different concepts of divinity and how to act in the world.  However both share this particular vulnerability to criticism. Because of that we often get lumped into the “New Age” category when people are taking swipes at Paganism.  For a coherent discussion of New Religious Movements (NRM) and the distinction between Paganism and New Age religion see [Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon, Oxford, 1999, p. 411] where he says:  “I have myself met many New Agers who have considered pagan witchcraft to be a part of their movement, I have never yet encountered a pagan witch who did.”

[10] As with all these arguments there are “standard” objections to them, I’m off the rails here and making up some of my own for my own purposes. 

[11] I am trying, with less success, to make an argument here that is similar to Stephen J. Gould’s argument with the concept of progression and hierarchy in evolution.  Gould’s argument is essentially that any concept of “progress” in evolution is a human construction.  There is no inherent evolutionary principle that says humans are better adapted than platypuses.  In fact one could argue the opposite (unless you have seen a platypus driving an SUV lately).  Generally developing a hierarchy justified by science almost always ends in tears. 

[12] By composition I mean the collection of multiple attributes into one overlying theory or concept that includes all subordinate attributes.  This is much of the goal of modern Physics:  to develop a unified theory of whatever it is being investigated.  Composition in terms of deity brings together multiple attributes or concepts into one concept of deity, which is thought to be superior to a decomposed, or multiform concept. 

[13] “Faith”  Again, part of reclaiming theological language from the Christians.  Pagans have faith (of a certain kind), and neo-Paganism and Witchcraft are faiths as well as religions. 

 

 

 

 

 

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