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Polytheism and monotheism (illusion)

The divide between monotheism and polytheism is illusory, being produced by the way Christianity and Islam conceptualise themselves. The path to the sacred is through nature—and religions tend to rely on poetic evocation to invoke the sacred. This leads to a permanent disjunction with science, since poetic approaches to the world exclude science by definition—and this includes science in its broadest terms, such as modern historical analysis and linguistics. If I say, “There is a circle in the sand by the river—go to it, I will meet you there,” and that becomes an article in a religion then for the sober scientific view questions arise as to which river the statement refers.

Yet to think this way, to analyse geological features throughout the text, defeats the object—it will lead to atheism, since the location will either prove to be “mystical” or “non-existent”. “Go ye, to the circle in the sand—there, by the river, the goddess spoke to me; and she will speak to you too.” Yet we cannot find the river, we cannot find the circle, and so the goddess is made up too. Of course, I know that gods literally manifest—having seen them myself—but the process by which you reach them is poetic; and this has caused problems since Plato at least—he who banished the poets as liars (the poetry is just the glue to contact the gods). At last, in a materialist age, all that is left is the poetry of religion—and that is appreciated aesthetically and as a useful cultural artefact; but nobody thinks the goddess appears at the river bank if you draw a circle in the sand (nobody tries, of course—it’s silly).

To invoke the sacred you must work with the natural world around you. Where does monotheism come from? The desert. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all desert religions. There is little nature in the desert—just stones, rocks, and the occasional oasis. Hence “monotheism”—the poet has very little to work with in the natural world and so he contacts the “one God”, perhaps a singular deity or the Godhead itself. There’s just no scope for nature nymphs or dryads—there are no rivers and glades, just rocks. So monotheism grows from its geographical location—and, indeed, it is said that in the Golden Age the world enjoyed a correct spiritual-geographic alignment, so as to speak of gods from certain regions and the close relation between landscape and the sacred is far from foolish.

It’s why Christianity is somewhat awkward in England, if you think about it. The desert poets speak of the divine as “fresh water”, “water for parched lips”, and speak of paradise as characterised by waters and cool shade. If you’ve ever been to the Middle East you will appreciate quite what “heat” is—the heat is utterly oppressive, so that you cannot really do anything at midday. It is only when you have experienced that heat that you realise what the writers of the Bible meant by “the fresh waters of paradise”. England, by contrast, is very wet. Hence there is a disjunction in the poetic evocation of God—the “sweet waters for parched lips” mean very little in a country that is often drenched even in summertime. The correct invocation for England would be, “God who is like a calm summer’s day, without a cloud in the sky.”—for the Semitic desert-dweller such a condition would be the opposite to “divine”, it would be normality (often a harsh and oppressive normality).

In a lush country, there is more to poeticise—there are rivers, glades, meadows, multiple flowers (over 2,500 species in England), and trees, and animals. Hence religion in lush countries—even in Egypt, with her Nile—always features multiple gods. The divide between “monotheists” and “polytheists” is really so: it’s a question of geography—in desert countries there is “one god” because nature itself is univocal, there’s pretty much “the desert” (and the the gardens of the Lord—which are rare, the odd oasis here and there). It’s why religion needs to be attuned to locality to make sense.

Further, so-called “polytheistic” faiths almost always recognise some procreative yet ineffable Godhead from whence all particular gods spring—monotheists just reduce the pantheon to the one ineffable principle (easier to do in a stark environment where everything is dead and you become aware of the general generative principle). The picture is confused because sometimes “monotheists” also personify the generative principle—this is so in Christianity; for the ordinary Christian, God is meant to be like an individual you talk to, as with Yahweh or Zeus (just greater); and yet at the theological level he is clearly an ineffable generative principle that has no personality and, being infinite, transcends comprehension. In actuality, “true monotheism” is rare—Catholicism basically has “gods”, all those saints (and all but the most austere Protestants omit the saints altogether). Islam comes closest (with Puritanism) to true monotheism—but even the Muslims have reintroduced saints and holy men; and they also venerate prophets, such as Abraham and Jesus.

The divide between “polytheism” and “monotheism” is mostly an invention by Christians and Muslims who want to push down rival religions. As Muslims would be quick to point out, there is little difference between Catholicism and the old Roman paganism—there is a generative principle and then there are multiple “gods” (the saints); and, of course, Muslims don’t even accept that Jesus was the son of God, nor do they accept the Trinity (how could the one God split himself? To say he did is polytheism). Yet you see it is somewhat a matter of perspective and how you conceptualise the generative principle—and it is also connected to geography; to the desert dweller, for the man who spends months in a bleak rock-cave, multiple gods make little sense. His world is the heat shimmer at midday, the blue sky, and the dust—what else can there be but Allah, the Lord of Creation?

It is harder, if not impossible, to reach a similar view in an English country garden or in a vast Teutonic forest—there’s just evidently more about, just more life. Hence, really, to appreciate Christianity in America it would help to live somewhere like Arizona where you can really feel the emptiness of the desert that could only be filled with one God—and, of course, Christianity was born in urban Galilee and Jerusalem; if you want real monotheism, you need to go deep into the desert like Mohammad—who doubtless would be at home deep in Arizona, with only an eagle for company.


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