Readers in the right age bracket may remember The Peter Principle by Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. The thesis of this witty and perceptive book is that in hierarchies (corporate, military, political, etc.), people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. As long as they can handle their job well, they are promoted. When they get to a level of responsibility they cannot handle, they are not fired or demoted. Rather, the promotions stop and the person is ensconced there for the rest of their career.
It has always seemed to me that the Judeo-Christian God is a good example of this. Yahweh apparently did an excellent job as a tribal storm god, smiting enemies, disentangling the tribe from troubles with the Egyptian pharoahs, and making sure that nobody ate shrimp. He probably held his own pretty well measured against Baal and the other local competition.
Then, around the time of the writer Biblical scholars refer to as deutero-Isaiah (500 BCE or so), the idea of monotheism was taking root. People started to think of God as a universal rather than a particular, a single mind behind the world rather than one of many minds at large within it. The Jews of the time were drawn to this idea, but did not want to abandon their tribal storm god who did the smiting and rescuing thing so well. So they did what any hierarchical society would do: they promoted him to his level of incompetence.
I say that because I don’t think Yahweh has the sort of qualities that work well in the role of Universal Deity. He’s too patriarchal, too judgmental, and too warlike to be everyone’s God. The new, monotheistic theology requires a God who is truly in everyone and everything, equally. If there is a single principle that has made the whole universe and gives it life, it is hard to see how that principle could be inclined to take sides with one part of its creation against other parts. Such a universal God would simply be present as his creation played itself out according to his will or design. How could he possibly feel the need to reward part of creation and smite other parts, unless he was an incompetent craftsman who couldn’t get it right in the first place? Hmm.
Glibness aside, I think monotheism, as it is understood and practiced in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is a very problematic concept. God has been made into a cosmic universal, but worshippers still expect him to take sides and give them particular favors. They expect him to stand for a particular moral code, and to judge people (or possibly whole cultures) as good or evil. They see him as all-good and all-powerful, and so cannot explain why there is so much pain and suffering in the world, inflicted even on newborn children whom even the most judgmental monotheistic moralist could not imagine are being punished for their sins.
The Hindus did a somewhat better job of accommodating the monotheistic impulse into their religion. They recognize a universal deity in the form of Brahman, who is beyond categories and description, while a huge pantheon of particular and specialized gods and goddesses continue to interact with people and answer their day-to-day needs.
Western-style monotheism seems to draw us into one-dimensional thinking. You either obey God (good), or you don’t (evil). There’s not much room for the idea of making a choice between paths that are different but don’t seem to have any obvious ordering on the axis of good-and-evil. Which career should I follow? Do I spend time with family, or work on that novel I’m writing? Do I try to keep up that long-distance relationship, or let it go? Which of the ten worthy causes asking me for money do I contribute to?
Polytheism, on the other hand, gives us a natural framework for understanding such choices. Each god and goddesses expects something different from us. One draws out our romantic nature, another rewards hard work and discipline, a third would have us mind the hearth. Embracing one deity may mean neglecting another. That, it seems to me, is a better model for the complexity of life and its shifts and choices, than is the blunt dichotomy of good vs. evil.
An excellent metaphor for this is the Judgment of Paris, the youth who was asked to choose between Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena. His choice started the Trojan War, but we can’t be too hard on the fellow. After all, any choice would have led to dramatic consequences, as at least two goddesses were bound to be miffed by his decision.
It seems to me that life more often feels like the Judgment of Paris than like the Trials of Job. We choose between multitudes of possibilities, and each path is a mixed blessing. There’s more going on that just “Do I obey God or not?”
I appreciate the insight that the world, at some level, all flows from a single source. But I don’t think that insight is what is usually needed to navigate the particulars of a life full of possibilities, ambiguities, and shifting energies. For the business of living, we also need to appreciate that we partake of many different energies, and hear many different melodies. This is something that polytheism helps us do.
For this reason, I have mixed feelings about some of the Goddess-centric forms of modern Paganism. I’m referring to those who conceive of deity as The Goddess, rather than goddesses. There is value, of course, in retiring the patriarchal emperor God and putting an Earth Mother or similar archetype in his place. But the temptation of one-dimensional thinking still remains. For me, one of the best legacies of our ancient Pagan past is the sensitivity to the many personalities that Spirit or Deity exhibits. We live in a world that is rich with details and purposes that don’t always conform to a single grand plan. As a Pagan polytheist, I embrace that richness.