Monthly Archives: November 2013

One or Many: Further Musings

oneThis post delves further into the interaction between polytheism and monotheism. The subject rose in my mind partly because of the discussion with the anonymous Muslim who commented on The Myths of Jesus below, and partly by a briefer discussion on the creation of religion in fantasy fiction, in which the other person preferred a polytheistic faith for her fantasy worlds.

I’ve been both a monotheistic Christian and a polytheistic Neopagan in the past, and now call myself a spiritual person without a label, so perhaps I’m well positioned to discuss this subject. Whether that’s true or not, I’m going to.

Polytheism lends itself better to the creation of colorful and varied myths. A god or goddess who isn’t everything, but the divine embodiment of something, can be the subject of delightful stories. Even in the Bible, the earliest myths are apparently polytheistic; the Lord of the Book of Genesis is not the One God of later Judaism but one god among many, particularly involved with the nurturing of humanity in the Garden of Eden, but acting in concert with other gods when need arose. The stories about the Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Vedic pantheons are wonderful tales. How else could the story be told of Time (Chronos) eating his children, and his youngest son stopping his cannibalistic ways? How better could the essential dichotomy of Cunning and Strength be presented than in the stories of Thor and Loki? (I especially love the tale of how Loki disguised Thor as a woman and fooled a giant into falling in love with him, in order to infiltrate the giant’s stronghold. One can sense the thunder god’s diminishing patience with the whole scheme, and see the trickster struggling to contain his laughter.) When there are many gods, one can indulge in a sense of play and story-crafting that is lost, somehow, when the gods combine into One.

Polytheism also generates deities that are more accessible, more easily visualized and connected to the human mind, than monotheism. This is probably its biggest virtue. A god among many, part of a pantheon, does not pretend to be universal, and so we cannot make the mistake of thinking that this conception of the divine which we can imagine and get our minds around is the All. That’s a fairly common mistake among monotheists, leading to religious intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

On the other hand, polytheism also tends to locality and is not so easily adapted to universality. A good example of this effect is the crisis that the Roman Empire went through in the Third-Fourth Centuries CE. Under the Republic, the Roman empire (we don’t capitalize it yet) was a true and classic empire: one very strong nation, the city-state of Rome, dominating many others, all the lands around the Mediterranean. The pagan religion of the ancient Romans sufficed just fine when the Romans were the only ones who mattered. But this governing structure became cumbersome and unmanageable, and Augustus added a layer of governance on top of it strictly for the provinces, leaving the Republic in charge of the city of Rome and its citizens. This new layer of governance, the Empire (now we capitalize it), was detached from Rome and the Romans from the beginning, and over the centuries became less and less Roman and more an entity in itself providing government for the Mediterranean world. But the religion of the Romans was of no appeal outside Italy. It was fine as a religion for the Romans, but not for the Empire. A number of disasters in the Third Century caused a breakdown of government. It was restored under Diocletian, but his successor, Constantine, saw a need for spiritual underpinning and support for his government, something more broad-reaching and universal, and of the two main contenders, Christianity and Mithraism, he chose Christianity, with enormous historical consequences.

A comparable crisis on a smaller scale struck the Israelites when they were forcibly removed from their country and resettled elsewhere in the Middle East by the Assyrians and Babylonians. We think of Judaism as a monotheistic faith and of course that’s the case today, but in ancient times it was not. The Torah does not claim that the God of the Jews is a sole god, only that he is the one the Jews are supposed to worship above all others. Implicit in this is that other gods exist, making ancient Judaism a polytheistic religion. The Israelites obviously saw no compelling reason to abide by the First Commandment, but often wandered in their allegiance, worshiping the local deities, the Baals and Astartes of the Phoenicians. Their god was a local god, a tribal god, the god of their people in particular but not of the cosmos as a whole, and as such he commanded only limited allegiance.

This ended during the captivity. Denied access to the land where, in their prior understanding, their god lived, they could not go on as his devotees in the same way they had conceived of him. The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom, transported by the Assyrians, seem to have simply abandoned their Jewishness and assimilated to local customs. There is every reason to believe their descendants still live in modern-day Iraq and are today Muslims for the most part (which means they came to a form of monotheism just like their southern cousins, although it took longer).

The people of the Southern Kingdom, transported by the Babylonians, changed their conception of their god instead. He became a spirit, worshiped in spirit regardless of location, and he became a universal God, rather than a local or tribal god. At this point in time, their religion took on characteristics that we can properly associate with Judaism as it exists today.

This story of the transformation of JHVH from tribal god to universal God illustrates one of the two main ways that monotheistic or monistic ideas can arise from a polytheistic background. In this process, one of the gods is promoted to One God, and all others are either demoted to the servants or messengers of the One God, or else suppressed entirely.

The other path is illustrated by the emergence in Hinduism of the concept of Brahman. Brahman is not, properly speaking, a god; it is all-that-is, the Universal Soul, and the Oneness that is found at the root of the diversity of the universe. Hindus continue worshiping their many gods and goddesses, but believe that this diversity exists only at a superficial level of reality and at a deeper level the gods are all One. In this transformation — because there is good reason to believe that the ancient Vedic religion that preceded Hinduism was straightforwardly polytheistic, without the monistic concepts that exist in Hinduism today, so this represents a transformation — no one of the gods emerged to dominate all the others. Instead, a concept was advanced of a unity underlying apparent diversity.

My own understanding of deities is in their symbolic or metaphorical power, given a life of their own through the magic of the imagination, and so their nature reflects that of nature itself. The universe is both one and many — and so the same should be true of our conception of the divine. (To the extent we even make use of one, personifying the cosmos — that is not a requirement of spirituality.) There is a tendency in both monotheistic and polytheistic faiths to reach towards the other side of the spectrum. From the monotheistic end, we find Christians, theoretically monotheists, worshiping less lofty deities created from angels and saints, or conceiving of Jesus or of Mary as someone distinct from the lofty and inaccessible God, for all that Christian doctrine insists that Jesus is an aspect of the One God, not a separate deity, and that Mary and the saints are not divine. A good many Muslims, too, seem inclined to call upon the Virgin Mary as an intercessor with God, and one finds them and Christians praying to her together in certain parts of the Middle East, despite even stricter injunctions against polytheism in the Quran.

From the polytheistic end one finds a tendency to seek an understanding of the cosmos as one rather than (or in addition to) many, a search for a binding unity and universality rather than a splintering. In addition to the Indians, the ancient Greek philosophers thought along similar lines, and there are lines of monistic thought among today’s Neopagans, too, although they are not universally agreed upon.

It seems that the spiritual instinct is to recognize both the unity and the diversity of the cosmos. And to my thinking, that’s as it should be.

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Spirituality and Magical Power

13424453_sThis relates to my current work in progress, Volume Two of Refuge, titled The Ingathering. The main character is a magical prodigy, potentially a huge asset to the Andol in their struggle against the Droon (see here for information about the Refuge world). But she has serious barriers to developing her abilities. Her magic is suppressed and causes her to exhibit psychotic symptoms, bipolar disorder with hallucinations. As she speculates:

Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.

The other problem is that Claire, a Buddhist, is convinced that use of magical powers is antithetical to the quest for desirelessness and enlightenment. Use of magic feeds the ego and prevents a person from rising above the illusion of the individual self, or so Claire believes. Her powers manifest normally only in small and mostly passive ways, enhancing her perception of the world and allowing her to sense people’s feelings, see auras (including the malevolent auras of the Droon), and gain intuitive insights into the past, present, and future. She is capable of much more, but (so far anyway) these greater powers have only manifested when she loses a measure of control in a depressive or manic episode. When that happened, her depression disappeared (temporarily), but she is reluctant to learn how to use her magic because of what it may do to her spiritual journey.

This internal conflict suggested itself to me because it really exists in some spiritual contexts, mostly but not exclusively Eastern, particularly Buddhist. But one finds it in a Hindu setting as well, and Abrahamic religions have a dubious view of magic, too. Refuge is contemporary fantasy, set in our own world, and so I am in a position to use real-world religious teachings such as Buddhism and Christianity (the latter being the faith of the Scourge of God) as part of the story. In an other-world setting this may not be possible, but in crafting the religion, spirituality, and magic of the other world, or in applying fantasy elements within this one, the conflict between spirituality and magic (and its resolution, if that is possible) become potential story elements and, at very least, parts of the world.

What I’m setting out below are some points in regard to the relations between magic and spirituality as they actually exist. It’s possible to craft a fantasy version of magic that bears little resemblance to the real thing, of course, and then some of the points below will cease to be valid; magic will simply be a type of natural force that exists in the fantasy world but not (as far as we know) in the one we inhabit. My own preference both as a writer and as a reader is to start with real magic and blow it out of proportion or give mages abilities that are beyond my own, but the same in principle — something analogous to speculative science fiction, which starts with real science and speculates on what might be given further developments. The points below assume that context.

Spirituality is magical

The rituals and methods used for spiritual purposes in many esoteric and meditative paths are very similar to those used in magical practice for other ends. The power raised is essentially the same, and so are the methods by which it is channeled and focused. The only difference is the purpose to which it is put. From the point of view of religious authorities, it is those purposes that are problematical, not the power of magic itself. (Unless of course the power comes from an unacceptable source, which it may, but need not — and any mage with a grain of common sense will avoid power sources inimical to his or her own existence!)

Religious authorities are not only uncomfortable with the idea of magical power being used for worldly and perhaps malicious ends, but also with the increase in spiritual experience that may result in a context beyond their control. Every prophet is a heretic, inspired by the power of the cosmos to penetrate under the comfortable and secure illusions that religion weaves and dispute the standard doctrines. If prophecy becomes widespread, belief will become ungovernable, and religious authority will face constant rebellion, chaos, anarchy!

One finds countermeasures applied in all religious contexts. Some religions simply suppress magic and spirituality both, and try to keep everything on a rational basis. Note that this is not the same as a scientific basis. Science is rational, but its reasoning is based on observation as a touchstone. It is quite possible to be rational but unscientific, basing one’s reasoning on assumed first principles or sacred texts, rather than observation. A rigid framework of doctrine defines such an approach, and any spiritual insight that points outside the framework is condemned. What should be in the domain of mythos is instead subjected to the rules of logos.

Where suppression is either impossible or, for whatever reason, not desired, religious authorities have instead attempted to contain magic. Those with magical talent and spiritual awareness are discouraged from having children (hoping to snuff out any genetic predisposition that may exist — something we don’t actually know, of course). One finds this in the Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions and in the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world in pursuit of holiness. At the same time as the talented are forbidden to breed, they are also forbidden from being involved in the world. The monk has all his worldly needs met and turns all of his efforts and powers towards achieving holiness or enlightenment; the sadhu lives in deliberate poverty and does nothing that might impact society. Among those who might not be willing to pursue a monastic or renunciate life, teachings are spread suggesting that the use of magical powers interferes with the quest for enlightenment (such as Claire believes), or that all magical power comes from evil sources.

This is a pattern found in all the world’s major religions, but there are some religious exceptions. Notable examples are the African and African/Christian fusion religions such as Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble, and also Neopagan religions such as Wicca and Druidism. But it is characteristic of these magic-encouraging religions that they exercise less doctrinal and behavioral control by central authorities than is common with the major faiths.

The head of the dragon

The power of magic and spirituality has been likened in one Yoga tradition to a serpent that winds about the spine. Another metaphor that I’ve used in the past is similar: this power is like the head of the dragon, which may be lifted up to the skies in flight, or may drop down towards the Earth and breathe fire.

The potential tension here is between the quest for enlightenment and the quest for power. The power of the dragon (that is to say, of magic) may be used for either one. But if it is exclusively focused on enlightenment, then it makes no difference in the way the world functions, and the potential good it might do is lost. On the other hand, if the focus is exclusively on power, then the danger of power being misused (deliberately or inadvertently) is real and high. Only by soaring high can the dragon gain the vision needed to guide his power. But only by dropping low and breathing fire can these insights be put into practice.

And that is the dilemma that Claire will face as she confronts situations where she must use her magic or see all her friends die — and at the same time, retain her focus on enlightenment that has defined her life up to now. Because if she doesn’t learn to use the power, then it will use her, and not necessarily in ways that she would like.

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