The Deities are Many by Jordan Paper

State University of New York Press (March 3, 2005)
ISBN: 0791463885

Review by Jason Cook

The overarching aim of The Deities are Many is to demonstrate that the ideological bases of non-Western religions, all polytheistic when the effects of Western domination are removed, should be accepted by those studying religion to be as genuine as the monotheistic basis of the Western religions. The author taking on this task is Jordan Paper, an academic with a large body of work on comparative religious study of Chinese, Native American and other polytheistic faiths. Also as part of this work, he has written on the mystic experience and the feminine aspects of spirituality.

Paper’s approach to comparative religious study is that of a participant-observer. He advocates a view that to truly understand a religious culture, one must understand the native language in order to grasp the inherent worldview of that culture and one must participate in the practices of the religion with the presumption that the resulting experiences are valid and real. The author admits that this work has at time skirted advocacy and, in turn, this has driven him to write this general polytheistic theology. Paper is conscious of objections to the participant-observer approach, but argues that countering what he sees as the Eurocentrism implicit in the study of religion requires taking non-Western ideologies seriously. I interpret this to mean that the study of a religion alien to one’s own culture requires letting go of the presumptions of one’s native culture and adopting the studied religions presumptions (at least for the duration of the study) in order to fully access that religions experiences. Perhaps the ultimate issue here is if it feasible to undertake objective comparative study of religions where direct personal experiences are given primacy; luckily for us, this is not at issue in the book under review.

It is important to note that from the above that the underpinnings of Paper’s theology are his experiences in existing polytheistic faiths and not from reconstructionist or Neopagan religions. The theological conclusions are nonetheless relevant to the Neopagan or reconstructionist as they ultimately rely on an argument from direct personal experience. I would note that Paper’s dedication to what I would call a full religious-cultural immersion is consistent with ADF’s emphasis on scholarship to understand the Old Gods we are worshipping, though our task faces additional challenges as we can’t seek out surviving members of those cultures for consultation.

Similar to John Michael Greer’s position in A World Full of Gods, Paper argues that polytheism is inherent in human nature as it arises from human experience, in particular humanity’s immersion in the natural world for much of our existence. He describes monotheism as a relatively recent phenomenon and one that that is constantly breaking down . Evidence of the limits of the integrity of monotheism in some faiths is seen in the Christian understanding of a single deity in three aspects, the veneration of saints, the existence of angels, demons and Satan (which also occur in other of the Abrahamic faiths). \Paper argues that theology became a central feature of monotheism as repeated schisms over minute differences in belief required articulation of sophisticated arguments as each side of a schism sought to prove its Truth. The absence of theology from polytheism often led to perverse outcomes when Westerners encountered non-Western polytheistic religions, allowing, for example, 16th century Jesuit missionaries to argue that the Chinese were protomonotheists and later, allowing 20th century sinologist with Humanist presumptions to argue the Chinese were agnostics or atheists who had carried out rituals without meaning for two thousand years.

Paper admits to a belief that all works of theology are essentially confessional and I think it of note in this regard that the first draft of this book was written in a single month in his cabin retreat. In relation to his belief in the confessional nature of any and all theology, Paper argues that knowledge of the confessee is essential and to that end offers us a summary biography that traces a life with early mystical encounters in nature, an eclectic academic career that wound through undergraduate years spent perusing the South Asian section of the theological library at his university, getting kicked out of divinity school, and studying Chinese language and Buddhism. He came to feel at home in China and ultimately married a Chinese wife. The experiences of her family’s ancestor worship are clearly influential upon the author’s views of polytheistic belief. A particularly important experience for the author appears to have been finding his fingers, not under his conscious control, typing a second conclusion to an article on Native American religion that he thought he was done with. This additional conclusion argued that Christian influence has suppressed female spirituality in Native American traditions; a topic of some of his future research efforts.

Paper early on adopted a Buddhist-Daoist mindset that he says still underpins his metaphysics. Additionally he admits that his experiences in various religious traditions have also led him to hold multiple, parallel points of view and that often his conclusions may differ depending upon which mindset he is working from.

According to Paper, there are two primary shared characteristics of polytheism. The first is that polytheism is essentially experiential; people come to know deities directly through mediumism and shamanism. This, in part, gives rise to the diversity of polytheism as people with different personalities and experiences meet differing deities. Faith is meaningless and irrelevant as there is no leap of faith necessary to belief as the polytheist has actually met numinous beings face-to-face. The second characteristic is that relationships with the deities are reciprocal. Nothing is owed to a deity whose favor is not sought and if one deity can not deliver what is needed, another may be asked. If a relationship has been entered in to however, the obligations of that relationship must be honored or else we may suffer. Beyond these two characteristics, the varieties of polytheism are determined by the gestalt of a culture’s economy, society, government, terrain, climate, and other material realities, which Paper refers to as religioecology.

Proceeding from the thesis of the role of religioecology in determining features of polytheistic faiths, Paper postulates the commonality of a Cosmic Couple in most forms of polytheism. Paper argues that the fundamental reality of early humans made them keenly aware of their dependency upon the earth and the sky for life. Earth gives birth to us and nurtures us while the sky is temperamental and distant, though bringing rain and sun which are necessary to create life. He generally uses the monikers of Mother Earth and Father Sky in this description, though noting that some cultures reflect this dichotomy in Morning/Evening Star, Sun/Moon, Sun/Earth and how the female/male attributions are occasionally reversed. The next layer of conclusions arising from this approach discusses how humans relate to plants, animals, and the mineral world as numinous entities.

In Paper’s recounting, for most of human existence, we were not separated from nature and were intensely dependent upon the weather, wild plants and wild animals for our survival; none of which were dependent upon us for their survival. We came to understand that we were dependent upon their sacrifice of their own lives for our continued existence and we therefore developed rituals to ask for this sacrifice and offer token sacrifices in return. Humans also came to understand the wide array of powers wild plants and animals possess: in addition to food, they give us shelter, clothing, ways to heal. In the case of animals in particular, they have physical talents far superior to what we possess and humans sought ways to ask these animals to allow us to use these abilities. In this view, according to Paper, humans came to understand that the wild flora and fauna had both a physical and spiritual existence and that in an encounter with an individual creature, be it a tree or a deer, we were encountering not just the individual in front of us but also the totality of its species. Paper admonishes us to . . . never forget that all about us are the voluntary self-sacrifices of many numinous beings. Such understanding fills us with awe and gratitude.

Paper posits that with the shift from foraging to farming, humans did not recognize domesticated plants and animals as divine in themselves, but rather as gifts of the Earth. He cites Native American traditions of sacrificing to the Earth at planting, the Eleusyian Mysteries, and the adoration of the Black Madonna as examples of agricultural rituals honoring Earth instead of the crop itself. He also highlights that domesticated animals came to be seen as something to be sacrificed to numinous beings, rather than numinous beings in themselves and, in some instances, were effectively stand-ins for a human sacrifice.

These different modalities of relating to the divine are associated with different modes of communication with deity according to Paper. In a foraging culture reliant upon wild plants and animals, shamanism is the associated mode of communication, with each individual communicating directly with deities. In such communities, this communication is encouraged from a young age, with practices such as use of psycho-active plants, fasting, meditation and so forth used to access and build relationships with the deities. Paper is at pains to dispense with certain myths surrounding shamanism He stresses that in shamanistic cultures, every individual functions as a shaman, though with varying abilities. The shaman acts not to control the spirits, but to encourage their assistance to the community, and actions are always for the good of the community -- these are not individualistic cultures. In fact, Paper stresses that in most of these cultures, the closest thing to a conception of evil is someone acting shamanisticly for individual, selfish purposes. (Note: Negative power used against the communities enemies is a good action as it supports one’s own community.)

Paper next turns to ancestor worship. With the advent of horticulture and permanent settlements, the dead began to be kept nearby and were always present, in contrast to being left behind by nomadic cultures. With the dead always on the mind, Paper postulates that people began to try and consult dead elders for advice and this gave rise to spirit possession as a form of communication with the divine. In Paper’s view, ancestral spirits are not deities but are entities with more than human powers whose aid can be sought if they are cared for by the living. For this reason, in such cultures, the family is conceived of as extending in both directions in time. Paper does allow that spirit possession is not the sole means of communication with the spirits and includes practices such as pyroscapulamancy, various forms of sortilege, dreams, visions, and pilgrimages.

Paper’s argues that the numinous natural beings became anthromorphized deities as humans settled in towns and cities and began to live in a human built world increasingly distant from immersion in natural phenomenon. In China, some deities arose out of the ghosts of the uncared-for dead who some humans found to be sympathetic and helpful. As the efficacy of these spirits was demonstrated and their aid increasingly sought, their graves became temples and the temples became grander until these spirits became gods. Likewise, the spirits of those well-known and powerful during their lives became gods over time as their spirits were found to be responsive to entreaties for aid. Paper also describes how polytheists tend to use images of their deities as focal points for offerings and communication. He points out that these images are not understood to be the actual deities, but are more than just representations; Paper describes how many televisions in Taiwan are arranged to be easily seen from the altar, but not necessarily for the living inhabitants of the house.

In contrast to spirit possession as a form of communication, Paper holds up prophecy as the main form of communication known in monotheistic traditions. I’m not convinced Paper adequately defines prophecy. For example, many of the prophets in the Abrahamic faiths are described as having their deity talk through them, so to my mind the means of communication is the same as spirit possession. I gather that the difference lies in the fact that other followers of the particular faith are forced to rely upon messages so delivered to a special individual (the prophet) and denied direct communication. Perhaps prophecy is the recourse of a jealous god who recognizes the P.T. Barnum axiom that you can fool some of the people some of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time and therefore engages a public relations agent.

Paper describes how polytheism often features seminuminous culture heroes and tricksters who are generally absent from monotheistic faiths. I believe this section of the book is clearly directed at Paper’s target of shifting the implicit assumptions of religious studies scholars away from the Western monotheistic mindset and without this in mind, the chapter is somewhat incoherent. The author cites the Western presumption that myths always describe functional deities; i.e. those whose aid is sought in ritual. Many myths in polytheistic cultures relate to entities who are rarely, if ever, the focus of rituals. These tricksters may have given humans gifts of tools and skills, but they are also often trouble makers. These tricksters are frequently key actors in myths of the re-creation of the world. At this juncture, Paper moves on to a discussion of how polytheistic cultures often lack a creation myth that cites how the universe first began. Rather, there may be a myth of clan origin or emergence or migration; myths that describe how did we get to where we are from some earlier stage of existence. Most forms of polytheism simply don’t assume some form of ultimate beginning. Paper cites the Old Testament which holds a re-creation myth (The Great Flood) and a first creation (Eden) which appears to have been later in actual origin. I would like to point to the myth of Ragnarok which turns the re-creation myth on its head a bit by telling how we get to the next stage.

Chapter 7 One or Many: Monotheists’ Misperceptions of Polytheism is the focus of Paper’s assault on monotheism’s hegemonic position in the Western worldview. He begins by citing that the Abrahamic faiths essentially define their monotheism by rejecting polytheism. For example, the Nicene Creed is nonsense in its aggressive assertion of only one god unless one assumes a context of a polytheistic milieu. Paper then argues that the concept of polytheism is a monotheistic intellectual construct because polytheists have no use for such a term themselves as polytheism has been the human cultural norm for most of history: The only indispensable characteristic that polytheists have in common is not how monotheists identify them, but the very fact that polytheists are so identified. Likewise, a general theology of polytheism only makes sense in a cultural context of dominant monotheism. (I wonder if it then is also arguable that in such a monotheistic hegemony if it doesn’t make sense for polytheists to seek their commonalities which could be based upon shared practice to achieve the mystic experience?) Paper concludes: In summary, to admit that one is a polytheist is to damn oneself in the eyes of other members of Western culture.

Paper continues on to describe what he calls ur-monotheists who assume that polytheistic cultures at one time had the Truth of monotheism and lost it. This leads those with positive views of non-Western cultures to see those traditions as being proto-monotheistic even if it requires the presumed chief deity to be so numinous as to be totally ignored in myth and ritual. To Paper, if a concept is irrelevant or contradictory to practice, illogical to the logical relationships of all other concepts and violates the logical integrity of the religion as a whole, it cannot be part of the original tradition. For example a single male deity in an egalitarian culture that lacks concepts of a master or king is hard to accept. He provides a number of examples where he finds that the Western monotheistic mindset has led to erroneous views of a number of cultures as this mindset has led the researchers or observers to find exactly what they want to and never critically question the finding. As part of this analysis, Paper also levels a brief but withering assault on the myth of a universal pre-historic worship of a single goddess, what he calls Feminist Goddess Worship.

In the concluding chapter, Paper addresses how polytheism does not preclude monistic understandings. One example is the fact that mystical experiences of a cosmic unity are common in polytheistic cultures and these experiences are considered to stand outside of normal functioning. Another aspect of monistic understanding may be found when devotion to a single deity results in conflation of all deities with one; Paper cites this as a common occurrence in Hindu practice. Lastly, polytheists may have an understanding of an underlying functional equivalence among all deities.

Paper also uses the conclusion of the book to launch a polytheistic critique of monotheism, which includes the desacralization of nature and the elevation of one gender and sex over another (which in turns permits a celebration of celibacy that can mutate into negative views of the body in general). The quest for a single Truth can (but not necessarily) lead to intolerance as there cease to be grey areas between values. Out of intolerance can be bred fanaticism, though certainly this is not an inevitable or necessary occurrence. The singularity of truth in monotheism transforms dualistic pairs into antagonists; one opposite must be good and the other evil. The concept of heresy is not compatible with polytheism, as there is no singular truth. As Paper puts it: My truth need not be your truth, but that does not in any way challenge nor imperil my truth or your truth.

In contrast, the deities of the polytheists are morally neutral and do not lay out rules for humans to follow, though a particular relationship with a given deity may include certain obligations. The rules of human conduct arise from family and community concerns, ethical considerations, and the way of the universe and therefore the resulting rules point toward living in harmony with nature and society. Deities may be willing to help us, or not. If one god can’t or won’t help, you can turn to another. However, the deities are not all powerful (another fundamental problem for the monotheistic Western mindset) and they cannot counter fate but can only enhance what the way of the universe permits. The deities are not distant, but accessible in a myriad of ways. Polytheists therefore do not suffer from angst and doubts about our relationships with the divine that the monotheists often do.

A comparison with Greer’s work is warranted. The two books ultimately reach common conclusions, but get there from different approaches. Greer proceeds with an argument from first principles to describe the philosophical underpinnings of polytheism. Paper, on the other hand, works from observation and experience to build such a philosophy. That they end up in a very similar place is quite astonishing, particularly as Greer primarily works from a Neopagan point-of-view and Paper’s experiences come from unbroken native traditions.

The book is a work of clear, concise writing that is easily read. I have not touched on many of the examples of religious experience, ritual, and practice that Paper uses to drive home his theological points, but these add a richness of detail and enhance the overall effort greatly. Paper is at pains to demonstrate how mistranslations and cultural misunderstandings have led Westerners to erroneous understandings of non-Western religions; this never detracts from the overall theology, but at time such examples may be oddly placed in the book. The book is not heavily burdened by references to factual research; there is an ample listing of further readings in the back for those so inclined. This is the work of a lifetime researcher who has chosen to step away from relaying scientific observations in order to make statement of principle and of faith. As such, it succeeds in making a strong case for polytheism as an internally consistent, logical, and coherent approach to our world. Lastly, in a sentiment I and many of the members of ADF will share, Paper endorses polytheism as being more than just useful; it is enjoyable and makes life exhilarating.