My current study is propelled by several driving questions, especially regarding the nature of the human self in relation to divinity and the metamorphosis that occurs as these two points gain and sustain proximity.
One matter that never sat quite comfortably with me was the hardline stance that (modern, Western) polytheism posited an irreducibly discrete nature of divinities. While I do consider myself a hard polytheist, I use this term to describe how I think and how I organize experience rather than how I believe the gods to be (or how I secretly wish they were). My experience tells me that regarding the Powers as separate and particular individuals is an effective way to exercise good religious hospitality and it helps clarify the organization of my various relationships. However, I find it difficult and perhaps even impossible to tell the gods what they are. Maybe it’s just because I run with world-breakers and mischief-makers but sometimes it happens that a Power rather overflows its boundaries and starts to get more or less muddled with its neighbors. It has happened only infrequently with me but this muddling of categorical identities has caused no end of problems for other worshipers. (It’d be inaccurate to say that my experiences of this blurring hasn’t been confusing or anxious-making but I’ve perhaps experienced less distress as a result from spending a lot of time in traditions with a more or less laissez-faire approach to discrete divine identities.)
My concern regarding the stance outlined above is what it implies about the experience of ecstatic union and the desire for transcendent union. Can multiple parties whose natures are irreducibly separate ever achieve a satisfactorily unified state? Granted, the basic thrust of “hard” polytheism doesn’t have anything to say about religious goals (of which transcendent unity might be one), but for those polytheists who seek or desire unitive experiences, is there a basic philosophical tenant arguing against us?
(One simple way of answering this question is to say that ecstatic and transcendent union is a gift the Powers grant us as a matter of grace – of presence freely given. This might certainly be an accurate answer as far as it goes but it’s not one that I find completely satisfying.)
In contemplating these questions and in studying materials written by more informed people than myself, I came across a passage explaining that difference itself was the engine of unity. The (dated and heterosexist) example given in the text was that just as the differences between men and women made it possible for union, so the differences between divinity and humanity made it possible for union. I’d rephrase this example as “the differences between self and other” if I wanted to continue to leverage this metaphor, but like all metaphors its instructive and illustrative nature breaks down and becomes silly pretty quickly. The point is that discrete categories can fit together *because* they are different.
The nature of the differences between divinity and humanity also begs clarification. What exactly is different about us? If we are irreducible individuals, as the basic stance of polytheism outlines, what characterizes each category – and indeed, should the basic unit be the individual and not the category of being? (That is, should be speak of gods as individuals instead of as a collective community comprised of individuals?) Regarding these questions I got nuthin’ – but difference may still be an engine driving us towards unifying experiences.
What hides under the desire for unity that seems to press Powers and people together? It might be that we wish very strongly to see reality from a new perspective, but my own experiences with this particular desire are much less articulate. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any words in there past, “You; you; I want you.”
Some philosophic schools hold that a unified state in which all distinctions are dissolved is unsatisfying and not ultimately what’s sought. They hold that distinction allows for pleasure, and that even though all things known and unknown fundamentally have their base in a shared substance, distinction is inherent within this foundation of being and exists as a mysterious property of reality. Other schools hold that that this property is not so very mysterious after all and that distinction is chosen by the soul on some level in order to experience the giving and receiving of sacred pleasure. Still other schools think that aspiring even after these high levels is ultimately wishing for a type of bondage and point out that all beings desire freedom most of all.
While I think that the idea that distinction is a mysterious property contained within undifferentiated reality is a rather nifty explanation and one that has a pleasantly mystical quality to it, it’s not really one that’s been floated in (modern, Western) polytheist circles – and it if was, we’d all get accused of (gasp) monism. (I personally find the second explanation – about distinction arising from a soul-deep desire to give and receive joyful pleasure – to be emotionally satisfying but that’s because I’m a Tantric and therefore just a monist with a funny hat.) At any rate, neither of the three explanations outlined just above really have a great deal to do with broader (modern, Western) polytheism even if one tradition or another might have their own take on this question. (After all, we’re all still very concerned about whether or not Loki gets honored in worship rituals; we haven’t gotten around to worrying about matters of transcendent unity and its implications for our polytheist identities, practices, and relationships.)
The idea of difference driving the desire for unity is helpful, I think, and perhaps especially relevant to devotional polytheists seeking to understand the weird things that happen as a result of prolonged exposure to various Powers. Of course, some desires change and this changeable quality draws attention to other nuances of a discrete identity. If one knows oneself in part via desire for another, what happens to that self-knowledge when the desired other changes in some way? This is an unsurprising source of anxiety that comes up when the Power one is close to begins to get muddled or otherwise shift.
In some ways, I wonder if this shifting isn’t something of a cosmic challenge. After all, we are subject to changeable desires every day, every hour even. These changeable lusts and loves and wants rarely disrupt our sense of self, but the kind of desire felt regarding the Powers is quite different – or at least, that might be what we are called on to demonstrate. Can you keep loving as shit gets weird? Can you love yourself through a reinvention of the Beloved? Can you love yourself through a reinvention of yourself?
Sometimes it’s the self that changes and must rediscover the thread of this ongoing desire; sometimes it’s the apparent object that changes and the self must trust the presence of that thread. One can work towards these deeper realizations from either end, triggering changes in the self or changes in (the perception of) the object. And of course, the Powers themselves may choose to change in order to bring us to new levels of knowledge.