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Polytheism and Nonduality

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This essay is adapted from Jay Michaelson's forthcoming book, Nondual Judaism, to be published in 2009; an earlier version previously appeared in Zeek.


In the comments to a previous Reality Sandwich essay of mine, several commenters talked about the differences, and underlying unity, between the hidden and the manifest, the unitive and the multiplicitous. There, the immediate context was the phenomenological differences between unitive psychedelic experiences and visionary ones. But as the commenters noted, the core issues lie still deeper.

It is a noteworthy paradox of religion that those traditions which most embrace nonduality also embrace polytheism. Hinduism is the greatest example, accommodating within itself both the rigorous philosophical nondualism of Advaita Vedanta and an effulgent pantheon of deities, incarnations, and mythological figures. In the Jewish tradition, precisely those mystical strands which most emphasize the ein sof as the totality of all existence also depict the dynamic partzufim (countenances) and sefirot of the Divine pleroma, mythologizing the latter not merely as neo-platonic emanations but as characters in the heavenly novel, with personalities, narratives, sex lives, and linguistic cognomens which multiply these ten prisms of Divine light into a radiance of infinite permutation.

On first blush, this would seem to be a contradiction: why would precisely those traditions which emphasize that all is one multiply into infinity the faces and manifestations of God, gods, and goddesses? Surely these traditions should be the most iconoclastic, denying, in Zen-like form, every predicate attached to God, insisting on pure transcendence, pure otherness, and the ineffable oneness of the absolute. If all is one, then the world, which appears multiple, must be illusion — no?

The resolution of this apparent contradiction is of more than theological import. It is not a doctrinal jot; it is the entire revolution and resolution of nondual Judaism itself, the return, as in the Zen ox-herding pictures, to the marketplace, but a marketplace transformed by realization. It is no less than the most radical endpoint of nondual contemplation itself: that samsara is nirvana, that apparent is real, that God and the world interpenetrate and are one.

If we suppose that God is, as older theologies had it, a sort of Divine puppetmaster, a character who, like you or I, has separate existence, but unlike you or I also has attributes such as omnipotence and omnibenevolence, then the excesses of Hindu polytheism or Kabbalistic polymorphism (an unwieldy term, but respectful of the Kabbalistic insistence that the sefirot are all faces of the One) are indeed outrageous. Careful theology is rigorous, and like Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, carefully edits any imputation of anthropomorphism to the Deity, ensuring that we understand all this to be mere allegory, employed so that non-philosophers can perceive a glimmer, however dim, of the truth. Really, God is beyond all proposition, so much so that even the word "God" is, at best, an approximation.

In both collective and individual religious development, this stage is a necessary one. The unreflective religiosity that still holds sway in much of the world today, which posits a father figure in the sky who listens and gets angry and forgives and judges just as we do — not allegorically, but in some way literally — is one that requires not merely a suspension of disbelief but a suspension of the act of reason itself. As many of today's "new atheists" have pointed out, this belief is intrinsically both unverifiable and irrefutable, and thus consonant only with faith in its most fideistic form. Certainly, the auditing of our theological intuitions is an important step toward their clarification and refinement, and, not incidentally, toward pluralism and deep ecumenism as well.

But the theological picture shifts if we take seriously the proposition that "God" is the only thing in the universe, that the boundaries between self and other are epiphenomena only, that there is nothing to get and no other and no self as well. Now the persona of "God" which Being wears can only be but another mask. Where in the traditional monotheistic view, all masks are illusory except for "God" and God's revelation, in the monistic view, all masks are only as illusory as everything else. No matter how carefully they are shaped, these attempts at defining the One must necessarily be inadequate — and that includes the notion of "God" or "You" or "Being." Neither the idols and appellations of various religious cults, nor the concepts of philosophy, nor the explanations of psychology and society can confine the unconfinable.

Yet since all masks are forbidden, all masks are permitted. From the perspective of nonduality, polytheism and polymorphism become not theological propositions, if they were ever intended to be that way, but representations of the variety of experience, the plurality of modes in which the world presents itself to consciousness. Is it true that "God" always appears as the righteous judge? Obviously not; not even in traditional language, where S/He appears as military conqueror, creator, gardener, nursemaid, lover, and king. Even the most traditional of prayers recognizes the many faces of the One. And beyond those traditional contours, it is indubitable to the sensitive and open soul that divinity is known as sometimes eros, sometimes thanatos; sometimes boundary and sometimes transgression; sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes neither, and sometimes both. Is this because God likes to dress up in drag? Or is it because, as the individual soul becomes more attuned to the tempos and tunes of existence itself, the modes of divinity multiply, with seemingly no limit at all?

With this understanding, polytheism and polymorphism are more accurate, not less, than traditional monotheism, because they recognize that whatever the ultimate is, it cannot be expressed in a single manifestation. Again, this is not necessarily radical: the psalmist knew this, the ancient polytheistic Israelites knew this, and anyone who is willing to be curious about spirit can know it as well. The pious may label some of these instantiations of the divine as demons, or foreign gods, or worse, but to the nondualist, these are all, from the sublime to the sinister, pathways of knowledge of the one.

We have at our disposal thousands of myths, symbols, and other linguistic technologies that enable us to speak obliquely of the unspeakable. And the more deeply we know ineffability, the more amenable we are to multiple forms of approximation. So nonduality and polytheism exist not in uneasy tension, but as complements of one another. The iconoclastic, apophatic way denies all predication; the via positiva sees multiple, indeed infinite, paths of manifestation. God dances as YHVH, Christ, Vishnu, Kali, Friend, Beloved, and King; and yet the ein sof transcends all of these appellations, especially "God" itself.

On the apophatic way, we slay all images and break all idols; if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. And yet to imagine that God is only in the nothing, and not in the everything, is to make a gnostic mistake of deferred predication — as if God is only the negation, and thus limited. The unlimited means unlimited: ein sof is affirmation and negation, essence and manifestation, real and apparent. The Real is neti neti — not this, not that — but also tat tvam asi: that You are That. Every time we ascribe an attribute to God — including pleasant ones such as good, creating, holy — we make a mistake, limiting the unlimited. Yet every time we deny an attribute to the Infinite, the same error appears.

The error of idolatry, as it is traditionally understood in Jewish texts, is less one of attribution than of separation: to suppose that God is this but not that. God is in the fire, but not in the water; in the stone of the idol, but not in the stone cast aside. The error is at once presuming too much (i.e., this image is of God) and too little (i.e., this image, but not that one.) And it is once which arises all the time, not merely in some ancient, primitive time.

In interpreting spiritual and mystical experience, for example, all of us create structures for the unstructured — and thus get into all sorts of trouble, reifying that which cannot be contained, and describing in mythic, religious terms that which may actually have preceded them. I recall one visionary experience, during which I perceived something dimly like a wing, or the ear of an elephant — who knows what the mind or inner eye had really seen — and then proceeded to "fill in" the whole rest of the elephant head, and enjoy a long (if Jewishly troubling) communion with Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles. Hours later, after the experience was long over, I reflected that the same image might easily have been interpreted as one of the kanfei shechinah, the wings of the Divine Feminine Presence, or the wing of archangel Gabriel, or any number of other mythic structures. I had only "seen" Ganesh because Ganesh had been on my mind. Experientially, the act of interpretation was instant, barely divorced from the perception, but conceptually, it was distinct from the experience itself. Even "wing" or "ear" are concepts, overlaid on the bare perception by a mind eager to make sense of the insensible. Kal v'chomer the other great error of idolatry: experiencing power, and then believing the power to be one's own.

So, yes, contrary to some notions of the "perennial philosophy," mystics around the world report different things, different experiences, different visions. But, these differences do not deny an underlying unity precedent to reported experience, which of necessity includes interpretation in the most immediate and ineluctable way. This is the great value of polytheism/polymorphism for the nondual path: to convince us that even the most sublime of theophanies is an interpretation as well as a revelation, that even the most refined of theological concepts are ultimately approximations. In mysticism, all concept is symbol that exists not to represent the known, but to stand in synecdoche for the unknown.

Consequently, the Zen ox-herders "return to the market" from the knowledge of nonduality is an embrace of manifestation necessarily more deeply ecumenical than any naive religion which precedes such knowledge.

As I return to my cherished symbols, to challah and wine, candles and songs, I do so with no pretension or desire that they are in any way superior to other symbols, or more accurate, or more holy. Yes, some symbols are better than others, relatively speaking; better candles than guns. But their worth is evaluated in a consequentialist way, in terms of the kinds of life on this world they engender. In terms of the absolute, they are all technologies, nothing more; they are fingers that gesture at the moon, and that also, if I may extend the metaphor, reflect the moonlight into hand and home. Could challah and kiddush be communion wafers and wine instead? Of course. Are they in fact descended from loaves baked for Astarte? Most likely. But it doesn't matter.

This is an antifoundationalist religion, as Richard Rorty would describe it: one without claims of priority, but with an affirmation of utility. I take up these tools not because they are God-given or superior to others, but because these tools work, especially for someone who grew up with them. They work because they have been used for thousands of years, refined by tradition, and imbued with value and mystery I cannot understand. They also do not work, for many people, and though I might at times labor to justify and elaborate on them, ultimately that is deeply fine as well. I choose these tools because I love them, and nothing more. No theology, no history, and community only, for me, in a secondary role. I love them; that is enough.

Likewise the "return" to God-concepts (though "concepts" is altogether too intellectual a word) like the Friend and the Lover and the Father. These concepts are powerful. Yes, they are projections; but they work. Sometimes it's remarked that the Jewish and Christian God is "just" a projected father figure, as if a father figure is nothing more than a cartoon character. But what could be more important than a father figure? Fathers and mothers are among our most important relations; most of our selves are shaped in response to them. So, of course "God" is a projection of a father (and Goddess a mother), with all the baggage that entails. When relating to the ineffable, what could be more valuable, more powerful, or more accurate, than the psychological?

With the deep ecumenism of the nondual view, it becomes clear that what animates so many of the religious conflicts of our time is less the religion itself than the mythic way in which it is understood. These are religious views which have not transcended certain basic principles, and in response to the patronizing attitude of those of us who have, reaffirm in anger the fundamentalist truth of those principles themselves. These are not fingers pointing at the moon, the fundamentalist insists; this is the Truth. Whereas something else is not.

But the boundless does not know such lines.


Photo by Mr. Theklan, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.

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