I’m getting a little tired of coming back to this argument

I would post a comment on the actual article to which I am responding, but I don’t really feel like dealing with the author because I find his responses to people who disagree with him to be both condescending and obtuse. DiZerega and Frew have spoken several times on their experiences with interfaith gatherings as proof that ‘panentheistic monism’ is the ‘nearly universal’ expression of polytheism, an opinion I’m getting so tired of—note I’m not opposed to people being polytheists and monist or panentheist etc; I’m tired of this revisionist history claiming that almost all polytheists throughout time have been these things . For all their academic qualifications, they seem unable to grasp (see: confirmation bias) the simple flaw in using interfaith gatherings as objective proof of this. I question whether the type of people who are actively involved in interfaith work can fully be said to represent the religious communities they come from. This is not intended as a slight against people who do interfaith work, but the question I raise is this: is it not possible that interfaith work actually attracts a disproportionately high number of people who are more likely to hold monist etc views? I cannot accept what really amounts to anecdotal evidence as objective proof.
Moving from the present to the historical, even if most modern polytheists hold a ‘panentheistic monist’ theology, does that mean that the religions they are a part of always did? Could that not, in some cases, be a more recent innovation? Regarding the ancient world, diZerega, Webster et al. love to slam Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought down on the table and say, “Bam, I win teh argumentz cause I read a book!” Of course, a simple Google search will provide you with several academic reviews of that book that question its scholarship (like here, here, and here). Yes, you can find ample evidence of monism in antiquity; no responsible person would deny that—although it’s not necessarily the same type of monism. What I have consistently objected to, however, is the tendency to take that fact and project it on to everyone. Some people in the Greco-Roman and Indian spheres were monist, but that doesn’t mean that all or even most were (not to mention the Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, Finnic, Slavic etc. peoples: can anyone even provide evidence of monism among them?). It only means that they bothered to write about it and that writing happened to survive.  This is where I would remind people about the difference between folk religion and the religion of the type of people writing philosophy and theology for the ages…if I hadn’t already done that quite a few times in different places.

There really is a pill for everything

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Io Saturnalia!

God_judging_adam_blake_1795

William Blake’s God Judging Adam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that according to the Talmud Saturnalia was invented by Adam, but then those wicked Romans got their hands on it and went and ruined it?

אמר רב חנן בר רבא קלנדא ח’ ימים אחר תקופה סטרנורא ח’ ימים לפני תקופה וסימנך (תהילים קלט) אחור וקדם צרתני וגו’ ת”ר לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה] כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים

Rav Hanan son of Raba said: the Kalends are kept for eight days after the solstice; Saturnalia for eight days before the solstice[1]. To remember this use the verse, ‘Before and behind you have enveloped me, etc’ (Psalm 139:5). The Rabbis taught: When the first man[2] saw the days growing shorter he said, “Oy![3] Perhaps because I sinned the world is going dark around me and returning to chaos and disorder![4] This must be the death sentence that was decreed for me from Heaven!” So he sat for eight days with fasting [and prayer]. As soon as he observed the solstice of Tevet[5] and saw that the days were growing longer, he said, “This is the way of the world!” So he celebrated for eight days. The next year he made both of these festivals. He established them for the sake of Heaven, but they[6] established them for the sake of idolatry[7].

-b. Avodah Zarah 8a (translation mine)

File this under: mostly useless, but amusing and an excuse to practice my Hebrew, which has been neglected these past years.

Escultura_Saturnalia_de_Ernesto_Biondi

Saturnalia by Ernesto Biondi at Jardín botánico de Buenos Aires (picture found here). I’ve actually been to the botanical gardens in Buenos Aires, but I don’t remember if I saw this.

Edit: I went looking through my pictures and it turns out I did see this and took a picture (although not a very good one; I suck at photography):

DSC00167

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[1] This commentary comes in the midst of a discussion on how Jews must behave in regards to non-Jews during pagan festivals and holy days.

[2] ‘adam ha-rishon

[3] No, seriously, that’s literally what he says in the Hebrew.

[4] tohu va-vohu, the primordial state of the earth as described in Genesis 1:2.

[5] the month in the Jewish calendar that falls around December-January.

[6] i.e. pagans.

[7] A common phrase in Rabbinic Hebrew for idolatry, pagan worship etc used here is avodat kokhavim, literally ‘worship of the stars’. This is no doubt meant to be a pejorative, but the ancients did indeed often see the stars as gods: So since the stars have their origin in the aether, the logical inference is that they possess feeling and understanding, which is why the stars must be numbered among the gods (quare cum in aethere astra gignantur, consentaneum est in his sensum inesse et intellegentiam, ex quo efficitur in deorum numero astra esse ducenda) -Cicero, de Natura Deorum.

Folk religion and the limitations of the historical record

Imagine, if you will, that you are a person in the 21st century trying to study folk religion among the Baltic Finns over the last few centuries. Now, also imagine that the great enthusiasm for the collecting of folklore and study of folk religion that swept Europe in the 19th century never happened. What then would your source material be for such a study? Perhaps some texts written from the point of view of highly-educated, urban men most likely. Such texts might paint a picture of religion and theology of the time being a fairly typical, church-approved version of Lutheranism or Russian Orthodoxy, depending on where the writer was. In this hypothetical, alternate universe, the 21st century scholar’s view of the folk religion they were trying to study would likely be terribly skewed.

I bring this up because I’ve seen a couple of examples in recent months of Pagans trying make rather sweeping claims about the nature of the evidence regarding historical forms of polytheism, particularly what has come to be called ‘hard polytheism’. To be clear going forward, my understanding of the phrase is that deities are separate, distinct beings in their own right, rather than masks or versions of some singular idea of the divine. These claims often had the effect of minimizing the historicity of this type of theology from outright doubting it existed- because of a lack of historical evidence- to making it into a minority viewpoint. These claims have also been accompanied by the assertion that forms of monism, pantheism and the like more accurately reflect historical forms of polytheism. In the comments of this post Gus diZerega makes this curious claim:

On the first and more complex issue, historically and currently MOST polytheists- those who call themselves and are called such by others – are panentheists or monists. This truth extends back to the earliest times of written records discussing the Gods and spirit.

He also states in a later comment that this assertion is not opinion, but fact. Now, to unpack this claim, let me first divide it into two claims: one about historical polytheism and one about modern polytheism. On modern polytheism, diZerega may well be correct here. These are popular theologies in the modern world. On the question of historical polytheism, I find any such claim to be troubling and more than a little dishonest. The reason for this being that we simply don’t really know what the majority of every day, historically polytheistic people actually believed. They were mostly illiterate and were so rude that they didn’t take the time to write down their theology for us.

Further, like the hypothetical situation I gave you at the beginning of this post, the nature of what recorded theology has come down to us does not necessarily represent what the vast majority of people actually believed. I’m not taking a jab at Plato or Zeno or the Upanishads here- or the schools that took up them up and developed them; I’m not claiming that none of these could accurately represent forms of polytheism. I am saying that we can’t assume they are the final word on the subject just because they survived while we know nothing of what some random, rural, illiterate person believed. For all we know, ‘hard polytheism’ might have been so widespread that it wasn’t even worth mentioning, any more than mentioning that ‘water is wet’. The fact is that for how much we might not know about ‘folk religion’ in such a well-documented era like the Greco-Roman world, how much more we don’t know about it in places and among peoples who didn’t even enter the historical record until they came under the domination of expansionist Christians or Muslims who actively sought to eliminate their religions. What does seem to generally be the case is that folk religion is often vastly different than what is seen as the more official religion and theology of the educated and upper classes.

I’m also more than a little disturbed at what seems like an underlying assumption in diZerega’s assertion which suggests that that monism/pantheism/panentheism are an inevitable and necessary development of any culture’s theology. I find this disturbing because it stinks of the notions of the ‘evolution’ of religious thought propagated by monotheists and atheists to place their own theologies- or lack thereof- at evolution’s pinnacle.

The Stoics on the gods VIII: haec docuit colere divina

Quis dubitare, mi Lucili, potest quin deorum inmortalium munus sit quod vivimus, philosophiae quod bene vivimus? Itaque tanto plus huic nos debere quam dis quanto maius beneficium est bona vita quam vita pro certo haberetur, nisi ipsam philosophiam di tribuissent; cuius scientiam nulli dederunt, facultatem omnibus. Nam si hanc quoque bonum vulgare fecissent et prudentes nasceremur, sapientia quod in se optimum habet perdidisset, inter fortuita non esse. Nunc enim hoc in illa pretiosum atque magnificum est, quod non obvenit, quod illam sibi quisque debet, quod non ab alio petitur. Quid haberes quod in philosophia suspiceres si beneficiaria res esset? Huius opus unum est de divinis humanisque verum invenire; ab hac numquam recedit religio, pietas, iustitia et omnis alius comitatus virtutum consertarum et inter se cohaerentium. Haec docuit colere divina, humana diligere, et penes deos imperium esse, inter homines consortium.

Who can doubt, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? Hence the idea that our debt to philosophy is greater than our debt to the gods, in proportion as a good life is more of a benefit than mere life, would be regarded as correct, were not philosophy itself a boon which the gods have bestowed upon us. They have given the knowledge thereof to none, but the faculty of acquiring it they have given to all. For if they had made philosophy also a general good, and if we were gifted with understanding at our birth, wisdom would have lost her best attribute – that she is not one of the gifts of fortune. For as it is, the precious and noble characteristic of wisdom is that she does not advance to meet us, that each man is indebted to himself for her, and that we do not seek her at the hands of others.
What would there be in philosophy worthy of your respect, if she were a thing that came by bounty? Her sole function is to discover the truth about things divine and things human. From her side religion never departs, nor duty, nor justice, nor any of the whole company of virtues which cling together in close-united fellowship. Philosophy has taught us to worship that which is divine, to love that which is human; she has told us that with the gods lies dominion, and among men, fellowship.
-Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium

The Stoics on the gods VII: κύδιστ’ ἀθανάτων, πολυώνυμε, παγκρατὲς αἰεί

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be god’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O god, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to god’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.
-Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus

The Stoics on the gods VI: magna et generosa res est humanus animus

Dic potius quam naturale sit in immensum mentem suam extendere. Magna et generosa res est humanus animus; nullos sibi poni nisi communeset cum deo terminos patitur. Primum humilem non accipit patriam, Ephesum aut Alexandriam aut si quod est etiamnunc frequentius accolis laetiusvetectis solum: patria est illi quodcumque suprema et universa circuitu suocingit, hoc omne convexum intra quod iacent maria cum terris, intra quodaer humanis divina secernens etiam coniungit, in quo disposita tot numinain actus suos excubant. Deinde artam aetatem sibi dari non sinit:’omnes’ inquit ‘anni mei sunt; nullum saeculum magnis ingeniis clusum est,nullum non cogitationi pervium tempus. Cum venerit dies ille qui mixtumhoc divini humanique secernat, corpus hic ubi inveni relinquam, ipse mediis reddam. Nec nunc sine illis sum, sed gravi terrenoque detineor.’ Per has mortalis aevi moras illi meliori vitae longiorique proluditur.Quemadmodum decem mensibus tenet nos maternus uterus et praeparat non sibised illi loco in quem videmur emitti iam idonei spiritum trahere et inaperto durare, sic per hoc spatium quod ab infantia patet in senectutemin alium maturescimus partum. Alia origo nos expectat, alius rerum status. Nondum caelum nisi ex intervallo pati possumus. Proinde intrepidushoram illam decretoriam prospice: non est animo suprema, sed corpori. Quidquid circa te iacet rerum tamquam hospitalis loci sarcinas specta: transeundum est. Excutit redeuntem natura sicut intrantem. Non licet plus efferrequam intuleris, immo etiam ex eo quod ad vitam adtulisti pars magna ponendaest: detrahetur tibi haec circumiecta, novissimum velamentum tui, cutis; detrahetur caro et suffusus sanguis discurrensque per totum; detrahenturossa nervique, firmamenta fluidorum ac labentium….
Imaginare tecum quantus ille sit fulgor tot sideribus inter se lumen miscentibus. Nulla serenum umbra turbabit; aequaliter splendebit omne caeli latus: dieset nox aeris infimi vices sunt. Tunc in tenebris vixisse te dices cum totamlucem et totus aspexeris, quam nunc per angustissimas oculorum vias obscureintueris, et tamen admiraris illam iam procul: quid tibi videbitur divinalux cum illam suo loco videris?
Haec cogitatio nihil sordidum animosubsidere sinit, nihil humile, nihil crudele. Deos rerum omnium esse testesait; illis nos adprobari, illis in futurum parari iubet et aeternitatemproponere. Quam qui mente concepit nullos horret exercitus, non terreturtuba, nullis ad timorem minis agitur. Quidni non timeat qui mori sperat?

Tell me rather how closely in accord with nature it is to let one’s mind reach out into the boundless universe! The human soul is a great and noble thing; it permits of no limits except those which can be shared even by the gods. First of all, it does not consent to a lowly birthplace, like Ephesus or Alexandria, or any land that is even more thickly populated than these, and more richly spread with dwellings. The soul’s homeland is the whole space that encircles the height and breadth of the firmament, the whole rounded dome within which lie land and sea, within which the upper air that sunders the human from the divine also unites them, and where all the sentinel stars are taking their turn on duty. Again, the soul will not put up with a narrow span of existence. “All the years,” says the soul, “are mine; no epoch is closed to great minds; all Time is open for the progress of thought. When the day comes to separate the heavenly from its earthly blend, I shall leave the body here where I found it, and shall of my own volition betake myself to the gods. I am not apart from them now, but am merely detained in a heavy and earthly prison.” These delays of mortal existence are a prelude to the longer and better life. As the mother’s womb holds us for ten months, making us ready, not for the womb itself, but for the existence into which we seem to be sent forth when at last we are fitted to draw breath and live in the open; just so, throughout the years extending between infancy and old age, we are making ourselves ready for another birth. A different beginning, a different condition, await us. We cannot yet, except at rare intervals, endure the light of heaven; therefore, look forward without fearing to that appointed hour– the last hour of the body but not of the soul. Survey everything that lies about you, as if it were luggage in a guest-chamber: you must travel on. Nature strips you as bare at your departure as at your entrance. You may take away no more than you brought in; what is more, you must throw away the major portion of that which you brought with you into life: you will be stripped of the very skin which covers you – that which has been your last protection; you will be stripped of the flesh, and lose the blood which is suffuses and circulated through your body; you will be stripped of bones and sinews, the framework of these transitory and feeble parts….
Picture to yourself how great is the glow when all the stars mingle their fires; no shadows will disturb the clear sky. The whole expanse of heaven will shine evenly; for day and night are interchanged only in the lowest atmosphere. Then you will say that you have lived in darkness, after you have seen, in your perfect state, the perfect light – that light which now you behold darkly with vision that is cramped to the last degree. And yet, far off as it is, you already look upon it in wonder; what do you think the heavenly light will be when you have seen it in its proper sphere?
Such thoughts permit nothing mean to settle in the soul, nothing low, nothing cruel. They maintain that the gods are witnesses of everything. They order us to meet the gods’ approval, to prepare ourselves to join them at some future time, and to plan for immortality. He that has grasped this idea shrinks from no attacking army, is not terrified by the trumpet-blast, and is intimidated by no threats. How should it not be that a man feels no fear, if he looks forward to death?
-Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium

The Stoics on the gods V: ποῦ γὰρ ἰδὼν τοὺς θεοὺς

Πρὸς τοὺς ἐπιζητοῦντας˙ ποῦ γὰρ ἰδὼν τοὺς θεοὺς ἢ πόθεν κατειληφὼς ὅτι εἰσὶν οὕτω σέβεις; πρῶτον μὲν καὶ ὄψει ὁρατοί εἰσιν˙ ἔπειτα μέντοι οὐδὲ τὴν ψυχὴν τὴν ἐμαυτοῦ ἑώρακα καὶ ὅμως τιμῶ˙ οὕτως οὖν καὶ τοὺς θεούς, ἐξ ὧν τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτῶν ἑκάστοτε πειρῶμαι, ἐκ τούτων ὅτι τε εἰσὶ καταλαμβάνω καὶ αἰδοῦμαι.

To those who ask, “Where have you seen the gods, or what evidence do you have of their existence, that you worship them so devoutly?”, I reply first of all that they are in fact visible to our eyes, and secondly, that I have not seen my own soul, and yet I pay it due honour. So likewise with the gods; from what I experience of their power at every moment of my life, I ascertain that they exist and I pay them due reverence.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations