What is polytheism? Do polytheists exist?

I have wondered recently what polytheism is. In theory it is simple: monotheists believe that there is one god and polytheists believe that there are lots of gods. Thus, Muslims, for instance, are monotheists and Hindus are polytheists.

But it is not as simple as that. The ambiguity concerns what we mean by "God" and "gods."

Take the Bible. In the Good Book the term "god" is not reserved for Yhwh, the god of Israel. The Bible recognizes many gods. (Ps 82:6, addressed to the divine council, is a classic instance of this, quoted approvingly by Jesus in John 10:34 on the very issue of a plurality of gods.) The gods of the Old Testament are heavenly beings that rule over the nations. Yhwh is one of many 'elohim (gods).

So is Yhwh just one god among many? Is the Bible polytheist?
Not in any simple way.

Yhwh created the other gods and rules over them. He alone is thus spoken of as "the god." Yhwh is incomparable and in a league of his own. Yhwh alone is the creator, the source of all things. The other gods simply mediate his rule over creation. So we are not wrong to cap "God" when we speak of Yhwh. He is not simply another god; he is the God of gods.

I've been reading a lot of Plato recently and sometimes he seems to offer a not dissimilar picture. Plato was an ancient Athenian and we all know that Athens was polytheistic, awash with multiple gods. Plato too recognized these gods (though he distanced himself from some of the crude and immoral stories of the gods). He even saw the cosmos itself as a living being, which he calls a god. So he was a polytheist, right? Well, that depends what you mean. Plato seems to see the ultimate ground of all things as single and unitary—the Form of the Good (what neoplatonists called "The One"). When he tells his creation story he tells it in terms of a single divine craftsman who creates the gods, including the divine cosmos. Not all gods are equal in Plato's cosmos. In one sense, Plato was a monotheist—though we'd need to be careful how we spelled out exactly what we meant by the term when speaking of him.

Much the same can be said about sophisticated versions of Hinduism, in which the gods are aspects of a single ultimate divine reality. (By "sophisticated" I do not mean new versions of Indian traditions that aim to respond to monotheistic faiths by claiming to say the same thing. I mean ancient interpretations of those traditions that the most intellectually vigorous elements in the tradition have affirmed.) What may superficially seem like polytheism may turn out to be more complicated than that, and to affirm a single ultimate divine source of reality.

Indeed, one wonders whether the normal uses of monotheism and polytheism involve a category mistake. When monotheists affirm one God they are, among other things, affirming a single divine reality upon which everything else depends. The mistake is assuming that everything referred to as a "god" in a religious context is intended to fit into that category. It is not. So we need to look below the surface level of simply counting up the entities named as "gods" when deciding whether a religion is monotheistic or not.
Indeed, perhaps the categories themselves are only of limited value, concealing as much as they reveal.

Be that as it may—the biblical faith of the church is that there is one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. This, however, does not exclude acknowledging the existence of lesser gods (whatever we may mean by that); it only excludes the worship of them.


James Goetz said…
In any case, Plato was among the first classical theists....
http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/ said…
Good thoughts Robin. As you point out, the distinction between mono- vs poly- theisms depends in large part on one’s definition of deity (as that which constitutes the divine sort of being which qualifies one as ‘divine’). Polytheism technically would be the belief in a plurality of equally divine beings no one of which is the creator of the others. But once we posit a single self-existent,Creator-sustainer-ground of all that exists (including other ‘gods’) other than such a Creator, then this ‘God’ is categorically other than all other ‘gods’ and the use of ‘elohim’ for both (uncreated and supposedly created divinities) needs some work (because it no longer means the same thing in both cases). What’s more interesting (and disturbing) is that view which subsumes the One Creator-God underneath a univocal understanding of being such that ‘God’ remains unique only in the sense that his ‘being’ is merely an uncreated instance of the same ‘being’ of created beings, such that you end up with a single category of being and predication subsuming both ‘God’ and ‘gods’.
http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/ said…
The above comment (anopenorthodoxy) is Tom's. Forgot to identify myself!
Robin Parry said…
Hi Tom,

I agree with you. Thanks for that helpful comment


James Goetz said…
Robin, this might offer no help at all, but I think it is fun to consider: If we combine Platonic classical theism with Hesiod's *Theogony,* then the Prime Mover made Gaia, Eros, the Abyss, and the Erebus. Then everything else took off after that. :-)
James Goetz said…
Robin, You got my mind provoked and turning on this while my thoughts are trickling in. This also makes me think of 2 Corinthians 4:4 that refers to Satan as "the god on this world." There is only one uncreated God and we worship only the one God.
"Be that as it may—the biblical faith of the church is that there is one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. This, however, does not exclude acknowledging the existence of lesser gods (whatever we may mean by that); it only excludes the worship of them."

Well said.

I remember an old guy at an Evangelical church I attended who said to me:

"I don't agree with that song 'Among the gods there is none like you'- There aren't any other gods!"

He was quite unaware of the fact that the line was taken from the Psalms.

The Bible calls angels gods. I also think in some sense it's correct to say that redeemed humans will become gods, though saying this would cause most Christians an allergic reaction.
Anonymous said…
I don't think it's any bolder to say redeemed humans will be 'gods' than to say we're heirs with Christ.

The way I read the Scripture, gods are 'pure spirits' that represent facets of God's being, but not the whole. And the place where facets go terribly wrong is when they see themselves as the whole.

Take the picture of Satan we get in the book of Job, which isn't wholly monstrous, but more like a an overzealous prosecuting attorney. So on the one hand, Satan has something of the right idea when he suggests that people ought to love God for his own sake, and not just for what they can get out of Him. But Satan then takes that idea to an illogical extreme when he suggests that Job (and by extension, all of humanity) CAN'T love God for His own sake.

If you're a fan of comics, Robin, maybe you're familiar with a DC Comics character named the Spectre. Basically, he's the pure manifestation of God's wrath against sin, but divorced from the other elements that make God...well, God. In the 90s, writer John Ostrander revealed that after Christ's birth, all pure spirits were required to be wed to human hosts, which is why the Spectre was merged with 1930s cop Jim Corrigan.

DC has some really interesting takes on supernatural stuff. They recently gave Phantom Stranger a new back story--he's Judas Iscariot, seeking redemption for betraying Christ! Interesting stuff and worth checking out if you're so inclined.


David Walton

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