I. Freedom to choose
As I’ve said here and here (and probably in some other instances I don’t remember), it’s not faith that defines me religiously, but practice. And that’s because, as I rule, I don’t deny the existence of any god. Which is another way of saying that I believe in all the deities worshiped in the past and in the present. All something million of Them. That’s what non-exclusivist polytheism is: a belief in many gods without the exclusion of any. Inari, Ganesha, Eshu, Quetzalcoatl, Melqart, Shiva, Taranis, Veles, Ra, Mithras, Jesus, Allah… I believe They are as real as Hermes, Jupiter, Apollo and Freyr. Honestly! So if you ask me what gods I believe in, expecting the answer will tell you my religion, the only thing you’ll find out is that I’m a polytheist. If you want a more specific identity, you need to ask me what gods I worship and how, in which case the answer will point towards the label “Roman polytheist”: most of the gods I honour are Roman and most of those who aren’t are nonetheless worshiped under a Latin name and in a Latin or Latin-inspired fashion, since I follow a Roman calendar and generally use a Roman ritual framework. It’s who I (mostly) worship and how that says what am I, religiously. And the how is key here, because the same god can be honoured by different traditions: Apollo has both a Roman and a Greek cult; Ganesha is worshiped by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists (including Japanese Buddhists). This is definition by practice, people. It’s not enough to say that you believe, you have to tell how that translates into practical terms. And it goes to show the importance of orthopraxy on at least a basic level.
Yet if one believes in all the gods and They can be honoured in multiple ways, how does one determine who to worship and how? There are various possible answers to this question: for instance, non-denominational polytheists may perform generic ceremonies to all the deities, collectively; monists will claim that all Gods are one or a limited group of divinities, depending on your degree of monism. But for a non-exclusivist polytheist, it comes down to the freedom to choose who and how. This may have shades of grey and limits, like when you inherit religious duties from your ancestors, but still there’s a level of free choice in your personal practices. Even if you don’t adhere to a particular orthopraxy and worship the Gods in any way you see fit, you still choose which ones to honour. In the particular case of Roman polytheism, you don’t have to worship the entire pantheon and celebrate every single known festival that was marked in Rome and its territories. You and your community choose which deities to worship, which dates to celebrate and are even free to create new festivals or worship non-Roman gods. And this is largely true for other Euro-Mediterranean religious traditions as well. Freedom is the natural consequence of open and non-exclusivist polytheism.
This also applies to the Gods. In monotheism, the one god is naturally that of all because there is no alternative. But in polytheism, many gods means that there are different deities with different agendas, so don’t expect Them to be interested in everyone equally. People have different skills, qualities and experiences that naturally draw the attention of different divinities, so They too have a degree of freedom in choosing their followers. And the Gods can decide whether or not to accept an offering. The entire tradition of divination at the end of ceremonies is built on that premise. When there are multiple options, freedom to choose your own is the first principle.
Of course, you don’t have to be of the non-exclusive sort. Faith is personal and you’re free to adhere to a form of polytheism that claims that only a particular group of gods is real. I could, for instance, claim that only the Roman pantheon is true, but given how big it is, even then I’d still have to have the freedom to choose which gods and festivals to focus on. Otherwise, it would be an impractical religion today, just as it would be in the ancient world, if every cultor had to pay an equal amount of respect to every deity and mark every single one of their festivals. The religious focus of each person or community will be different and it results from a combination of inherited duties and freedom of choice. And even then, the point that the Gods Themselves are free to choose still stands.
A god who claims to be the only one has it easy in that his will is law. It’s like a one-man show, a state of things where there’s no opposition and no diversity to accommodate. He dictates and others obey, because no one else is a god. It’s a matter of absolute power. Not so in polytheism, though, because there are multiple divine voices with different interests and agendas. Which means that They have to somehow co-exist and share power. Philosophers of the Enlightenment knew this principle when they considered the nature and needs of society. When you’re not alone, when you live in a community, your freedom stops being absolute because you have to make room for others, their needs and their rights. So a compromise is required, a social contract that establishes the rules of co-existence and allots rights and duties, the dos and don’ts of social life. Anyone who ever shared something with someone else knows the drill: when driving, there are rules on what you can and can’t do on the road because others are using it; if you have a shared workplace, you can’t expect to behave as if you’re the only one using it; if you share a flat, you have to make room for other people’s routines. You have to be reasonable and come to a middle ground where a compromise becomes possible. Diversity is sustained by balance. Otherwise, things will simply collapse: couples divorce, friends move into different houses, communities break apart, species extinguish others. And if that’s the case, why should it be any different among the Gods? They too are a diverse community made of different beings with power and different agendas, so it makes sense that They too need to be reasonable in order to make room for each other. It doesn’t mean that there are no disputes among Them. Conflict exists everywhere and it eventually leads to a resolution, but if there are many Gods and They need to co-exist, then a balanced resolution generally makes a lot more sense than a zero-sum result. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that They may well have rules of engagement. Willingly or not, the Gods are reasonable because that’s a necessity of co-existence.
One can argue that while that may be true for the Gods, it doesn’t mean that it’s also true for the relations between Them and human beings. There’s a difference of power and authority which, simply put, means that we are not gods and cannot expect Them to treat us as equals with whom They have to compromise. In principle, this is true, but it’s more easily applicable to monotheistic religions, because you have no divine option. It’s either that godly guy’s way or the infernal highway. But in polytheism, especially in the open and non-exclusivist kind, there are alternatives, even competition. And there’s freedom of choice. If a god doesn’t want you, you can try another one; if a deity isn’t right for you or makes you feel too uncomfortable, there are options. Options that don’t imply damnation, that is. It won’t always be as easy as just saying yes or no and sometimes there may be pressure, persistence and a punch on the table to make a point clear. But there will also be haggling, negotiation and an effort to accommodate. You may go an extra mile for a god/dess with whom you really want to connect or to keep your relationship strong; He/She might do the same to keep you as one of His/Her own, if nothing else because there are religious alternatives. Co-existence and competition calls for reasonability, which means that in open and non-exclusivist polytheism, the Gods are or at least need to be reasonable. They may give humans much less leeway than They give fellow gods, granted, but They’re not the only players in the game, it’s not a one-god show, so a degree of reasonable compromise is in order, including towards worshippers.
III. Social framework
Relations with the gods were conducted under the sign of reason, not that of the irrational, in the same way as they were conducted between one citizen and another, or rather between clients and their patrons, but never between slaves and their masters.
So wrote John Sheid in his Introduction to Roman Religion (2003: 28). It means that relations with the Gods were seen as an extension of social interactions, in which case the former reflected the latter. Which brings me back to a previous post of mine, when I wrote that the goal of reconstructionism is to immerse yourself in an ancient culture and bring the basics of its religion into the modern world. And here’s one: you deal with the Gods according to the principles of social life. Romans applied the essentials of their society, so much so that at one point in the imperial period it became less about freedom among citizens and more about obedience by subjects. But I’m not interested in re-enacting ancient Rome, so I must take the principle and apply it to a modern context. And in today’s free western societies, compromise and critical thinking are paramount. Our lives are ruled by the written law, negotiated contracts, the notion of basic rights. And while respect for those in charge is required, blind obedience is out of place: you have to do what your boss tells you, but not his/her every bid; you should respect a police officer, but not look acritically at his/her actions; reverence for your elders is a good thing, but you’re free to disagree and chart your own path – ’cause otherwise a lot of us polytheists would be “well behaved” baptized sons and grandsons.
Just as it is in human social life, so should it be in our dealings with the Gods. It doesn’t mean that we can see Them as elected officials whom we’re free to replace if we get enough votes – which would be hubris – or that we should use Them as our personal money lenders, employees or even equal co-workers, because They’re not your personal bitches. Gods are still Gods – especially the greater ones! What it means is that reason, freedom and critical thinking should apply to our dealings with Them just as it does to interactions in free human societies. You respect Them, co-exist with Them in your everyday life, establish contracts with the Gods and fulfil your obligations, but there is room for adjustments or even re-negotiation. In fact, you’re free to do so, just as They are free to ask for changes, hopefully resulting in a rational compromise. This is also true for inherited religious responsibilities: conditions may change and you may not be able to afford or keep up with what your ancestors did, so you renegotiate the terms of the contract with the Gods, just as you would with a rent, a debt or any other inherited responsibility. There’s even the possibility of terminating the deal if both parties agree or if the contract was valid only for a limited amount of time. Being married or having a committed relationship with someone doesn’t make you’re your partner’s slave, so the same principle applies to those devoted or “married” to a deity. And while you trust the Gods, it doesn’t have to be blind obedience, just as trusting your loved ones, your elders or a police officer doesn’t mean you should do away with critical thinking.
IV. Diversity has consequences
This is why I believe the Gods are reasonable. It’s a rational consequence of diversity, which is at the heart of polytheism. It’s implied in the very notion of many gods. And diversity has theological consequences, generating dynamics that are essentially different from those of monotheism. It’s not that every god will be equally reasonable: diversity also implies differences between different deities. But in the end, multiplicity, co-existence, freedom of choice and also the application of social basics to one’s dealings with the Gods means that They are reasonable, however varied in degree. Because it’s not a matter of slaves and masters, of one ruling absolute over the others, but of rational interaction between multiple, co-existing and free parties. Just like in a free and diverse society – which, I’d add, is one we should strive for.