I’ve talked recently about how biblical religion doesn’t fit neatly into Enlightenment categories of religious “evolution”—namely, the categories of monotheism and henotheism.
I’ll now extend my comments to ancient Near Eastern religions in general—and to pretty much all pagan religions. You’ll quickly see how simplistic the term “polytheism” is.
Now, caveat lector —I am not a scholar of comparative religion. Most of my reading has been at a popular level so far. That said, while I’m no expert, neither am I aware of any polytheistic religions, ANE or otherwise, that are not also pantheistic or monistic in some sense. That is, all the polytheistic religions I’m aware of have an underlying theology that the creation itself is in some way divine; and because the creation is divine, people and nature are divine, and so all things are ultimately united in that divinity. Or, they have an underlying theology that “everything is connected”, and since everything is connected, the distinction between divine and non-divine collapses. Same idea, just feeding the other way.
A very broad, bare-bones explanation for this theology is as follows:
Firstly, there are two very powerful, related, yet competing needs that fallen man has:
- He needs to suppress the knowledge of God. The very essence of his fallen state is in rejecting God’s authority and judgment—which in turn entails rejecting transcendent standards of every kind: the ultimate source of value and beauty, moral laws, natural laws, providence, etc.
- He needs to replace what he has suppressed. Because he is made with built-in intuitions about all these transcendentally-derived categories, he must find a way to explain them, or explain them away, without appeal to the transcendent which he has rejected.
Secondly, this results in inferences as per Romans 1 where the created world has to do the work of the transcendent creator. These inferences cash out in different ways for different religions, but the very broad stokes are fundamentally similar:
- Man is designed to naturally infer the existence of divinity and want to worship it. So in the imposed absence of God, he imputes divinity to the creation (pantheism).
- Absent a distinction between the divine and the created, and absent an authority that can impose distinctions onto creation from outside, natural laws become arbitrary. There is no way that created things should be; we must impose that order. People become the ultimate arbiters their own natures. In ancient cultures, that meant playing your assigned role for the greater good of society; individualism was suppressed. In modern culture the reverse is true; we are now in the extreme situation of people dictating their ontology according to their feelings. We are whatever we feel we are; men can be women and women can be men.
- This in turn collapse the created distinctions, and so everything logically becomes interconnected; ultimately everything is one (monism). This is why you so often find homosexuals and eunuchs in positions of spiritual significance in pagan religions: they approximate androgyny, which is seen as a spiritual gift because it brings one closer to the ultimate state of reality as undifferentiated and completely one, with no distinctions between anything, and everything collapsed into the divine. Take, for instance, Joe Perez’s quote, prominently displayed at gayspirituality.com:
Heterophilia is the human being finding its own divinity. Homophilia is the divine embracing its own humanity.
This works out differently in ANE religion than in, say, Buddhism or Hinduism or New Age spiritualism, but the underlying concept is fundamentally the same. And now you know why there is such emphasis in Genesis 1 on the ordering and dividing of creation.
- Because man still needs at least the illusion of control over his world, but cannot appeal to the providence of God, it is logical in view of the divinity of nature to see gods or spirits as controlling its various elements. This is also, of course, bolstered by the typical pagan experience of actual spiritual beings—demonic visitation, oppression, and possession. These are all commonplace in the majority world, as a couple of our own church’s missionaries to Ethiopia will attest. This is also why the seemingly puzzling way that the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans could so readily assimilate each other’s gods and religious myths with little more than name changes—as far as ancient people were concerned, they were all the same deities, since it was their domain which specified their identity, and not their name or the stories you told about them.
- Stories about the gods were in turn not generally intended to describe actual events, but rather to represent important facets of reality. Because everything was ultimately one, telling stories about reality could actually influence it and ensure that critical patterns continued to manifest. This is why you have the Ba’al cycle in Ugarit and the myth of Persephone and Hades in Greece: explaining and ensuring the continuity of the seasonal harvest cycle was critical to survival. You can also see how this thinking manifests in the Word of Power movement today, as well as in many occult practices, common superstitions surrounding wish-making, and even Roman Catholic religious rites that treat certain phrases as incantations (consecration of the Eucharist, the sacrament of penance etc).
- By the same reasoning, performing certain actions which represented key natural events was also seen as powerful. Since everything was ultimately one, the fertility of the harvest was really the same thing as the copulation of the gods, which in turn could really be the same thing as ritual sexual practices. This is one reason sex often features so prominently in pagan religious practice. Similar kinds of “sympathetic representation” are at the root of most magical rituals.
- Because the natural world was one with the divine and human realms, fatalism was a logical way of resolving the seeming contradiction between regular natural cycles and the decisions of personal agents. This often works out somewhat differently in Eastern religions, but in the ANE it was generally thought that patterns repeated regardless of what actions people took, and indeed those actions were fated to cyclically occur. So while the gods were seen as personifications of natural forces, it’s not clear that they were always or widely regarded as true persons in their own rights. This may also go some way toward explaining the cheapness of human life in the ancient world (and indeed the majority world today).
Obviously this is a highly simplistic summary, and I’m not really qualified to add much extra nuance for any given religious tradition. But it does lay out the general ideas inherent in religions which replace the worship of the creator for the worship of creation. It also brings to the surface why religious pluralism and seemingly contradictory truth-claims aren’t considered problematic for “spiritual” people, and why the only religion that really can’t be tolerated is Christianity.