Friday, September 3, 2010

Book Review: The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology, by Jordan Paper

This unassuming little university press book is a hidden jewel, and the only cross-cultural polytheistic theology I’ve run across. It’s no surprise that the project hasn’t been attempted before, since polytheism is always rooted in a particular experience of the world, and is, as Paper points out, the default human experience of the divine.

Paper teases out the commonalities across cultures in the polytheistic world view, and addresses the types of greater-than-human beings that make up the pantheons of traditional peoples. He also takes on monotheistic misperceptions of polytheism. In this last project, much to my delight, he debunks the common monotheist idea that the many deities are simply expressions of one godhead, a condescension that effectively denies the validity of polytheism.

I was glad to see that Paper did not allow himself to be limited by academic considerations, but choose to make this systematic study “confessional” and personal. Academic works, which demand footnotes and logical arguments, are not able to contain a system of belief that reaches beyond the rational.

Perhaps the most essential success of the book, however, is not discussed overtly, but informs the work throughout, and that is the animist reality underlying any polytheist experience. Polytheism, the relationship with the greater-than-human, is not possible if we don’t understand the nonhuman to have intelligence and soul, and those who insist on a one and only god, whether they identify as monotheists or not, are assuming a world that cannot live on its own, but must draw its power from “above.”

The animist reality is the living world, living rocks and waters, intelligent animals and plants, a sun and a moon who have eyes to see. If the world is filled with gods, this is to be expected, because an animist world is filled with beings of all kinds who are alive, sacred, powerful, intelligent, and ensouled.

Published by the SUNY University of New York Press, 2005. Available on Amazon or at college libraries . . . for almost $50.00 (!) and hard to find used. Kindle edition about $13.00. I found it at the university library.

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