Coming Out as a Polytheist

Earlier this week Adam and I went to visit with a family whose daughter attends the same preschool as our son. The kids had a great time, playing together happily, whilst we adults sat around talking, drinking delicious strawberry mint “mojitos” and eating amazing meatballs. It was a great party! Somewhere in there the conversation turned to my background in theology. As it does. I had an experience I haven’t had in a while: I was asked if I believe in God.

Buddy Christ, taken from Jesus’s twitter feed:

I was surprised at how the content of the conversation was only slightly different from the kind I had when I was a Christian. The awkwardness was exactly the same, even as my position was radically different. I remember being asked if I believed in God when I was a Christian, and feeling uncomfortable because, while yes, I did believe in God, I didn’t believe in God the way the questioner usually meant. Even ten, fifteen years ago I had a much broader understanding of ‘God’ and certainly didn’t think God was a He (or a She, for that matter).

This time I felt that awkward, uncomfortable pit in my stomach and I got specific. I said I believed that Yahweh was A god, but not THE god, and he wasn’t MY god. I came out as a polytheist. It was weird, but also very freeing.

Other questions were asked: Do I believe that Jesus is the king of kings? No, if he was I think the Jews would have jumped on board with him. Does that make him less of a god? No. He’s just not MY god.

See, a polytheist view-point sees the world as full of gods, full of possibility. I actually think it helps me be agnostic about a lot of things, folding in my own experiences without denying the validity of others’ experiences, without breaking my brain trying to fit it all into a monotheistic framework in which “there can be only one.” I feel completely liberated from having to work everything into a monotheistic framework; my brain is so relieved about that.

Another question to answer was, had I read any CS Lewis? I feel bad when people ask me this. You might be surprised at how often this question comes up! I am a huge fan of Lewis; I’ve read most of what he’s written, including his academic work in literature and his fiction. (Hm, I think it could be good fun to revisit a bunch of his work with my “new eyes.” Does that sound interesting to you?) Usually I’m far more familiar with Lewis than the person asking the question. He’s a smart, thoughtful author, who is completely a man of his time, place, and circumstances. For the average American those circumstances and that time and place are just not relevant anymore.

Perhaps my favorite CS Lewis book.

Many of Lewis’s arguments and the evangelical arguments for Christianity rest on a purely monotheistic way of looking at the world. In fact, most atheist arguments rest on this framework, too. If God (as the Christians envision him) does not exist then there is no god. Or, if there is a god it has to be Yahweh. Why I couldn’t see the profound lack of logic in this for so many years is a testament to just how much the Christian view-point dominates our Western thinking. Why does the Christian viewpoint (or Jewish or Muslim – the monotheistic view-point) have to be the only one? It doesn’t. It isn’t.

We got to talking about experience. My host said that he had a life-changing experience in his mid-20s while driving for work. He said it was revealed to him that the Bible was true. My response was, that’s wonderful! Having a spiritual experience like that is joyous thing. I absolutely think that he ought to worship Yahweh and Jesus. But please don’t expect me to. Don’t demand that of me.

I put in my time. I didn’t give Christianity a mere fortnight. I gave it close to twenty years. I expected Jesus to do what the New Testament says he’ll do; I had hoped that I would have the sorts of experiences and relationships that my other Christian peers were having. But I never did. I had other experiences. I really think that Jesus and I are not meant to be in relationship with each other.

But what if you are being deceived? I was asked that in full sincerity. A good question, but one I don’t need to entertain. If my sincere heart and efforts dedicated to knowing God led me elsewhere, why would I assume I was being deceived? Why not assume that I was being led by a God of Love to where I was meant to be? To deities that wanted me? Assuming that I am being deceived actually makes Jesus out to be a real dick. Why keep me waiting all these years? Oh, it’s not for me to question? Well, I’d rather go where I’m wanted, where all the skills and gifts I gained in my years of Christianity are used, welcome, and produce fruit.

My lack of relationship with Jesus and Yahweh in no way invalidates the experiences of Christians. When looking at this topic from a purely monotheist point of view the choices are either Jesus is the single only truth, or he is a liar or, worse, an insane person; I am either being deceived by the devil, or Jesus isn’t true. I don’t think we need to be so zero sum about it. I am not deceived, nor am I lying, nor do I diminish the truth and beauty that many people find in the Christian tradition. Even if Jesus did rise from the dead, that still doesn’t make him The Only god.

My embrace of the polytheist world view has given me new eyes through which to see the world, a new mind with which to accept my experiences and those of others. Indeed, I have a new heart with more compassion and less judgment than ever before.

I can appreciate the sincere desire of Christians to represent their truth to me. My only hope is that they will accept the truth of my experience – hard-earned – too.

13 responses to “Coming Out as a Polytheist

  1. This is marvelous. I am not sure that I remembered we had that in common, that we were both once Christians. I know that I am an acquaintance; I hope that one day we may be friends. I think we would have a lot to talk about.

  2. Niki, I am SO with you on this, except I feel that what we define as “God/s” is in fact our own yearning to have purpose, to belong, to feel part of something bigger. This may come from a higher power of some sort, but the agnostic in me is just not sure. I am no theologian… My own personal instinct is that there is more to us than meets the eye, I am not interested in proof, only “felt sense”, what is true to me. I would never wish to impose my views on others, others are free to have their felt sense of what is real and right for them. I really dislike it when people evangelise and believe that I will spend eternity in Hell if I don’t believe as they do. I love your genuine and sharp analysis of these things, you always make me think. Much love.

  3. An interesting post.
    You pose and answer a very interesting question: “What if I am being deceived?”. I had considered a similar question “what if I am wrong?”, and I honestly believe that if I am wrong my “mistake” would be making me a better, more considerate person, and adding a (illusionary) richness and spiritual side to my life. Interestingly the people who ask me this question have never been prepared to consider it themselves – and respond to the accusation that they are bringing discord into communities and families for nothing by saying “they cannot be wrong and they are doing it to bring salvation.

    I think your answer to “What if I am being deceived?” is spot on. If there is an all-powerful loving God then any deception is known about and permitted by him/her. For it to continue for so long would certainly entail this “god” being a dick-head.

    I think that the possibility of being deceived, (or wrong come to that) is only plausible if there is no all-powerful loving God – either because there is no God or we have a Zoroastrian-like balance of “good” and “evil” Gods. Both this question and the question “what if I am wrong?” would be much more powerful and interesting to respond to if they came from someone holding such a belief.

    By the way – I have read very little of C. S. Lewis’s non-fiction work, but from what I have read I think that your view of him being “a man of his time”, but also think he is very much a “man of his place” too. In particular when he says:

    The choice is between (a.) The materialist world picture: wh. I can’t believe. (b.) The real archaic primitive religions; wh. are not moral enough. (c.) The (claimed) fulfillment of these in Hinduism. (d.) The claimed fulfillment of these in Xianity. But the weakness of Hinduism is that it doesn’t really merge the two strands. Unredeemable savage religion goes on in the village; the Hermit philosophizes in the forest: and neither really interfaces with the other. It is only Xianity which compels a high brow like me to partake of a ritual blood feast, and also compels a central African convert to attempt an elightened code of ethics.

    He is taking a view of Christianity that fits the English cloistered academia rather than that of Martin Luther, the Crusaders, the “primitives” combining the Bible with voodoo, or using the cross to exorcise spirits – or even the primitive beliefs of shakers and spiritualists.

    He has no such qualms about lumping together tribals with larger Hindu movements, and ignoring the fact that within many of the sampradayas people from all levels are urged to act in dharmic ways.

    It is interesting to compare his parochial world-view with that of the Transcendentalists, who despite being even further in the past than Lewis have a much more open attitude and greater understanding of other religions.

    • Tandava, sorry to take so long to respond to your comment. Yes, few people who ask the deception question are really ready to ask it of themselves. Most people assume that there must only be one god and if it’s not as the monotheists say then there is nothing. Just stepping out of that box is freeing. Eventually I want to write a post about how my theology plays out. I actually do believe in a Great Ground of Being, but that opens up into polytheism, rather than as a monotheistic deity.

      As for CS Lewis, he cannot see anything other than the Christian conception of the Divine. Christians like to claim he was an atheist, but I’ve read Lewis’s autobiography and I wouldn’t go that far. There are some very moving parts, very honest passages about him reluctantly coming to Christianity. Honest experience is moving. But it sure doesn’t speak for most people I know these days. His statements on other cultures also smacks of a white man of privilege of his time and place. The racism isn’t excusable, but at least I have some context for it.

      • Don’t worry about taking time to reply – I have left people waiting for ages on occasions.

        I actually do believe in a Great Ground of Being, but that opens up into polytheism, rather than as a monotheistic deity

        Yes, I suppose that if you believe in a “pure polytheism” (I’m sure there is a proper term) where there are many Gods but no over-all God then “am I being deceived” becomes as real question again. Even so it will not have the eternal consequences that Christians imply by that question.

        If you follow henotheistic polytheism then the question disappears in the same way it does with monotheism. I am not sure what you mean by a “Great Ground of Being opening up into polytheism”, but I assume it is like the vedantists belief that the individual Gods are all aspects of the Brahman which is beyond comprehension. In this case too all the emergent Gods will have the common nature or property – which if it is benign will mean that all Gods will ultimately lead to the truth and not deceive.

        • Hm, I can see I have my work cut out for me! I don’t think I’m quite like the Vedantists, but I’ll have to see. There is a difference between ‘hard polytheism’ and ‘soft polytheism.’ Fodder for a future post!

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