Polytheism and Metaphysics (II): Divine Production (1): Hermeneutics

Polytheism and Metaphysics (II): Divine Production (1): Hermeneutics

Just as polytheism is the theology of relation,1 by that very fact it must be the theology of positive divine production. That which the Gods generate must have its reality and its relative autonomy, indeed, its own causal efficacy, or else Their act of production has been impotent. That which the Gods make, They release into genuine being.

In itself, this already means that our own human intelligence and our autonomous ethical judgment must operate to their fullest capacity in the encounter with the Gods, even when at the same time other faculties of ours, of a different, intuitive character, also come into play in that encounter.

For the Gods to really exist as producers demands that their products really exist too, and not as mere illusions or semblances of being. Any communication delivered from the Gods to us thus possesses a necessary surplus above and beyond its reception. Our understanding of it cannot be without remainder, because it is not identical to us or to the Gods. Moreover, in existing between the God and ourselves, our understanding of the theophany is a cooperative work between us. Our own being does not permit that we are wholly passive in receiving it, nor does its being permit that another understanding of it, another interpretation, is not always possible. In this respect, furthermore, there is never only ourselves and the God in the interpretive encounter, but always some other, not present but potential, who would hear and understand differently.

Theophany—the revelation, appearance, manifestation, intervention of the Gods—is, then, that which demands interpretation. In turn, whatever truly demands interpretation, in an existentially decisive sense, is theophany, for as Proclus puts it, whatever a person posits as primary according to nature (ta prôta kata physin) is what the Gods are for such a person.2

Proclus’ argument goes on to show that any theology that makes the divine out to be anything other than the persons of the Gods, the very individuals that the Gods are, is reductionistic. Only the Platonic position is essentially non-reductionistic; this is the theology of ‘radical’ polytheism, insofar as it posits the unit as primary, and hence the Gods are units, and units of the primary kind, namely unique units or ‘whos’, as opposed to ‘whats’, as I have termed it elsewhere.

Whatever a person takes as primary is going to demand of them an interpretive labor. In a reductionist ideology, or in the reductionist moments internal to non-reductionist thought, this will be the labor of reducing the diversity of merely apparent phenomena to fewer really existent principles. In non-reductionist thought, however, the labor of interpretation will instead be the labor of generating from really existent principles further really existent things.3 The labor of interpretation within polytheistic thought, therefore—for polytheism is the only truly non-reductionistic method of thought, I would argue—is additive, and a direct continuation of the process of divine production itself, which the polytheist conceives as the releasing of things by the Gods themselves into their own genuine being. The Gods do not, in other words, act only through intermediaries, but are available directly at every level of the cosmos as well as through the ongoing activity of powers they have already released into being at every stage.

Theophany thus demands interpretation, not because we are merely human, but because the Gods exist and are really Gods. The Gods stand behind and beyond intelligence, and therefore knowing them requires a process that goes beyond and behind what is given explicitly and exoterically, in no matter how intimate an encounter. This is true even of our fellow mortals, of whom we recognize that there is always more significance in what they do than even they themselves can understand. Where we generally think of this in our fellow mortals as a product of a certain incapacity, however, I would not attribute any incapacity of this sort to the Gods—nor, in the absolute sense, to ourselves either. It is not that the Gods are unconscious of themselves. The opacity, rather, is generative, it is the demand to produce more meaning, to carry forward the divine impetus. And so we go behind and beyond by going forward, by producing something new, something additional to what was imparted to us.

The Gods as Gods are productive, generating form and bringing new things into the world, and therefore the interpretation that comes from theophany necessarily manifests a further stage of their activity beyond the passive and literal reception according to preexisting habits and cultural norms. This has a particular relevance for theophany via mantic work, divination. When we take what is received through the mantis literally, passively, at best we enter into spiritual communion with them, that is, we share in the spirit through which the mantis experiences their God, or, when we divine for ourselves, we continue ‘in the spirit’ we have established between ourselves and the God through the whole tenor of our previous practice. But it is when we apply active interpretation, hermeneutics, to the mantic utterance, rather than resting with either the literal or the received interpretation of that utterance, that we approach the mantic event afresh as itself a divine production, for then we gain the opportunity for the Gods to foster in us a new and distinct connection, which is like the beginning of a new tradition, though it may well never proceed that far. Releasing the mantic utterance into being in its own right, with the causal efficacy to continue to provoke interpretations, is therefore to sustain its divinity.

1 http://polytheist.com/noeseis/2014/09/03/polytheism-and-metaphysics-i-divine-relation/; http://polytheist.com/featured-voices/2014/10/01/religions-of-relation-dynamics-in-modern-polytheism/

2 Proclus, Platonic Theology, book 1, chap. 3 (Saffrey and Westerink, eds.).

3 In addition, although Proclus does not mention them, there are ideologies that are not reductionistic so much as fundamentally aporetic, that is, issuing in some basic, global doubt or impossibility of solution (from Greek aporos, lacking resource, or a way forward, or a way out of an impasse). Such ideologies are not necessarily unstable for their aporetic character. In fact, it is far more stable for an ideology to own its aporiai, its moments of aporia, than to blunder ahead with insufficient resources, which results in crude attempts to make reality fit a narrow framework. The aporetic ideology, then, just like the reductionisms, recognizes the basic role of interpretation; it sees its ultimate outcome as negative, however, demanding a lack of closure to the interpretive engagement. In this respect, the aporetic ideology is closer to polytheistic thought than any reductionism can be, but where the aporetic posits the negative lack of closure, the polytheist affirms the positive, i.e., additive, lack of closure.

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  1. That bit at the end about dealing with a mantic utterance in its own right, and applying fresh interpretation to it, suddenly makes clear the ancient practice of keeping books of oracles that one could consult, anew, in any given situation. I’d always found that a bit odd (how could the oracle apply to both an original and later question?) and chalked it up to essentially bibliomancy, but this makes a lot of sense.

    • Edward P. Butler

      That’s a perfect application of the principle which didn’t even occur to me. It’s almost as rewarding to find one’s abstract metaphysical speculations embodied in historical practices as it is to find one’s UPG borne out by historical research. Thank you!

  2. I think this is fantastic (unsurprisingly–both that it is and that I think so–!), and is a very useful corrective to the notion that all interpretation is secondary, and therefore unimportant, or “equally right/wrong/flawed,” etc. It’s a convenient way to make everything ultimately signify nothing outside of one’s own head, and therefore to make of the deities themselves an entirely internal reality, if in fact they are understood as a reality at all.

    • Edward P. Butler

      Yes, exactly, you get precisely what I’m trying to say–unsurprisingly!

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