Monotheism vs. Polytheism in Contemporary Paganism by Elizabeth Barrette
This piece began as part of a discussion in the Sisters of Avalon mailing list. A member's boyfriend wanted to know how and why some people could worship one deity while other people prefer to work with many deities. The answers I came up with may prove useful to spiritual seekers in their quest for divine patronage that meets their particular needs.
Different religions exist because not everyone has the same spiritual needs or responds best to the same style of worship. Monotheism (worship of one deity) appeals to one type of person, polytheism (worship of many deities) to another, just the way people like different kinds of music. In selecting a system, you should consider your personal preferences; in working with other people, you should respect their preferences. Most traditions are polytheistic, or at least monotheistic with helper spirits; but there are a few monotheistic ones which posit a single Great Creator with no supporting cast. It pays to explore widely.
I strongly prefer a polytheistic system for a variety of reasons. First, different deities and systems are good at doing different things. I like to keep in close contact with systems and patrons specializing in widely different areas. (My primary systems, for instance, are Celtic, Native American, and African.) That means that whenever something needs doing, chances are I can call on a specialist not a generalist, which greatly increases my chances of success. Second, I get bored easily and require a lot of variety; I also incorporate a lot of variety inside my own personality. I need enough sheer diversity in my spiritual pursuits to maintain a high degree of interest and to match all my own complexities. If I picked just one system or patron, I'd leave big gaps uncovered and I'd probably get bored rather fast.
Another reason for choosing polytheism over monotheism is precision. Suppose you want to make a prayer or spell request. This is a lot like sending a letter or manuscript to a huge company. You can use the company header address and write "President" at the top. Chances are, the President himself won't read the letter; his secretary will find it and have to forward it along to whomever is in charge of granting the relevant request. But if you put a specific person's name on the envelope because you know that person deals with your particular type of request, you get there a lot faster ... and you also have a chance to build up a strong working relationship. That means you're a lot more likely to get what you want, because the person knows you and you've done each other some mutual favors before. I know this works because I've seen it in action. If I send a manuscript to a specific editor who knows and likes my work, I'm already halfway to a sale. People who send manuscripts to the wrong person, or worse yet, to "Dear Editor" are lucky to see their stuff land in the slush pile rather than the circular file. Very low priority. I, on the other hand, can usually get my stuff read promptly at a market that knows me. You see the same pattern in spirituality.
Polytheism is a demonstrable option; call on different deities from different systems, and you get very different responses. A lot of pantheons have a "boss" who organizes things, but not all of them do. The vast majority at least have "departments" because virtually all deities and other powers specialize in one or more spheres of influence. I've found the company analogy both accurate and easy to explain. Why can't you just address the One True God? Because all the deities that people really deal with are subsets of the Ultimate Divinity, not the whole universal set. The whole universal set includes absolutely everyone and everything in existence ... at a level rather too large and profound for what I'll call "directed consciousness." Awareness, yes, even benevolence; but not actual conversation-type personality. It's the same problem you see with incarnation, or with "drawing down" a deity into a follower: there is a limit to how much soul you can stuff into a body. Likewise, there's a limit to how much Divinity you can fit into a given planet or universe or human mind. Add to this the effect that the larger and more powerful the deity, the harder fine details and actions become; if you're used to creating whole universes rather than mending people's individual lives, it's a bit like trying to fix a computer chip with a wrench. Of course, the Ultimate Divinity can do just about anything, so it splits itself off into a zillion specially-designed subsets capable of dealing with just about anything on a much smaller scale. A lot of the subsets overlap, or are the same but look different from assorted perspectives. All the necessary work gets done -- and Ultimate Divinity still knows what's going on because it is simply a part of everything and the sum of everything.
The Celtic system explains this beautifully, by the way; there are descriptions of an ultimate deity simply called "The Highest" of whom everyone is generally aware but to whom nobody actually prays for the most part because it's impossible to get that one's attention. Then there are lots of other Divine Ones whose job it is to look after incarnated people. Some people in other traditions do address their prayers to Ultimate Divinity, or try to; it's pretty hard to aim at something that big, especially if you think of it as residing "up there" or "out there" because everything is a part of it. Most folks find it simpler and more comfortable to deal with personalities who make sense to them, hence the popularity of "patron saints" in some Christian denominations. It's a matter of taste.
Yes, this does support the common Pagan assertion that "All Goddesses are one Goddess, and all Gods are one God, and together They are One." (And so is everything else.) It also acknowledges that individual deities can be just as distinct as individual humans. Point to the wrong deity and say, "Well, this is just a local expression of a common archetype!" and you're liable to get flattened. The Egyptian deities in particular are quick to take offense if addressed as anything other than Their unique and magnificent selves. Some deities are less fussy. Again, it's a matter of taste.
Polytheism, and different brands of monotheism, exist because people insist on having a choice and also because on a very fine scale it takes a lot of different tools to keep the complex machinery of existence in good working order. Get all the way up to the highest levels, and it all merges into a kind of "unity in diversity" effect; lower down, you see a lot more variety. Mostly what people perceive is a matter of perspective, like the blind men and the elephant. That brings me to my final reason for preferring polytheism (along with multiple cultures and multiple languages) -- when you combine radically different perspectives, you get a much more accurate picture. If you have two different belief systems, you can overlap them into a sort of stereoscopic spirituality concept, just like the images received by each of your eyeballs overlap in your mind to give you three-dimensional vision and depth perception. The spiritual equivalent is even more mind-bending, more fun, and definitely worth the effort.
On the flip side, one can make a very good case for modified monotheism. Diversification allows you to cover more ground but costs you in focus. Good as I am with my several systems, I'll never be quite as good as the very best specialists in each individual system. Likewise, if a person picks just one patron, they get a greater degree of specialization and personal interest. In my experience, though, the effect tends to work best with the most distinctive patrons; the higher up and more general you go, the more diffusion you tend to get. But just as I've known Pagans who get great effects from dealing exclusively with, say, the Great Mother, I've known a couple of other folks who got great effects dealing with their concept of One God.
The trick to spiritual satisfaction is finding a system and path best suited to your particular needs and preferences. No sense making yourself miserable; it wrecks your efficiency. Stuff that works beautifully for me may not work at all for somebody else, and vice versa. Reasoned discussion is all to the good; argument over religion is silly and pointless. At this point in human evolution, we still need both polytheism and monotheism.
* * * References
God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch. Penguin, 2005.