Moderate Syncretism

David Blue

I have a lot of sympathy for “hard” polytheism. I have more sympathty for it than for mandatory, dogmatic monolatry, or for other formulas that pretend to unite all gods (or all male gods, and all female gods) in some divine leviathan.

Which is sacred, which has right of way: the god or the goddess, awkward and possibly cross-gendered bits and all, or the paper formula, and the priests or the priestly bureaucracy that upholds it?

You need some formula such as the god being the soul of the church (and tacitly identical to its dogmatic buraucracy) to warrant putting the rhetoric of the machine over any individual. I do not favor such a formula.

And I have more sympathy for “hard” polytheism than for what I call predatory syncretism, where the union of two or more gods effectively abolishes one of them. For example, if Bat is “absorbed in” Hathor and Hathor is “absorbed in” Isis, and this means that the name of Bat is heard no more and her distinct image is honored no more, and no virtue is seen any more in the range of things that Bat has no claim to be interested in, in the moods and styles she never has, and in what myths and symbols do not belong to her, that is predatory. The god with less current support is “absorbed” only in the way that a lion “absorbs” the meat it eats.

Ann who manages an easy, gracious smile even on the days when she’s feeling blue is not an incomplete representation of Annette, who usually has an easy, gracious smile but who also has a vicious, unpredictable temper. Rather, she is herself. If you forget that about Ann, you’ve forgotten everything that matters about Ann.

The worst case is functional replacement. God X does Y for you? Saint Z covers that, so put away your idols, or else. Or, the falcon ships will feature Montu no more, and the king’s wife Nefertiri will feature in his place.

Lists of gods that do different things remind me of a girl I knew who had a car boyfriend, a yacht boyfriend, a dancing boyfriend, and so on; and she could swap boys in and out of her slots. It was convienient for her: nothing had to be worked out: don’t repair, replace!

Her ability to get away with this might have had something to do with the facts that her daddy was rich and she was drop dead beautiful. But of course, all the boyfriends but the make-out boyfriend were simply being used, and of course she was neither loving nor lovable.

And now you dare to look me in the eye.
Those crocodile tears are what you cry.
It’s a genuine problem, you won’t try
To work it out at all you just pass it by, pass it by.

Substitute me for him.
Substitute my coke for gin.
Substitute you for my mum.
At least I’ll get my washing done.

– Pete Townhend (The Who): Substitute

I think the validity of syncretism eventually comes down to thou-ness: a recognition of a distinct “you!”, the way you can still recognize your friend if she’s wearing her hair differently, or if she’s putting on an accent, or if she wants to be called Abbie rather than “Abigail” this week.

That mutual “you!” is the basis of religion as far as I can make any personal sense of it.

Isn’t it strange how sure you can be when you find the one you want?
Isn’t it strange how crazy you go when you finally won the one that
you want?
A moment like this (oh, oh, oh)
Maybe baby, we can make it.

It’s You, It’s You, Only You!
Well, I know what I want and I’m sure I can get it!
But It’s You, It’s You, Only You!
Well, I know what I want and I’m sure I can get it!

I’m losing my heart for you,
And I’m prepared to lose my life.

– Lena Lovich: It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmertz)

The sense of the fundamental rightness and order of existence that would be needed to underpin a formula about how gods relate may follow this personal recognition. It does not precede it (for me, anyway).

No I don’t believe in luck
No I don’t believe in circumstance no more
Accidents never happen in a perfect world
So I won’t believe in luck
I saw you walking in the dark
So I slipped behind your footsteps for a while…

Now you love me
I, yeah, I can tell
I never lied, I never cried
And you, you knew so well…

“Like the Magi on the hill
I can divinate your presence from afar
And I’ll follow you until
I can bring you to a perfect world

“Accidents never happen in a perfect world
Accidents never happen.”

– Blondie: Accidents Never Happen

“Now you love me” – but not before.

And – while acknowledging respectully that cleverer people than me may have thought otherwise – I think some forgetfulness of or confusion about the distinct and personal nature of divine love is necessary if one is to take it as a warrent for a cookie-cutter style imposition of categories, systems and theological formulas over crazy-ass people.

In the smoke and shadow of our relationships with gods who were worshipped in an organized way in ancient times, it’s reasonable that there is a diversity of opinion on who is which “you”. It’s like recognising someone in the distance – that old blue raincoat: does that mean it’s my old, dear friend? Or is it someone else with the same build, walk and taste in raincoats? Is it not her, because she’s got a shoulder-bag that doesn’t suit her? Or didn’t you know about that bag her mother gave her?

Extreme “hard” polytheism addresses this in a flawed way. If she’s in jeans, it’s not her. But it’s right in that it recognises that there is a “her”.

And then one day it happened:
She cut her hair and I stopped loving her.” – Billy Bragg: Walk Away Renee

Extreme syncretism is much worse flawed, fatally flawed in my view. “It makes no difference, any man is one, any woman is one, they are interchangeable” – that doesn’t acknowledge the “thou” at all.

It doesn’t even acknowledge a dimension of reality, of fundamentally non-interchangeable you-s and me-s, in which you yorself might be recognized.

Or perhaps you assume you have that as a right, but the god/s you expect to work for you no more has/have that quality than your household appliances do?

I don’t think that’s the way to go.


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