Theodicy: Omnipotence, Omniscience, and the Problem of Evil

For much of history, the greatest difficulty faced by thinkers in theistic traditions of the Middle East and West has been the so-called theodicy: How can a perfect God allow evil to exist? Much ink has been spilled in writing allegorical myths, cosmogonic speculations, and rational arguments in an effort to resolve the question, while atheists and agnostics remain largely unconvinced and continue to use the “problem of evil” as a principal argument.

In approaching this question, I must first of all begin with a different question, that of the “problem of reason.” Reason is a marvelous power, one which has produced wonders of scientific, technological, social, and philosophical import through all of human history; reason is what permits us to hold our heads above the muck and mire of instinct and to resist (at least in principle) the push and pull of constantly shifting emotions. We cannot, however, overly romanticize our faculty of ratiocination for, in doing so, we surely press reason into a sort of tortured striving beyond its inherent limits.

This all may seem like a slightly more sophisticated form of the old “It’s just a mystery” gambit, but I assure you of my sincerity on this point. The human mind is only so big, and the brain only so powerful, and our whole mental mechanism is built, so to speak, to specialize in answering certain kinds of question; putting other sorts of question to it can restructure the system to a degree, but the brain can only change shape so much before it becomes merely scrambled. We must then be reasonable enough to know that the toolkit of reason is not omnipotent; if the only tool you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, every problem will look like a nail. In the intellectual climate of the present day, every apparent problem is being bashed and smashed as we wonder in increasing futility why it won’t pierce the board. Though naming another person who is in agreement with me does not act as proof of my point, it is interesting to note that Colin McGuin makes a similar statement in his The Mysterious Flame, though in connection with the mind/body relationship. McGuinn’s point is essentially that the mind is simply not capable of delving very deeply into solving the problem of its own nature; that is, so to say, a question so big that it contains the mind and not the other way round.
While I do not think that the problem of evil can be resolved by unaided thought, I also do not think that it is a completely opaque “mystery,” incapable of human approach. It is a matter instead of approaching as far as we can under our own power and awaiting the self-unfolding of the question.

From an esoteric(1) perspective, we draw a conceptual distinction between the Absolute Principle as such, Its tendency toward Self-expression (what we might call “creation” or, more appropriately, “emanation”) and Its personal hypostasis; these we call Brahman (literally “the Big”), Śakti (“Power”), and Īśvara (“the Lord”), respectively. Brahman is the Absolute; Śakti is All-Possibility. We could also call them Eternity and Infinity as the two “poles” of the Absolute, the latter being the Absolute as endlessly extensible, and the former being the Absolute as unchanging Ground. Īśvara is Whom we normally call God.

The Perennialist thinker Frithjof Schuon referred to Īśvara, quite appropriately, as “the relative absolute”. The poles of existence, so to speak, could be named the Absolute and the relative; the Absolute exists of necessity, being Existence-as-such, while the relative has its being, as it were, “on loan” from the Absolute and exists only in relation to It. So, Īśvara as relative absolute is the hypostatic face of the Absolute within the sphere of relativity. Creation exists “within” God, made up of His substance. God is then the Absolute paradoxically in relation to the relative. He is thus omnipotent in relation to the created universe, a projection of Fullness into emptiness, and the immanent-transcendent Consciousness of which all individual consciousnesses are delimitations.

This sort of omnipotence does not mean that God can ignore logic; being Consciousness, logic is inherent to God’s very substance. The so-called rules of logic, then, are themselves expressions of God’s omnipotence. If they are to be seen as “limitations” at all, they are self-imposed limitations. This, however, is still not a fully accurate understanding of them. To refer to God achieving the exact projection of His own Mind represented by the principles of logic as a “limitation” is somewhat as if calling Picasso’s choice to use paint-on-canvas instead of clay and a potter’s wheel a “failure of imagination.” It simply makes no sense to do so. For God to “ignore logic” is tantamount to being other than Himself and that is an absurdity.

In our world today, we are somewhat conditioned to view everything as being “relative” in the sense of having no inherent being or meaning. One of the innumerable dangers in this perspective (in addition to its lack of factual content) is the mental trick of believing that physical laws could have been other than they are, or that principles of logic are somehow only guide rails which we just haven’t figured our way around yet. Nothing could be further from the truth. The very notion of logic, from the created perspective, is as a set of principles which inhere in the very nature of things and their relationships to one another which, when understood properly, allow for structured thinking and investigation founded in conceptual solidity. The idea that God could have used “a different logic” to underpin our universe is rather silly; if “different logics” do exist (as is entirely possible, for all I can imagine), any given universe may only be built-up from any one such system, and that logical system must then remain in place until the dissolution of that universe.

Part of the nature of the All-Possibility is that anything which can exist, must exist. It needn’t exist within every single possible universe, as the underpinnings of some universes will necessarily exclude certain manifestations which are still possible ab natura. There is nothing contradictory in this.

Omniscience is rather similar to omnipotence. God is bound by neither time or space, those things existing “in” and “of” Him as the matrices of manifestation and experience. Time and space are necessary for particularity, individuality, and change. In a sort of projection, time is the relative expression of the Absolute’s aspect of Eternity, while space is a similar reflection of Infinity. Both are required for manifestation to take place; lack of extension in either space or time results in a lack of physical reality, though reality may still obtain in subtler form — and must do, so to speak, “prior” to physical manifestation.

Though God is bound by neither time nor space in His essence, He must act within them for the sake of relative manifestation. God’s omniscience is the result of time and space existing of His own Conscious Substance; nothing can exist or occur without God’s absolute knowledge of it “from the inside.” This knowledge ignores boundaries of past and future because it is more fundamental than the extension of time itself. There is no complete human analogy, but one can imagine complete knowledge of a civilization existing within one’s own imagination; the future end of that civilization is known from the very start. If we can then imagine that the individuals comprising that civilization are imbued with a small reflection of the Imaginer’s consciousness, we can further imagine that, though “part of” the Imaginer’s consciousness and being small reflections of it, they would not necessarily be aware of the “whole.”

Such is the nature of God’s omniscience as the Imaginer, and we, the imagined, go blithely along knowing whatever little corner of the grand image we happen to inhabit, and that rather imperfectly. But how does that effect the notion of free will?

I think it a mistake to come down too hard on either side of the free will/determinism debate. It seems to me that we certainly have freedom of choice, but within some rather tight constraints. I am free, for instance, to try to fly by flapping my arms, but I am not free to fly by flapping my arms. On a subtler level, I am free to think or imagine anything within the constraints of my mind; those constraints may be altered to an incredible degree, but are not infinitely expandable. In either case, there are limits to my freedom, but that does not mean that the freedom is nonexistent.

On the other side, it is quite true that causality has an impact both broad and deep on the thoughts we think, emotions we feel, and desires we hold at any given moment; the past, stretching back into unknown infinity, is full with every event which has led up to the present. However, it strikes me that causality is significantly more complex than a simple notion of classical “billiard balls” physics lets on, and we have no reason, as yet, to discount the subjective experience of making a conscious choice between various options as a part of the causal chain. There does appear to be an element of randomness in the universe, if a constrained one, and it seems only reasonable to entertain the notion that our own capacity to choose might be one of those instances of “constrained randomness” or, to borrow from the drama of Greek thought, each of our choices can be thought of as a moment of bringing cosmos from chaos.

As this entire process has existed, if I may put it such, “from the beginning” in the mind of God, from the absolute perspective we do not have free will. However, to claim that we have none in any sense is to make not merely a category error, but an error of conflating different degrees of Being. This particular error is, I’m afraid, an especial hallmark of post-Scholastic Western philosophy. The medieval world had the notion of the Great Chain of Being, a Platonic-Christian acknowledgment of the continuum of existence from inert matter to sentient life forms to angels to God Himself, and the four worlds of the Jewish Kabbalah (also influenced by Platonism and Pythagoreanism) point to the same notion. God is not on a level playing field with us, just as we are not on a level with the virtual particles (neither quite existent nor quite non-existent) of quantum mechanics. To try to treat God as another mere entity is to have sought to trap Him within conceptual rubrics infinitely smaller than Himself, as if pushing a Great Dane into a change purse.

Anyhow, our limited mode of experiencing the universe necessarily includes the subjective experience of a will at least free enough to choose between several apparent options. God’s transcendence of spacetime is a “higher plane” phenomenon, one which lies back of our mental processes but which our mental processes need not be always consciously aware. God is, in a sense, experiencing the universe in and through us, with the capacity to choose being a part of the uniqueness of that experience. If, from an infinitely larger view, that capacity is illusory, it is real enough from our present view to make the ideas of “law and order” make some sense in building societies.

Speaking of free will, it is true, though not quite enough, to say that “evil” is a matter of choice. Certainly, acts of evil erupt from the capacity of humans to choose what is not in the best interests of others, individually or collectively and, more often than not, what is not even in their own best interests. As the Buddha taught, sin is already the punishment for sin. This means that the tendencies or habits which we build up through our thoughts, words, and deeds dig deeper and deeper channels and become harder and harder to resist with each repetition. Thus, evil becomes more and more ingrained as we continue to think or do it. Kleptomania is a well-known example of an evil act (though usually a relatively small sort of evil act) which has become a compulsion, so heavily ingrained that free will has little say in the matter.

The real question at issue, here, is a bit different, so I shall formulate it explicitly: Is evil a metaphysical entity, or merely a human concept? Is there anything which lies back of evil other than human imperfection responding to a difficult world?

Much like free will, evil exists only as part of the complex relationships of the sphere of relativity. Like the whole plane of relativity, it exists only in relation to the Absolute; that is to say, its reality is temporal and reflective, neither essential nor creative. “The devil is the ape of God,” and “the devil is God, inverted.”

It is not enough to say, as some do, that evil is the lack of good. Though that is true, in a sense, it is only a part of a much larger relationship. We may understand our “world of forms”, what I have been calling “relativity”, in two reciprocal ways: as emptiness in relation to Divine Fullness, and as the reaching of Fullness into emptiness. “Nothingness” is, of course, impossible, insofar as by the very definition of the word nothingness is not a thing which exists. Yet the divine activity of emanation is itself something of a metaphysical “stretching out” of Fullness into emptiness, Being into nothingness, or, as it were, light into darkness. Creation, the entire realm in which we live, is thus gracious and charitable, from one perspective, but indifferent and privative from another. Both of these perspectives are true, the latter in a relative sense only, and the former from a more essential view.

Evil exists as part of this dynamic of privation. As lack stands in partial opposition to Fullness (complete nothingness being a non-thing), so does evil stand in partial opposition to good; it cannot be a complete opposition due to the necessary, though unidirectional, dependence of evil upon good. We can see the partial nature of this opposition in the motivation behind much evil behavior. It is quite rare indeed that a person does something evil because they wish to do evil. As a rule, anger, violence, hatred, and the like, are all in service to an ideal strongly held, a powerful instinct for survival, or a notion of protecting others from some greater threat. In other words, evil almost always takes form around a good, or at least basically neutral, motive. Stalin felt himself constantly under threat, and did what he thought was necessary to protect himself and his government; Hitler thought that he was doing right by his country and society; on a more prosaic level, corporations flout ethics in an effort to take care of their shareholders. None of these motives is evil, in principle, but have all given rise to horror by way of extravagance and misdirection.

This perversion and privation of good is inevitable. I will even go to the length of calling it an ontological necessity. The Divine All-Possibility’s very nature is to give rise to projections and reflections of everything which is logically possible to whatever degree it is possible to grant it being. The opposite of Itself is, in a seeming paradox, no different from any other possibility, except insofar as the opposite of Being is nothingness, it can never be fully realized. So, it is given the greatest degree of realization which is possible, that being the potential for evil in the world.

Evil, resulting from All-Possibility, is thus a necessity as far as relativity is concerned. God thus can abolish any given evil, but evil-as-such must remain as a possibility for as long as the creation exists. In order for the creation to be differentiated from God, in a manner of speaking, it must include the potential for that which “opposes” God and God’s will. God’s will is, however, ontologically prior to evil and, so, vincit omnia Veritas: the Truth (in this case used as an expression of the Good) is triumphant over all. As Sri Chelapaswami put it, “It was all finished from the very beginning,” which is to say that God’s victory is built into the very nature of things, even if seeming offenses “needs must come.”

There can thus be no real reciprocity between good and evil from the Absolute perspective; that relationship exists horizontally and only within the experiential plane of relativity. There is no such relationship on the vertical axis, whereon Good is simply coterminous with Being and evil with “not-quite-nonbeing.” Eventually, evil will simply give way, by the “natural” unfolding of things, as its neutral substance returns from whence it came and its privative form dissolving with it. “Nothing” cannot exist on its own, but only be given a temporary and relative form hinting at the notion of non-being. Even on this plane, a perfect vacuum is not physically possible, as the very “substance” of spacetime remains in even the emptiest of coordinates.

Does evil, then, present a challenge to God’s omnipotence? It may appear to, again within the realm of relative existence, but not in the final tally. This lack of inherent ontological reciprocity means that not only can evil never truly defeat good, but that there’s no real “war” between them anyway. Good is the essence, while evil is the accident which results from the projection of the Good into interrelated formal existence. Evil is, in the final analysis — and without trivializing the experience of evil for those sentient beings who suffer by it — only a fleeting accident in an infinitely larger process. It is necessitated by that process, insofar as anything which can be must be, but that is the beginning and the end of its entire history: a black pixel which will flicker back to vibrant color when the present film is done playing.

—–
1. “Esoteric” must not be confused with the merely “occult”; the esoteric is the inward dimension of any given religious tradition, while the occult is (in general) an attempt at gaining “secret knowledge” (and, often, power) by way of appropriating the symbols, images, and practices of religion.

Color

It is not a white light
to which the yogin aspires.
The hues by which God
tempts us to the Center
neither turn to mud and tar
nor wash out like blank canvas.
No mere shade approaches this
axial diamond clarity cast
forth as light and dark.
Whether black swamp,
green leaf, or crimson bloom,
each leaps as lightning out
and burns like sacrificial fire
back into the Root.

Śiva and the Gunas

Śiva, the Auspicious, simultaneously beautiful, loving, merciful, and awful, is said by His Yogis and Bhaktas to be none other than the Uncreate Reality beyond all qualities; others say of Him that He is the essence of tamoguna, the quality or tendency to crystallization, involution, and inertia. There is a clear contradiction, here, for it is not right to say of Godhead that He is characterized by anything, let alone by materiality, density, and sloth! We can say of Śiva, however, that He is certainly the resolution of all paradoxes. The contradictory attributions made of Him in Scripture and philosophy always point beyond themselves to a more essential element.

The twenty-five tattvas (ontological principles) of Sāṃkhya — ranging from the gross elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space, through the subtle bodies, to the two essentials of prakṛti (nature) and puruṣa (literally “man”, but in this context “spirit” is more direct) — describe, among other things, the codependent arising (in the Buddha’s sense) and expression of the three gunas. Those “thread-like qualities” make up the warp and woof of the entire created universe; they exist in chaotic potential within primordial prakṛti until manifestation is necessitated by her interaction with the orderly puruṣa. It is within this matrix that the so-called trimūrti of Brahmā, Viṣnu, and Śiva (in His form of Rudra, the Howler) is established as the personalities of the gunas, such that Brahmā = rajas (expansiveness), Viṣnu = sattva (peacefulness), and Rudra-Śiva = tamas (inertia and dissolution).

Reality is, however, essentially and ultimately non-dual. As such, Śaiva cosmology sees an additional eleven tattvas yet more subtle than the twenty-five. These trans-creational or supramanifest principles include the modes by which the Divine self-limits or contracts in order to “make way” for creation, and even include — in conceptual form, and only in order to provide a kind of map or diagram of sublimation and ascension — the unmanifest Godhead Itself. In short, Śaiva Sāṃkhya is a view of Sāṃkhya in its methodological, rather than speculative, aspect. It is seen equally in Kashmir Śaivism and in the Tamil Vedānta-Siddhānta of Sage Tirumūlar, in varying degrees of explicit exposition, but ultimately forms the base of all Śaivism.

At any rate, it ought to be clear that, beyond the level of prakṛti, the gunas do not obtain. Simply put, they only exist as the raw materials of the chaos from which manifestion issues; any more subtle application of the idea of the gunas is purely abstract and speculative.

An additional point bears on the present discussion: that Śiva is not (as is probably clear, by now) limited to a mere function. By His interactions with them, Śiva makes quite clear that Brahmā, Viṣnu, and Rudra are His functions, arising as graces from His more transcendent graces of Maheśvara (veiling grace) and Sadāśiva (revealing grace). So, the gunas manifest particular processes which, if we may so speak, issue from Śiva as both efficient and material cause, but in no way define Him.

There is a sense, however, in which we may discuss the gunas above prakṛti, and this sense, as previously suggested, is in the abstract — a means for the human mind to relate to Essence by way of contingency. This usage is illustrated explicitly in the well-known image of Kālī standing or dancing upon the corpse of Lord Śiva. Here, Kālī is the Mahāśakti or, more precisely, Paraśakti from Whom and by Whom even the six limiting principles, puruṣa, and prakṛti arise prior to the act of creation. As such, Hers is the entire process of creation, preservation, and destruction. Her passionate dance and violent power allow us to call Her — provisionally! — rajasic. The “corpse” of Śiva under Her feet presents to us Śiva in His mode as transcendent Ground of Being, the Self-Existent Nonexistence which forms the substract of Paraśakti’s activity. By way of conceptual exercise, then, we call Him tamasic.

It bears noting that there is no “sattvic” element to this image; for that, we must turn to Ardhanārīsvara, the “half-female Lord.” This is the re-unification of Śiva and Śakti at the level of the act of giving-forth the creation and reabsorbing the pure souls who climb back to their Source. It is in the sense of gracious mildness and benevolence that we may call this Form sattvic.

Of course, all of the observations of the last two paragraphs are symbolic in the lesser sense: they use the language of the dependent to point toward — for they are not capable of pointing immediately “to” — the essential. It can be very helpful to relate the processes of our immediate experience, of our own minds and bodies, to Transcendence, or temporal things to Eternity, but fanaticism and fundamentalism arise when we draw absolute conclusions from relative things.

Sattva, rajas, and tamas are the most basic processes — or, more precisely, tendencies — of Nature. None is either good or evil of itself. Yoga teachings, however, that only sattva tends toward openness, spontaneity, and peace. It is thus that we are taught to cultivate sattva in our individual economies. But Nature is, properly speaking, limited. She is the creation itself, and not the Creator. As the Scholastics, Hermeticists, and alchemists of the West know well, Nature is a living book; we may read her literally, morally, figuratively, or metaphysically, just like any true Scripture. But we must not mix up those senses; to do so is to stumble, and to persist is to fall into the abyss of reductionism, of solipsism, or of nihilism.

The Uncanny

As bricks and stones decay
we are in the graveyard and
the cellar and the catacomb
without for a moment stepping
from the cold city daylight.

As far as banality surrounds —
and so, too, does humanity hem
and crowd and move around us —
so are we held tightly in the
wispy strong threads, the Uncanny.

The Thrice Great and His
retinue of ghosts never leave
their watch over this living
place where homes and offices
and cafés are the same as tombs.

We’re the ghouls in the
graveyard skulking in crypts.
When we know our nature, then
life abounds and rot becomes
a seasoning of glorious truth.

Do not, therefore, scorn the
broken, fallen, foetid, dead;
we are no better than bone-dust
— but bone-dust is everything.
Gross and subtle, both Uncanny.

The Metaphysics of Polytheology

In his important 1922 study on Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt, Egyptologist Patrick Boylan states that

Egyptian theology does not show, in general, any clear tendency towards system. The great mass of religious texts in Egypt is marked by vagueness and even inconsistency. Individual gods are very rarely clear and well-defined personalities. Indeed, it is a feature of Egyptian theology that nearly every one of its gods is capable, in one way or another, of being fused with others. (Oxford University Press, pg 107)

This could just as easily have been said about the theology of any number of so-called “polytheistic” religions, from Hinduism to Shinto Japan to regional Amerind cultures. Gods and spirits merge into one another, separate as “emanations” or “aspects”, serve as the organs of more primitive deities, and so forth, in a constant process of reevaluation. Throughout his book Boylan complains of the muddling of Egyptian theology and insists — against all evidence — that it is not a sign of metaphysical speculation as much as it is a consequence of cultic politics and sloppy thinking. In point of fact, though, there is as much sophistication to Egyptian theology as there is to Indian or Tibetan Buddhist theologies (or “boddhisatvologies”, if one likes), and it happens to manifest as this very sort of unsystematic and flexible approach to divinity.

Authentic or traditional polytheism — over against what modern Neopagans and Neoheathens call “hard polytheism” — resists all attempts at rigid systematization by virtue of its inherent understanding that the Divine is itself beyond the defining concepts of number and name. This transnumerality manifests in some revelations as monotheism, in others as transpersonal nontheism, and in others as henopolytheism. (See Various “Theisms” in the Perennial Wisdom for more on this.) It is only the monotheistic traditions, however, in which strict systems are required. Judaism and Islam have the Names of God, while Christianity has its hypostases. Hierarchies of angels and saints serve a similar, though subordinate, purpose in these theologies. These lists and hierarchies serve to preserve the monotheism and emphasize the Supreme Godhead, all the while acknowledging the metaphysically necessary powers, influences, and theophanies. It is thus that each form of the Revelation places emphasis on one or more faces of Truth, while still acknowledging other necessary fundamentals.

The so-called polytheisms have symbolic names and forms for the various divine functionary powers, acknowledging them as individual entities with at least as much reality as those who worship them. It has been said of the Hindu murtis (statues and other images of gods found in temples and shrines) that they do not constitute idolatry because, while they may be literally constructed by human craftsmen, they are based in divine prototypes; Ganeśa has the head of an elephant, for instance, to indicate His connection to intelligence, memory, and compassion, while His belly is large to point to His being the field in which the created universe has its existence. One could go on with each feature, from the number of His arms, to what He holds in His hands, and so on, down to small details. Similarly, the Egyptian Thoth is usually depicted with the head of an ibis to demonstrate dignity, concentration, and a calm soaring over the “ocean of heaven”, while the beak of the ibis is reminiscent of the scribe’s stylus (much as the broken tusk Ganeśa often holds). Again, one could expand endlessly upon such an analysis. These images, then, constitute a form of divine writing, just like the hieroglyphs and other writing systems themselves gifted by Thoth-Ganeśa.

Though symbolic, these entities are not “merely” symbolic; speaking in terms of the Perennial Philosophy, symbols are living things and, being closer to the Center of the Mind of God, these Great Symbols whom we call Gods and devas, Archangels and angels are more real and more sentient than we are ourselves — at least from the perspective of contingency, where this sort of differentiation of degree is meaningful and necessary. Thus, in Saivism, we pray to Ganeśa and to Karttikeya, and make offerings to the host of devas and ganas, without in any way conflicting with our understanding of Śiva as Godhead. Ganeśa, Karttikeya, et al, are simultaneously emanations from, aspects of, and children to God. More familiar to most Westerners, this is a very similar scheme to that of the Christian Savior, Who is the man Jesus, the cosmic Messiah, and the primitive-creative Logos at one and the same time, without any conflict or contradiction. The “unsophisticated” Egyptian theologies are largely the same.

Western and Western-influenced academics and scholars have tried to systematize polytheologies for centuries. Whether the purely hypothetical categories of comparative religion courses, or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s take on the kabbalistic Tree of Life as “filing cabinet of symbolism” (a dubious interpretation, to be sure), all of these attempts end up cutting out the sophistication which does exist in these philosophies by shoehorning vast metaphysics into conceptual cubicles having little or no relation to the original ideas involved. In books on archaeology, religious history, or Western occultism, we often read references to “solar” and “lunar” deities, as if this were an absolute trait recognized universally by worshipers across the globe. This does little justice to those deities, however. Apollo is not god of the sun; instead, he is a god of poetry, music, scientific inquiry, beauty, and athletics — he is “solar” in the sense of being a “luminary” and patron to human luminaries. He is not, then, identical with Rê, even if they share some traits and symbolic associations. Apollo was sometimes equated by Greeks with their “other” sun god, Helios, and this is accurate insofar as Apollo is the “subtle sun”, while Helios is the body of the sun. Helios is the luminous body which we see each day, while Apollo is the reality behind it. Similarly, Rê, Ptah, and Horus are all Egyptian “sun gods”, but with different significance. Rê is the materially creative power of the sun, the sun as life-giver, but his “mind” is Thoth — a “lunar” god. Ptah is also a creator god, but more in the vein of an artist; the ancient Egyptian word for “sculpture” is, in fact, equal to the phrase “Ptah-formed”. So, Ptah has more in common with Apollo than with Helios or even Rê. Horus is a warrior, the transcendent Light who defeats darkness; he has more in common with the Saivite Karttikeya, even with the warrior aspect of Hermes and the Archangel Michael, than with any of his fellow Egyptian sun-gods. The most ancient descriptions of Horus have the sun and moon as his eyes rather than identifying him exclusively with either body. To the Western academic, this all looks rather sloppy, but that is only because it is at least as meaningless to try to categorize deities as strictly “solar” or “jovial” — or even the popular “mother goddess” — in nature (maintaining the possibility of meaningful associations) as it is to categorize individual men and women as rigidly “hungry” or “asleep”. (Please note, here, that it is a different thing to call a deity “hermetic”, as this term — far from pointing only to a planetary association — points more to that entity’s status as representative and communicator of the Perennial Wisdom and is, thus, a much broader and deeper label.)

Metaphysics is very flexible as to its expression, as long as it is truly expressed rather than glossed. The “hard polytheism” of popular approaches to, say, Germanic and Celtic reconstructionism misses the esoteric significance of the death of Baldur or the sacrificial runic mission of Odin just as much as Protestantism fails to read the inner process signified by the Book of Revelation; they drop metaphysics in exchange for artificial “system”. A fear of Chaos — misinterpreted as “disorder” — leads not to Cosmos, but to mere legalism. The authentic theologies of Revelation, whether monotheisms with their heirarchies of angels or heno- and polytheisms of Luminous Beings flowing from the Ontological Core, have nothing to fear from Chaos and cannot conceive of a Law separate from its Spirit. The very purpose of the true polytheism is to grant access to Infinity.

Various “Theisms” in the Perennial Wisdom

The principle characteristic of the Eternal Religion (Sanātana Dharma, or, as it is known in the West, Perennial Philosophy) is that each Revelation represents a metaphysic quite true within its position in the greater metaphysical context, and that each also provides access — through its esoteric essence — to  that Truth which lies behind all of them. It is not true, as many today claim, that “all religions are equally true”, as each primarily addresses different problems. It is also not the case that “all religions are one”, at least not at the varying levels to which each one belongs. Ultimately, all valid paths do lead to the Summit, but — as Frithjof Schuon makes clear in his magnum opusThe Transcendent Unity of Religions — the unity of religion is quite real only relatively close to that Summit, below which they are as distinct as the cultures and individual souls who require them. This is not a question of superiority and inferiority, but of relative value in approaching the Absolute and, it must be said, of the Absolute approaching us.

It would take a great deal of space to conduct this analysis for every one of the revelatory traditions, so I will limit myself here to generalities, mentioning specific faiths insofar as they present important illustrations or exceptions. Useful categories can be built according to the respective “theisms” discussed in modern academia. Let it be first understood, though, that these are not absolute categories; they are only meaningful insofar as they helpfully permit us to discuss metaphysical positions. The “theisms” under discussion we will call: monotheism, polytheism, henotheism, and nontheism.

We in the West largely assume — based in academic hypothesizing, rather than any actual facts — that monotheism is somehow a natural evolution of all “prior” religious thought, somehow bringing humanity out of an intellectual dark age and toward the light of reason. This line of reasoning — not to mention the dubious and murky “light” attributed to it! — is bankrupt insofar as it prefers imperialism over reality. It is true that, historically, monotheism is a later development in human thought, but it is hardly more advanced for it. This sort of thinking opens the door for three things, all of which are realized and entrenched today: the deprecation and attempted destruction of other metaphysics (often in the guise of “scientific” anthropology); atheism leading to reductionism (as in the clever-without-content quip that monotheism is an improvement over polytheism, while atheism goes “one step better”); the loss of contact with the truly metaphysical current underlying Western religion and, thus, the occultation of esoterism. It ought to be mentioned in passing that the assumptions which have brought this situation about have also given birth to an increasingly shallow “neopaganism” (used broadly, here, to include everything from Wicca to Punk-Zen to “yoga for sexy abs”) intended to rectify the situation by way of an invented or “reconstructed” pseudo-esoterism, and also to an absolute reductionism which feels completely justified in arrogantly telling men, women, and children of all backgrounds that “consciousness” is nothing but “user-illusion” thrown-off as an unnecessary byproduct of physical-chemical processes. The aforementioned neopaganism leads otherwise sincere seekers of the Spirit so far off of the rails with promises of worldly powers-seldom-delivered and freeze-dried enlightenment-never-delivered that God only knows how long it will take them to return to course, while materialist-reductionism is grounded so deeply in its circular and self-defeating logic that it is shocking when anybody succeeds in digging themselves even partly back out again (such as the former-atheist philosopher Antony Flew managed to do, to the consternation of the Dawkinses and Dennets of the world).

Thus, it is quite possible to view monotheism’s fall into excess and say, with Alain Daniélou, that

Monotheism is therefore a metaphysical error, since the world principle, which is outside the world, is beyond number, impersonal,  indescribable, and unknowable. Above all, monotheism is dangerous because of its consequences, since it is a projection of the human “self” into the divine sphere, replacing love and respect for the divine work as a whole with a fictitious character […] Intolerant, the so-called “only god” is, in fact, only the god of one tribe. Monotheistic religions have served as an excuse for persecutions, massacres, and genocides; they fight each other to impose the dominion of their heavenly tyrant on others. (Shiva and the Primordial Tradition, 2007, Inner Traditions, pg 4)

We must recognize this, however, as only part of the story. What we call monotheism did, indeed, begin as a “tribal religion” belonging principally to whom we now call Jews — a worldwide faith and culture who began their history as heterodox Middle Eastern polytheists led out of a polytheism in decay by the supreme grace of Revelation. The newly-formed monotheism has remained a “tribal” religion, though it carries a universal mission. Judaism has never been a proselytizing faith, but it has always accepted converts, which have included other Middle Eastern peoples, Germans, Celts, Slavs, and even Greek and Roman citizens who were drawn by Judaism’s focus on the Divine’s insistence on moral responsibility (something rather alien to the main stream of Greek and Roman polytheism). Though tribal, it was this universality of message that allowed for Christianity and Islam to spread monotheism much further afield and more deeply into other tribal matrices.

It remains to say, though, that in none of the three Abrahamic monotheisms is “monotheism” absolute. It can’t be. As Daniélou points out (ibid. pg 4 – 5), humans do not worship an impersonal Absolute directly; we do so through symbols. Even in Islam and Judaism, wherein the making of divine images is expressly prohibited, diagrams, geometric figures, and even the written text of revealed Scripture are all used to refer to God and, more to the point, to God’s saints and angels. This is all without having to go deeply into the practices of Catholic and Orthodox Christians (let alone Gnostics) involving the veneration of saints and certain Archangels. The only notable attempts, then, of “pure monotheism” among the Abrahamic faiths are the failures of Protestantism which, to once again use Daniélou’s language, are little more than “political fictions” without religious content, except insofar as they are forced to turn attention to the person of Jesus — an act which immediately transforms a neat-but-inconsistent monotheism into a violently unacknowledged duotheism. Christianity requires the Trinity, in one form or another, for the very core of its metaphysic to remain intact and for its spiritual method to be efficacious.

It is true that Jews and Muslims do not worship their saints and angels — least of all the djinni and demons! — but the acknowledgement of their presence is enough to give the lie to “pure monotheism” as anything but metaphysical ideal. And it is an ideal to which Muslims, especially, try to adhere; that, too, is a requisite of their metaphysic. If a Muslim ceases to proclaim that “God is greater” and that “There is no divinity but the Divinity” (which may be metaphysically transposed to “There is no divinity outside of the Divinity”), he is no longer a Muslim at all. But this brings us to the so-called “polytheisms” of Hinduism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Shinto, the aboriginal traditions, and so forth. Are these truly any more “polytheistic” than Christianity? Are they less “monotheistic” than Islam?

Hinduism — composed as it is of four principle sects, each sect containing a panoply of traditions, lineages, and sub-faiths — is what has been termed a “henotheism”. In fact, the term was coined specifically for Hinduism. Being something of an academic abstraction, though, henotheism carries only so much explanatory value. It essentially refers to any “theism” which acknowledges the existence of multiple divine beings, but which places supreme importance upon only one of them (either one at a time, or one over all). While a useful “middle ground” between monotheism and polytheism, we quickly find that the definition is not accurate. As such, for our use, we will have to redefine it thus: for the span of this article, henotheism refers to a religion in which the Divine is beyond name and number, but which reveals Itself within the Creation in a myriad of ways. To the Śaiva, God reveals Himself all throughout Nature, and in all of those regions and layers which we refer to as “supernatural”. That is to say, there is nowhere and nothing which does not reveal something of God and which, with the correct knowledge, cannot be used as a springboard back to Him. Each person will have her Īṣṭa Devatā (“chosen deity”), a deva (celestial or angelic being), Mahādeva (Great Deva, something like an Archangel), or rarely a devatā (minor deity such as a local, tribal, or nature spirit). (A Mahādeva is more easily referred to as a God, while the other two categories might be designated as “gods” generally, in order to provide an easy English translation as established in the English works of Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami.) This God or god becomes the principle focus of one’s devotional life and daily worship, but is not therefore held to be the “only” deity. It is as if one were to claim Saint Michael as the one, true god, forgetting for Whom Saint Michael works; this is a mistake a Hindu simply would not make! Of course, there have been (since British colonial involvement) decadent “liberal Hindus” who fall into this error under the Western academic mistake of believing gods and spirits to be “mere symbols” of purely sub-personal, subconscious psychic elements within the individual, but they are an aberration rather than representatives of Hinduism properly so-called.

God manifests for each person as, in, and through their Īṣṭa Devatā; at the same time, the Īṣṭa Devatā is an entity unto itself. There is no contradiction, here, for each entity’s reality is its very foundation in God. It is as meaningless to say that one’s Īṣṭa Devatā is “merely a symbol” as it is to say that one’s mother is “merely a symbol”; in fact, it is the greater of the two errors, for one’s mother is (without getting into the divine archetypes to which any human role attaches) a mortal woman, while the Īṣṭa Devatā is a more direct conduit of God’s grace. It is therefore not idolatry to pray at the feet of a statue of Ganeśa, because the Hindu understands that Ganeśa is not limited to this little statue. Ganeśa is the manifest AUM, and the statue is the Word of God given visible form. We extend this concept by saying that Ganeśa is Śiva’s first-born son, which is to say that He is Śiva’s emanation-as-Word given purposeful autonomy in what medieval Scholastics called the Great Chain of Being.

The metaphysic of our henotheism, then, is the very root and trunk of Perennial Philosophy. It is the metaphysical matrix in which other metaphysics exist, and from which they subsist. This is the reason why Schuon and Guénon made Hinduism and Islam the bookends of religion in their writings: because God has done so already. It is not going too far to say that Hinduism and Islam are the most universal of all revealed traditions or, to be more precise, the most universal upwellings of the Eternal Religion. To return to tree imagery, the henotheism of Hinduism is the root and trunk, while the as-pure-as-possible monotheism of Islam is the widest extent of the canopy.

This is the true polytheism. The religion of classical Egypt (discounting the aberrant cult of the Aten) was a henotheism in our sense, with the unmanifest Godhead behind the numerous other deities and spirits. The higher forms of Greek philosophy were pure metaphysics, with Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, and the post-classical Hermetists (all influenced to some degree by Egypt and, to lesser extent, India) establishing thoroughly henotheistic approaches. Most of the so-called “aboriginal” people of the world, whether in the Americas, Australia, Siberia, or anywhere else they are still to be found, have a well-developed metaphysic along these lines. The Dreamtime of Australian aborigines is extraordinarily similar to the Paradise of esoteric Judaism and Islam, the Kingdom of Heaven of Christianity, and the realm of ancestors in both Shinto and Confucian-Taoist perception; that is to say, it is a return to Primordiality wherein the individual moves as one with the Consciousness beyond ordinary space-time, merging into the “stream of ancestors” stretching all the way back to the First Ancestor — God. Black Elk Speaks — one of the most important expressions of any form of genuine Native American spirituality — is the recounting of a lifetime lived according to this experience; so-called “shamanism” is, in its purest expression, oneself becoming the walking embodiment of Primordiality.

Buddhism and Jainism are accused — or, depending on one’s audience, praised — in the West for being “atheistic”, but we have to be cautious. Of the Buddhist doctrine, Frithjof Schuon has to say:

The not infrequent employment, by the Buddha, of terms proper to Brahmanical theism clearly shows that the Buddhist perspective has nothing in common with atheism properly so called. “Extinction” or the “Void” is “God” subjectivized; “God” is the objective “Void.” If Buddhism — except in their perspectives of Mercy — do not objectivize the Void or the Self, this is because they have nothing to ask of it, given their own anti-individualist point of view; if nevertheless there are certain “dimensions” where things appear otherwise, this is because the “objective aspect” of Reality is too much in the nature of things to pass unperceived and without being turned to account on occasion. (Treasures of Buddhism, 1993, World Wisdom Books, pg 19 note)

This applies equally to all forms of Buddhism, but is most especially clear with Theravada and Zen. When we examine Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism), Amidhism (Pure Land), and the cults of the Bodhisattvas, we find ourselves back in the realm of henotheism, wherein the gods, spirits, and Bodhisattvas provide avenues to Nirvana. The Tirthankaras of Jainism serve an identical function; as “ford-crossers”, they provide not only examples to be followed, but also subjects of veneration as vessels of grace.

Each of these traditions — and each of these perspectives which we have called by various “theisms” — presents an avenue for grace by devotion and work.

It is the Grace of God which carries you from the lowest point to the highest point. You are automatically carried after you cross the boundary of māyā; however, His Grace has been with you throughout the whole of your journey. His Grace is always there in the background for if it were not there you could not do anything. (Kashmir Shaivism: The Secret Supreme by Swami Lakshmanjoo, 2007, Universal Shaiva Fellowship, pg 60 note)

Vitally, each of these revelations, and their attendant religious superstructures, first and foremost represent methodological approaches appropriate each to a different “world”, and not mere sets of beliefs to be accepted or rejected at whim or out of either fear or fanaticism. Such is Grace that the Way which is both straight and narrow is not so straight as to be without scenery of tear-drenched beauty, and not so narrow as to exclude any soul — in principle and, in the fullness of time, in fact — from Divine Embrace.