Some Objects of Veneration?

The premise of “romantic polytheism” qua religion is to take democratic consensus as a highest good.  It seems to me that this misses something important about the religious enterprise, namely the function of connection with an Other (the “wholly Other,” if one follows Rudolf Otto).  Put another way:  It may be that a representation of democracy (if not an outright embodiment of it) is needed as an object of religious activity, particularly if undertaken by a group.

In considering America as the ground of the religion, some possible “deities” seem viable:

  • Liberty – We are used to seeing Lady Liberty not only in her incarnation as the “Statue of Liberty,” but also on American coinage and other civil uses.  Prior to the early 20th century, Americans were accustomed to the image of Columbia as the embodiment of the United States and specifically of its role as a new democratic nation in counterposition to Britain’s monarchy.  The iconography of Columbia draws on deeper traditions of democracy, e.g., the inclusion of the Phrygian cap from the Classical Hellenic world.
  • The “Great Spirit” (or “Manitou”) – If “Liberty” or “Columbia” can represent the nation created by Europeans in North America, what of the Land itself?  And the people who inhabited it?  Although the “Great Spirit” associated in popular culture with the spirituality of the “American Indian” is a mix of oversimplification, stereotype, and Christian proselytization, there is–especially among the Algonquian cultures–an animistic tradition of seeing all things in the world as partaking of a shared spirit, often identified as “Manitou” or related terms.  There is a helpful resonance with the Deist views of many of the American “Founding Fathers,” which saw “God” as more or less identical with Nature.  More than that, though, offering respect to the indigenous cultures–and acknowledging the appropriation of their lands, often by genocidal means–seems essential to any systematic veneration of the American enterprise.
  • The Founding Fathers – There is a deep tradition in Indo-European mythology and religion of emphasizing the way in which heroic ancestors achieve immortality through memory and the telling of their exploits by subsequent generations.  In addition to individuals offering due respect to the personal ancestors who preceded them, an honest and informed custom of acknowledging and celebrating the actual deeds and ideals of those who set in motion the tradition of American democracy seems critical.  The “Founders” have been appropriated in a haze of pseudo-history by political factions eager to apply the imprimatur of the sagacious, if imperfect, individuals who forged the nation and it is important to reclaim their words and deeds for what they were, not what we wish them to be.
  • “Uncle Sam” – The embodiment of the United States as a nation (rather than of its underlying ideals), Uncle Sam has been around since the early 19th century.  He has become highly emmeshed in commercialism and militarism over time and risks dragging a spiritual enterprise into a caricature if not employed judiciously as object of veneration.

This small “pantheon” seems reasonable to approach as the objects of various ritual activities and none require a supernaturalist understanding to embrace.  All are able to be approached as the Romantic poets approached Nature and all its aspects and this comports well with the “Poet as Priest” aspect of Romantic Polytheism.

So what do I think…?

At first glance, “Romantic Polytheism” as a name seems a bit  remote from the essence of Richard Rorty’s “religion of democracy.”  Indeed, it is a bit difficult to tease a “religious faith” out of his essay–which appears on the surface to be as much a manifesto as anything else.  A list of five theses appears, but these are as much couched in terms of attitudes one ought not to take as regards religion as prescriptions for a way forward.

For my part, I encountered Rorty’s notion of “pragmatism as Romantic polytheism” not from my background in philosophy (which is limited to a B.A. from a major U.S. institution with emphases in Continental philosophy and aesthetics), but as a practicing Neopagan polytheist.  Let it be said that my polytheism is much of the nature of that found in the archetypal psychology of James Hillman:  It is devoid of appeal to the existence of the supernatural.  The Athenian gods and goddesses of Shelley’s circle–those freshly revivified figures of metaphor and allegory dancing through Romantic verse–are close to my own conception and experience of the Divine.  All these mythic figures (for me most particularly those of Irish myth) populate a personal unfolding of the Wholly Other.

Rorty confesses to have felt the pull of the numinous throughout his life, even as he was practicing philosophy against the background of a public atheism.  That he ultimately undertook the project that is the subject of this consideration resonated deeply with me.

Rorty is still, however, in this essay, the clear anti-supernaturalist.  He suggests strongly that–though even the God of Mediterranean monotheism has a seat at the table in this polytheism of many personal higher powers–the future belongs less to the dramatis personae of Mount Olympus than to various “forms of human life.”

It is here that I find Rorty hedging away from an unflinching embrace of religion, even of a genuinely modern sort, wedded securely to a secular democratic culture.  And so, in the end (and after Rorty’s passing), there is little of “religion” there–certainly little to guide the individual on his or her path toward Romantic self-perfection beyond a simple “Go with God”…whatever God or gods may be there to guide you.

To be sure Rorty advocates for poetry as the ground of the religious enterprise in the modern democracy and for the poet as priest.  This was another point of contact with my own experiences and sensibilities.  At the same time, he offers traditional churches as acceptable…if they are sufficiently committed to social justice.  The academy can also serve, he says.  And democracy itself can be a church.

Of all of this, it seems to me that the notion of poetry as religion and religion as poetry (which Rorty ascribes approvingly to liberal theologian Paul Tillich) is the most fertile ground.  I find Rorty’s references to Coleridge and Wordsworth important, perhaps more so than the central place given to Whitman.  For Rorty, it seems, the political content of the poet’s work is critical to its fitness to serve as scripture.

I would expand on that and embrace a much more catholic sense of poetry as ground of polytheist religion.  Romantic Era poetry did much to particularize the numinous character of the natural world and often to embody it in deific characters.  At the same time, the expansive individualism on offer in the genre is at the center of this enterprise–the private person encountering the Divine on his or her own terms and space.

I would want to push Rorty’s enterprise forward in several ways:

–Recognize the long history of poetry and drama as sacred activities and explore the possibilities of consciously crafting religious activity (including ritual) as art, as appeal to the passions and the aesthetic sensibility.  Key here is a religion that permits an practical encounter with the ineffable without mandating assertions of supernatural agency.  This is perhaps the “pragmatist” dimension of the work.

–Explore the ways in which individuals can be encouraged to explore personal spirituality unabashedly without recourse to asserting its universality–in other words, to understand that my “God” (or gods) is not anyone else’s, except where relationships of mutually agreeable faith practice develop without coercion.  This is the “Romantic” essence of the work.

–Work to provide a safe ground for the exercise of social cooperation that enshrines diversity of theological (or anti-theological) perspectives as private concerns and promotes social and environmental justice as the highest moral aims.  In the democratic society, there are no distinctions among the many goods sought by individuals on their paths to self-improvement as long as they are capable of working harmoniously in social enterprises.  This is the “Polytheism” of the work.

This is a sketch at a beginning with more to follow…

What is Romantic Polytheism?

When confronting a personal longing for the spiritual and the numinous, how does an individual committed to the values of public secularism balance inner longing with social responsibility?  Can a society find a home for ethical considerations and social justice outside of the mainstream monotheist religions?  American philosopher Richard Rorty, a pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey, explored these concerns in a 1997 essay entitled “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism.”

Known for his outspoken public atheism, Rorty struggled throughout his life with a longing for the spiritual and found academic philosophy to be lacking as a vehicle for this component of life.  With this essay, he announced a radical shift in his own worldview–there was, on his view, the possibility to follow a path suggested by earlier writers like James and Friedrich Nietzsche that fully embraced the Romanticist project of unfettered inner moral and aesthetic exploration and development alongside a public toleration and cooperation among varying religious practices and attitudes:  atheist, monotheist, polytheist, and so on.

In this context, Rorty argues for a modern polytheism, one that is Romantic in its embrace of “a paradigmatic project of individual self-development.”  The pursuit of inner moral and spiritual growth, governed by personal passions and aesthetic sensibilities, is bounded by responsibility to work on the social level for the communal good and to practice toleration for the spiritual practices of others.  In Rorty’s words, “[H]uman perfection becomes a private concern, and our responsibility to others becomes a matter of permitting them as much space to pursue these private concerns–to worship their own gods, so to speak–as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to all.”  This balance of private and public moral spheres, where “faith” is private and social justice is the paramount public good forms the core of what political philosopher Jason Boffetti called “a new public religious faith.”

To be sure, by “polytheism” Rorty does not make reference to a plurality of supernatural beings.  As he puts it, “A romantic utilitarian will probably drop the idea of diverse immortal persons, such as the Olympian deities.”  Critically, though, “[S]he will retain the idea that there are diverse, conflicting, but equally valuable forms of human life.”  Rorty seconds Nietzsche’s extolling the polytheism of the pre-Socratic Greeks for revealing “a plurality of norms: one god was not considered a denial of another god, nor blasphemy against him.”

For Nietzsche, the quintessence of Romanticism lay revealed in Classical polytheism, where  “the free-spiriting and many-spiriting of man attained its first preliminary form–the strength to create for ourselves our own new eyes.”

“You are a polytheist” in a secular age, in Rorty’s definition, “if you think that there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs…To be a polytheist in this sense you do not have to believe that there are nonhuman persons with power to intervene in human affairs. All you need do is to abandon the idea that we should try to find a way of making everything hang together, which will tell all human beings what to do with their lives, and tell all of them the same thing.”  For some individuals, there may be many gods (and for some, one or none); Rorty sees perhaps the most productive modern polytheism to be that which recognizes many goods.

Rorty follows in the tradition of Dewey and Walt Whitman in arguing for a religion of democracy, where the communal pursuit of social goods served in the stead of subordination to a transcendent parent figure who decreed values and norms.  For Rorty, poetry and literature supplant Scripture and if a priest is needed–and perhaps not–the poet can serve.

Finally, he sketches what he calls “five theses of pragmatist philosophy of religion”–the core of “Romantic Polytheism”:

First, “beliefs are habits of action…rather than all parts of a single attempt to represent a single world…and that frees us from the responsibility to unify all our beliefs into a single worldview.”

Second, “the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as ‘symbolic,’ and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims.”

Third, “pragmatism does permit us to make another distinction…between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation…Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals–from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs–may be another such paradigm.”

Fourth, “[I]t is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it. The only possible objection to it can be that it intrudes an individual project into a social and cooperative project.”

Fifth, “[t]he pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalists is not that fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus about how to maximize happiness.”

Can Rorty’s vision of a modern polytheism in which personal spiritual development works conjointly with a non-supernaturalistic public embrace of moral values carried in the aesthetic sphere–that is to say, by the poetic and the artistic–bear fruit?  Can this philosophical speculation yield a functional “public religious faith” as Boffetti suggests?