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…