On the One and the Many

Within some of the literature which I have studied regarding the religious traditions of the Graeco-Roman World, there have been discussions on what sometimes has been called the issue of the “one and the many.” That question revolves around the issue of how the classical Pagan religions of the Hellenistic and latter Roman Empires envisioned the divine world in relation to the concepts of ” divine oneness” vs. “divine diversity” or the “many.” The question is in what ways did societies such as those of the ancient Greeks see deity / the divine world as being a unity of one or as being composed of many diverse gods and goddesses with perhaps no real principle of unity at all. For example both of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and philosophical schools such as that of the Stoics came to the conclusion that a singular God, who was the “Unmoved Mover” was the creative source of the whole of the universe. On the other hand Hesiod within his creation poem the Theogony seemed to suggest that the universe came out of a primal chaos of many. Another way that one can deal this question would be the ask the question “Is a basically monotheistic view of the Divine which sees reality as proceeding from or as being created by a monotheistic Deity correct or is the polytheistic vision of a multitude of often conflicting gods and goddess a more compelling vision of reality.

Of course the answers to these questions do not necessarily have to be either yes or no. For example Plato affirmed both the oneness of divinity and simultaneously recognized the many gods and goddesses. Most of the philosophical schools affirmed the existence of a singular One from which reality ultimately derives and to which it is related. However they also affirmed the traditional religions of the traditional gods and goddesses of the Ancient World either by seeing these as being aspects of the One or as being subordinate agents of the One. Thus they attempted to creatively combine a devotion to the traditional deities while also affirming an ultimate commitment to the philosophical High Deity. This was the type of religious position held by such educated pagans such as Plotinus and the Emperor Julian as well.

St. MichaelOf course the growing Christian movement of the time rejected this solution to the question of the one and the many. Christianity instead affirmed the One as being the Monotheistic God of Israel and of Jesus and rejected the deities of the Graeco-Roman World as being demonic in nature. It was their solution which ultimately won out within the Roman Empire by about 392 CE. However even Christianity as it developed within the medieval period in spite of its affirmation of the One God found room for some affirmation of a quasi-divine many. The “many” within Christianity was manifested by its “three in one” Trinity and within its cult of prayers and devotions to the saints and to important angels such as St. Michael. While the saints and angels were never officially defined as divine by the Church, within the real life of the Christian peoples of the Middle Ages they played a role similar to that of the old gods, goddesses, and spirits of Europe.

The same questions regarding the one and the many continues to exist within the religions of the contemporary world. Within Christianity and Judaism, particularly within the modern liberal versions of these, the balance seems to be shifting much more toward a rationalistic Protestant emphasis on God in his Oneness. Mary, the angels, and the saints have increasingly lost status and importance within the modern world. Within the most liberal of Christian churches even Jesus himself has been demoted to the position of a great teacher. Within contemporary Neopaganism of course the situation is quite different.

The question of the one and many also has been central to the religion of Filianism / De’anism. Within Filianism to a significant extent the doctrine of the Feminine Trinity of the Mother, Daughter, and the Dark Mother Beyond Form dealt with it. However a parallel theological track was also pursued. That track is the the Filianic doctrine of the Angels / the Janya. That will be discussed in more detail within the next post

One thought on “On the One and the Many

  1. We have to remember that in early Christianity, there was an incredible diversity of belief, some of which, were the many Gnostic schools of thought. The Gnostics taught that the Many came from the One. The Gnostics were, of course, eventually ‘put out of business’ by the exoteric Church as it grew in scope and power.

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