Monday, October 10, 2011

Orishas, Lwa, Gods, Monotheism, Polytheism and Morality

In a private message, Ianphanes asked:
It occurred to me yesterday that you are one person who could speak with some authority on a question that has floated around the more experienced practitioners in the Central Illinois pagan/magical community for some time:
Are the orisa/loas properly classified as gods, or are they different?
This is a hotly-debated topic in many circles. Many Haitian Vodouisants identify as Roman Catholics and see their Vodou activities as an adjunct to their faith. They believe the world was created by Bondye ("Bon Dieu," or "Good God"), who then turned its daily workings over to les mistés (the Mysteries) - the angels, saints, and lwa.  While some think this is a European corruption, things are more complicated than that.  Many African stories feature a Creator who sets things in motion, then withdraws.  Olodumare, Mbomba, Nsambi - all are credited with being the First Cause and the Prime Mover. Yet they receive far less attention and worship than their children, who are among the most magnificent of all Creations.

Is this Monotheism? While these Creator Gods bear a passing resemblance to Allah or G-d, they are not seen as omnipotent, omnipresent or omniscient. Their knowledge and power may be far greater than ours, but they are limited: these limitations are generally used to explain the world's many imperfections. Still, they are seen as being greater than their servants: they may be absentee rulers, but they are rulers nonetheless. There certainly is none of what Rabbi and conservative pundit Dennis Prager has hailed as "ethical Monotheism."
The oneness of God is an indispensable component of ethical monotheism. Only if there is one God is there one morality. Two or more gods mean two or more divine wills, and therefore two or more moral codes. That is why ethical polytheism is unlikely. Once God told Abraham that human sacrifice is wrong, it was wrong. There was no competing god to teach otherwise.

The African Diaspora model generally treats the mysteries like the saints, angels and intercessors in the Catholic faith. They are venerated and honored, but not worshipped: worship is reserved for the Triune God.  (In theory at least: as with most strains of folk Catholicism, it can be difficult to tell where hagiography and veneration end and worship begins - a controversy which still plays out in the Catholic/Protestant split). Working within this framework offers the consolation of tradition and puts one squarely within a living faith. But it may not be satisfying for those who do not feel a particular affinity for Catholicism or who do not believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty.

The Orishas and the lwa (and the gods of most polytheistic pantheons) regularly struggle amongst themselves. There is no transcendent morality there: they, like humankind, are capable of great evil and of tremendous kindness. There are few universals: each spirit and each person must make their way as best they can, guided by tradition and by their own sense of good and evil.  It's an imperfect process - but so too is Prager's ethical monotheism.  (The ancient Amalekites and contemporary Palestinians might have something to say about the superiority of morality by YHVH's fiat...).

If you reject the tenets of Abrahamic Monotheism in favor of a polytheistic worldview, the spirits of African Traditional Religion certainly qualify as gods.  Chango and Ogun are definitely fitting company for Thor, Ares, and other warrior gods: Exu, Loki and Coyote could all be classified as Trickster Gods.  But this brings us to another question: do we worship a God in the same way we worship the One God? And if not, what are appropriate models for honoring and serving the Gods?   And that is a question which has only rarely been asked, and even more rarely answered.