Is There a Teleology to Human Beings in Polytheism?

This is a question that Alex posed, and I think it is a very good one…and, from my viewpoint (such as it is), one that hasn’t received too much attention in modern polytheist discourse.

To make sure we’re all on the same page first:  telos is a Greek term meaning “end, goal,” and often understood to mean “purpose.”  Plato and Aristotle developed some ideas on teleology, so it is something that has been around for a while.

While this has been discussed in philosophy and even in natural sciences over the years, the matter of theological teleology is another thing entirely, and in bringing that question specifically into the realm of human teleology, we are then moving into theological anthropology, i.e. the understanding in a theological context of what constitutes a human being, and ultimately what the place of human beings in the cosmos happens to be…so, teleology is very much a part of theological anthropology.

As is the case with all things polytheism, there is no singular answer to this question, even for one person working within one polytheistic system at one given time.  The reality would have to be polytely, a multiplicity of possible answers/outcomes to the question of the ultimate goal and purpose of human existence.

And if I have to say “I don’t speak for all of polytheism, nor would I even want to try” here, rather than that being understood in everything that I say and write, then consider the previous quote my statement of such, both on this question and for everything on this blog!

So, as with so many things, let me attempt to answer this question in three ways, which need not be contradictory (in fact, I find them quite complimentary!), based on three different viewpoints and three different strands of my own polytheism.

First, I’ll look at what I call the “devotional” strand, and in this I’m taking a specific example from the film Hanuman.  Given the subject of the film, there is a deep basis of it in the Hindu idea of bhakti, the devotional-participatory idea of the devotee participating in the life of a Deity and the Deity participating in the life of the devotee.  At one point in the film, before Hanuman becomes acquainted with Lord Ram in incarnate form, Shiva summons the Monkey God and asks Him, “Son, do you know the purpose of your existence?”  Hanuman replies, “Knowledge and devotion is the meaning of my life.”  In many ways, I cannot think of a better summation of what the life of a human devotee is than this simple statement.  While devotion to one’s own particular Deity is certainly important in polytheism, the idea that knowledge in itself is important adds a further dimension to the issue:  not merely knowledge in general or for its own sake, but the idea that human life is, in essence, a universal heuristic, the manner via which the cosmos itself learns more about itself, not only in the learning and experience of the humans involved, but also in the cosmos understanding how understandings of particular types come about as a result of particular people having particular experiences.  One could go down that rabbit hole for a very long time, but let us leave it there for now!

Second, I’ll try to answer this question from the viewpoint of a Mystery Religion, as I’m involved in various forms of that both practically and theoretically.  I think that what emerges in many of the Mystery Religions we know at least something about from the ancient world, including the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries (which are related in various ways!), is that the trials of human life, the ordeals of the Mystery Tradition itself, and the eventual post-death experiences of the human which these are preparing one for, are all aimed at bringing about the apotheosis of humans.  While these traditions do not suggest that everyone should become a mystes of their particular tradition, and thus such a teleology is not therefore suggested or imposed upon all humans in a prescriptive fashion, nonetheless because these forms of polytheism aim toward that specific goal, that would be one possible answer for how teleology for humanity is understood in one particular polytheistic context.

The third answer I’ll give is specifically as an Antinoan devotee.  It is not unlike the first and second answers, but I’d add the following.  Knowledge and devotion is important in general, and of Antinous in particular; and the purpose of Mystery initiation is to foster apotheosis…so, no problems there.  I’d say the additional dimension of the life of an Antinoan is to not only find “from whence life comes” in one’s own life amidst these practices, but also to find that element and to affirm one has found it in every situation of life–in the pain and the difficulties as much as in the victories and the ecstasies, and, perhaps the hardest of all, in the drudgery and the mundanity that is tedious and seemingly meaningless.  If even these things can be elevated, can be appreciated, and can be engaged with in a manner that satisfies their necessities while also being able to nourish the spirit of the one doing them, then one has found the key to all things, the source of all life’s energies, and the easiest way to the ends mentioned above.

That would be my very provisional answer for the moment…give me another three years of practice and I’m sure I’ll find other ways to phrase it, perhaps from several different viewpoints within my own polytheistic practice!  I’d be intrigued, though, to hear what other polytheists think on this particular question…if you decide to write about this on your own blogs, please leave a link in the comments below, as I’d love to read them!

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3 thoughts on “Is There a Teleology to Human Beings in Polytheism?

  1. To knowledge and devotion, I add the practice of virtue. I’ve seen knowledge and devotion without virtue; it’s ugly, and I cannot think it’s pleasing to the gods.

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