The Deities Are Many

One of my frequent complaints is that there are very few serious books on Pagan theology. So I was very happy to find The Deities Are Many by Jordan Paper, which I read on our recent holiday trip.

Jordan Paper is Professor Emeritus of Humanities at York University in Toronto. He grew up Jewish, became a Buddhist and then a Daoist, then had several experiences which led him to follow the practices of Native American and traditional Chinese religions (both of which he says have been greatly mischaracterized by Western Monotheists). These practices are largely shamanic and are geared toward forming and maintaining relationships with the gods and goddesses of Nature and of the family and tribe.

The book is more personal than objective, something Paper acknowledges is unwelcome in academic circles. But in the preface he says “theology, by its very nature, is confessional. Hence, I have reached the point where my studies have compelled me to cross the line from religious studies to theology.” It’s a line I’m glad he crossed.

Paper argues that traditional theology is a construct of Western Monotheism and is of limited use outside that realm – why should you spend time trying to describe the gods when you can experience them first-hand? That makes good sense… but I still want to know…

If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s that it concentrates so heavily on the authentic polytheistic practices of tribal/family religions that it’s difficult to extend it to our contemporary, individualistic, disconnected Western culture. I think Paper would say “yeah, and that’s the problem with Western culture.”

But we are who we are and we live where and when we live – we are no more pre-Columbian Algonquins or Neolithic Chinese than we are pre-Roman Celts or ancient Egyptians. If Paganism is to grow and thrive in our time, it must address our needs and the needs of the world we live in. Paper himself says as much: “A confessional theology does not exist in a vacuum. It is a reflection or an argument arising from a person’s experience and understanding. Without that link to an individual, it has no meaning; it would be formulaic but not affirmational.”

Still, I highly recommend this book for two reasons. One is the excellent description of Chinese and Native American religious practices, and from them some very good theories on the origins of religion itself. The other is its emphasis on practice and experience. If Paganism is to succeed on a large scale, it must offer something the established religions do not – authentic religious experience.

My two take-aways from The Deities Are Many is to make sure I devote enough time and effort to experiencing the gods and goddesses, and to watch out for hidden Christian assumptions in my religious thinking.

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  • That sounds really fascinating, I’m going to have to read that one!