A World Full of Gods

In preparing for our second Intermediate Pagan Practice class, I pulled John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods off the shelf. It was published in 2005 and I read it in 2006, both before I began this blog. I’ve mentioned it in the past, but I’ve never given it its own blog entry. Reading through it today, I see that was a mistake.

Here’s the bottom line: this is far and away the best book on contemporary polytheistic Pagan theology available today. If you consider yourself a Wiccan, Druid, Heathen, or any other flavor of Pagan, you need to read this book.

Greer’s main argument is that the world-wide diversity of religious experience is prima facie evidence of the diversity of the Divine. In deep religious experience, some people experience Unity. Others experience a Mother Goddess or a Father God. Still others experience their ancestors or a personification of a natural force. As Greer says, “Religious experiences, taken at face value, support the hypothesis that many gods exist.”

He also wisely says “Evidence from religious experience, important as it is, must be tempered with evidence from everyday life.” Here are a couple of his observations of that evidence.

It can be argued that the universe, with all its evils and miseries, is consistent with the existence of a single, unique, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god, but that claim is hard to defend and open to forceful challenge. The claim that evil and suffering are consistent with the existence of a large number of limited gods, on the other hand, encounters no such difficulties. From this standpoint it’s reasonable to say that traditional polytheism is a more straightforward explanation for the world we actually experience than classical monotheism.

And…

The rain god and the wind god do not act everywhere all the time; that is a matter of common experience. The goddess of justice does not act everywhere all the time; that, too, is a matter of common experience … Maybe you would prefer the universe to function in some other way, but it does not, and it makes a good deal more sense to acknowledge that fact than it does to condemn [polytheism] because it does acknowledge that fact.

It’s easy for me to accept Greer’s ideas because they match my own experiences. I have experienced several deities first-hand, most notably (and most strongly) Cernunnos, the Celtic Lord of the Animals. Polytheism fits nicely into my overriding Pantheism. As Greer says “The gods participate in unity along with everything else.”

Ultimately, All is One. The gods and goddesses just understand this better than we do.

Cernunnos, as depicited on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

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  • Kevin

    In contemporary philosophy the logical problem of evil as a defeater for classical mono-theism has largely been abandoned. See the work of Peter Van Inwagen: most notably his book, The Problem of Evil.

    Also, the postulation of multiple limited deities still does not answer the question of why we have something rather than nothing. If the universe is not past eternal (as current cosmology tells us), then it and everything within it (gods included) are contingent. Every contingent thing requires an explanation for its existence. Therefore, what is the explanation for the universe (and the gods)?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I googled Van Inwagen and found a couple summaries of his position – I did not find them convincing.

      In any case, you are correct that multiple limited deities doesn’t answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. I agree with the atheists that attributing it to a transcendent god simply pushes the question back a level – what, then, is the explanation for the transcendent god? Even if such a god were to exist I see little evidence she/he/it would be anything like the god of the Abrahamic religions (not that you were proposing that).

      The universe may not be past eternal, but we simply do not know what – if anything – existed at Time Zero. As a pantheist as well as a polytheist, my working hypothesis is that all was one – All was God, and that touch of Divinity is still in everyone and everything.

      Ultimately, though, I suspect this question is beyond the capacity of our amazing but still finite brains.


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