Polytheism Redux

I spent yesterday working on a post about how the success of my “themes not goals” approach means I’m now setting goals for 2014.  But before I could finish it there was a rash of posts on polytheistic theology and I feel the need to respond.

Much of this discussion is contentious and some of it has become personal.  If you want to catch up, read this post by Morpheus Ravenna, this one by Rhyd Wildermuth, this one by Alison Lilly, this one by Traci Laird, this one by Anomalous Thracian, and this most recent one by Morpheus Ravenna.  There have been others I didn’t link to and more are coming.  It’s all thought-provoking reading if you’ve got a couple hours.

I consider all these people friends to one extent or another.  I’m sorry things have gotten personal, but it’s good that we’re having this debate.  Paganism is still a new religion and we’re still trying to figure out our theology… or more properly, our theologies.  Better that we work through this with mass participation on the internet than 300 bishops (out of an invited 1800) holed up somewhere deciding what will become orthodoxy for the next two millennia.

What follows is my take on the subject.

There are many views on the nature and substance of the Gods.  Which view is right?  All we can say with absolute certainty is “we don’t know.”  And that means the only thing that’s objectively wrong – the only thing that will make me stand on the table and scream “no that’s not right!” – is not leaving room for mystery.

By mystery here I mean uncertainty, not the subjective knowledge that comes through mystical experiences… though any religion that doesn’t leave room for that kind of mystery is unhelpful to me even if it isn’t objectively wrong.

This is Rule One of theology – We Don’t Know.  There is no Rule Two.  That doesn’t mean theology is useless and it doesn’t mean all answers are equally helpful.  It means the practice of theology requires humility and openness… and a good dose of curiosity helps.

What’s subjectively wrong (i.e. – I’m convinced it’s not right, but see Rule One above) is trying to force the Gods into a naturalistic model that assumes the Gods of our ancestors cannot exist as real, distinct, individual beings.  It seems like every time I discuss my dealings with the Gods – especially when They want me to do something – someone responds with “but you know that’s all in your head, right?”  Or “but the Gods are myths and metaphors.”  Or “you’re anthropomorphicizing something that isn’t human!”

Those are all valid theories and I respect them even though I don’t agree with them.  What I find troubling is the underlying notion that since Science (the arbiter of reality in contemporary Western society) has no explanation for Gods as real, distinct, individual beings, They cannot exist, and to think They do is at best self-delusion.  I find it ironic that some of the same folks who criticize hard polytheists for dealing with the Gods in a human fashion buy into the idea (subconsciously if not mindfully) that the currently popular human worldview is unquestionably correct:  that if we humans don’t have all the answers, at least we have the One True Way to find all the answers.

(I’m an engineer.  I love science.  It’s brought us amazing discoveries and greatly improved our standards of living.  It’s also brought us nuclear waste, chemical weapons and fracking.  Science is a great tool, a lousy philosophy and a harmful religion.)

Do you worship Poseidon or do you worship The Sea?  In the distance I hear Poseidon roaring like Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean:  “I AM THE SEA!”  Perhaps.  But Poseidon has one history, one set of stories, one personality.  The Sea has another.  Poseidon hears prayers and accepts offerings – or not, as He sees fit.  The Sea simply is.

Both are beautiful and powerful and I stand in awe of both.  It seems reasonable to me to worship both.  But because Poseidon has human-like qualities (which is NOT the same thing as believing “the Gods are just like humans only bigger”) I can relate to him very differently from how I can relate to The Sea.  A religion based on mutually beneficial relationships with Deities with human-like qualities will of necessity look and feel very different from a religion based on mutually beneficial relationships with the Natural world.  But there is clearly room for both in the Big Tent of Paganism, as well as room for both in the corner of polytheism.

There seems to be a needless argument about what constitutes a polytheist.  A polytheist is someone who acknowledges multiple Gods.  I see no need to refine that further.  If you say “I’m a polytheist:  I worship The Land, The Sky and The Sea” then I have no argument with you even though your approach is not enough for me.

Alison Lilly complains that some people accuse her of atheism for having such an approach.  I think her complaint is valid.  There is historical precedent for this view – some accused the early Christians of atheism because they denied the reality of the Greco-Roman Gods.  But that view was wrong then and it’s still wrong now.  Atheism is the denial of all gods, not the denial of your gods.

Enough with the nuances and uncertainties of polytheism.  Here’s what I believe.

I believe the Gods are real, distinct, individual beings because that’s how I’ve experienced Them.  My experience of Isis is different from my experience of Cernunnos is different from my experience of Morrigan and so on.  And all of those experiences are different from my experience of my own thoughts and feelings.

The more I work with the Gods as individuals – the more I pray, worship, meditate, make offerings and especially the more I listen to Them – the more Their reality is evident to me and the more meaningful my life becomes.  The subjective knowledge I gain far outweighs my lack of objective knowledge.

What of those who take a psychological view of the Gods, or a metaphorical view, or a naturalistic view?  I’m a Unitarian Universalist as well as a Pagan and a Druid – I’ll judge your beliefs based on how well they motivate you to live a meaningful, compassionate and helpful life, not on how well they match up with my beliefs.  But the fact that your beliefs are helpful to you doesn’t mean I find your arguments persuasive.

The idea I’ve seen emphasized in all the recent posts is that the Gods have agency.  They have Their own thoughts, Their own ideas, Their own will, and perhaps most importantly, Their own interests and areas of responsibility.  This is important.  The idea that the Gods are here “for us” – whether as therapists or coaches or divine helicopter parents – is decidedly unhelpful.  Yes, the Gods sometimes call a human into Their service – I’ve experienced such a call.  But my priesthood isn’t about me – it’s about Them.  It’s about conveying Their messages and doing Their work.

Honoring the Gods as real, distinct, individual beings reminds me that ultimately, life isn’t all about me.  There is something bigger, stronger, and wiser and my life is better when I stay connected to that something – to Them.  My life is better when I model Their values and emulate Their virtues.  Though I am ultimately responsible for my own life, I do a better job of serving the Greater Good when I work with Them.

I have to wonder if perhaps this flurry of polytheological blog posts isn’t simply a case of Deity-centered Pagans and Nature-centered Pagans misunderstanding each other.  My hope is that the exchange has informed and enlightened all, and that our understanding of the Gods and of each other has grown.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for evening prayers.

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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.

  • Traci

    I stumbled into this quite unintentionally. I am concerned that we still retain a vestige of anthropocentrism, which I see as tightly bound with western world view and ultimately unhealthy–even pathological (causing dis-ease). As Morpheus indicates in her second post, our experience is necessarily anthropocentric (we’re human), but our continued perception of that experience “shouldn’t be.” I would LOVE to discuss whether a human centered (anthropocentric) perception of the world IS unhealthy, HOW it subtly manifests in the various paganisms, and what any of that means. :)

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

      Traci, I hesitate to respond to that because I’m not sure I fully understand your position – I don’t want to assume you propose this or that when you may not. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with you on the red moths – to believe they have a message specifically for me is arrogant and almost certainly incorrect. On the other hand, there are messages in Nature all the time (weather signs being one rather mundane example) and we are foolish if we ignore them. Figuring out which is which is not always simple.

      I agree with Morpheus that our experience is human-centered because since we’re humans it can be no other way. For me, part of being a Nature-centered Pagan means understanding that we are part of the natural world, but not its center. Other beings (animals, plants, ecosystems, planets) have their own inherent worth and dignity (and agency) that is no less and no more than our own.

      But part of being a Deity-centered Pagan is relating to the Gods who, if the stories of our ancestors and my own UPG are to be believed, have many human-like qualities, and who are best approached in human-like ways.

      • Traci

        John, I hold much the same view as you express above. I see anthropocentrism as problematic because it has the capacity to diminish the intrinsic worth of Other. This is what I want to discuss.

        There are many instances in the history of our species where we justified the destruction of persons/lands/cultures because of a belief in the superiority of one race/culture/species over another. Anthropocentrism is involved in the thinking that fuels this type of behavior. It is not the sole cause, and possibly not always a component, but it has been–especially within world views influenced by western christianity.

        I used my experience with Red Moth as an example. Had I automatically seen their presence as a sign, it would have indicated to me a sort of homocentrism I have come to see as dangerous (as you say, arrogant): dangerous to our ecosystems, to our relationship with Other and each other, and ultimately our own mental, emotional, and physical health. That’s not to say their presence wasn’t a sign, or could have been a sign; rather, that had the assumption been my automatic response, it would have indicated to me a continued, perhaps subconscious, belief in this particular component of the western world view, which I find problematic–even pathological.

        I suppose this line of thinking is part of considering polytheistic theology, but I was looking at it as a wider sociological topic for paganism, in general. Namely, that the belief human-persons are a *central* part of the universe, and that interpreting the wider cosmos *only* in terms of human-values (which shift and change), has proven dangerous for our world. In fact, has even given rise to the current consumer culture that is ripping apart the fabric of our mental and spiritual health (environmental degredation, hyper-specialization).

        It is from this basis that I want to explore whether a modern western world view is a pagan world view, and whether there are components of our theology that are still being subtly influenced by this ‘old’ unhealthy paradigm.

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

          I think the problem is brought on in part by the same evolutionary pressures that compel us to pass on OUR genes and thus favor ourselves and our close relatives over others. But as most of the religions of the world teach (officially if not always in practice) things go better for all of us when we look past our immediate self interest.

          Now we’re starting to understand that this view extends beyond our species, but we’re only just starting. I think learning this lesson is critical to the survival of our species and many others… but I’m not optimistic that we’ll learn it any time soon.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram/ A Witch’s Ashram

          I see clearly that you are merely raising ideas to discuss. It’s odd that so many people assume you are drawing lines in the sand and walking all over everyone’s experience. While I’m still not sure I’m entirely in agreement with every point you’re making, I have no doubt that these are important questions to consider – and by which to challenge ourselves personally.

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

            Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot of that. There are too many people – and not just in this debate – who can’t seem to separate “I think your ideas have weaknesses” from “you’re doing it wrong!”… both in giving feedback and in receiving it.

            But I’m glad we’re having these discussions.

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            A number of us were recently discussing this misunderstanding on Facebook. I don’t think I see any similar names in these comments, so I think it’s interesting that the same concept (i.e. the difference between questioning someone’s idea and someone’s worth) might be cropping up in various different parts of the online conversation. It’s a necessary distinction that, all to often, gets lost.

          • Y. A. Warren

            It is also a weakness in cultures that continue to be most motivated by the animal “fight or flight” instinct.

      • Y. A. Warren

        “Other beings (animals, plants, ecosystems, planets) have their own inherent worth and dignity (and agency) that is no less and no more than our own.”

        Maybe not less or more, but we seem to have more ability to influence the direction of our influences than do the “less evolved” manifestations of Eternal, Universal Energy, that I often refer to as “The Sacred Spirit.”

  • Steven Dillon

    These controversies are quite new to me.

    I was an atheist when I read Greer’s Inquiry Into Polytheism, and I tried to bring it into conversation with contemporary analytic philosophy of religion (one of my passions).

    The result was…surprising to me, and I recorded it in The Case for Polytheism (a book I’d like to publish, eventually). In fact, the philosophical credentials of hard polytheism seemed so good to me that I converted.

    But, upon entering the pagan community, I’ve learned this is hardly a majority position. And that’s fair enough! But, I hope folks get to encounter hard polytheism in new ways through these discussions, it’s certainly worth considering.

  • Kenneth Apple

    Our lives and our religions are human centered because we are humans and see the world through human eyes. The trick comes in remembering that we are a much smaller part of the whole than we imagine and our place in the whole no more exalted than any other.

  • Ken

    I like this article. I especially like that you linked to those you mentioned. So often people will generalize about each other without any sort of reference.
    I reconcile polytheistic views with the archetypes by my belief that all things (not referencing a specific cosmology) were made by the Gods/Goddesses, and in some way have a piece of the divine imbued within them.
    If someone connects to the divine imbued within them more than the divine without, they may have psychological tendencies. If someone connects with the divine in the world around them more than within or the Gods/Goddesses, they make be more naturalistic. Connecting with the divine source may lead to more polytheistic beliefs.
    I think this isn’t a set structure, like a large Venn diagram there may be overlapping. I also specifically didn’t mention atheism because I’m not sure where that falls in the spectrum.
    Every not often, I do wonder how one of my cats, or a tree may see the universe.but I find myself biased. Sure, we may all enjoy sunlight, but not necessarily for the same reason. The sun feeds off the energy, the cat hears the awakened birds, and I have a nice day by the lake. The best I can do is know that not everyone or everything is like me oe even uses the same senses to perceive the world.
    The God(dess) of the sun is perceived different by the three of us, and we are all correct.
    I have to admit, I don’t have an idea of what a piece of obsidian, the influenza virus, or this keyboard perceive of as divine. Some days I don’t think they can.
    All of this follows Rule One of theology, perhaps after I experience what Rhyd Wildermuth refers to as Divine Trauma, I will see the world differently.
    I’ll stick with the paraphrase, “I know that I know nothing” until further notice.

    • Y. A. Warren

      Anyone saying they “see” or “hear” THE REALITY is lying.

  • Myriad Hallaug Lokadís

    “that if we humans don’t have all the answers, at least we have the One True Way to find all the answers.” — then, as an engineer with the according background, you’ll probably have noticed that this is inherently impossible, from a purely logical perspective: an axiom system’s correctness and its completeness are mutually exclusive. :)

    But leaving aside Gödel and his incompleteness theorems: a point can also be made that Sea and Sky and Earth (as well as Moon, Thunder, Sun, etc.) are in fact very old Deities. In Jordan Paper’s polytheistic theology (The Deities are Many), the two first and also the longest chapters deals with “Numinous Nature” and “Cosmic Couples”. In them, Paper discusses Nature itself as the recipient of worship. I’m “Deity-centered” myself, although I dislike the label; taking the above into account, the question arises whether the distinction between “Deity-centred pagans” and “Nature-centred pagans” is even a polytheist thing at all, or whether Nature worship may just be the older variant.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    I am considering sponsoring a “have tea and Skype with a blogger you debate with” month. ;> I think part of what makes this debates so divisive and less than coherent is that we lack the shared context of firm personal relationships. Since, sadly, we can’t all get together for wine and regular seminars, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got!

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

      Christine, that’s an excellent idea. Since we can’t do the Druid College in the apparent world, let’s do it virtually, at least every now and then.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      That sounds awesome! Sign me up!

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        Cool! I’ll give it some thought. Let me know if you have any ideas about the logistics of it.

    • Hth

      I’m not (currently) a blogger, but I definitely hope you do this! The thing that makes me sad when I read all these rounds is that on every side you see “and I know what *those other people* really mean is that they’re better than I am.” I can’t help but feel like these would be fruitful theological debates within a community of peers with existing relationships, but in the context of internet debates between relative strangers, the lack of trust becomes immediately poisonous, and it all devolves instantaneously into “protect the boundaries of our tribe against those people who hate us and want to replace our ways with theirs.”

      We can’t do this at all if we can’t do it through the kind of fierce but loving debate that people have “in the family.” (I’m thinking here both of indigenous models of arguing around the council fire and of the rabbinical tradition, which I think has much to teach contemporary pagans in many ways.)

    • Bianca Bradley

      I’d be game

    • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

      I want this. I’ve often wondered if we could facilitate a monthly or bi-monthly Pagan channel chat with individual authors from the Pagan channel and beyond. The beyond part being either other Pagans but, depending on topic, non-Pagans from around Patheos or elsewhere.

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        I think that would be great if we could get a a certain number of commitments to attend. Thoughts on what technology is best for group chat?

        • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

          100% Google Hangout. It can be archived right to YouTube for fast embedding after the conversation has completed. I use it regularly for both personal and professional video conferencing. Let’s talk elsewhere and hash out the details?

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      Allow me to join the chorus of folks who think this is a great idea, and I’m totally game!

  • Y. A. Warren

    “the only thing that will make me stand on the table and scream “no that’s not right!” – is not leaving room for mystery.”

    “A religion based on mutually beneficial relationships with Deities with human-like qualities will of necessity look and feel very different from a religion based on mutually beneficial relationships with the Natural world.”

    “I’ll judge your beliefs based on how well they motivate you to live a meaningful, compassionate and helpful life, not on how well they match up with my beliefs.”

    Beautifully phrased! Thank you.

    Will you please give me your definition of “worship”?

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

      My short answer is “the expression of honor and devotion to that which we find most worthy.” But that question really deserves its own post. I’ve already got something queued up for tomorrow – let me see if I can’t push it out and expand on this first.

      • Y. A. Warren

        I look forward to it. Thanks.


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