Polytheism Is Theism!

McKinney trees 11.07.15I make it pretty clear I want Paganism to have the biggest of Big Tents. If you’re a Druid or a Witch or a Thelemite; a polytheist or a pantheist or a Nature-loving non-theist, you’re welcome here. You’re welcome at the circles I lead and you’re welcome in the comments section of this blog. There are too few people with Pagan values and too many this-world problems that need our cooperation to isolate ourselves from potential friends and allies.

I make it equally clear I don’t believe all forms of Paganism are the same. I’m a devotional polytheist – my religion (and it is a religion, not a philosophy or spirituality) is centered on the Gods, on my experiences of the Gods, and on my relationships with the Gods. I have a religious regard for Nature and I experience the Gods best in Nature, but the Gods are first. Improving my Self and supporting my Community are religious obligations, but the Gods are first.

We don’t have to agree on theology to work together to build a better world or to light Solstice candles, but that doesn’t mean theology isn’t important.

There’s good work being done in traditional witchcraft and important work being done in social justice, but right now the deepest work in the Big Tent of Paganism is being done in polytheism. I see this in the writing that’s shared in books and on the internet, and I see it in reports of individual and group devotional work that polytheists are doing all over the world.

The Anomalous Thracian hadn’t posted in over a month, then last week he had four new posts on polytheism – what it is and what it isn’t.  If you haven’t read them yet, I encourage you to do so. Start here, with this post titled Bad Math:

“Polytheism” is the religious regard for, and acknowledgment of, many gods.

It is about many things. Not one things, not some things, not an ever reducing number of things.

You would think this would be self-evident. But sadly, it isn’t.

The last one is titled Squirrels Are Not Rocks – again, something you would think is self-evident.

When a Humanist is discussing “Odin as archetype,” they are no more discussing Odin the god than a boar-bristle beard brush for sale on Amazon called “ZEUS” is, in fact, the god Zeus. A hair-brush whose product model is called Zeus is not the god Zeus. An archetypal concept called Odin is not the god Odin.

I have mixed feelings about these posts. On one hand, they’re clear and logical, and they’re written with the Thracian’s usual assortment of sarcasm and profanity. They’re as fun to read as they are enlightening. On the other hand, why is one of contemporary polytheism’s most devoted and articulate priests writing yet again on such basic topics?

Because it’s necessary, that’s why.

It’s necessary because some people see the depth and meaning in polytheism and they’re attracted to it, but they’re afraid to embrace it. They feel the call of the Gods or of a God but they’re afraid to respond. They’re afraid to respond because polytheism is theism, and theism is scary. And so they try to have it both ways – they try to have the Gods but keep them limited, to make sure they only worship (excuse me, “work with”) safe Gods.

But our Gods aren’t safe.

Polytheism is theism – it’s not atheism. It doesn’t fit neatly into a materialist, scientistic world view. It has mystery, not as a metaphor for something we’re too lazy to explain, but as a description of something beyond the capacity of our powerful-but-finite brains. It’s messy – it can be described but it can’t be delimited.

Polytheism is theism – it’s not secularism. It doesn’t keep your religion in a neat little box, separate from your “real” life. It has sacred stories and devotions. It has rituals and obligations. It makes demands on your life – demands that might be seen by your secular or nominally-religious friends. It might make you look like you actually take your religion seriously.

Polytheism is theism, and you might have to go back and work through some unresolved issues with the theism of your childhood. Trust me – I know first-hand how hard that is, how painful it is, how afraid-for-your-soul scary it is. I also know those fears won’t go away by ignoring them – when planted in childhood, bad religion has tentacles that won’t slip away. They have to be actively removed – they have to be crowded out by good religious experiences. There are other answers besides polytheism, but denial isn’t one of them.

Polytheism is theism, and you might have to deal with real Gods. Not some vague divine abstraction that only wants the best for everyone, and not some aspect of your higher self, but a real, distinct, individual Being with Their own wants, needs, goals, and dreams… and the ability to act on Their own behalf. Someone who could do you a favor, but who might expect reciprocity. Someone who might ask you to re-examine your values and priorities. Someone who might expect you to make a commitment… and someone with a history of dealing harshly with oath-breakers.

What polytheism isn’t is the One True Way. If you’re called to follow Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad, follow them. You’ll be far happier and you’ll do far more good as a committed Buddhist or Christian or Muslim than as a reluctant polytheist. If you just can’t believe in any Gods, be an atheist. The world needs more rational, compassionate atheists. Inside Paganism, there’s room around the Maypole for agnostic witches and naturalist Druids. Be who you need to be.

But if who you need to be is a polytheist, if something deep inside whispers the Gods are many, if the call you feel is from one of those many Gods, then be a polytheist. Stop trying to square your beliefs with the mainstream – you can’t. Stop worrying about what your secular friends will think. It won’t matter to the ones who care about you, and those who don’t care about you don’t matter. Deal with your religious baggage – it’s not going to get better on its own.

The many Gods have many different goals, plans, and methods. They work in different ways and They ask for different things from different people. I can’t tell you what They’ll ask from you. I can’t promise you it will be easy or sexy or glamourous… I can pretty much promise it won’t. Your fears aren’t unfounded.

But all honest religion requires a choice, otherwise it wouldn’t be honest. And so I encourage you to make a choice. Choose to be an atheist, or a monotheist, or whatever it is you’re called to be, and do it well. Or choose to be a polytheist, with all that entails. Straddling the fence will only frustrate you and annoy those on both sides. Make a commitment, if not forever then for a fixed period of time.

Whatever you choose, you’re still welcome to light a candle at the Solstice ritual. But never forget: polytheism is theism.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.