Knowing the Gods Are Real is Not What Makes Them Real

Over on Humanistic Paganism, John Halstead has a new post that’s actually much better than its clickbait title would indicate. Literal Gods Are for the Literal Minded: Re-Enchanting Polytheism starts off by antagonizing devotional polytheists. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “literal” in discussing the Gods I know and serve, and if I did I shouldn’t have (though I’m not the only polytheist writer on the Pagan internet). I grew up in Christian fundamentalism, where literalism is taken to unjustified and harmful levels. That word is loaded and I do my best to avoid it in my own practice.

But when John gets past the initial broadside, he makes some good points, namely that it is not necessary for something to be disconnected from everything else in order to be real. He emphasized this in a follow-up post criticizing literal minded atheists, where he said:

what I had intended in the article was to bracket the question of whether or not the gods are “real” and talk about the criteria we use to call something “real.”

That’s a useful question to contemplate, and taken together John’s two posts are a good start to the conversation. In this post, I want to call attention to the one serious error in his logic, and use that as a jumping off point for a separate conversation on some of the foundations of polytheism that we haven’t been discussing lately.

Cernunnos Apples 05.27.17

Interaction is how we know the Gods are real, not what makes Them real

John referenced my post from last year The Gods Are Like Apples, but took it in a direction I didn’t intend. That’s OK. His use of the Gods ≈ apples metaphor is both valid and helpful. He says:

If we take a bite of the apple, does it remain an apple?  How many bites of the apple can we take until it ceases to be an apple and becomes a part of us?  Or can it be both at the same time?

This is brilliant. It illustrates how we know something by interacting with it, and how when we interact with it both parties are changed. (Neoplatonists would argue the Gods are not changed by Their interactions with us, but that’s another debate for another time.) The more we interact with the Gods, the more we take on Their virtues and values, and the more God-like we become.

But then he makes a critical error.

The point is that these relationships, this interconnectedness, don’t make the apple unreal. In fact, these connections are the very things that make the apple real. [emphasis mine]

No. These connections are how we know the apple is real, as opposed to reading a book about apples and taking the author’s word for it. But they have nothing to do with whether or not the apple is real. An apple that’s locked in a safe can’t be smelled or eaten, but it’s still an apple. An apple growing on a tree on an uninhabited island is still an apple.

Can our experience of an apple create some new being? Certainly. We might be inspired to create a new pie or a new cider. But the apple preceded our experience of it. It was real before we ever noticed it.

Re-enchanting polytheism

John ends his first essay by saying:

we need to realize our essential oneness, the manifold ways in which we are connected to the rivers and the trees–whether or not we find gods in them.

This is a helpful approach. Walk through the forest with your senses open – all your senses – and you will experience the reality of the rivers and trees… and perhaps, the spirits of the rivers and trees. Whether you interpret those experiences theistically or nontheistically is not important to me. There is meaning and value in both interpretations, for your individual practice and for the world at large.

But those two interpretations are not the same, and connecting to the reality of rivers and trees is animism, not polytheism.

Concord River 1200x600

Do spirits arise from the interactions of matter?

Now we’re leaving the question of how we know something is real and moving into an exploration of a particular understanding of reality.

We’ve been talking a lot about animism lately. This is a good thing – animism is one of the foundations of many Pagan and polytheist religions, including my own. But some expressions of animism are decidedly nontheistic. That’s OK – understanding the mindedness of Nature and treating other beings as persons instead of as things does not require a belief in anything that’s generally considered supernatural (another loaded word I don’t like, but it has a common meaning that’s useful here).

In The Wakeful World, Emma Restall Orr said:

Each moment of interaction within the darkness of nature creates a pattern, a spirit fleetingly finding form, flashing momentarily into being before dissolving back into the whole – except where interactions repeat, allowing a pattern to persist, the spirit lingering in its ethereal form.

Here I believe Emma Restall Orr is speaking of spirits in the same way John Halstead did – as a reality created by interactions. That such spirits are real is undeniably true – we experience them, so we know they’re real. But might some of these spirits become real not just as interactions but as individuals, in the same way that you and I and your cat and a specific apple tree in a specific orchard are individuals? Can we interact with these spirits not as patterns but as persons?

The experience of countless people throughout history who have interacted with Nature spirits says we can. Spirits – in the commonly understood meaning of the term – can and do arise from the interactions of matter.

Or do spirits precede matter?

The Abrahamic religions – heavily influenced by Platonic thought – make it explicitly clear: spirit preceded matter. The polytheist religions of our ancient ancestors (or at least, the ones whose creation myths survived to our era) generally say the opposite: the world always existed (usually in an undifferentiated form), then at some point a creator deity or deities arose to shape the world as we know it.

Some belief systems – including some that reside in the Big Tent of Paganism – include spiritual beings that have never had a body: angels, demons, and spirits of principles and virtues. If these spirits exist, by definition they precede matter.

Many Pagans believe in reincarnation, and some of us have had past life experiences. If reincarnation is true and this is not your first time in this world, then your spirit must have preceded your body. Was your spirit created by the interactions of matter in your first incarnation? Or does your spirit precede all your incarnations?

I don’t know, and this isn’t a question I find particularly interesting. I’m more interested in learning how to interact with these spirits and how to relate to them. I raise the question to make the point that while spirits clearly arise from the interactions of matter, it is possible – and I think likely – that is not the only way they arise.

Not all spirits are Gods

This statement is self-evidently true, but perhaps because it is so obvious, we sometimes forget it. It is complicated by the fact that there is no black and white definition of a God. My working definition (subject to continuous re-examination and revision) is that Gods are the mightiest of spirits.

Are the Tuatha De Danann Gods? Some say They’re the land spirits of Ireland. Some say They’re the fae, or the beings who became the fae when very many people invaded the land. I have experienced Them as Gods – as the mightiest of spirits – and so I relate to Them as Gods. Other Pagans relate to Them differently.

I do not believe in a Neoplatonic hierarchy of spirits; or at least, I do not find such a model to be either likely or useful. I find it more helpful – and more in alignment with the experience of myself and others – to envision a spectrum of spiritual beings. Gods are at one end, but even They are not all in one spot. The stories of our ancestors make it clear that some Gods are mightier than others. Moving down the spectrum we have the spiritual beings that have never existed in material forms, demigods, the spirits of Nature, the Good Neighbors, the ancestors, elemental spirits, and others I’m either overlooking or have never been aware of.

Some beings move along the spectrum, such as spirits that are first the dead, then become ancestors, then eventually become Gods. And if spirits can move in one direction, it is likely they can move in another direction. Progress is not permanent, even for the Gods.

Do not mistake the order for a ranking. This is not a one-dimensional spectrum, and even if it was I have no idea which group of beings belongs where. The point is that if there are boundaries between the various types of spiritual beings, those boundaries are weak and easily crossed.

But not all spirits are Gods.

Goddesses - British Museum

Polytheism is the religious regard for many real Gods

Any time John Halstead or another declared humanist or nontheist starts talking about polytheism, I get nervous. We had a long battle over the differences between atheism and polytheism that, while necessary to preserve our diversity and the integrity of polytheist traditions, caused a lot of hurt feelings and damaging conflict.

That battle ended early last year and I have no desire to start it up again. My strong preference is that we understand and respect our differences, and then work together where we have common cause.

The Big Tent of Paganism is big enough to include many ideas about the Gods, including the idea that there are no Gods. Atheism existed in ancient Greece and Rome, and probably in other places where it was too dangerous to express. It is entirely possible to live a good life according to Pagan principles and to participate in Pagan events and gatherings, all while maintaining a nontheistic worldview.

Polytheism is a much narrower movement. While it encompasses many traditions both ancient and contemporary, the very term “nontheistic polytheism” is an oxymoron. Polytheism is the religious regard for many real Gods.

Expanding our understanding of reality beyond the literal is a good and necessary thing. There is great value in understanding “the manifold ways in which we are connected to the rivers and the trees.” But if we do not find Gods in them – not just spirits and not just interconnectedness – we are not practicing polytheism.

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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.