The Definition of ‘Pagan’: Monotheism and Polytheism

This summer, I have spent more time doing pagan things – attending festivals and events, teaching and attending workshops, crafting and performing rituals – than at any other point in my life. During these experiences, I have come to believe that one of the largest issues facing paganism today is one of definition: Who are the pagans, exactly? Various answers to this question have been put forward over the years, many of which conflict and confuse, and none of which are adequate in my opinion. To my mind, much of the problem is that the definitions available to us now are descriptive but not circumscriptive. In other words, many proposed definitions do indeed describe features of the pagan zeitgeist(s), but do not succeed at instructively differentiating pagans from other groups whose lives might be described in similar ways.

It is for this reason that I find definitions of paganism that hinge upon pagans’ practice of “magic” unsatisfying, since folks the world over have been labeled as magic-doers, both pagan and non-pagan alike. It might be interesting to ask ourselves what it is about modern pagans that drives us to describe ourselves as magic-doers (a break with the generally negative connotation of the word “magic”), but that is a separate issue that, as of yet, I feel we are ill-equipped to answer.

Let me be clear that in my own personal and academic attempts to state what defines paganism I am not trying to define some ahistorical  type of religious lifestyle or worldview. For example, I am not taking up the (in my opinion mildly appropriative) methodology of pagan scholar Michael York in his work Pagan Theology, in which he treats paganism as “a general form of religious behavior” that is present the world over (Pagan Theology, viii). On the contrary, I am trying to define to whatever extent possible that cluster of practices and beliefs that is modern, generally English-speaking, and, from what I can tell, internally cohesive because of a general acceptance of Wiccanate liturgical forms as an appropriate ecumenicism. I am particularly interested in American paganism.

What has struck me recently is the rise of a new trend in defining paganism. That trend is to define as “Pagan” any and all polytheistic religious practices (á la York’s methodology) or to define modern American paganism as decidedly polytheistic.  Pagan religious practice is that which is polytheist, so the logic seems to go, as opposed to non-pagan religions, which are monotheist. To me, “polytheistic” seems to be the newest in a string of buzz-words used uncritically in attempts at definition, a string that includes “non-Abrahamic” and “pre-Christian.”

“Earth-centered,” seems to me to have been the latest of these buzz-word phrases. Surely it is not inaccurate to remark that pagan communities have been deeply effected by environmentalist movements; but does that make all of our theologies “Earth-centered”? What do pagans mean by “Earth-centered”, one might ask, and to this question one would surely receive the answer that it depends on whom you’re asking, since pagans mean a lot of different things when they describe themselves in this way. As with my rejection of definitions that hinge upon pagans as “magical,” I find this definition unsatisfying because it does not distinguish “Earth-centered” pagans from “Earth-centered” non-pagans. Sallie McFague, for example, is an example of a Christian theologian who can by some definitions be called “Earth-centered”: Her works include Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age; The Body of God: An Ecological Theology; and Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril.

It is also important to note that not all pagans identify as “Earth-centered” at all, while others engage in practices or adhere to philosophies that are inherently or implicitly otherworldly (i.e., technically “transcendentalist”) in outlook. Pagan Kabbalists fit this description, in my opinion, since the goal of their enterprise is to reach union with an otherwise unknowable, transcendent divine presence. The logic behind many ceremonial magic and alchemical practices, which come from a similar tradition, are often quite otherworldly in orientation – check out this modern image [below] that floats around theurgic circles for an iconographic example of what I mean: The depicted figure is literally crawling toward a world outside the Earthly realm.

Is this Earth-centered?

For similar reasons, I find attempts to define paganism in terms of polytheism to be less than adequate. First of all (pace York), there are non-pagan polytheists, and therefore to leave the definition at that does not prove useful. We must strive a bit further.

Such an attempted definition seems to overlook the fact that some pagans are themselves self-labeling monotheists, and that a great many pagans engage in practices and beliefs that are implicitly monotheistic. Those same pagan Kabbalists must be considered to engage in at least tacitly monotheistic belief, given that the worldview underpinning that tradition depends upon a logic grounded in large part in Abrahamic monotheism. Also, the Kabbalistic venture entails a quest for a singular divine transcendent force, thus Kabbalistic practice is either monistic or monotheistic as a matter of course. (NB: I realize that much of Kabbalistic philosophy is in large part Neoplatonic or Neoaristotelian, and thus in large part pre-Christian; however, Kabbalah as such has only existed since ca. the 1400s, was developed by monotheists, and is fundamentally contingent upon natively Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theological tenants). Additionally, ceremonialist pagans might remember that the basic technology of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram is an approximation of one’s self with a singular, ultimate (i.e., monotheistic) divinity during which time one assumes the power, en microcosm, of that divinity. Therefore, ceremonialists practicing the LBRP are in that moment tacitly monotheists.

Similarly, Wicca, arguably the linchpin of contemporary paganism, could be considered non-polytheist. Yes, many Wiccans identify with a myriad of deities; but let’s not forget that Wicca, too, has its origin in monotheistic traditions! Let us remember that (given the round thrashing of Margaret Murray’s theories have received, though this still often goes ignored or under-appreciated) traditional Wiccan theology has more to do with esoteric Christianity, the Freemasons, Aleister Crowley, and the 19th century revival of Renaissance occultism than with, say, a British folk tradition. Additionally, recent and influential literature has maintained Wicca’s fundamentally monotheistic undertones:

All religions are structures built upon reverence of deity. Wicca is no exception. The Wicca acknowledge a supreme divine power, unknowable, ultimate, from which the entire universe sprang.

The concept of this power, far beyond our comprehension, has nearly been lost in Wicca because of our difficulty of relating to it. Wiccans, however, link with this force through their deities. In accordance with the principles of nature, the supreme power was personified into two basic beings: the Goddess and the God.

Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A guide for the solitary practitioner p. 9 (my emphases)

Note that Cunningham grounds Wiccan theology in an appreciation of a singular divine force that is only perceived as multifaceted. Many of us might recall that Wiccan theology has been elsewhere summed up as “one light shining through a prism.” This monistic or monotheistic tendency within Wiccan theology is echoed in earlier literature as well. Patricia Crowther, an initiate of Gardner’s, coined the term “Dryghten” to refer to the “force” perceived by Wiccans; Gardner himself called this “force” the “Prime Mover,” a phrase taken from Aristotle. [See here.]

Though this assessment of Wiccan theology might be called “soft polytheism,” I find that terminology problematic because it is not similarly used to describe the not-dissimilar theological outlook of others whom are generally considered simply “monotheists.” The Christian Trinity and theologies concerning it could be considered a form of “soft polytheism,” for example, as could certain Sufi extrapolations of the nature of Allah’s 99 divine names that perceive the names as almost god-like aspects of one divine power.

Note also that in her essay, “Introduction to the Wiccan Religion and Contemporary Paganism” [here], Selena Fox states that, “Many [pagan] traditions are monotheistic in that there is an honoring of Divine Unity” – this is seemingly in direct contradiction to the definition of paganism given on the website of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group of the Academy of World Religions [here]: “an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and nonempirical” which is “[…] non-monotheistic, based on relationship rather than revelation and scripture, and often including an immanent dimension to landforms, plants, and animals.”

Other pagan groups can be called monotheistic: The Covenant of The Goddess, for example, exemplifies a form of pagan monotheism; the same can be said for the theological outlook of the Fellowship of Isis and other Goddess-movement related groups that venerate a single, female-gendered deity. Additionally, let us consider “henotheism,” which is the veneration of one deity above all others without an accompanying denial of the existence of other deities. Given this, quite a few pagans display quite “henotheistic” tendencies in that they might worship one “patron” god or goddess. Though many pagans would consider this a fairly nondescript form of polytheism, academics who question the validity of any division between monotheistic and polytheistic practices (academics like Johannes C. de Moor, author of The Rise of Yahwism) consider henotheism to be a prevalent sort of half-way theology that is part monotheism, part polytheism, and that (again) is not all that dissimilar from some Abrahamic theologies. Remember that the “First Commandment” from Sinai was to “Have no other gods before me,” a phrase widely taken as henotheistic in implication.

Given all this, I think it is important that we search for a more accurate way to define ourselves, hopefully one that is more critically useful and that can help to establish  more coherent self-understanding in our communities. Others might claim that this has all been a useless “semantic argument” on my part and that this has no bearing on real life outside of insular academic circles and my own argumentative head. To the contrary, I would argue that such issues of definition have significant implications on our abilities to grow in our spiritual traditions and on our abilities to manage ourselves in a pluralistic world. For example, consider the implications of a more comprehensible definition of pagan traditions on interfaith conversations: In as much as we as pagans understand our own religious traditions in more accurate terms, we will be able to engage with other faith communities in more integral, authentic ways. With self-understanding comes acceptance and credence – understanding and critical inquiry – from others.

Also, along with more accurate self-definition comes a greater ability to understand our own histories and theologies in a variety of contexts. Acknowledging Wicca’s theological debt to Renaissance Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophy might have the effect of inspiring new Wiccan theologians to plumb those traditions for new insight. Such recognition would also empower non-Wiccan traditions to extricate themselves if they so chose from generally accepted “genero-pagan” or Wiccanate theological opinions that are disharmonious with their own worldviews.

Finally, a more accurate understanding of paganism in general will allow for a greater understanding of various traditions and communities in particular, and especially the connections between such groups. Then, changes in the relationships between these groups will be more comprehensible to us as well as to sociologists and journalists attempting to track the growth and change of our communities at large. Thus, such efforts toward definition increase our standing and ability on all levels.

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