Polytheism is Good for America (and so are Pagans)

No theology is perfect, but I believe polytheism, the belief in a multiplicity of the divine, is uniquely suited towards preparing the United States for its future. In his book “The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology,” York University Professor Emeritus of Humanities Jordan Paper concludes that “polytheism at best is a very positive human experience and is never less than benign. We do not find the angst, let alone the doubts, that many experience with regard to their relationship with the divine in the monotheistic traditions.” As America slowly moves into a post-Christian era, a nation where both immigrant and home-grown religious minorities are growing, and an ever-larger percentage (currently 15%) of our fellow citizens claim no specific religion at all, only a theology that can embrace the full tapestry of human belief will be able to change and thrive with these often tumultuous times. Modern Pagans are pioneers into this future, and have already encountered and accepted a multiplicity of belief systems, finding ways to not only coexist, but to create vibrant communities that encourage participation and engagement.

Do you believe in a pantheon of distinct, individual, powers? No problem. That there’s an underlying and unifying divine force that manifests in a million aspects? Bring it on. That there’s a distant unknowable creator aided by a powerful array of divine intercessors? Are you free for lunch next weekend? That all divinity springs from, and is connected to, a sentient natural world? I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter. That divine beings are simply innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic symbols or representations of unconscious experience emerge? I bet you are super-fun at parties! Is your god male? Female? Both? Genderless? Do you concentrate on a singular deity, a divine couple, or perhaps an entire family of gods at once? How about the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Polytheism is the endless affirmation of belief, of perspective, it is the cosmic “and-and,” rather than “either-or.” It, like the United States, is a great melting pot. A place where all can find a home.

But what about monotheism? Critics of polytheism are quick to point out the sins of the Roman Empire, how they persecuted the Christian minority, at least until the Christians took power, and then they started persecuting heretics, Jews, and pagans with a fervor unmatched. The simplest answer is that the persecution of Christians wasn’t really about theology, but politics. In a global power where there’s no separation between church and state, a theology that tries to undermine the state religion is seen as a threat to order and good government (a lesson Christian emperors quickly learned). While there is much we can learn and emulate from the ancient world, I think the Enlightenment values of America’s Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, were correct in erecting a wall between government and religion. Banning religion tests for office, and ensuring that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” With that wall, so long as it remains high and strong, we need never worry about a polytheistic or monotheistic theocracy becoming corrupted by power. Which leaves us with the question, what theology is best equipped to live in a pluralistic and secular world? In my mind it must be polytheism.

Many of my friends, family, and individuals I greatly respect are monotheists. They reject the idea of any power outside of their God, with many seeing anything not of their God as belonging to his adversary. Monotheists have done some wonderful things, but any culture that becomes dominated by an exclusionary theology will, even if it is unintentional, become oppressive. There is growing evidence that the human mind is hardwired for religion, for belief. Religion, for all its goods and ills, will not be deserting us any time soon. In our increasingly global and interconnected world both isolation and exclusion are becoming difficult at best, and untenable at worst. The point of polytheism is not that everyone must become polytheists, but that everyone should learn to embrace the true pluralism that is at its core. As Christian cultural dominance is slowly shrugged off with each passing generation, as we move into a multi-religious post-Christian society, it is the Pagans and polytheists who can lead the United States away from the evils of apathy and extremism and towards a future where we can all find the room we need to grow and thrive.

  • http://www.teobishop.com Teo Bishop

    Thank you for this post.

    I’m curious: can you conceive of a way that Pagans and polytheists might engage with monotheists, particularly those belonging to the Abrahamic traditions, in a way that acknowledges and respects their belief in and worship of their God, while at the same time asserting that the claims made that their God is the *only* god are inaccurate? Do they not have to surrender the primary tennet of their faith in order to even engage in a dialogue about divinity with polytheists? Are you suggesting that they do that, or can you imagine an intelectual or theological compromise that both groups could make?

    Blessings,
    Teo

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      My approach has been to do exactly what you say above:  to meet the monotheistic assertion that their god is the only god and that all others are devils with “Well, that’s your theology; mine says that your god exists, but he’s not the only one.”  They’ll never compromise on their viewpoint, nor should we compromise on ours; and yet, we don’t have to agree to be respectful of one another–and I mean truly respectful, not just treating the other person benignly and indulgently, and doing so as a way to account for their total ignorance of the “truth.”

      Does that make sense?

      • http://www.teobishop.com Teo Bishop

        Thank you for this thoughtful response. It does make sense, although it brings up another question for me.

        Would there a be a benefit for Pagans or polytheists to better familiarise themselves with the intricacies of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or other monotheistic conceptions of Deity? Could this aid us in interfaith dialogue, possibly allowing us to offer, with a poly-context a different understanding of “God” through their mono-context?

        Does that make sense?

        • Sunweaver

          There is always value in learning about the ideas and practices of others. This broadens your own vocabulary in not only interfaith dialogue, but your own practice as well. You may find concepts from the Abrahamic faiths that you might find useful in your own practice or, at least, in understanding theirs.

          So, the short answer is a resounding “yes!”

        • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

          I don’t think there’s any harm in doing so, certainly.  A lot of the more mystical strains of monotheism have some interesting ideas and figures in them (e.g. Marguerite Porete, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Rumi, etc.), and some ideas of a theological or spiritual nature that can easily be applied to a polytheistic context, often with little or no revision.

          Would this knowledge aid in interfaith dialogue, though?  Not necessarily.  It might impress people of these other religions that we are not as uneducated as they would assume (due to our paganism), but it also might dismay them that in studying so much about their religion, we’ve not yet seen the truth of it and converted.

          But, all information is potentially useful, in my opinion.  It probably won’t allow us to put our own viewpoints across in their language easier, in most cases, simply because “one and only one deity” insistence is pretty hard to negotiate around.  (In the Vatican II documents, though, the official position–which the current pope does not hold, but as far as Catholic doctrine is concerned it still prevails as the official orthodoxy–is that people in other religions are being inspired by the Holy Spirit through whatever gods/ideas/etc. they happen to have in their culture.  It works great for Hindus, Buddhists, Shinto, and so forth; but, unfortunately, since most pagans in the U.S. did not grow up pagan, they automatically consider us apostates rather than people of other religions, thus it doesn’t quite apply to us. But, even most priests aren’t aware of this particular Vatican II teaching, so at least making them aware of it can often help, even though it creates a situation of “it’s okay for these other people to have other religions, as long as they cause no harm, because they’re just too ignorant to recognize the Holy Spirit being behind all of it,” which is very patronizing indeed…)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bishopinthegrove Teo Bishop

    Thank you for this post.

    I’m curious: can you conceive of a way that Pagans and polytheists might engage with monotheists, particularly those belonging to the Abrahamic traditions, in a way that acknowledges and respects their belief in and worship of their God, while at the same time asserting that the claims made that their God is the *only* god are inaccurate? Do they not have to surrender the primary tennet of their faith in order to even engage in a dialogue about divinity with polytheists? Are you suggesting that they do that, or can you imagine an intelectual or theological compromise that both groups could make?

    Blessings,
    Teo

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      My approach has been to do exactly what you say above:  to meet the monotheistic assertion that their god is the only god and that all others are devils with “Well, that’s your theology; mine says that your god exists, but he’s not the only one.”  They’ll never compromise on their viewpoint, nor should we compromise on ours; and yet, we don’t have to agree to be respectful of one another–and I mean truly respectful, not just treating the other person benignly and indulgently, and doing so as a way to account for their total ignorance of the “truth.”

      Does that make sense?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bishopinthegrove Teo Bishop

        Thank you for this thoughtful response. It does make sense, although it brings up another question for me.

        Would there a be a benefit for Pagans or polytheists to better familiarise themselves with the intricacies of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or other monotheistic conceptions of Deity? Could this aid us in interfaith dialogue, possibly allowing us to offer, with a poly-context a different understanding of “God” through their mono-context?

        Does that make sense?

        • Sunweaver

          There is always value in learning about the ideas and practices of others. This broadens your own vocabulary in not only interfaith dialogue, but your own practice as well. You may find concepts from the Abrahamic faiths that you might find useful in your own practice or, at least, in understanding theirs.

          So, the short answer is a resounding “yes!”

        • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

          I don’t think there’s any harm in doing so, certainly.  A lot of the more mystical strains of monotheism have some interesting ideas and figures in them (e.g. Marguerite Porete, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Rumi, etc.), and some ideas of a theological or spiritual nature that can easily be applied to a polytheistic context, often with little or no revision.

          Would this knowledge aid in interfaith dialogue, though?  Not necessarily.  It might impress people of these other religions that we are not as uneducated as they would assume (due to our paganism), but it also might dismay them that in studying so much about their religion, we’ve not yet seen the truth of it and converted.

          But, all information is potentially useful, in my opinion.  It probably won’t allow us to put our own viewpoints across in their language easier, in most cases, simply because “one and only one deity” insistence is pretty hard to negotiate around.  (In the Vatican II documents, though, the official position–which the current pope does not hold, but as far as Catholic doctrine is concerned it still prevails as the official orthodoxy–is that people in other religions are being inspired by the Holy Spirit through whatever gods/ideas/etc. they happen to have in their culture.  It works great for Hindus, Buddhists, Shinto, and so forth; but, unfortunately, since most pagans in the U.S. did not grow up pagan, they automatically consider us apostates rather than people of other religions, thus it doesn’t quite apply to us. But, even most priests aren’t aware of this particular Vatican II teaching, so at least making them aware of it can often help, even though it creates a situation of “it’s okay for these other people to have other religions, as long as they cause no harm, because they’re just too ignorant to recognize the Holy Spirit being behind all of it,” which is very patronizing indeed…)

  • Kilmrnock

    the idea of a compromise seems to be the best way to deal w/ our differences . the monotheists have to modify their idea of thiers is the only way . isn’t one of the xtian/jewish commandments love thy neighbor ? it does not say only xtian or jewish ones only . we the polytheists , etc are thier neighbors as well . jesus taught tolerance and love amoung all men , not just jews and xtians .but i too believe polytheism is a better way in the long run , more excepting of others .  Kilm

  • Kilmrnock

    the idea of a compromise seems to be the best way to deal w/ our differences . the monotheists have to modify their idea of thiers is the only way . isn’t one of the xtian/jewish commandments love thy neighbor ? it does not say only xtian or jewish ones only . we the polytheists , etc are thier neighbors as well . jesus taught tolerance and love amoung all men , not just jews and xtians .but i too believe polytheism is a better way in the long run , more excepting of others .  Kilm

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Thank you for the implicit shout-out, Jason!  ;)  Excellent stuff, and I couldn’t agree more.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Thank you for the implicit shout-out, Jason!  ;)  Excellent stuff, and I couldn’t agree more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36101012 Eric Scott

    Hey now. If there weren’t any angst or doubt present in polytheism, my column would be out of material. Examining sources of doubt in paganism is sort of my bag.

    • http://www.teobishop.com Teo Bishop

      I’m all about sitting with angst and doubt, Eric. It seems like a natural biproduct of a sincere, spiritual life. If you’re sitting with those difficult ideas and emotions in your column, then I commend you. Denying ourselves those experiences on account of the discomfort they create leads only to a shallow, hollow kind of spirituality. 

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Indeed, as a very good teacher of mine said a long while back, “No one has a problem believing in doubt.”  Doubt is a universal human experience within religion, and it can lead in some very useful and fruitful directions when taken seriously and not glossed over.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36101012 Eric Scott

    Hey now. If there weren’t any angst or doubt present in polytheism, my column would be out of material. Examining sources of doubt in paganism is sort of my bag.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bishopinthegrove Teo Bishop

      I’m all about sitting with angst and doubt, Eric. It seems like a natural biproduct of a sincere, spiritual life. If you’re sitting with those difficult ideas and emotions in your column, then I commend you. Denying ourselves those experiences on account of the discomfort they create leads only to a shallow, hollow kind of spirituality. 

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Indeed, as a very good teacher of mine said a long while back, “No one has a problem believing in doubt.”  Doubt is a universal human experience within religion, and it can lead in some very useful and fruitful directions when taken seriously and not glossed over.

  • KoraKaos

    “They reject the idea of any power outside of their God, with many seeing
    anything not of their God as belonging to his adversary.”

    I think that’s a poor, but sadly widespread, way of looking at monotheism.  It is not that there is no power outside of God, but there is nothing at all outside of God, because God is everything, because God is omnipresent and the entire Universe.  Thusly his Satan/Adversary (for Satan means Adversary in Hebrew as I’m sure you must have already known) is but a part of him.  Satan, too, is God, is of God, and receives his power from God, as there is no power outside of God because there just isn’t anything outside of him.  There simply cannot be anything outside of Everything/The Universe/God, physically.  There’s nothing beyond infinity because it is infinite.

    Which is one reason why I think that not only polytheism, but also monotheism is important…. when we recognize that we are all One Kosmos, we can love ourselves even more.  Even Satan.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      And while that’s a very enlightened view, and a mystical view, and a useful and preferable view, it’s not the viewpoint of most forms of mainstream monotheism at present.  Origen and Ioannes Scottus Eriugena would totally agree with you here, but both of them were considered heretical for doing so; Pat Robertson and Pope Benedict XVI would not agree, and unfortunately their many followers wouldn’t either.

      • KoraKaos

        Yeah, it’s a real shame they’re so pharisaic nowadays.  Leaning on a sadly misinterpreted law.  I wonder what their chakras must look like.  It’s like they’re burying them in the sand instead of paying attention to reality and love.  They’re out of touch with the universe.  But it still loves them.

  • KoraKaos

    “They reject the idea of any power outside of their God, with many seeing
    anything not of their God as belonging to his adversary.”

    I think that’s a poor, but sadly widespread, way of looking at monotheism.  It is not that there is no power outside of God, but there is nothing at all outside of God, because God is everything, because God is omnipresent and the entire Universe.  Thusly his Satan/Adversary (for Satan means Adversary in Hebrew as I’m sure you must have already known) is but a part of him.  Satan, too, is God, is of God, and receives his power from God, as there is no power outside of God because there just isn’t anything outside of him.  There simply cannot be anything outside of Everything/The Universe/God, physically.  There’s nothing beyond infinity because it is infinite.

    Which is one reason why I think that not only polytheism, but also monotheism is important…. when we recognize that we are all One Kosmos, we can love ourselves even more.  Even Satan.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      And while that’s a very enlightened view, and a mystical view, and a useful and preferable view, it’s not the viewpoint of most forms of mainstream monotheism at present.  Origen and Ioannes Scottus Eriugena would totally agree with you here, but both of them were considered heretical for doing so; Pat Robertson and Pope Benedict XVI would not agree, and unfortunately their many followers wouldn’t either.

      • KoraKaos

        Yeah, it’s a real shame they’re so pharisaic nowadays.  Leaning on a sadly misinterpreted law.  I wonder what their chakras must look like.  It’s like they’re burying them in the sand instead of paying attention to reality and love.  They’re out of touch with the universe.  But it still loves them.

  • Scott Lindquist

    Intrigued by your article. I would like to invite you to be a guest on my radio show. Open Minds Open Hearts – Radio with a purpose. It debuts on Monday, July 11, 8-9 PM on Blog Talk Radio. Sincerely, Scott Lindquist (scott-lindquist@comcast.net)

  • Scott Lindquist

    Intrigued by your article. I would like to invite you to be a guest on my radio show. Open Minds Open Hearts – Radio with a purpose. It debuts on Monday, July 11, 8-9 PM on Blog Talk Radio. Sincerely, Scott Lindquist (scott-lindquist@comcast.net)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elizabeth-Kshatriya-Ward/1839443925 Elizabeth Kshatriya-Ward

    Another point, I feel, is that we accept, and embrace, our Mythology as Mythology, and not as “History” or even worse, “The True Word of God”. This attitude means we are free to accept new technology, scientific theories, and ideas, and are not threatened by the fear that some uncomfortable fact we have discovered might undermine our belief system. Indeed, we can incorporate modern scientific discoveries as another way to appreciate the awesome complexities of our Divine Universe!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elizabeth-Kshatriya-Ward/1839443925 Elizabeth Kshatriya-Ward

    Another point, I feel, is that we accept, and embrace, our Mythology as Mythology, and not as “History” or even worse, “The True Word of God”. This attitude means we are free to accept new technology, scientific theories, and ideas, and are not threatened by the fear that some uncomfortable fact we have discovered might undermine our belief system. Indeed, we can incorporate modern scientific discoveries as another way to appreciate the awesome complexities of our Divine Universe!


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