The role of faith and hubris in Paganism

The role of faith and hubris in Paganism December 23, 2012

Last week I came across a word that, ten years ago, I would never have thought to see in a Pagan context: “faith”. In fact, I came across it several times:

The first time I noticed it was after reading Christine Kraemer’s post “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue” at the Sermon in the Mound. Encouraging Pagan theo/alogy is a subject dear to my heart. Christine provided a link to her book on Amazon, Seeking the Mystery: Introduction to Pagan Theologies. After downloading the sample, I purchased the book, and I am enjoying working my way through it. One part in particular caught my attention: the discussion of “hard polytheism”. There I read this fascinating quote from Hellenic polytheist Sarah Kate Istra Winter’s blog, a forest door:

“I fear that paganism may not have the strength to last in the long-term if we ourselves do not firmly believe in our spiritual reality. You don’t see Christians following up a discussion of accepting Jesus into your heart with some caveat like ‘or if you don’t believe in Jesus, just imagine a similar loving entity or warm light.’ Or ‘if you need the help of a saint and don’t like any of the ones you’ve read about, just invent a new saint in your mind that betters suits you, and contact them.’ As if these things are all the same. Yes, I know that many Christians go in the opposite direction and become strictly orthodox, insisting on every detail of belief, and I also know that this is what many pagans are reacting to. But it’s time to stop reacting and start building a real, solid faith that will last – and for that you need, well, faith.

I came to Paganism through authors like Starhawk who explicitly denied that faith had any role to play in Paganism, so to see faith invoked in this context came as a bit of a shock.

Then I saw Jason Mankey’s post about the Connecticut shootings, “Sometimes Faith Has No Answer”. And then Eddie responded to my post about my love/hate relationship with Paganism by saying that he uses the term polytheist instead of Pagan “since I have faith and all that jazz.” And finally, I came across this striking description of faith by Hellenic polytheist Elani Temperance on her post, “Self, in relation to Deity”:

“[…] when it comes to the Theoi–I say ‘how high’ when They say ‘jump’, regardless of what is requested of me. It also means that I put my faith in Them. When I pray and sacrifice to Zeus the Thunderer for a day without rain as I do my rounds outside, I don’t bring an umbrella. I trust that Zeus will either honor my prayer through kharis, or will have good reason not to. Who am I to go against His wishes and stay dry, regardless? To me, that is hubris.”

Wow! That’s not just faith, but if-they-told-you-to-jump-off-a-bridge kind of faith! Who are you to go against Zeus’ wishes? I couldn’t help but respond:

“You are a beautiful and incredible human being is who you are. Who is he to say you have to get wet? The polytheistic gods, as I understand them, are not necessarily “good” and they are not omni-benevolent. They are as flawed as human beings, but they just have more power. Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”

Elani explains that she is able to maintain boundaries with human beings, but not with the gods. That kind of faith makes no more sense to me in the context of divine beings than it would in the context of human beings.

Faith means different things to different people of course. It could mean believing in something without any rational or experiential basis for such a belief. I don’t think this is what most people mean when they say they have faith. I think this is what people mean when they talk about other people’s faith. But faith can also mean being “faithful” or true to a relationship when the object of that relationship is no longer present. It means continuing to worship the gods when they do not manifest. Continuing to believe in their goodness when bad things happen. It is not so much a belief in things you can’t see, as continuing to act as if the persons (whether a spouse or the gods) you have a relationship with are present when they aren’t.

It is in this sense that polytheists seem to use the word “faith”. Indeed, Christine Kraemer introduces Sarah Winter’s quote above with these words:

“Hard polytheists tend to take the issue of belief much more seriously than other Pagans. Like other Pagans, they usually emphasize that their belief in the gods is based on their personal experiences of them. However, hard polytheists see belief as a necessary part of the passion and devotion that is part of a committed relationship.”

This got me wondering about how faith might come into play in other forms of Paganism.

The four centers of Paganism

I recently attempted a description of the Pagan community, not as one umbrella, but as multiple overlapping penumbrae. I suggested three possible “centers” for these overlapping circles: deity-centered, earth-centered, and Self-centered (or Self-centric). In the comments to my post, it was suggested that a fourth center was needed, community- (or folk-)centered. Most people within the Pagan community fall into the overlapping area of two or more of these circles, but I think they are still useful categories for describing Pagan experience.

Each of these groups has a unique way of relating to the “other” that transcends our individual selves. Each defines that “other” differently. Each gets something different out of the relationship. And each has different challenges which arises from the nature of the transcendent with which the group seeks to enter into relationship.

1. Deity-centered Paganism and faith

In some ways deity-centered Paganism resembles other theisms, including charismatic forms of Christianity and the bhakti cults of Hinduism. For deity-centered Pagans (i.e., polytheists), the gods are that which transcends the individual. Polytheists seeks to enter into relationship with the gods, and passionate devotion is what primarily characterizes that relationship. An increased sense of power is what the gods bring to the relationship; power is what distinguishes the gods of polytheism from mortals.  The unique challenge presented by deity-centered Paganism arises from the nature of the gods, specifically from the fact that the experience of the presence of the gods is transitory.


Most polytheists will not feel their presence all the time. And sometimes, when they are invoked, they do not come. Thus, polytheists seek to develop faith for the times when the presence of the gods is not experienced, and for this reason faith seems to be a core virtue of deity-centered Paganism.

2. Earth-centered Paganism and re-enchantment

Earth-centered Paganism can be described an extension of deep ecology. It has been called “dark green religion” by Bron Taylor. For earth-centered Pagans, the earth or nature is that which transcends the individual. Earth-centered Pagans seek to enter into a relationship with nature, and a sense of wonder is what primarily characterizes that relationship. Faith has no role in earth-centered Paganism, because the earth is always present, in a way the gods are not.


The unique challenge presented by earth-centered Paganism arises from the nature of Nature, specifically from the fact that nature demonstrates no particular love or care for the individual. Connecting to something which does not care about us can be a challenge. Thus an experience of interconnectedness with the non-human or more-than-human world is a core virtue of earth-centered Paganism. This sense of interconnectedness is sometimes called “re-enchantment”, and it refers to an expanded awareness of the nature of reality and of our participation in the natural world which Levy-Bruhl called “participation mystique” and Owen Barfield calls “original participation”.  A feeling of being part of a greater whole is what Earth-centered Pagans get out of the relationship.

3. Self-centric Paganism and insight

Self-centric Paganism exists in the overlap between Paganism, esotericism, and the New Age. It resembles both Jungian psychology and Advaita-Vedantic philosophy which underlies some forms of yoga. For Self-centric Pagans, the “Self” is that which transcends the individual. The “Self” is the wholeness which gives rise to, but extends beyond, the normal waking conscious identity or “ego” which we commonly call our “self”. Self-centric Pagans seek to enter into relationship with the Self, and identification is ideally what characterizes that relationship. Self-centric Pagans seek to disassociate from the ego-self and identify with the Self. A new identity is what Self-centric Pagans seek to get out of the relationship with the Self. The unique challenge presented by Self-centric Paganism is the fact that it is so easy to confuse the ego-self with the Self. (Psychoanalysts call this “inflation”.) Thus, the Self is often more elusive for Self-centric Pagans than even the gods are for deity-centered Pagans. This is what St. Augustine meant when he said “God is closer to me than I am to myself.” For this reason, insight is a core virtue for Self-centric Pagans, because insight is what enables us to distinguish the ego from the Self. Ironically, in spite of the elusiveness of the Self, “faith” not usually a word that is used to describe the relationship of Self-centric Pagans to the Self. I wonder why this is so. Do Self-centric Pagan not need to have “faith” that the Self exists?

4. Community-centered Paganism and love

For community-centered Pagans, the community is that which transcends the individual. The relationship between community-centered Pagans and the community is ideally characterized by love. Like earth-centered Pagans, what community-centered Pagans get out of the relationship is a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. The unique challenge presented by community-centered Paganism arises from the conflict between individual and group needs. Thus, love is a core virtue of community-centered Paganism, since love is what enables us to identify the needs of others as our own. It is perhaps also necessary to community-centered Pagans to have faith in people or to be faithful to the community, so it could be said that faith is also a core virtue for community-centered Pagans. However, unlike deity-centered Pagans, community-centered Pagans will likely never doubt the reality of the existence of the community.

“Thou art God.”

Thus, the nature of the transcendental to which different Pagans relate defines the role that faith plays in that relationship. The thing that distinguishes deity-centered Paganism from the other three groups seems to be the degree to which deity-centered Pagans insist on the otherness of the gods. Each of the groups has an “other” which in some sense transcends the individual self, an “other” which might in some sense be called “God”: Nature has been described a “God” by pantheists. Jung and Vedantic philosophers describe the Self in God-terms. And anthropologist Emile Durkheim famously equated society with God: “God is Society, writ large”.

Each of the groups seeks to enter into a relationship with their “God”. But what distinguishes deity-centered Paganism is that polytheists do not seek to identify with the gods. Earth-centered Pagans, for example, seek to experience a sense of interconnectedness with the natural world, one that may border on mystical identification. Self-centric Pagans seek total identity with the wholeness which is the Self. And community-centered Pagans seek some degree of identity with their community. But deity-centered Pagans maintain a strict boundary between their sense of self and the identity of the gods. For a polytheist to identify with the gods would be hubris. In this sense, perhaps it is not an absence of boundaries that characterizes Elani’s relationship with the gods, but precisely the opposite. Which brings me back to Elani’s statement above about her own if-they-told-you-to-jump-off-a-bridge kind of faith.

Perhaps it is because other kinds of Pagans in some sense identify with their respective “Gods” that they would never ask the question Elani asks: “Who am I to go against the gods?” Earth-centered, Self-centric, and community-centered Pagans might all respond: “Who are you? Thou art God.” Thou art God! That’s something that a deity-centered Pagan could not say, and perhaps that is what most fundamentally distinguishes polytheism from other forms of Paganism.

Polytheists like to claim that the multiplicity of gods breeds a kind of pluralism that makes intolerance and acts of religious violence less likely. But as an earth-centered and Self-centric Pagan, I see more similarities than dissimilarities between polytheism and the monotheisms. And I wonder if what really distinguishes Paganism from the Abrahamic faiths is not the number of gods, but the belief that in some sense we are God. A polytheist would call this hubris and a monotheist would call it heretical. (At least an orthodox monotheist would. There have always been mystical strains within the monotheistic traditions which sought union with God.) But for many Pagans, the hubris of the statement, “Thou art God/dess”, is an article of, well, faith.

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  • Very interesting, but I must admit I see a world of difference between Sarah Kate Istra Winter’s approach and that of Elani Temperence and I was surprised to see their respective quotes so close together. Yet at the end of your piece I do understand what they may share.

    For me their is a big difference between the ‘polytheist faithful’ and those of a monotheist bend. Zeus may command one thing, but you might cross Aphrodite doing the thing he may ask. Lugh and Brigid are traditionally not the best of friends. Neither are Persephone and Aphrodite.

    And most polytheist will say they do have a big say in things. One does not have to dedicate oneself to a god, one can keep things more casual, but yes, if you promise to do something there will be consequences if you do not. Therefore oaths and the like are very serious. But a god may approach and you can refuse to answer it’s call. Gods are external in this view, but there are many of them. Moreover our human friends are also external to us, that doesn’t mean that we have to do what they ask of us here. So a lot of polytheists who may fall in the same category of the god-focussed will not agree with Elani’s standpoint. And actually, I think the majority of god-focussed pagans as you call it will disagree. I know I do. And think of all those god-focussed heathens that have more friendly relations with their gods and refuse to bow to them to symbolise this. The differences within this category of yours are enormous.

    So though I think a lot of your characterisations have truth in them, they are not necessarily connected. One can have faith in the gods without feeling that one has to obey them in everything. It might make critical discernment even more important as not all the spirits are completely benevolent. They have an agenda of their own, so you must be more careful that when the gods are just caring mother figures. It is much easier I think to dedicate oneself to the universal female principle than to Odin. But a heathen can choose to honour Odin without completley dedicate his life to him.

    One must distinguish between layman and shaman/spirit workers as well. Usually those people who state they must do what the gods ask of them, well, they probably have chosen that difficult path themselves. A long whole back P. Sufenas wrote an interesting piece on exactly this issue, also stating that the path of the all-sacrificing shaman, godswife etc is not necessarily better or more religious. Views of the gods will vary greatly, and so will our view of the human-god relationship.

    • “but I must admit I see a world of difference between Sarah Kate Istra Winter’s approach and that of Elani Temperence”

      That’s a good point. Elani’s position does not seem to be representative of the polytheists I have interacted with.

  • For me, to say that I am God smacks of hubris. However, to say that I am a being of god-potential does not. I have been known to tell gods “no” and I find that the most profound moments in my life are the moments when the boundaries between people, earth, plant, animal and fae fade away into interconnectedness. I can’t speak for shaman/spirit worker types or for the witches who practice their craft in the absence of any specific theology- for these, perhaps none of these categories truly fit.
    I have faith in the world I can see, up to a point. I’m not convinced reality is as concrete as it appears and so my faith in the world is shadowed. I have faith in my community to be a bunch of pretentious pricks interspersed with a few very good people. I have faith in the gods- but I do not pretend to understand the system by which they operate. Sometimes I think they are the same being and sometimes I think they are discrete entities. I think most of all it depends on what I need at the time. They are almost always external to the sense of “I” but at the same time I can not deny the presence of a strange and powerful inner/outer/all around connective Force (sure, we’ll use Star Wars here, why not.)
    So where does this put me? I try to cultivate those relationships as best I can. I try to sort out my beliefs a bit more each day. I think that while your categories of pagan types are probably generally applicable, there is a lot of gray space between those centers. It’s more of a probability field than any kind of line or list.

    • “there is a lot of gray space between those centers. It’s more of a probability field than any kind of line or list.”


    • “Sometimes I think they are the same being and sometimes I think they are discrete entities.”

      With you on that one! The idea that the individual gods are simply facets of a greater whole, barely comprehensible twinklings of an infinitely more complex presence, has always seemed plausible to me. On the other hand, my limited gelatinous brain might be tricked into thinking multiple beings are connected, because the truth isn’t nearly so black and white as that.

      I approach my gods as separate beings. I was never a practicing pagan until I was an avowed polytheist. It doesn’t matter to me if that characterization is completely accurate, utter nonsense, or nonsensically accurate udders. I just needed to tune out other ways of thinking in order to find one that works for me. I actually have a better understanding of Wicca and all those other pantheistic paths now that I’m following one that rings true for me. Now that I’m rooted in a faith (yes, I did), I can appreciate other Pagans more through the lens of our differences.

  • Thank you for your reply to my post at PaganSquare. I read it, but hadn’t gotten a chance to reply to it. Let me do it here. I will also copy this reply to PaganSquare.

    As I wrote in my post, I was sharing my experience, my life, and my faith. Even in the original post, I explained that this is not a polytheist/religious staple. To quote the paragraph below the one you have quoted:

    “While this extreme is important in my relation to Deity, there is no reason why your practice should be the same. If you’re in a Tradition where ‘working with the Gods’ is a big thing, you’ll most likely give up a lot less of your autonomy to the Gods. Your relationship is more personal, more equal, than many Hellenists will ever have (although, I guess, there are exceptions to that as well, within the Hellenistic community).”

    I get the feeling that you think I’m somehow oppressed or that I must be unhappy in my relationship with the Gods. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I wrote in that very same post, I don’t have the negative connotations to serving (the) God(s) those who came to Paganism from one of the major faiths. I was never forced to attend service, never learned to be fearful of the Gods, never watched out for the All-Seeing in the sky.

    To me, there is beauty in serving, a humble existence that fits well with certain vows I have made to the Theoi, as well as the way I prefer to live my life. I don’t consider myself a ‘lower being’ at all, but do acknowledge that the Gods are more powerful and wiser than I am. Through kharis, I know They have my best interests in mind, and if things take a turn for the worst, I can be sure it’s happening because I did or did not do something that I shouldn’t or should have. I broke kharis, and They have every right to hold that against me.

    As you wrote in this brilliant post, my flavor of Paganism is much closer identified with the monotheistic faiths than the earth-centered or self-centered paths of Paganism. I also understand your comment about boundaries between me and the Theoi. You are right in saying that I would never assume to be a God, or to be divine in any way. I’m a mortal, and as such, the Theoi hold sway over my life.

    This extreme level of servitude is the level that works for me, just like it works for Christian nuns and priests, Buddhist monks, and everyone else who places their lives and fates in the lives of those they serve. It doesn’t make us weak or pathetic: reclaiming my right to bow down to deities within the current Pagan climate took more guts than any other stance I ever took, and I have taken a lot of stances in my life that were not appreciated by the mainstream majority.

    I know you practice Paganism differently, and as a loyal reader of your blog, I respect that greatly. I love reading your perspective. Yet, like my way of practicing would make you very unhappy, your way of practicing would make me feel the same. Thankfully, this Pagan label is applicable to both of us and anyone in-between, even if our practices differ to such a high degree, we have almost nothing in common.

    One last thing I wanted to comment on is ‘power’. In this post, you ask the reader–and me specifically–‘Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?’. Who says the Theoi are not virtuous, even if they are flawed? Funnily enough, Star Foster wrote almost the exact same thing a while ago, and I blogged about it on my blog:

    From that post:

    “As for honoring Gods because They are exemplars of virtue… It may be the phrasing, but I have difficulty with this. For one, all Theoi have Their epithets. Domains range from the destructive to the protective and back again. Does that make them virtuous?

    Until the rebellion, Zeus seduced every beautiful human specimen He laid His divine eyes on. Most of the male Theoi have mythology which focusses on an act of rape on Their part. Hera’s jealousy is legendary. Nearly all female Deities–although a case could be made for all–let the male Deities dominate Their lives. The Theoi are so human in Their failings (from a modern standpoint!), that They can hardly be considered exemplars of virtues.

    Then again, Their ‘flaws’ hardly make Them unvirtuous: They still teach a lot of them: temperance, prudence, justice, courage, etc. The trouble with the Theoi and Star’s statement–for me–is that all Theoi teach these virtues. All of them have virtues in Their ‘base’ and in Their various epithets. Choosing one above the other seems counterproductive to the spirits of reconstruction and polytheism. That having been said, there are a lot of people in Paganism–and most likely Hellenismos as well–who do not share my vision upon this issue, and so I understand where Star is coming from.”

    Within my path, my religion, I am not God. I am mortal. I serve the Gods who rule my life, and because I serve Them well, I have a very good life. Some may not understand–perhaps most will not understand–but this is the life I chose, and the life I am infinitely happy with. I have tried the other circles of Paganism you describe and it was not for me.

    The only faith I have is in the existence of the Gods. Not as archetypes, not as different personas or one or a few entities, but as a myriad of separate entities who may or may not give a crap about me. Hopefully They do, and to make sure They do, I try to appease and serve Them, but that has nothing to do with having faith. That has to do with building a relationship with those who were used to being served. This is why I call myself a Reconstructionist, yet even in the Recon community, there are various degrees in how much autonomy is surrendered.

    Surrendering to what I really wanted out of my religion and life, was the best decision I have ever made. No, the Theoi are not all good, but They are protective. I place my trust–and life–in Their hands because I know They will treat me well. And so, when I go out without my umbrella, it does not rain, or so minimally, it is not a hinderance, even if it should have been raining non-stop the whole day. Kharis. Faith. I love this life, my religion and the Theoi, and I do not need to be rescued from it. But thank you, for allowing me to solidify this for myself again 🙂

    • Elani: Thank you for being good humored about my using your experience and your faith as a foil. And thank you for taking the time to further explain your faith. I have found reading your blog very interesting, and I appreciate that your non-confrontational approach to your religion. I could probably use a healthy dose of that here.

      • Very welcome 😉 I love reading the replies to your post as well. Because I know they are not so much about my person but the type of practice I represent, I won’t be replying to everything, rest assured. As for my non-confrontational approach…*Shrugs* I care a lot about my religion, but would never expect anyone to feel the same way, or adopt the faith themselves. I’m the first person to admit that what I do is not for everyone, and I’m perfectly alright with that.

        As a head’s up, I will be dissecting this post and its responses on my blog in the coming days, starting today. This will be on my own blog, not PaganSquare ( ).

    • I agree much with what Elani is saying here. For me I think that this can also vary with which gods you are experiencing a relationship with. For instance the situation may vary regards to which god I am paying worship to, with the act of worship bringing you closer to the gods. Therefore those gods which we have particular devotion to may inspire a chosen relationship that may be nothing like one’s relationship to any other god in pantheon. For instance, I tend to be extremely receptive to Apollon and put a lot more into that particular relationship and willingly surrender and trust. However, like ladyimbrium above I recognize potential that seem apparent in myth and philosophy, and so to this end such relationships while being extremes can also be of spiritual benefit. But again how much you want to put into the relationship is up to you in the end. And I have established loose relationships with certain deities out of necessity which took form as more polite transferences. So it is difficult to paint over in any kind of broad generalization.

  • I have nothing against Elani Temperance – she seems like a nice person and all from all that I’ve read from her – but yes, her style of Paganism is 100% antithetical to anything I could possibly endorse with a clear conscience. Avoiding the kind of faith she describes here was the number one reason I was attracted to Paganism in the first place. Alas, the trend is in the direction she describes (even if she is an extreme example at present).

    It seems to me there are two major things that determine whether a religious traditions proliferates or dies out in a culture. On the one hand, it must appeal to people on an individual level. On the other hand, at the group level, it must be an evolutionarily fit competitor in the cultural environment. Alternative movements do well at the individual level, appealing to those alienating from the current dominant religious paradigms. However, for an alternative movement to grow and spread, it must eventually acquire the traits that make it a fit to compete with the dominant paradigms on a larger scale. I am beginning to fear that faith, specifically Elani’s style of faith, may be one of those traits.

    There are three reasons for this. First, the cognitive dissonance produced by believing something is true, that you know deep down cannot possibly be true, generates a fantastic amount of creative energy. As believers struggle to justify their beliefs to themselves, they become ever more active in justifying it to others, speaking out with great zeal, and thus spreading the beliefs further. This causes the movement to grow. This effect was first discovered in the 50’s studying how cults whose doomsday predictions failed actually *grew* due to the increased zeal afforded by the cognitive dissonance. So, the more radically unjustifiable a faith belief is, the more creative energy it generates. Elani’s style of faith is quite radical, and you can see a correspondingly prolific output from her in posts at Pagan Square.

    The second reason is that this same zeal and conviction is fantastically persuasive. People rarely decide who to trust based on rational reasons. More often than not, they go for gut reasons, and one of those reasons is the sense that someone in your in-group really, truly believe what they are seeing. By repressing their doubts as fully as possible, people with Elani’s style of faith become powerfully persuasive. And the more they demonstrate their sincerity and conviction, through speaking and especially through costly displays such as time, effort, and money spent on devotions that could have no motive in the absence of true belief, the more persuasive they become. Thus, this style of belief tends to spread through the population.

    The third reason is the necessity of a group having an efficient way to bond themselves together and encourage cooperative effort. The idea of a supernormal being watching over everyone and rewarding prosocial virtues, a being that really is real in the most literal sense, is fantastically efficient at doing this. Particular faith beliefs, i.e. belief in Thor rather than Allah, is too arbitrary to convince outgroups, so it makes an effective boundary marker between ingroup and outgroup, and thus bonds the ingroup together. Meanwhile, cooperativeness within the ingroup is encouraged by rewards for prosocial behavior doled out by the supernormal being, who sees *even your thoughts* (this discourages deceptive behavior).

    I am starting to suspect that these may be the most important “active ingredients” in large-scale religions, i.e. the essential elements that make it competitive at the group level. Almost all world religions have more nuanced and reasonable versions, even naturalistic ones, but the crucial observation here is that these versions are always proportionately small, and never exist in the absence of a much larger population of more radical “true” believers. Theravada Buddhist monks could not exist without the much larger population of lay Buddhists who take it on faith that the good karma generated by supporting monks will allow them to become monks themselves in the next life. Philosophical Daoists are similarly dwarfed by the much larger community of superstitious and magical Daoists, and philosophical Jnana-yoga Hindus are eclipsed the more numerous devotional Bakhti-yoga Hindus. If this pattern holds true, less faith-based versions of Paganism, including naturalistic versions, might only survive by attaching themselves to a growing movement of faith-based, more devotional Pagans. Perhaps the only alternative may be to start over again with a different new alternative movement, which will in turn become more faith-based as it grows over time, necessitating yet another alternative movement, and so on through the ages.

    • So popular religion is doomed to be irrational, and the more irrational it is the more popular it will be? That’s really depressing. But I think you may be right.

    • Ugh. I was rushed in the last comment, and upon re-reading, I see it’s not only riddled with grammatical errors but also some statements that are just plain wrong. Apologies. Let me be the first to critique myself.

      >Almost all world religions have more nuanced and reasonable versions [than faith-based]

      That’s plain wrong. Many faith-based folk hold beliefs that are nuanced and reasonable (in the sense of being internally consistent), and Elani’s work in particular is both. What I should have said is less faith-based. Nuance and reasonability shouldn’t even be part of the conversation.

      >the cognitive dissonance produced by believing something is true, that you know deep down cannot possibly be true

      That’s also an untenable statement. No one can know what another person “knows deep down.” Rather, cognitive dissonance is between two internalized beliefs that are in conflict. The conflict is uncomfortable, producing an urge to resolve the discomfort by finding a way to disarm the contradiction. It may show up when concrete evidence contradicts a prior held belief, such as when the world does not in fact end on the prophesied day, and such prophets typically find some error to explain why their previous prediction was false but their *new* prediction is assuredly true. To the extent that those who hold radical faith-based beliefs encounter evidence that makes it difficult to maintain that belief, cognitive dissonance generates creative energy toward justifying the belief and explaining away evidence to the contrary. One example might be Elani’s anecdote about leaving home without an umbrella after making offerings to Zeus the Thunderer, asking that it not rain. Whether it rains or not, an explanation is ready at hand: either Zeus prevented the rain, or she deserved to get rained on. The underlying belief that Zeus controls the rain is neatly insulated from contradiction by the resulting evidence (raining or not), forestalling an uncomfortable confrontation between two conflicting beliefs.

      >one of those reasons is the sense that someone in your in-group really, truly believe what they are seeing

      That should be “someone in your in-group really truly believes what they are *saying*.”

      I also want to reiterate that I don’t mean to disparage Elani as a person. I’ve read a lot of her work, and she is thorough, intelligent, sincere, and knows her stuff. My comments are about the style of faith she adopts.

  • Dave

    I would argue that no matter how much autonomy may be given up, if you are actively relinquishing it as a free choice then you are nevertheless in complete authority over your own self. You would have, in fact, given up nothing. Indeed the very act of choosing (and the implications of being happy with said choice) to relinquish one’s authority to their god(s) speaks to a carefully considered choice. This would seem to imply that should the motivations for the choice change so too would the choice. This seems, to me, no less co-equal than choosing to “work with” gods and goddesses or archetypes or what have you. The relationship would be hugely asymmetrical of course but it would, in my opinion, no more constitute a true transfer of power (in the sense of a permanent loss of free choice) than consensual non-consent.

    I think that what truly makes practitioners like Ms. Temperance so satisfied with their choice is the fact that it is a choice. The practical transfer of power may make it seem substantially different from other ways of relating to the divine but in my opinion it represents a difference of degree not a difference of kind. Now, if the argument was to be taken against one’s will, that is a whole different story. In my mind that would represent a moral failure on the part of the deity to which the only correct moral response would be to refuse that deity worship. Probably a large part of why I thought Christianity so inherently idiotic and repugnant when I first encountered it. The can’t opt out nature of the system, no matter how liberal the interpretation, begs to be challenged.

    That opinion relies upon an understanding of authority as requiring justification, never being justified in and of itself, and it being incumbent upon the would be authority in question to prove why their authority is justified. Not everyone shares that view and I can respect that but frankly, for myself, I can’t imagine a worse hell. When it comes to voluntarily relinquishing one’s authority? I’m sure Ms. Temperance has valid reasons for that action within her own moral framework and I wish her the best. For my own personal standards it would be a failure of moral character – for me – to pursue a similar relationship and to her credit she does not advocate her model for all, to the best of my knowledge.

      • Dave

        I cannot reply directly to your site due to the comment system. Feel free to cross post this reply to your own post if you so desire.

        To clarify my own position, I have a preexisting obligation to my people to adhere to our ways as dutifully as possible. I am from a nomadic culture which sees freedom and personal responsibility as values to live by. We interpret this as it being incumbent upon each individual person to live as well and as ably as they can, for the sake of the well being of the group as a whole.

        While I’m am the last living representative of my culture and therefore it technically “doesn’t matter” how I live, I feel I owe the memory of my people the respect enough to carry on our ways. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to pursue a relationship where I abdicated my personal authority without -exceptional- justification.

        My original reply was actually written assuming the reality of a literal interpretation of classical theism, despite my own personal theological opinion.

        Additionally, my original reply was not meant to disparage people who voluntarily enter into relationships with an asymmetrical balance of power, whether religious or sexual or whatever kind of power. Only to assert my opinion that, for myself, it would be inappropriate. While I think that it is an undertaking open to a high degree of abuse on the part of the person or god or whomever receiving the greater share of power in the relationship I do not feel it is inherently immoral to be in such a relationship if entered into as an informed, considered free choice.

        I do also recognize the validity of the experiences of spirit workers and shamanic practitioners who are taken up against their will. This is a complex issue, morally speaking, and I stand by my assertion that it would be hell for me. I do want to clarify that when I said the only appropriate moral response would be to refuse the divinity in question worship I meant that for myself.

        I cast no judgment upon those people who continue in relationships of that nature rather than suffer painful consequences. Had I not come from a culture that so valued freedom I would likely not have the motivation to potentially withstand those consequences. Further, I cannot assert, even in the face of that obligation, that I would have the ability to withstand those consequences.

        Finally, I want to commend you for your commitment to open and honest dialogue. You are a credit to the worthiness of worship of the Theoi that their practitioners should adhere to tolerance and pluralism. Thank you for this discussion. It has been most enlightening.

        May the wind be at your back.


        • Thank you, too, for your candor and your willingness to share details of your personal life. This discussion has been very enlightening, and I have–in no way–been offended, either by you or anyone else. I fully understand your reasoning when it comes to my practice. If I had your background, I might feel the same. I do not, however, so making this choice is logical to me.

          Again, thank you, I appreciate the respect you have shown in the face of something so alien to you. If there is anything I can do as the blog owner about your inability to comment, let me know, I would love to fix that for you.

          May the Theoi grant you blessings.


          • Dave

            I think it may just be a technical issue on my end. I’ll let you know. Great getting to know you and about your practice.

            • Dave, and Elani, re: the commenting issue — I don’t think it’s just a problem on Dave’s end. I had a problem as well when I tried to leave a comment. In fact ever since Google updated their Blogger platform (last year sometime?), I’ve never been able to successfully post a comment on someone’s blog if they have the comment box embedded below the post. I was about to hop on over and attempt to comment again, since obviously some people are able to get it to work, but I haven’t yet figured out what glitch in the Google matrix is causing the problem.

            • Well, that’s the first I have heard of that.
              I have disabled embedding the comments; it looks like crap, but perhaps this solves the problem?

            • Yay! That seems to have worked. Thank you! (And for what it’s worth, I think your blog looks beautiful, even with the change.)

  • Dave

    Out of all of these categories I most identify with community centered Paganism. At this point I’m pretty strictly a cultural pagan and quite content with that. I’m re-exploring Druidry through that lens actually. So far with quite fruitful results I might add. What can I say? I love Pagans.

    Leaving aside the dubiousness of a literal interpretation of classical theism it lacks sufficient explanatory ability, about even the gods themselves, to adequately make a case for itself in my view. If you can’t explain to me how to interact with your gods on their own terms why should I believe any of what you’re trying to tell me? By all means go on believing, but I’ll do without.

    And then, for me, the earth centered Pagan view points I’ve seen seem to start off on the right foot making valid interpretations of what scientific findings should imply morally, get corrupted by political rhetoric, and ultimately end up misappropriated by supernaturalists to the point that the original scientific theories are rendered meaningless. The Gaia hypothesis comes to mind.

    As for Self centered Paganism. I don’t believe in the reliability of introspection as much as you do John. I respect your interpretation of your tradition as essentially mythopoeia as a lifestyle and I think there is substantial merit in that approach. When it comes to much of the actual theories and discourse itself? It fails to impress but then my own bias is obvious at play in that view.

    • “… mythopoeia as a lifestyle …”

      “I respect your interpretation of your tradition … and I think there is substantial merit in that approach. When it comes to much of the actual theories and discourse itself? It fails to impress but then my own bias is obvious at play in that view.”
      This is where I hope that my four-fold categorization can be helpful. At least for me, it helps me to understand that there really are different discourses going on at the same time in the Pagan community. And so, even when it seems like we are talking about the same thing, sometimes we aren’t. I think a lot of misunderstanding flows from the fact that people assume they mean the same thing when they use the same words, i.e., “gods”, “faith”, “Pagan”.
      As Elani said above: “Thankfully, this Pagan label is applicable to both of us and anyone in-between, even if our practices differ to such a high degree, we have almost nothing in common.”

      • Dave

        “… mythopoeia as a lifestyle …”

        I think we both approach religion that way. I see the chief difference between us as being your personal narrative is primarily an internal dialogue whereas mine is an external dialogue. Although, I do see elements of either approach in both of us.

        “I think a lot of misunderstanding flows from the fact that people assume they mean the same thing when they use the same words, i.e., “gods”, “faith”, “Pagan”.”

        Very much agreed. In my mind, a lot of the identity crisis suffered by Pagandom would be better understood if we weren’t talking past each other so often. What most attracts me to Pagandom is that in spite of our vast diversity, our essential humanity shines through often and beautifully. That sense of solidarity in diversity is a large part of why I most identify as a community based Pagan and is, I think, a great strength of Paganism.

        • “… your personal narrative is primarily an internal dialogue whereas mine is an external dialogue …”

          That seems accurate and is a major limitation of my approach.

  • The only category I do not associate myself with is 3. The Self-centered Pagan. I think the reality of a unified Self is just as doubtful as the existence of any god. And frankly I wonder of most of the pagans you include in this group will be as knowledgeable of Freud and Jung as you yourself clearly are. Personally, I think the ego-self boundary is very artificial en not useful at all. And I am not sure if there is one true self, we may have many ‘selves’ or perhaps non at all. I wonder how you feel about this. To me this category 3 is not necessarily more sensible than any of he others.

    I guess I am largely nature-based and community-based (though this community is rather virtual and more conceptual as it is no real physical basis. I do allow for gods to exist in way, though I am rather agnostic about how they exist. So perhaps, in your categorisation I do not qualify as a god-focussed pagan as much. Most of my gods are as of yet nameless nature gods in any case. I do wonder though about something Dave said. I do see myself as a cultural pagan first and foremost, but this isn’t really the same as being community-based, is it? It is based more on art and the written word in my case, than the physical presence of any person. What about the sort of pagan who is folk tale, Edda, Homer and Thoureau-focussed? Just wondering.

    • “I think the reality of a unified Self is just as doubtful as the existence of any god.”
      I can’t say I disagree. For Jung, the Self is as unknowable as any transcendent deity. Its existence can only be inferred from its effects. And, as with God or gods, the “proof” of their existence is a matter of interpretation. It’s interesting that I am comfortable with the “Self”, but not with “God”. Jung would say we never really loose our belief in God, we just transfer it to something else that may go by a different name — whether we are aware of it or not. I guess that’s true in my case.

      “And frankly I wonder of most of the pagans you include in this group will be as knowledgeable of Freud and Jung as you yourself clearly are.”
      I don’t think most are. But I do think that the ideas of Freud and Jung have so permeated our culture (not just the Pagan culture, but Western culture) that people embrace many of their ideas without ever knowing their origin. People freely use concepts like the unconscious, repression, and the influence of parenting on childhood development, but then scoff at the mention of Freud, not seeming to realize that he is responsible, if not for inventing the concepts, at least for popularizing them. The same goes for Jung.

      “And I am not sure if there is one true self, we may have many ‘selves’ or perhaps none at all. I wonder how you feel about this.”
      I don’t believe we have “one true self” either. I do believe we have many selves, and these can be partially or even totally unconscious. If they are unconscious, then we do not have them, *they have us*. This has been a useful way for me to describe my own experience: both my internal experience and watching others I know very well, like my family. The goal of integration, as I understand it, is not to find the “true” self, but to make these many selves conscious and thereby to integrate them into a wholeness that Jung calls the Self. This is something that I have experience on a limited scale.

      “It is based more on art and the written word in my case, than the physical presence of any person. What about the sort of pagan who is folk tale, Edda, Homer and Thoureau-focused? Just wondering.”
      I distinguished each of these four categories by what the nature of the “transcendent other” that they seek to connect with and by how they define authenticity (i.e., in terms of that connection). So I would ask you, what is it that is “larger” than you that you seek to enter into relationship with as part of your spiritual practice?

    • Dave

      Hi Soliwo,

      You asked, “I do see myself as a cultural pagan first and foremost, but this isn’t really the same thing as being community-based, is it?”

      I would argue that you cannot be a cultural anything without belonging to a community, even if all that community amounts to is a tradition of ideas and values. I identify as a cultural little “p” pagan because, for me, the unfolding story of my religiosity encompasses contemporary Pagandom but is also broader than that. I feel that that is actually true for most big “P” Pagans as well, however. I specifically maintain the difference because I cannot endorse many of the supernatural and anti-intellectual elements that are prevalent within the big “P” Pagan community.

      That having been said, there’s a lot to admire about Pagandom in general and many Pagan and highly related traditions specifically. I’m reexamining Druidry through a cultural lens and finding that many of the aesthetic qualities of that tradition may constitute a framework for me to build my own personal mythopoesis upon. Relating to the community that shares those ideas and values, even if they relate to them differently, is becoming an essential part of not only my practice but my pagan identity. I think what it boils down to is this, my identity is inseparable from the dialogue between my own individuality and my community. That is why I consider myself community-based.

      • In a general sense community and culture are always related. I just feel odd calling myself a community-focussed pagan as I do not participate in any community physically speaking. I haven’t put in much effort lately to establish one, that I must admit, but the community of pagans in The Netherlands is so little like those pagans I admire in the on-line world. The intellectualism that you also seem to appreciate – probably better described as philosophical or reflective bent – is much more readily found in the pagan blogosphere that in it is among the pagans around the corner. Though again I have been very much neglectful in trying to reconnect, for example through the Pagan Federation. Furthermore almost all pagan groups around here are Wiccan, in which I have no interest whatsoever.

        About Druidry … I have recently involved myself in Theo Bishop’s SDF and I am a great fan of for example Allison Leigh Lilly. Yet Druidry has many cultural associations for me that I am not too comfortable with. There is the whole dress-up aspect with the robes and such. And more seriously, the word itself. As Drew Jacob has stated it sounds a lot like ‘bishopism’ plus I think of a druid of having many years training and fulfilling a leadership position. How can I join a community of Druids while refusing to call myself a Druid.

        Interestingly in Dutch, all paganism’s are spelled with a small ‘p’. But here ‘christian’ and ‘protestant’ and ‘hindoe’ is allso spelled without a capital, so for me the whole thing is rather confusing. In any case I have never felt the need to use a big ‘P’ for the purposes of religious equality. I am inspired by many very ‘faithful’ and god-focussed pagans such as Sannion or Sarah Winter, yet a too big focus on the reality of the gods I usually find of-putting. Just as Allison is stating here below, pretending to know the will of the gods so exactly smacks of hubris itself. Think only of the crusades or the reformation, thinking to know the will of God exactly is what lead us to a lot of trouble before. Even if one is able to communicate with the gods, one can never completely speak for them. I have consulted oracles in the past, but even if one would accept that the gods speak through them, the messages are usually not clear direct orders but tend towards riddles and the obscure. Thus even though the word ‘hubris’ does hold meaning for me, it might have various interpretations of among the god-focussed or pagans in general. And I find it not very accurate to think of Elani’s view of hubris as true for the entire god-focussed category. Again, it is probably the notion of a small minority.

        • Dave

          Ah, I can appreciate that. My difficulty in relating to others face-to-face is in finding the time to do so as my teaching and research obligations tend to leave just enough time for online interactions and a modest social life consisting of my lover and a few close friends. I think my ability to relate to an abstract group of people with little in common beyond values and ideas has to do with my adoption of the scientific community as, in some sense, my extended family. Also, I can relate to not having an interest in Wicca!

          My participation in ADF stems from personal tradition. I’m just too much of a sentimentalist to let my affiliation with them, as a tradition, go. ADF style Druidry works for me as a conceptual framework even if I flesh it out differently than the majority of its adherents. And I absolutely adore the people. Teo is a great example of that. To be fair, there are a lot of associations Druidry has for me too that I am less than thrilled to be identified with. I also completely agree with you about using the word Druid to self identify – I would never do it. When it comes to actively participating in Druidry while refusing to call myself a Druid, they don’t seem to mind so I figure why should I?

          I have only ever seen the big “P” used to indicate that contemporary, as opposed to ancient, Paganism was being discussed. I could see how that could be confusing in Dutch, however. My native tongue is Czech but I’m illiterate in it. I learned English as an adult to fit into settled society, as such I tend to over zealously adopt hyper-precise terminology. Personally, if I were going to go down the route of literal belief in classical theism I would identify as an agnostic polytheist to indicate both my faith and skepticism. Even in the face of direct personal experience I cannot squash doubt strongly enough to do otherwise. As for what the gods are to me now? I have more of a philosophical understanding of them and definitely impersonal, still working on it in fact. I don’t think that invalidates them at all, but it’s easily misunderstood. I do agree with you that Ms. Temperance’s views are in the minority among “hard” polytheists. Fascinating though.

          • It is fascinating. I am not sure of what the nature of the gods is. But just thinking about won’t solve that question so I have finally given myself the liberty to discover what they have to offer, regardless of their origin.

            I must add that I admire your discipline in studying languages and I congratulate you with your success. I could not have guessed that you are not in fact a native speaker (or writer rather!) of English. And I must say I feel your analogy between the pagan community and the scholarly one very useful. Thanks for that!

            • Dave

              Re: the gods. That has been much my own evaluative tool for them as well. To carry on in the spirit of inquiry as it were. To borrow another metaphor from science I feel that most, if not all, of the current schools of thought on theology have the same tendency to “go beyond the data” which, in my opinion, just amounts to conjecture. Now, the adherents of those schools may have persuaded, or even convinced, themselves of the details of their particular school’s teachings but I am not likewise moved.

              Ah, well thank you for the vote of confidence. I attribute my success in English to a combination of having had a world class pscyholinguist for an academic advisor (who was also a speech language therapist to boot) and putting myself through school writing technical documents. Of course, I’ve slacked off substantially since then, at least for blog comments. I’m glad you found my metaphor a useful one, too. Great conversation!

  • I have nothing much to contribute to your thoughts here, John, but just wanted to say that the best part of getting home from my travels and family visits of the last week has by far been having a chance to catch up on this post (and B.T.’s response in the comment thread).

    I do wonder, though, if much of the character of faith-based hard polytheism is influenced specifically by Protestant and Evangelical denominations of Christianity, particularly here in the U.S. Long before I became a Pagan, I found myself having these kinds of conversations because I was raised in a (liberal) Catholic tradition that emphasized the vital and necessary role of a person’s own conscience and a careful process of discernment in determining how to act on “divine inspiration,” always with an awareness that distinguishing the source of that inspiration can be nearly impossible. (But then again, I’m not sure if this is something that’s really common to Catholicism but not Protestantism, or if it’s something common to liberal Christianity rather than conservative Christianity, or if it’s just an accident that this was an emphasis in my childhood church and doesn’t actually represent a larger trend at all.)

    Placing devotion to a deity in the context of personal discernment pretty much rules out for me any notion of handing over my will or submitting myself entirely to an external force. Not to mention — and maybe I am just not special enough to be on any god’s mailing list — I’m rarely on the receiving end of so obvious or direct a message from the gods that it includes how high I need to jump or which bridge I should be jumping from. My spiritual life is much more an on-going process of deep listening to a complex web of urges, attractions, distractions and repulsions, the various sources of which are just as often in the natural world around me or in my own psyche as in some externalized god-form (more often, I should say). I might sometimes talk about my relationship with my gods in terms of “messages” or guidance or inspiration, but it’s almost always metaphorical, not literal.

    For Elani, and others, it seems like hubris to question the instructions of the gods. For me, it seems deeply arrogant to be too eager to attribute our various impulses to some external deity, to clothe our instincts or intuitions in the finery of divine inspiration as a way of elevating or ennobling them. It seems hubris to act on our assumptions that we are receiving and hearing such messages correctly, without first turning a very careful and critical eye on all of the ways our own desires, assumptions and projections might be biasing us.

    Which is not to say that I don’t believe there is some transcendent divine reality that transcends not only our individual selves (and our Selves), but also our human and more-than-human/natural communities as well. But determining what influence that transcendent divinity has on our lives has, for me, always been an exercise in retrospective contemplation, where the patterns of coincidence and chance resolve into a coherent and beautiful melody even when, at the time, I was only ever bumbling along doing my best to tease out the signal from the noise.

    • Thanks Alison!

      “I do wonder, though, if much of the character of faith-based hard polytheism is influenced specifically by Protestant and Evangelical denominations of Christianity …”

      I think that is a question that deserves a lot more attention. I have broached it tentatively with a couple of polytheists (aware that any comparison of a form of Paganism to Christianity can be heard as a condemnation), and surprisingly they agreed that it was a fair comparison. Personally, I find that I am wanting more *enthusiasmos* in my personal spirituality and I am looking at Evangelical Christian and polytheistic devotional forms with a certain amount of jealousy. I am wondering how to bridge those devotional forms to the dual home I have found in humanistic paganism and UUism.

      “My spiritual life is much more an on-going process of deep listening to a complex web of urges, attractions, distractions and repulsions, the various sources of which are just as often in the natural world around me or in my own psyche …”

      Me too! While so many polytheists speak or write as if they have a direct line to their deity, I suspect the same is true for most of them as well. Your comments remind me of something I read by James Madison in the Federalist Papers when I was in college. He was talking about the difficulty of judicial interpretation of legislation (I;m a lawyer), but it applies to much more: “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.”

      While I do think there is a certain amount of over-confidence in polytheistic discourse, “hubris” and “arrogance” just do not seem like the right words to describe Elani’s practice. If you watch some of the videos she has posted of her practice, you will see that humility characterizes everything she does. A competent humility, but humility nonetheless. I think it may just be a difference of interpretation. As you say, we see her attributing internal impulses to an external deity, but she sees an external deity creating internal impulses. From her perspective it would be hubris not to give the deities credit where credit is due. I see this kind of debate arise in Jungian circles over the question of whether God creates the unconscious or the unconscious creates God. I have to admit that my experience with Mormonism/Christianity does color my attitude toward issues of authority and submission, so I am more comfortable claiming these impulses as my own. But I think there is value in the “othering” that is done by polytheists and Evangelicals. It’s something I hope to explore more here.

      One thing Elani wrote above really caught my attention though and it may be easy to overlook. She wrote: “Through kharis, I know They have my best interests in mind …” So, Elani is not surrendering her will blindly. She has built a relationship of trust with her deity before reaching this point of surrender. Perhaps it could be likened to choreographed submission-dominance eroticism, in which there is mutual trust established in advance.

      My concern is that surrender to any single impulse/deity can be one-sided or unbalanced. I find it curious that so many self-described *poly*theists are dedicated to a single deity.

      • “While I do think there is a certain amount of over-confidence in polytheistic discourse, “hubris” and “arrogance” just do not seem like the right words to describe Elani’s practice. If you watch some of the videos she has posted of her practice, you will see that humility characterizes everything she does.”

        Thanks for bringing this up — I should have clarified more in my original comment, and I hope I didn’t step on any toes by accident. “Hubris” may not be the right word for Elani’s practice at all. Reading your brief quotes from her here was the first time I’ve encountered any of her writing, so I really didn’t mean to judge her practice specifically (since I know pretty much nothing about it). Instead, I meant to offer my own definition of “hubris” in the religious sense, in the context of our definition of and relationship with deity. (In other words, “That’s not a knife. This is a knife.” ;))

        I’m intrigued by the idea of “kharis” that Elani mentions — it looks like this Greek word shares etymological roots with words like charity, charisma and even eucharist, all very potent words in various forms of Christianity and many of them directly related to the theological concept of grace. An emphasis on “kharis” as a kind of divine grace once again seems to put this approach to polytheism in line with more Protestant forms of Christianity, not to mention the charismatic forms of the Evangelicals in particular. I really appreciate the enthusiasm and celebratory aspect of Evangelicalism, though being an introvert myself and more inclined to personal moments of poesis, I think I’m naturally more drawn to mysticism than public charismatic movements. 🙂

        All that said… I’m not sure merely a belief in divine grace is enough to justify submission, at least not to me. Why would anyone submit to a deity if they did not hold a belief in the goodness of that deity? It seems like that is not so much an explanation for the choice, as it is its most basic prerequisite. One could easily believe that the gods are benevolent without agreeing that this necessitates complete surrender to them. It seems like, instead, there has to be an accompanying belief that humans are as imperfect and flawed as the gods are benevolent and powerful, in order to explain why we must not merely enjoy but utterly submit to divine guidance.

        I’m not particularly convinced by the argument that “willing submission” is really just another act of will. If it is, it is only in a very limited, truncated sense, it seems to me. Take, as a more mundane example, a marriage in which a wife agrees to “submit” to her husband. In practice, this might mean that she allows him to make all of the household and lifestyle decisions (and that when she makes decisions herself, she attempts to enact what she believes is his will, rather than her own). She may relie on his benevolence and love for her to guide him to take her into account when he makes those decisions. It may be that her belief in him is justified and he does his best to do right by her. It may be that she enters the marriage freely, and it might even be that she can leave any time she wishes through divorce. But none of those things change the fact that, within the context of the relationship, she does not act according to her own will but that of her husband’s. In other words, she really only has one choice to make (whether or not to submit to her partner’s will), and once she has made that choice, by the very nature of that choice she relinquishes her ability to make any others. I suppose that greatly simplifies life, to have only one real choice to make, but it’s not the kind of simplicity that I find all that appealing, either in my personal relationships or in my spiritual ones. It’s not a model I would strive to instantiate in my life.

        I also do not think that this kind of submission is the same as, or the only way to express, mutual trust. Trust is most definitely an act of will. Submission seems to me to be, by definition, the relinquishment of will. “Willing submission” is, in that case, at best a description of a single specific act in which the will itself is abdicated; at worst, it is an oxymoron that only serves to confuse the issue.

        But now I’m afraid I’ve hijacked your comment thread for my own musings! 🙂 Thank you, as usual, for providing so much food for thought.

        • I always enjoy your musings (as well as your well-crafted posts). Thanks!

        • Dave

          “But none of those things change the fact that … she does not act according to her own will but that of her husband’s … she really only has one choice to make (whether or not to submit to her partner’s will), and … by the very nature of that choice she relinquishes her ability to make any others … submission seems to me to be, by definition, the relinquishment of will. “Willing submission” is … a single specific act in which the will itself is abdicated…”

          This is perhaps where we differ. As a boy I was taught, basically, that the will was defined in much the same way as what is popularly thought of as the soul. It could be subjugated and impinged upon but neither abdicated nor destroyed. I’m trying to relate this to familiar terminology. I suppose you could say that ambition was seen as a thing unto itself and that it characterized the essence of each living thing and gave them life. Regardless of the truth of falsity of that idea, that is where much of my own bias is.

          From that view point, it doesn’t make sense to speak of submission, strictly speaking, but perhaps a willingness to prioritize the authority of another while retaining ones own personal discernment about each individual decision that that authority makes. In that sense, guidance might indeed be a better term than submission. I don’t know if that’s precisely how Ms. Temperance views her practice but that’s my interpretation of it.

          That having been said, is the practice of prioritizing external authority over one’s own authority a good idea, generally speaking? Almost beyond question, the answer is no. History is too potent a lesson for us to ignore in that regard. I still feel like that is what distinguishes “willed submission”, as you said, from strict submission. It’s more than retaining the choice to either continue under an external authority or not, it’s retaining the discernment to know when you should make that choice that makes it truly different.

          • “I was taught, basically, that the will was defined in much the same way as what is popularly thought of as the soul. It could be subjugated and impinged upon but neither abdicated nor destroyed. “

            Actually, I’m glad you brought this up! I’d started to wander off into that kind of consideration when I was initially composing my comment, but it was taking me on too long a tangent and so I reined in a bit, but I think this is a really interesting point. I’m not sure if we disagree or not. I think we might be in agreement, but I think I need to play with the idea more before I have any real clarity. It makes it even more complicated that, unlike most people, I do not think that “soul” is something innate to people but must be co-created through sacred relationship. So while I see what you’re getting at, you’re barking up the wrong tree with me to use the soul as an analogy! 😉

            It’s a really interesting question, though. Is the will an “inalienable” aspect of the self, so to speak, one that can be denied (by both others or oneself) but never actually destroyed or taken away? This brings me back to what B.T. said about cognitive dissonance being a source of creative energy. Is submission (or “prioritizing an external authority,” as you aptly put it) not abdicating will, but rather a way of sublimating or redirecting it? I don’t have an answer to that question, but it’s an interesting idea!

            That said, I definitely agree with you in your conclusion: “Is the practice of prioritizing external authority over one’s own authority a good idea, generally speaking? Almost beyond question, the answer is no.”

            I think the popular understanding of the act of submission assumes, at least to a certain extent, that the will is something that can be given away or taken away — or, perhaps more like a muscle, relaxed and allowed to go slack. And like a muscle, while it is sometimes necessary and healthy to relax one’s muscles, a muscle that is never used grows increasingly weaker and weaker, until you discover that it’s not up to the task when you actually need it.

            • Dave

              “I do not think that “soul” is something innate to people but must be co-created through sacred relationship.”

              In my culture what you call soul we call spirit. Our sense of spirit, in terms of a person, is probably closer to the idea of “spirit of place”. That being the case I would argue that you cannot understand a person/their spirit outside of their relationships to themselves, to others, and to the world if that makes any more sense? Additionally, we saw the “will” as an impersonal power that was present in all living things (although we attributed a “grand” will to nature and considered non-living things aspects of an overarching “her”), that is the sense in which I meant it was their “essence”. Their essence in terms of their identity might better be understood in terms of our conception of spirit. That must grow from life.

              “until you discover that it’s not up to the task when you actually need it.”

              Which is why prioritizing external authority is not typically a wise choice. That having been said I think there’s a certain degree of discretion allowed for in even the most asymmetrical relationship, so long as the intentions of both/all parties are just. Consider the husband who trusts his wife’s judgment to manage the day-to-day operations of a household even as he is their sole administrator. That’s less a justification for such a situation and more an observation but I think it illustrates something important. Even in the most egalitarian relationships there is a certain amount of deferment of authority, I think. While you may well retain your own personal authority as a priority that doesn’t mean you never “submit” to the will of another. That might be more of a case of justified authority though.

              In my case, I defer to the authority of my lover on matters of what I affectionately call “settled people culture”. On those matters I am far from a complete novice but I’m not able, as a general rule, to distinguish between what is and is not “appropriate” to any given “settled” culture. The basics yes, but not the subtle nuances and expectations. It could be argued however, that that is not really a justified deferment of authority because it is uninformed. On the other hand it is because I have already established his trustworthiness to an – exceptional – degree. It’s all very interesting and confusing to me.

              Thanks for being part of this discussion with me. I’m a fan of your blog but I admit I’m intimidated by the level of discourse (not that that’s not true of John’s blog and so many others!) I see there. I often feel that I am struggling to make myself understood correctly so I appreciate your respectful consideration of my ideas.

            • I think you may want to consider writing your own.

  • M. Jay

    I think the concepts of faith and hubris have a place in naturalistic paganism, although we may prefer to call them trust and humility. The words faith and belief have come to be seen as synonyms but really they are different concepts. Belief is an intellectual ascent, but faith is more of a trusting feeling. Beliefs both support and grow out of this trusting feeling called faith, but the beliefs and the faith are not the same thing and I think we would do better to separate the two.

    One of the most important roles of religious faith is how it helps the faithful deal with the inevitable loss, disappointments and tragedy of life. When faced with suffering many devoted Christians will talk about their belief that God will make everything right in the end, that they trust in God’s plan for them and the world even if they cannot understand it. To the secularist this all seems very foolish, but it does give to the faithful a certain strength and serenity in hard times.

    I think we naturalistic pagans need to cultivate our own sense of faith. When we look at the history of the Universe, we find moments of great destruction when any rational assessment surely would have concluded that all was over, all was lost. But again and again these moments turn out to be not the end but beginning of a great new birthing. Death and strife are integral to the creative dynamics of the Universe. To me knowing that our loss and suffering are part of a greater unfolding, that we too must share in the pains of this constant birthing as we also share in the joys, in the fruits of this labor, gives me strength and serenity in hard times.

    Hubris is the great sin of our times. Hubris is committed when one fails to remember the limitations of being human. We humans will never have perfect knowledge, nor can we ever be completely sure that our judgments are not clouded by our own, often unconscious, desires and needs. Hubris is often associated with violent and extreme actions. One doesn’t need a crystal ball to know that when humans become arrogant and start acting as if they were gods that things will end badly. In the poetic convention of mythology, it is often one god or another who is portrayed as punishing hubris, but in my opinion it is really just the way of life itself, in the end life catches up. No one can be lucky all the time. To set oneself up too highly, is to set oneself up for a great fall.

    I think the concepts of faith and hubris are tremendously important, but these terms take on a different character for me when they are directed toward invisible beings whose powers and influence in the world cannot be measured. All humans, secularist and religious, scientist and occultist are susceptible to self-delusion. Without some form of independent, external confirmation, we can never be certain that we have not fallen into self-delusion. How can anyone know that faith in such beings is not simply a self-delusion? Each individual experiences such beings differently and opinions concerning such beings vary widely. There is no way to ever come to any kind of consensus, which is why theology is so rarely discussed in pagan circles. How can we build and grow a new religion on such an unstable foundation?

    I have come to believe that in many ways faith is not a choice. The Nature in us directs us to that which will seemingly satisfy our inner most needs and desires. And should this unconscious part of us feel that it is Jesus or Zeus, or even Nature itself, that will satisfy then we will find the needed beliefs budding forth in us. This belief helps me to be less judgmental and more accepting of others whose worldview is so different from my own. We each must make our own way in this world as best we can.

    Theistic paganism and naturalistic paganism may share a common ancestor, but we are growing into very different species. I am not sure if there is really much to be gain from dialogue between the two. To me the other three types of paganism, nature-centered, community-centered and self-centered are very compatible with naturalistic paganism. Actually I see all three of these as being essential to the full flowering of naturalistic paganism. They form for me a Holy Trinity. Because of the rise in hard polytheism I have virtually stopped using the term Gods in forums such as this. Where once I would have said Gods, I now say Nature. But I do think we naturalistic/humanistic pagans should continue to explore ancient myths and symbols, and bring forth new myths and new understandings of old myths. We have our own type of theism.

  • “For a polytheist to identify with the gods would be hubris.”

    Doesn’t really apply to ancient Egyptian practice, or much of modern Kemetic practice. It’s a common feature of temple rituals and heka to declare that you ARE a specific deity for the purposes of that ritual. “I am (the god) Shu, I have come to perform this rite for…” “I am (the god) Djehuty…” offering the restored Eye to Heru, and the restored testes to Sutekh, “I am (the goddess) Aset…” performing a healing action, as she healed her son Heru.

    Many of my fellow “recons” have a problem with majority pagans making sweeping statements about practice, statements that are quite exclusionary. If we point out that the “Threefold Law” is not universal, or that not everyone is “Earth-Centered,” these statements aren’t well-received. Diversity gets very little respect under the Pagan umbrella, IMO.

    • “Diversity gets very little respect under the Pagan umbrella, IMO.”

      Really? This seems like a weird observation to make in response to a post in which John is specifically exploring some of the ways that Paganism is diverse and complex. He outlines four different approaches to Paganism (only one of which is “earth-centered”). I think this is a great example of someone trying to talk intelligently and respectfully about how diverse Paganism can be, while still being honest about where he fits into that larger community.

      On the other hand, I don’t think it’s surprising that John might not know as much about your specific tradition as you do, and that in attempting to talk about broad trends he might get some of those specifics wrong. I don’t see how that counts as intolerance or disrespect, though. Not everyone can know everything about every tradition, and he’s not denying you your right or ability to speak for yourself.

      • My complaint is that he makes a sweeping statement about polytheists, drawn from a very specific example. From my experience with Neos Alexandria, for instance, polytheists do NOT behave like monotheists- apparently people following Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Canaanite, and other traditions can get along perfectly well. “Diversity gets very little respect” was, if you look, directed at people who make sweeping statements about others, then won’t admit to any exceptions.

      • Except he openly admits he’s embarrassed by people like us? That doesn’t seem like a great glowing tolerance imo.

        • Eddie, I’m not sure if you saw my own response to that particular post of his, or his follow-up, but John did freely admit that his embarrassment said more about him than it did about the people he was embarrassed by.

          Tolerance is not the same as perfection. If we expect perfection from everyone else, it’s no wonder if we go around feeling as though every imperfection in others is some form of intolerance or oppression towards us.

          John, like everyone, sometimes overstates his case or overgeneralizes, but in my experience, he is always working from a place of respect. If he chooses to admit publicly that some parts of the Pagan community make him feel uncomfortable, I think that is a good thing. We need people who are willing to be honest, without mistaking their personal feelings for Truth-capital-T. Only when we support that kind of honesty in dialogue can we have accountability within a community.

          • We shouldn’t have to ‘tolerate’ one another and our differences; we should accept and respect.

            • Are you responding to me, or to Eddie’s comment? He is the one who originally used the word “tolerance” rather than respect/acceptance.

              I happen to agree with you, which is why I’ve repeatedly used the language of mutual respect and open dialogue in my own comments.

        • Eddie, as I wrote to you previously in the comments to an earlier post:
          “this is the place where I describe the ‘warts and all’ of my private Pagan practice …. This means sharing even the non-PC ideas I have about Paganism. This is the place where I admit that I am embarrassed by other Pagans, and where I also admit I am embarrassed by my embarrassment. … And I think it’s better than to have this conversation in the open than to let it percolate in the community on a subconscious level. …
          “I believe it is important not just to tolerate difference in community, but to challenge it so it can challenge us back.”
          And then went to offer the example of how, even our brief and limited interaction, challenged my preconceptions (about the belief in fairies). In the case of this post, my preconceptions about other forms of polytheism have been challenged. And I am grateful to those polytheists who took the time to respond and had patience with my ignorance. I think we are all better off for having had the conversation.

      • Unfortunately, the problem is that, very often, non-practicing polytheists will make broad, sweeping generalizations about all polytheists based entirely on a single example. In this case, the example is Hellenic polytheists. In previous moments, it was based on Nordic polytheists or Celtic polytheists. Each avenue of polytheism is inherently different from one another, which is not usually acknowledged by non-polytheists.

        The only thing we may have in common is that we believe in multiple gods, but that does not mean that my practice is the same as Dver’s (referenced above) or like Galina Krasskova’s. We all practice different branches of polytheism, which is when diversity enters the ring but outsiders don’t take notice.

        • Gr. I meant to say “non-polytheists” and not “non-practicing polytheists.” My apologies.

        • Aubs Tea:
          Thank you for bringing this to my attention. One of the great benefits of my blogging has been being able to interact with people who believe different and, quite frankly, are willing to patiently point out my ignorance and educate me. These distinctions between the different forms of polytheism are very interesting to me and I would like to learn more. Do you think this primary distinction is between Kemetic and other forms of polytheism or is there a great deal of diversity in Kemetic practice? Is there a significant difference, do you think, between reconstructionist forms of polytheism and non-recosntructionist forms of polytheism in terms of how they relate to their gods?

          • In the case of this entry, the distinction is between Kemetic and other polytheisms. However, on the whole, Kemetic polytheism tends to be a solitary practice outside of the few temples extant (the biggest being Kemetic Orthodoxy).

            And yes, I believe there is a significant difference between recon and UPG practitioners.

      • I may be a bit harsh in this, but I think it would be better to acknowledge the diversity by saying that there is no way to combine hundreds of traditions into 4 categories. Esp when many paths have combinations of said categories in one. Kemeticism alone has elements of at least two categories, and Shinto has combination of at least 3 categories.

        When Helms mentioned that diversity gets little respect, I don’t think he was necessarily taking a shot directly at John, but making a statement in general.

        • I guess we’ll just have to disagree, then, about the usefulness of this kind of approach to thinking about religion and religious community. I think it can be very useful to talk about how religious traditions and communities can be categorized, and to work at recognizing and understanding broad trends within communities, even when those categories might overlap and/or have fuzzy boundaries, or those trends, like all trends, have exceptions and counterexamples. So long as we don’t mistake our attempts at exploration and explanation for The One Truth (and I don’t think that John does), this kind of thinking opens up the possibility for some really fascinating conversation. For instance, thanks to John’s post and others’ responses, I now know more about Kemetic spirituality than I did before.

          What is not helpful in working towards more knowledge and understanding is to say “We’re all just too different to have a productive or meaningful conversation about our similarities” and then just leave it at that. That shuts down conversation and erects boundaries; it denies that we do share some things in common and that our differences can be a source of interest and possible growth, rather than insurmountable obstacles to communication.

          As for whether or not Helms was taking a shot at John — I can’t say what the actual intent was, and maybe I was quick to jump to John’s defense, but even if you’re right, I’m still not sure what the point would be in making a general complaint about “majority pagans” if Helms did not intend to include John in that group. (Maybe this is just an example of Internet Etiquette Fail?) His comment first points out where John’s generalization was incorrect, then he goes on to list two more examples of incorrect generalizations that annoy him, then he makes an observation that these types of “sweeping generalizations” by “majority pagans” are evidence that diversity is not respected in Paganism. Is there some other way to interpret that comment, or any indication that he did not mean to include John in his complaint? And doesn’t it strike anyone else as somewhat ironic that a complaint about “sweeping generalizations” itself includes a generalization about “majority pagans”? I’m just saying…

          I’m bowing out of this comment thread at this point, though, since I’ve done more than enough talking and John obviously doesn’t need me jumping to his defense.

          • I believe I can look at the comment more objectively because I follow Helms on a variety of social media sites, and I know where the original comment stemmed from- in another discussion a few days ago on Tumblr. If you wish to read it, you can go to the link below- read the OP, and you’ll see comments relating to it in the notes below.

            I’m not saying categories can’t be helpful. I just felt that they were too rigid and small for the point trying to be made is all.

          • “… For instance, thanks to John’s post and others’ responses, I now know more about Kemetic spirituality than I did before.”
            Me too! And it makes me want to learn more — which has got to be a good thing, right?

            “… it denies that we do share some things in common and that our differences can be a source of interest and possible growth, rather than insurmountable obstacles to communication.”
            Thank you for saying this Alison. This is precisely what I had hope for from this post — not only to distinguish between four modes of Paganism, but also to show what they all have in common: the desire to connect to something larger than ourselves.

        • “many paths have combinations of said categories in one. Kemeticism alone has elements of at least two categories, and Shinto has combination of at least 3 categories. …”
          Exactly! And that gives us a way of talking about what Kemeticism and Shinto have in common … as well as how they differ.

    • helmsinepu:
      Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I should have remembered about identification with Egyptian gods, especially since I incorporate Coffin Text spell 330 (“Whether I live or die I am Osiris …”) into my equinox ritual.

      I definitely spoke too broadly and should have limited my characterization to Hellenic polytheism (which is where the word “hubris” comes from anyway). Hellenismos, the Northern Traditions, and the African Diasporic religions (and their respective gods) seem to be getting a lot of attention lately, while Kemeticism and the Egyptian gods seem to slighted sometimes. I wonder why this is. Is it possible that it has something to do with the “stateliness” of Kemetic practice, while many contemporary polytheists seem to be looking for a more ecstatic (i.e., Dionysus, Odin, Legba) experience? (Forgive me if I am overgeneralizing again. I have only participated in one Kemetic ritual.)

      If you don’t mind my asking, in your practice, have you adopted a single Egyptian patron deity that you are dedicated/devoted to, or is your practice more broadly reconstructionist in the sense of worshiping the pantheon? I ask because it seems I may be conflating two different kinds of practice.

      The thing about diversity in Paganism is that everyone seems to feel they are in the minority. To you, “majority Pagans” seems to mean Wiccan or Earth-centered, but in the last several years (hard) polytheism and reconstructionism have become very prominent in online and Pan-Pagan gatherings. It’s hard to gauge numbers, but if Pantheacon last year was any indication of the broader community, I would say it’s nearly balanced. What do you think?

      • Hi- personally I tend to be more of a ‘heka practitioner’ than a ‘priest,’ so I worship quite a few. I network with people who work with Aset specifically, Osiris and Set, or some of the less well-known ones. It seems to be personal preference/calling. The rituals vary quite a bit, and there are about 500 holidays in the course of a year, including festivals of drunkenness for Sekhmet, Hathor, and Bast.
        I’d guess there are fewer than 1,000 Kemetics worldwide (not including any African racial identity movements.) At least through the miracle of internet translation, I can talk to the French and Brazilians.
        In Midwest US, there aren’t many recons of any stripe. Browsing through the biggest pagan bookstores I’ve seen, attending in-person festivals, even looking online at pagan forums or tumblr, very very few recons.
        One of the things I’m doing to try and highlight the diversity that’s out there is to look at practices through the lens of personal sacred spaces on Even with the small selection so far, I find the differences fascinating.

        • I love your site at Have you seen the Pimp My Shrine site? (

          Why do you think Kemeticism has relatively small numbers compared to Hellenic and Northern polytheism? It seems strange considering that the Church of the Eternal Source and Fellowship of Isis were important organizations in the early history of Neopaganism, while Heathenry was kind of sidelined for years.

          • I have. I wanted to get a lot more context in shrinebeautiful and get beyond what one of my friends calls “altar porn” by requiring an extensive explanation. 😉 I was glad to get a coupe non-theist submissions too.

            One of the things that I find fascinating is that, in addition to a different cosmology, there seems to be a difference in the relationship between humans and the gods in different pantheons. I would guess that most people pick a pantheon because of an ancestral connection, artwork, or the mythology. But picking the ‘wrong’ one might be like marrying a person from a culture that has a completely different idea of marriage than you, with neither of you willing to compromise. I can appreciate and honor Elani’s approach, but I’d make a poor Greek recon.

            I wonder if some of the latest popularity with Heathenry is that a lot of the practitioners have an ancestral connection to that pantheon. There’s a lot of talk these days about cultural misappropriation, and how people should stick to the gods of their ancestors, and that may be a factor in their choice. One of the great things about Egypt is that we have an enormous pile of writings, material, and artifacts from thousands of years of development. That’s one of the things that makes it terribly difficult and complicated too. Concepts like syncreticism, multiple creation theories, the changing roles of gods like Set, how the concept of Ma’at applies to modern life, it can take a lot of work.

            • Yeah, I think you’re on to something about the cultural appropriation issue.

  • I guess apotheosis is just ~not a thing~ that happens in polytheistic religions.

    Please stop speaking for polytheists when you -are not a polytheist- and continually fail to understand us. Thank you. (Also, was there really a need to put quotes around my name? It’s a name the same as everyone else’s.)

    • Eddie:

      I put quotes around the names of anyone I reference who does not use their full legal name. It’s a convention I use to signal to the reader that the name is an internet handle or “craft name” and that I am not assuming familiarity.

      As far as this issue of apotheosis goes, please read my comment to helmsinepu above. I freely admit I overgeneralized. But one of the purposes of this blog is to help me educate myself through conversation with people like you. Please share with me what role faith plays in your spirituality.

    • Also, technically I think “apotheosis” is different than identification with deity. It’s one thing to say that a person may become a god (I know … I used to be Mormon), and another to say that we all already are God.

  • I can’t say that many of this really applies to Kemetic practice. It’s a part of our mythology to be divine. We come from them, we all come from the same source/s. In Shinto, its also part of the mythology that we are made of the same stuff as Kami, that we are all divine. So it’s not hubris- its just part of practicing the religion.

    • Maybe my mistake was to equate polytheism and deity-centered practice. Do you think Kemetic polytheism is deity-centered? What about Shinto? I’ve always thought Shinto was more animistic and so would be more earth-centered. But I’m probably showing my ignorance again. What do you think?

      • I think it depends on how you’re approaching both religions. If you’re a priest, then yes, Kemeticism and Shinto are very deity centric (if you want to lump Kami in with deities- which I do). Kemeticism in antiquity was very orthopraxic- it was more based in what you do, not what you believe. Shinto in the modern context is about how you live your life, not what you believe. Technically both are heavily focused on living your life properly, and less about homage to the gods. Can both be centered on that? Sure. But its usually reserved for a select few of the population, and those who are called to do so (at least on a daily basis). Some could argue that living your life properly could be service to the gods all on its own. So there is that as well. Both also have a focus on the community over the self.

        Dunno if that answers the question… or just makes it more complicated! 😛

        • Well, I am appreciating now that polytheism is more varied than my simple categorization allows.

  • Fascinating.

    I have a working definition of “faith” that I find quite useful: It is fidelity to (some particular) past experience. But you have to have had the experience in order to remain faithful to it.

    I forget where I got this. C.S. Lewis perhaps. I’m not sure if you or anyone else find this helpful in thinking about the issues discussed here, so take it for what it’s worth.

    • Yeah, “fidelity” is a great word for what I had in mind above. Does fidelity play an important role in your spirituality?

      • Well that’s certainly an interesting question for me to think about. My gut reaction is: No. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel inclined to call my religious perspective a “faith.” It feels more based on logic and evidence to me, rather than the sort of experience we commonly label as religious. When it comes to that, the salient experience in my life has been of the “Thou Art God” variety, and I suppose I have been faithful to that. But there comes a point in life when dependence on remembered experiences can hamper one’s growth. If I’ve moved on, it’s been in that spirit; it never felt like betrayal. I never felt like I was breaking faith. Some systems can seem to hold the soul captive, in which case breaking faith may be necessary for liberation. That can be very difficult. I’ve been there too.

        • “When it comes to that, the salient experience in my life has been of the “Thou Art God” variety …”

          Me too.

          “Some systems can seem to hold the soul captive, in which case breaking faith may be necessary for liberation. That can be very difficult. I’ve been there too.”

          Yes, when I left Mormonism, it felt very much like I was “breaking faith”. I know some of my family that stayed felt that way too.

  • I haven’t read the whole thread of replies, but one point specifically got my attention:
    “And I wonder if what really distinguishes Paganism from the Abrahamic faiths is not the number of gods, but the belief that in some sense we are God. A polytheist would call this hubris and a monotheist would call it heretical.”

    I’m confused because I don’t have a category in my Paganism called ‘God’. It’s a word that I never use without a definite article. If I want to speak of the undifferentiated field of cosmic holiness, or as-you-like, I use the term ‘the divine’.

    For instance, Zeus is ‘a God’ (theos, I’ll get back to that). He is not the omnipotent owner-operator of the cosmos. He is ‘divine’ and partakes of or expresses the divine. Any other sufficiently great spirit may come to have that status. However I would not say that ‘the divine’ is limited to ‘the gods’. All spirits, and maybe all beings of any kind, participate in the divine, in my quasi-monist, quasi-animist philosophy.

    For many modern Pagans, ‘all spirits’ is coming to include veneration of the Dead. I know that has not been a part of earlier efforts – you won’t find much of it in Starhawk, or Gardner before her. However it has been part of most every historical religion called ‘Paganism’ and the ongoing scholastic and spiritual investigations of Neopaganism seem to be leading toward increasing ancestor veneration. Likewise lots of Pagans address the divine through ‘nature spirits’ animal allies or other beings unrelated to God or gods.

    I think it is important to remember that Paganism has no notion that some special category of worship is to be reserved for the gods. It is just as proper to make offering to granfather as it is to Demeter, and maybe a lot more immediate and intimate. For a growing number of Pagans daily practice has very little to do with the Gods.

    So then, when you or I die, we are likely to be included in the venerations of our descendants. I certainly expect that to be the case in my little sect. We will remember the names of our beloved dead and offer to them for years to come. Thus each of us may become an expression of the divine in times to come. Is that the same as saying that one is God? I suppose not.

    Certainly if one had said “I am equal to the olympians”, then that would be hubris. Obviously no-one would have said ‘I am Zeus’ except in some Mystery context, perhaps. To say that the divine inheres in the personal spirit is not, I think, hubris.

    It’s only monotheism that attempts to restrict ‘the divine’ to a specific class or number of beings, and only monotheism that would find a problem with any of the several constructions available for “Thou art God”.

    • “… ‘God’. It’s a word that I never use without a definite article. If I want to speak of the undifferentiated field of cosmic holiness, or as-you-like, I use the term ‘the divine’.”

      “The divine” is what I mean by “God”, but “God” is much more provocative — and hence, powerful. By invoking that word, I hope to invoke all the holiness and mystery which monotheists attach to the term — and I’m not sure that something doesn’t get lost in the translation when we say “I am divine.”

      “It’s only monotheism that attempts to restrict ‘the divine’ to a specific class or number of beings, and only monotheism that would find a problem with any of the several constructions available for “Thou art God”.”

      Actually, I have heard and read several polytheists very clearly insist that they are not “God” or divine — because only the gods are divine. It’s a question ultimately of how “other” you make the object of your worship. It seems to me that some polytheists draw that distinction as sharply as any monotheist. I don’t think this is right or wrong: it just emphasizes the transcendence of the divine over its immanence — and sometimes we need to emphasize one over the other.

  • Wow John, you sure know how to get the brain cells firing…too bad I’m not very good at putting it all into words like you and so many other talented people discussing this. There is one thing I thought was missing from the discussion of faith, particularly from the example of Elani’s faith in her gods, and that is trust. I think trust is a huge part of any hard polytheists relationship with their gods; trust that even if they don’t hand you everything you ask for that there is a reason, as Elani puts it, a reason to not be dry, in her example. I think what bothers many Pagans about that level of devotion reminds them of Christianity; it gives rise to a knee-jerk reaction of dislike and mistrust, which I feel is counter productive, since that kind of devotion was clearly around in religions before Christianity came on the scene.

    • I agree. If you see Elani’s response above, you will note her use of the word “kharis”: “Through kharis, I know They have my best interests in mind …” In this context, I take this to refer to a relationship of trust with her deity.

  • Christianity often makes the distinction between “classes” of beings because they adopted Platonic/Neo-Platonist classifications among other things from classical Pagan theology.

    It also seems to me that having an understanding of classical Hellenic concepts, helps to clarify any discussion on HUBRIS.

    First, I think it’s important to understand how the ancients understood ΥΒΡΙΣ (hubris). The ancients understood hubris as meaning to be a violation of the ethical order to the KOSMOS, by way of arrogance, excess, or greed. In Platonic cosmology, the Gods were seen as embodying the highest order of virtue and perfection, with all other beings classified under the Gods at various levels of intellectual and moral perfection. In the Thaetetus, Plato talks about ομοιωσις θεω (homoiosis theo), which essentially means “an assimilation to god”. Now, some might perceive this to be a form of hubris when it is not understood within the context of Platonic theology/cosmology (a foundational element of the Hellenic polytheist tradition, particularly by way of Hellas). Homoios Theo, according to Plato, is essentially the realization of one’s own immortal/divine nature through the pursuit of both moral deliberation and intellectual ARETE (virtue/excellence). This is not the same as being ‘a’ god, but becoming ‘like’ god (“as far as it is possible for a human being”). The distinction in classification is a result of our particular limitations as human beings in relation to the perfected nature of the Gods (Ideals) themselves and so ‘homoiosis theo’ is our limit. So from this perspective, a Hellenic polytheist can claim a desire to be “like” god without submitting to hubris while at the same time, recognizing what hubristic thinking actually is….”I am like god” vs. “I am a god”.

    I hope that this can constructively contribute to the overall discussion.

    • Excellent observation Evritos, and I think an important one for discussing the relationship between the god and the soul in Hellenismos. Plato also gives some excellent reasons why souls experience attraction to particular gods, and a desire of union with the god and share in their likeness. This does not preclude any kind of monotheistic tendency towards that god, but rather forms a relationship with that god even while giving worship to the other gods for their benevolence. It doesn’t make us equal to the gods but I feel, at least for me, it is an important part of my spiritual experience as a Hellenic.

      • Well said Lykeia. Forming a relationship with a particular god is quite natural and Plato certainly does discuss this type of relationship as does I believe Iamblichus as well. It is not monotheism in any sense. I liken it to the same dynamic that is demonstrated within a human family and/or friends. We respect and love all our family members/friends, but inevitably, we form stronger bonds among certain members of our family or friends over others simply due to what the ancients termed, EROS, or attraction (not necessarily in the English, erotic sense, but could also include that).

  • I would hazard to say that all traditional polytheistic religions carry an element of all of these, or at least a majority. In the mystic/philosophical areas I can see the spirituality of the self as the religious expression bring the soul closer to the gods he or she worships. Of course not recons participate in these ideas but they are still part of Hellenismos. Likewise there are elements of earth-centeredness in that the gods are part of the material world. In conjunction with the self-centric it is also deity-centered in that the worship, whereas to someone who takes to the mysteries may find value that such worship brings to the soul they will also worship the deity with love and peity as being of superior nature. I would also caution against taking myths as literal. More often then not these imperfect gods of myth and their actions are metaphors for the actions that they take in the cosmos, the world, and upon our souls. There are of course some who do take them literally, but I feel it is unwise to define the gods entirely and quite literally by these myths as they serve a purpose in relaying important information about the god or goddess in question…..for instance taking from the myth that Hera is literally some kind of harridan evil step-mother versus seeing Hera who acts opposite of the children of Zeus as part of molding the heroes that they will become (Herakles for instance referring to Glory of Hera). There is always a lot more than meets the eye, and for which I don’t think Hellenismos, or any other traditional polytheistic religion, can really fit neatly into any one of these squares 🙂

    • “In the mystic/philosophical areas I can see the spirituality of the self as the religious expression bring the soul closer to the gods he or she worships.”

      I agree. I would probably not include the mystical-philosophical traditions within the deity-centered category. That seems as different as Neoplatonism does from the state cults of the Greeks. They’re both “polytheistic” but very different.

      “Likewise there are elements of earth-centeredness in that the gods are part of the material world.”

      I’ve got to disagree with you here. I’m not talking about “elements” of earthiness, but true earth-centeredness. Worshiping deities that are part of “nature” does not make one earth-centered. The “earth” in this context refers to the whole of nature. While we may focus on one or more parts of nature, the intent is to include all of nature. This is where I think deity-centered worship diverges radically from Self-centric and earth-centered worship — there is less of a focus on the “whole” in contemporary deity-centered worship. You may point to Platonic or Neoplatonic philosophy, but I really don’t think those mystical traditions are representative of deity-centered polytheism (as noted above).

      “I would also caution against taking myths as literal.”

      I would too, but I think this distinguishes you from a lot of contemporary polytheists, for whom literalism seems to be the rule.

      • There are those who like to argue that the mysteries were separate from the common cultus. I am not sure how much I agree with that myself, especially give how popular the Eleusinian program was and how important it was in certain city states such as among the Messenians and Arcadians if we look at the statements of Pausanias. So I am not so quick to try to dismiss the nature of the mysteries from the common religion, but do freely agree that there probably were folks who had different levels of involvement…or no involvement what-so-ever. But I wouldn’t call it a separate religion either just as I doubt those who were initiated considered it as such. It is just as rich with the interacting of the gods, but at a different level of understanding (rather like the difference between those who take a metaphorical stance in regards to myths and literalists…same gods, same story (though with often times differing variations) but different ways of understanding it. Therefore the philosophical-mystical tradition in my view is more of a way in seeing how ones deities influence the nature of the self in addition to the nature of the world and cosmos and the power within their own inter-relationships. But that is my take on it.

  • “I would also caution against taking myths as literal. More often then not these imperfect gods of myth and their actions are metaphors for the actions that they take in the cosmos, the world, and upon our souls.”

    This is a critical point in my view. In the Hellenic tradition, the philosophical element is what allows us to process the myths and exercise the lessons inherent in the myths that allow us to refine our souls towards the THEOI.

    • I agree, and the reason I agree is because there is often a great deal divergence between what the myth is saying about the god (if one were taking it literally) and what we know historically about the actual cult of the god. Therefore the mystic traditions, and philosophy, are tools for unpacking these myths which then informs us on how the nature of the god is perceived as far as we can understand it. This is why I do not favor literalism, and nor do I favor the trend to rigidly separate the philosophical-mystical from the common religion of the city-states as it leaves the myths as well as particular aspects of the gods without purpose.

  • And yes, I agree….ancient polytheistic traditions, when understood in their full depth, often don’t easily fit into these categories we would like them to.