In my last post, I used Jason Mankey’s interview of self-described atheist Pagan Amy B. as an opportunity to introduce you to three other non-theistic Pagans, bloggers who described themselves variously as naturalistic, atheistic, non-deistic, and pantheistic, all of whom express a deep sense of reverence toward Pagan ritual. I was already thinking I should write a companion post highlighting some hard polytheists and deity-centered Pagans. Then I saw that Jason had written another post, entitled “Holier Than Thou Paganism”, in which he takes issue with the ideological exclusivism of a certain hard polytheist and I knew I needed to write this post.
There is an unfortunate social phenomenon which causes the most outspoken, and sometimes the most outrageous, individuals in a group to draw more attention to themselves and thereby come to be seen as more representative of the group than they really are. For example, recently there has been some attention given to Virginia lieutenant gubernatorial candidate and pastor E.W. Jackson’s statements about yoga being Satanic. (He has since tried to soften that position.) In my early years as reactionary Pagan, just after having left Christianity myself, it might have been tempting to take statements like this as representative of all Christians. But Jackson is not representative of even a majority of Christians, and it’s irresponsible to suggest that he is. I’m glad to say that I have at least come far enough that, when I read Jackson’s statement, I just felt sorry for all the Christians are embarrassed to be associated in any way with Jackson.
Now, nothing Jason wrote suggests that that one polytheist is representative of hard polytheists. But, at one point, not too long ago I’m embarrassed to say, I would have been tempted to take Jason’s post about one hard polytheist as evidence that all hard polytheists are ideological exclusivists. I am fortunate enough now to have had enough exposure to a variety of polytheistic perspectives to know better. So, allow me to introduce you to the recent writings of three bloggers who might be described as hard polytheists or deity-centered Pagans, each of whom has written compellingly about the need for “Big Tent” Paganism (or “Big Sandbox” Paganism, if you prefer).
Sunweaver’s column, Making Light, can be found at Agora on the Pagan Patheos channel. Sunweaver is a Hellenic Polytheist and a priestess of Apollo. She is not a Reconstructionist, at least not in the ordinary sense of the word. But if you have any doubts about her hard polytheistic chops, read her post, “Help me, Joe Campbell, you’re my only hope”:
“… seeing the myths as metaphors doesn’t mean I believe the gods are just characters in a story. They are my gods. I speak to them, I feel their presence, I know from experience that they are Real. They are not real to me like Samwise Gamgee is real. They are real to me like my cat is real, but they often speak to us in metaphor and story.”
What I love about Sunweaver’s writing (aside from the fact that she say the word “archetype” without spitting) is her “strong” approach to tolerance. “Strong” tolerance is when a person appreciates that the value of freedom of speech is not just that everyone gets to express their opinion, but that we all grow from listening to each other’s opinions. While a person with “weak tolerance” will wait their turn and let you talk, so that they can have their turn talk, a person with “strong tolerance” will actually listen and let your opinions affect (but not necessarily change) their own.
Sunweaver’s recent post entitled, “All Religions are UPG”, caught my attention. Sunweaver observes that, “It is good and healthy to have one’s beliefs challenged, since it provides opportunity to apply some critical thinking and to develop stronger and more nuanced beliefs.” I feel exactly this way about my interactions with hard polytheists, who have taught me about the importance of piety and devotion in worship, even in a non-theistic context.
I also like that Sunweaver is willing to go out on a limb, and share her personal experiences, but without claiming that the experience need be normative for others. She writes about participating in a ritual (not her own) which involved characters from Alice in Wonderland, and in which she was asked to be the White Rabbit.
“Whether that was a thoughtform, a new divinity, an expression of an archetype, an old divinity in disguise, or something else, I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that the manifestation was as real as it gets in religion, but I have no evidence that the White Rabbit was present except for my experience. …
“I cannot say that any experience of the divine or other non-corporeal subdivine entity isn’t real, even when it’s Batman. I’ve never experienced Batman in this way, but others have. I can’t say those experiences aren’t real, only that this has not been my experience.“
I think we would all do well as a community to learn that last sentence well and repeat it often: “This has not been my experience.” That sentence manages to be both humble and authoritative at once. It makes no claim on any other person, but neither does it surrender the authority of one’s own experience.
Sunweaver goes on to explain that the divine is just too vast and varied to be captured by any one theology:
“The same goes with any religion that is not my own. I have never experienced Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior, but others have and it brings them fulfillment. Seems legit. Same goes with Hinduism, Islam. Baha’i, and a whole list of other religions that come with experiences of the divine that I haven’t had. The divine is a pretty big thing and to say that I know all that is contained within it is pure-D-hubris. …
“I’m not saying that all religions are make-believe; I’m no atheist. I’m saying that the divine is big enough to contain all concepts and that no one person has the one true way to the Truth. We can’t know the entirety of what the divine is.”
“… no one can tell me what to believe but me. Likewise, I can’t tell anyone else what to believe or what’s True about the divine. I have found this attitude to be foundational to interfaith work. In this way, I’m able to simultaneously hold firm to my own beliefs while accepting that others can find Truth and fulfillment in their beliefs. My rightness does not hinge upon my neighbor’s wrongness.”
This attitude is what drives Sunweaver’s local interfaith work and her defense of the construction of the Muslim mosque in Murfeesboro, Tennessee. Sunweaver has helped shatter any stereotypes I had about hard polytheists, and I thank her for it.
John Beckett’s blog, Under the Ancient Oaks, can be found at the Pagan Patheos channel. It seems like John is always writing about something of interest to me and with a depth and nuance that I aspire to (but rarely achieve) in my own writing. John calls himself a Pagan, a Druid, and a Unitarian Universalist. He is a graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, a leader in CUUPS, and an interfaith advocate. John is also a hard polytheist:
“As a hard polytheist, I believe there are many gods and goddesses who are real, distinct, individual beings. I don’t believe they’re metaphors or archetypes. I don’t believe they’re all aspects of one great God/dess, although I will occasionally use the language of soft polytheism if it helps me relate to someone who takes monotheism for granted.
“I believe this because my experience of Isis is very different from my experience of Danu, my experience of Morrigan is different from my experience of Cernunnos, and my experience of Osiris is different from my experience of Brighid. When I read the stories of my ancestors, it’s clear they thought the gods were individual beings too. Monotheism is a nice idea, but you need only look at the number of people who cry ‘where is God?’ to understand that the world we live in is better explained by many gods and goddesses of limited power than by one all powerful God.”
Elsewhere, John writes about his relationship with the gods being at the core of his identity as a Pagan:
“… I am a Pagan because I have experienced the old gods and goddesses for myself. I met them in story, in ritual and in practice. I prayed and they answered. I quietened my mind and they spoke. I invoked and they graced me with their presence. I made offerings and they responded. I asked and they gave… and sometimes, they asked for something in return. In relationship with them I have found peace and purpose.”
But to describe John as deity-centered would be incomplete. John has his feet planted pretty firmly in all three centers of contemporary Paganism as well. For example, he writes here about his earth-centeredness and he writes here about the practice of magic as using the conscious will to affect the unconscious will. And John’s warning against the misuse of science by many Pagans could have been written by a naturalistic Pagan: “Claiming scientific backing or proof for spiritual ideas where none exists isn’t just bad science,” writes John, “it’s also bad religion.”
What I like about John’s writing is that he consistently seeks to balance seemingly antithetical concepts and to hold them in a creative tension: concepts like faith and doubt, belief and practice, and truth and meaning. For example, in a post entitled, “The Tension of Uncertainty: Faith and Doubt”, John argues that we need to avoid the errors of both One True Wayism and the All Ways Are Equally True fallacy, both of which try to deny the existence of uncertainty. Instead, he argues, we should
“… investigate, experiment, read and study and practice, and through trial and error or through Grace or through good luck find a path that is meaningful and helpful to us. Then we devote ourselves fully to that path – not because it’s certain, but because it’s meaningful and helpful. This is what faith is – not ignoring our doubts or pretending they don’t exist, but honoring our traditions and living according to our values in spite of those doubts.“
And in a couple of posts, here and most recently in a post entitled “Yes, Belief Matters!”, John discusses the orthodoxy-orthopraxy debate. But instead of choosing one side, he advocates seeing practice, experience, and belief as a “virtuous circle”, each mutually reinforcing the other:
“Belief comes as we try to interpret our experiences. What do they tell us about ourselves and our place in the grand order of things? What do they tell us about our place in the community? What do they tell us about how we should live our lives – what is of ultimate importance and what is trivial? Why did this practice generate this experience?
“The meaning we take from our beliefs motivates us to practice deeper and more frequently. More and deeper practice generates more and deeper experiences. More and deeper experiences further reinforce our beliefs.“
In this perspective, beliefs are not divorced from experience; rather, beliefs arise as we interpret and contextualize our experiences. While John emphasizes that practice, not belief, will give rise to experience, he warns against the notion that beliefs do not matter to those who have experience. Personally, I think that those who claim to be skipping the belief step in John’s practice-experience-belief circle are really just overlooking it. John writes:
“Unexamined axiomatic beliefs didn’t work for me then and they don’t work for me now. I can’t simply take the reality of gods and goddesses as a given. I need a theory, a framework of belief. I don’t need proof, but I do need reason. …
“Religious experience is important. But experience by itself is literally meaningless – it has no meaning until we interpret it, and we interpret our experiences based on our beliefs.“In another post, John discusses truth and meaning, how both are important, but also why it is important to keep the two distinct:
“Discerning the truth becomes even more difficult when you move into spiritual and theological questions. … Because we do not know and likely cannot know the truth, we are free to explore these concepts and to come to the answers that are most meaningful to us.
“For most people, though, the Big Questions of Life are intertwined with questions of personal and group identity and with emotionally charged experiences and issues. Meaning becomes so strong it is mistaken for truth. This false certainty shuts off the search for truth – why continue to wrestle with difficult questions if you’ve already found the answer?”
Personally, I think the reason why some people claim that they do not have any use for beliefs is that they are mistaking meaning for truth. Because he does distinguish meaning and truth, John is able see “The Good in Other Religions”:
“I believe objective truth is real but impossible to know with certainty. In the absence of certainty, we are free to choose the religious and spiritual path that is most meaningful to us. And equally, we are free to respect the choices of others.”
As he explains in an earlier post: “While I will preach against fundamentalist religions of any flavor, there is value to be found in Christianity and Buddhism and Islam and atheism and virtually every religion known to humanity.” And I think this is why John is comfortable being a “Big Tent” Pagan:
“… I’m in favor of ‘Big Tent’ Paganism. When someone says ‘Pagan’ I want that to include hard polytheists, humanistic Pagans, Nature worshipers, hedge witches, shamans, ancestor worshipers and anyone else with similar beliefs and practices. That doesn’t mean I want us all doing the same Wicca-lite ritual at the Solstice. It means I want us talking to each other, cooperating with each other, and learning from each other.“
Joseph Bloch is a Heathen. His blog, Heathen Patriot: Thoughts from a Heathen Libertarian (formerly GOPagan: Thoughts from a Heathen Republican) can be found at PaganSquare. In spite of being myself a Neo-Pagan and politically liberal, I am an unapologetic subscriber to Joseph’s blog, and I find myself agreeing with him surprisingly often.
Joseph is a hard polytheist. He believes in the literal existence of the gods, makes offering to the land spirits and house gods, and honors the shades of his ancestors. But Joseph’s religiosity could be described as community-centered or folk-centered, as well as a deity-centered, as he explains here:
“Many Pagans (and, I would argue, the majority of Heathens) find sacredness not in ‘nature’ as a whole, but within the interpersonal, family, and tribal structure. …
“When I hold my daughter in my arms, that is sacred. When I hold high a horn of blessed mead and toast to an ancestors, that is sacred. When I grasp the oath-ring and swear an oath to do something on behalf of my family or my tribe, that is sacred. When I make offerings to the landvættir in thanks for all they have done and continue to do for myself, my family, and my tribe; that is sacred. The bonds between members of a tribe are real in a way that is quite literally inexplicable to those who do not share those bonds, and it is here that the sacral nature of faith can be felt. The sacred bonds between the tribe of the Gods and the tribes of men, and those between the men and women of a tribe, are palpable.”
Most recently, Joseph’s blog caught my attention with a post entitled, “The Excluders”. There, Joseph takes issue with recent proclamations made by some regarding who is entitled to call themselves “Pagan.” He explains that Ásatrú went through a similar phase about 15 years ago, but since then a more tolerant atttide has developed. Joseph describes an example of what I have characterized as “strong tolerance” above:
“… all sides have come to the realization that those with whom they disagree aren’t evil monsters out to promote some sort of political agenda while merely wearing their religion as a mask to cover their true aims. On both sides of any issue there are people who have much to contribute to the commonalities within the Ásatrú community, and to attempt to exclude them, ultimately harms the very people who yearn to ban those with whom they disagree …”
Joseph takes the position that no one has the right to define anyone else out of Paganism. “Just because I disagree with the form your Paganism takes doesn’t mean I get to say you’re not Pagan.” This means that Pagans “will be forced to share that label with people with whom they disagree vehemently on a vast array of subjects.” This is something that those Joseph calls “the Excluders” refuse to do:
“To do so would be to admit that their beliefs are not necessarily Objectively True, and for a certain type of person, that admission is simply unacceptable.
“For that person, the only solution to the conundrum is that those who disagree with them must either be deceitful or ignorant. No other possibility exists, for if it did, it would open up the door to the possibility that they themselves were not correct, and the sort of fragile mindset of the excluder cannot embrace even that possibility. There are no honest and good-natured differences of opinion; there is only deceit or ignorance. In their zeal to be Right, they feel justified in trying to define Pagans who hold other opinions out of existence, in the name of removing the deceitful or the willfully ignorant.
“Naturally, the excluders are a very small minority within Paganism. But they are a vocal one, all the more so because of their insistence that their pronouncements of exclusion be adhered to by others.”
Joseph’s recommendation is to simply ignore the Excluders.
Paganism, in Joseph’s view, is by its nature inclusionary, even if sub-groups within it choose establish boundaries:
“And that, I think, is a good thing. Paganism should be open and inclusive. We should be able to endure the fact that some of our fellow Pagans will disagree with us on many things, some of them quite fundamental, both religiously and outside the bounds of our faith. By doing so, we open ourselves to new insights, knowledge, and points of view that we might otherwise have missed out on. And that would be a shame indeed.”
And Joseph practices what he preaches. While Joseph openly acknowledges that he is not himself a fan of eclectic Paganism or of Christianity, when he weighed in on the Christo-Pagan debate, Joseph defended the eclectic inclusion of Christian deities in Pagan practice. He may not like it, but he does not attempt to exclude anyone from Paganism by virtue of their eclecticism or their borrowing of Christian motifs.
But Joseph is not exactly what one would call a “Big Tent” Pagan. For one thing, he does not identify as Pagan. For another, he questions the usefulness of the Tent/Umbrella/Sandbox metaphors. In a three–part series, Joseph deconstructs the idea of the “Pagan Umbrella”, arguing that neither theology, nor ritual practice, nor lifestyle, nor participation in email discussion lists and web bulletin boards is sufficient to create true Pagan community.
But rather than leading him to an isolationist attitude, Joseph reaches the surprising conclusion that instead of seeking Pagan solidarity, we should acknowledge our differences and engage in interfaith practice with each other (and with other faiths).
“Perhaps the goal should not be Pagan solidarity after all. Many disparate ‘Pagan’ groups have nothing at all in common, and may even be quite at odds in terms of theology, ideology, and goals. Perhaps a more effective route, rather than trying to lump scores if not hundreds of ‘Pagan’ groups and faiths under an umbrella already straining to contain them all, we might instead move towards focused interfaith outreach.
“In fact, I would argue that attempts to create Pagan solidarity are just that, but without conscious acknowledgement of that term and thus lacking in the awareness needed to make it effective. If we shed the ‘Pagan’ label, and do not insist on ‘solidarity’ with faiths and individuals with whom we have little if anything in common other than a mutual desire to practice our faith in peace, we can open up a world of possibilities.
“Rather than trying to force some sort of solidarity with Ásatrúar, Dianic Wiccans might find it more effective to reach out to Quakers, or Disciples of Christ, or Episcopalians on some issues, and Seax Wiccans or Reclaiming Tradition for other issues. Ásatrúar might find more in common with Mormons on issues that are near and dear to their hearts, and Druids or Hellenes on others. Reclaiming Tradition Wiccans might make common cause with Deep Ecology Catholics in some instances, and Blue Star Wiccans in others. …
“I think interfaith dialogue that extends both within and without what is now called ‘Paganism’, targeted on specific issues and with specific groups, makes a lot more sense than some ill-fitting ‘Pagan solidarity’ that, in some cases, makes for some very odd bedfellows indeed.”
This is, in my opinion, a challenging and exciting vision of Paganism that Joseph presents.
While I was preparing this post, Joseph posted another great piece entitled “The Great Silent Polytheist Majority”. Rather than taking sides in the recent online debates, Joseph points out that the polytheists in general have been poorly represented by those presuming to speak for them on the Internet. For one thing, the voices on the blogosphere can hardly be aid to be representative of any community.
One way that polytheism is misrepresented on the Internet, according to Joseph, is the “intense ‘devotion is everything’ attitude” seen among some polytheistic bloggers: “Read the Pagan and Heathen polytheist blogosphere today and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who married Loki or who chats with Dionysus over breakfast.” But, according to Joseph:
“It is a misnomer (an understandable one, given the participants on that side of the discussion) that all polytheists must by their nature be God-spouses, engage in ritual ‘horsing’ (possession by spirits, including one or more Gods), consult with Them multiple times every day on even the most trivial matters, and, most important, insist that anyone who does not indulge in such über-piety (or—Gods forbid!—deny Their existence) is somehow less of a ‘real’ Pagan/Heathen than they are.”
Most polytheists, says Joseph, exercise a greater degree of skepticism toward claims that a person is regularly literally possessed by a deity and used as a conduit for divine pronouncements.
“Does this mean that hard polytheists do not believe in direct contacts with the divine? In most cases we do, but it is usually accompanied by a lot of cross-checking, soul searching, and other verification to make sure it’s not just our imagination run away with us.“
If Joseph is right about this, then I could safely say that there more common ground between humanistic/non-theistic Pagans and hard polytheists than one would ever think by reading Pagan blogs.
But Joseph’s larger point is to point out that most polytheists have been silent during this debate:
“We can be pious without our piety consuming our lives. We tend to be more live-and-let-live (at least when it comes to excluding people from using the Pagan label entirely), and we cringe when we see people on the extreme of our side of the argument say things like “Paganism that isn’t Deity centric isn’t Pagan” just like many atheists cringe when they see people on their side of the argument say things like “I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment.
“Folks on the atheist side have spoken up, to their credit, saying that they, as a whole, don’t share that dismissive attitude. I hope that I can do at least a little to help foster the notion that those of us on the other side of the debate don’t all share the exclusionary attitude similarly on display by a (vocal) minority.“
And that, I think is a perfect conclusion to this post. Each of the hard polytheists above represents a challenge to the image of hard polytheist as an ideological exclusionist. Each of them demonstrates that hard polytheism is not at all incompatible with with “Big Tent” Paganism and/or interfaith work. I admire each of them and am proud to share the Sandbox with them.