Cherish Our Polytheists: The balkanization of our community and what is at stake

Cherish Our Polytheists: The balkanization of our community and what is at stake September 21, 2013

Recently, over at PaganSquare, several polytheist bloggers have left the site.  I’m not going to get into all the who’s and what’s, because I don’t really know.  And frankly, I’m still exhausted from trying to document the last Pagan online brouhaha.  But I do want to remark on what this means to me.  Although there are different issues involved, this seems to me to be part of a broader trend of hard polytheists withdrawing from the Pagan community in one way or another.  Star Foster, the former managing editor here at the Patheos Pagan channel is a conspicuous example.  Drew Jacob, whose withdrawal was documented by Star a year before her own departure, is another example.  If this is a broader trend, then it is something that I think should concern the rest of us Pagans: animists, pantheists, panentheists, monists, archetypalists, non-theists, atheists, and all the rest.

First, let me say, I respect the right of anyone to call themselves Pagan or not, as they choose.  I also respect the right of everyone to associate freely with whomever they wish.  It is important to our spirituality to find kindred spirits.  In general, I do wish to see more people joining, and fewer people leaving, the Pagan circle.  Having said that, I recognize that our desire to be inclusive should not be an excuse to tolerate socially destructive behavior from anyone, wherever they fall on the Pagan spectrum.  But whatever the particular details of any one polytheist’s withdrawal from the Pagan community, each time someone withdraws, we lose not only their company, but also their voice.  They withdraw not only from our community, but also from our conversation.  And we lose some of the diversity of opinion that is essential to a healthy marketplace of ideas.

I’ve seen non-theists claim that polytheists are taking over the Pagan community.  (In fact, I have felt like that myself before.)  And I’ve seen polytheists claim the same thing about non-theists or atheists.  Members of both groups feel like they are the persecuted minority.  I don’t know what the real numbers are.  It is likely that those people that concern themselves with this question (myself included) are on the extreme ends of things, with most Pagans falling into the more ambiguous realm under the Bell curve.  It’s also possible that all of this is just happening on the Internet, and the rest of Pagandom is going quietly about their business of cultivating relationship with the earth, the gods, and their Deep Self.  But I do think that the silencing (whether voluntary or otherwise) of these public, and sometimes extreme, voices is a loss to our community as a whole.  There is a struggle for the heart of Paganism going on.  But it is not a struggle between hard polytheists and non-theists for dominance.  It is a struggle to maintain the essential diversity which defines contemporary Paganism.

Specifically, the loss of the hard-polytheistic voice is the loss of a particular perspective on divinity.  It is the loss of one way of viewing divinity as “other”, as transcending the self.  As a Pagan who tends to look for divinity first and foremost within myself, I view hard polytheists as a needed corrective to my own perspective, which is prone to ego-centrism (mistaking my little ego-self for what Starhawk calls the “Deep Self”).  I also think that a more immanentist perspective is a needed balance to hard polytheism.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a blog post by feminist thealogian Carol Christ in which she attacks Christian Neo-Orthodoxy.  If you’re not familiar, Neo-Orthodoxy was a theological movement in the early 20th century, begun by Karl Barth, which stressed the transcendence of God, in reaction 19th century liberal theology’s emphasis on God’s immanence.  Carol Christ is a process thealogian and, like me, she falls more on the immanent side of the immanent-transcendent theological spectrum.  So she is opposed to Neo-Orthodoxy.  And while I have a natural sympathy to Christ’s perspective, the problem I have with her essay is that she fails to take the wider historical view.

The history of Christian theology can be understood as a pendulum swinging between immanent and transcendent views of God.  The Neo-Orthodox theologians of the early 20th century — Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, and Neibuhr — were reacting to the perceived over-emphasis on God’s immanence by the 19th century theologians, like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrech Ritschl.  And the existential theology of Paul Tillich and the process theology of Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb can be understood as a reaction to the perceived over-emphasis on the transcendence of God by Neo-Orthodoxy.  And so the pendulum continues to swing.

What does all this have to do with Paganism?  Well, for one thing, the process theology of Hartshorn and Cobb had a profound influence not only on Carol Christ (check out her book She Who Changes)but also on Starhawk and on later Pagan theo/alogians.  (See Christine Hoff Kraemer’s Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies.)  Starhawk’s immanentism, in particular, had a pervasive and prolonged influence on Pagan thought about God/dess.  The growth of hard polytheism since the early- to mid-Aughts can be understood as a reaction to the perceived over-emphasis in Paganism on the immanence of deity.  “Transcendence” is not a word that hard polytheists commonly use when talking about their gods, but hard polytheism is on the transcendent side of the immanence-transcendence spectrum, in that it emphasizes the “otherness” or distinctness of the gods from human beings.  Thus, the same pendulum that swings back and forth in Christian theology can be seen at work in the evolution of Pagan thought.

Where Christ goes wrong in her essay, I think, is that she views Neo-Orthodoxy and process theology in zero-sum terms, rather than seeing them both as perspectives on a multifaceted divinity which eludes all of our attempts to grasp it in a single theological formula.  Similarly, it would be a mistake to view hard polytheism and non-theistic Paganism in zero-sum terms.  We may chose one or the other because of idiosyncrasies in our personal history or our biology, but neither has a monopoly on truth.  Both are perspectives — among others — on a reality that is so much bigger than any of our ideas about it.  And we, as a community, need all of those perspectives, because each of them is a necessary corrective to the others.  I am a non-theistic Pagan.  I am a pantheist and a Jungian archetypalist.  And I need to be in community with hard polytheists.  And animists.  And all the other “-ists” that make up the Pagan community.  I need you.  And maybe you need me.

In my eagerness to engage in what I perceived to be constructive debate with hard polytheists (sometimes on this blog), I fear that I have contributed to some feeling unwelcome in the Pagan community.  And if that is so, I deeply regret it.  I believe that there is room for all of us at the Pagan fire.  I believe we can — and need to — talk with each other honestly, and even challenge each other respectfully, without doing violence to our own beliefs or each other’s.  In my efforts to work out what Paganism means to me, I have sometimes been guilty of projecting those personal definitions outward in such a way that would exclude others from my communion.  That is a symptom of an awkward, but common stage, in my own spiritual maturation.  I appreciate those who have suffered (and continue to suffer) with my spiritual growing pains.  And I apologize to those I have offended.

But more than that, I want to say to my hard-polytheistic Pagan brother, sisters, and trans-siblings: I cherish you.  I may disagree with you.  Your experience of deity may be very different from my own.  But I cherish your beliefs and experiences.  For completely selfish reasons, I am glad you are here.  And to those of you who have left, I respect your choice, but I do miss your voice.


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