What I believe, just me and no one else

What I believe, just me and no one else January 22, 2014

1.  I believe the archetypes are gods.

Notice I did not say that I believe the gods are archetypes (although I believe that too).  (I also did not say they are “ideas” or “mental constructs”.)  That was intentional.  This is part of my campaign to “re-god” the archetypes, to return to the concept of the archetype the numinosity or “holy otherness” that is lost when archetypes are understood as mere ideas or mental categories.  I have tried to make the case that understanding the gods as archetypes need not be reductive.  I’ve tried to make this case numerous times, in different places:

The archetypes are gods: Re-godding the archetypes (HumanisticPaganism)

But are the archetypes real? (PaganSquare)

You don’t know Jung, Part 6: Archetypes (PaganSquare)

Are the gods real? (AllergicPagan)

Hearing voices or talking to ourselves? (AllergicPagan)

2.  I believe I have not convinced anybody but myself.

3.  I believe that’s okay.

Occasionally I get comments like this:

“I would have to say as a Mormon having a massive falling out this is fitting very much where I feel spiritually. Ironically in all my searching I would have never thought to look at Neopaganism of any sort […] Oddly enough I found this blog through pure happenstance while doing my typical halfassed spiritual oriented google searches. It has been quite a fascinating read and has highlighted various points of interest to myself. […] Thank you so much for the blog it has made me, at least for the moment, feel a lot less lonely. It also gives me a great point of reference to discussing with my wife my spiritual journey.”

But, for the most part, blogging is a thankless enterprise.  You have to find your own motivation.  For me, doing this keeps me sane.

4.  I believe that my belief that the gods are archetypes is a choice.

This choice is the product of my personal history and idiosyncrasies.  It is not a self-evident truth.  It is not the only logical conclusion that reasonable people can reach.  It is not dictated by history.  Or the dictionary.

I used to believe that locating the gods outside of the psyche was disempowering, because as I saw it, believing in external gods projects our own personal power outward onto those gods.  The reason I believed this is, of course, because that is what happened to me, when I was Christian.  And when I left Christianity behind, I could not understand how the belief in an external deity could actually be empowering.  But the fact is that belief in an external deity can be empowering.  I’ve seen it in people in both the Christian and the Pagan communities.  It’s not been my own personal experience, but I have witnessed this effect on others around me — including many devotional polytheists.  I still choose to believe the gods are archetypes, because that belief works for me.  But I now recognize it for what it is: a choice.

5.  I believe we have common ground.

The spectrum of belief regarding the nature of divinity ranges from extreme psychologism to extreme transcendentalism.  I fall more toward one end of the spectrum.  Others fall more toward the other end.  But we are on the same spectrum.  For example, whatever they believe about the ultimate nature of divinity, I would wager most people can acknowledge that the experience of divinity is to a certain extent paradoxical, in that divinity can at least seem to be both “in” us and “outside” of us, both a part of us and also other than us.  For example, consider the following three quotes.  (I won’t reveal who wrote them till later.)

“We are obliged to preserve the concept of the ‘otherness’ of God from ourselves even though we cannot use it without distorting or at least wrongly stressing it. […] It is an otherness which not only does not exclude but positively (just because it is what it is) includes and demands oneness — a oneness, indeed, which is actually more real and intimate than what we would normally describe as identification.”

“Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force that was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. […] I understood that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend, things which may even be directed against me. […] Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious figure to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality.”

“Falling into Gods like Odin […] carries with it the potential for finding those elements of the Gods’ nature in ourselves, for becoming in however small or large a way, transformed by Them, by the contact, transformed into becoming a bit more like Them in outlook […] I’ll tell you something too: I’m glad Odin has those sides to His nature. It means there is nothing in me that I need fear to acknowledge in His presence. There is no part of me that is too intense, too harsh, too awkward, too violent, too passionate, too…anything that I need feel shame over it in His presence. It frees me to stand in a place of tremendous openness, tremendous vulnerability, tremendous liberation. I am grateful that my God has these dark and bloody complexities about His nature. In the microcosm of my heart, I do too. It is yet another thing we share and in the end, that doesn’t terrify so much at all.”

The first quote (as you can probably tell from the use of the word “God”) is from a Christian theologian, R. H. J. Steuart.  The second is from psychologist, Carl Jung, who originated the idea of gods as archetypes.  And the last is from a certain vocal hard polytheist.  What all of these statement have in common is a recognition that, to one degree or another, the gods (or God) can seem to be both a part of us and separate from us.  While we may choose to emphasize either the difference or the similarity, there is common ground that we can build on.

6.  I believe that both archetypal Neo-Pagans and devotional polytheists (as well as the myriad other varieties of Pagans) have something valuable to contribute to this ongoing discussion about the gods.

Personally, my own understanding of divinity has been expanded by my discussions with devotional or “hard” polytheists.  And my experience of divinity has been deepened.  I am grateful to those who have been and continue to be patient enough to share their experiences and ideas with me.

7.  I believe that you don’t own the word “polytheist”.

And neither do I.  And neither does Webster’s.  The same goes for the word “Pagan” and “Neo-Pagan” and lots of other words.

There’s good precedent for using the word “polytheistic” in a psychologized and naturalized senses in which I have in this blog, from contemporary authors like Margot Adler and David Miller, to Joseph Campbell and Jung, to ancient writers like Plutarch, Cicero, and the Stoics.  And there’s better precedent for using the word to mean a belief in gods as literal, independent, sentient beings.  But I’m going to continue to use the word the way that makes sense to me.

I do sympathize though.  When you find a word that captures how you want to identify, and then someone uses that word in a way that it antithetical to your self-understanding, it is very frustrating. … Welcome to being Pagan.  Or Christian, for that matter.  Or any other label.

8.  I believe that saying Margot Adler — or Doreen Valiente — is not a polytheist is a little like saying Paul was not a Christian.

Was Paul the same kind of Christian as Peter?  Or Jesus?  No.  Be he was one kind of Christian.  And an important one at that.

9.  I believe that sharing my own beliefs does not infringe on yours.

Or silence your voice.  Or erase your community.

10.   I believe that, if you disagree with me, you can tell me to “f@#k off” on your private blog.

Things are different if you blog as part of a community like Patheos, Beliefnet, Witches & Pagans, etc.  But on your own private blog, have at it!  It’s not good manners.  It’s not even good rhetoric.  But it’s your blog.  Fling feces if you want.  You’re just messing up your own walls.

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  • Courtney

    Hey, here’s another who finds your work inspiring and helpful. And you’ve convinced me, I just… I think I struggle to understand it, to *feel* it as deeply as you do, and I’m working on it. But I agree with pretty much everything you say.

    Well, perhaps you didn’t convince me. Sorry. 😛 Perhaps you only articulate very well the kinds of things that I didn’t realize I had already come to believe. But what you do matters. I understand it’s frustrating to have people attack you for your beliefs but… well, like you said, “welcome to being” spiritual. Religious. On the internet. Human.

    People should put that sign up in maternity wards of hospitals… “Welcome to being human! Have fun, kids!”

    • I don’t think that whether or not you convince someone is necessarily the best measure for how meaningful a person’s work is. It might be the best measure for how persuasive your work is, but really what is gained by persuading someone? Does persuading someone into believing what you believe necessarily mean that you deepen their experience and understanding of anything? It just means that you have convinced them to substitute your structure of interpretation for their own.

      I think what is more interesting is when writers like John (or Galina or P. Sufenas or Aine or Alison Leigh Lilly or whoever) can provoke us to be in what Flores and Winograd, in explaining the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s work, called a breakdown. A breakdown is a breakdown in obviousness, where what was part of the unquestioned background narrative of our lives has suddenly emerged. Where before it fit, perhaps now it feels awkward. It must be questioned. All at once we are aware that we were living as if so many things were obvious, as if the correct Way of Being in the world was clear, and now as we chafe uncomfortably against a reality where so much is not settled we are either filled with wonder or with dread. Maybe both.

      I read a phrase from a writer once, who I cannot find a source for (if anyone knows, help) who said (something along the lines of) that the job of each day is to undo yesterday’s understanding. We can’t stay in breakdown constantly (it is not the way of being human) but being more open and curious is certainly possible.

      • Courtney

        Great thoughts. My sense of the taken-for-granted, the obvious, got all shook up about a year ago and it hasn’t settled yet. Often I wish it would just settle already and stay there, and sometimes I try to suppress the endless questioning because yes, it does make it hard to get on with life. But then again, life IS the question. One of my big struggles right now is to accept and embrace the question rather than clinging to the impossible wish that everything be knowable and certain. Often I get mad at “God” for not revealing Its nature with more clarity to us mortals. Then we would have less to argue about. But for one reason or another, the debate is part of the story.

        John articulates philosophy that makes sense to me, but no one viewpoint contained in one human can ever capture the complexity of existence (as he was getting at in his paradox post). I certainly enjoy hearing from many perspectives.

        • I am one of the people who would agree with John that the “experience of divinity is to a certain extent paradoxical, in that divinity can at least seem to be both “in” us and “outside” of us.” I’d go further and say that it seems to be the nature of God/dess to reveal hirself in (or be experienced in) seemingly contradictory ways to different people. That God/dess can seem both within and without, transcendental and immanent both, distinct and person-like or entirely ‘other’ . So, if this is true, God/dess HAS revealed hir nature with clarity to us mortals. It’s just…tougher than many of us really want to deal with.

  • Cat lover

    I support you, John. I really think certain people *choose* to misunderstand you. It borders on bullying. I do think you have a problem with “tone,” but I know you are working on it.

  • In her response to this post, a “certain vocal polytheist” writes “Even in talking about polytheism however, Halstead doesn’t bother actually quoting polytheists. Our voices are nowhere present in his narrative.”

    Ignoring the fact that YOU ACTUALLY QUOTED HER IN THIS POST.

    I don’t even know what to say?

    • I see she had added a little asterisk to her post that “on the rare occasions when we are quoted, it’s facile, disingenuous, and solely to undermine our position.”

  • Xiaorong

    Long time lurker on the Allergic Pagan, but great post! No, you didn’t convince me that the archetypes are gods, but you do articulate things that I was already coming to the same conclusions about, except you articulate it way better than me. You said blogging is thankless task, so I thought I’d chip in and tell you that I appreciate the heck out of everything you write!

  • Alyxander M Folmer

    I have never understood the conflict over “hard/soft” polytheism.

    We see things differently, and thus we are going to organize our groups and ritual differently. End of Story.
    Humanists/soft polytheists can express their ideas and ideals, and it doesn’t mean that hard polytheism is “under attack”. That makes about as much sense as the Fox news “War on Christmas”, or the Christian right screaming “persecution” every time they don’t get special treatment.
    I am what would be classified here as a “Hard Polytheist”. I happen think this blog is awesome, and I read it regularly. I don’t feel the need to combat or correct others, and if I feel a different kind of idea needs to be expressed I’ll write my own piece about it. Simple as that.
    Why fight about it?

  • I agree with you. From beginning to end, but especially #7.