The eternal Pagan theological debate wages on. Hard Polytheism vs. Humanistic Paganism. Or perhaps, Protestantism vs. Catholicism. Or perhaps it’s the Wafis vs. the rest of Islam. The Gods are literal, actual Beings with agency. There’s no such thing as literal, actual Gods; They are intrinsically connected to the human psyche. Back and forth, back and forth, and there’s always such anger! These arguments inevitably degenerate into accusations of the “no true Scotsman” variety. “You’re not a real (insert faith group here).”
I am always amazed by how sure people are! How absolutely convinced they seem to be that their experience is the “one, right and true” experience! How it seems to boggle their imaginations that anyone else could possibly have had a different experience! “They’re colour-blind,” say the Literalists. “They’re delusional,” say the Archetypists.
Lately we’ve seen this debate spark up again on the Patheos Pagan channel between Devotional Polytheist John Beckett and Humanistic Pagan John Halstead in a couple of articles about Deities and apples.
Seriously, both of them can go sit on a pippin.
If I were talking to them in person, I would like to grab their figurative ears. Let me tell you why I think they’re both wrong. Or at least why they might be.
The Literalist View
Literalists wisely realize that much of the world defies scientific explanation. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” They’re right. Science can’t explain everything — at least not yet. They realize that logic only works if everything is logical, and humans do not behave logically. Rather than embracing a paradigm that, to them, has considerable holes, they question it. Contrary to the claims of others they do not generally dismiss it entirely, but they do recognize that it has limitations.
As a result, they are open to the miraculous happening in their lives. Or maybe they’ve had some miraculous experiences (or terrifying ones) happen to them and they have realized that the scientific paradigm did not fit those experiences.
I’ve had more than a few experiences like this myself. The first that I remember were when I was ten years old and I started having dreams that came true. Being a very scientifically-minded little kid I discovered parapsychology, but I was not satisfied with explanations of “confirmation bias” and similar because the details were just too much to deny. I really tried to embrace the rational, logical view, but it was insufficient for me at the time. I have had many more such experiences since, and without them, I would not be a witch today.
Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference between delusion and genuine spiritual experience. The line can be extremely thin, and I have known more than a few people who’ve crossed it. When that happens it casts doubt upon the reality of anything . . . well, so many words have been used to describe this, and most of them are fraught with unconscious associations, so let’s just call it non-temporal. Anything non-temporal is dismissed out of hand as crazy people having crazy experiences.
I just don’t think it’s that simple. Get small enough or big enough and the laws of physics that we think we understand are blown to smithereens. Weird shit that defies any explanation happens all the time, and the explanations that people use to justify them within the current scientific paradigm can get pretty thin. People who think scientifically usually pride themselves on being rational and logical thinkers; rationally, these limitations of the current scientific paradigm are undeniable. Anyone who says otherwise is just as “religious” as a spiritual person who is illogically and selectively blinding themself to facts because those facts don’t fit the world-view that they like. Hard-core skeptical atheists and hard-core fundamentalist Christians don’t sound too different to me in internet commentary. They know. Anyone else who doesn’t agree with them is deluded and wrong.
Okay; let’s say that those who think this are absolutely right. Let’s just suppose, for just a moment, that people who have had literal experiences with Gods really are crazy. Have you ever dealt with a person who has a mental illness? I have. My mother is bipolar and my husband is schizophrenic. If someone is having a delusion, you cannot convince them of this! To them, the experience is just as real as the computer I’m using to write this with, and just as you would tell someone to blow it out their a$$ if they tried to tell you the computer didn’t exist, they don’t believe you when you tell them that something that they know to be real, isn’t. So you’re not helping them at all by pointing this out. Especially not on the internet. If you’re genuinely trying to help, stop. All you’re doing is making yourself feel better by denying things that might cause you to call your own world-view into question. Or perhaps you’re trying to prove that you’re the smartest person in the room, which is a bad habit of many Pagan scholars.
But you could be wrong. What if the non-temporal beings that people perceive are actually extradimensional beings? Perhaps they exist slightly out-of-phase to us, like when a transporter accident happens on Star Trek. That would be a perfectly scientific explanation for something that seems like magic, wouldn’t it?
The Archetypist View
Archetypists might actually believe in Gods. I know that’s not the stereotype, is it? They often just have a different understanding of the nature of the Deities. And that understanding has a lot of variations and subtleties to it. It really isn’t an “either or” thing.
Archetypists believe that where the interaction happens with the Deities is in the human psyche. That’s really the only difference. Some of them believe in more intense interactions than others do. Many of them (most of the ones who write for this site, I think) believe that those interactions are every bit as significant as the Literalist does, they just don’t (generally) believe these interactions have any effect on the material world . . . except through people.
This can be challenging to someone with a Literalist view. After all, you know what you saw, right? You know what happened. I get it, believe me! Once I was physically thrown to the ground by an invisible force and held there for a little more than an hour. Once I stopped a car accident I’d foreseen in a psychic vision by doing the LBRP and projecting it to protect my friends. Once the Baron Samedi stopped by in borrowed flesh to tell me that my husband was going to be okay.
But the human psyche is complicated. That invisible force could have been psychosomatic. The avoided car accident could possibly have been coincidence and confirmation bias. Because I was desperate for some hope, I might have been projecting the Baron onto some perfectly normal guy who happened to not know that he shouldn’t talk to some woman by herself in the hospital at night, since he was from another country.
I don’t really believe that, of course. These experiences were some of the most meaningful spiritual events in my life, and if they had not unfolded in this way, I doubt I would be a witch now. But the truth is, the human psyche is capable of inventing all of these things. So as much as I believe it, I don’t know. I can’t know. Even having a witness (or several) doesn’t eliminate that possibility, since shared delusions have also been proven to exist. And what’s more, I’ll never be able to prove otherwise to someone who doesn’t believe it.
But while Archetypists may not believe in physical effects, they probably do believe in the ability of the powerful thought-form that is a Deity to powerfully affect people. They would easily accept that the Baron Samedi obviously had a pretty powerful effect on me, and they would respect that with all the reverence due a Deity.
Of Fruit and its Value
Let’s get back to the fruit metaphor. John Beckett wrote that “The Gods Are Like Apples.” He wrote that they come in different varieties and flavours, and some have a preference for one type of apple more than another. He wrote that they all have a certain “appleness” about them that we recognize, but they are all very different, very individual fruit. No two are exactly alike and there are many varieties. Yet, there are certain facts about apples that are true whether we like them or not. One does not have to like the chemical makeup of an apple, nor its DNA, for these to be facts, for example.
He wrote that our method of worship and devotion can be likened to apple preparation. One might prefer apple pie to hard apple cider, and the two are not the same. There’s a lot of different meals, desserts and drinks available. Sometimes we even get rotten apples, or a nasty apple vinegar, or the cobbler goes moldy in the fridge, because there are also a few bad ways to prepare and interact with apples. You don’t need any instruction to enjoy an apple, he wrote (and I am sure that apple cider is routinely discovered by accident,) but if you want apple pie, it might help to have a recipe to draw upon and someone to show you how to make pastry.
Okay; so far I don’t have any major disagreements. I do have some minor ones; I might point out that the way to change the variety of apple is by grafting, not breeding; and I might also point out that all apples come from a single ancient tree species from the mountains of Central Asia. And the fruit was about the size of a radish. Which is actually a good argument for Universalism in the context of this metaphor. But I digress. John did point out that a metaphor is supposed to be understood symbolically and can be taken too far.
But then he wrote that if you stray too far from the apple, you cannot be said to be having a real apple experience. Is apple juice from concentrate just as good as organic fresh apple juice? And what about apple-flavoured candy? He wrote, “If your religion is all about pictures of apples and apple-flavored candy, count me out.”
To be fair, he did precede all of this with a statement about how there’s nothing “wrong” with apple-flavoured candy, but it’s just not an apple.” So I’ll give him that. But he is clearly implying that people who do not believe in a Literalist interpretation of the Deities are eating apple-flavoured candy. And he (and other Literalists) are eating the real apples, of course.
Okay, so let’s suppose you have been told all your life that the fruit that the rest of the world knows as an orange is an apple. You would have no way of knowing otherwise. Let’s go further; let’s say that you’ve been told that apple flavouring is the true flavour of apples; how would you ever know the difference? Apple-flavouring is designed to be sweeter and more intense than the taste of real apples, after all. Are you that sure that this is not you?
If you are, then you aren’t the only ones who “know the truth.” Fundamentalist Christians sure think they do. They often can’t resist telling us so, usually interjected with misquoted verses from the King James Bible about witches and living and something about divine wrath. Aren’t they annoying? They’re why comments on my YouTube channel are set to require my approval.
And do you know what? Even if they do turn out to be right, no insistence that I’m a blasphemer who is damned to hell for my denial has yet to change my mind about this. What makes you think you’re going to do better against the Archetypists?
I would seem to be on John Halstead’s side, whose reply, “How Do You Like Them Apples?” asked this question. For the most part I am. I thought his description of children discovering the colour of an apple was particularly poignant. I often use the comparable fable of the blind men and the elephant as my metaphor of divine interaction. I’m of the opinion that temporal beings trying to understand non-temporal beings are not much different than a two dimensional stick figure man trying to understand our three dimensional world. We lack the context, and therefore, any understanding we have is a working paradigm which is automatically wrong because it doesn’t translate.
But I think he’s pushing it a bit with his molecular exchange metaphor. And I also fail to see how this in any way proves that Devotional Polytheists are any more fractious than any other kind of Pagan. I guess he hasn’t been involved in the same Pagan community that I have. What John Halstead is saying, to the best of my ability to discern, is that the simple-minded like simple metaphors and easy-to-grasp definitions; this need to compartmentalize for the sake of simplicity creates divisiveness; and when these types become Pagans they become Hard Polytheists.
I read both of these writers. I think they have some fantastic things to say about faith that make me think about my own. I have referenced their works in my own writing; one work in particular was perhaps the most important theological speech I’ve ever given in my life. They’re both brilliant men and wise Pagans. So why must they both throw cheap insults at each other? Do they think we don’t notice? Why can’t they address each other with a modicum of professional courtesy and respect?
Let’s consider the Christian faith traditions. I understand that this was meant in the negative (especially if you consider the verse before it) but I think perhaps they have the best way of looking at it. It’s a simple test as to the value of a faith; “By their fruits shall ye know them.”
How do you determine whether or not a faith has value? If I, again, were to bring it back to apples, I would say that the only real test is in whether or not the resulting dish nourishes you. If you’re only eating apple pie with whipped cream all the time, you’re going to get fat. If you’re only drinking apple cider vinegar, you’re probably going to get an ulcer while you waste away to nothing. If you’re only eating apple-flavoured candy, you’re going to die of malnutrition.
So, how nourishing are the apple dishes that John Beckett and John Halstead are cooking?
Despite some unfortunate tendencies towards the sour, it seems to me that both of these Pagans are serving up some pretty good food. Like I said, I read them both. And they each support their communities, providing religious leadership, theological nuance, and inspiring guidance. People read their ideas and listen to what they have to say, and they grow from it.
I don’t think either one of these guys are eating or serving apple-flavoured candy.
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