Why Do Some People Experience Deities, But Others Don’t?

I have often wondered why some people experience gods all the time – indeed, can’t stop experiencing the gods even if they wanted to – and others don’t. Still others experience gods sometimes, in specific circumstances. There are various explanations available for this, and all of them have pros and cons. Let’s examine a few of them. I don’t really know which one is the right answer, though.

A “God(s)-Shaped Hole”?

Some have argued that people of religion have a “god-shaped hole” in our psyches – that our psychological make-up is such that we are receptive to experiences of the divine and/or deities. Christian apologists (starting with Pascal, who coined the phrase “god-shaped vacuum“) argue that only their god can fill this hole. The argument goes that their god created us for himself, and therefore our hearts yearn towards him (which is something of a circular argument).

Apart from the fact that I am automatically suspicious of any argument coined by Pascal, who also came up with the deeply unpleasant and frankly immoral concept of Pascal’s Wager, I would argue that it has been amply demonstrated that people are searching for meaning in their lives, but that that meaning takes a different form for different people, and that atheists can have equally meaningful and fulfilling lives as people who believe in god(s). Also, Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism points out that studies have shown that atheists have more enquiring minds and are generally happier than many Christians.

A Pagan version of the “gods-shaped hole” argument might draw upon the idea that because we and the gods were born of a single mother (Nature), and are of the same substance, we feel a natural affinity for each other.

However, if this were the case, then surely everyone would experience a yearning for the gods – and more importantly, all those who seek the gods would find them – which isn’t necessarily always what happens.

Hallucinations?

Many people might argue that those who see visions of deities are merely experiencing hallucinations. However, the quality of these visions and experiences is different than many hallucinations; they (mostly) appear to act on the psyche in an integrative and healing way, rather than in a destructive and damaging way. People who experience dreams and visions may be edgy and uncomfortable to be around – but they are  highly functional individuals, for the most part. Psychiatrists have begun to accept that people who hear voices and see things are not necessarily ill.

Rhyd Wildermuth has suggested that the difference between the “mad” who hear voices, and the sane, is that the sane person can make the voices stop, shut them out for a time, and the “mad” cannot.

In addition to this, there is a long Welsh tradition that anyone who sleeps alone on the slopes of Cader Idris will end up dead, mad, or a poet. Shamanism, poetic inspiration, bardic frenzy, mysticism, and madness, have been symbolically linked from ancient times. The word ovate comes from “Vates, Uatis, Euhages, which may derive from the Indo-European root uat, ‘to be inspired or possessed’.” (OBOD)

In the 1960s and 70s, the anti-psychiatry movement argued that “madness” was a matter of perspective, and that in many societies, those who have these experiences are valued as visionaries, not locked up and drugged. Michel Foucault, Thomas Szasz, and RD Laing promoted alternative communal methods of treating the mad. Some anti-psychiatrists pointed to the remarkably similar content of people’s hallucinations, and pointed out that these often consisted of symbols of wholeness, like the World Tree, or the World Mountain.

So, I don’t think we can dismiss every visionary experience of a deity as a hallucination. I would be prepared to accept the explanation that such experiences are a profound interior experience, but only interior, but then that doesn’t explain why people have the same dream or vision at the same time, or receive messages for others which they then pass on to them.

Psychic Powers? Extra-Sensory Perception?

Another possibility is that some people experience deities because they have a “sixth sense” that enables them to perceive deities and energy. Certainly, some people seem to be especially gifted at psychic perception and techniques, but then the less gifted can also improve our abilities with practice.

It is very difficult to test psychic phenomena empirically, so I would say that the evidence for this hypothesis is inconclusive. I personally feel that people only have flashes of psychic insight when it really matters, so it is hard to turn it on and off at will in a laboratory situation. (Skeptics would doubtless feel that this is because psychic powers don’t exist, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is something going on.

Some People Are Chosen?

Some polytheists have stated that they did not choose their gods, their gods chose them. So they might argue that people who perceive the gods are the ones who have been chosen to do so.

For those of us who really like deities but don’t necessarily feel strongly that we have been chosen by a specific deity, this argument feels like a kick in the teeth. Is my relationship with Odin any less valid because I went looking for him, rather than the other way round?

What’s more, I am tempted to argue that claiming to have been chosen by a deity is almost a self-disqualifying statement, because it is so full of hubris (in the sense of “excessive pride towards the gods”). It is one thing to be privately convinced that a deity has chosen you for a task; quite another to proclaim it from the rooftops.

The Charge of the Goddess states that “and know that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou knowest the mystery: if thou findest not what thou seekest within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee” [outside of yourself]. Another way of looking at this might be that the gods we seek are the ones who were seeking us, because of some affinity between us and them.

Enchantment Goat, by Hodja Nasreddin

Enchantment Goat” by Hodja Nasreddin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia. Io Pan!

Enchantment and Disenchantment?

Another possible explanation is that capitalism, rationalism, materialism, and reductionism have disenchanted the world. As our awareness of the gods returns, the world is re-enchanted.

Rhyd Wildermuth writes,

In Capitalist society, Gods don’t exist; just like homeless people don’t really exist; just like stars are really just large balls of flaming gas. But to this I must answer, the stars are balls of flaming gas if animals are mere food and trees are mere fuel, humans mere workers and puddles mere bits of water.

So, rationalism, capitalism, reducing everything to mere commodities with a monetary cost rather than any intrinsic value, forgetting about wisdom in the lust for knowledge: these are the things that disenchant the world, obscure our vision and make us unable to see that a star is not merely a ball of flaming gas, but also a source of beauty and meaning, maybe even a goddess or a god.

As W B Yeats wrote,

Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon, were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still-bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the thunder the sound of his beaten water jar, or the tumult of his chariot wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild ducks, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest….

I do know that I want to live in an enchanted world, where everything has its own intrinsic value, not merely a price imposed by the market. I want to live in a world where everything has meaning and beauty, where all things are shining with the light of divinity.


Perhaps I am no nearer to an answer to my question, but hopefully this post has made the people who are sure about their answer to this question less sure about it. Question everything, that’s my motto.

 

 

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Wobbling, But Not Falling Off

Jason Mankey has a great post on “When Someone Leaves Paganism” and how to respond to this situation – both in supporting the person leaving, and processing the feelings about it that inevitably come up.

But what about when someone has a crisis of faith, which may involve leaving the Pagan path temporarily, but where the person may eventually return to the Pagan path?

I had a crisis of faith in 2007, and I have always meant to write about it, but the time never seemed right, for various reasons. At first it was too recent to get any perspective on it; then it was too embarrassing, plus it is all very personal stuff; and then I got distracted by other things – like writing a book.

But I think it is worth sharing what happened, just in case anyone else finds themselves in the same situation. I actually think I went temporarily insane, or at least very off-balance – hence the title of this post, and the image of the cyclist.

However, I am not sure that my “wobble” makes sense outside the context of my spiritual journey… so here is a potted history of my path.

My spiritual journey

John William Waterhouse - Tate Gallery, online database: entry N01572 Public Domain

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My earliest spiritual experience was probably wanting to be a witch. At the age of eight, I went to a party at school, which I thought was fancy dress but turned out not to be, and asked my mum to make me a witch costume. I think I had got this from reading Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat. Later, I read Cynthia Harnett’s novels and absorbed the idea of the witch as a herbalist and healer from her book The Writing on the Hearth.

As a child, I always loved nature and animals, and wanted to be able to converse with trees. I also loved Greek and Norse mythology, Narnia and Middle-Earth. I liked all the Pagan bits in Narnia – the tree spirits, the talking animals, the river god, the fauns, and the centaurs. (I did not notice the Christian bits, because I was immersed in Christianity already.)

I was brought up in the exclusive Plymouth Brethren till the age of nine, but fortunately my parents sheltered me from the worst effects of this. I used to sit in the meetings and read the gory bits and the stories in the Old Testament. One significant thing was that the Plymouth Brethren did not allow people to have Christmas trees, but my parents had one anyway, and told us not to mention it at the meetings. So I asked why we were not supposed to have a Christmas tree, and my parents said “because it’s Pagan”, so I asked what a Pagan was. They said that in the old days, people used to think that the sun might not come back after the winter solstice, so they would go up onto hill-tops and light fires to make the sun come back. I thought this sounded lovely, and wanted to be a Pagan.

However, I believed in the Christian stuff I had been taught, except I don’t think I ever really believed in the devil. And I don’t recall praying to Jesus, only to God (no idea why). Also, I never believed in ‘young earth’ creationism. When I learnt about the Big Bang and evolution at school, I asked my dad how it could be reconciled with the Bible creation account, and he said that God could have used evolution as his process for making things, and that a day in the creation story was like a million years – because elsewhere in the Bible, it says that a thousand years is like a day to God.

After we left the Plymouth Brethren, my parents attended some other churches, including a charismatic evangelical one, where I learnt to “speak in tongues” (also known as glossolalia).

After my parents stopped going to church, I left it for a couple of years and then I went to a United Reformed Church which had a charismatic fellowship group in it.

Around that time, two very significant things happened. I saw the film Gandhi, which made me aware that there were very wise and spiritual people in other religions (who, according to the Christians I knew, would not get to heaven). I had always thought it was unfair that people from other religions were supposed to go to hell just because they believed something different.

The other thing was that my best friend, whom I had known since the age of five, and who was a very spiritual and altruistic person, came out to me as gay. I asked my Christian friends about this, and they said that he would go to hell if he persisted in having sex with men. I was pretty sure that he had been born gay, so I thought it was massively unfair that God would create someone gay and then condemn them for it. I was also discovering my own sexuality around this time, and wondering why a “try before you buy” approach to marriage was condemned. And I had learnt about the Holocaust and concluded that good and evil reside mainly in the human breast, not as some cosmic force or being, and that if God was all powerful, why would he allow such dreadful suffering (free will notwithstanding)?

So at this point I became an atheist.

Coming home to Paganism

I then concluded that there must be some way – political or spiritual – to make the world a better place. I thought about this and decided that consciousness needs raising so that people are more empathetic and compassionate. I thought that one way to help with this was to raise my own consciousness, so began to look for a spiritual tradition that could help me with that. I rejected any tradition that was against life, sexuality, and the beauty of being embodied in this physical plane, and that seemed more interested in some other reality.

I had read Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling, and concluded that Paganism was a good label for my beliefs – that life, sexuality, and nature are sacred, and that there is no all-powerful cosmic creator. I was attracted to Pagan mythology but did not believe in deities literally.

At this point, I thought that I was the only Pagan – I did not know that there were other Pagans. Then, when I went to university, I got involved with battle re-enactment and met other Pagans there, and also at university. In my last year at university, someone started a Pagan society, so I joined it. From that group, someone put me in touch with some Wiccans, and so in 1991, after I left university, I was initiated into Wicca. It felt like coming home. The wildness, the connection to nature, the rituals at night in the woods with fire, the honouring of women equally with men – it felt very much like the celebration of life that I was looking for.

I was happy with the coven I was initiated into, and stayed in it for 3 years, until I moved to Scotland. There, it was much harder to find a coven to join, though I tried a couple of different ones. It was very painful as I missed the closeness of my original coven and the style of the rituals. I got my second degree initiation in 1996, which meant I was then able to initiate others.

Then I moved to Southampton, where there were no existing Wiccan covens. I started an eclectic non-initiatory Pagan group, with a view to initiating them eventually. The various members moved away, and I moved to London to do a PGCE.

In 2000, I moved to Bristol and started a coven with my partner in 2003.

The wobble

After a while, I began to worry about the effects created in the psyche by Wiccan oaths of secrecy (I felt that they created a block). I also wanted a more community-based religion, and tried Druidry for a while (alongside my existing Wiccan practice). I also started worrying about the very gendered nature of Wiccan deities.

By this time, I had started to believe in deities as something more than archetypes, and was a member of an online group of polytheists, most of whom were convinced that deities were discrete individual entities, and many of whom were convinced that they had a special relationship with a particular deity. I started to wonder why I had not been chosen by a particular deity.

In 2007, while I was doing an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities, I discovered that Christianity was not as homophobic as I had thought, and that in fact it had a less gendered view of the Divine than I had thought. Traditionally, God was viewed as being without gender. And it was less against the physical plane than I had thought.

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field (1889)

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field (1889)

I also began to wonder if the problems of the world could ever be solved by human means, since everything is so entangled – capitalism leads to war and oppression and environmental degradation, and if you fix one problem, you’re likely to cause another one.

Another problem that I experienced with Paganism around this time was the reburial issue. A number of Pagans were campaigning to have human remains reburied, and I thought this was irrational on several grounds: that archaeology had provided much of the data that enabled the Pagan revival to happen; that there were much more important issues to worry about, such as climate change, social justice issues, and the destruction of the rainforests; and that the best way to treat human remains was to recover their stories so that they can be remembered and honoured, and put them safely in museums, which are after all temples to the Muses. If you are interested in this issue, I have outlined the case for retaining human remains in museums elsewhere.

And the other thing was that in 1992, I had performed an exorcism for someone and seen the entity (grey, gangly and with orange eyes) that was doing the haunting with my inner eye, and in 2007, someone showed me a photo taken in a cave in the Middle East of something that looked very much like the entity (grey, gangly, and with orange eyes), and you could see the rock through its transparent legs. This freaked me out. I had always assumed that nature spirits were either benign or neutral, and any hostility to humans that they might have would be on environmental grounds. This thing just looked downright nasty.

Also in 2007, I was meditating at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury and had a vision of Jesus. I had no idea what to do with this, as I was a witch. I had been looking for my personal deity, having a crisis about the nature of the cosmos and what to do about the problem of evil, and admiring Christianity for its stance on social justice issues such as poverty. One of my main arguments against Christianity had been removed, and I also discovered that some Christians believed everyone would be saved (so that demolished the other argument).

I had also found that love was a really important transformative factor in healing, as our cat, Harry, was very traumatised when he came to us, and our love drew him out and made him better. I became almost convinced that the idea that ‘God is love’ was actually true.

Prior to this, I had had a huge reservoir of anger in my psyche that was directed against Christianity, and which would well up and spill over about almost anything. Now that the anger was removed, there was a locked box underneath it marked “do not open” which contained my fear that the Christian explanation for how the universe works was actually true. Even though I knew in my rational mind that it was not, the idea that it might be true still lurked in some pre-rational area of my mind. The fear caused me actual physical pain in my chest.

"Puu Oo cropped" by G.E. Ulrich, USGS. Cropping by Hike395 (talk · contribs) - USGS. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Puu_Oo_cropped.jpg#/media/File:Puu_Oo_cropped.jpg

Puu Oo erupting” by G.E. Ulrich, USGS. Cropping by Hike395 (talk · contribs) – USGS. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

I could not bear the idea of rejoining an evangelical church, where my involvement with Paganism would almost certainly be seen as demonic, and where my in-depth knowledge of mythology would be in massive conflict with their simplistic world-view. So I thought I would try the Orthodox Church (lots of bells and smells, great ritual, icons, and had done very little persecution of non-Christians), which I did for two months. In many ways, I found their theology helpful and illuminating, as it was very different to western Christianity on issues like original sin and the meaning of Jesus’ death. I did not like their elevation of celibacy to a saintly virtue, nor the fact that they do not have women priests, nor their conservative attitude to homosexuality.

I lasted for two months and then found out they were much more homophobic than I had thought. So I realised I could not bear that, and thought, ‘Well, I have tried Orthodoxy for two months now, I will try the Unitarians next.’ So I went to a Unitarian church and there was a woman at the front talking about Zen Buddhism and cats, and there were hymns saying that all religions contained great teachers and offer the possibility of enlightenment. It was wonderful and felt like home.

During this period, I actually think I went temporarily insane, because I re-enacted the development of religious thought in Europe over the last 2000 years in the space of six months. I went from polytheism to Christianity, to universalism, back to atheism, and then eventually back to polytheism. It was a theological roller-coaster ride and I don’t recommend taking it so fast.

I am so grateful to the members of the Pagan community who held me steady during this time. One of those people was Cat Chapin-Bishop. The members of my coven at that time were also tremendously supportive, despite it being really difficult for them that their new high priestess was having a flirtation with Jesus. The other thing that was really important was Pagans saying that if I was on the right spiritual path for me, that was fine with them. That remains one of the great strengths of Paganism – that we don’t believe it is cosmically necessary to be a Pagan, and that the same spiritual path may not be right for everyone.

I eventually ended my relationship with Jesus – much to my relief and probably his and everyone else’s too.

The nice thing about Unitarianism is that it is inclusive enough to allow its members to be atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, Pagans, Christians, Hindus, Jews, or just plain Unitarians, because it is about values and social justice and sharing your spiritual insights with others, not about adhering to a specific set of beliefs. You can also change your spiritual focus, or mix and match different traditions. It also has really great hymns, and is compatible with reason and science. I made some great friends among the Unitarians, and am glad that I went exploring.

In fact, I liked Unitarianism so much that I thought I wanted to be a minister. I enjoyed leading services, and I was good at it. I should think I ought to be after 20 years of writing and performing Pagan ritual. However, several Unitarian asked how it was possible to be a Unitarian and a Wiccan; whereas no Wiccans ever asked me how it was possible to be both Wiccan and Unitarian. They were interested in how it worked, but not critical of my choice.

At the end of 2009, I split up with my former partner and moved to Bath. It was an amicable split and we continued to work together as high priestess and high priest of our coven.

I still liked Unitarianism but in order to be a minister, I would have had to give up being a Wiccan priestess (not because of any theological conflict, but because one doesn’t have time to be a leader in two different religious traditions when one of those commitments is a full-time paid professional commitment). I also found that trying to present the archetype of minister was in conflict with my inner archetype of being a witch. Wicca celebrates the sacredness of the erotic, and (for the most part) Unitarianism doesn’t. So, after one week of being a ministry student – and many, many hints from the Powers that being a Unitarian minister would have been a really really bad idea for me personally – I quit the training. I am just not interested in mainstream Christian theology, or whether the Hebrew Bible is an accurate account of Israel’s history, or whether it is constructed from different texts (Priestly, Elohist, Yahwist and Deuteronomic), or how to do Christology, or any of the other topics covered in the required theology courses. At the time, I was suffering from spiritual burn-out. This was partly as a result of events before I joined Unitarianism, but the problem was exacerbated by trying to work as a congregational development worker – which seems to be a role like that of a minister but without the status and respect accorded to a minister.

As I approached the start of my training, I felt depressed, anxious, overworked, overburdened, and conflicted. I thought that this was because I wanted to leave my job, which I did, but once I had left my job, I realised that the feelings were still there. I think that this depression and anxiety was pointing to the deeper issues which I had with being in a religious tradition that wasn’t right for me, and which wasn’t spiritually nourishing for me (although it did heal me in many ways).  There seems to be a general lack of clarity on what Unitarianism is. Each Unitarian knows their own mind, and their own theology, and I can see a consistency of values across the spectrum, but there does not seem to be a consensus on whether Unitarianism is Christian or not.

Shortly after this, I moved to Oxford and made a fresh start, which was really helpful for me.

Coming home to Wicca

I felt such a huge physical sense of relief when I quit the training. I went to a circle with my coven, and felt bits of me that had been clenched and withdrawn re-opening like desert flowers gratefully receiving rain. I went to a workshop event with a group of Wiccans, and mentioned the experience of sublimated eros in Wiccan ritual, and everyone nodded and smiled (whereas you would have to spend a lot of time explaining this to most people). I knew I was home again, with my beloved community. And strangely, everything in my life started getting better too. I had been unsure how I was going to support myself financially through the training course, where I was going to live, and this was a massive period of upheaval in my life.

Eventually, in August 2012, I realised that I couldn’t be a Unitarian and a Wiccan. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, I honour and work with the Pagan deities, I look to the land and Nature for my spiritual nourishment.

I attended a symble run by a very dear friend, and vowed at that point to focus all my energies on Paganism. It was a powerful moment. It was then that I realised that Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, my tribe, blood of my blood, heart of my heart. It was also around this time that I started blogging at Patheos Pagan.

Also, in 2012, I met my new partner, who has been Wiccan since before he met me. We are very much in love. This helps greatly with feeling positive about life.

I spent most of 2014 writing my book about inclusive Wicca, and clarifying my thoughts about my Craft. During 2015, I have been working on the Pagan Consent Culture anthology with Christine Hoff Kraemer.

PILGRIM ON A FOREST ROAD -- Into the Mist of Old Japan, by Enami

PILGRIM ON A FOREST ROAD — Into the Mist of Old Japan, by Enami (uploaded to Flickr by Okinawa Soba) [CC by NC SA 2.0]

Wobbling makes you stronger

Sometimes, in order to truly experience a feeling, you have to go away from it and approach it from a different angle. You have to try to do without your connection to beloved community to know that they are really your tribe, your people. Having tested my faith in Paganism, the deities, and the power of Nature, I found that it bent but did not break, it tore but did not disintegrate. It was antifragile (thanks to Melissa Hill for introducing me to that useful new word).

There are numerous spiritual stories where the hero goes past the thing s/he seeks, mistaking it for something else, and then has to double back to find it again by accident. This is especially true of the story of Moses and Al-Khidr. That is often the nature of ‘spiritual’ treasure. It is not immediately obvious that it is treasure.

Many people find that they arrive at a universalist perspective on spirituality, only to find that it is really difficult to sustain the idea that “all is one” (perhaps because your mountain is not the same as my mountain, perhaps because spirituality works better when it has a specific context), and then move once again into their own spiritual perspective and homeland, with a new appreciation of its worth.

So, whilst having a wobble on your spiritual journey can be really painful and difficult: if you are having one, follow your bliss, whatever that turns out to be. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Where do you feel most comfortable, most nourished? Who are the people who really support your journey, and who are the people who just want to control you? Who are you? What do you want? Whom do you trust, and whom do you serve?

 

 

 

Relational Polytheism: Standing Beside The Gods

John Beckett has a post up, The Future of Polytheism: Keeping the Gods at the Front, and John Halstead has a response to it entitled, If It Doesn’t Help Me Save This World, I Don’t Want Your Polytheist Revolution.

As so often, I find myself positioned halfway between the two Johns. An uncomfortable position to be in, perhaps.

When I first read John Beckett’s article, I couldn’t pin-point exactly what it was that made me uncomfortable about it. I just knew that it made me uncomfortable. Putting the gods at the front – what does that mean? Does it mean that they are the most important aspect of Paganism and/or polytheism?

I am more comfortable with John Halstead’s article, but I think he missed the qualifiers in John Beckett’s article: that the gods are immanent, and therefore part of the natural world that we want to protect from the depredations of humanity and capitalism; religion is not much good if it doesn’t work towards social, environmental, and restorative justice.

The way I see my relationship with the deities, as I outlined in my post on why I am a polytheist Wiccan, is that they are our allies. They are not our masters and we are not their servants; we are not their masters and they are not our servants. We are co-creators with them of reality. Sometimes the realities that we create are frightening and harmful, as in the current ecological and climate crisis. Sometimes the realities that they are said to have created are frightening and harmful, as in the Trojan War (though I am sure it was all too easy for the ancient Greeks and Trojans to claim that the gods made them do it).

So whilst the gods are important, because they are the consciousnesses of specific places and natural phenomena, they are not more important than the ecosystem, Nature, the Earth, and other species who share the planet with us.

As a relational polytheist, I feel that it is our job to focus on right relationship with other beings, starting with other animals, including humans, and with the ecosystem in which we live, of which the deities are the conscious emanations. This can mean that we need to engage in restorative justice, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, or by supporting the Idle No More protests of Indigenous peoples, or campaigning for asylum seekers to be treated fairly by the UK.

The Lotus Pool, By Rafael Matysiuk (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Lotus Pool, by Rafael Matysiuk (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
A complex ecosystem.

Being in right relationship with our fellow embodied beings, and in right relationship with our ecosystem, will do more to bring us into right relationship with our deities than any amount of worship. Yes, we need to make that inner connection with the spirits of place, the spirits of the land, and the deities, as part of our awareness of all the interconnected relationships of the nested interconnections of being in which we live. But deities, land-wights, animals, humans, are all part of that web of relationships. The deities are not more important than other aspects of that interconnectedness, any more than humans are.

So I stand beside my deities as an ally and a co-worker. They are more powerful and far-seeing in the realms of spirit, consciousness, and the timeless, so I need their help to access that mode of consciousness. They, on the other hand, need my finite, time-bound, and physically-embodied mode of consciousness in order to bring about change in the physical world.

I am devoted to the interconnectedness, to bringing about heaven on earth, to creating (right) relationships and beloved community. If the gods are allies in that process, then they are my allies and my friends.

Overlapping Circles

When I started writing for this blog, I had some sort of idea that I would systematically wade through the various areas covered by theology – the personal, the interpersonal, our relationships with spirit, the nature of deities and spirits, interfaith dialogue within the Pagan movement, dialogue with other religions, community, society, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and so on.

But all  of these issues overlap with each other and are intertwined.

What has happened in reality is that my writing has focussed on issues that are important to me (gender, sexuality, Black Lives Matter, migration, consent), or responded to things that have happened – both online and in the physical world – that I felt could be addressed from a Pagan perspective.

It has become apparent that there is not really a roadmap for writing Pagan theology. I think that all the best theological writing assumes and acknowledges that it is a personal reflection on a theological issue, and runs with that assumption. I do not think that theology should be prescriptive. It is more about opening a space for dialogue on theological issues. That is why a blog is the ideal place to host a theological conversation – because people can post comments, or send in a guest post, or write a post in response on their own blog.

Sometimes my posts are just “thinking aloud“, and the comments on them significantly change my thinking about the topic being discussed, or highlight something that I hadn’t thought of.

I think that theology should always be discursive and not prescriptive. It is not up to me to tell anyone what to think – just to open up a space for discussion. I write to work out what I think, and to get feedback on it. I think the comments on a blogpost can sometimes be as illuminating as the blogpost.

The Dawn Of The Gods

In The Allegory of Love, CS Lewis wrote that in the declining years of ancient paganisms, people started to see the gods as metaphors, and then as allegorical personifications, until eventually belief in them declined. He says that “the distinction … between an abstract universal and a living spirit … was only vaguely and intermittently present to the Roman mind.” As an example, he gives the personification of Nature – “something more than a personification and less than a myth, and ready to be either or both as the stress of argument demands”. In the Thebaid of Statius, written some time between 45 CE and 96 CE, the various gods and personifications depicted in it “are all things that live and die in the inner world of the soul”.

Lewis (no friend to polytheism, but a friend to Pagan mythology), writes:

The twilight of the gods… must not be supposed to be in any sense a result of Christianity. It is already far advanced in Statius, and Statius, as a poet, but feebly reflects what philosophy had done long before him. It represents, in fact, the modus vivendi between monotheism and mythology. Monotheism should not be regarded as the rival of polytheism, but rather as its maturity. Where you find polytheism, combined with any speculative power and any leisure for speculation, monotheism will sooner or later arise as a natural development. The principle, I understand, is well illustrated in the history of Indian religion. Behind the gods arises the One, and the gods as well as the men are only his dreams. That is one way of disposing of the Many. European thought did not follow the same path, but it was faced with the same problem.

We need not agree with Lewis on the inevitability of monotheism to see that he is probably right that the allegorisation of the gods was the transitional phase between polytheism and monotheism. Of course, Lewis is being disingenuous in a way, as he clearly yearned to believe in the gods, and very likely believed in angels. (The book was written in 1936, seven years after his conversion to Christianity in 1929, but he had long been interested in Pagan mythology.)

I wonder if, in order to believe in the gods again, it has been necessary for us to pass through a phase of seeing them as metaphors and personifications, before we can see them as real again. The phase of seeing them as metaphors and archetypes has perhaps been a necessary preparation for seeing them as the face that we can perceive of vast cosmic forces, or localised manifestations of spirit.

Eos, Phosphoros, Hesperos, Helios, black-coloured pencil drawing, The National Museum in Warsaw, 1897

Jutrzenka“: Eos, Phosphoros, Hesperos, Helios, black-coloured pencil drawing, The National Museum in Warsaw, 1897 by Stanisław Wyspiański. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

What does it mean to be real?

I have always rather liked the Velveteen Rabbit’s definition of real.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit. 

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ 

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ 

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 
― Margery WilliamsThe Velveteen Rabbit

But how does this apply to gods? Gods are cosmic forces with a possibly anthropomorphic interface, right? They are not a Velveteen Rabbit or a Skin Horse. No, but they are beings with whom we enter into a relationship, and that is what they have in common with the Velveteen Rabbit. They become real to us when we and they are in relationship. Doubtless they were real cosmic forces before that, but we recognise them as people when we are in relationship with them.

I have always thought that humans acquire a particular shape or identity to our personality as a result of all the social interactions we have engaged in. My theory is that the same is true for gods. They acquire the particular personality / energy signature / interests / appearance that they do as a cumulative result of all the interactions that people have had with them over the centuries. If Persephone is now the Queen of Kink, and Loki sometimes appears with dark hair instead of red hair, that’s because they are happy to fill those new images with their presence and power.

In China, when they make a statue of a deity, they make a little compartment in the back which contains special magical items to give the statue shen (the power and presence of spirit). If the statue is sent to a museum, the shen cavity is emptied prior to being transferred to the museum. Images and statues and personifications are empowered with the spirit of the deity if and when They choose to do so.

In Gnosticism and other Neo-Platonism-derived traditions, the Real sometimes refers to the spirit world, as contrasted with the physical world. I don’t think this is a very helpful definition for a non-dualistic and embodied path like Paganism, where the goal (in my view) is for spirit and matter to become more intertwined.

The Twilight, the Night, and the Dawn

During the noon-day of the gods, when the world was enchanted, people saw the gods in everything.

Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon, were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still-bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the thunder the sound of his beaten water jar, or the tumult of his chariot wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild ducks, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest….
— William Butler Yeats

But, as C S Lewis rather wittily put it, the twilight of the gods was the mid-morning of the personifications. As our relationship with gods declined, they became seen as personifications of inner qualities. Eventually they became characters in old stories. That was the long night in which they slept.

But now the dawn is coming, and the old gods are brightening again, once more illuminating the many facets of reality, awakening from their long sleep, and interacting with us once more. For those of us who are busying ourselves making them cups of coffee and bringing them breakfast in bed, a little patience might be required while those who are still only perceiving them as archetypes or personifications catch up. We are in a transitional phase right now.

Spiritual Healing: Run Toward Your Fear (A Book Review: #PTCS by Reba Riley)

This book response is part of the Patheos Book Club on Spiritual Healing and Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. You can read the first four chapters of PTCS on Bookgrabbr.com.


Post-Traumatic Church SyndromeThirty before Thirty: Reba Riley—chronically ill , spiritually destitute, and in search of healing—made it her project to visit thirty religions before her thirtieth birthday.

It might sound like a shallow project to some, as it did to one of the rabbis she visited in the course of her year. But Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is not an attempt to catalogue the world’s religions. Rather, it’s a memoir of Reba’s attempt to get outside of her narrow sense of self, to push her boundaries by exploring the wounds she carried from leaving her childhood religion, pentecostal Christianity.

I’m not like Reba in that particular way; I left Christianity gently with no hard feelings. But I relate to this: she finds her fear and runs straight for it. And I relate to this: for Reba, spiritual growth isn’t a luxury, but a matter of life and death.

I was twenty-nine too (Saturn return!) when I left my marriage and my career and moved across the country, hoping that a change in external circumstances would shift my internal pain. And when that didn’t work, I plunged into the most intense period of spiritual practice in my life, spending at least an hour a day at my altar. As with Reba, a combination of self-observational and stillness meditation were the linchpins to finding my way out of the spiritual prison I’d made for myself. When Reba seeks the heart of Being and finds Love, I just had to cheer. I remember that journey.

What I did not have was Reba’s excellent sense of humor. PTCS is an easy read, self-deprecating and funny—so funny, in fact, that it may be hard to grasp the depth of suffering, both physical and spiritual, that she endured.  There’s deep experience here, wrapped up in a bright, silly-looking package. On the cover, Reba’s spirit animal, a peacock, attempts to eat part of the title: Is this a book we’re meant to take seriously?

Unadulterated seriousness will not serve you in reading this book; nor, I think, does it speed the process of spiritual healing. Wiccans and other witches will recall that in “The Charge of the Goddess,” we are asked to carry both mirth and reverence within us (a combination that well describes Reba’s visit to a public Beltane circle, incidentally—tangled maypole and all). Spirituality has a place for laughter, for spontaneity and experimentation—but those characteristics are not incompatible with discipline. Since Reba encourages the reader to join her in making fun of herself, it’s easy to miss how challenging months-long dedication to daily meditation practice is—and this is a discipline that ultimately bears much fruit. Reba may tell her story lightly, but there is determination here, and drive. There is humor here because the task is so heavy.

Is this a book for Pagans? If you are a Pagan of the scarred, ex-conservative Christian kind, this book is definitely for you. And if you are an earnest spiritual seeker, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome may give hope that trauma, spiritual brokenness, and debilitating illness can sometimes be healed. It is an uplifting book, not because it turns away from suffering and pain, but because it refuses to remain there.

There is one other way that PTCS provides a breath of fresh air. It is not a meaningful profile of thirty religions—the story is really about Reba’s journey. But what Reba does very well is convey how profoundly different these religions and their practitioners are seem to her. Though she doesn’t leave her home state, there is enormous variety of thought and practice in her backyard. This aspect of the book is an antidote to the claustrophobia that can come from spending too much time in one’s own religious community—using its jargon, asking its questions, pursuing its goals. (I think this is something Reba understands well, from her use of the term Christianese: the coded language in which Christians enforce their community’s norms.) It is a great relief sometimes to remember that other people have never heard of the great spiritual debates that so vex my religious community—they have their own weighty matters, their own vocabulary, and they work from completely different first principles. This reminder of the vastness of human experience can be freeing. Our differences, though so often a source of struggle, are also a source of great joy.

For Pagans with Christian families, this book may act as a bridge to open up sincere, thoughtful conversations about faith. More generally, I recommend it for anyone looking for a light and funny read that I, at least, am still reflecting on weeks later.


Hello all! I’m easing back into blogging with a series of book reviews. Next up: a biography of award-winning comics artist and occultist Alan Moore.

Faith and Belief

Many Pagans will tell you that they do not have faith and belief, because they know by experience that the gods exist. Here they are using the words in their modern sense of ‘assent to a creed’. Other Pagans will quite happily use the words faith and belief, because they mean something different by those words. What is going on? What do the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ mean? Has their meaning changed over time? Yes, according to Karen Armstrong:

“Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Jerome translated pistis into the Latin fides (“loyalty”) and credo (which was from cor do, “I give my heart”). The translators of the first King James Bible translated credo into the English “belief,” which came from the Middle English bileven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”). Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God.

~ Brian McGrath Davis, Religion is not about belief: Karen Armstrong’s THE CASE FOR GOD

Similarly, Alan Watts, a writer who popularised Zen in the West, regarded faith as an attitude of openness to mystery and uncertainty:

“Faith is a state of openness or trust.

To have faith is like when you trust yourself to the water. You don’t grab hold of the water when you swim, because if you do you will become stiff and tight in the water, and sink. You have to relax, and the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging, and holding on.

In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

~ Alan Watts

When we view faith and belief as meaning trust and/or the humility to admit that we don’t have all the answers, or even know what all the questions are yet, then they seem like much more attractive ideas. As Karen Armstrong says, they don’t involve assenting to a set creed, and bending your reason out of shape, or leaving it at the door, in order to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast’ – rather, they are about opening yourself to experience.

Otter in Alaska, photo by S Chucke (public domain).  Pixabay.

Otter in Alaska, photo by S Chucke (public domain). Pixabay.

Everyone knows that being open to experience without trying to come up with a theory to explain it can lead to more experiences of the same kind. Tania Luhrmann referred to this phenomenon as interpretive drift. I would prefer a more neutral term, such as openness, as her terminology (and indeed her study of magic users) was based on the premise that everyone starts out rational and then shifts, or drifts, towards a belief in magic. Whereas I do not think that a belief in magic is irrational, or incompatible with science. Pagans have a variety of ways in which we reconcile our theories of magic with the materialistic world-view of science.

I have always said that I don’t have a fixed belief (in the sense of assenting to a creed); instead, I have working hypotheses to explain my experiences.

Sometimes, we Pagans tie ourselves up in knots trying to avoid the problematic terminology we have experienced in evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christianity that some of us have experienced in the past. But sometimes it is worth trying to find out what these terms originally meant, and reclaim them for our own use. People have similar issues with the terms ‘worship’ and ‘prayer’, but that is a topic for another post.

Faith

So, if you have faith in the gods, it means you trust them. What are the implications of that? Well, if you trust your friend, it means you believe they have your best interests at heart; that you can confide in them; that they will not let you down in a crisis. So maybe you don’t have that kind of faith in all the gods, but rather with the ones you have a special devotion to, or a special relationship with. Or maybe you place your faith in Nature, and your relationship with it.

This faith – this relationship – is what sustains you when you feel doubtful, depressed, or otherwise wobbly. It doesn’t mean you never have doubts; it means that you keep on keeping on, even when you have doubts. You lean back into the water, and trust that it will hold you up, even when you don’t know how deep it is.

Let’s face it, even when we have direct experience of the gods, or of magic, we still don’t really know how it works, or what the gods really are. The face of the gods that we see is only one facet of their nature, whatever that may be. The gods are vast ancient cosmic forces, and our personifications of them are their reflections in human culture. As Sam Webster wrote recently:

Let us start with the Gods as we experience them. Much to my surprise, I am no longer convinced that the Beings we experience are the Gods Themselves. What we are experiencing is a projection of Those who are Gods refracted through our souls and the cultures we are a part of. 

We do not really know the full nature of the gods, so we are open and trusting towards them in order to experience more of their nature. We do not cling to our limited ideas about them, but are ready to open ourselves to more experience and insight.

Belief

To believe in something in the original sense is to prize it, to value it, to hold it dear. Do you prize your Pagan practice, your relationship with the gods? Do you hold dear the culture and values of Paganism? Then you believe in them.

The distinction between mythos and logos is important here. Mythos is metaphorical truth – something that rings true, that is an accurate symbol for representing something. Logos is literal truth, such as empirical knowledge about how things work. Karen Armstrong explains the difference:

In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos (“reason; science”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.

This is related to the concept of worship, which is about holding something to be worthwhile – a celebration of ultimate worth, as the excellent Abraxan Essay on Worship by Von Ogden Vogt has it. We value something, we trust it, we invest our time and energy in it – we believe in it. We still use this sense of ‘belief’ in everyday speech – “I believe in you” means “I value you and trust you”.

Belief is reinforced by belonging – the more we feel part of something, the more we place our trust in it; and the two are mutually reinforcing: the more we believe and trust in something, the more we feel that we belong. This process is contingent on experience, however; if your community lets you down, it is hard to continue with that same level of trust. Trust and belonging and belief are created by practice, which is why most religions place much more emphasis on practice than they do on assent to creeds. Karen Armstrong explains how religion is about practice:

Religious truth is, therefore, a species of practical knowledge. Like swimming, we cannot learn it in the abstract; we have to plunge into the pool and acquire the knack by dedicated practice. Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

Reclaiming the words

So, let’s reclaim the words faith and belief to mean what they originally meant, and not use them to mean ‘assent to a creed’. They mean far more than that; they are about creating relationship with the gods and/or Nature; reconnecting with the sacred; re-enchanting the world. We believe in the gods and spirits, Nature and the Earth and the  land, because we hold them dear, and value our relationships with them; we have opened our hearts to them. We have faith in them, because we are relaxed in their presence, and have let go of our assumptions, and we trust them.

Creating a consent culture

What is rape culture?

Rape culture is the patriarchal belief that women do not like sex (a belief promoted by so-called radical feminists as well as “men’s rights activists”), and that men are inherently predatory and want sex all the time. According to this view, women always have to be coerced or cajoled into sex. This erases the possibility of meaningful or enthusiastic consent. In this view, any woman who actually enjoys sex is a “slut” and is therefore “fair game” to be hit on by men (note the predatory language). Think of all the times you have heard the idea that a rape victim was somehow “asking for it”.

Rape is mostly about exerting power over the victim; it is mostly not about fulfilling a sexual urge. It is also worth noting that when a man rapes another man, it is often done to “feminise” the victim, in other words, to exert patriarchal power over him. A similar motive occurs in the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians by men – an attempt to “put them back in their place” in the patriarchal power hierarchy.

While an empirical comparison of undetected and incarcerated rapists is beyond the scope of the research reported here, studies of these two groups have revealed a number of similarities. Among the common characteristics shared by many incarcerated and undetected rapists, are high levels of anger at women (e.g., Groth, 1979; Malamuth, 1986; Lisak & Roth, 1990), the need to dominate women (e.g., Groth, 1979; Malamuth, 1986; Lisak & Roth, 1990), hypermasculinity (e.g., Groth, 1979; Mosher & Anderson, 1986; Lisak, Hopper & Song, 1996), lack of empathy (e.g., Lisak & Ivan, 1995; Scully, 1988) and psychopathy and antisocial traits (e.g., Ouimette, 1997; Kosson, Kelly, & White, 1997; Prentky & Knight, 1991).

Lisak & Miller, 2002

What is consent culture?

Consent culture is the view that everyone has the right to enjoyable sex, which they have enthusiastically consented to, in full possession of the facts (STD status of sexual partner, relationship status of partner, likelihood of commitment). And that everyone has the right to say no to sex.

Consent culture is sex-positive, sets boundaries, and promotes clear and shame-free communication about sex. In a consent culture, everyone (or the vast majority) values enthusiastic consent. So the onus is not on people who don’t want sex, or hugs, or any kind of contact, right now to say no to creeps and predators: the onus is on people not to be creepy and predatory.

Consent can be non-verbal, but when we are on the beginner slopes of consent culture, it’s great to actually get verbal consent.

By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A nice cup of tea.
By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How does promoting consent culture help?

We are never going to 100% eliminate creeps and predators.

However, at the moment, the wider culture (rape culture) empowers creeps and predators, by erasing boundaries, by slut-shaming and silencing people who call out predatory behaviours, and by claiming that “there’s nothing you can do, it’s in the nature of men to be predatory”. We do men (and everyone) a disservice if we give in to that bullshit.

Empowering potential victims is the last bastion of defence. The first bastion of defence is creating a consent culture.

In Canada, it was found that the anti-rape posters that placed the blame on perpetrators’ faulty notions of consent (instead of emphasising that women should not place themselves in positions of vulnerability, like most rape posters do) actually reduced the rate of rape by 10%.

It has also been found that a lot of rapes are committed by the same predators, who do not get reported because of the shame experienced by the victims. If these perpetrators were reported and dealt with, and everyone was a lot clearer about what consent means, then rape would become less of a widespread problem.

Different states in the USA, which have different cultures, also have widely differing rates of rape.  This suggests very strongly that rates of rape can be impacted by changes in culture, away from rape culture, and towards consent culture.

A consent culture is a sex-positive culture: one where people feel empowered to say no, and empowered to say yes, enthusiastically, without being slut-shamed, told they are a prude, or that they are frigid. One where we can explore sexuality and sacred touch together, in safety.

So you think Paganism doesn’t have a problem?

Let me tell you about some of the experiences that I have had with supposedly sex-positive Pagans.

  • Visiting another group which had trainees. The ritual was robed, but then they decided to take their clothes off during the feast, and started doing sexual things. They were polyamorous, I was in a monogamous relationship. They called me a prude for not being poly, and tried to get me to join in. As someone who thought I was poly but wanted to be faithful to my partner, this was very uncomfortable. I felt pressurised to join in, so as not to seem a prude.
  • Working with a HP. Shared a bed afterwards because it was the only bed in the flat and it was very cold. He wanted sex, I didn’t. I ended up having sex with him to shut him up.
  • People who hug in a creepy sexualised manner (more than one).
  • All the people who try to tell you that third degree initiation, or any other initiation, has to involve the Great Rite with actual sexual intercourse.
  • The creepy guy who is married, chats up women, and fails to tell them he is married. Repeatedly.
  • The slut-shaming and dismissal and cries of “don’t rock the boat” or “if you are strong then you can defend yourself” that happen every time this issue is raised.
So please do not try to claim that Pagans are squeaky clean. Just not true. We are part of the overculture, immersed in it, and the overculture is a rape culture.

I will no longer be silenced by slut-shaming, victim-blaming, fear of rocking the boat, and patriarchal misogyny.

Want to learn more / take action?

Pagan Consent Culture - cover by Shauna Aura Knight

Pagan Consent Culture – cover by Shauna Aura Knight

Why I am still a polytheist Wiccan

I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, and I do not believe that the gods are merely archetypes. I believe the gods are real and have agency. I am not sure if the gods are made of energy or consciousness or both, but I am sure that they are distinct identities. I do not see any conflict between my polytheism and my Wicca.

In the UK and Europe, Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca do not have a standard theology. I have Wiccan friends who are polytheist, animist, henotheist, archetypalist, duotheist (an increasingly rare view in the UK and European Wiccan community), atheist, non-theist, and unclassifiable.  I cannot speak for the USA, but I think the same is true there. American Wicca may be largely duotheist (I have insufficient data) but in the UK and Europe, I would say it is probably majority polytheist – though as I don’t often ask for people’s theology, I am not sure. But you can often tell by what people do in rituals. I am happy to do ritual with people with varying theological viewpoints, as long as they are respectful towards the deities and each other.

The key aspects of Wicca for me are that we practice in a circle – a symbol of the equality of all the participants (like King Arthur’s Round Table); that the circle becomes a microcosm to mirror the macrocosm (because we call the quarters); and that Wicca is both a religion and a magical practice. In other words, its purpose is to connect us with the numinous (religio, meaning to reconnect), and to transform us and the world for the better (that’s the purpose of the magic). Working skyclad is also really important to me, as a symbol of freedom and equality.

Lararium (household shrine) from the Thermopolium of Lucius Vetutuius Placidus, Pompeii

Lararium (household shrine) from the Thermopolium of Lucius Vetutuius Placidus, Pompeii. Photo by Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wiccan liturgy and openness to mystery

There are a few things in Wiccan liturgy (notably the opening words of The Charge of the Goddess) that make polytheist Wiccans feel awkward, so we either do not use them or keep our fingers crossed whilst saying them, or while others are saying them. In my own rituals, at home, I just don’t use the bits of liturgy that I don’t like. There are many different traditional words for casting the circle, calling the quarters, and so on, so there is plenty of choice, and many people have adapted them or written their own to suit their particular perspective. It is only when guesting with other covens that use those particular bits of liturgy that the issue occurs.

If you look at Wiccan liturgy, there are some bits that refer to multiple deities, and some that refer to two deities. However, Wiccan liturgy does not define or prescribe Wiccan theology; for one thing, the materials written by Gardner, Valiente, et al are not strictly duotheist; and for another, we have a lot of other material, written by many Wiccans. Thing is, most Wiccans in the UK, Europe, and Australia, write our own rituals, drawing on the body of existing material and on broader Pagan themes and ancient pagan source texts, so we can please ourselves as to the theology thereof.

I am aware that many 101 books on Wicca talk about “the Goddess” and “the God”. That is one of several reasons I wrote my book on inclusive Wicca – to empower polytheist Wiccans.

It would be really helpful if people did not deny the existence of polytheism in Wicca. It makes it hard to be polytheist and Wiccan when our existence is denied and erased. It doesn’t matter if you are a duotheist Wiccan who thinks every Wiccan should be a duotheist, or a Polytheist who thinks that all Wiccans are duotheist – the diversity of Wiccan theological perspectives says you are wrong.

The gods with whom I have a relationship are from several different pantheons, so Wicca provides a setting where I can honour them. As an English person, I have both Celtic and Saxon heritage – so why should I be forced to choose between those heritages?

The things that I love about Wicca are the combination of magical practice and entering into relationship with gods and spirits. I am a relational polytheist (a term coined by Niki Whiting and Aine Llewellyn) – I enter into relationships and alliances with the gods.

Niki Whiting writes of her approach to relational polytheism:

“I mean that we are in relationship with the gods and spirits – sometimes that means serving! Just as I serve my husband and children and friends from time to time. Building a shrine or altar is a form of hospitality wherein one is host and also serves, but as Anomalous Thracian says, we then become the guest to the entity that we host.

I am heavily influenced by feminist and process theologies, as well as Feri witchcraft, which all stress that we are co-creators of our world.

It’s a very simple idea, but has profound meaning for how we interact with our deities and this world. And for me ties into a way of being in the world that I am starting to shape my life around: that of radical hospitality.”

I love the idea that we are in a guest/host relationship with the gods, and the fact that the words for guest and host are derived from the same Indo-European root word. Hospitality is a sacred relationship.

Critiques of Wicca

I am critical of some aspects of Wicca, and would like to see Wiccans expand our understanding of polarity and fertility. Polarity can be created by any pair of opposites, not only a biologically male body paired with a biologically female body. Fertility does not have to involve making babies – it can be about creativity.

I believe that focussing exclusively on a goddess and a god (whether as a henotheistic practice within a broader polytheism, or as a duotheistic worldview) inherently excludes LGBT people. I also believe that it is disrespectful to the deities, and to the cultures that named them, to merge them together in a duotheist way. And most importantly, in my experience, deities are distinct identities with agency, in a similar way to humans, and therefore we can form alliances and relationships with them.

I would also like to see more engagement with the experience of resonance (a term coined by Ed Gutiérrez to describe the coming-together of several people’s energy).

However, just because I am critical of some aspects of my tradition, does not mean that I am not engaging with the tradition. Tradition evolves and develops in response to the needs of its practitioners. It is not fixed and unchanging. It is great to have a tradition to wrestle with, because this prevents one from merely doing whatever would most pander to one’s ego – but that does not mean that every critique of tradition is pandering to someone’s ego; it just means that we must exercise judgment.

Relational polytheism and Wicca

In his ode, Nemea, the classical poet Pindar wrote:

There is one race of men, one race of gods;
both have breath of life from a single mother. But sundered power
holds us divided, so that the one is nothing, while for the other
the brazen sky is established their sure citadel forever.
Yet we have some likeness in great intelligence, or strength, to the immortals,
though we know not what the day will bring, what course after nightfall
destiny has written that we must run to the end.

So, according to Pindar, humans and gods are related, and we have the “breath of life from a single mother”. This passage is part of the basis of my (relational) polytheism. The gods have different powers, being immortal – they are non-local and do not have a physical form. So they need our temporally-focussed and physically-located consciousness in order to be able to affect events in the physical world; and we need their eternal and non-local perspective in order to access the divine realms.

One of the many things I appreciate about Wicca is that the theology is fuzzy, and there is a greater focus on experience than on theology. If people and deities have a mutually satisfying encounter in a ritual, then I would regard that as a successful ritual. There is plenty of room for mystery in Wicca. We don’t know what the nature of the gods is, so all our theorising is probably inadequate, and most Wiccans acknowledge that. There is room for apophatic theology in Wicca: an acknowledgement that we don’t know everything about the gods, and that we only see the faces they choose to show us; that sometimes it may be more illuminating to say what the gods are not than to attempt to say what they are.

For me, Wicca is the religio-magical framework in which I engage with the gods and Nature. Wiccans are my tribe and I love them – even the ones who annoy me and/or who find me annoying. Polytheism is my theological perspective; and connecting and forming relationships and community is my ethos.

 

 

Paganism for Beginners: Reading list

This is my list of recommended reading for beginners. Many other lists are available. If you don’t like my list, make your own. I have tried to keep the list fairly short, so as not to overwhelm you with a great long shopping list.

My recommendation would be to read widely and deeply, noting what you agree with, what riles you, and what attracts you. You don’t have to agree with everything you read. Rather you should engage with it, see how it affects you, think about any issues it raises for you.

I have always had trouble with books that have exercises in them, because I tend to think, “Oh yes I will do that exercise later” and I either skip over it and never come back to it, or put the book down and never finish it.

I have to confess that whilst I have read a few books on Heathenry and Druidry, none of them strike me as general introductions or 101 books, so I will refer you to other people’s lists for beginners in those traditions, and other polytheist traditions.

Pagan books

The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci, by Barry Patterson

I have often said to people that if they only ever read one book on Paganism, it should be this one. It is all about how to engage with the landscape you live in, and how to connect with the spirits of place. It offers practical suggestions for deepening your connection with nature.

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America by Margot Adler

A great, and classic, introduction to contemporary Paganism. Goes into the beliefs, practices and communities in some depth. Evocatively and accessibly written.

The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates

This is one of my favourite books of all time. It is an exploration of the world of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry from the point of view of a young Christian missionary who comes to respect the Anglo-Saxon sorcerer he has been sent to learn from. It was based on the author’s PhD research into the Leechbook, an Anglo-Saxon herbal.

Books on Wicca

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft  by Ronald Hutton

A must-read for anyone who wants to know the history of Wicca, with some reflections on how and why why the Pagan revival happened. Ronald Hutton examines the historical conditions and cultural movements that gave rise to the Pagan revival and the birth of Wicca, and looks at more recent history as well.

Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America by Chas S. Clifton

The story of the Pagan revival in the United States. Very well-written and researched. The US equivalent of Triumph of the Moon.

Wicca: Magickal Beginnings by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine

A textual and historical analysis of the possible origins of the rituals and practices of this modern tradition of Pagan Witchcraft. A fascinating book that I found to be really interesting and to deepen my understanding of Wicca.

Wicca: the Old Religion in the New Millennium by Vivianne Crowley

An excellent introduction to Wicca, with an exploration of the dynamics of the rituals from a Jungian perspective. First published in 1989, with a revised edition in 1997, this book is still a classic. In a recent reflection on the book, Vivianne Crowley wrote:

When I wrote Wicca, I had been in Wicca for 15 years. What I had seen in that time was how Wicca had the potential to transform people. Many of the processes that I had seen occurring as people worked their way through the initiatory systems were those that manifest through the inner journey of growth that Carl Gustav Jung called ‘individuation’. By exposing our inner world to the Gods and to those who share the spiritual journey with us, we are transformed. This is not the matter of a few years, but a lifelong process, which initiatory Wicca at its best can nurture, support and foster. The purpose of such a journey is that of the Great Work – the transformation of self as a starting point for the transformation of humankind; for if individuals do not change, then societies cannot evolve. Our aim is to grow nearer the Gods, to move from our egocentric engagement with the world for our own ends, to a re-centering that detaches us from our own preoccupations and allows us the see the world from a wider, deeper, and longer-term perspective.

On my to-read list

A couple of books I haven’t read yet, but keep meaning to get around to, as I see them recommended often on other people’s lists:

Other reading lists

 


This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘.