Paganism for Beginners: Controversies

Over recent years, there have been a number of controversies among Pagans which probably left a lot of newcomers to Paganism a bit baffled, especially when the terminology got a bit arcane. Sometimes different commentators on the issue also seemed to misunderstand and talk past each other on occasion.

I think these controversies are interesting and illuminating because they illustrate our concerns as a community, or as a network of communities, or a network of networks, or a patchwork of groups, or whatever metaphor you prefer to describe the contemporary Pagan movement.

So, in a spirit of inquiry and openness, not in a spirit of washing our dirty linen in public, and certainly not wanting to reignite these controversies, here is a summary of some of the most recent ones.

These controversies and discussions raise important questions of who we are, how we relate to each other as a community and individually, what we hold sacred, and how we relate to deities and the world around us.

The A to Z of Pagan controversies

I was not sure what order to present these in, as I think that ranking them by relative importance would be invidious, so I decided to list them in alphabetical order.

Atheist Pagans

Yes, there are Pagans who identify as atheists, and/or atheists who identify as Pagans. Humanistic Paganism is a large and growing community. Yet some people argue that the worship of deities is a key aspect of Paganism, and that therefore atheist Paganism is a contradiction in terms. However, there have been people who see deities as metaphors or archetypes for decades, and they have been welcome in Pagan rituals, especially in traditions that focus on practice rather than on belief.

The debate over whether Pagans can be atheists is important because it calls into question whether beliefs, practices, or values are at the core of religion, and which of them are more important for Pagans. It also relates to the idea that there are four centres of Paganism (Nature, Deities, the Self, and Community), and that different people and traditions will focus more on some than others. If you are not a deity-focused Pagan, then being an atheist and a Pagan works just fine.

Christo-Pagans

Pagans who also embrace Christianity in some form are pretty controversial because of Christianity’s historical persecution of Pagans, the claim of many Christian traditions to be the “one true way”, and their claim that its mythology is the only valid mythology. Several Pagan commentators have said that it is not possible to be a Christian and a Pagan, because of the exclusivist stance of Christianity and the extraordinary claims made about Jesus. However, there are so many variations within Christian belief about the nature and person of Jesus, that I can see how it is possible to be both Christian and Pagan in a variety of interesting ways. It would not be the path that I would choose to walk, but if people want to do it, then I wish them well (and I think it is rather exclusivist to claim that they can’t be Pagans).

Consent

Recently there have been several high-profile cases of Pagans abusing children, and incidents of sexual harassment at Pagan events. Many Pagans would like to think that such issues would not arise within Paganism, because we are so open about sex and sexuality. However, sex-positivity does not always equate with an acceptance that not everyone wants to have sex. There were many calls for Pagan events to have a safeguarding policy and a harassment policy. The issue also caused considerable self-examination by the Pagan community on what we should be doing about rape culture in our own communities and in wider society.

Pagans are very accepting of sex and nudity, but this enthusiasm is a problem when sex-positivity tips over into attitudes like ‘you’re a prude if you don’t want to have sex with me’. We need to have an ethical sex-positive culture.

Christine Hoff Kraemer and I are editing a collection of essays on Pagan consent culture, which we hope will become a valuable resource for people seeking to firmly establish consent culture in Pagan communities.

Apart from the very important issue of making Pagan communities and spaces safe for everyone, this issue has implications for how we view ourselves as a group, how we relate to each other individually and collectively, and how we cope with the fact of human fallibility.

Kinky Pagans

Z Budapest also caused controversy when she posted a comment that stated that she wanted to blow up Pantheacon because she saw a lot of kinky people walking around. Several people, myself included, found this remark to be deeply intolerant. I wrote a piece on why I believe that anti-kink attitudes have no place in Paganism.

There is a conversation to be had about the presentation of kink in a public space. Not everyone is comfortable with people wearing a collar and leash in a public space, for example (and that includes many kinksters who are uncomfortable with it). But the outright dismissal of the kink lifestyle is just plain ignorant.

This issue is important because, if Paganism is a sex-positive and tolerant community, we need to be tolerant of other people’s sexual preferences, provided that they are done by consenting adults. As the kinkster motto has it: “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK”.

Leaving Paganism

Thinking of leaving Paganism? Please close the door quietly on your way out. Lots of people have a crisis of faith, and leave Paganism either temporarily or permanently. However, there are good ways to do this, and bad ways to do it. A number of prominent Pagan bloggers have left Paganism, mostly to rejoin Christianity. Doubtless many of the things they were having issues with are real issues for the Pagan community to consider; some of the other things seem to be just a difference of perspective. Carl McColman is an example of someone who left Paganism gracefully, converted to Catholicism, but now works to build dialogue between Christians and Pagans, and promote mystical Christianity to other Christians.

It also behooves the Pagan community to react with grace and understanding to those leaving the Pagan community, and wish them well on their new path. Even if they are being a bit of a schmuck about it.

Some people reacted to these prominent changes of faith tradition with the notion that such people were never proper Pagans in the first place, and started to point the finger at other people who do not dismiss Christianity outright, or who embrace theological concepts that look superficially similar to Christianity. If anyone ever comes up with a definition of what a “proper” Pagan is, let me know – but so many hours have been spent on internet forums debating what Pagan actually means, that I very much doubt such a definition will ever be arrived at.

LGBT inclusion

Paganism is not generally homophobic, but it can be heterocentric (centred almost exclusively on heterosexual symbolism). Many Pagans, especially some Wiccans, focus their devotion on a God and a Goddess, and often view them as a heterosexual couple, and insist on heterocentric interpretations of magical concepts like polarity and fertility. This can feel very excluding for LGBT people. Calls for a more inclusive version of Wicca, mine included, have caused considerable controversy in some quarters. I have explored the development of views of gender and sexuality in Paganism (part 1 and part 2) and so has Christine Hoff Kraemer. I also produced a video on gender and sexuality in Wicca, seeking to expand and deepen our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle and what we leave outside, and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history. I further developed these ideas in my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca.

Monism versus polytheism

Monism is the view that there is a single underlying energy in the universe. Polytheism is the view that there are many deities. Quite often, monists want to claim that the single underlying energy gave rise to the individual deities, or that it encompasses them, or that they are merely facets of it. This feels wrong to a lot of polytheists who feel that the deities are distinct beings, and that monism reduces unique experiences to a generic viewpoint. It is possible to reconcile the two viewpoints and have polytheistic monism (or monistic polytheism). There have been quite a number of blogposts from both a monistic perspective and a polytheist perspective. This matters because it is about how we relate to other Pagans with a different theological perspective, how we relate to Hinduism (which includes both monists and polytheists – if it can even be categorised using Western labels), and how we relate to our deities. Or perhaps monism and polytheism are just a matter of temperament?

The Pagan umbrella / big tent

Many people use the word Paganism, or the phrase ‘the Pagan movement’, as an umbrella term for all the various traditions that exist (Druidry, Feri, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc etc), but the Pagan umbrella is leaking, and some people are standing at the edge getting rained on.

People sometimes say that we are all taking different paths up the same mountain – but your mountain may not be the same as my mountain. One person’s Pagan path may be so different that they are not climbing a mountain at all – but their path is still recognisably Pagan. A lush and varied Pagan landscape seems like a better metaphor than a single mountain.

Still others say that an umbrella is too small, and what we really need is a Big Tent.

Jason Pitzl-Waters writes:

All of the recent debate over community, terminology, and theology, is, I think, a sign of our collective success. When our religions were under constant threat, when we truly feared jail, or worse, because of our beliefs, we huddled together for safety and solidarity. We created advocacy groups to speak for us, and empowered authors and activists to be our public face(s).

The more closely we try to define or describe Paganism, the easier it is to find someone who feels excluded by that definition or description, and ceases to identify as a Pagan. That is why models like the four centres of Paganism are really useful, because they give a conceptual framework for diversity of Pagan belief and practice.  Many people feel that celebrating the diversity in the Pagan movement is important, and that we need to have a unified Pagan voice in order to communicate and negotiate with governments, other religions, and other world-views. I don’t think that unity and diversity are incompatible – but sometimes we need to emphasise our unity, and sometimes we need to emphasise our diversity.

Pagan veiling

Some Pagan women have experienced a call from their deities to cover their heads. As head-coverings for women are often associated with misogynistic attitudes and attempts to control women’s sexuality, the fact that some Pagan women chose to cover their heads was very controversial. Pagan women who chose to do this gave various reasons for doing so – because a deity had asked them to, because covering their head makes them feel protected, empowered, and blessed, as an outward sign that they are a priestess, as a sign of maturity, to increase confidence, and because it makes them feel sexy.

This issue is important and interesting for all sorts of reasons. Do you do something you might not feel like doing because a deity requests it of you? If you do something that means something very different in another culture, are you endorsing what it means in that other culture? Should we revive every practice that existed in the ancient pagan world? What is the meaning of covering your head?

Racism in the Pagan movement

To my mind, one of the most important issues in recent years has been the inclusion of people of colour in the Pagan movement, and how we relate to other indigenous religions.

Shortly after the protests in Ferguson over the killing of Mike Brown last year, Crystal Blanton asked for expressions of solidarity from Pagan individuals and organisations, which resulted in an outpouring of support. I feel that she should not have had to ask, but it was great that the support was forthcoming. One of the responses, from Covenant of the Goddess, was a bit vague and hand-wavy, and was strongly criticised by several bloggers. They have since revised their statement. Many of the writers on the Patheos Pagan channel responded to the call, and some were already writing about the topic. I collected together some of the responses from the Patheos Pagan channel on my own Black Lives Matter post.

Controversy erupted at Pantheacon 2015 when a satirical newsletter (PantyCon) appeared, sending up the tendency of white Pagans to fail to take notice of the experience of Pagans of colour, and specifically the original vague and woolly statement by Covenant of the Goddess. Several white Pagans thought that the workshop advertised in the satirical piece was a real workshop, and actually showed up for it. The satire was rather too close to the bone, and – together with several racist comments made by both attendees and presenters – made many Pagans of colour feel unsafe and unwelcome at Pantheacon. Jonathan Korman called publicly for an apology from the authors of the newsletter, and they did apologise. The founder, organiser, and sponsor of Pantheacon also issued a statement.

One of the positive outcomes of these events was a workshop called “Creating Brave Spaces for People of Color” which sought to begin a process of truth and reconciliation.

An excellent resource for understanding issues of racism and Paganism is the book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Taylor Ellwood, Brandy Williams, and Crystal Blanton. It has essays by a number of prominent Pagans, Black and white, and reflects on racism, the rise of the New Right, cultural appropriation, and related issues. I recommend it very highly.

Crystal Blanton is currently producing a great series of posts, the 30-day Real Black History Challenge, which is another great resource for understanding the reality of systemic racism, and how to start rooting it out.

Transphobia

The anti-transgender rhetoric emanating from certain Goddess-oriented traditions has caused considerable controversy. When CAYA coven organised a women’s ritual at Pantheacon 2011, where trans women were turned away at the door, Z Budapest defended this in very excluding and inflammatory language. Traditions which take an essentialist approach to gender tend to have difficulty coping with transgender people. There is an excellent post from 2011 by Star Foster explaining the issue. The British transgender activist, Roz Kaveney, even weighed in on the issue – and note that she appears to be under the impression that all Pagans are transphobic, which is not the case, but shows how damaging these kind of incidents can be. It is a shame that she did not do a bit more research, as a Google search on the subject will reveal dozens of blogposts protesting about the incident, and some defending it too. Neil Gaiman wrote about these issues in 1993 in a graphic novel, A Game of You, and the issues it raises are explored and explained by Lady Geek Girl. [1]

Wiccanate privilege

There was a discussion on Wiccanate privilege at Pantheacon 2014, but the debate had started in the Pagan blogosphere some time before that. John Halstead neatly summarises what “Wiccanate” means:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

The Wiccanate privilege controversy was a debate on how  public and eclectic Pagan ritual is structured, how Paganism is represented to newcomers and outsiders, and how we define or describe Paganism. It was argued that, because most of the books and websites are about Wicca, and many public Pagan rituals are based on a vaguely Wiccan style of ritual, many outsiders and newcomers to Paganism think that Wicca is the only form of Paganism. Furthermore, the widespread assumption that everyone celebrates the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, or that everyone is a duotheist, or that everyone creates sacred space in a vaguely Wiccan manner (i.e. Wiccanate), means that other Pagan and polytheist traditions and ideas are marginalised within the Pagan community. I also feel that the widespread notion that Wicca is exclusively duotheist is harmful to Wiccans who embrace other theological viewpoints such as polytheism.

Where do these controversies start?

I am rather worried that this post makes it look as if nearly all Pagan controversies happen at Pantheacon. This is not actually the case, but because Pantheacon is a huge annual gathering, many controversies do get aired there. Controversies start in face to face interactions, get aired and discussed on the internet, and chewed over at conferences and pub moots and gatherings.

If you feel that I have missed out any controversies, or missed out any good links to articles on the ones described above, let me know in the comments. Links to good overview/introductory articles are especially welcome. I have mainly tried to focus on ones that might be especially baffling to newcomers and outsiders, and ones that have something to say about how we interact as a community, or as a linked group of communities.


 

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‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost.

[1] Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus for pointing out that A Game of You was written way before the transphobia controversy, and hence does not directly address it, though it is relevant.

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Why do we need labels?

I have been asked twice recently why people need labels for sexual orientations and gender identities; one person commented, “aren’t we all just human beings?” People have also wondered if we need theological labels like ‘polytheist’, ‘pantheist’, ‘monist’ etc.

To me this question is a bit like asking why we need names for things. We say sun instead of “local fusion reactor that is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields” because it is shorter and universally understood as the English word for the big hot yellow thing in the sky.

The most obvious reason why we need labels is as a short way of describing a complex concept or identity. New labels for subgroups emerge all the time as people discover that what they mean by a word is not the same as what others mean by it. For example, if you have a broad definition of ‘male’ which includes transgender men, cisgender men, genderqueer men, gay men, bisexual men, straight men, and so on, then it comes as a shock if you come across someone whose definition only includes cisgender heterosexual men, and they may want a different label to indicate what they mean by the term ‘male’, since their definition is narrower.

Similarly, if you are a polytheist who believes the gods and goddesses are discrete entities, you may want to describe yourself as a hard polytheist. If you are a polytheist who has a devotional approach to the deities, you may want to describe yourself as a devotional polytheist, because what other people mean by polytheist might not sit well with your idea of polytheism.

The other main reason for needing a label for your subgroup is as a way of finding like-minded others. If you are a man who is attracted to other men, it helps to identify as gay or bisexual so that you can find other men-loving men.

Interestingly, it is usually people who are part of a hegemonic group who can’t see the need for labels. For example, there has been a great deal of resistance to the use of the term cisgender to describe people who have the same gender identity that they were assigned at birth. Similarly, some heterosexuals resisted the label heterosexual. Such people claim that they don’t need a label because they are “just normal”. I would strongly resist the idea of any kind of identity being “normal”, but even though cisgender heterosexuals are in the majority, I still think we need labels to describe cisgender and heterosexual, so that we know what we are talking about when we refer to people who identify as the same gender they were assigned at birth, and people who are attracted to people of the opposite gender to themselves. Given that the term cisgender was coined in 1904, and the term heterosexual was first published in 1892, they are hardly new-fangled terms.

As a genderqueer person, I resist the gender binary – the idea that people fit neatly into one of two monolithic gender categories with little or no overlap between their behaviours and interests. My partner came up with another label, postgender, to describe a person who rejects all gender norms and just wants to be themselves.

The person who actively resists the proliferation of categories of identity is typically someone who is part of the dominant paradigm and doesn’t want to think about other people’s needs, or change their current way of classifying people.

One situation in which variant theological and gender identities challenge the hegemonic paradigm is that of ritual. If your ritual setup is based on the assumption that there is one God and one Goddess, and they are cisgender heterosexual lovers, and that there are two major energetic polarities, “male energy” and “female energy”, then this will create the assumption of ritual norms such as making participants stand in a pattern of alternate male and female. This set of assumptions breaks down completely if you have people with different gender identities such as genderqueer or transgender (unless you allow a trans person to play the ritual role of their true gender, the one they actually are, not the one they were assigned at birth), and people of different sexual orientations who may experience magical polarity with someone of the same gender. Most people seem to assume that polarity in ritual involves a component of sexual attraction, even if this sexual attraction is never acted upon. Therefore it makes sense for gay and lesbian people to work with someone of the same gender (such as their partner, where the sexual attraction is reinforced by their physical lovemaking).

Similarly, assumptions that “all the gods are one God and all the goddesses one Goddess” or even that they are all aspects of a single Divine Unity will affect how you address and described deities in your rituals, hence the need for polytheists to devise our own traditions and rituals that are meaningful to us, or adapt existing traditions.

On the matter of rituals that are meaningful for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, some people have suggested that gay and lesbian people form their own ritual traditions – and these do exist (the Dianic tradition and the Minoan tradition, for example). However, as a bisexual person, a “homocentric” ritual would be just as excluding of my identity as a heterocentric one. So my preference is to develop ritual formats that include everyone. A polytheistic perspective helps with this because deities can have multiple genders, different sexual orientations, and fluid identities. These can be found in many myths.

Identities and labels and categories are fluid and evolving. Typically, new ones emerge when people find that they don’t fit in an existing paradigm, or need a word to describe the opposite of what they are. Labels are useful because they enable people to find like-minded others for socialising, ritual, conversations, friendships, and relationships. Of course they are all subcategories of people, but when you consider how wonderfully diverse people are, we need categories to help us understand one another.

Being Batty: Polytheism, Experience, and Monistic Reduction

Editor’s note: We are pleased to host this guest essay by Julian Betkowski, who will be presenting on “Polytheism and American Life” at the upcoming Polytheist Leadership Conference.  Readers are invited to approach this essay as part of ongoing conversations about the philosophical implications of Polytheism, which (here at Patheos Pagan) have recently included Gus diZerega’s “Polytheism, Emergence, and the One” and Christopher Scott Thompson’s “Polytheistic Monism.”


Certainly the mind-body problem is difficult enough that we should be suspicious of attempts to solve it with the concepts and methods developed to account for very different kinds of things. (Nagel, 2001, p. 42)

Thomas Nagel is a humanist philosopher specializing in Theory of Mind. His work has not been without controversy, yet he has substantially affected the ongoing conversations regarding consciousness and the experience of being. In his seminal 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” he explores the difficulties involved in understanding the experiences of different beings, and the problems that arise when attempt to reduce that experience to some other underlying feature. Nagel explains:

 I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours  that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (even though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat know what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life. (p. 438)

Whatever surface characteristics we share with bats, their way of being in the world is fundamentally different from our own. Their structural, physiological layout informs their relationship with the world in a way that is quite distinct and dissimilar to our own. Yet, it would seem strange to assert that because of these differences that they do not experience. Bats remain relatable enough that we are still capable of recognizing them as individual loci of experience. Nagel continues:

 But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. (p. 438)

If we are to consider the experience of a bat, we are faced with a powerful dilemma, while we can understand the bat as an experiencing being, are we really capable of understanding the contents or substance of that experience? The sensory perceptions of the bat, it appears, must be structured in a way that is quite removed from our own perceptual experience. Of course, we are capable of imaginatively reconstructing from our own experiences an idea of what it may be like to experience as we suspect a bat experiences, however:

 In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. (p. 439)

Our imagination is limited in that it can only insert our own point of view, modified, perhaps, through various permutations and expectations or assumptions about the experience of bats, into a hypothetical situation the resemblance of which to the actual situation of a bat remains unknown. The question is not, “What is it like to imagine to be a bat?” but “What is it like to be a bat?” There remains an essential bat experience that is distinct from any imaginary state of battiness. Our own imagination is limited by our experiences, and the materials that it has at hand to manipulate. Whatever permutations we may apply to our own sensory experiences, they will not necessarily tell us anything about the experience of a bat itself. If we are to understand the experience of bats, then:

 The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if only we knew what they were like. (p. 439)

We are only able to get so close to an understanding of the experience of bats before our own imaginative faculties fail us. In order to understand the being of a bat, we would need access to the experiences of a bat, and that data appears to be beyond our grasp.

 Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth proposition expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them. (p. 441)

The existence and apparent experiencing of bats informs us that there is, at least, some way of being in the world that remains beyond our comprehension. The experiences of a bat cannot be reduced to scientific data about its sensory apparatus or other details of its embodiment, nor can they be directly equated with our imaginative attempts to insert our own point of views into the experience of a bat. However incisive the nature of our inquisition into the experience of a bat, the bat remains forever distinct and dissimilar: its experience remains utterly its own.

In a more recent work, Mind and Cosmos (2012), Thomas Nagel further explores the dangers of reductionistic approaches to experience and consciousness. Throughout the work, he explores the general thesis that:

 Our existence presents us with the fact that somehow the world generates conscious beings capable of recognizing reasons for action and belief, distinguishing some necessary truths, and evaluating the evidence for alternative hypotheses about the natural order. We don’t know how this happens, but it is hard not to believe that there is some explanation of a systematic kind—an expanded account of the order of the world. (p. 31)

He consistently argues that consciousness cannot be accounted for by traditional physiological reduction, and that regardless of the physiological connections, they tell us nothing about the actual experience of conscious being. We are embedded in and formed out of the material of the world, and so therefore our understanding of the world itself must be capable of accounting for the undeniable presence of our consciousnesses and experiences. Consciousness and experience can be read as necessary qualities of the world itself. Further, even if the exact correlation between the physical state and mental state were uncovered, it would remain insufficient to account for the actual experience itself, without some further explanatory framework:

 Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect. (p. 45)

Indeed, while it is true that we are all formed out of the same general matter as everything else in the universe, this does not tell us anything about the subjective qualities experienced and contained within the various specialized forms which that matter manifests. Any underlying similarity, in fact, tells us shockingly little about the manifold differences and variations that abound in the world around us, nor does it inform us as to the discrete experiences and subjective qualities of diverse beings. Despite our several similarities to bats, the direct knowledge of what it is like to be a bat remains beyond us.

While our consciousnesses and experiences undoubtedly occur within the world, and overlap with a great deal of other features and qualities of that world, we remain ever and always unique and distinct. There are features and elements of the world that remain beyond our grasp simply as a result as our nature as humans, and, it seems, that the inverse is also true, that there are qualities and understandings of human being that are only accessible through human experience. As Nagel observes in his 1974 essay:

 Members of radically different species may both understand the same physical events in objective terms, and this does not require that they understand the phenomenal forms in which those events appear to the sense of member of the other species. Thus it is a condition of their referring to a common reality that their more particular viewpoints are not part of the common reality that they both apprehend. (p. 445) [emphasis mine]

So enters Polytheism. Polytheism seeks to come to terms with a world full of experiencing beings, a world full of beings who are so unique and different that we have no expectation of being able to fully comprehend them or their viewpoints. Polytheism emerges from an innate respect for the uniqueness and profundity of individual experience, and recognizes its fundamental irreducibility not merely to its bare material substrate, but to other experiences in general. Polytheism treats all experience as unique and precious, and deserving of appreciation. Experiencing beings cannot be automatically equated with each other, nor can their experiences be homogenized into one comprehensible whole. There may even, in fact, be discrete elements the experiences of discrete beings that are utterly incompatible, and which cannot be reconciled. In a universe full of experiences, nothing can be reduced to one.

More simply stated, from the viewpoint of Polytheism, any potential oneness of the universe is simply not its most important defining feature, nor does that potential oneness necessarily reveal anything about the lived experience of the various beings that pervade the universe. From the view of Polytheism, it is important to allow experience to maintain its primacy, to speak for itself. The mystery of Polytheism springs from the great expanse of secret experience, from experience that is beyond us, and from our interaction with unique and idiosyncratic beings whose experience we recognize as special and profound. Polytheism is not just about encountering the world, but about the world encountering us, and the richness of that interplay and interaction. Polytheism does not seek to explain the world according to any single diagram, but remains open-ended and expansive, receptive to possibilities and uncertainties. Indeed, from this perspective, monism seems to entail a persistent disregard for experience, and shifts the focus away from the multitudinous variation of the universe toward some projected unity.

In an analyses of the flaws of the Perennial Philosophy, a form of monism popular in many forms of contemporary spiritualities, Transpersonal Theorist Jorge Ferrer employs the following story to illustrate the difficulties inherent in focusing only on similarities:

 The nature of this problem can be illustrated by the popular story of the woman who, observing her neighbor entering into an altered state of consciousness three consecutive days first with rum and water, then through fast breathing and water, and finally with nitrous oxide with water, concludes that the reason for his bizarre behaviors was the ingestion of water. The moral of the story, of course, is that what is essential or more explanatory in a set of phenomena is not necessarily what is most obviously common to them. (2002, p. 91)

The similarities that run through the universe simply may not be the most important defining characteristics of the universe, or the beings that compose it. Ferrer continues:

 Although it is certainly possible to find parallels across religious traditions, the key to the spiritually transforming power of a given tradition may lie in its own distinctive practices and understandings. (2002, p. 91-92)

If we are going to remain open to experience, then we need to be aware of the way that totalizing claims impact and affect our ability to understand and allow for the experiences of others. Even the assertion that everything is one potentially undermines and discounts the understandings of others whose experiences may lead them to differing conclusions. Polytheism seeks to avoid such claims simply by acknowledging the apparent diversity and variation not only in the world around us, but also in the real, lived experiences both of ourselves and other multitudinous others surrounding us.

I assert that we make a profound mistake when we attempt to apologize all points of view, all traditions, and all experiences. The profundity and richness of the universe is a result of the majesty and breadth of our differences. Polytheism seeks to embrace those differences exactly as they are presented to us. This is not to say, however, that under the aegis of Polytheism, anything goes, simply that Polytheism is more concerned with discrete experience, individual identity, and difference than with providing a single, all encompassing, explanatory model of the entire universe. Indeed, such models tend to ignore significant details that may, in fact, dramatically affect and inform our experience and understanding of the world around us.

I suspect that most Monists do not understand Monism as reductionistic, however it has been my intention to demonstrate how Monism can be read as a kind of reduction, particularly with regards to experience. Even if it is understood as structurally compatible with Polytheism, Monism still undermines and contradicts the general ethos of polytheistic thought. To those who would then assert that I am missing the point of Monism, I can only reply, then, that they are missing the point of Polytheism. It is not that I do not understand their position, simply that I do not find it very interesting or useful.

 

References:

Ferrer, J. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nagel, T. (2012). Mind & cosmos: Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat?. The Philosophical Review. 83,4, p. 435-450

Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson (Part Four)

[This is part four of a four-part essay.]

Polyvalent Polytheism

The debates about the word “polytheism” have led to a lot of negative feelings within the pagan and heathen communities, caused in part by the sweeping judgments and assertions both sides have made about the other. Some monists have taken the attitude that their theology is more enlightened or more fundamentally correct and that anyone who worships a god as a distinct entity without considering it part of a universal whole is somehow unenlightened, misguided or just plain wrong. Some polytheists have taken the attitude that their theology is the only legitimate way to approach the gods, using words such as “impious” or “disrespectful” to describe theologies with monist leanings.

I’ll tackle what I think is wrong with the monist viewpoint first. Monist theology tends in the direction of apophatic or “negative way” mysticism. For instance, Indian monist philosophies use the phrase “neti, neti” (not this, not this) to indicate the non-conceptual nature of ultimate reality. Any mental concept you can think of is inaccurate as a description of the Brahman, so if you say “is the Brahman such-and-such” the only appropriate answer is supposed to be “neti, neti.”

If you apply this logic to monist theology you quickly realize that the terms and assumptions of monist theology are also mental concepts, and therefore just as inadequate to describe the ineffable Absolute as any other mental concepts:

Is the Brahman an ineffable Absolute? Neti, neti.

Phrases like “ineffable Absolute” or “the Source” or “the One” are attempts to use concepts to hint in the general direction of something that is supposed to be beyond all concepts. So how can one fundamentally inadequate hint at the ineffable be more enlightened or accurate than another?

Another example can be found in the Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius, a strange but poetic work of Christian Neoplatonism. According to Pseudo-Dionysius:

Neither does anything that is know it as it is; nor does it know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to it, nor name it, nor know it; neither is it darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to it, for although we may affirm or deny the things below it, we can neither affirm nor deny it, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of Its absolute nature is outside of every negation- free from every limitation and beyond them all.

Pseudo-Dionysius, as a Christian, is obviously a monotheist or perhaps a monotheistic monist, but he’s still using the language of apophatic mysticism. If the ultimate reality is neither darkness nor light, neither false nor true and if no affirmation or negation can be applied to it, then how can it be One rather than Many? Describing it as either one or many is only a convenient fiction in either case.

My personal opinion is that monist theological language was developed by mystics in an attempt to hint at what they saw in their mystical experiences, but that as soon as you begin to describe the ineffable in terms of mental concepts you are no longer operating from within the mystical experience. Therefore, while I see validity in the monist theology I don’t see any intrinsic superiority in it. It is only a way of talking about something no one can really talk about.

Having said that, I also see the strict polytheist opposition to monism as being flawed, because I don’t agree that a monist theology is impious or disrespectful to the gods or that it contradicts the worship of multiple gods in the first place.

In Indian philosophy, the monist Advaita Vedanta school considers the Brahman to be real and the universe of multiplicity we actually experience to be “Maya” or illusion. The Shakta or goddess-oriented sect of Hinduism has been influenced by Vedanta monism, but generally rejects the idea that Maya is illusion. Instead, Shakta theology usually considers the Maha Devi or Great Goddess to be equivalent to the Brahman in Her absolute or Formless state, and to be equivalent to Maya in Her relative or manifested state. The Devi, in turn, can manifest as any number of distinct goddesses such as Kali or Lakshmi. These individual goddesses are all actually the Devi in one sense yet are all distinct goddesses with different personalities and motivations in another sense. Some of them don’t even get along with each other!

In other words, the theology of the Shakta sect shifts fluidly between two seemingly contradictory viewpoints- reality as a formless ineffable unity and reality as a multiplicity of distinct forms. Monism and polytheism. The Brahman is not any more real than Maya — it just depends on your perspective. Shakta worshipers express this concept through the worship of a Great Goddess just like many neopagans do, but where some neopagans see the thousands of different goddesses in the world as being interchangeable names or epithets for a single Goddess, the Shakta sect sees the goddesses as being genuinely distinct beings and aspects of the Maha Devi at the same time.

This is what I refer to as polyvalent thinking, and in my opinion polyvalence is a lot more appropriate for a polytheist theology than a binary “either/or” type of logic. That doesn’t mean that all monists should acknowledge the validity of strict polytheism or that all strict polytheists should acknowledge the validity of monism — polyvalence means that you accept the simultaneous validity of multiple perspectives, not that you automatically embrace every possible perspective. If something just doesn’t seem true to you, it doesn’t seem true to you. But I prefer to embrace polyvalence and avoid binary thinking wherever I can.

The Jain religion of India developed a formal system of polyvalent logic called Syadvada. Syadvada logic has seven truth-values:

1- In some ways it is.
2- In some ways it is not.
3- In some ways it is and is not.
4- In some ways it is and is indescribable.
5- In some ways it is not and is indescribable.
6- In some ways it is and is not and is indescribable.
7- In some ways it is indescribable.

Applying this logic to polytheistic monism we could come up with these results:

1- In some ways reality is One.
2- In some ways reality is Many.
3- In some ways reality is both One and Many.
4- In some ways reality is One but indescribable.
5- In some ways reality is Many but indescribable.
6- In some ways reality is both One and Many yet still indescribable.
7- In some ways reality is just plain indescribable.

This is the basis of my theology.

Monad and Multiplicity

Imagine a single point like an atom containing everything that is, was or ever could be, and then erase the mental image of a point in space. This is the monad.

Every moment is now and every place is here, and there is no differentiation of before and after or of this and that; there is no differentiation of any kind. It is all things that are or ever will be, all possible universes, all things that are imaginary and even everything impossible. No affirmations can be applied to it, and no negations. Any word you can think of to describe it, it is not that thing. Any word is also inadequate, because it is that thing infinitely. It contains nothing relative within it because there is no within it, has relation to nothing outside it because there is no outside it, and can be changed by nothing. It doesn’t even exist as we understand existence, yet no existence is possible without it.

It is beyond perception, because perception requires contrast. To know it is to not know anything; it is the state of agnosia. The existence of a self requires an other, and thus to observe or be observed at all, reality must divide in the moment of observation into an infinite number of individual selves. When reality observes itself (because there is nothing else that could observe it) it begins to emanate, to split into self and other, affirmation and negation.

As there is nothing at all but reality each self is Reality Itself. From the perspective of being a self, however, the selves don’t know this. If they did, they couldn’t perceive anything, because they could only perceive everything.

This process is infinite and contains all selves in every universe; and the whole process occurs instantly with every moment that we perceive anything. I can see that there is a difference between myself and the rest of the universe; between any specific entity I observe and every other entity; between any of the parts of which an entity is made and all its other parts. Perception mandates particularity and this creates the universe.

It is only through differentiation and opposition that perception is possible, and it is only through the act of perception that relationship is possible, and it is only within the context of relationship that we can speak of existence. Therefore it is the act of observation that creates the universe, which flowers into being an infinite number of times in every moment that passes, as an infinite number of selves observes and creates.

The fire of a nuclear explosion is no comparison, the fire of a sun is no comparison, and nor is a supernova. The becoming is a constant creation in which all entities are co-creators. The becoming is an apocalypse, a fire that creates and consumes and creates again. It is an incomprehensible hunger, a spiritual eros. The becoming is a passion, the intoxication of a maker of worlds. The becoming is all that is, in the process of becoming what it is, as well as all that is not, in the process of becoming what it is not.

One way to speak of this (although like any other possible way to speak of it, it’s only an analogy) is to say that God is the only fact, the unchangeable monad, the Absolute from which all that is relative derives — and God does not exist in the first place. Not, that is, until God perceives God, at which moment being explodes into becoming and the universe flares into life. God can only know God through the existence of God’s own creation, which contains an infinite number of eyes with which God can observe God. God creates the world all over again an infinite number of times in every moment, as each of God’s infinite eyes perceives God.

Whether you choose to call the monad “God” or not is irrelevant in my opinion,but I think it’s appropriate to use that word if you choose to. Now, one of the most common misconceptions about monist forms of mysticism is that the goal is to dissolve the self like a drop of water returning to the ocean from which it came. The great Sufi poet Rumi was familiar with this analogy, and this is what he had to say about it:

Plunge, plunge into the vast ocean of consciousness,
Let the drop of water that is you
Become a hundred mighty seas.
But do not think that the drop alone
Becomes the ocean.
The ocean too becomes the drop.

The self doesn’t disappear or dissolve or become meaningless; it just knows itself as what it always was. The entire universe.

The moment of this knowing is a joy so vast that the world itself seems to shine with euphoria, a love that transcends all passion and leaves desire redundant. It is a sense of perfect freedom, of flying weightlessly, of standing high on a mountain in winter and watching the snow fall on a forest of spruce or of standing on a vast open steppe with your arms raised to a seemingly endless blue sky. It is the understanding that there are no limits, that all the barriers have fallen down, that the only thing left to do is to soar.

It doesn’t last, and in my experience it doesn’t really make you any different than other people except that it convinces you of certain things most people wouldn’t believe without having had such an experience. Is it an experience of oneness or unity? You could call it that, but I really don’t think so. Unity and oneness are both just concepts, and the experience I’m talking about is not really conceptual. You could just as easily describe it as a flow or an explosion or a flowering or a soaring. Calling it an infinite multiplicity would be just as accurate as calling it a monad. People come up with concepts after the fact, but the fact itself remains ineffable.

Now, if we think of all of the infinite selves within this flowering reality to be eyes of God, then each is equally an eye of God. Each, in fact, is equally God. But it is difficult for me to know myself as God or to experience my reality as the whole of the universe. It is easier, for some people, to see this reality in the beloved Other than in the Self. That is the mystical logic of a polytheist monism.

The specific deity I love is not just an aspect of God or a mask of God or another name for God, but all of God. Not just a drop in the great ocean, but the whole ocean in every drop. And so are all of the other deities even though they are separate and individual beings with real identities and real powers, and so are all of the other selves in the entire universe even though they are all equally and fully distinct at the same time. By loving the deity I love with the most passionate devotion of which I am humanly capable, I seek to love the entire universe.

I don’t claim any superiority for this perspective. It is only one perspective, and the fullness of reality includes all perspectives in unlimited freedom. I’d rather not even talk about enlightenment, a concept that implies some sort of superiority for one perspective. I just want to cultivate the ability to love the goddesses I serve, and to soar when I get the chance to soar. That is my polytheistic monism.

Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson (Part Three)

[This is part three of a four-part essay.]

Does Polytheistic Monism Deny the Gods?

Polytheistic monists are sometimes accused of denying the real existence, power or agency of the gods. The extent to which this is a valid accusation depends on the specific theology we’re discussing.

Some people do consider the gods to be archetypal tendencies or potentialities within the human psyche. You could argue that this view denies the power and reality of the gods, but it isn’t a monist theology in the first place. If you acknowledge the existence of two distinct categories of reality — the mental and the material — then you are a dualist and not a monist. If you don’t believe in a mind-body dualism then there are two possibilities. If you think the mind is merely a function of the body, then you might be a monist in some sense, but not in the religious sense we’re talking about here. If you consider the body and all other material phenomena to be manifestations of the mind, then saying that the gods exist within the mind is just the same thing as saying they really exist. Of course, you can believe the gods really exist without believing they have real power and autonomy, as that’s a separate question. So the accusation might be partially valid for a polytheistic monism of this type, but I would argue that this isn’t really a type of polytheism, because a powerless archetype isn’t really a god.

Some people believe that all the gods are merely faces or aspects or masks of one universal God. As we have seen, this viewpoint is a very ancient one, but it is not actually a form of polytheistc monism, because it isn’t really monist in the first place.

It would only be a form of monism if you go one step further and assert that nothing at all exists except for God. If you believe that nothing exists except for God, then the gods would all be faces of God — but so would every person you have ever met, every animal and plant, every atom in the universe. And if all of those things are actually God from the perspective of absolute reality, yet each of them is a separate being from the perspective of our daily experience, then the gods are also each separate beings with the capacity for real agency and power despite being simultaneously “nothing but God.”

Some people believe that the entire universe is actually one underlying thing such as consciousness or mind, but prefer not to call that God. The same logic applies to this theology, because you can believe that while still believing in spiritual entities called “gods,” each as distinct as you or I despite still being “nothing but mind” from the perspective of absolute reality.

Some people believe that all of reality is mind or consciousness or a universal God while also not really believing in the existence of gods as individual beings with agency and power. They might refer to “gods” while not believing that such entities exist in any real or meaningful sense. I would agree that this a type of monism, because the person believes that all reality is actually a single thing, but I would deny that it is a type of polytheism.

A polytheistic monist theology would have to be a theology that takes its monism and its polytheism equally seriously. If you believe that nothing exists in the absolute sense except for God or mind or consciousness or the Source, then you are in fact a monist. If you also believe that multiple deities exist in the same relative sense in which you or I exist and with the same sort of autonomy and agency, then you are also a polytheist. No other theology is really polytheistic monism as I understand the term.

Monism and Autonomy

One aspect of monist theologies that really bothers some people is the assertion that we are in some sense “all one.” The ethical viewpoint of many polytheists (especially those with leftist political views) is based on personal agency, autonomy, and sovereignty. Monists have often argued that their viewpoint is a strong basis for ethical decision-making, because if we are all somehow one, then to harm another is to harm yourself. Critics of monism have argued that the opposite is just as true. If you are me and I am you, then how am I doing anything wrong by exploiting you for my own pleasure or utility, harming you or even killing you? “You” don’t really exist as a separate entity in the first place, according to this viewpoint.

Ellis Amdur, a martial arts writer, has argued that this type of thinking was behind the Aum Shinri Kyo’s sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system. Our bodies kill off diseased cells all the time — to an enlightened mystic at one with the universe, killing a few dozen misguided people could be seen as analogous. Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a particularly brutal warlord in the Russian Civil War, was also a mystic who believed he could cleanse people of their bad karma by killing them en masse. It seems to me, however, that a murderous narcissist indulging his own ego fantasies is not operating from some enlightened perspective just because he says he is.

In my opinion, all of these perspectives — including the monist argument — involve a category error. If we are “all one” in an absolute sense but separate in a relative sense, then the relevant perspective when we are dealing with each other as separate entities is the relative perspective. If I punch you in the nose, it doesn’t really matter that in some deeper sense we are “all one” — neither of us is conscious of that deeper sense while I am punching you.

If I see that you have a nice fat wallet and I want to take it, am I operating from some enlightened, objective perspective in which we are all one, or am I operating from a relative perspective in which I want things I don’t have and can choose to take them from you? In my opinion, monist “oneness” could never be legitimately used to rationalize unethical behavior, because a person doing something unethical is not operating from a perspective of “oneness” in the first place.

However, the argument that monism is a basis for ethical decision-making is just as weak. First, monism doesn’t say that all people are actually one. It says that all of reality is actually one — literally all of it. Unless you can avoid ever harming anything under any circumstance, you can’t possibly avoid harming yourself in this sense. If you restrict this consideration to entities capable of experiencing suffering, you’re no longer basing your argument on some objective “oneness” but on the subjective suffering of the other entity. Either way, ethical obligations derive from our relative separateness, not our ultimate oneness.

However, people who claim to have experienced mystical unity often become more caring and compassionate individuals as an apparent side-effect of the experience. I don’t think this can be completely irrelevant, and it probably happens because the experience broadens and enlarges the sense of self while weakening personal selfishness. In my opinion, ethics must be based on the sovereignty of the autonomous individual, but a sense of shared commonality can be ethically positive.

[To be continued…]

Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson (Part Two)

[This is part two of a four-part essay.]

Monism and Henotheism

The term “henotheism” was coined by the philologist Max Müller, one of the founders of comparative religious studies. Henotheism refers to a viewpoint between polytheism and monotheism, in which the existence of multiple gods is acknowledged while one God remains supreme.

The late pagan philosophy of Neoplatonism could be considered henotheistic, as the Neoplatonists considered the gods and the material universe to be emanations from the One, which emanates first “Nous” or consciousness and then the World Soul, followed by human souls and finally matter. Later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus conceived of the One or Monad as emanating a series of realms from Itself like ripples in a pond, including a realm containing all the gods of mythology, and a realm beyond that containing the material world.

Afro-Caribbean religions such as Vodoun and Santeria could be considered henotheistic if we think of the loa of Vodoun and the orisha of Santeria as being equivalent to what a pagan would call a god. However, both of these traditions reserve the word “God” for the Supreme Being, who is considered too remote from human affairs to be helpful with daily problems. Some polytheist writers attribute this theology to the influence of Christianity, but they provide no evidence for the assertion and similar ideas are found in African religions.

Hinduism is such a varied and complex mix of traditions that it includes every imaginable theological perspective, but henotheism is one of the most common — particularly in sectarian Hinduism. Followers of Shaivism consider Shiva to be God; followers of Vaishnavism consider Vishnu to be God and followers of Shaktism consider a goddess such as Kali, Durga or Lalita to be God. Yet most members of these sects acknowledge the existence of the other gods, so they are all forms of henotheism.

In fact, most of them acknowledge that it is equally valid to consider one of the other gods as the supreme God, even though the gods as separate deities remain distinct. Again, polyvalence and divine fluidity are the norm rather than the exception in religions with multiple deities.

Still, henotheism is not identical with monism. You could easily believe in one supreme God and many lesser gods without also believing that the entire universe is nothing but God. To return to the example of Santeria, the orisha or spirits are not seen as aspects of the supreme God — they are simply powerful spirits.

However, many sectarian Hindus also subscribe to Vedanta or similar philosophies, and believe that their chosen deity is ultimately identical with the Brahman, which is what Vedanta monism calls its version of the Source or the Absolute reality. Monist concepts like this can be found in the scriptures of all the major Hindu sects. One says that Vishnu is ultimately identical with the Brahman, another says Shiva, another says Shakti, but the same scriptures tell plenty of stories about plenty of other deities.

Some say that Shiva and Shakti are ultimately identical, which makes sense if they are both identical with the Brahman — yet the same scriptures often include stories where Shiva and some manifestation of Shakti get in a lover’s quarrel, or where she dances on his corpse to display her supreme power, or where he calls for her and she comes running to acknowledge his. So are they identical with each other or are they separate entities? And if they are separate, then is he really the supreme deity who is identical with the Brahman, or is she? The answer, as always, is “all of the above.”

Just as with polytheism and monotheism, henotheism is compatible with monism but not identical to it. You can be a henotheist and a monist, a henotheist but not a monist, or a monist but not a henotheist. You can be a henotheist in some senses and a monist in others. Theology cannot be restricted to binary logic.

How Old Is Polytheistic Monism?

Some polytheists have asserted that polytheistic monism is a modern or “New Age” development influenced by the dominant monotheistic religions. When the ancient origins of polytheistic monism are pointed out, these are sometimes attributed to influence from monotheist religions. As we have seen, monotheism and monism are not synonyms or even particularly similar ideas, but a brief history of polytheist monism should help clarify the issue.

The oldest religious scripture in any of the Indo-European languages is the Rig Veda, composed sometime between 1700 and 1100 BCE. By contrast, the Homeric Hymns were composed between 600 and 500 BCE. If we were going to use either text as a basis for guessing at the religious ideas of the Proto-Indo-Europeans the Rig Veda would be the much safer bet as it is more than a thousand years older. Yet here is what the Rig Veda has to say about the nature of the gods:

They call him Indra, Mitra, Varu?a, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garuda.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.

Note that this is not monism in the philosophical sense of the term. It doesn’t say that everything in existence is actually one thing such as consciousness or energy or the Brahman or God. It just says that all the separate gods of Vedic polytheism are actually just names for one single God. This is exactly the position some polytheists accuse polytheistic monists of holding and is usually seen as a New Age concept. Unless a text composed at least 3000 years ago can be considered “New Age,” we can now dismiss that viewpoint as counterfactual.

You can believe all the gods are separate and distinct beings if you want to, and you can believe all the gods are aspects or faces of a single God if you want to, but neither viewpoint is “New Age.” As the Rig Veda shows, the idea that all the gods are aspects of a single god is at least 3000 years old. Considering how ancient the Rig Veda is, it isn’t impossible that the ideas it contains are much older and that some version of this theology was held by at least some of the original Proto-Indo-Europeans.

However, this still isn’t a monist theology in the sense in which I am using that term. There are hints at monism as such in the Rig Veda’s Nasadiya Sukta or “Hymn of Creation”:

Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

A clearly-expressed monist philosophy can be found in the Upanishads, which date to between 1200 and 500 BCE depending on who you ask. Different Upanishads express different theologies, but one of the theologies found in the Upanishads is of an ineffable, impersonal Absolute called the Brahman underlying the multiple phenomena of the universe. This is monism as such, although Hindu philosophical schools developed many different variations on the concept over the centuries. Advaita Vedanta, an extremely influential school of Indian monist philosophy, dates to the medieval period but bases its concepts on the Upanishads and Vedas.

Even if we assume the Upanishads are no older than 600-500 BCE, that still makes them about as old as the Homeric Hymns and only a century or two younger than the Iliad. So monism cannot possibly be a later development from monotheism or a corrupted form of an earlier, purely polytheistic religion.

Some people attribute the monist ideas in Neoplatonism to Indian influence, and that’s certainly possible. Neoplatonism flourished late in pagan antiquity in places like Alexandria where many different religions mingled, debated and shared theological concepts with each other. The Neoplatonist philosophers were definitely aware of the existence of Indian philosophy whether they knew much about its content or not. However, given the ancient origins of Indian monist philosophies, it’s also possible that there were always monist strands of thought in the various religions of Indo-European origin. If some early form of monism was known to the Proto-Indo-Europeans then monist ideas could have persisted (along with many other theological positions) among religious thinkers in the ancient pagan world before emerging within Neoplatonism.

[To be continued…]

Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson (Part One)

We are very pleased to present this guest essay on the possibility of a polytheistic monism by Christopher Scott Thompson. Under the religious name of Gilbride or “Servant of Brighid,” Christopher has been active in the pagan community for a number of years, serving as the vice president (and briefly the president) of Imbas, a board member of the Fellowship for Celtic Tradition, a flamekeeper of Ord Brighideach and now the Cauldron Cill, and a member of the Kin of the Old Gods temple. He is a member of Clann Bhride, an organization of Brigidine devotees, and writes the column “Loop of Brighid” at Patheos Pagan.

Because of the substantial length of this piece, it has been divided into four parts for easier discussion. We at Sermons from the Mound look forward to a thoughtful discussion!


Monism and Polytheism

Some heathens and polytheists express hostility toward a perspective they define as monism, seeing it as the complete opposite of polytheism, a modern or at least relatively new “corruption” of polytheism,  a version of henotheism, a backdoor to monotheism or even a synonym for monotheism. Some believe that polytheistic monists see the gods as mere archetypes or concepts without real existence or power. Some believe that a monist viewpoint is unethical because it denies personal autonomy. Some even assert that “polytheistic monism” is a contradiction in terms.

In contrast, I hope to show the following:

1- Monism and polytheism are not opposites because the two terms refer to different things.
2- Monism and monotheism are not synonyms or even related concepts. Some forms of monotheism can also be monist and some forms of polytheism can also be monist.
3- Monism and henotheism are not synonyms although a henotheist theology can also be monist.
4- Polytheistic monism is an ancient theology and is not derived from any form of monotheism.
5- Nothing in polytheistic monism denies the reality or power of the gods.
6- Polytheistic monism does not deny personal agency or autonomy.
7- Polytheism can and should be polyvalent, acknowledging the simultaneous validity of different perspectives on the gods and the universe.

I’ll finish the article with a massively self-contradictory yet hopefully somewhat poetic account of the particular approach to polytheistic monism that makes sense to me.

I will not be attempting at any point in this essay to convince anyone to adopt a polytheistic monist theology — only that it is a valid theological option for those who find it appealing.

Many polytheists see polytheistic monism as a version of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth concept. Campbell’s monomyth treats all the different mythologies of the world as mere variations on a single archetypal pattern. Similarly, some neopagans see the gods as mere variations on a single God or Goddess or both, all religions as “different paths up the same mountain” and so on.

The main objection to polytheistic monism seems to be this idea that the gods are “all the same” in a monist theology. Some people who call themselves polytheistic monists might in fact believe this, but there’s nothing in the term that actually implies that. Monism is not the idea that “all the gods are really one God” but the idea that “all apparent phenomena are really one underlying thing” such as consciousness or energy or mind or what have you. The “one underlying thing” might or might not be seen as a divine Source, depending on what type of monism we’re talking about, but even if you do see the “one underlying thing” as being divine in some sense, that doesn’t prevent you from also believing in multiple gods in another sense. This is no more outlandish than believing that you are a single person while also realizing that every cell in your body is a separate living thing in its own right.

For this reason, polytheistic monism is not the same concept as Campbell’s monomyth and doesn’t need to flatten all differences into a homogenous oneness. The theological acceptance of some form of mystical unity does not have to translate into the assertion that all the gods are really just one God or that all the world’s religions are really the same.

I can believe that all apparent phenomena are really manifestations of a universal mind or consciousness on one level of understanding while simultaneously perceiving that separate phenomena are in fact separate on another level of understanding. This type of polyvalent thinking was common in the ancient world and remains common in living traditions with multiple gods.

For instance, some myths describe the Hindu goddess Kali as a wrathful manifestation of Shiva’s wife Parvati who appears when Parvati is angry with Shiva. Other myths portray her as a manifestation of the goddess Durga who does battle with demons. Some myths portray her as Shiva’s loving and obedient wife, while others treat Shiva as being totally powerless and inert without her. Still others portray Kali as the supreme reality, “one without a second,” with no mention of Shiva at all. Many Indian villages have their own local form of Kali, who is not only seen as being separate from the Kali of any other village but can even be opposed to all the other village Kali goddesses. So which of these versions is correct and authentic? They all are, of course. Kali is fully capable of being all of these things at the same time even though they contradict each other. Like many other deities all over the world, she demonstrates what I like to call “divine fluidity.”

Here’s another example. In the religion of Santeria, each orisha or spiritual power has multiple “paths,” and each path has a different name, personality, description and set of powers. For instance, Eleggua can manifest as 101 different spirits, some of which are male and some female, some benevolent toward humanity and some otherwise. So are the 101 different “paths” of Eleggua a single being or separate beings? They are both at the same time.

Is the Morrigan one goddess with three names or three separate goddesses named Nemain, Badb, and Macha? She is both at the same time. Is Brighid one goddess with three aspects or three sisters who were all named Brighid? She is both at the same time.

The gods are not bound by the binary “either/or” logic we feel compelled to impose on them. As such, nothing in the concept of an underlying divine unity contradicts the idea of separate deities with real existence and real power. You may agree with the monist worldview or you may not, but either way the idea of a divine Source neither contradicts polytheism nor supports it.

Monism and Monotheism

Monism is a philosophical stance about the nature of the entire universe, not necessarily about the nature of deity. It is compatible with any stance on the nature of deity, including atheism, pantheism, panentheism, polytheism and monotheism. However, out of these five it is arguably least compatible with monotheism.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Monotheism is the belief in the existence of one god or, stated in other terms, that God is one… The religious term monotheism is not identical with the philosophical term monism. The latter refers to the view that the universe has its origin in one basic principle (e.g., mind, matter) and that its structure is one unitary whole in accordance with this principle—that is, that there is only a single kind of reality, whereas for monotheism there are two basically different realities: God and the universe.

In other words, if you assume a creator God responsible for making the universe, you are already talking about two entities (God and the Creation), so a monotheist cannot possibly be a monist. Most monotheists definitely aren’t monists, but the two perspectives aren’t as incompatible as they might seem to be.

For instance, you might believe that the universe itself is God (in which case you are a pantheist) or completely permeated by God while God is still somehow “more than” the universe (in which case you are a panentheist) while still believing that only this divine universe is worthy of worship (in which case, since you acknowledge only one God, you are a monotheist) and that there is nothing outside of God (in which case you are a monist).

The viewpoint I’ve just described isn’t particularly uncommon and would fit pretty well with what is often called the “Perennial philosophy” as well as with Vedanta and some versions of Sufism. But it’s far from being a majority viewpoint among the world’s monotheists and would be seen as highly abstract and strange by many and heretical by some.

The majority of the world’s monotheists probably think of God as a Creator who is separate and distinct from His creation, and as such they are not monists. “There is only one God” is a completely distinct concept from “nothing exists except God” and the first viewpoint does not imply the second. Although monism can be made compatible with monotheism from a mystical perspective, the two ideas on their own have nothing in common.

[To be continued…]

 

Polytheism and mystery

Polytheism ought to mean “many deities”, with no other qualifications, and include all varieties that recognise many deities. However, the term has been hedged about with so many codicils and footnotes, it is starting to look like the doctrine of the Trinity (apparently simple, but actually incredibly complicated).

Some “hard” polytheists say that all deities are discrete entities.

I have never been able to reach a definition of “soft” polytheism. I am not sure that anyone identifies as a “soft” polytheist. It appears to be a term coined by “hard” polytheists to mean anyone who does not see all deities as discrete entities, or possibly a monist who sees all deities as facets of the ultimate divine source.

So I do not think that the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ for polytheists are particularly useful. I do think that the term ‘devotional polytheist’ is a good term to distinguish those who feel they want to serve deities from those who feel that deities are allies, or mysteries to be explored.

However, there are some other ideas available.

Lugh Lámhfhada appears to be the same person as Llew Llaw Gyffes (their names both mean Lugh of the skilful hand). There does not seem to be much point in asserting that they are different entities.

However, asserting that all storm deities are the same person seems a bit more problematic. They may be manifestations of the storm in their locality.  I can’t accept that Thor, Taranis, Perkūnas, Yahweh, Jupiter, and Zeus are all the same entity. They behave differently from each other. However, I think Thor and Thunor are just variations on Thor’s name, and actually Taranis may just be the Gaulish version of the same name. I alo liked the idea, described in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, that whilst Odin is Wōden in England and Oðinn in Norway, he becomes Mr Wednesday in America. They are all facets of Oðinn, but he manifests differently in different lands (rather like the different incarnations of a human, perhaps, only existing simultaneously).

I also think that there is a Goddess of the universe, a Goddess of the Earth (the Greeks called her Gaia), and local goddesses for countries, regions, tribes, and cities. In my view, these deities encompass one another (like Russian dolls), but they are still distinct individuals.

We are also all manifestations of divinity. It used to be said that all women were manifestations of the Goddess, and all men were manifestations of the God – but as there are more than two genders, and more than two deities, I rephrased it. Some people seem offended by the idea that all deities spring from the same ultimate divine source; but if humans do too, and we know that humans are distinct individuals, I don’t see how saying that all deities spring from the same source is denying their individuality. Whereas the saying “All the Gods are God, and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (popularised by Dion Fortune) does deny their individuality.

I think that there is an underlying energy to everything, but that this energy does not have a personality; and the more diffuse and large a deity is, the less they have what we would recognise as a distinct personality. Local deities and spirits of place take on the characteristics of their locality, and their personalities are formed by their interactions with other people (and the same is true of humans).

No entity is discrete and separate, existing in a vacuum unaffected by other entities. Humans and other animals are distinct entities; we eat, breathe, and excrete, exchanging matter with our surroundings. We exchange ideas and moods with the people and places around us. We are interpermeable with our environment.

However, the view that we are all one is going too far in the opposite direction. We exist as distinct beings within the cosmos.

We also have to accept that we just don’t know what the nature of deities is. We scarcely understand the nature of consciousness in humans – how then can we claim to understand it in deities?

The names and forms we ascribe to deities are, in all likelihood, our anthropomorphic projections of what they are like. In an excellent post entitled “Gods like mountains, gods like mist“, Alison Leigh Lilly points out that deities are very probably shaped like something other than humans:

Because I do not believe that humans are the only beings with agency in the world, I do not expect my gods to express their agency in the same ways that human beings do. There are gods who forever remain elusive, whose identities shift with the landscape, the seasons and the stars. And there are gods so intimate that they are never really absent at all, and meeting them is not a matter of inviting their presence but rather of quieting my own expectations and learning how to listen.

I think that deities are fluid and changing. A deity may start out as the mind of a natural phenomenon, or a deified human, or the mind of a place or a region; and possibly deities can merge, and divide. I think that deities are on their own path of development, as the Hindu story of Indra and the Ants attests.

Ultimately, however, the nature of deities is a mystery, and (in my experience) the more concrete and definite we try to make our understanding of it, the more we lose the presence of Mystery.

So let a thousand theological flowers bloom! And let’s not be too quick to assume that any of us are right about any of it. A number of different theological schools of thought exist in Hinduism, and they seem to manage quite well.

Deities and divinity

There has been a lot of talk about the nature of deities on Patheos Pagan blogs recently – for example an excellent article on Raise the Horns about the way that deities change over the centuries.

This makes sense to me – I am a big fan of process theology, which suggests that the divine changes in response to the world, and I am also a polytheist, so I do not see why deities wouldn’t change too.

The Hindu and Buddhist traditions have deities reincarnating in different avatars. In Buddhism, becoming a deity is not the ultimate aim, as you can always slip down the great chain of being if you transgress as a deity; the ultimate aim is to cease to exist, to rest in Nirvana (which literally means ‘no flame’). There’s a brilliant Hindu story which shows the development of a deity through many lifetimes, Indra and the Ants. In this story, Indra sees a column of ants processing through his palace, and is told that they are all former Indras. He also meets an old man who plucks a hair out of his (very hairy) chest every time an avatar of Indra dies, which signifies the end of an age. What this story tells us about deities is that they too reincarnate, and can grow or diminish in wisdom —  in this story, Indra learns something that he did not know before.

There are many different views of how deities relate to each other and to the universe. My personal view (which I offer as one possible view, and not as normative in any way), is that there is an underlying divine energy, which emanates from the divine source. In my view, neither the underlying energy nor the divine source have a personality. From the underlying energy, all beings emerge — humans, spirits, deities, and animals. However, none of these beings are discrete entities — we have fuzzy boundaries and exchange food, energy, and breath with the world around us. Rather, we are distinct entities, and so are the deities. They are affected by our attention, gifts, and communing with them (or lack of it).

I do not think that Thor is the same as Jupiter or Perkunas or Indra or Yahweh the thunder god. They are all thunder gods (that’s their job) and so they are local manifestations of the thunder principle, but they are distinct from each other, just as all web developers share certain characteristics, and may be expressing an archetype when they are doing web development, but are still distinct individuals.

In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, the American manifestation of Odin is called Mr Wednesday, and the American manifestation of Loki is called Low-key Liesmith (good pun). In the novel, deities are expressed differently when they arrive on a new continent (just as there were many avatars of Indra in the story). I like this idea.

I also want to make a distinction here between monism (the belief that the whole universe is composed of the same energy) and monotheism (the belief that it was created by a single deity). Monism is compatible with polytheism; monotheism isn’t.

Lords and Ladies

I think deities emerge from the underlying energy in various different ways. They can be deified humans (such as Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, or Antinous); they can be personifications of natural forces (such as thunder gods, rain gods, and so on); they can be a combination of these (such as Odin, who was both a human king and the god of the winds); or they can be spirits of place who become particularly powerful (such as Athena, goddess of Athens).

In his novel Small Gods, Terry Pratchett describes how a small particle of consciousness floating around in the desert lodges in the brain of a young man, who then becomes its prophet, and founds the religion of Omnianism, with disastrous and hilarious consequences (hilarious because of the resemblance between Omnianism and fundamentalist Christianity, and disastrous for exactly the same reason).

Terry Pratchett has rightly been hailed as Britain’s foremost Pagan theologian, although he is an atheist. If you haven’t read his novels, you’re in for a treat. I especially recommend Small Gods, PyramidsEqual RitesWyrd SistersWitches AbroadLords and LadiesMaskeradeCarpe JugulumThe Wee Free MenA Hat Full of SkyWintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight — that should keep you busy for a bit! These are the ones about witches, deities, and faeries. (Pratchett’s faeries are not nice — on the Discworld, stone circles were built to keep them out.)

Equal Rites

Anyway, back to deities, and on to the thorny question of gender. In Buddhism, Kwan Yin has two avatars – Avalokitesvara, a male avatar, and Kwan Yin, a female avatar. In Roman religion, the Parilia was a festival celebrating Pales, a deity of uncertain gender, who may be male, female, or a couple. There are numerous transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual deities, although unfortunately much of this mythology was suppressed in the past. An excellent source for LGBT deities is Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit (highly recommended).

The underlying divine energy has no gender, in my view, though I do tend to regard it as giving birth to the universe. I think it both includes all genders, and transcends gender. There are more than two genders — indigenous cultures from around the world attest to this. So the underlying energy of the universe is not, in my view, divided into “the God” and “the Goddess”. I do tend to have a male and female patron deity when working in a Wiccan coven, but they are not invoked exclusively, and are asked to be the protectors of the coven, and I do not regard them as manifestations of the ultimate polarity.

I also think there are multiple polarities, and if there is  an ultimate pair of polarities, it is probably the manifest and the unmanifest; it certainly isn’t male and female. Lynna Landstreet has written brilliantly about polarities in her article, Alternate Currents: Revisioning Polarity: Or, what’s a nice dyke like you doing in a polarity-based tradition like this? (it’s an article that I consider to be a classic of Pagan writing, and highly recommended).

polarity transcends sexuality completely. Sex can be a manifestation of it, but it is not inherently based on sex, or even on deity in an anthropomorphic sense.  … That moment of lightning striking the primeval sea to create the first living organism is what I see when the athamé touches the wine.

Other polarities that exist are yin and yang, inner and outer, day and night, up and down, left and right, anode and cathode, waxing and waning, lover and beloved. None of these map neatly onto male and female. Incidentally, the concept of polarity was first mentioned in the West by Ralph Waldo Emerson, as far as I know, in his essay on Compensation; and Emerson did not posit male and female as the ultimate polarities.

POLARITY, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male and female; in the inspiration and expiration of plants and animals; in the equation of quantity and quality in the fluids of the animal body; in the systole and diastole of the heart; in the undulations of fluids, and of sound; in the centrifugal and centripetal gravity; in electricity, galvanism, and chemical affinity. Superinduce magnetism at one end of a needle; the opposite magnetism takes place at the other end. If the south attracts, the north repels. To empty here, you must condense there. An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay.

Whilst the world is thus dual, so is every one of its parts. The entire system of things gets represented in every particle. There is somewhat that resembles the ebb and flow of the sea, day and night, man and woman, in a single needle of the pine, in a kernel of corn, in each individual of every animal tribe. The reaction, so grand in the elements, is repeated within these small boundaries.

I do not know if Emerson’s essay is the source of Wiccan thinking about polarity; but whether it is or not, it is worth reading to get a more complex picture of what is meant by the term.

I have set out my views on polarity here, because, since I am a Wiccan, many readers might assume that I am some kind of duotheist, and I am not. I was inveighing against the misuse of the term ‘polarity’ to present a heterocentric view of reality as far back as 1997, in an article entitled Between Mirrors. I have form.

Small gods

I also think that deities exist on different scales. There are spirits of place, deities of cities and rivers (usually goddesses), deities of countries, deities of planets, deities of galaxies, and the emerging universal mind (which may or may not have a personality). Just as all beings exist within the universe, so the deity or spirit of a place exists within the deity of that country (but it still has a distinct identity within that). For example, the ancient Greeks had Gaea, goddess of Earth, and Rhea, goddess of the universe. Clearly Gaea exists within Rhea.

In my view, deities are emergent properties of the complexity of the universe. They are products of the interaction between mind and matter. There was no Creator God, rather the universe and its inhabitants are becoming more conscious, more compassionate, more empathic, with the arising of the universal mind (which proceeds from the unfolding of the Tao, the mysterious Way or emergent pattern). As we interact socially with the natural world, we increase its consciousness, just as we do for each other. First we awakened spirits of place, then gradually began to perceive the totality of the universe and wonder at the glories of Nature. We are part of the arising of the universal Mind, as we become more conscious and more empathic. We are all Future Buddhas. As we become more empathically connected to the universe, when we die we contribute part of our consciousness to the All (part is probably reincarnated), and it is in this process of interconnection that universal mind arises. Those who connect with the world around them  contribute to the process of expanding awareness and continuing the process of making everything more conscious. The process of individuation and self-development is part of the process of awakening.  But the awakening will not be from the “illusion” of matter, but rather matter itself is becoming ever more conscious or ensouled – it is awakening. Only when the mind of the Universe is fully conscious – when the kundalini of the Universe has arisen from the depths – only then will the Divine fully exist.

As ever, just my thoughts on all this – please share yours in the comments.