Monday, July 29, 2013

My Problem with Polytheism

Today I want to take a break from politics. A number of things going on in America these days, from the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case to the the Supreme Court's attack on the Voting Rights Act to banks and financial institutions only being punished with fines and fees and settlements even though they have wrecked the lives of millions and are continuing to do so... All of this is just too depressing for me to find words to respond with just now. I think America is going so far right and so far wrong that I am starting to wonder if I will even see it turn around in my lifetime,or just get worse and worse.... ever more cruel and unequal. And no, technology alone won't fix it.... If you believe that, you have been watching too many advertisements from the tech companies. If you persist in this belief, at least you will make THEM happy.

Let us speak instead of the spiritual and the mystical, in Paganism and beyond. Putting aside the various pejorative and negative meanings of the term "Pagan" stretching far back into history, for those who see Paganism in a positive light, Pagan/ism is generally defined as having to do with nature worship and polytheism. Let me admit something that some readers may find strange or disconcerting: I have a bit of a problem with polytheism.

This is something I have been thinking about for a long time. My problem is, in a sense, a variation on the classical philosophical dilemma of "The One and the Many." When Pagans respect or worship nature and also respect or worship multiple gods and goddesses, are we talking about ONE thing, nature, with multiple manifestations personified as gods and goddesses, or is nature one thing, and the gods and goddesses separate things and beings? How do these things all relate and connect together? Is nature the fundamental thing, the foundation of all existence, and the gods something on top of that or secondary to that?

I cannot accept the proposition that the gods are real and separate, and that they are the highest reality. There has to be something that connects us all together, a common ground to all that exists. The monotheists call this common ground "God," but we Pagans prefer to have multiple gods and goddesses. I like the multiplicity of Paganism and polytheism for representing a diverse, many-faceted existence in a dramatic, relatable, personified manner, but I am still left scratching my head, and wondering, what is the underlying linkage connecting everything, the foundation? In this respect I like the idea of God, but I don't feel any need for a Santa Claus figure to watch over me and dispense rewards and punishments. I like a more impersonal idea of God, closer perhaps to the Ein-Sof of the Kabbalah, the Tao of Taoism, the Brahman principle of Hinduism or the Sunyatta Void of Buddhism, or the god beyond form and image and word in Islam and Judaism. This is definitely part of my personal spiritual kit.

Where the multiple divine beings of Pagan polytheism become important to me is as ways of representing human psychology, our needs, our emotions, our experiences, our instincts and drives. A god of anger and destruction? I feel it. A god of wisdom and knowledge? I seek it.A god who plays tricks and is untrustworthy? I know that god! A goddess who represents the peace or the wildness in nature? I feel it. The dark god or goddess of death and nothingness? I fear it. A goddess of love and desire? I WANT to feel Her! However, I cannot take any of these gods literally as actual beings up and about in the world who I might bump into on the street or in the forest. I see them in a more psychological sense, as something like Jungian archetypes. Enormously meaningful as dimensions of life, powerfully real as expressions of psychology, but literally, physically real? No....not for me.

For me, I have to combine the multiplicity of polytheism, as a means of relating to and respecting the many aspects of human and natural existence, with the philosophical grounding of monotheism or monism, to provide a foundation and a connection between all the diverse elements of our world. I also believe that the essence of spirituality is to seek both encounter with deeper dimensions of life--a polytheistic impulse--as well as some kind of unity and integration--the monistic or monotheistic impulse. If polytheism just means everything scattered and separate forever, a glorious, roiling disunity, I don't want it. I seek something further: some kind of bringing together, binding together, connecting together, integration and unity at a higher level. However, I would never accept the suppression of many-ness and diversity that some monotheistic religions tend towards. I am therefore seeking a form of religion or spirituality that both acknowledges diversity and many-ness and also leads to some kind of integration and unity. I know this is not for everyone, but I wanted to express this point of view.

I do think that Pagan traditions contain glimpses of what I am talking about, and I will discuss this in future. For now, I would be interested to know if others have reflected on the issues I have raised, and what their thoughts are.


Anonymous said...

"I cannot accept the proposition that the gods are real and separate, and that they are the highest reality."

Why not? Since you admit that you simply cannot accept this, what you're saying is that you have dogmatic limitations to your personal belief system. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's also not logical reason to extend your personal limitations and slap them, without justification, on anyone other than yourself.

"There has to be something that connects us all together, a common ground to all that exists."

But why? It seems like you cannot conceive of the possibility that 1+1=1+1 and does not always equal 2. Again, the fact that you cannot conceive of anything other than your belief system implies your own limitations. Don't apply your own limitations to others.

We all have limitations. Neither mine nor yours validly apply to anyone else, let alone everyone else.

David Dashifen Kees said...

I wrestle with this all the time. This and whether or not I truly even believe in gods. My fight isn't necessary with polytheism, but with theism in general!

I have never experienced a god, at least not that I'm aware of. And, if you're not aware of an experience can you be said to have had it? I'd say no.

But, I choose to call to the gods by name because I know others who have had these experiences and I trust them. But, it leaves me feeling hollow when attending ritual with others.

I've never even really experienced archetypal figures like the Goddess and the God so when people describe Paganism as an experiential path where what one does is more than what one thinks, I'm left confused as what I do feels like so much less.

As for Anonymous above, I don't feel like you're forcing your beliefs on anyone in the article above. You shared your own opinion and graciously invited us to share ours. You even said "No....not for me" instead of simply leaving it at "No" thus indicating that others are open to feeling, thinking, believing, and experiencing otherwise.

You want to talk about a problem: let's start working out a way build a better understanding that the many-ness of polytheism can be a both/and relationship with respect to different ways of being a polytheist rather than an either/or situation.

Julia Ergane said...

I am writing from my own/Hellenic point-of-view. Per Hesiod, the Gods are not the highest reality. They came into being along with the universe, which was not created by a Deus Ex Machina. The so-called common ground is more of an Unitarian-Universalist notion (I attend one of their churches on occasion) as I recall. My viewpoint is more archaic, so this concept does not totally jibe with me.
Yes, I have had experiences that the Gods are real and separate. I am currently 62 years of age, educated with 2 masters degrees, and my first experiences were when I was still a child.

Anonymous said...

Does it matter if you like it? It either is or is not true.

Mel said...

I believe that gods are our higher selves. My chain of reincarnation has a higher self that is the core soul of all of the lives in the chain. Those higher selves are deities that sort of create manifestations of themselves as humans.
Just what I believe.

Ashley Yakeley said...

I see the gods as personifications of parts of the world. So the unity is simply the world itself, and the gods are just parts of that.

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