What Happens When It All Comes To Nothing? (And Where Are The Deities In That, If Anywhere At All?)

I had hoped that it would not have been more than a month since I’ve been able to write more in this series…but, mid-September through now has been a nonstop cavalcade of classes, meetings, meetings about classes, classes about meetings, a few conferences (and one to go this weekend!), presentations, and nowhere near enough time to do all of the things I’d truly prefer…so, my apologies for that.  I hope to get a few more of these done before, or during, the Sacred Nights of Antinous that will be beginning on October 24th (in just over a week!), and will persist through to Foundation Day on October 30th and then into early November with the festival of Antinous the Liberator on November 1st.

But, what you might assume from the above subject line sounds pretty desolate…right?  And while this particular discussion could veer into that category, certainly, it may not…

Let’s first get an idea of what we’re actually talking about here.

I received this question in September, and here’s what it said (the original person asking can feel free to identify themself if they so choose in the comments below!):

I just watched this video about the remaining history of the universe and I thought it would be great to talk about from a Polytheistic perspective. 
Based on current science, it looks like life will only exist in a pretty short window of time compared to the rest of the universe and the vast majority of the cosmos’ history will essentially just be nothingness.  This raises a few questions:
1.  How do our Gods fit into this scheme of things?
2.  What will become of us if the universe itself will eventually decay into nothingness?

So, first, I’d suggest everyone who wants to read further go and look at that video.  The production values and quality of it are quite high, and it is worth watching in full, in my opinion!

And let me state here, for the record (in case I have not made this clear elsewhere):  I am not someone who thinks even remotely that “science” and “religion” are opposed forces, or that the existence of one threatens the other, or that they must needs be in any sort of enmity.  (Leave that to literalist fundamentalist monotheists–I’m happy for them to have the corner on the market on this matter!)  When things that had been unknown or even “mysterious” are discovered through the methods of science, this does not push Deities further and further out of the picture, or make me feel as if the mythic narratives about the Deities that I love and from which I draw great inspiration are therefore “invalid” or are “disproved” by what has been discovered.  I am of the (if I’m not mistaken) Stephen Jay Gould school of thought on this particular matter, i.e. that science and religion have “non-overlapping magisteria,” and that such is perfectly fine.  I would phrase my framing of each field of inquiry’s strengths differently–Gould uses “facts vs. values” to characterize science and religion’s pursuits respectively, but instead I would say “physical description and meaning,” to indicate that there is no opposition between these two fields of inquiry, and that the conclusions arrived at in each case have relevance to entirely different things.  Science is the very best way to attempt to describe and quantify how the physical processes of the universe and both its observable and unobservable phenomena (but the latter of which can still be detected in various ways!) work and what their effects are.

What it cannot and does not do is what religion is the very best at:  not values (which then shades into morals and ethics, and religion and the entire realm of divine beings does not have to be the basis for that sort of reasoning!), nor “naïve explanations” or “magical thinking” and other such dismissive formulations, but instead the entire realm of meaning, which is not only involved in some of those matters previously mentioned and encompassing them without being limited to them, but also the entire realm of the subjective, the interpretive, the emotional, the non-rational (which is the majority of our biological processes, and the affective impetus behind most animal behavior across all species on the earth, including humans!), the interpretive, the qualitative, and that which comes to the edges of human knowledge and perception and which is often not “the unknown” in terms of scientific processes not-yet-understood, but instead that which can be experienced but not always put into language.  That latter category can be the biggest and most important things of existence, like death or Deities or love or consciousness, or it can be things as simple and everyday and common as the feeling of comfort and security one gets when one slips into one’s favorite pair of slippers that are exactly where one’s feet are positioned when one gets up out of bed.  (I don’t know anything about that sort of experience, because getting slippers has not been easy for me…but I digress!)

So, while there is much more that could be said about all of that, let us simply take that for what it is at present, and move on with the essence of this inquiry.

The question of consciousness is one that science has been not only reluctant to deal with (even recently), but entirely unprepared to deal with, despite it being a major part of the ideas of people like Einstein, Max Planck, Bohr, and many other of the early 20th century’s greatest names in physics.  There is a long and complex history of why this is the case, and so suffice it to say that these questions are at the heart of so many matters that have been put in the category of “religion” and in which we often attempt to form metaphysical propositions, ideas about the afterlife and the survival of consciousness after death, the make-up and dynamics of “the soul” (which might be another term for “consciousness” in certain respects, sounding more directly psychological in the 19th-21st century sense of the term as opposed to the religious understanding of it as “ways of understanding the soul”), and so much else.  Because there is no scientific manner by which to measure or quantify consciousness, to detect its presence or absence, and much else, the fact that the scientific models of the universe that lead to the conclusions reached in the video above does not take account of this is also understandable, but not necessarily a way to evade the question.

Now:  don’t think that this therefore means that I think that religion then fills that vacuum where science has left off!  If so, I’d be giving credence to that nonsensical idea of the “God of the Gaps” (not to be confused with Ginnungagap, mind you!) which atheists and pro-science folks (and often those who are advocates of scientism rather than science, properly speaking!) so often critique.  No, I’m not going to take it in that direction.  I think it can be approached in other ways.

Rupert Sheldrake asks, in a (very highly recommended!) banned TED talk, whether consciousness can be something that exists in stars, for example.  While this is something that is a very old idea, and one that comes up in a great deal of ancient and indigenous cultures–including ideas of katasterism, astral apotheosis, and so forth, which also occur in the cultus of Antinous!–it’s something that I wonder about, personally.  If there is a definite consciousness, whether singular or collective, that applies to larger organizations of matter, including planets, stars, or even entire galaxies, then who is to say that Deities cannot be a part of that?  If nothing else, I think that from a purely descriptive perspective, most polytheists can agree that the various different Deities, as well as Hero/ines, Ancestors, and other such beings are discarnate consciousnesses…or, to be a bit more whimsical about it, what Robert Anton Wilson called “gaseous vertebrates” since we do tend to think of these divine beings as having certain functions of thought, personality, and volition similar to our own human faculties.  If these consciousnesses can exist independent of bodies–which is what a great deal of the current research into these matters seem to indicate (research and conclusions of which are mostly done in the field of parapsychology today, which are more scientifically rigorous than the dismissals of them by “real scientists” most of the time!)–then why wouldn’t it be possible for them to exist on varying scales, from the most basic and temporary things like the rush of a crowd at a sporting event all the way up to the most far-reaching Cosmic Powers?

If what I’ve just spoken of may be the case, then who is to say that some consciousness cannot also exist in, on, or around those black holes?  These are (according to the formulations of which I’m currently aware) highly concentrated, and thus highly organized, arrangements of matter whose exact nature, properties, and so much else are quite beyond our current abilities to comprehend through science, and which have never been directly observed.  So, as one theory amongst billions, what if the consciousness of such objects is a collective, and one so all-encompassing and powerful that its ultimate effects on the rest of the universe are still not perceptible, and which may be deliberate and even purposeful?  What if, on the physical and “scientific” level, the event horizon of a black hole is actually that liminal zone between the palpable and the ineffable that so many of us have experienced as the presence and being of one or another Deity?  What if the astrologers are wrong, and it isn’t the stars that have an impact on us as humans (though they might, too!), but instead the apparent darknesses in between the stars, some of which are undoubtedly black holes, that exert their pull on us both gravitationally and in terms of consciousness?  This would certainly explain why some Deities seem to keep getting “larger” and more syncretistic as time goes on, perhaps as those cosmic singularities become more and more massive in taking in their neighboring celestial colleagues…?!?  Perhaps the super-massive black hole or holes that are theorized to be at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is, for example, Isis, and that another black hole in our galaxy is Lug, another is Milda, and so forth?  And since these might have some impact far outside of their own galaxies, perhaps more abstruse but powerful Deities are the black holes in other galaxies?  One could imagine such, perhaps…

…And one could have all sorts of fun with that kind of thinking.  As Antinous’ “star” does not seem to be in definite existence any longer, major nova and supernova activity in that region has been detected in recent decades, and much else besides, and we have sometimes described His star as a “black star,” who’s to say it might not be a black hole itself, and that the grand collective consciousness within it and arising from it is not Antinous, or some other Deity or Deities (or perhaps even entire pantheons of Deities, or classes/types of Deities…!?!) and He just happened to be so lucky as to make a grand leap in consciousness development that not many are able to in their post-death states?  It’s an intriguing possibility!

That many scientists and some philosophers, including Sheldrake, are now speaking of “panpsychism” (not to be confused with Panpsyche of the Tetrad++…though perhaps not entirely unconnected, either!), which is really just a restatement of the principles of animism in a secular, post-religious framework (and one that does not demean indigenous cultures in the way that some feel the term “animism” does, especially when placed in an inferior “evolutionary” category in comparison to theisms, and especially monotheism) makes it all the more possible that non-human consciousnesses, and post-human consciousnesses, may eventually stumble upon what many of us have been experiencing for millennia in the form of these various divine beings that are the subject of so much of my work.

But, there’s another elephant in the room that is also raised by some of Sheldrake’s ideas.  The models of the universe and its development/unfolding presented by the video above is one that is entirely based in the physicalist models that are now the dominant ones in science, that ignore consciousness entirely, and that ask, as Sheldrake comments, for “one free miracle” in terms of the Big Bang, and then have the math for (most of) the rest.  We have to presume that a lot that is currently not known or understood must be immutably so for the model to play out as it does.  This projection entirely relies upon cosmological models that may as well be considered just as mythic as any of the cosmologies of any religious culture that has ever existed, since we still don’t know about some of the processes that are said to have formed our universe, or why the universe seems to be larger than the current laws of physics as currently observed seemed to allow for in their current quantified processes.  What if, as Sheldrake asks, the speed of light has varied at different periods?  What if the “many worlds” theories of quantum mechanics, which are taken as “true” at this point by many people, mean that all of the possible ways particles can react with one another have already taken place and are taking place currently, such that the particles that make “me” up are just as much where I am perceiving myself to be in the room as I type this as they are across the room, and probably also across town, across the country, and maybe even across the whole universe?  What if in the various other dimensions of reality that are thought to exist in some theories (anywhere from four to eleven to who-knows-how-many!) would present us with pictures of the unfolding universe that are much different to those we see in this particular model?

Or, to take this same question from a different angle, and in the language of the “other magisterium”:  what if what the Jains and Buddhists and others say is actually true, that the universe was never created and has always existed, and always will?  What if the ideas of the birth, development, and death of the cosmos as narrated in many different cultures are simply the human observations of these phenomena read into and writ large over the entire cosmic panorama, and are therefore assumed to be the “norms” of such when something else is actually going on?  And what if scientists like Sir Roger Penrose, when talking about the death of one universe and the beginnings of another, is the reality on some level, and that this “dead universe” theorized at the end of the first video given above is really not the end, but instead just the apparent status of things outside of consciousness in the current universe, and that something very different is going on elsewhere?  Not to draw too many connections to the first Men In Black film, but what if that yawning chasm of nothingness after the last black holes dissipate in the current universe is actually just, for example, the birth of a single electron in another larger universe?  Verily, the mind reels…!?!  😉

All of this to say:  in any question or series of questions of this kind, the matter of consciousness has to be taken into account.  What the parapsychologists have not yet done in their own reasoning is to extend the possibilities of non-human and non-embodied consciousness in the panpsychist model out to things that would qualify as “Deities” and other types of divine being for polytheists, and which would explain some of the informational matters that we have access to and which form parts of our experiences as a result of our divine encounters.  Some parapsychologists I know entirely dismiss “religion” and do not make any distinctions amongst religions, assuming that the only “true” possibility of “religion” would have to be a singular all-powerful (and forth!) Creator Deity that is in control and foreknowledge of all that exists, rather than the more likely (and more provable!) possibility that there are various levels of consciousness outside of and above the human, and that these don’t necessarily have to jump all the way to a monistic notion of “the oneness of all consciousness” (which is just the “Creator Deity” of the “religion” that they have categorically rejected!) and can instead proceed through various smaller, more limited, but still significant, individual consciousnesses that may be affiliated with or attached to particular other natural complex phenomena, or that may be singular or collective post-incarnate consciousnesses of various species of organisms (including humans and therefore Ancestors and Hero/ines!), some of which can make a further leap into the realm of divinity as recognized as such by some religious cultures, including many ancient and modern polytheisms.

That probably doesn’t answer the questions as given above, but oh well…!

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Why Worship Humans?

Today is marked in my calendar as the day that Lucius Marius Vitalis died.  While we do not actually know the historical date of this particular event, which probably happened in the year 128 CE, this date has long been established as the one we use for marking it all the way back to my days in the earlier, “original” Antinous group that I was a co-founder of back in 2002.  As there was no compelling reason to change it, and divination has not revealed that it needs changing, we stuck with it.

We only know of VItalis’ existence at all because of a single inscription, which happens to be his funeral inscription.  We know that he was a young student of the arts–perhaps of the clerical arts in particular–that was part of Hadrian’s entourage, which likely traveled with the Emperor to the Eastern Empire starting in 128 CE, and he very likely died toward the beginning of this journey, perhaps even in Athens.  We are told what his age was at his death, which then allowed me many years later to determine that if his death-date was today, his birthdate would have been a day in early July–the 14th, to be exact–and the year of his birth would have thus been about 112 CE if 128 was the correct year of his death.

But this brings up the larger question that gives this particular post its title:  why worship humans, which is to say, beings that were formerly humans who have now died, become heroized, or who have undergone apotheosis?  It’s a question I’ve dealt with before, actually…but, from time to time, it’s good to be reminded of these things, and this is a day appropriate to think about such.

I’ve heard some polytheists outright say that to worship any former humans–including Hero/ines–is hubris.  (So, what about Ancestors?)  We’ll return to the issue of hubris below.  At various times in the different Antinous groups, some people had a very vocal disgust (and that’s putting it mildly in some cases) for the idea of Sancta/e/i, even when these were understood and defined in non-Christian-derived terms (and on this, more in a moment).  One individual, in the early days of the first Antinous group, stormed out of it because we were debating on what days to honor particular Sancta/e/I, and whether we should go by their birthdates (which would be more Roman) or their death-dates (which would be more Christian), and as this person flounced off, they chided those of us in the group by saying that all of us were more divine than any of these people, and we should be focused on that rather than on all of these “dead people.”  That I found very confusing, because if we who are alive now are (already!) divine, then does that just “go away” after we die?  Hmm…

Both Hero/ines and the Sancta/e/I, in my view, can be understood as particularly special and/or powerful Ancestors; and the Sancta/e/i in particular (as I’ve written in a published essay) can be thought of as “Group Ancestors,” lineage Ancestors, or any number of other distinctions which tie their honoring and veneration to the history and success of our modern traditions.  I still pray to the Sancta/e/I as a standard part of my prayers every time I do a prayer to the main group of Deities and Hero/ines of the Antinoan Pantheon, and even though they get named last in the standard formula, that doesn’t mean a great deal in terms of their relative esteem or hierarchical divine status.

One of the reasons I have felt comfortable using the term Sancta/e/I for this group of revered dead is because it gets used on Lucius Marius Vitalis’ funerary marker–in fact, he’s not just called Sanctus in it, he is called Sanctissimus, “The Holiest.”  There was a trend in the later Roman Empire to speak of almost all the dead in those increasingly superlative terms (and though Sanctus became relatively common, Sanctissimus is still relatively rare!), and to practically treat all of them as Hero/ines.  This may explain some of what is seen as the excessiveness of Herodes Attikos’ honoring of Polydeukion, Memnon, and Achilles:  it wasn’t just a rich guy trying to excessively mourn his foster-children, he was doing something that was not entirely uncommon, and that simply had a larger footprint because of his ability to commemorate them in grander fashion.

Something that I’ve heard some pagans and polytheists do as well in relation to questions of this sort is bring up “the whole Jesus issue,” and the idea that Jesus was (to use the phrase from Jesus Christ Superstar!) “just a man” and that the worship of Jesus as a God was an excess.  Sadly, even those who arrive at this notion and then often become atheists (despite the historical evidence for Jesus ever being human at all being quite slight, but of course it is resorted to because anything suggesting divinity at all cannot be “true” from an atheist perspective…but let’s not get further into all of that just now!) are not aware of the tendency of many cultures in late antiquity to heroize and even deify their dead, which had been going on for centuries and even millennia at that stage.  The idea that one hears in some religion classes, which I heard in one of my classes while studying at a Jesuit university, and said non-ironically as an observation with no self-reflexiveness in the process, that “all religions tend to deify their founders” may also be true…but, so what?  In indigenous cultures, the dividing lines between living humans, effective spirits of the dead, Ancestors, Deities, and other such categories are very thin if not non-existent.

Strangely, what comes through in these kinds of dismissals is not so much that one distances oneself from the excesses of Christianity and its brand of piety, but instead that one proves how much one is in the grip of exactly that kind of thinking.  It isn’t merely that, just as atheism is often the “photo-negative” version of whatever religion it is reacting against (an atheist from India is very different than an atheist from America!), it’s that some of the same underlying ideas about things like the questions of “what constitutes religion,” and–in this case more importantly–“what are humans” are still there, operative, and are determining one’s views on things despite one’s outward rejection of these in claiming to be atheist, or no-longer-Christian.  Because humanity is viewed as fallen, imperfect-as-an-understatement, and in almost all ways very little above the mud and dust from which we were ostensibly created, therefore worshipping anything that isn’t at the other possible superlative degree–namely, a Deity that has never been tainted by anything human, material, and that is entirely beyond the reaches of the physical universe and all its vicissitudes–is viewed as the only viable and proper option.  This is a post-Christian, anti-human bias that can even remain in some people who consider themselves “humanists.”

Fuck that noise.

Venerating, honoring, commemorating, and even outright worshipping former humans as Ancestors or any other category (and I’ve heard some people in polytheism distinguish these things, just as Catholics have to distinguish between dulia and latria, despite these being terminological distinctions without a difference when it comes down to actual phenomenological matters…sociologists and anthropologists will tell you that Catholic saints cultus is no different phenomenologically from the cultus to any number of Deities in other cultures!) does not diminish the divinity of Deities, and does not make the overall devotional time one gives to them as opposed to Deities a waste of time.  Many polytheists consider the Deities’ works in the natural world as beautiful, awe-inspiring, and even worthy of worship or veneration in and of themselves, and I see no problems with that…but, what if humans are also divine works?  What then?  It is fine to worship and honor a tree, lightning, a mountain, a river, various animals…but not humans?  Do you see how very inconsistent this seems, that humans are “always the exception” and in a negatively-valenced fashion?  (Just as scientists and Christians often think of humans as different than and to some extent “above” the “mere” other types of animals, which has allowed so much destruction and exploitation to occur–except, of course, when it benefits them to think of humans as animals, as they do when questions of gender and sexuality are concerned, whereupon they’re one-hundred percent in the category of “science proves!”–why is it that we are then exempted from the goodness and potential divinely revelatory possibilities that all of the rest of nature has?  You can’t be a pantheist without EVERYTHING being IN THE PAN!)  One cannot–or, rather, in my view, should not-ignore a whole category of “nature” in the form of “human nature” and exclude it from reverence and respect when such is given to all else in the cosmos.-

As to the matter of hubris:  yes, there are some instances from Ancient Greek myth that are worth noting in this matter.  Ixion challenging the Deities of Olympos and trying to usurp Them as a mortal (though his father was Ares, so he was technically capable of being a Hero or demigod and thus having legitimate cultus rather than eternal punishment) and attempting to rape Hera was a case of hubris, unquestionably; but, his crimes of violations of xenia, kin-slaying, anger, and lustfulness were just as much responsible for his fate as hubris.  But, in cases like Arakhne or Odysseus, the hubris involved wasn’t so much wanting to usurp the positions of the Deities as a mortal, but instead of comparing oneself in one’s pride and arrogance to a Deity (in Arakhne’s case, she did so justifiably, it could be argued!) or to be excessive in one’s cruelty and shaming of another person in defeat, which is what Odysseus did to Polyphemos and thus incurred the wrath of Poseidon.  In fact, for the Greeks, hubris was not just excessive pride or arrogance, but often was what is reflected in Odysseus’ actions of humiliating someone in defeat, and there was often a sexual element to the whole thing as well, which then brings in the Ixion example once more.

If the people who complained about Hero cultus or any reverence for humans as being hubris were really to be “proper” in their Hellenic understanding of such things (which is why some modern Hellenic polytheists seem to think that later strata of Greek and Graeco-Roman culture are so “degenerate” because of the prominence of Hero/ines, deified emperors, and so forth!), then it surprises me that they don’t rail more against people who are in divine marriage or divine lover relationships with Deities…and I’m not throwing the latter to such people as apt targets, but instead am pointing out that if one really wants to be “original” and “strictly reconstructionist” in such things, then even the aspiration of having such a relationship might shade toward the Ixionic or Aktaionic extremes.  (Of course, that is also nonsense, because in almost all the cases I know of personally, the Deities have the initiative, and when that occurs in Greek myth, it’s perfectly fine…but that gets into a whole other domain of discussion which we’ll leave aside for the moment!)

In the radical re-evaluation of one’s life, thoughts, and assumptions that should occur when one shifts to a polytheistic worldview, I think it would be useful to also shift one’s views of humans and of human nature and human potential as well.  Yes, this does occur, and in some contexts more than others (Orphic strains of tradition come to mind, as do many Mystery Religions), but it should probably take place on a wider basis.  Apotheosis, whether to fully deified forms, or simply to the status of honored Ancestors, Hero/ines, or something else is something that we should not only accept as polytheists, we should probably expect it, including amongst our own ranks.  Apotheosis is not an anomaly; it should be our aim, in whatever form that might take.  Indeed, in the Egyptian afterlife texts, that is the expectable outcome of having done all of the rituals and passed all of the trials ahead of one, which is available to absolutely anyone.

That is one of many reasons why, I would argue, worship of former mortals is a good thing:  it is a reminder of what is possible for any one of us.  Cicero himself said as much in a quote that I often use at the end of larger public rituals:

Now the law which prescribes the worship of those of the human race who have been deified, such as Hercules and the rest, makes it clear that while the souls of all men are immortal, those of good and brave men are divine. It is a good thing also that Intellect, Loyalty, Virtue and Good Faith should be deified by the stroke of a pen, and in Rome temples have been dedicated by the State to all of these qualities, the purpose being that those who possess them (and all good men do) should believe that the Gods Themselves are established in their own souls.

One cannot do much better than Cicero, so I shall end there!

[*Snorting/Scoffing Sound*] You’re a “Polytheist”? But isn’t it obvious that there’s only one God?

If you think there is only one Deity–and it happens to be the Deity that your particular religion believes is the only one (which is a circular argument, incidentally)–then that means one of three things about you:

  1.  You’re not well-informed enough to realize that there are many other Deities, there always have been, and no matter how loudly your religion argues otherwise, there always will be;
  2. You lack the creativity to possibly imagine that the world could be in any way larger than, different to, or beyond your own capacity to currently think, which is extremely limited and limiting;
  3. You utterly lack any respect for your fellow humans and their own abilities to have their own ideas, beliefs, and practices, and they are furthermore free to live by them in good faith, which is not a very effective way to go through the world or to understand and have compassion for your fellow persons.

So, that being the case, between ignorance, lack of creativity, or being disrespectful:  which one are you?

 

[This is a much shorter blog post than I’m accustomed to, and this one in particular is designed to provide folks with some snappy comebacks if anyone pulls that bullshit of thinking that if one is a polythesi, one is therefore “stupid” because, whether one is a bigoted monotheist or an atheist/secularist/materialist, the assumption is always that such viewpoints–with the latter differing from the former only in very small ways–must be the only possible “right” answer regarding the number of Deities in the universe.  Alas, this bias is so thoroughly baked into people these days that even thinking outside of these possibilities for some polytheists can be difficult, and our polytheistic usage of language, including common expressions like “Oh God” and so forth reflects this…which is truly lamentable.  But anyway, that’s a larger set of issues, and I just wanted to get this down relatively briefly while the iron was hot.]

If Your Religion Is So Great, Why Don’t You Proselytize?

It’s somewhat interesting to me that Sannion posted a piece with lots of excerpts on the very forceful ways in which the early followers of the messianic Jesus-based cultus forced late antique polytheists out of their ancestral practices.

Just about the time I finished reading that this morning, I had my doorbell ring.  I thought it was a bit early for the mail or UPS or anyone like that, but stopped what I was doing and got up to answer the door.  Standing there were two besuited bible-thumpers, complete with bibles to thump when necessary.

This does not happen to me very often, and hasn’t for a few years (since about mid-2016, in fact), when I put up a sign that says “Proselytizers Shall Have Their Favor Preemptively Reciprocated.”  (I have thought about selling signs like this for a bit of extra cash…and maybe I will!)  I did this because within three days of moving in to my present apartment, I was beset by Mormon missionaries, who came about every five to six months.  I find that whole practice rather intriguing from a sociological viewpoint, and being a person who does not like to be rude or mean to people generally speaking, or to even be perceived as being such (I know some people won’t believe that’s true, but where certain things are concerned, others can think whatever they want of me and I don’t care, but in terms of everyday manners in casual interactions with strangers, I try to be as nice as possible no matter what), I did not immediately tell them to go away or anything of the sort.  The first set that came just after I moved in was unusual because it was two young women; I knew that young women also did missions in the LDS church, but had never seen nor heard of any going door-to-door before, and was somewhat intrigued over that.  I was dismayed, though, because as soon as they found out I have a Ph.D. and teach classes on religion, they began deferring to me on matters of their own religion because of their assumptions about my gender, which is extremely disturbing for all sorts of reasons.  The third set of Mormons that came I decided to ask some questions of myself, especially along the lines of what their experiences have been in terms of getting yelled at or abused by people who don’t want to talk with them, and they were very frank about it, and said they’d had guns pulled on them up in a town near the Canadian border that is extremely fundamentalist in the majority of its population within a particular Christian denomination.  I was astonished at this, because almost anyone else in a similar situation, whether going to knock on doors for religious purposes or to sell Kirby vacuum cleaners, would probably quit if someone threatened them with a gun, and perhaps have many years of therapy ahead of them as well, but these kids in their late teens or early twenties at most were literally all smiles…and not in a vapid way, just in a way that encapsulated how they have been taught to interpret these experiences.  They showed empathy for the person who did that, and didn’t think it was a sign of their sinfulness or anything like that (or at least they didn’t let on such if they did think that!), and I sent them on their way after a little while feeling affirmed in their own religious choices and commitments, as I had expressed admiration for how their religion had designed this experience so that those who come through it are strengthened in their convictions and are generally lifelong in their dedication to their church.

The second group of Mormons was particularly noteworthy, though.  I had just come home from a long day at college, had walked in the door to put my bags down and such, and was going to go out and then check my mail.  These two stealthy missionaries had come up to the door across from mine, and were knocking with no answer, and then when I emerged from my door, they took the chance to speak with me instead.  Fairly early on in the conversation, I indicated that I am a polytheist, and at that point they said something I’ve never heard any other Mormon say at any point in person:  “We’re henotheists.”  I was very impressed with that admission, and we talked a bit more, but I eventually expressed that I was not interested in worshipping only that Deity which they were trying to propagate.  Still, I found this quite honest and perceptive on their part, and appreciated the experience for that.

[Incidentally, of the various “white people” that I met at the World Parliament of Religions in 2015 in Salt Lake City who were not acquaintances or co-religionists, it was only the few Mormons I met at the events themselves who were truly respectful, loving, literally embracing, and who asked excellent questions while never once suggesting that I should get involved in their religion or come to their services, etc.  Some people from other religions there were nowhere near that respectful, unfortunately…]

In any case, I decided after the third instance of these missionary visits that it was best for everyone not to waste 20-40 minutes of my own time, heat escaping my open door (baseboard heating ain’t cheap!), and their time to try their luck with other potential victims prospects, and thus engineered the sign.  Since then, I’ve had a few occasions where people have left literature on my door, usually when I’ve not been at home. and I’ve considered sending it back to their churches C.O.D., but apparently that service is no longer available.  About a month or so ago, I was arriving home and was getting ready to meet some friends to go out to dinner (who, as it turns out, were former Mormons, or “fomo-Momos,” as I call them!), and they were possibly going to come and knock on my door when they arrived, so I was in my foyer putting on my shoes, and heard some voices from outside.  They were kind of whispering, and were remarking about the sign on my door, and I thought it could have been my friends, so I waited…and there was no knock or ring on the doorbell.  I’m glad I did, because I had thought of just opening the door as well, and had I done so, I would have encountered two more Mormon missionaries and probably have had to give them a bit of their own medicine.

So here I am, on a Saturday morning, and it is actually one of the more important festivals this month for me, and I was thinking of a variety of things (including how I might mark the occasion later in the day), when these two idiots came to the door.  I have more sympathy for Mormon missionaries, I have to say, because they’re young, they literally have nothing else in their lives at this period in them, and for the most part they’re nice and agreeable people. and sometimes they’re even kind of cute (!?!).  These people today, on the other hand, were adults, probably in their 50s or 60s (I didn’t get a look at the second person at all because of the angle I was at with my door half-open), and given that they had not paid any attention to the sign when they rang my doorbell (the sign hangs right above it!), I kind of automatically assumed they were either superlatively confident they could convert me, or (as turned out to be the case) were cretinous imbeciles of the highest caliber.

“Good morning!  Can I ask you if you feel that Scripture has an important place in your life and in society today?”

[Too many questions are raised by such a ridiculous statement–which Scripture, for starters?  But these were idiots, and so I couldn’t expect to ask that and have them even be able to understand the question.]

“Not to me, it doesn’t.”

“I see.  Well, can I read you a particular Bible passage that may be of importance to rethinking that?”

“Uhh…did you see the sign?”

“What sign?”

“That one.”  [I pointed toward it.]

At that stage, the guy literally tried to read it, didn’t understand it, said a few of the words printed there wrong (I’ll give him that, though, because it is in a kind of elaborate church-y looking font that stupid people might not recognize very well, even if they have their ridiculous biblical quotes in that same font framed over their mantelpieces at home), and then said, “Oh, okay, thank you” and left.

This has not sat well with me all day for a variety of reasons.  One of them is that because I have a Shrine in my house and attempt to maintain the sanctity of it, having people like that here who are negative toward the existence of my Deities and of “people like me” (which can mean a million things in my own particular context!) feels like a violation to me…I am going to sprinkle some salt on the door to get rid of any of their lingering pollution, so that may help.

[And, crikey, a maintenance guy just came to check my ceiling for leaks…after EIGHT MONTHS since that happened…and demanded to come in even though I said it was fine. He checked the bathroom where the leaks were that many months ago, and then wanted to go in the Shrine to check it as well, which I refused and simply said “It’s a religious Shrine,”  and luckily he took that TRUTHFUL ANSWER as his cue to get the hell out after saying “God bless you, sir.”  What the fuck, Universe?]

Anyway, all of this to say, as if I hadn’t been thinking of the evils of proselytization, and particularly of forced proselytization (which is still going on in places like India) due to covering Christianity and Islam in my religious classes recently, here we’ve got multiple examples of people trying to get up in my face in various ways that I did not want today.

I think it is a legitimate question, from a certain viewpoint:  if your religion is good for you, then why wouldn’t you want to share it with everyone?  Much of that question presumes that a soteriological and eschatological situation is in operation with all religions, which it isn’t (by necessity); in my own case, the Mystery Religion that I practice and of which I am an initiate does involve both of those things.  But, such a situation does not require a compulsion for all people to do likewise, any notion of universality, or any notion that those who are not doing as I am will come to a “bad end” in an afterlife.  It is a remarkable lack of imagination, pluralism, and faith in other human beings to create a situation that is the opposite, in my view…

…Not to mention superlatively insecure!  That’s what I find the most about any religion that feels it must share its “good news” with others as a requirement, not unlike any other pyramid scheme or sideshow scam that either needs everyone else to be in the same misery and regret as oneself, or needs to be supported in the supposed rightness of its decision by convincing others to have done the same thing.

And, to be completely honest, there are a lot of people I would actually try to convince otherwise than to become polytheists, because I don’t think everyone can handle some of what we do as polytheists.  No, I’m not talking about anything like animal sacrifice, or building shrines and “being idolatrous” and so forth; I’m talking personal responsibility, having the chutzpah to actually talk to a Deity via divination and get one’s questions answered, and negotiate if necessary where issues of working out viable reciprocity is concerned, and having the integrity and strength of character to deal with divine beings that sometimes say “We can’t help you on this one.”  People who have religions involving supposed superlative Deities that are likewise entirely transcendent and cannot be interacted with directly by most people can have all the faith and hope they like that their Deities will take care of them, and if that gives them strength through the times that clearly no one and nothing is assisting them, that’s great.  To be told directly, “Nope, it doesn’t work that way,” and then to have to work things out for oneself…that takes a strength of character that is beyond the ability of many people to face.  I say this not because I think I, nor any other polytheist, is exceptional in these regards, but because this is simply something that most of us have had to face at some stage or other.

I’ve even had some polytheists say that they want to do what I’m doing, and even if we have similar personalities or worship similar Deities, I’m entirely opposed to that.  My own devotional life and activities are things that I have worked out because of the particularities of my own time, place, person, and situation regarding the Deities I revere, and those aren’t going to be entirely appropriate for other people simply by virtue of the fact that they are “other people” that aren’t me!  It isn’t that what I’m doing can’t be done by others, or that some of the things I’ve created might not be able to help others or might be useful for them–if that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this, or any of the other books I’ve produced over the years, or presented and taught in various contexts.  But, when people have almost literally said “I want what you have” (and sometimes have directly demanded exactly that!), or “I want to be what you are”…sorry, that is an offense against existence itself, because what anyone is at the moment is what they should be, and the only measure of how “more” or “less” they should be doing something is between them and the Deities to Whom they are dedicated (if any), the Ancestors from which they have come, and the Spirits that accompany them in their lives at present.  Though I can help assess some of those things, no one is a better assessor of such matters than the person who is being assessed!

Don’t get me wrong, I long for the days–which will not come until many generations into the future, if indeed humans are living in conditions to allow such by that time (and the jury hasn’t even been selected on those particular proceedings, folks–everyone keeps trying to get out of serving that day, unfortunately!)–when polytheists won’t have to struggle to create their own paths, when there will be temples that are open and thriving in many places once again, when families will not pressure their children into carrying on their religion but instead children are simply fostered in choosing which Deities are right for them by educated elder members of their families, and when a variety of paths will be easily available for people to consider as they negotiate their ways through all of life’s stages and re-negotiate as they grow in maturity and experience.  But that day isn’t now, and at the moment, the best ways we can not only build our own traditions and make spiritual lives worthy of envy and imitation by others is to live as well as we possibly can and to exemplify the best virtues of our Deities and our ways of honoring Them as we are able to at present.

And, what I said above about insecurities absolutely applies to polytheists as well.  Those who want to do a certain amount of “advertising” of their religion is one thing; even having any web presence like the present one at all could be interpreted as such, as is teaching, appearing at events, published books, and so forth.  But actually wanting to share one’s path with others who may not be religious at all and so forth?  There are some ostensible polytheists (often who have been or still are monotheists to some extent or another, or at least have practices within monotheistic frameworks concurrent with whatever they’re doing polytheism-wise) who have suggested doing exactly that, and all I can say about them is that they’re clearly insecure with their life choices, and they might as a result want to rethink them if standing alone before the Deities is not something that they can handle ever doing realistically and on a daily basis.

Ultimately, I think this is one of the fatal flaws of monotheism.  While I can’t entirely endorse the following individual’s work over the last few years for various reasons, he did have a very keen observation in his book from over a decade ago:

One could argue that the clash of monotheisms is the inevitable result of monotheism itself.  Whereas a religion of many gods posits many myths to describe the human condition, a religion of one god tends to be monomythic;  it not only rejects all other gods, it also rejects all other explanations for God.  If there is only one God, then there may be only one truth, and that can easily lead to bloody conflicts of irreconcilable absolutisms.

–Reza Aslan, No God but God:  The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam*, p. xxiv

While Aslan’s use of the term “monomythic” is not intentionally employed to suggest the Joseph Campbell heroic monomyth (which Michael Witzel is now calling “the Laurasian novel”!) and thus the monism which so many polytheists can’t stand, nonetheless his use of the term does kind of explain how monotheistic assumptions are behind such reasoning a lot of the time (which means it has much in common with the forms of atheism we see in the Western world, as well as ideas from psychology and archetypalism, which is obviously part of where Campbell’s ideas originate).  If the monotheisms can’t even get along–which they can’t, because they can’t decide on who is “right” between them, and each successive one has basically said the previous ones are all wrong and the “newest edition” is the best, meanwhile engaging in what people now call “cultural appropriation” of what came before in an even more egregious way than some modern pagans and polytheists have been accused of (because at least the latter don’t then try to go into the communities from which they’ve appropriated material and tell them that they’re doing things wrong and force them to change their ways or die…!)–then how in the world do we expect them to ever get along with polytheists?

Well, let me be blunt.  Rather than suggesting it will never be possible, and that they should go their way and we can go ours (for many reasons, but mainly because them doing exactly that has put us in the position now of having an ecosystem that may not be able to sustain human life for much longer, which is what one gets when their worldview and cosmology eventually succumbs to greed and has nothing to rein it in), here is what I’d suggest:  if the Jesusites (to call them “Christians” would be to give credence to their theological views, which I refuse to do) and the Allahists would do what the ancient Yahwists did and simply become henotheists, there wouldn’t be a problem.  Acknowledging the existence of many Deities but only worshipping a few (in the case of the Jesusites) or one (in the case of the Allahists) would take care of the compulsion to attempt to convert everyone else and to use the worst possible means to do so.  That is easier said than done, granted, in either case, and I suspect that the Jesusites will have an easier time of it than the Allahists (especially because it would mean they’d have to change the shahadah!), but I know it is possible…it will just take effort, probably a great deal of heartache, and some difficult negotiations.  With any luck, at least some groups of them will do this, so that us Antinoans, Tetrad++ists, Dionysians, Hermetics, Apollonians, and so forth will likewise be able to carry out our own cultic activities in peace and without being disrupted at home or anywhere else by those who think their shallow understandings of their own sacred texts are binding upon all people.

 

[*:  I realize that the first instance of “God” in Aslan’s title is lowercased to illustrate the difference in Islamic thinking between Allah and any other being that is said to be divine; but, since capitalization and punctuation are both things which one reserves the right to amend in one’s capacity as editor of previously published material, which is the capacity one has when one quotes something by someone else–which is why good writers give exact references so you can check them yourselves and see if that is what they really say!–I have capitalized both here because that makes that particular statement less abhorrent to quote in a polytheist space and leave for posterity, as this blog post will in theory remain.]

Is There A Difference Between “Polytheist” and “Pagan”?

Let me begin the present installment of this blog of “Theological Questions” by saying that as of this current moment, I’m still looking for further questions to ponder upon in writing here, and while I can think of a few on my own from time to time, I’d also be very interested in responding to any questions that you might have.  I’ve used up all the ones sent in over the last few weeks, so feel free to comment on this post with more, or the original post where I asked for those, as you see fit!

And let me continue the present post by saying that I had hoped not to re-litigate the current issue, but a particular situation has arisen which has prompted it for me, and for a few other folks as well…so, here we are.  Some background on that first, followed by my response, which has been my response to this question for the past 5-ish years (possibly up to 7 years, which is when the rupture between pagans and polytheists reached a head and what I think might be called the “polytheist revolution” in the future began occurring on a much wider basis).

A few days ago, I got notification that Raven Kaldera had published a new web resource which I had answered some questions for a while back.  I didn’t know what form those questions would eventually appear in when I answered them, though I found the inquiries intriguing in their own manner.  The resulting website is as follows, “Six Ways of Being Pagan.”  The particular part of it where I am quoted at length a few times is the final of these six “ways,” which Raven termed (via Dale Cannon’s book Six Ways of Being Religious) “The Way of Reasoned Inquiry.”  I suppose it kind of fits that a person characterized in that fashion would have a blog that is based around the theme of “Theological Questions,” but I have something further to say about that for the moment as well before we get into the meat of the present datum.

In short, I am rather ambivalent about being associated with this particular “path” over and against any and all others.  I could raise some general critiques at this point about the way in which Raven’s (via Cannon’s) taxonomy, and the manner in which Raven deployed it such that those who are quoted in relation to any one path are not quoted in the course of discussing any of the other five at all, tends to suggest that one can only do one of these paths at any given time, or that one is perhaps “primarily” associated with one of them over all others.  Firstly–and this is a notable tendency of mine in almost everything that can be imagined, but still!–I reject the notion that anyone is one-and-only-one thing, and even if some people have dominant or obvious associations with particular things does not exclude their association with, mastery of, or pursuit toward any number of other things, including some that might appear to be diametrically opposed to that dominant trait or involvement.  In the taxonomy suggested there, I’d say I’m at least as involved with and to various extents known for at least three of the other paths as much as with this particular one, and I have also had various involvements with the other two as well (though often not as publicly); though Raven does indicate that is possible to do more than one of these things, nonetheless, not cross-quoting people (because he actually didn’t tailor his questions to take in more than one path, at least where I was concerned…I can’t verify if that was the case for others, too) does give the impression that people are mono-methodological in these things.

But I also have to comment that I’m a bit sick of being characterized in this way.  It happens no matter what I do, granted, and so perhaps in any way resisting or fighting it is utterly futile, and yet I do have to comment that I am annoyed that this is all people tend to think of when they think of me, including in religious contexts.  This happened from the first Antinous group I was involved with (and of which I was a co-founder), where the ostensible leader pretty much said that I was a “scholar” and nothing more when in fact I was also doing most of the visionary/mystical work in the group, was writing all of our public ritual and liturgy, was coordinating activities and moderating the online discussion resources, and so forth…so, administration, religious practice, and “spirit-work” were all deeply parts of what I was doing, and yet I was only given any recognition for my intellectual contributions.

Why do I resist this?  Because of something that becomes apparent on further reflection not only upon these sorts of roles, but also as a result of looking at Raven’s treatment of this matter (to which I contributed).  One of the first things that one hears in a lot of religious groups, spiritual activities, and other such settings is that if one is “too much in one’s head,” one is missing the real essence of the spirituality, the religion, and so forth.  When someone says this to me in such a context, my hackles immediately go up, because what it usually signifies is that I’m being admonished to suspend my critical inquiry skills because I’m not “joining in” with whatever is deemed to be the superior spiritual activity that is being promulgated at that point (and sometimes, asking for donations or long-term commitments to gurus and so forth follow soon after such admonitions!).  While I do get that when one is having a genuine religious experience, questioning it too much can be a real downer, and can undermine the experience or make it less likely that one is able to internalize it at all; and yet, the thing that people entirely miss who are of that opinion is that the exultation of this sort of inquiry can be a religious experience in and of itself, and the heights of contemplation of problems of the mind or points of theological or philosophical intrigue can lead to just as ecstatic a state as any sort of ritual or enraptured spiritual happening.  That we don’t have a lot of people writing about such things in modern polytheist contexts doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened in other religious systems, or that it can’t happen at all!

This is often the very area which atheists criticize about all religions:  namely, how they are often anti-intellectual, and that this anti-intellectualism is likewise paired with a tendency to manipulate people who are naïve or lack the critical thinking skills or informed experiences to counter or question what is being presented.  As I stated in my statements in the quoted bits of my responses on Raven’s website, intellect is just as much a gift of the Deities and evidence of Their presence and working in our lives as anything else.  That religiosity tends to denigrate the intellect and clearness of thought, and can even label it as anti-spiritual and anti-religious, is a problem in itself, and while this taxonomy does something to try and counter that, listing it as the last of the options kind of gives the impression that it is something that is open to those who are too “spiritually blind” (and even “spiritually dead”) to do any of the other more open-hearted approaches, and yet it is also highly limited because so few people are well informed enough to be able to do it effectively.  In the college courses I teach, I emphasize that it is entirely possible for anyone to be able to, for example, come to an excellent and refined intellectual understanding of the state of Buddhist enlightenment, the Taoist concept of the Tao, or any of the heights of mystical contemplation that occurs in a wide variety of religious systems, but one should not make the mistake of thinking that such an intellectual understanding is, or is a substitute for, the actual experience of these things themselves.  So, “The Way of Reasoned Inquiry” is open to absolutely everyone…and yet, again, there are so few people who actually do it, are known for doing it, do it effectively, and are recognized as legitimately religious for doing it since it has been set at odds with all of the other paths presented, and has been denigrated as it has been.  That there is a suggested reading list for each of the other paths, but absolutely none for this one, further demonstrates how this is the case…that I couldn’t think of any works to suggest on the matter (other than ones I’m not done writing yet!) points out how absolutely unappreciated and unacknowledged this entire matter is.  I probably should have mentioned a few things by Edward Butler; but even there, his works are examples of doing this path, not so much primers on how to do it.  Hmm…

But all of this is ancillary to the main point I wanted to make in raising the question with regard to this website!  (Typical intellectual, eh?)

To circle back to the main question now:  what frustrated me about Raven’s website is that he characterizes the various people who gave quotes in various unusual ways after giving their names, and his characterization of me is as “Hellenic and Celtic Pagan.”  I’d actually actively dispute all of those usages in relation to me for a variety of reasons.  Though I do venerate and am devoted to a number of Greek-in-origin Deities and Hero/ines, I’m primarily an Antinoan, which means that I am as much Egyptian and Roman in my theological orientation as I am Greek; I’ve been on the fringe of some fringe Hellenic or Hellenic-syncretic movements, but have never actually identified with being a Hellenic or Hellene in any manner on an “official” basis.  Likewise, I have railed against the use of “Celtic” when something more descriptive and specific can be used, and in my own case, though I do have devotions and practices derived from cultures and dedicated to Deities that range across a variety of Celtic contexts, my primary engagement has been through gentlidecht and filidecht (as should be obvious here!), which are specifically Irish in origin.  So, two strikes…and strike three comes with the term “pagan.”

For a number of years now–since at least 2015 very strongly, but as early as 2012–I have been moving away from the “pagan” label, and now say that I am only “pagan” adjectivally, and very purposefully with a lowercase “p” because I do not consider myself to be a part of the various religious communities that call themselves “Pagan.”  Yes, I worship a variety of Deities that are from pre-Christian/polytheist and animist cultures, but as became obvious to me from early 2012, the Deities are the least prioritized phenomena amongst many in the various Pagan movements.  Yes, I am a non-Christian and a non-monotheist, but I’m also a non-Buddhist, a non-Native American, and many other things, so defining myself in that way as a primary religious identity in that sense of “pagan” doesn’t seem very appealing to me.  I am both a rural person in origin and currently, and thus am a “country-dweller” in the original sense of what a paganus/a/um is, and likewise in the later sense of being a “non-combatant” or “civilian” in contrast to someone in the military and/or a “Christian soldier” in later senses of the term paganus/a/um.  So, any of these things adjectivally, but as my primary religious identity, and my indication that I belong to a group of loosely-defined communities that have no unitary theology and are not necessarily interested in Deities at all (as has been made clear to me over and over again since 2012 where the question of “atheist pagans” are concerned)?  Absolutely not.  There a Rubicon has emerged, and I will simply not cross it because the Deities are the only reason that I think I should be involved in this as a religious movement at all…

…Which then makes me a polytheist, and part of the Polytheist movement.

It is a kind of internal debate within these related religious communities, and which has emerged from the ways in which these terms have diverged from one another.  Sure, there are lots of polytheists who still consider themselves pagan, and if they do, that’s great; and sure, there are lots of pagans who happen to be polytheistic in their own theological orientations, and that’s also great.  But do the two go together and can we assume one with the other?  Absolutely not.  Just as not all pagans are Wiccan (and NO ONE disagrees with that!), so too are all pagans not necessarily polytheists, and yet there are far too many pagans who don’t allow polytheists the ability (which is an inherent right!) to self-identify and to self-associate as they see fit.  Particular figures in the pagan community have become somewhat famous for doing this, for saying “Well, you might think you’re apart from us, but you aren’t, and I’m going to include you as one of us whether you like it or not,” which is perhaps not as egregious as some other forms of non-consent out there, but it is a form of non-consent that should be resisted.  Even though there are a lot of women who are homoerotically inclined and are perfectly comfortable these days saying they are “gay women,” lesbians began to demand to be acknowledged as lesbians fairly early on in the queer liberation movements, which is why the phrase “gay and lesbian” had to become de rigeur as quickly as it did.  (The people who generally don’t feel the need to make a distinction tend to be the rabidly homophobic people in Christianity who are trying to destroy all queer people, and see no difference between lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans people, and many other different and distinct identities, and just lump them all under the categories of “gay,” “sodomites,” “sinners,” “going to hell,” “faggots,” and so forth, let us not forget!)

So, as much as some people want to have the kumbayah moment, to call for unity amongst pagans and polytheists, and to suggest that we have something to gain by banding together toward common goals, I find it very difficult and a situation of diminishing returns to do that when there are people within those movements who utterly disagree with my existence and inclusion because I am a polytheist, which some atheist pagans have certainly done, and which some more middle-of-the-road pagans have also done in questioning how “you people” (as one of them referred to polytheists) have contributed anything at all and have proven in any way that we are a useful appendage of the pagan communities.  If that is how they feel, that’s fine, and even though all of them don’t feel that way, if enough are vocal about it that we no longer have a sense of being included, of having hospitality extended to us, and (most importantly) of feeling safe in a group or set of communities which are supposed to nurture common understandings and are supposed to be based on particular agreements of religious viewpoint, then it is counter-productive to continue being in such a group.

To put it as succinctly as possible:  there may not have always been a difference between “pagan” and “polytheist,” and in the minds of some–from unity-minded pagans through to various monotheists who hate all non-monotheists (and all “not-my-monotheism!” monotheists as well!) equally and see them all as equally flawed and doomed–they are still the same; but on key theological issues, which are matters lying at the heart and the base of any religious viewpoint, and thus which must be taken very seriously (despite many anti-intellectual pagans refusing to do so, or to even acknowledge “theology” as a worthy pursuit at all, much less one that is part of polytheist/pagan heritage from its emergence) if one has any desire to genuinely operate from a basis of shared understandings within any particular religious demographic.

[“Succinct” was supposed to be three lines at most…damned intellectuals!]

What’s The Difference Between Apotheosis and Euhemerism? And, Isn’t It Hubris to Worship Humans as Deities Anyway?

It never ceases to amaze me how often people are flabbergasted at the idea that a human can become a Deity.  This applies to Christians as equally as to some polytheists, sadly, not to mention all of the secularists and such who think that all Deities are just “made up” and metaphorical; but what is an actual formerly-living human being a metaphor for, or how can they be understood as an archetype of the collective unconscious?  It is certainly something that throws a monkeywrench in any attempts to neatly categorize one’s theological system and to create natural opposites or binary pairs with “mortals” and “immortals,” amongst other things…!

The reality, though, is that almost every polytheist or animist religious culture has a place for apotheosis in some form or another.  Greek Hero Cultus is essentially a form of apotheosis, and all Ancestor worship likewise can be considered the simplest and most widespread form of apotheosis in many ways…in fact, Greek Hero Cultus can simply be understood as an advanced or elevated form of Ancestor worship to the degree that whole communities rather than specific families or kin-groups worship the individuals in question.  In some cultures, though, “mere” Ancestor cultus can take on aspects that make it more like worshipping a Deity than otherwise, and the Ancestors themselves end up being more like Deities.  This seems to be the case with Egyptian afterlife-related texts and practices:  any good person who is able to pass all of the ordeals in the Amduat is united with Osiris (or Isis) and then essentially lives a god-like existence afterwards.

Apotheosis happens (that would be a great slogan for a shirt or a bumper sticker, eh?) in a variety of worldwide religious cultures, though…and not just for ruler cultus and the divine or sacred kings.  Many of the Deities of Chinese culture are humans Who underwent apotheosis, like Guan Sheng Di.  It can happen in Hinduism as well, though it is by no means as frequent, but many sages are considered divine, and for that matter gurus and other sorts of saints are as well.  The Goddess Arundhati was the wife of a sage, and is now the Goddess of the Stars and the Night for Hindus!  Shinto is full of Kami Who are former humans, including such figures as Abe-no-Seimei.   This list could be multiplied extensively…

In certain respects, the matter of euhemerism–the idea of one Euhemerus, a Greek who believed that the Deities were simply famous humans whose renown increased after their deaths and they were elevated to divine status as a result–is similar, but reversed.  Apotheosis starts with the human and ends with a Deity; euhemerism (despite the overall basis of the interpretative school) starts with a Deity and posits a human origin for it.  While both assume that it is possible for humans to bridge the gap between mortality and immortality, the tendency has been to elevate the potentialities of human beings in systems where apotheosis was (and still is!) possible, whereas the tendency in euhemerism is to devalue the Deities by suggesting they were only human and it is the foolishness of humans afterwards to think that their Ancestors were divine.  Euhemerism becomes much easier in instances where Deities are said to have died, and it is difficult to tell in some cases (as for example, in medieval Ireland) whether the euhemerized Deities of a given culture are simply interpreted as having been human due to Their deaths, or if Their deaths were already attested (as was Their divinity!) and the euhemeristic interpretation was imposed later on…or, if the entire euhemeristic project is an import into the system, so to speak, as a result of later theological developments which require it, or some other strategy (e.g. demonization) to reinterpret and subordinate particular divine beings or entire classes of divine being to an inferior position in light of a new and “superior” (or, in some cases, only) Deity.

Now with those differences understood, the second question then becomes important, and it often does so in circles equally amongst polytheists as Christians, and I suspect the issue in the former lies with the latter.

Those who make an absolute distinction between humans and Deities, and between the mortal and the immortal, are often so uncomfortable with those cases that can potentially question or trouble this neat binary that they utterly reject their possibility on an existential level, the theological idea of apotheosis is ignored or disallowed, and anyone who suggests that such things are possible is simply guilty of hubris, or of humanistic excess.  While we do know that hubris was a major vice for the Greeks and Romans, and is often the basis for their tragedies and various myths where mortals have gone too far and have ended up desecrating some divine rites or have committed other sacrileges, I have to say I’m reminded of a scene in HBO’s Rome series when Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony are speaking with one another, and the latter suggests that something Caesar is planning is hubris, and Caesar replies “It’s not hubris if we succeed!”  Just as often as some Greek figures are punished for trying to “storm Olympus,” others end up becoming Heroes or even more as a result of this, whether they began as mortals or demigods or not!

In the modern monotheistic religions in the Abrahamic traditions, there is a tendency to denigrate the human and to forbid all worship of it, whether it is human-made images in Judaism or humans of any kind in Islam (though prophets deserve some respect above all others, but not worship…but the difference is often slight!).  Catholics don’t seem to have a problem with giving saints dulia, or even hyperdulia in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but there again the difference between dulia and latreia, the latter of which is only reserved for their Gods, is understood as being in operation.  Protestant Christians did not see it this way, and the reverence for saints fell off almost entirely.  The idea of “worshipping the creation rather than the Creator” runs through all of this, and is a part of their anti-idolatry stances, and thus humans cannot be revered…

Except that Jesus was fully human and fully divine in most orthodox theologies of Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or nearly all forms of Protestantism.  So, there’s a problem!

And, it is exactly in that problem that some people seem to get the idea about “worship of humans is hubris” in polytheism.  They take on board the idea that worshipping humans rather than Deities is bad, and likewise they then assume that Jesus was a human that the Christians decided was more-than-human after his death, and then reject Christianity and assume that for the same reason, the worship of humans in any polytheist context should likewise be rejected, rather than paying any heed at all to the abundant evidence for Ancestor worship, Hero Cultus, and much else within many different polytheistic systems.

Though, it seems some people in polytheism likewise think that any attention taken away from the Deities and that is put toward the possibility that humans, including oneself, can become divine is likewise hubris and is an excess of humanism in the most literal sense of that term–not “light/friendly atheism,” nor “classically-aware intellectual traditions of the Renaissance,” but rather “human-centered” religious practices and theologies.  I, personally, don’t think it is that simple, and it need not look that way, and suspect that one of the reasons this gets suggested is because those in the pagan communities who are atheists and who think that any attention to the Deities is attention away from the world, and thus some polytheists have gone to the other extreme and have almost gone over-the-edge in suggesting that any attention to the world is a waste of time when devotion to Deities is the most important thing.

As with so many things, I think there are other potential positions, and a balance between the two is likely not only preferable, but also almost inevitable…and that is not a bad thing at all!

But some of these issues bring up further questions and further potential avenues for inquiry and exploration, and there isn’t time for that now.  For the moment, I hope what is presented here is useful and draws into a clearer focus what some of these things are and what they mean, as well as how they work theologically, and why no one needs to be afraid of them if they are polytheists.  Apotheosis Happens!

Do You Literally Believe In The Gods?

This is a question that I and many polytheists have been asked ad nauseam, doubtless because it is taken as a default assumption of the modern materialist paradigm, but also due to the post-Christian situation in which we now exist, which applies just as much to hardcore atheists, secularists and the non-religious and non-religiously-interested, and likewise all of the Christians and other monotheists.  Atheists often state that they disbelieve in only one more Deity than Christians do as their opening gambit, assuming that anyone who isn’t “stupid,” “backward,” or is being “ironic” with any notion of reality behind the existence of a non-Christian Deity would be amongst their audiences.

While much could be said about that, let’s not go in that direction just now!

But sometimes, the assumptions to the negative behind such a question often take me by surprise.  One of the best examples of this I can think of is the following occasion, caught on film for posterity, so to speak (along with other things that were not caught on film and have their own significance for other questions!)…

I think, toward the middle of this interview, when Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove began a line of questioning in which he was discussing archetypes in terms of C. G. Jung’s ideas on them and how these being psychological projections may account for the diversity of Deities in polytheism, that he was not expecting me to speak of Deities as individual volitional non-corporeal beings, or what some people would call “literal” beings or entities.  (The matter of archetypes returned later in the conversation in discussing Jean Houston’s ideas, but that’s another subject!)  I’ll return in a moment to why I think this is intriguing.

I’ll take a short diversion here just to comment on why I think the matter of “literal belief” is so often demeaned, misunderstood, and mischaracterized, not only by Christians, atheists, and secularists, but also by some pagans and even an occasional polytheist of one sort or another.  We have seen repeatedly that “literalism” in terms of biblical fundamentalism is a scourge within culture and history, and often does not turn out well for those who disagree with it, particularly if those who wield such literalism have the apparatus of government and cultural hegemony on their sides.  As a result, an allergy to literalism of any sort as a kind of side-effect of being anti-fundamentalist is very understandable.

The major difference I see in a polytheistic “literal belief” in a Deity and a fundamentalist Christian’s literal belief in the Bible is that very few modern polytheists believe that “every knee must bend” to their particular Deity, or that their own way of devotion to that Deity is the only way allowable (which doesn’t mean that there aren’t established traditions with norms and practices that, if such a tradition is being followed, should not be observed!), and that anyone who disagrees will be consigned to a hellish torture in a damned afterlife at which the biblical fundamentalist mentally delights in sending their ideological adversaries.  Maybe there are some polytheists who think that likewise…but I haven’t met them personally, and am pretty sure I’m not one myself (no matter what some people might try to suggest about me in some circles!).

But to return to the matter of my interview above with Dr. Mishlove, and the circles in which he runs, which is the circle of parapsychology, I find that within that context, there is an active allergy to talking about Deities.  There is a great deal of parapsychological interest in, research upon, and discussion of a variety of ideas that fall under the heading of “consciousness,” and in particular the notions of “survival,” i.e. the survival of human consciousness after death and outside of the human body, as well as the ability of humans to tap into wider forms of consciousness to retrieve information through different phenomena under the heading of “psi” (whether remote viewing, mediumship, etc.).  In these different arenas, there is no question that human consciousness exists, and that it can persist after the death of the body or external to embodied existence is a default assumption.  Likewise, a wider “universal” or “non-local consciousness” is likewise posited in all discussions of remote viewing and other forms of psi, in a manner that is highly suggestive of some discussions of monism, and which often draw upon the texts and vocabulary associated with religions like Hinduism (especially of the Advaita Vedanta schools of interpretation), Buddhism, and occasionally of monotheistic religions’ discussion of mysticism that replace “God/Allah/etc.” with terms like “source,” “awareness,” or just simply “(pure) consciousness.”  As much as some of the commentators and researchers in these fields often reject strict monotheistic religions in their various forms, and often religion-in-general due to its association with dogmatism and such (along the lines of the anti-literalism thought patterns described above), there has been an unconscious assumption that is entirely post-monotheist in its origins which then insists that such a higher consciousness must therefore be singular, unitary, and universal if it is something that all humans have access to in psi situations.

Why?

If human consciousness can exist on a non-physical level, why might there. not be non-human forms of consciousness (that are also non-animal or non-formerly-living!) that are possible as well?  (Especially since some of those consciousnesses are very definitely formerly human, like Antinous…but that’s another matter!)  If there is a universal consciousness that is spread about across the cosmos, which goes by the name of panpsychism these days but is really just animism stripped of its connection to indigenous cultural forms and the potentially pejorative connotations of such that existed when that term was introduced in anthropology a few centuries ago, why can’t particular parts of it be individual and to various degrees limited (even if still infinitely larger than an individual human’s capacities)?

These are not just philosophical or methodological questions, they are theological, and I think that parapsychology doesn’t want to embroil itself in them at the moment, for reasons that are very understandable.  However, in order to do good science and to control for bias, one must ask such questions, especially when they reveal underlying assumptions that are unconscious and often unquestioned.  But that’s another matter entirely, too!

So, if one understands Deities as entities that are non-corporeal, volitional, and individual consciousnesses that have existed at various levels and lengths of time, that might interfere with or upset some polytheists’ ideas about the origins of their Deities or the length of their existence…but it doesn’t absolutely have to do so.  That would still qualify as Deities having a “literal” existence…

But there is still the matter of “belief,” and it is always a word that I have serious problems with in theological discussions, not only because it gets very over-used as a result of living in a post-creedal-monotheist culture, but because belief can have some impacts on things that are studied by parapsychology (which is a topic, perhaps, for another time, and may in fact have some bearing on the present question in its own ways!).  However, the idea that “belief” is all about assuming the existence of something that cannot be objectively proven is a bad one, and yet it is assume that this is a sine qua non of all religious activity throughout all of human time and space.  If such individual volitional non-corporeal consciousnesses exist, however, and humans can access them, then it is no longer a matter of “belief” in the sense just described, but instead acknowledgement.  One need not “believe in” gravity in order for it to impact every waking moment of one’s existence; but (and this is a fair point) likewise knowing it exists and understanding it doesn’t necessarily give one a preferred position in dealing with it–having a degree in physics will not prevent you from falling off a building, for example, so one cannot push such a conceit too far where devotion to Deities (being predicated upon acknowledgement of Their existence) is concerned.  Nonetheless, I think it is useful to at least look at what this means and how it might work, in however limited a form as the present blog post has done, in terms of what it means to actually have an acknowledgement of “literal Deities.”