Is There A Deeper Issue Behind the “Belief vs. Practice” Debate?

While I have several other questions to address in this series that have been given to me by others, this particular one occurred to me, and I am going to give it a bit of an airing here because I think we need to be transparent in our own thinking, use our discernment, and always be critically reflexive in our own viewpoints.

Something we are somewhat used to hearing about in polytheism, and likewise in some of the wider pagan movements as well, that our religions are religions of practice rather than belief, and that orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.  As much as I’d like to say that is true, it often doesn’t seem that it is; and unfortunately, for polytheists, more generalized pagans have characterized polytheists as in some sense “inferior” or “lesser” to them because we focus too much on “belief” in multiple Deities, which therefore makes us more belief-based and thus more like the dominant hegemonic monotheistic religions, including Christianity.

While I’d dispute this characterization for a number of reasons–amongst them that our “polytheistic beliefs” arise from our experience of the reality of a plurality of individual identifiable Deities rather than the assumption (the “faith,” even) that many more monistically-inclined pagans have had that their experiences of “oneness” essentially mean that the appearance of multiple Deities is really only an illusion.  This sounds a lot more like monistic mysticism within monotheistic religions, or monistic interpretations of Hinduism and Buddhism…and therefore, because those are all “alternative” viewpoints as far as mainstream Christianity is concerned, they are thus “okay.”  They are especially approved as such because this monistic trend has an inbuilt apophatic jargon that saves one from having to be precise or overly intellectual in one’s reporting of one’s experiences, which for various reasons makes it more appealing than having to do the hard work of noticing details, discerning differences, and doing the necessary research and reflection to understand one’s experiences in a more thorough manner.  It’s much easier to say “I’ve had an experience of Oneness that is beyond words or description” than it is to say “I had a very peaceful feeling in which my worries and anxieties momentarily receded into the background that was full of light and reassuring voices that sounded like some of my Ancestors, all in the presence of a large female-feeling powerful being that I think might have been the Deity ____,” and so forth.  This preference for monism’s apophatic simplicity (which then makes interfaith work easier since people can then agree they’re all worshipping different forms of The One Universal Consciousness, etc….and which then makes paganism look more “respectable” in the eyes of these other dominant religions) sounds like a rather pale and simplified clone of the distillation of several threads from various of those other religions than it does any indigenous forms of ancient European, Near Eastern, or North African polytheism, at least in my view…but let’s leave those matters aside for the moment.

But what I want to get to in all of this is the larger question of how the debate between religions of practice and religions of belief–the practical and the creedal, in other words–may in fact, in its own way, simply replicate another thing from Christianity:  namely, the age-old debate started by Saul of Tarsus and continued through to the Protestant reformers, and all the way down to the present day in evangelical circles, being the debate over “faith” vs. “works.”  While Saul of Tarsus went for the idea that Christians are justified by faith alone, and not works of the law (i.e. Jewish ritual and practical adherence, including ethical requirements).  Even though Saul of Tarsus’ works are a part of the Christian scriptural canon in all current forms of Christianity, these words were granted new life, as it were, when Luther and various other Protestant reformers began to question and condemn the ritualism of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.  In more recent times, this is why someone who has been “born again” and has “accepted Jesus” as one’s “personal Lord and Savior” need do or say little more than that (in front of witnesses, probably), and then they can preach all they like about certain things but do others and live however they want, including in ways that are considered “sinful” if anyone else does them, which leads to so much hypocrisy for which various Christians and their denominations have been (rightly, I think!) criticized.

What this then does in the pagan and polytheist context is make those who talk a big game about the Deities, or the importance of their religious beliefs and ideas and symbols as cultural commitments and as reconnecting with one’s Ancestors and their traditions and so forth, but who do not do ritual when the time comes, or try to reduce such rituals down to as simple and often wordy matters where little actual ritual actions or symbols occur, and so on and so forth, look like the Protestants in the above debate, whereas those who actually practice their religion assiduously, who build and keep often ornate and complex shrines, and so forth are the Catholics.  As is often the case, the people who form the ranks of the former often do come from Protestant backgrounds and don’t understand how ritual works or why it is necessary, and in the latter case, many do come from Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, or other backgrounds in which such things are held in high regard and one is immersed in various forms of “ritualism” from a young age.  The Protestants (and especially later denominations, like those that were formed in the nineteenth century, e.g. the Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) have tended to shun ritualism because it is too much like ancient paganism, in their view.  In fairness, a lot of the ritualism in Catholicism, and much of the symbolism, is directly drawn from or was influenced by ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other cultures, and in some senses continues those things–the Romans had pontiffs, and now there is only one of them (i.e. the Pope)/. So, in a way, they are kind of “right” about this…!?!

And, added into both the Catholic and Orthodox positions are a panoply of saints, angels, and other beings who are also revered in various manners, often with specific feast-dates and unique practices, saintly attributes, complex hagiographies that are more myth than history, and so on.  It really looks like these particular forms of Christianity are schools for fostering polytheism, in many respects!  And while there is the theological distinction between dulia and latria in their theologies which distinguishes the sorts of reverence given to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit versus saints and angels, in most respects this is simply a classification that is linguistic in its reality rather than something which can be distinguished on a practical or anthropological level.

The things which the more “Protestant” forms of polytheism are derided for, or are critiqued for not accepting, like the real existence of Deities, practices of devotion, and so forth are also things that actual Protestants are known to have trouble with (though “existence of Deities” is more a problem of “existence of saints and other holy beings as an important part of one’s practice” in actual Protestant Christianity), and for which Protestant Christians are critiqued by Catholics.  Kneeling in prayer for hours in a chapel and saying the rosary constantly while doing so is praised as dedicated and disciplined piety in Catholicism, whereas in Protestantism it would be derided as idolatry.  Devotions that modern polytheists might engage with on a regular basis are likewise criticized as unnecessary and unimportant for the Protestant-inclined polytheists (and some pagans), it seems.

Out of this discussion (which may be an obvious matter and one I had simply missed previously in my attention to other things, granted!), thus, a further question arises:  what should we do about this?  One of the things we try and do as polytheists is to eliminate those things that are from Christian (and other religious) traditions that are understood as structural necessities, requirements, or qualifications for something to be a “real religion” when these are not relevant to polytheism.  We’ve understood that “The Lore” is not a polytheist equivalent for “The Bible,” and may not even qualify as “scripture” in the same way such things do for Christians, and that Snorri’s Edda and even Homer’s works–as only two examples among many–do not, did not, and should not have such positions of authority and awe within our practices.  I think that is good and right.  We’ve understood that “religion” to be legitimate, it does not require a succinct, or even a rambling and complex, creedal statement to be valid, which is also an excellent observation and one we’ve done well thus far in not replicating.  We do not require our Deities to have particular superlative divine characteristics like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and so forth–though some of them can and/or do!–which are not requirements to consider certain divine beings as Deities, and likewise this is an important and crucial thing that needs to be emphasized.

So, now that we realize we are replicating a particular age-old argument within Christianity that first began as a struggle between a parent religious culture (Judaism) and its offspring (Christianity) in the epistles of Saul of Tarsus and has become a bone of contention between later denominations of Christianity, should we thus jettison the practice vs. belief debate because it is essentially the same–down to the factional positions within it often having the same historical origins in the lives of modern polytheists as the main positions in the major denominations of Christianity have–as the faith vs. works debate?

I’m honestly not sure, because I think aspects of it are useful to consider, and may have relevance beyond a Christian context.  Think about the difference between the ancient Vedic religion, which was fully polytheistic, which gave rise to Hinduism, and the changes that it underwent during the Axial Age as a result of some of the writings in the Upanishads.  The ritualism and ritual focus of the Vedic period was diminished in importance after the Upanishads were written; the importance of priestly status through the Brahmin caste was likewise diminished through these same means.  The focus away from the Deities almost (but not quite!) entirely in both Buddhism and Jainism, and the elimination of the importance of caste in both religions, seems to emerge in a quasi-Protestant fashion, thus.  While I’m highly skeptical of presenting templates of the history of religions drawn from Christianity as if they are universal and then imposing them on other religions, at the same time, sometimes it kind of makes sense, at least with several of the current major world religions.  Some might thus argue that this is why those religions are “successful” and other religions (like ancient polytheisms) fell apart and were superseded, but I would never suggest that, and in fact I find that idea preposterous; and yet, perhaps the ways in which these other religions have engaged in enforced hegemony is the underlying value that they all share, and thus such systems adopt those type of models rather naturally, for whatever reason.

But, these are tough questions, and there are no clear or easy answers to them…but I think it’s worth thinking about, and I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the matter.  Should this debate be left in the dust like so much other irrelevant material from Christianity, or should it be taken as a serious matter…even if for no other reason than that most of our ranks have emerged from a Christian background and we must deal with that at the current time with our current population, because ignoring it will only make it worse?  I am eager to hear other’s thoughts on this!

 

What is the Polytheist View on the Military, Warfare, and Violence?

Being that this is the last few hours of Veterans’ Day, this question is appropriate for the occasion.

I have to say a little bit about my own background before beginning, though.

I come from a military family, and would not live where I do or have grown up where I did without that military involvement.  My father, step-father, step-mother, and also an uncle, great uncle, grandfather, and other members of my family (both by blood and marriage) have been in the military; one of my godsons is currently an (extremely adept!) rescue diver in the Navy, who could make AquaMan look like an infant in an inner tube (though I know I’m biased in that view!).  The community where I live and work is a Navy town, and is essentially entirely dependent on the fact that this large and very active Naval base is here for its economy.  The majority of my students where I teach are either the family of current servicemembers or veterans, or are veterans or servicemembers themselves.  One could argue (correctly!) that without World War II, my maternal grandparents would not have met and had my mother and her two sisters, because one of the guys my grandfather met when he was in training to be sent to the Pacific Theatre in the Navy was the older brother of my grandmother, and my great uncle encouraged my grandfather to write to his sister…and after many years of writing back and forth during the war, they met each other a few months after it was over, and a few months after that were married.  Essentially, everything I have in my life, including my life itself, is because of honorable military service.

This fact, though, makes me quite different from the majority of the U.S. population.  The current standing armed forces of the United States make up a very small percentage of our overall population, and as a result the families and friends of servicemembers–while a larger number overall–are likewise not the majority of the citizenry of the U.S.  Growing up in this community and living here now, we sometimes forget what many other places in the U.S. are like, where there are people who have children who have never seen or met anyone in the armed forces in-person.  This was a rude awakening to me when I went to my undergraduate college, where the majority of the students were not from communities such as mine, and had no understanding whatsoever of the military or the lives of the people in it.  I heard such ignorant things said by people at my college–who were otherwise intelligent and good-natured–that they couldn’t believe there were so many people and so much money devoted to absolutely nothing but hatred and killing.  Whatever about the money (which is egregious, and not always well-spent–certainly, the soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel are not seeing the benefits from it, especially if they are of the lower-rank enlisted grades, and are treated with the utmost disrespect and even active harm once they become veterans by the bureaucrats who are in charge of things like their physical and mental health, for starters…!?!), this idea that everyone–or even most of the people–in the military has such a mindset is absolutely false.

The reality is, most of the people who are enlisted are doing it for one or more of the following reasons:  1) they had no other options for further education or an assured livelihood after high school, and are often going to do better than their parents even at the lower-rank enlisted grades in terms of their income and benefits; 2) they would like to attend college one day, but have no way to pay for it, and thus sacrifice years of their life and also their limbs, sanity, and oftentimes lives in order for the chance to go to college; or 3) they are using their military service to deal with something going on in their life otherwise, whether that be their girlfriend becoming pregnant and not having a job good enough to get medical care (as a friend from high school did), or fleeing an abusive or in other ways upsetting family situation (as several other folks I know have done), or they saw it as their only way to get out of the small town they were in that seemed to swallow everyone up who didn’t leave for college or other reasons.  A small but significant number do it because they want to gain U.S. citizenship, and that is a pathway that is, on the one hand, relatively simple and straight-forward, but on the other also putting one’s life on the line for that future promise.

Yes, some enlist because of patriotism, or because they want to get involved in fighting terrorism, or because they have a family legacy of military service and want to carry that legacy onwards…but in all of the students I’ve had who are or have been in the armed services, the number who fit the latter description have been, in my estimate and based on what I know of them, less than 5%.  These reasons do not make their service any less honorable, or any less of a sacrifice, because they are always aware of the fact that they can and will be called upon to do things that most citizens cannot or would not, and always when necessary to pay the ultimate price for doing so in order that others will not have to.  This is the truest definition of the term “sacrifice” that can be imagined in the modern world, and anyone who seeks to reduce or downplay that, or to disrespect it, is either incredibly ignorant, quite stupid, or so morally deficient that I would suspect they’re probably a criminal in potential if not in fact.

So, with all of that established:  where is polytheism in all of this?

If we start with theology, and likewise with the fact that the existence of particular Deities both historically and phenomenologically indicates that there are Deities Who preside over war, are warriors, or are associated with warrior activities, then that is almost “’nuff said,” really.  But I think we can do better than that!

I am of the opinion that warfare must always remain an option–especially in self-defense–and that violence against other humans should be a last resort whenever and wherever possible.  Yet, the world is very obviously a violent place, both internationally and domestically; the wider natural world on the Earth is also violent, predatory, and filled with occurrences like earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and other weather/atmospheric, oceanic, and geological events that are indiscriminate in the destruction they cause; and the greater cosmos?  Well, according to the current scientific consensus, the entirety of the universe began in a cataclysmic explosion, as if the first moment of existence was a wound ripped open in a shapeless void that then gave rise to all things that we can now experience and know.  “Violence,” in the widest possible sense, is not only omnipresent, it is also inevitable, and no one reading this now would be able to exist without it in some form, even if that violence is indirect.  (And yes, vegans are no exception, since we now know that plants are conscious to a far larger degree than had ever been realized before.)

Sometimes “violence” doesn’t need to be the answer; but resistance, opposition, protest, and other actions are needed, and these are often just as adversarial as actual physical violence, and can have far more dire consequences in some cases.  There is a reason why we use words like “fight” or “battle” as metaphors for such activities, whether it is in the struggle for human rights for any given marginalized group, legal actions, the long road of living through or recovering from serious illnesses, or simply speaking up for oneself and one’s peers against unjust treatment by one’s employers, governments, or other such institutions.  While I don’t think some of these things quite rise to the level of actual warrior-hood (as one is not a “warrior” unless one is likely to be killed or seriously physically injured as a result of one’s position on a side of the “battle” involved–and some of the marchers in many different movements worldwide in the 20th and 21st centuries meet that criteria very well; but very few “clicktivists” or people who hold forth on whatever the issue of the day is on social media can say the same!), the struggles are real, and often the stakes can be very high.

That there have been, in mythological narratives, wars amongst the Deities means a lot of things: from the most humanistic (and rather simple, but oh well…!?!) views of these things as metaphors for the violence of nature, or of mythologized events from the distant historical past of waves of inter-tribal struggles between agrarian and pastoralist societies, or of actual divine beings facing off against older generations of Deities, or Giants, or various sorts of monsters, or whatever else might be possible, it appears clear that this is simply a feature of almost all polytheistic and animistic cultures of which I am currently aware.  As Edward Butler noted at the final panel during the Polytheist Leadership Conference back in 2014, that Deities have agency, and have appeared as opponents of one another at various times, means that They have chosen to have those sorts of relationships with other divine beings deliberately and for Their own reasons (whatever those may be, even if inscrutable for humans).  That such adversarial relationships can be extremely close, and even intimate, means that such divine rivalries can often be just as important, definitive, and significant as divine marriages or parentage.

To me, this is an important thing to realize, and likewise it is an important thing to acknowledge in our own lives amongst humans as well.  When we find ourselves in opposition to others, we can engage in those oppositions consciously and compassionately, not dehumanizing those who may be our enemies or adversaries, while also not swerving from the courses that we feel are right or stinging in objection to what we feel is wrong.  It is a thing often observed in Ireland that if two people meet and have a fight soon after, the likely result is that they will end up friends later, and often immediately after…I can’t help but think that this comes through in Old Irish, where the term comracc can mean “combat/fight” or “sexual tryst” (and that so many languages also have that dualism around sex and combat may be an echo of that divine oppositional relationship importance that Edward Butler spoke of, as mentioned above…think of Inanna/Ishtar, for starters!).  This is one of the only things that I find appealing about the Bhagavad-Gita, which is often used as a universalist text to suggest that monism is the truth of all reality (including of divine plurality), and what it does is suggest that because all things are ultimately “one,” as long as one realizes that, then one can freely engage in warfare and even killing of others (particularly if it is one’s duty to do so, in the case of the text itself!), because it is all simply the illusion of separation impeding one’s realization of the truth.  Personally, not being a monist, I’d take it a bit differently:  one can still respect one’s enemies and treat them humanely even in having to fight with them and potentially kill them (or be killed by them), because if one consciously accepts that such is the reality at a given moment for given sets of individuals, then it is literally entirely impersonal that such things are the case.  This person is my opponent now, but it could have been someone else; someone else may die today, but I may die tomorrow…that is simply how things will happen, and always have, and always will.  One can accept one’s responsibility in the situation, and respect both the other and oneself, without any difficulties.

I think such a realization is at the heart of the warrior ethos, at least as articulated in Irish culture (and many other heroic cultures worldwide), and is certainly at play in many polytheistic cultures and the social mores as well as mythological and theological frameworks involved in these.  Thus, when the warrior-like aspects of Antinous the Liberator first came to be known in 2002, this was a shock to some (and still is to many!), but it also makes sense for a thousand reasons beyond what I can articulate here at present.  There will always be battles, and some will win them, and others will lose them; this does not excuse anyone from the fight when it comes time to take part in it, whether that is as a soldier in the field, a protester on the picket line, or the person who finally says to the abuser in their life, “No.”

May all of the Deities of warfare and warrior-ship protect, bless, and guide all of the members of the Armed Forces, be their divine allies, and always renew their strength and vigor in recognition of their living sacrifice!

May all of the Deities of warfare and warrior-ship protect and defend those who are suffering under oppression, and renew their strength and bring them peace and a cessation of their struggles!

May all of the Warrior Ancestors be ever praised, thanked, and hailed for their sacrifices, which have allowed us to have our lives as we know them now!

What Does It Mean Theologically For Different Deities In Different Pantheons To Share Certain Archetypes or Characteristics?

The above title is an attempt–however imperfect–to boil down several different paragraph-length inquiries I’ve recently received both here and elsewhere.  It’s a meaty question, and one that has never been answered (to my knowledge) from a theological viewpoint, though it has been answered in scholarship of comparative religion and in depth psychology with answers that most polytheists aren’t comfortable with, and for good reason.

I cannot promise that the answers I arrive at here will please anyone, nor is it the only possibility, but it is my own attempt to answer these matters for my own satisfaction, knowing both the comparative scholarship as well as the attempts at psychological explanations, and yet likewise seeking to balance the insights of these with the empirical devotional encounters of the differing beings involved.  We’ll see where we get when we get there…

But first, let’s look at how the question has been phrased, or rather how the issue has been raised, over the last few weeks.

It was Faoladh (who has asked several excellent questions, one more of which remains after this!) who first asked the question/raised the issue thus:

What is the theological meaning of various gods sharing similar attributes and even similar incidents? That is, what does it mean that the Daghda and Thor both carry a blunt weapon that kills with one side and brings life with the other, and that both are credited with driving a sea monster back into the deeps by striking it on the head, and so on through the other elements they share? How is this related to the historical—or in most cases prehistorical—process that seems to generate such similarities?

Faoladh then asked a similar thing in response to this earlier post:

The “vegetative” answer brings up another question, too, which is what these elements of “portfolio” mean. That is, why is one deity associated with “vegetation” and not another, and what is the connection between the physical world and any particular God? Does the physical arise from the deity or does the deity arise from the physical—and either or any other way what does it mean that more than one God is associated with a particular item of “portfolio”?

Then, elsewhere, honorthegods had an interesting response in the post on Cerberus when I commented on the possible etymology of Cerberus’ name being something along the lines of “Spot,” which is similar to several other infernal hounds across the Indo-European world, as follows:

So, on a metaphysical level:
– Do Yama and Hades know each other?
-Did they both like the name Spot so much that each of them named the guardian of their respective kingdoms Spot?
-Is there only one Spot, and Yama and Hades somehow have charge of the same Underworld, or parts thereof?
-Or are Hades and Yama different avatars of the same god?

Each of these sets of questions and discussions points toward a similar underlying issue, which I attempted to phrase in my title above…and it is sort of funny how this has become a bit of a metatextual issue…two different people talking about three different things have come to the same underlying question, which I’m now attempting to answer in a manner that addresses the issue theologically but does justice to the very real differences between the individuals involved…!?!

Well, it’s a tall order, but here we go…!

First, perhaps it would be useful to give a very potted and limited explanation of the non-theological options on this matter which have been entertained, and which polytheists have found wanting because both tend toward the viewpoint of monism (about which I’ll say more in a moment, too!).

First we have, on the one hand, the viewpoint of the comparative religionists, especially from the Proto-Indo-Europeanist school of thought, which recognized that there are common linguistic roots amongst a wide variety of languages, and then began to likewise discern cultural structures that were similar across this broad range, and also Deity-names and often characteristics of cultus and mythological narrative that were also shared between such figures.  One of the most important names in this scholarly edifice is Georges Dumézil, who came up with the “trifunctionalism” hypothesis to explain the meta-level of some of these religio-cultural formations as they aligned to and represented, often in paradigmatic form, the different strata or classes in society (First Function being Sovereignty [of both Legal and Magico-Religious types], Second Function being Physical Force/Warriors, and Third Function being Fertility, Pleasure, and Production).  Various scholars and publications have followed this view, and extended or revised it, while others have raised a variety of objections to it (including its political implications and even origins in the negative ideas around “racial science” and the “Aryan” hypothesis).  As it is assumed that there is a genetic relationship between the various languages in this group, and that they are all common descendants of a singular proto-language and proto-culture, one can therefore argue that the similarity of diverse figures like Dyaus Pitr, Zeus, Sabazios, and Jupiter is due to the fact that They are all ultimately from the same proto-figure, and therefore are all “ultimately one.”

Experientially, I have some major difficulty with this, though the hypothesis in the form it is given regarding the individual origins of these figures in a common ancestor need not be entirely thrown out for it to be compatible with polytheism without arguing for monism.  While many of the Greek and Roman Deities have been syncretized for so long that many modern people do not see a difference between them, and very likely many ancient people did not either.  With some, this is undoubtedly the case–Greek Apollon and Roman Apollo are not significantly different because the latter comes directly from the former as an import into the pantheon, with only a slightly different ending to His name; the same can be said for the Dioskouroi as-a-whole since They were also imported directly from Greece, though the Roman Castor has some differences from the Greek Kastor which emerge over time, though Polydeukes and Pollux are essentially identical.   Yet, in my own experience, Diana is a bit different than Artemis, and Artemis of Ephesus (or, perhaps more correctly, Upis) is different again from both of Them.  Jupiter and Zeus are also a bit different from one another, but both of them are undoubtedly different again from Thor, even though They are all Thunder Deities Who share an attribution (at least in the Roman and Germanic contexts) with the day of the week we know as Thursday.

This then moves us into the second explanation preferred by scholars that is non-theological, from the realm of depth psychology and especially figures like C. G. Jung.  This is the idea that each of these Deities–as well as others from other cultures, like Indra in Hinduism/Vedic religion, as well as various other Thunder-beings in the same groups with Zeus, Jupiter, and Thor–all arise as projections from the collective unconscious, each reflecting an “archetype” through a particular limited cultural lens that is limited in time and space as well as language.  This idea was used in conjunction with some larger archetypical patterns in mythology by people like Joseph Campbell to argue for a shared human experience across time and space that is ultimately “the same” and that points to a unity of all humans, with the differences between each individual Deity or myth being “mere local” accretions that are nowhere near as important as the wider similarities and in fact equivalences between these different figures and mythological constructs.

These sorts of ideas certainly arise out of positive (though not pious!) motives in eras of history that are influenced by the major dissensions and factionalism, as well as especially virulent instances of nationalism, which lead to warfare and destruction on levels never before seen.  Jung served in World War I and began writing just on the eve of the war, with most of his publications following it; and Joseph Campbell’s first and most important and influential book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, was published in 1949, just after World War II.  The attempt to argue from underlying unity rather than paying attention to differences, it has been assumed, would be useful in then getting different people from different cultures, social groups, or religions to band together rather than separating; and yet, ignoring the reality of difference doesn’t undermine these efforts so much as make the “successful” iterations of them so anodyne and generalized that they feel more sterile, standardized, and impersonal rather than being the life-giving and meaning-making things which they were always intended to be and as which they function optimally.

[We’ll leave aside one of the more recent ideas, propounded by Michael Witzel, of the various levels of mythology which have come about in human history and which can be traced back to prehistoric migrational patterns…which is an interesting set of ideas, but which in certain ways combines both of the approaches mentioned above, while not addressing any of their pitfalls!]

Now, in attempting to address these things theologically, I’ll take two definite steps that attempt to take seriously the possibilities in both of the above, while not then resorting to monism in order to do so, and always with the intention of preserving the very real and significant differences between various Deities and Their cultural-religious backgrounds.  I’ll follow that up with an overall schema that works for me for addressing these kinds of questions, which then raises other theological issues, but which aren’t that difficult for me to reconcile.

If we take the psychological matter first, I would agree that there is a kind of two-step process and a two-party engagement involved in creating these very different understandings of Deities.  We as humans have our internal realities and potentialities, one of which is language and linguistic thinking, which arises from our ability to reason symbolically, which is a faculty that most other animals have limited capacities to do as far as our current understandings extend.  As all humans are ultimately related to one another going as far back as human origins begin genetically speaking, it therefore makes sense that we have some basic biological needs that are solved in similar ways across cultures by different social structures, needs for particular types of tools, and interactions with our environments.  We have these various “archetypes” within us, therefore, which we then project out onto the world our particular cultures of origin exist in, such that when Thunder is encountered, or a Smith figure is needed, or a certain plant becomes the primary Food Crop concerned, the second step of the process begins with the second party in these interactions:  the Deity or Spirit (or occasionally Ancestor) concerned.  The types of thunderstorms that occur in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. are very different than those which occur in the Upper Midwest, and these are both different again from the ones that occur in Japan, or Iceland, or anywhere else on the planet.  Where internal shared human archetype and external divine force matching that archetype meet, the process of human religious culture begins and creates a name and vocabulary for that Being as encountered in that culture and time, so that the various different Thunder Deities then emerge in their appropriate contexts.

It is in this cultural matrix that then the related names and terms associated with them or mythemes and cultic practices linked to these emerge in particular religious cultures, such that Zeus, Sabazios, Dyaus Pitr and Jupiter are given similar names, and that myths involving Zeus and Indra can be similar, and that weekday associations of Zeus and Thor can come about, etc.  But, rather than arguing for an underlying unity for each of these figures through archetypal associations or via common descent from proto-forms in various cultures, I think we should take the idea of “genetic lineage” and “common descent” much more literally than has tended to be done by scholars as well as some practitioners who ascribe to these ideas.  A person and that person’s siblings all descend from their common parent, but even in cases of identical twins, the two individuals that result end up being quite different in terms of personality as well as subsequent experiences.  In this analogy, the common parents might be the Proto-Indo-European forms of particular Deities, but then the various children who are siblings are then the different Deities across different Indo-European cultures, with the identical twins being the instances where the same Deity exists in two cultures because one adopted it directly into the other, but then the differing personalities of the twins are the heightened or lessened expressions of their common characteristics as each is then appropriate to their historical developments in their subsequent experiences.  This is why Castor and Kastor are different, for example.  To extend the metaphor even further, because in all Indo-European cultures’ cases, we are not dealing with direct descent from the Proto-Indo-European culture and each of the certain, identified, and attested religious phenomena in various daughter Indo-European cultures, another set of images derived from genetics suggests itself.  Look at a domestic cat, a domestic dog, and a sea lion.  All three of these share common genetic ancestors in earlier mammalian species, and yet no one would deny that all three are very different now as to have almost nothing in common when particular characteristics are considered.  Each is the result of several different further mammalian species that developed along very separate lines as a result of separate mutations and choices of habitat and behavior, so that there may be twenty or more generations of entire species that developed and then disappeared between their common ancestors and the modern examples of these three species.  So, too, is it the case with Indo-European cultures.  The culture of Ireland with all of its religious phenomena and Deities goes back to, first, a common Gaelic or Goidelic culture, and then a common Insular Celtic stratum, and then a Common Celtic stratum, and then a group that also brings in the Italic cultures (including what gave rise to Latin!), and probably at least one further group–if not two or three–before one can get back to the parent Proto-Indo-European culture.  Comparing Thor, Zeus, and The Dagda is therefore similar to the dog, cat, and sea lion analogy…only it might be more like comparing a dog, a fern, and a mushroom since all of these forms of life go back to our original unicellular parent species on the Earth!

Now, I know that many polytheists will point out a major issue in all of this, which is that the active belief in these various cultures, and which is also held in common for many modern people who practice these forms of polytheism, is that these various Deities are said to pre-exist humans, to have been eternal, and so forth, which then seems at odds with the developments I have suggested above.  The fact of the matter is, all of the natural forces that various Deities have been linked to in various locales did pre-exist humans; and just as a Deity not being omniscient doesn’t mean that said Deity is not vastly superior to humans in knowledge and wisdom, so too does the fact that some of these natural forces have existed for millions if not billions of years likewise make it seem like humans, who have been around for a few hundred thousand years at most in our current form, to be vastly younger and obviously inferior in our total historical existence…by sometimes vast orders of magnitude.  The superlative fashion in which some of these Deities then express themselves is comparatively accurate where human existence is concerned.  Even though we have a cultural and linguistic role in helping to shape Deities–indeed, nothing in human culture is free from this process if it is something that can be thought and engaged with–the natural forces, or even the cultural forces (for Deities Who are associated with things like smithcraft, poetry, medicine, and other human occupations, as well as more abstract ideas like justice, truth, and so forth) tend to pre-exist the names given to them in a Platonic fashion.

This construction then allows very much for what is called “process theology,” the unfolding of new aspects and new ideas about Deities as those Deities exist and interact with their human attendant cultures throughout history, developing and changing just as individual humans and individual cultures also develop and change.  This also allows for syncretism, as cultures can then link with one another and find similarities between their Deities to create syncretized forms, though I would argue that very often, the Deities have already created these and humans simply notice or discover them in a manner that is different to how these individual cultural Deities came into being in the first place.  It’s the difference between finding a dog and saying “I’ll call you Spot!” and Spot getting together with your neighbor’s dog and having puppies, which I’ll leave each of you to parse out as you like!

Now, there are some people who will not like what I have proposed here, and as I said at the outset, I don’t expect others to, nor are they required to do so.  They may think that what I have suggested here highlights too much the human element in the origins of religious phenomena, and yet I don’t think it is possible to do otherwise given that religion and spirituality of all types is a human phenomenon that is subject to the rules of thinking, language, and social organization that all things in our human existence are. Others may say that delving into the origins of Deities defies the inherent quality of “mystery” that surrounds Deities, and that such “mystery” should be preserved…but I have always found such non-answers to be a total dodge when given by monotheists, so I likewise find them lacking when given by polytheists.  If our mental faculties are a gift of the Deities, then using them to try and plumb the depths of these things, taking certain demonstrable data (like linguistic and mythic parallels) as real and significant as we do so while also couching the entirety in theological or metaphysical rather than merely instrumental and mechanical/material causes.

But let us also remember:  as polytheism, now as ever, is a set of religious phenomena that is defined by practice and experience rather than adherence to or espousing of particular beliefs (i.e. theologies!), what matters most is how one approaches the Deities and what experiences result from those divine interactions, and not how one attempts to account for them, and certainly not whether others accept one’s own accounting as valid for or applicable to their own practices and experiences.

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.”