Polytheism: How hard do you like it?
I suppose it’s time I got around to a proper theology post. I’ve been talking with lots of folks about belief and practice, about polytheist ritual that assumes the Gods are real, and on like that. Polytheism, hard or soft… a subject of much debate in the Pagan world right now. (For anyone reading this who hasn’t yet been introduced to the question: Here’s a book excerpt with an overview of the terms.) And because I insist that to me, the Gods are undeniably real, living beings with personhood and agency, it’s been assumed that I’m making claims about other aspects of Their natures (e.g. that they are local, discrete, individual, anthropomorphic, etc). I’m not sure I’ve ever said, in this blog, where I stand on this theological question.
So. Polytheism: how hard do you take it? Well, it depends on my mood, see.
OK, not quite. But I think there’s something missing from a lot of the dialogue about polytheism, and that thing profoundly influences my perspective on the Gods. That thing is ecology.
A lot of my college study was in ecology and life science. The ecological paradigm informs pretty much all of my thinking about spiritual realities and theology. And coming from that perspective, the whole question of hard versus soft polytheism keeps looking to me like a false dichotomy. Because ecological thinking is all about relationships, and which relationships you see or don’t see depends on what scale you’re looking at. And if the Gods are in any way real, then They are necessarily part of nature (just as we are), and we can use the same lens to look at them.
So the natural world is this matrix of beings and forces interacting at different scales. You can look at one scale and see individual creatures which appear to be separate and discrete, interacting with one another. Look at another scale and you see populations, separable from one another and interacting with other populations. Look at another scale and you see huge, global forces that subsume the individual into great ecologies of energy and life force. Which scale is the correct lens? Which perception is true?
At one scale, we might see a tree. It’s easily identifiable as an individual of its species – we can measure its DBH, canopy, height, age. We can take the same measurements of the tree next to it and get a different set of data. They’re clearly individual beings with separate identities. If we looked at their DNA that would be identifiable too. And no question, it’s a different species from the mushrooms growing over its roots. The soil isn’t even an organism, it’s just a matrix to hold the tree’s roots.
So now we go underground, and it turns out that the forest is made up of all these trees, but their roots form a network that isn’t just intertwined, but in fact the roots merge underground. And it also turns out that the mushrooms don’t just feed the trees by feeding the soil, but in fact make up a mycelial web that is integrated into the soil AND the root network of the trees, and they are all bonded into each other at the cellular level. And suddenly at this scale, what’s real and identifiable as a functioning organism, a being, is the forest. At this scale, the tree is just an organ of the forest. Which scale is correct?
The forest interacts with other ecologies. It creeps forward, shrinking the grassland. Or desert pushes it back. They dance, wrestle, collide. At the continental scale, we just see vast interactions measured in energy, oxygen, carbon, water vapor. The biosphere breathes its oxygen from the great forested lungs. They pour down carbon from the air to the surface. Day heats the oceans and moisture shifts on oceanic currents. The being breathes in, out, in, out. We’ve seen it from space. It’s clearly a distinct, identifiable individual with obvious boundaries, glowing blue and green against the black. Surely this being is the real one. Surely its identity is the clearest we could look for.
At another scale, we can watch the sweep of planets clinging round the gravitational core of a sun, like organelles of a cell membrane-held to its nucleus, swimming in the solar wind that carves their magnetospheres. Is this an organism, an individual? At another scale, we can watch interactions between galaxies, each with their own shape, composition, gravitational force, rotation speed and trajectory. This one has a black hole in its core, that one has a concentration of dark matter. They’re unique, beautiful, evocative, nameable. Is this an individual being? Is this the correct scale?
This is our universe as we are able to know it. Where in these scales do the Gods live and operate? I cannot see why we would assume that They exist at only one of these scales. The universe is full of structures that live, act, and function on every level, from the atomic to the multiversal. Why, my friends, would we think the same is not true of the Gods?
So when someone asks if the Gods are cosmic and universal or if They are local and individual, I want to say YES OF COURSE. Or, “Which ones do you mean?” I want to say, “I don’t know, and you don’t either! Who can have lived long enough to have met Them all?” I think that if we have any awareness of the multi-scaled infinitude of the universe we live in, if nothing else we have to maintain some humility about the scope of what we know, and ever can know. And I think it strongly suggests that the Gods include ALL OF THE ABOVE. Local spirits-of-place Gods, like the tiny endemic population of this-kind-of-poppy-with-the-spot-on-its-petals which has only ever been found on one mountain in one county in one land. Gods of landscapes: this river, this mountain, this desert. Gods of natural forces and structures. Thunder Gods, snow-and-winter Gods, wildfire Gods, moon Gods. Cultural Gods: the Gods of the Celts, the Saxons, the Nubians, the Saami, the Maya. Gods of cycles and systems: of spring, the tides, the night. Gods of human patterns and motive forces: civilizing Gods, Gods of love and war, of justice and sovereignty and truth. Gods of cosmic forces: decay, death, rebirth, time, eternity, space. Gods who are mysterious intersections of multiple forms of power. Gods who are simply Themselves and show up in whatever milieux and culture They feel like tomorrow. Gods with no face. Gods who are nothing but the endless omnipotent life force endlessly taking shape in all things.
I ask you, who are we, any of us, to say that we know which of these many kinds of Gods are real and which of them can’t possibly exist?
Here’s the thing – and this is where it comes back home. There is so much we can never know. What we can know is the evidence of our senses. That is all we have, folks. Everything else, and I mean everything, is a story we spin, individually or collectively, to weave together the evidence of our senses into a picture that makes sense to us. That means ALL of our interactions with the Gods are embedded in the context of being human. But it doesn’t mean we should be confused into thinking we’re all there is, or that our perceptions are absolute. Our perceptions are and will always be anthropocentric. Our values, and the stories we weave to interpret those perceptions, shouldn’t be.
I call myself a polytheist Pagan, and not a monist or archetypalist or anything else, not because I am sure that I know the nature of the Gods, and certainly not because I want to get stuck looking at Them at only one scale. I call myself a polytheist because what matters in religious practice is not the ultimate-cosmic-objective-truth which I have no way of ever verifiably knowing. What matters in religious practice is the level on which we as beings inhabiting bodies are able to sense and interact with all the worlds. Thus, while I acknowledge that it is possible that the Gods I know are merely reflections of some great unified cosmic God-force that is beyond identities, it is kind of irrelevant to me. Because when I do my ritual practice, They show up with faces (sometimes) and identities (usually) and They engage with me as persons. Multiple identifiable God-like persons. Thus, poly-theist.
In other words, I speak to Them in the language of human ritual, human hospitality, and I-thou relationship in recognition of Their agency as beings. Whether Their agency is more like the agency of a free-willed thinking human-like entity, the agency of a cat, or the agency of a supermassive black hole (which also, I’m thinking, doesn’t answer to orders very well) ends up being a bit of an angels-on-a-pin question for me. Because the part of Them that I can interact with is the part that translates into human-Other relations, and is therefore detectable and relatable to my senses. In practice, this means for me a religious and ritual practice that is human-shaped and leans toward historical traditions for my particular Gods, and those traditions model ways of relating to Them that are human-shaped. This approach yields fruit for me.
So there you go: I like my polytheist ritual good and hard because it gets me there. But I like my ontology nimble and pliable.