Polytheism: The Light in the Window
First, I wish all a blessed Solstice, and may your fires burn brightly and true.
Over the last few weeks, several friends have nudged me to comment on the recent
shitstorm debate in the Pagan blogosphere regarding polytheism, archetypalism and humanism in Pagan theology. Up to now, I have not. Not because I don’t have strong opinions, but because frankly I am too busy doing the work of Pagan polytheist priesthood to have time to argue with people about it on the internet – an activity that should always come second in priority to actual religious practice, in my opinion. Honestly, I don’t have enough time to read even a fraction of the heated volumes that have been written about it in just the last month. But I’ll try to add something of value to the conversation.
To start with, I feel there’s a distinction that needs to be made: polytheism is a religious framework, whereas Paganism (as the term is used in modernity to refer to the Pagan movement) is better understood as an ethos or worldview. One of the best definitions of Paganism I’ve heard comes from my friend Jonathan Korman, who wrote in his blog:
The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world … and so regards the human as sacred. The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces … and honors all of those forces.
Thus, one can be Pagan and polytheist; Pagan and humanist; or even Pagan and atheist. Because Paganism is not a theism – it is not a statement of religious doctrine on the existence of Gods per se. It is a broadly spiritual worldview in which the cosmos is alive with powers with which we can interact. Theisms involve the recognition of those forces specifically in the form of Gods. Incidentally, operating from this understanding of Paganism, I tend to see reconstructionists and polytheists of most sorts as inherently Pagan, even if they prefer to distance themselves from the Pagan movement for social reasons.
So that being said, here is my statement of position: I am a Pagan polytheist Witch, a dedicant and priestess of the Morrígan, and a worshipper of other Gods as well. Priesthood is, above all other things, service to the Gods, and you cannot serve something which is an abstract idea or archetype, because abstracts do not have needs. Thus, priesthood inherently contains a recognition of the reality of the Gods as living beings. This is true for me: in my experience, the Gods are real, living beings, every bit as real as I am, though primarily discarnate in their form of existence (which, incidentally, makes them more powerful, not less so).
And I’ll ask you to notice what I’m not saying here – I’m not saying “I believe in the Gods.” For me, it is not a matter of belief. It is a matter of lived experience. I did not treat the Gods as real until I had experienced them. Nor do I expect anyone else to treat them as real, if they have not had experience of them. I recognize that to know the reality of the Gods requires that we trust our sense experiences, including those of our subtle senses – something that many people in modernity find very challenging to do. I suspect this is a big factor in the recent shift toward treating the Gods as useful figments of the collective unconscious. We have a culture that teaches us to mistrust the evidence of our own senses unless it is corroborated overwhelmingly by the observations of other people or of instruments. We also have a culture filled with media images in which the presence of the Gods, or the action of magic, are announced by spectacular displays of supernatural phenomena, which have trained our perception toward the coarse and obvious, and to miss the subtle. The most powerful and helpful aspect of my training in Witchcraft may be this – it helped me to unlearn this cultural programming, to deeply observe and honor the evidence of all my senses.
This training also taught me that all people can only act from the experiences that they have. We polytheists cannot expect anyone who has not experienced the reality of the Gods to act from true knowledge of their presence. We can, of course, expect our practices and our theology to be treated with respect.
There’s something more I want to say about the Gods, and about polytheism. That is, while it is important for us to trust the evidence of our senses, it is also important to recognize the limits of our sensory frame of reference. This is a matter of fine discernment: the key is to recognize that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves, because they are inherently greater than our capacity to experience them. Thus, the Gods as we know them are in fact processes of encounter, more than fixed shapes. To quote my friend Jonathan again, “The gods are what happen when the forces of the cosmos interact with human consciousness.” That is to say, what we experience is always a mask or form of the God shaped in such a way as to translate into our consciousness and frame of reference.
This is, I think, where the confusion sometimes arises between Gods as living beings and Gods as examples of archetypes. Those masks or forms can be archetypes, and they do exist as images within the collective consciousness of our species. The difference between the archetypalist perspective and the polytheist one, is that that from a polytheist perspective, those forces taking form as Gods are real, exist independently of us, and can act upon us up to and including physical effects, whether or not we believe that they are real. We don’t, and can’t, create them. In conversation about this recently, I used the metaphor of a stained glass church window, containing an image which is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through it from outside. The image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, but not in itself alive or exerting force in the world. The Gods are the sun. The church is the human mind. Thus, the experience we have as a consciousness trapped inside the walls of the body is that of an image which comes to life within our experience. It takes the form and shape given it by this inert picture in glass made by the human hand, but its life is real and comes from beyond us; we can feel its warmth on our skin if we stand in the beam. That sun was not made by our hands or minds, nor is its existence dependent on our awareness of it. But without leaving the church (or at least opening a window), what we can know from this about the true nature of the sun is limited.
That last point is important. And it is not the same as skepticism. It is not necessary to question the reality of our sense experiences – we feel what we feel, we see what we see, and those experiences have primacy. But it’s important to practice discernment about how we shape those experiences into a story about the nature of the Gods. It is important to remember that what we have is always and only the nature of our own encounter, filtered through the membrane that separates the full reality of these powers from our embodied experience. It is in this way that we can be both rational and authentic in our relationship with the Gods.
I would like to see the polytheist camp practice this kind of discernment more fully, and I think it would help us in being better understood by the more rationalist/archetypalist folk in the community. Why do I care? Because infighting between Pagans is not only an embarrassing waste of our time, it’s also self-destructive to all of us. While the polytheists and archetypalists are each accusing the other camp of dominionist thinking, there are real Dominionists out there actively working to delegitimize and limit our freedom of religion, and they do not care which camp you’re in. So yes, let us have this conversation about the differences in our theology, and let us bring both our passion and discernment to the table, but let us keep our kinship in mind.