Exploring spirituality somewhere between the Emerald Isle and the Black Land....

Monday, July 8, 2013

Polytheists vs. Pagans

For over a decade and a half I have identified as pagan, yet in the last couple of years of that time, I have identified specifically as a polytheist. The reason is not because I have divorced myself from the pagan label or that community, nor do I have any desire to do so. I identify as a polytheist simply because that term is more specific to my beliefs. While "Earth-centered" still applies to the things I believe and the way I live my life, over the years the gods have become just as important in my beliefs, and primary in my practice. I like to think that my blog reflects this dual approach, and is as appealing to polytheists as it is to pagans.

When I first came to paganism all those years ago, I embraced archetypal interpretations of deities. In hindsight, I realize that I thought that believing in ideas of gods somehow gave my religion more credibility. While monotheists sometimes get flack for believing in just one deity, polytheists can be thought of as being even more "backwards," because it is assumed that people don't believe those things anymore. If someone raised a skeptical eyebrow when I told them that I believed in a bunch of gods, it was a comfort to be able to tell them, "it's not like that! The gods are really just manifestations of the human psyche!" or any number of definitions that pagans use.

More than that, I found the non-literal interpretation of the divine to be very liberating. To say that I was raised Catholic is an understatement. It was pushed upon me, and the harder I resisted it, the more it was thrust upon me. I think that my time as a monist/agnostic pagan was necessary to cultivate my own spirituality, as it deconstructed (what were to me) damaging ideas of what divinity is. Only after that was I able to approach religion and spirituality with an open mind and heart. There are a number of pagans who have experienced similar things, and to these people, freedom of their individual religious expressions are of utmost importance. I cannot resent this. Having been there myself, I have a deep understanding and sympathy for this need.

Yet as my time as a pagan wore on, and I continued to call upon and interact with the various names of the deities, more and more I became unable to think of them as mere archetypes and so on. To me, the gods became more real, distinct, and individual.

Our relationships with the gods can be compared to our relationships with other human beings. When you first meet someone, you may simply know them as "that guy who fixes computers." If there's something wrong with your computer, he's clearly the person to call. But unless you spend the time to get to know him as a person, he'll never become more than another tech geek. You may never learn that he loves spelunking and has a phobia of bubble gum. You may never fully appreciate him for the unique individual that he is. Likewise, I see my transformation from an agnostic pagan to full-fledged polytheist as the result of spending time with the gods and getting to know them.

I don't say this to imply that I'm doing religion more correctly, or better than anyone else. I simply mean to say that these are the things that I believe, why I believe them, and how I came to believe them. My becoming a polytheist was a natural evolution of my spirituality, and necessary to fulfill that spirituality. You are probably going to believe something completely different. And you know what? That's ok.

The awesome thing about paganism is that it is open and accepting of all kinds of beliefs. The frustrating thing about paganism is that it is open and accepting of all kinds of beliefs. In my years interacting with other pagans, there have been times when they've been so focused on what makes everyone's belief systems similar, they neglect what makes them different. And when we neglect those differences, misunderstandings happen. Our differences should be as recognized as our similarities because they can give us understanding, context, and a new appreciation for the things we do and believe as individuals, as well as a diversity and vitality that makes our communities richer.

At least, that's the ideal.

In the quest for finding sameness, pagans can be very insistent about Jungian archetypes or monism. There are times when I've found it frustrating, offensive even. But guess what? For all the times I've been annoyed by the insistence that "all gods are one," or some other idea, there are pagans out there that have been annoyed by a polytheist's insistence that all gods are separate.

Which brings us to the major point of contention: Crack open any dictionary, and it will tell you that polytheism is the worship of multiple gods. And according to polytheists, gods are gods. Archetypes are not gods. Natural forces are not gods. However, gods are big, and can do amazing things. From a polytheist's point of view, gods can represent archetypes and manifest as forces of nature as well as being separate, distinct entities. However, the opposite is not necessarily true. The way they see a humanist pagan's view is that a deity is reduced to only an archetype or only a force of nature. And polytheists find this insulting, to their gods.

I once heard someone say that when you define what your beliefs are, you are in a way denying someone else's. At first I balked at this idea. "No way! My beliefs are, like, Über tolerant and junk!" But as I thought about it, I realized that it was true. When I say that I believe in many gods, this statement is the antithesis of what a monotheist believes. My statement, in an indirect way, denies what they believe. There is nothing malicious about this; it is simply a matter of people having differing points of view.

And this is the key to the problem that pagans and polytheists are having.

In the "pro-polytheism" posts that I've been reading, the authors take a very firm stance on their beliefs. They draw a line, and they defend it. And then some of the pagans get offended, interpreting these declarations of belief as attacks, as one person telling another what to believe and how to worship. I know there are those who would disagree with me, but I do not believe that this is the case. And even if it was... so what? No one has to do or think what Random Internet People say. Your beliefs are your own, and no one can change that. If that is not the case, your beliefs must not have been held very close anyway.

At the beginning of this debate (or more accurately, before I realized that it was a debate) I was very pleased to see my fellow polytheists standing out and declaring what they, and by extension I, believe in. But the deeper I read into the debate, the deeper I saw the contention and nastiness run, until this whole kerfuffle has left me feeling very disheartened. Instead of grown people discussing what they believe and why, egos get in the way and people bicker about who's "righter," slinging personal insults along the way and arguing about who fights dirtier. But all of this is useless. The important thing is not to fight over who is correct. It is to understand each other, and find harmony with each other.

How do you do this when people on both sides have scoffed at the idea of having to accept each other's beliefs? After all, saying that you accept those beliefs is a way of saying that you believe them. And why would anyone want to say that they believe something they don't? Luckily, the solution is simple.

We need only to accept that we are different, and that that is ok. No one has to accept your beliefs. No one has to accept my beliefs. But as decent human beings, we all have an obligation to respect that we have them.

If you want to read more about The Great Debate, I have compiled some links below (in no particular order):