Talking about Anthropocentrism in Modern Paganism
It’s been a mind-churning couple of weeks, friends, and this Gemini girl has been reveling in it and doing her best to keep up.
It so happened that the same day I published “Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mists,” Irish animist Traci Laird also shared a piece in which she confronted the issue of anthropocentrism in modern Western Paganism more directly. She points out, very rightly I think, that “the belief that human-persons are the most significant species on the planet, plays out within paganism in subtle and tricky ways.” The response to our two posts has been incredibly varied, with writers across the Pagan blogosphere grappling with notions of anthropocentrism that range so widely at times it seems they’re hardly talking about the same thing at all.
One blogger notes that “the word anthropocentricism has been liberally strewn about,” and these are “topics that do in fact need to be discussed, but I so would have loved it if the authors decided to, oh, I don’t know, discuss them.”
That’s definitely a fair criticism of my own post! (And it’s one that others brought up in the comment thread, where we dug a little deeper into what exactly I’d meant and where I could have been clearer.) The more responses and reactions I read over the past couple weeks, the more I realized that the issue of anthropocentrism in Paganism is incredibly complex and at times very confusing. Subtle and tricky ain’t the half of it! And so I wanted to spend some time teasing apart the various straw men that have been propped up throughout this conversation and give a little more context to my original post and the problems, as I see them, of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism in Pagan ritual and theology.
Another reason to spend a little more time on this topic is that Morpheus Ravenna has since followed up on her post about ritual with a clarification of her own theology, pointing out that my labeling her a “hard polytheist” wasn’t really accurate. Her post on polytheist theology based on an ecological paradigm resonates with me personally in many ways, especially when she writes:
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.
Ravenna discusses this idea at length, echoing thoughts similar to those I shared on No Unsacred Place back in 2012 in my exploration of human and deity identity, where I wrote:
The multiplicity of human identity is not just a spiritual principle, it’s a biological fact — a basic ecological reality. The cells that make up your body are dying off all the time, replaced by new cells born of the food you eat and the water you drink. We shed skin cells more quickly than it takes for our fingernails to grow out, and we replace the cells of our stomach lining sometimes as quickly as every meal. Even with all this, only 10% of the cells in your body belong to you. The rest are the cells of bacteria and microorganisms that call your body home, and without these symbionts living on and within your physical self, you would be unable to digest and process the nutrients necessary to keep you alive. Your physical body is teeming with a microscopic diversity of life that rivals a rainforest. The insight of the Gaia Theory — that “the Earth system behaves as a single self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components” — is as much a statement about our own physical bodies as it is about the planet. If we imagine the Earth as the body of a goddess, we can also imagine our own bodies as a sacred home to an ecologically complex and diverse array of microscopic life.
These are the first glimmerings of an earth-centered theology of polytheism. If human identity is complex, both personal and social, physical and psychological, spiritual and ecological — why should we expect deity identity to be any simpler? If our sense of self-identity is fluid and changeable, interconnected, responsive to the teeming, dancing life that permeates and surrounds us — why should we expect the gods to be objective, discrete and separate beings? The experience of spiritual practice and the biology of physical life teach us otherwise — showing us both the astounding unity and the sacred, interconnected multiplicity of being.
But Ravenna’s post also gives me a better understanding of where exactly our views differ, and why I came to some wrong conclusions at first. I’ll talk about that more later, but first it’s really important that you go and read her post, where she explains her theology and its connection to her approach to ritual in her own words.
Finally, by happy coincidence, the theme of this month’s Animist Blog Carnival is Animist Ethics, so this seems like a great opportunity to talk about the important tensions between anthropocentrism and the ecocentric values that inform the animistic aspects of my spiritual path. Naturally, in the process of digging deeper I’m going to be using my own shovel and some elbow grease, so I want to share the usual caveat that while these kinds of questions and concerns are vitally important to me and my practice, I don’t profess to have any Right Answers or Ultimate Truths. Your own experiences and perspectives may differ, and probably (hopefully!) they will.
So I’m going to walk very gently and slowly through these ideas for a little while — you might even call it lingering. I know that means that I risk losing some of you: not only those who think I’m making distinctions too fine to be meaningful, but also those of you who are more inclined to skip lightly through the meadows of theology and philosophy on your joyful wild hunt towards deeper relationship with the gods and the world. Theology is not a place where everyone lingers, and I totally understand that. But set me down in a field and I am just as likely to spend hours watching the methodical process of a bee exploring every crevice of a clover as I am to make daisy chains or do cartwheels. That’s just the kind of girl I am. So I ask you to bear with me — and for those of you eagerly calling me to set aside definitions and difficult questions lest I linger too long in the open and get eaten by the Ur Doing It Wrong Wolves (or worse, become one!)… don’t worry! I’m staying alert.
Save a place for me in the drum circle under the darker canopies of mystery, beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing.
I will meet you there.