The other day I was talking with Jeff about a recent post by Morpheus Ravenna on ritual theory for polytheists, and he said something so profound in its simplicity that it made me gasp in recognition. I was noting how all of Ravenna’s conclusions about the reality of the gods seemed to assume that the gods are very much just like people, with the same needs, desires and expectations. Jeff replied:
The problem with asserting that the only gods that are “real” are those that are like humans is that it takes for granted a worldview in which humans are the only measure of what is real.
This is how I feel when I read posts by hard polytheists and posts such as Ravenna’s*. It’s not that I disagree with her about the importance of gratitude, commitment, respect, receptivity or deep reciprocity as essential aspects of polytheistic ritual. I affirm those values wholeheartedly and hold to them with fierce stubbornness in my own ritual practices.
Where we disagree is in the language and metaphors we use to talk about the gods. Ravenna speaks of her gods like they’re celebrities or superheroes, and her explanations for what the gods want and expect from us are all drawn from examples of interpersonal human relationships — how we might treat a dinner guest, a keynote speaker, or a new friend. She insists that if we perform rituals in ways that are not grounded in the belief that our gods have human-like behaviors and attitudes, then we must not believe the gods are “real.”
But I do believe my gods are real. Some of them are human-like, but many of them are not. Many of them are more like how Sara Amis describes her encounters with the divine:
This is how I understand the divine, and why I continue to seek it in the resolutely non-human world, with which we nonetheless recognize a numinous kinship. Sometimes, it will turn and lock eyes with you, lifting you out of yourself, changing everything. Other times, it will give you the side-eye and swoop away, leaving you longing for retreating beauty. You might not see it every single time you go looking, or where you expect to find it. No matter how common the experience, every time you stumble across mystery, or independent wild being, it is a surprise and a miracle. And every day, you can look.
My gods are not tame. They do not always come when they are called. This is not a failure of ritual or a weakness of belief. It is the nature of my gods. I would no more expect a god to “show up” in my ritual space than I would expect to be able to call a mountain into my living room. That is simply not the nature of mountains. If I want to meet a mountain, I am the one who must move.
Because I do not believe that humans are the only beings with agency in the world, I do not expect my gods to express their agency in the same ways that human beings do. There are gods who forever remain elusive, whose identities shift with the landscape, the seasons and the stars. And there are gods so intimate that they are never really absent at all, and meeting them is not a matter of inviting their presence but rather of quieting my own expectations and learning how to listen. There are gods whose presence looms like a mountain range on the horizon, and gods with(in) whom I walk with grace, my footsteps just one more melody in the great pattern of their being. What does hospitality look like to a mountain? How does a forest speak its mind? What does it mean to invoke a god of mist and sea on a mist-strewn shore?
You might not understand or relate to the metaphors that I use to describe my gods, but that does not mean that those gods are not real, or that I am being disingenuous about my beliefs. My rituals may look different from yours or have a different purpose, but that does not mean that they are incompetent or superficial.
For me, the hard polytheist definition of the gods as “separate, discrete and individual beings” is simply too brittle, placing undue focus on exclusionary boundaries and either/or ontological experiences. Recently, it seems to be increasingly common to talk about Pagan theology as if all polytheism were hard polytheism. Posts like Ravenna’s and Rhyd Wildermuth’s speak on behalf of polytheists without acknowledging that there are polytheists like myself who do not agree with the anthropocentric and theologically transcendent views of hard polytheism. (In fact, Wildermuth makes the mistake of labeling me a humanistic/non-theistic Pagan, despite my many, many, many, many writings about my polytheism.**) They worry that Pagans like myself are rejecting or denying their gods…. What they don’t seem to understand is that by insisting that gods can be “real” only if they fit the definition offered by hard polytheists, they are actively denying the reality of gods that may be wholly unlike the anthropomorphic, discrete and separate beings that hard polytheists worship. When they assume that because I am not a hard polytheist, I must therefore be a non-theist, they reject my experiences of my own gods as legitimate encounters with the divine.
My gods are not always like human beings. Sometimes my gods are like mountains, sometimes they are like mist. Sometimes I seek my gods in the forests, sometimes in ritual space or the beat of the drum. Sometimes my gods are inscrutable or apophatic, and my relationship with them is one of longing and seeking rather than invocation and offering. And sometimes it is the mountains themselves who are gods, and the rivers and trees who speak.
What I would like to see is a renewed sense of inclusivity among Pagan polytheists, and a return to the possibility that hard polytheism is only one way out of many to seek authentic relationship with the many different deities in this world full of gods.
* Please see Morpheus Ravenna’s clarification and my response in the comments below.
** It saddens me that we are losing the nuances of theological and spiritual exploration in this rush to establish which side of the hard-polytheist/non-theist debate everyone is on. The fact that I do not wear a hard polytheist flag pin on my lapel during every theological debate has apparently been enough to earn me the accusation of having “humanist/naturalistic [that is, atheist] tendencies” in a post that otherwise denounces this kind of simplistic othering. What’s more, Wildermuth’s interpretation of the Google+ discussion he quotes is clearly influenced at a basic level by the assumption that I am an atheist. When I asked questions meant to provoke a conversation about how our personal values inform our relationship with the gods and our approach to discerning the health of those relationships, he chose instead to see my questions as simplistic attacks on the existence of the gods themselves — not only missing an opportunity for a more complex and challenging conversation, but dismissing me as insensitive, even hostile, towards mystical experiences (clearly assuming that I’ve had none of my own), adding personal insult to social injury.
• “Earth Wind Water,” by Christopher Beikmann © 2007 [Purchase a print here]
• “Mountain God,” by Timothy Johnson © 2010 [source]
52 thoughts on “Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist”
You have a few assumptions here about my polytheism, based on the way I use language about working with the Gods. Understandable, but I just want to point it out. I don’t at all think that we can assume the Gods function in the same ways that humans do, but I think that the hospitality model is the best one we have, and it has worked best for me.
I’m also clear that the Gods don’t necessarily come when called. That was kind of my point. I’m not sure where you took from that that I think the Gods are tame. That and some of the other assumptions I’m seeing in this make me think that perhaps because you’ve decided that I’m part of some ‘hard polytheist camp’, that I’m subtextually saying things that other polytheists might have said.
I actually think that the hard/soft polytheism debate is kind of stupid, and I don’t identify with a ‘team’. More on that shortly in my own blog. I think a fair amount of the misunderstanding and assumption in operation here may be a result of my not having really made my theological position clear.
By the way, I would also appreciate if you didn’t insert words I didn’t write when you quote me. I didn’t fail to title my post “Ritual theory for hard polytheists” on accident. I think your inserting that word into my blog title when you quote it misrepresents me significantly, and demonstrates the assumption you’ve made about where I’m coming from.
I most definitely inserted the [hard] in your post title to demonstrate what I thought was an assumed perspective of your post, rather than an overtly stated position. Part of my point was that it has become increasingly common to drop the “hard” without acknowledging that the writer is still speaking from a perspective not representative of all polytheists. But since you’ve clarified that you don’t describe yourself as a hard polytheist, I’ve revised my post to reflect that.
Thanks for your thoughts, Morphesus. I’m really looking forward to your follow-up post. Some of what you said in your post on what makes for competent/meaningful ritual directly contradicts what I know of other (particularly indigenous) approaches to ritual, as well as how I approach my own rituals. I don’t agree that using a model of human hospitality is always the best approach (precisely because of its anthropocentrism), but like I said I definitely agree with you that gratitude, commitment, respect, receptivity and deep reciprocity are all important.
I think my biggest qualm with your post is how you frame your discussion of these qualities. For instance, when you state that:
“Because I am a polytheist, and the Gods are quite real to me. And as a result it becomes jarring to me when I’m seeing a ritual that is obviously built around the people in the room rather than the Gods that were named, and where things were clearly proceeding without reference to whether or not the Gods actually showed up.”
To me, that statement seems to put forward the basic assumptions that (a) the focus of ritual is exclusively directed towards the gods and not the people performing the ritual, (b) that rituals are contingent upon the gods “showing up” in order to be successful, and (c) that if rituals are not performed with these two beliefs in mind, then therefore the people performing them do not think the gods are “real.” To me, this statement seems to exclude a huge swath of potentially meaningful and nuanced approaches to ritual and the gods, including some well-known and well-documented among indigenous peoples. (I wrote about the mind-boggling number of ways to approach ritual last spring, and hope to write more on this topic in the future.)
Your approach also seems to fit very neatly in with the general hard polytheist approach to the nature of deity, and I’ve heard it from many others who describe their theology as hard polytheist, but I’m sorry if I was jumping to conclusions on that point. You said in your comment, “I actually think that the hard/soft polytheism debate is kind of stupid, and I don’t identify with a ‘team’.” And there I totally agree with you!
First, you make some interesting points about how we approach deity. The hospitality method, seems in line with much of what I’ve found historically in Northern Europe. I don’t see the anthropomorphic view in Morpheus’s post. And she is specifically focusing on ritual, and seemingly Wiccan-style ritual. I don’t know if she’s thinking at all about modern druidry.
Also, your incurred a logical fallacy in assuming that because she says that as a hard polytheist, and sees the gods that as real that she then wants to act in ritual in a way that reflects that the gods were summoned; that she is also stating the inverse. When in fact, she’s not.
Some errors in the above. I meant anthropocentric. Yet, even if she was, to a point, I can agree. We are in fact, humans, and thus how we relate to the gods, is how humans relate to the gods. We can’t relate to them, how a tree or a squirrel does. It is not to say that gods are here for humans, or that gods are more like humans, than other things, but that we relate to the in a very human way.
To see our Gods as like Kings/Chiefs, is to suggest that if you invite over the King/Chief, you might want to recognize him/her once he/she gets there. Instead of merely inviting him/her over and then playing checkers with your friends, while he sits in the corner and observes (unless, in your relationship with the King/Chief, this is precisely what he enjoys doing).
Thanks for your comments, Beorn!
I agree that the hospitality model is pretty common among ancient Northern European religious traditions — although I feel that learning from these traditions is not the same thing as being restricted to a literal reconstruction/reenactment of them as a modern American. Others are perfectly free to engage in ritual along those lines, of course, but it’s not fair to therefore characterize anyone who doesn’t as not believing their gods are real.
Which brings me to the logic of Morpheus’s post. The problem, as I see it, is that she invokes a contrapositive, perhaps without meaning to. When you make the claim “If A, then B” you also logically imply “If not B, then not A.” So when Morpheus writes in essence If you believe the gods are real, then you will do ritual in this way, she is also logically implying that, If you do not do ritual in this way, then you do not believe the gods are real. This is where I take issue with her claim.
You are totally right that assuming the inverse of Morpheus’s claim would be illogical based on what she wrote. The inverse of her point (in the form of “If not A, then not B”) would be: If you do not believe the gods are real, then you will not do ritual in this way. But there are, of course, plenty of examples of people who do ritual similarly to Morpheus but who do not agree with her about the nature of the gods (and I am, occasionally, one of them). So I am definitely not accusing her of making the inverse of her claim.
That said, I definitely agree with you that her critique seems like it’s mostly directed at Wiccan-style ritual, and further that it is critical of a simplistic or misunderstood approach to Wiccan ritual (an approach I think a lot of Wiccans would also object to, actually!). I doubt she had me personally in mind, or modern Druidry more generally, when she wrote her post. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have both Opinions and Feels about what she said. 🙂
Alison, I’m still seeing a lot of misrepresentation of my words and ideas scattered throughout your comments here, not to mention your original original post. I don’t even have time to individually try to correct them all. Honestly, I’m left just wishing you would leave me out of your argument with whatever hard polytheists have been making you so defensive. Because I really have no wish to have an argument with you. I’d rather just write my blog. But here you are misquoting and misrepresenting me even after I point it out.
The thing is, you clearly don’t understand my theology, and that may be because you just don’t have enough information, but what it means is that you should just not try to represent my point of view on the internet.
Hilariously, I agree vehemently with both of you on many points. I think both of you are criticizing a tendency for Pagans to anthropomorphize and/or reduce their Gods to a human scale, ie “tame” them, from different directions.
My usual way of describing that tendency is that some Pagans have a tendency to act like they are the protagonist in a Disney movie, or a kind of real-life Mary Sue. You know…the birdies and woodland creatures and nature spirits and giant cosmic beings are all on YOUR side and just waiting for the opportunity to help you with your personal development. Which is kind of narcissistic, when you get down to it. I once made the mistake of complaining to a particular divinity that I was lonesome, like he was going to do something about it. The response was, “That’s not really my department. Go spend more time with your friends.” 😀
It all comes back to agency. They do what They will, and if that includes helping you out and showing up to your rituals, that’s awesome and good for you. Not only that; it can be life-changing. But we don’t have Them on a leash. (And I’m enough of a trad witch that I don’t want to be on Theirs, either). I do have some divinities for whom I would go to great lengths should I be asked, and I think I can count on Them as well. But that is a product of a long relationship.
Also, I just want to say that I adore people who can civilly disagree on important intellectual and theological points 🙂
Thanks for stopping by, Sara! I just loved your post on the heron. 🙂
I think Morpheus and I do agree about a lot, and I’m kind of embarrassed that in a post where I complain about being accused of atheism that I made the unfortunate assumption that she is a hard polytheist when she isn’t. Just goes to show that none of us are mind readers, I guess. 😉
That said, I wonder if there isn’t a subtle difference between our concerns. (Maybe Morpheus can speak more to this point…?) Her concern (and a lot of other polytheists I’ve read) seems (at least to me) to be anthropocentrism — the attitude that humans are the center of the universe and the gods are here to serve us. While I agree that this attitude is a problem, my real concern is anthropomorphism, the belief that the gods are basically human-like in nature (albeit “kicked up a notch” in terms of power and might). To me, focusing on the fact that the gods have agency doesn’t address this problem, because it fails to challenge the deeply-rooted assumption that agency is an essentially human attribute and that, insofar as a deity has agency, that agency is also human-like in nature (that is, not attributable to things like plants or mountains or weather patterns). What I’m trying to get at is a difference in kind rather than in scale, if you see what I mean…
This is why I think the hospitality model of ritual can only take us so far. But it can be very well suited for deities that are more like humans and/or concerned with human affairs. Like I said, some of my gods are more like this than others, but I’m concerned about losing that sense of diversity. This is why I liked so much when you wrote about the heron as a metaphor for your relationship with the gods, Sara — because it breaks us out of that anthropomorphic view of deity!
This reminds me of my critique of Schrodinger’s thought experiment with the dead/not dead cat in a box. The problem is, there is ALWAYS an observer present: The cat.
It’s possible the entire universe is made of consciousness, or at least has consciousness as a common quality of it. Whither then uncertainty, or other aspects of reality which can be altered by observation? Are Gods observers, at a fundamental level?…that is, do things like gravity keep working simply because Somebody is watching? At any rate, one of the qualities we ascribe to Them is awareness, which implies an individual consciousness. (Or possibly a multiplicitous multilayered consciousness, but this comment is already pretty abstruse, even for me).
It is not necessary to this premise that said consciousness be like ours, at all. Which is to say…yes. I think what you are saying is an expansion of the discussion of anthropocentrism in ritual and practice, rather than a contradiction of it. The cat has its own opinions.
Incidentally, that was also always my response to the “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it” riddle. I always thought, “How can it even be a forest if there is no one there? Surely at least the tree would have noticed!
Or the squirrels…
Overall, I think it would do a lot of people no end of good to sit around and think seriously about how very MUCH of the living world, let alone the universe, rolls right along without us….indeed, without even noticing us.
This does not trouble me. To the extent that we are capable of having meaningful communion with the world of the non-human, the fact that so very much of it lies outside of our field of vision and current imagination simply means that there is a vast, deepy ocean of things we do not know but *could* at least have a shot at knowing…an endless supply of possible knowledge and experience that can never run out. The only constraint is us, the limits of our capabilities…which are not as small and simple as we think they are, either. The act of trying to reach beyond the human really on some level means reaching beyond our conception of ourselves, and interestingly when we imagine the world in too-human terms we are in fact arguing for our own limitations.
Thanks to all of the above for this. As someone who sits outside of all these discussions (my relationship with the Gods and Spirits is the one I have, and I don’t have any reason to think it is shared by anyone else) this overall is the most interesting collection of thoughts I have seen on the subject.
I agree that there are some (serious, imo) problems with X person deciding that their experiences with gods (or their certainty, or whatever term is being used now) means that anyone who has different experiences is not experiencing gods. We saw this a lot in 2013 with the various spats that came about. So I agree with some of the points you raised in this piece.
I’ll second Sara and add that I vehemently agree with all of the above. As a polytheist who often lands on “hard” when my theological wave function collapses I think about this a good deal. When I hear you talk about being concerned with anthropomorphism vs being concerned with anthropocentrism I want add that what drives me away from rituals more than either of those is the idea that the gods don’t have agency (is there a word for that?).
When thinking of this I am reminded of a quote from Daniel Quinn:
“‘Your God writes in words. The gods I’m talking about write in galaxies and star systems and planets and oceans and forests and whales and birds and gnats.’
‘And what do they write?’
‘Well, they write physics and chemistry and biology and astronomy and aerodynamics and meteorology and geology…'”
-The Story of B
A broader point that I’d like add is one of gratitude to you; thank you for posting this. This feels (to me) like a relatively healthy debate between very smart people that allows me, as perennial lurker, to deepen my connection to the world and the gods by engaging with the discourse. I have several friends who tune out of the pagan blogosphere because of the unhealthy dynamics and your writings make an excellent counter-example for me. I love what you have to say, I love what Morpheus has to say. I hope both of you, and others, find ways to keep sharing them. For me the world is big enough to say “yes…and” instead of “yes…but” or “no…and”.
Thank you, Asrik! It’s so wonderful to hear from hard polytheists who are getting something out of this discussion, too. Also: love the quote from Quinn! 🙂
I just want to add to this discussion that there is a big difference between ‘distinct’ and ‘discrete’. I am a squidgy polytheist. That is, I think deities are distinct but not discrete. They can blend into each other, morph and change. Humans have fuzzy boundaries (we eat and excrete and breathe and make love, our auras blur into the world around us, we change each other with our ideas); deities have fuzzy boundaries too. Also, love the thing about deities being mountains and mist and trees.
I just wanted to point out that you have made some broad generalizations about the hard polytheist community. As a hard polytheist, I felt that your sweeping statements didn’t take into account that some hard polytheists believe, wholeheartedly, that ALL gods (whether they are ours, yours, or John Doe’s) are real. We may not be able to understand your relationships because they do not correlate with ours, but there are quite a few of us who would accept how you refer to yourself and how you explain/worship your deities.
This statement, “For me, the hard polytheist definition of the gods as “separate, discrete and individual beings” is simply too brittle, placing undue focus on exclusionary boundaries and either/or ontological experiences,” made me pause. I am a hard polytheistic Kemetic. And I do believe that my gods are individual, separate, and distinct. However, I am also fully aware that syncretism does, can, and will happen among my gods. Again, it felt not so much that you were erasing certain branches of hard polytheists, but that perhaps you were not aware that some do not work in that specific way.
I just wanted to make you aware of this.
I hope you have a lovely evening.
Thanks for the clarification, Aubs. I certainly don’t mean to mischaracterize or make sweeping generalizations about hard polytheists. From my conversations, the definition I used (hard polytheism as “the belief that the gods are discrete, separate and individual beings”) is pretty much the only one I’ve ever heard get consistent agreement among those who call themselves hard polytheists. From what I understand, this does not preclude the possibility of syncretism, as you point out; but it’s also my understanding that this syncretism is a cultural or contextual understanding of the gods, rather than an ontological one. That is, even when syncretism occurs, the gods are still viewed as ontologically “discrete, separate and individual”. (And for me, that’s where hard polytheism breaks down.) Am I on the right track here, or am I way off-base?
I’d love to hear more about how you reconcile syncretism with hard polytheism. If you’ve written about it on your own blog, please do share links! 🙂
Thank you. I appreciate your expression of how you relate to Gods as you perceive them.
I think that even though the theological disciplines as Christians have created them are very interesting that when we enter into the same sort of “this has to be defined in the TRUE way” gambit we are failing ourselves as people whose spirituality is to be closer to the numinous, to be self-truthful rather than expressing Truth which should be approved, or proven whether by logic or by magic.
I am sad to think that there are those who relate to a spiritual path which perceives the forces of the natural world in such a way as to title it “atheism”. I moarn that. How any of us ever came to hold such a position is beyond my ken.
I thank you all for sharing with each other. I only just came to realise you are doing this. As an old-timer in the Nature Spirituality Movement I’ve pretty much not kept up with all this.
I assure you, there are many kinds of Paganism and many ways in which to relate to the Powers we are calling Gods. Spirituality is as individual as we are though some are more prone to one style and some to another. There is no reason to point the finger and say “Shame to you! You are completely wrong!” Accept that we are different, in our spirituality and in our mythic relationships with whatever means by which we interact with the Gods may occur.
Well… old fogies still sometimes check out what the young ones are up to. I’m suitably impressed. I just hope you’ll be tolerant of each other. It really is ok to be different. The Gods exist whether we are seeing/ relating to Them or not but it’s my impression They enjoy us when we connect.
I think Penny has hit the nail on the head. I have always believed that there are as many paths to divinity as there are seekers. I find your interpretation as interesting as I find Morpheus’. There is no need to argue over anything here. You are both right in your own vision.
Gods protect Paganism from ever becoming “one true right and only” wayers!
And yes Penny, apparently we old fogies do have to check in every now and then to see what the young ones are up to.
I composed a bit of a reply regarding this here:
I think particularly one should note that I’ve never had a problem with your conception of the gods, only that you often seem unfortunately antagonistic towards mine as if I appear to be going too far with them, which may be a similar issue with Morpheus Ravenna’s position.
This seems similar to Traci Laird’s recent argument against recognising messages from animals as being “colonizing BS,” as if someone isn’t able to hold both that a god or an animal or a spirit could be both nameless and named, have agency and be acted upon, exist for itself and also exist on behalf of others. I exist for the gods, for myself, for others, as well as because of others, because of myself, and because of the gods.
So, too, do the gods. And, if anything, I was genuinely excited to hear you speak of your gods, particularly of Blodeuwedd. I don’t think your gods need to be opposed to mine, nor am I aware that they are at war. Rather, the way we experience them is certainly different, defined more by our specific life circumstances, values, and personal choices, and I think also how much of the modern world we choose to embrace (in my case, very little). While I don’t judge people for their choices, I fear that holding on to conceptions of normality and respectability might often get in the way. But I blame no one, because this stuff gets awfully difficult. I just hope that those who would make similar choices that I have won’t fear for their sanity so much some day.
Rhyd, I would like you to show me specifically where you felt I was being “antagonistic towards your gods.”
Because it seems to me that what is actually happening is that my writings seem to you to be similar (on a superficial level) with other things you’ve read. (In your previous post, you compared me to Halstead on what was a very flimsy and misconstrued basis, and now you are comparing me to Laird who, just from the short quote you shared in your comment, is clearly saying something very different from what I’m saying here.) And then you are choosing to see my writing as hostile or antagonistic based on those associations rather than based on what I have actually written. This is what I mean when I criticize you for being too eager to lump people into groups and then projecting opinions or judgments onto the entire group, overlooking the nuances of individuals’ ideas.
I can hardly think of anything more antagonistic than accusing someone of atheism (or atheist “tendencies”) in an attempt to locate them in a category of “others who are against us,” which is what you did to me in your post. You wrote that post after several conversations on G+ where I was open about being a polytheist and where I routinely share links pointing to other polytheistic writers. I even offered to donate money to fund your website because I valued your writing, in particular (as I told you at the time) your willingness to engage with mystical polytheistic experiences, and I wanted to support your work. So at what point, exactly, did you decide that I was being antagonistic? (If I sound angry now, it’s because I am. But I’m angry at you and the politicking you’re engaging in, not your gods or your theology.)
I am sorry you are angry with me.
If I am “politicking,” I am truthfully unaware of it. This is not to say I am not, but I do not understand how I might be. I was recently accused of “wearing the mask of a bumbler,” and this surprised me, as I’m pretty certain I am a bumbler. I was able to explain myself better in that conversation, so I would hope I’d likewise be able to do so here.
To be honest, I was very surprised by the very long footnote regarding the G+ conversation. Again, I was not the only one to have taken your wording of the question regarding free-will and the gods that way, but this may have certainly been all misunderstanding or the question seeming very much like similar questions (by others) which have been antagonistic.
My entire intention in all of this is to help those who experience the gods the way I do not feel like they must be silent. If this means I don’t seem very inclusive, it could be particularly because of my focus. It is certainly possible that I am incautious sometimes, such as my statement about Jungian and middle-class existence in one my Arianrhod pieces to which you took offense. I removed it despite advice from others that I was not being immoderate at all, on account of one person taking offense at it–you.
I do feel, however, that you appear antagonistic towards “hard polytheistic” views, particularly when you make statements such as the suggesting that our gods are treated like superheroes or celebrities, or, again, in that ill-fated G+ question, suggesting that we may not have considered all possibilities. You may not actually be antagonistic, and may find that your words filtered through the internet come across that way, just as I have found that people think I’m a lot more hostile to their experiences that I believe myself to be.
I need to re-iterate that I do not think your gods are not real, as you assert in this essay. Nor do I think you are an atheist or non-theist, or that my gods are more real because they appear to me as discrete individuals. You’ll certainly find that many, many hard polytheists (including folk like Sannion and Gallina) likewise wouldn’t doubt the existence of your gods, either.
And, again, I really like when you talk about them, and think we could all benefit greatly from you speaking more about them. Please do. The more you speak of them, the more you world them into other people’s lives.
And please remember that when I and other “hard polytheists” are talking about our gods, we will talk about them openly in a way that may not always fit the way you see your gods, and because we are also attempting to world them into the earth again, we may come across as a bit intense, particularly when there are so many who not actively deny their existence, but also marginalize anyone who believes in them. We aren’t enemies, we’re allies–my efforts can support yours, I would hope.
And I’d like to re-iterate, that I’d love to have tea when I’m visiting Seattle if you have find yourself with the time.
Having had a chance to read Traci Laird’s post, “Paganism’s Messiah Complex,” I feel that you are mischaracterizing her view as well. In that very paragraph where she discusses human relationships with animals, she says:
“Anthropocentrism creeps in when we, as pagans, view the presence of the Red Moths as somehow specifically and exclusively connected to us, as humans. ” [emphasis added]
Nowhere does Laird say that animals cannot or do not have messages for us, nor does she deny that animals and other beings can be “both nameless and named, have agency and be acted upon, exist for itself and also exist on behalf of others.” She is, in essence, making the very same argument that Ravenna was making in her post about ritual approaches to deity: that when we treat other beings as a tool for our use, we deny them their own unique agency.
That you would so vehemently agree with Ravenna but disagree with Laird makes me wonder if you are actually understanding either of their arguments.
I hope all Pagans realize that each of us makes our own pathway to Deity. Why argue about another’s path? Let us not take up the Christian way of assuming that we know exactly what Deity wants from everyone. Blessed be and Peace within us.
The structure only allows so many comments in a thread, so this is actually a response to Morpheus…
I don’t think she’s trying to represent you so much as launch a dialogue. It’s up to you to represent yourself (or not, as it suits you). But when you “just write [your] blog,” you are entering a public discussion, in public, and other people are going to have responses, which will be informed by their own perspectives and experiences, etc. I see this as a good thing, personally, even when people take off in directions I wasn’t considering. Maybe especially then; I think we, collectively, both inside Pagandom and out, could use a bit more civilized disagreement, as that tends to produce the most interesting results in terms of new ideas and clarity of thinking.
Yeah, the comment thread doesn’t handle more than 4 or 5 replies very well — sorry about that!
I’ll definitely be writing a follow-up post to this one to tease out some of the places where I was off-base in how I understood Morpheus’s original post on ritual, especially in light of her most recent post on approaching polytheist theology from an ecological perspective, a topic near and dear to my heart. Very excited to see how this conversation is developing and evolving!
Right, I realize that came out the wring way. When I said I just wanted to write my blog, I wasn’t meaning that I’m not willing to engage in public discussion about things I write. But it’s seemed to me like a lot of this conversation here is a discussion about things I DIDN’T say, but which have been ascribed to me. That’s frustrating. Being a straw man for an argument that other people are having with each other doesn’t seem like a good use of the time I have for engaging in public discussion of ideas.
Again, Morpehus, you hit the nail on the head. I am most definitely trying to engage with what you didn’t say — that is, what you left unsaid. In other words, there were aspects of your discussion of ritual that I felt had been left out (namely, non-“human-shaped” ways of relating to deity) and that is what I was interested in exploring. Like Sara said, my goal here was not to represent your views (only you can do that), but to use your post as a jumping-off-point for my own thoughts and contemplations, connecting it to similar discussions of ritual and theology that I have seen elsewhere.
But at this point I feel like we’ve gotten hung up on whether or not I should be expected to be able to speak for you as well as you can speak for yourself (and the obvious answer there is, no, of course not). I’m much more interested in moving the conversation forward to a more interesting topic. For instance, even though it turns out we agree a lot about theology, we still disagree about how it applies to and expresses itself in ritual. That, to me, is far more interesting… You can definitely expect a follow-up on that from me!
This topic *must* be in the air. I recently bumped into it, from another direction: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/asenseofplace/2014/01/messiah-complex/
I am not polytheist, hard or soft; rather, I identify as an animist, but the same issues trouble me. I’m approaching anthropocentricsm as a vestige of the western world view, and wondering whether it is antithetical to our structuring of a pagan world view. Of course, it is possible human-persons thought themselves special, or privileged, in antiquity, but I still don’t believe it serves us.
You’re the third person who has pointed me towards that “Messiah Complex” post as one that picks up a similar theme (I haven’t read it yet), although the other two folks who compared it to my post seemed pretty angry, feeling attacked simply for being grounded in their own human experiences. I do agree that anthropocentrism (in its usual sense of humans-as-the-measure-of-all-things) is an inheritance that we need and must grapple with if we are to have a viable future as citizens of this planet. But I hope nothing I’ve written here suggests that we should therefore be “anti-human” or hostile towards experiences that are rooted in our unique perspective as humans. If anything, I think being truer to the diversity and complexity of our human experiences (including our experiences of the more-than-human world that presses itself upon us in all directions) is what will lead us away from a starved anthropocentrism and towards a richer appreciation and connection with the natural world.
Disclaimer: I am the author of that article. lol. When I said, “I bumped into it”, I meant, I literally tackled this topic briefly from a different angle. I don’t think I attacked anyone’s experience, so I certainly don’t think you are. Though, for those who felt attacked, I would love to discuss it and find out how we *can* talk about.
I think examining world view can feel uncomfortable. Frameworks and ways of conceptualizing the world that are shaped from birth, within culture, feel normal and natural. Challenging ourselves to step out, and look back from a different perspective, is important though, especially if we take exception with the dominant paradigm. It may be that we reclaim some of those frameworks, after having peeled the onion, but to never have untangled those threads before donning a new set of clothes (changing religion) can give us paganism through the lens of western christianity, which is what ultimately shaped the western world view.
Even for someone like me, who is an animist, I try to find ways of understanding the experiences of my polytheist friends. Often, as I listen to them talk, I see images of the primal elements, falling and dancing, loving and fighting, birthing the world we call home. For me, those elements are conscious beings; possessing a perception and life so alien from my own, I can not fathom it. But it’s easy for me to see them as the ancient gods my friends speak of, for clearly — at least it seems clear to me — if I can talk to my friends (conscious being that I am, made of the same star stuff), then Helium can speak to my friend, as well. This is simplistic, to the extreme almost, but it does provide me a common ground to have conversation.
Aha! 🙂 Well, I’m glad I didn’t stick my foot too far into my mouth, then.
I’ll definitely have to check out your post, since the mentions of it going around have been, well, let’s just say not nearly as measured as your comments here certainly seem to be…. Always a sign that there is probably some misunderstandings going on. And yes, totally agree, challenging deeply held assumptions about the world can be incredibly difficult and stir up all sorts of feelings of insecurity, panic and confusion.
I wonder — have you read Emma Restall Orr’s recent book on animism, The Wakeful World? I’ve been thinking about trying to round up some fellow animists from different perspectives and see if we might do a “book club” kind of thing where each of us blogs about a chapter or something? Animism is still a very challenging concept for me, although it resonates strongly with my own ecological approach to polytheism. I want to spend some more time exploring those resonances more deeply…
I have that one, and am a quarter way through. It’s fabulous! She approaches it philosophically, and seems to be quite thorough. It’s one of those books I read a few pages of, then percolate on for a week — much like Abram’s ‘Spell of the Sensuous’. Please let me know if you form a book club. I would be interested in participating.
I think that it very, very difficult for us human practitioners to go beyond the boundaries of what makes us human. We do the sorts of rituals that people can do. We don’t do the sorts of rituals that beings other than people do. If beings other than people do rituals at all.
I find that, these days, I am less inclined to consider myself a polytheist (even though I have been one for most of my life) and more inclined to consider myself–in relation to Deities, Guardians, Powers, etc.–a mutualist or commensalist. We humans exist with other beings who are not human. We probably can act to enjoy a good relationship or suffer a bad one. I’m mostly going for good ones.
Even if I’m fooling myself–because Deities aren’t actually people…
A beautiful day! I read this article and the one by Morpheus as I am an avid follower of both blogs. I have at times shared both your blog entries with other members of my Grove. Both make excellent points, but I would like to throw some other ideas for consideration into the ring.
My druidry as an “ADFer” is informed by both scholarship and personal gnosis and inspiration. Though we are missing much of ancient Celtic theology, one thing we know for sure is the idea that they had a concept of “gods” and of the “not-gods” . This to me speaks to animism and what we term “nature spirits” in ADF. I tend to hard polytheism in thought and practice, but also believe strongly in the “not-gods” or nature spirits. Alison, in your essay you ask about the mountain and the mists and in your mind (it seems to me) classify them as “gods”. I however, classify them as nature spirits. Though powerful entities in their own right, they are not gods. I do not mean to imply that they less deserving of worship either, only that they are of a different grouping. Being nature spirits, they inhabit and share this “middle world” with us, and this allows us to interact with them more easily and in ways then it is with what I consider the gods. In my personal practice there are times when I do rituals to honor the gods, and times that I do rituals to honor a particular nature spirit.
As to the idea of anthropomorphism, generally I don’t have a problem with people visualizing the gods and nature spirits with humanoid characteristics. I believe that the gods and spirits though distinct individuals do not necessarily have a “true form”, and that in those moments when we experience communion with a god or nature spirit our minds put their own form on them. I do agree that thinking they have the same wants, desires, and motivations that we do is problematic and can lead one into trouble quickly. Anthropocentrism is a very limited view of the gods and spirits, yet a very natural human thing to do.
Also in your blog post, though you correctly point out problems of anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, you fail to identify techniques to get beyond these mental “ruts”. I personally have found Shamanic techniques and the art of shamanic journeys very helpful in making me see things from a non human perspective. On a similar note, you seem to indicate that you feel the hospitality model for working with the gods falls short, what then would you replace it with? What, in your mind, is a better way to do it??
Thanks for this wonderful and thoughtful response, Davin! 🙂
I really appreciate the point you’re making about the difference between “gods” and “not-gods” (nature spirits, etc.). That’s something that I continue to explore through my own approaches to both polytheism and animism, and it’s an area where I don’t have very many clear answers, at least not yet. When I talk about “gods like mountains,” however, I don’t mean to say that the mountains themselves are gods. It’s true, there are some mountains (or forests, or rivers, etc.) that I experience and think of as gods, but there are also mountains and rivers that I experience as more like the “nature spirits” you mention. On top of that, I’ve also had experiences with gods which are not literal mountains, and yet they are more “mountain-shaped” than they are “human-shaped” (that is, gods that are not nature spirits tied to particular landscapes here in this middle world, but which are also not anthropomorphic). In other words, although there is a difference for me between “gods” and “nature spirits,” the difference is not defined by how human-shaped those beings are in the ways they express themselves or the ways I experience them. (What exactly the difference is is something I’m still working to discover and articulate!)
Also, you’re totally right that I didn’t really offer very many alternatives in this post! I have written about other ways of approaching ritual and worship before (for instance, this post on celebratory ritual that I linked to above, and this post on the contemplative practice of Lectio Divina in a Pagan context, and there’s also this post which, although not about ritual, is in a way about pushing beyond a “hospitality model” in our relationships with both deities and the natural world)… but it’s true that I don’t tend to write very much about my own ritual practices in this blog in general.
This post, and all of the fascinating conversation it’s provoked!, has inspired me to remedy that lack. So you can count on me writing more about that topic in the future! In fact, I already have a follow-up post to this one in the works… 🙂 I hope you’ll come back and share your thoughts and feedback on those future posts as well!