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.