Deep Ecology, Holy Wild

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.

Book Crazy

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.

Next: Defining Anthropocentrism

Earth Wind Water, by Christopher Beikmann
Deep Ecology, Featured, Holy Wild, Theology

Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist

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.

Earth Wind Water, by Christopher Beikmann

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?

God Of The Mountain, by Tim Johnson

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.

Photo Credits:
• “Earth Wind Water,” by Christopher Beikmann © 2007 [Purchase a print here]
• “Mountain God,” by Timothy Johnson © 2010 [source]

Muse in Brief

Natural Theology: Polytheism Beyond the Pale » No Unsacred Place

In my latest post over on No Unsacred Place, I explore in more detail what it means to take an ecological approach to polytheism through the concept of “natural theology,” and the kinds of tough questions that this kind of inquiry might challenge us to ask:

Ecology does not reject the hard sciences that came before it, but brings together and expands upon them. In this same way, natural polytheism draws on an ecological approach to theology to build upon the insights of hard polytheism, challenging us to deepen our relationships with the gods by asking more challenging questions about their relationships with us, with each other and with the natural world. Natural polytheism does not reject hard polytheism any more than natural history excludes hard sciences like biology, geology or chemistry by embracing ecology. But it does draw connections and invite us to think about the world holistically, as systems nested within systems, wholes nested within wholes. An ecological perspective can deepen our scientific understanding of the world by moving us beyond the questions “What is it?” and “How does it work?” to the more challenging questions, “How come?” and “What for?”

In the same way, natural polytheism isn’t content merely to name the gods and identify their associations, symbols and spheres of influence. It challenges us to ask: How did the gods come to be the way they are? How do the gods relate to each other, within cultures and across cultural boundaries? What is the cultural, physical or spiritual reason why this particular deity manifests in this way but not that way, embodies these associations or symbols but not those?

Can you be both a hard polytheist and a natural polytheist? How does natural theology provoke our curiosity about our relationship with the gods and deepen our understanding of their place in our lives? Why do the “tough questions” even matter?

You can read the full article here.