Thursday, November 27, 2008

Polytheism 2

Here's the article I wrote to answer the "Anti-Neo-Pagan Apologetics" article on the Catholic Answers web page. I'll be having a busy Thanksgiving - this long piece will give people with some free time something to chew on. I greatly encourage critique on this incidentally...
In Gratitude for Blessings, on this Feast
The Nature of the Gods
Some comments from neopaganism pages, answered. Original Author in italics:

Many neo-pagans advance the claim that there should not be a single world religion with a single deity or set of deities to be worshiped by all mankind, but rather each group should worship the gods of their ancestors or of their preference.

To be more specific, neopaganism asserts that there is plainly not a single deity or set of deities that is worshiped by all mankind. Simple observation of the human interaction with the divine shows that the divine always manifests as multiple persons, forms and beings. In the same way, the core and universal principles of physical nature always produce multiple physical entities. As always, neopagans look to the facts of nature as a model for what the facts of spiritual existence will be.

The plain fact of the multiplicity of divine manifestations has led monotheism into some pretty wild assertions. The notion that all forms of the divine except those described in whoever’s revealed scripture are either simply fantasy or demons has been the traditional resort of the argument. Again, observation fails to support this idea. Descriptions of human relationships with the many-armed, skull-wearing deities of India, or the Gods of Voudoun and West African religion, or the still-simmering Neopagan relationships with the Deities all make it clear that such beings bless and aid their worshippers as surely as the deities of the Bible or Quran ever have.

When we look at material nature, we see a nearly infinite variety of forms and local expressions. In the same way the spiritual world has a riot of gods, local spirits, flows of energy and sacred potentials, which are expressed locally.
This claim creates a problem for the neo-pagan understanding of the gods, and it is fair for the Catholic apologist to point it out. Consider the implications that arise, depending on how the gods were interpreted. There would seem to be four basic ways of making sense of the claim that different people should worship different pagan pantheons: 1. The gods of different peoples really aren’t different but should be identified with each other (e.g., Zeus = Jupiter = Odin). 2. There are a great many individual gods governing different peoples. 3. The gods are projections created in some sense by the peoples that worship them. 4. The gods are merely symbols or aspects of something else.

These questions were examined by the ancients as well. It’s worth pointing out that neopaganism, like its ancient models, does not depend on or require doctrinal unity for its cohesion. Pagan ways depend on ritual, vision and myth to produce experiences that are plainly true at the time. These experiences are not required to fit neatly into a doctrinal structure, and doctrine is more likely to be shaped by such experiences than the reverse. Paganism spends a great deal of time teaching how to achieve these experiences, and rather less time on apologetics and doctrine.

Devout Pagans are not all expected to believe the same things about the Gods, though we are expected to be willing to join together around the traditional forms and practices. So in any Pagan congregation (or party…) you will be likely to find folks with any of the above opinions, and lots of folks who haven’t decided on any one opinion about what the Gods are. There might be rather more agreement about what the Gods do – provide blessings of bounty, love and wisdom, open our hearts to the spirit, help us grow closer to the spirit of the world we live in, etc.
1. If the gods of different religions are to be identified with each other, then it would not seem that there are meant to be different religions among peoples but only different rites used to worship the same set of gods. This would be especially problematic for Asatruers, who often wish to view their gods as distinct from the gods of other people. A problem for all neo-pagans would be that it is highly implausible that the deities of many pantheons can be identified with each other.

The study of mythography and lore is pretty specialized in Paganism, as the province those few who really concern themselves with it. Most Pagans are concerned with their relationship with specific personal and local forms of the Gods. In ancient days even the deities with broad cultural presence were usually addressed in their specific and local forms, often involving attaching a place-name to the big name – Diana of Ephesus, a figure quite different from the ‘Diana’ one might read of in a primer of Greek myth, is an example.

There are some schools of reconstructionist Paganism that try to find in local deities specific and distinct individual deities in every case. There is little reason, in examining the scraps of thought we have from the ancient Pagans, to agree with this notion. The ancients clearly speculated on how many Gods there might be (‘one’ wasn’t on the list of options), and whether (for example) the Gods of Rome were the same persons as those of the Gauls or Germans. Since Paganism does not depend on having proven answers to such questions, no great attention was paid to reaching agreement on the answer.
For example, in Greek and Roman paganism, the kings of the gods (Zeus and Jupiter) are in control of thunder, but the thunder god in Germanic paganism is Thor, who is not the king of the gods (that would be Odin). Similarly, in Indo-European paganisms, the sky god tends to be masculine and the earth goddess feminine, but this is reversed in Egyptian mythology. It seems impossible to establish a universal paganism treating each individual pantheon as merely a different expression of the same set of independently real, non-symbolic beings.
Conveniently, the closer together peoples dwell, the more likely their Gods are to resemble one another, both individually and in organization. So, among the Hellenes and Latins, whose histories were entwined so tightly, we find the thunder-king; while in the north, among the Celts and Germans we find the power of magic and wisdom – in Wodan and Lugos – on the throne. It is these very differences that have lead Pagan thinkers to suspect that the Gods are very numerous indeed.

The desire for ‘universal’ religion is a monotheist thing. In Neopaganism, no deity is or can be universal – divinity’s manifestations are local. The Earth and the Sky are not the same around the world – one place moist, another dry, fertile or barren, safe or dangerous. There is no reason to think that divine manifestation would be any more homogenous.
2. If the gods of each paganism aren’t to be identified, then there would seem to be multiple deities for every aspect of nature.

There are multiple material manifestations of every aspect of nature. Why wouldn’t there be multiple spiritual ones as well?

Each people will have its own thunder god, its own vegetation god, et cetera. This leads to an implausible situation in many cases.

Implausible compared to what? It is only the rote assumption that ‘spiritual’ reality must transcend the local that brings up any problem.

If Thor controls the thunder in Scandinavia, why should neo-pagans of Norse descent in America pray to him? Why shouldn’t they pray to an American Indian thunder deity who controls the local thunder? Further, our solar system has only one sun. Just how many sun gods can there be?

All these questions have been asked by ancient Pagans as well. Again, observation shows that it is simply so – explaining it is an ongoing task.

One of the core principles of Pagan theology is that spiritual reality is symbolic reality, by definition. Truths about spiritual things are seldom, maybe never, literal truths. All spiritual manifestation is symbolic – it can vary at the will of the being involved, or vary depending on the ability or inclination of the human who perceives it. So, whether the deities are vastly many or fewer, they will appear in local fashion as proper to the time and place.

3. A theory advanced by some is that the gods are in some sense projections of or creations of their worshipers. If the gods were projections, then today of all days the gods would seem to have only tiny power because of tiny number of their followers. It would be difficult to imagine such beings as worthy of worship.

Any being that blesses us is worthy of worship. The conceit that worship is to be reserved for the highest and mightiest is one of the great failings of monotheism.

The time of the Gods does not seem to be the same as mortal time. The ancient Gods, and the land-spirits and ancestors, were worshipped for many millennia. A break of one millennium is hardly enough to make them unavailable to their modern worshippers.

It also should also be noted that no historic pagans seem to have held this view of their deities. It would seem to be a modern idea—some might even say an intellectually desperate, last-ditch idea—introduced to insulate polytheism from the intellectual problems that otherwise arise for it.

I agree that this is a modern idea. Many Neopagans are rejecting this, along with Jungian and archetypal definitions of deity, in favor of a more personal relationship with real spiritual beings. However one may be, in fact, a materialist and participate whole-heartedly in Pagan ways. If the Gods exist only in our minds, and religion is a structure of mind that helps us gain surprising results from our minds, then it’s worth doing.
4. Finally, some suppose that the gods do not have independent, objective reality but are just symbols. The question is: symbols of what?
It is a symptom of the disease of modernism to use the phrase ‘just symbols’. Symbols frequently have more objective, independent effect than trucks or stones. The Gods *are* symbols – they are persons who are symbols. Their symbolic nature is one of their great spiritual powers, and Pagans honor that, even as we work personally with the spirits. They are symbols of the highest aspects of ourselves, of the inner spiritual reality behind material life, of the inspiration from and aspiration toward the divine.
On the one hand, if they are symbols of nature and natural forces, then it is difficult to see why they should be worshiped. Electricity is part of nature, but if one does not worship it when it comes from a light socket, it is difficult to see why one should worship it when one imagines and names a symbolic thunder god to represent it.
Worship means ritualized respect. To learn to respect and honor the natural world that sustains and supports us seems only wise. The western idea of dead matter has lead only to ill, and neopagans hope to cure those ills with an organic spirituality that recognizes the animistic spiritual presence within matter itself.

Further, the empirical evidence seems to show that the universe itself does not have a mind or a personality. Only by looking beyond nature—to the God who designed nature—can one find transcendent value worthy of worship.
Polytheism would agree that the universe does not have a mind – it has many minds, all working together to make the great pattern that is existence. Ancient Pagan creation tales never describe one creator of all things. Even when there is a Prime Mover, that Mover is never the all-powerful owner-operator-creator of the Whole Deal. Different deities and spirits create different things, from animals to local land-features to cities and temples.

Again, the notion that only the transcendent is worthy of worship is unique to monotheism, and poisonous to a natural relationship with the spiritual world. Pagans learn to respect the spirit in all things, and the spirits of all things, and the Gods and Goddesses who are the mightiest of the spirits. It’s worship all the way down…

On the other hand, if the answer is given that the gods are symbols of a fundamental spiritual reality that transcends the physical world, then it would seem (since all independent status already has been denied to the gods by rejecting the three alternatives just considered) that one is left with a form of fundamental monotheism that is only cloaked with polytheistic symbols.
Nature transcends local manifestation in some ways, but in practice it is the local manifestation of nature that we deal with. Spiritual matters are likewise. Paganism has often speculated about the Oneness of all things. However this has never lead Pagan philosophers to propose that there is only One Person who is worthy of worship. If there is an all-one reality, it transcends personhood, or good and ill, or male and female, or being and nonbeing. Such an existence is not related in any way to the monotheist notion of ‘God’.
That being the case, why should one use the symbols? Why not worship the Creator directly and explore the question of whether he cares for and has spoken to man, as monotheism has historically claimed?

Mainly because the claims made for the ‘creator’ of the various monotheisms don’t hold water. Most notably, the various monotheisms do not, themselves, agree on the name, nature, deeds or desires of their alleged ‘one god’. Starting there, and with the plain failure of monotheism to describe religous experience as humans know it, there seems no reason to accept monotheism’s assertions.


Rob Henderson said...

Good stuff! Prepare to be quoted by other pagans. A lot. >8)

Stephane Lavoie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephane Lavoie said...

We are again dealing with different perspectives on a subject. One sees the glass half-full, another half-empty, one with a glass containing a liquid etc... But parties on all sides will never admit to that, to the fact that they do not hold the ABSOLUTE truth. It is a big flaw in man (as a race) to not accept that we are all different, see the wolrld different and that that is how it was meant to be. Live and let live... I have given up (mostly) on giving my pov on the matter since the end result is hostility, denigration and hate.