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July 30, 2014

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Postpagan Ceremony & Ecology: “Raven and the Meaning of Meaninglessness” by Glen Gordon

July 27, 2014

On the autumnal equinox of 2008, I took a random drive through the Clearwater Mountains of northern Idaho. Along the way, the firs gave way to lodge pole pine, and I could see patches of ground where trees have been cut and places where young saplings, planted to replenish wood supplies, struggled against the bright autumn sun. I rolled down the window.  The crisp alpine breeze was the sound of the world calling my name. The sunlight bounced from the road, and I looked around to take in the world. As I drove along the ridge of the Clearwater Mountains, the world became surprisingly level, and I slowed down to observe. I pulled into a dirt turnabout at the head of a “T” intersection near an old dilapidated sign and got out of the car to check my roadmap.  As I contemplated my choices, a raven perched on the sign a few yards away.

Raven cocked his head, looked at me with his black pebbled eyes, and ruffled his feathers. He looked down the road toward Pierce, and then up the road to Headquarters.  He gave a string of calls as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and then unfolded his wings, lifting himself to the air to fly toward Headquarters.  I folded my map and entered my car.  I followed Raven.  I drove through a small community of a few houses and a ranger station and came to a sportsman’s access sign for Deer Creek Reservoir.  I slowed down and found Raven perched on top.  He gave a shrill call and flew down the dirt road.

I turned onto the gravel pathway and watched the swirls of dust kick up behind my car.  I turned a blind bend, and a young fawn pranced out of the trees and followed alongside me.  The sun highlighted its white rump, and I watched its elegant dance in awe, its spindly legs bending and lifting its body into the air.  It swerved back into the woods and I found myself entering the sportsman’s access.  Two or three picnic tables rested on the side of a reservoir.  A parked car was in front of one, and around the bend two young men unloaded a fishing boat from their truck.

The waters of the reservoir reflected shards of light from the sun. I felt free of the upcoming algebra test, the writing assignments, and the constant to-do list, caught in the moment like a leaf slowly falling from a tree.  Berated and beaten by normality, I imagined myself St. Elmo fleeing to Mt. Lebanon, and this place a morsel of food, a gift of compassion from Raven to nourish me back to health.

I walked along a trail following the water’s edge, passing a lone fisherman who waved hello.  A short distance and I found myself walking an old logging road, foliaged over from neglect.  I crawled and ducked under fallen trees and found myself in a clearing where trees had been scorched by fire.  Those not burnt and dead had been cut down leaving tree carcasses strewn about haphazardly like they had perished in a battle.  I entertained the thought that Raven brought me here to see the destruction amidst the beauty.  Like the hydroelectric damns clogging river ways and damaging the salmon population, the swaths of clear cut trees was the result of the mechanism of society providing power and lumber.  I looked again, and between the dead trees and stumps, I could see the life of saplings growing and thriving.  I knew with time they would be tall and strong.

I melted into the landscape, moved to sing.  On these occasions, the song is not something recalled from childhood or in any language.  It is sound for the sake of making sound.  When I am suspended in a moment of mindfulness, I feel the need to make sound.  I rarely remember the sounds and the song is never the same.  It soothed me and moved me to action. I retrieved the pouch of rolling tobacco from within my jacket and moved from tree stump to tree stump leaving small piles of tobacco as offerings of gratefulness.  I entered the old growth forest and I found a raven’s feather laying on a stump.  I placed the feather between the cracks of the wood, letting it rest upright. I  left one more tobacco pile as I finished the final notes of my nonsense song of mindfulness.

I walked deeper into the forest and away from the reservoir.  The frustrations of moving to a new place surfaced.  Like the river, paths in my life had been dammed.  My funding for college as an out-of-state student in Colorado had came to an end and forced me to drop out.  I drifted from squatting in an old house in Salt Lake City to living with a friend in San Antonio, but I could never find substantial work.  The difficulty of being a stranger was like the reborn social awkwardness I felt as a child.  I found it hard to accept that I was back in Idaho.  I had run away many times, always being pulled back.  When I live in Idaho, I become inert like reservoir water gathering in the basin between two mountains; I forget the serenity around me.  I found solace in the fact that I was living in a part of the state I had never seen before.  I arched my back to face the sky and I let the frustration escape my mouth in a roar.  Then I stood in silence, listening to my anguish echo back at me.

I slumped on a fallen tree and listened to the birds chatter around me in their hidden perches among the evergreens.  I heard a distant call of Raven and looked up to see him circling overhead.  I raised my hands to my mouth to funnel my voice, and I talked back, “Kaw Ka-Kaw Kaw.”  Raven responded, “Kaw, Ka-Kaw, Kaw.”  He continued to circle above me.  Beneath the sun, I could see his silhouette against the blaze of light.

I sat upon the fallen tree and responded again to Raven’s call, loosing myself in conversation.  In that moment, time had no meaning to me.  I listened intently to each response.  I cannot say what was shared between us.  It was not like the conversations I have with humans, constructed with thoughts molded into words.  This was different, the simple sound released all the frustrations, tension, loneliness, isolation, uncertainties, and anxieties I felt.  When Raven responded, these feelings where validated.  The sky darkened with rain clouds, and Raven became bored with me.  The birds in the trees had become silent, and I knew that was my cue to leave.

I often speculate that Raven was imparting important knowledge to me during our conversation on that autumnal equinox.  If so, I have only grasped a fraction of its meaning.  However, as Raven is prone to do, he could have been playing with me and singing nonsense.  Maybe that nonsense has as much meaning as my own nonsense songs — a meaning outside of conventional thought and understanding and encoded in an intuitive language of the living world.  After all, the world sprang from the waters of Chaos, and Raven was there.

The Author

Glen Gordon was introduced to Paganism by friends while living overseas in Europe during the late 90′s. He underwent both Wiccan and Neodruidic training during his formative years, but had not self-identified as a Pagan when his path diverged into land-centered spiritual naturalism ten years ago. His focus has been on cultivating beneficial relationships with the natural living world surrounding him wherever he lives. During this time, he discovered Unitarian Universalism and has been active in his local congregations for many years. Since 2007, he has worked on varied projects regarding BioRegional Animism, including this 5 minute video, the words of which came from a short UU sermon he gave. He has spoken on the topic of ecology and the land on a few occasions for his local congregation and facilitated a now-disbanded group of UU Pagans and spiritual naturalists. In the past, he maintained the blog, Postpagan, and is excited to share some of that material at HumanisticPaganism. Currently, you can find Glen writing occasionally for No Unsacred Places and helping achieve Green sanctuary status for his beloved UU community, where he helps create and lead ecological aware earth- and land- focused ceremonies for the solstices and equinoxes.

See other Postpagan Ceremony & Ecology posts.

See Glen Gordon’s other posts.

Call for Book Review: Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel

July 25, 2014

If you have read or would like to read Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, and write a review for Humanistic Paganism, contact the editor here.

From the Amazon book description:

The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.
Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.

In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.

“Godlessness and the Sacred Universe” by Crafter Yearly

July 23, 2014

The Loss of the Gods

When I was first introduced to Paganism, I was 16. I had been, in a sense, taken in by a Pagan family. Their Paganism was eclectic—influenced by Wicca, Feri, and the Reclaiming tradition, as well as B.’s Native American heritage and spirituality. The Paganism I first learned was an Earth-based spirituality, but one in which the primary myth through which to connect to the Earth was the Wiccan myth of the lifecycle progression of the Goddess and God.

Since I came to Paganism primarily through that myth, I naturally assumed that belief in the Goddess and the God was a necessary component of Pagan practice. As I began to participate in ritual with their circle, I witnessed the goddesses and gods of various pantheons called out and invoked. Eventually, I came to think that being properly Pagan required belief in at least some gods and goddesses. And so I set out in search of a pantheon to which I could connect myself.

My great-grandparents on both sides were immigrants. On my father’s side, they came from Ireland. On my mother’s, from Sweden. And so I naïvely assumed that I would feel some kind of deep connection to the Celtic and/or Norse gods and they would play a central role in my Paganism going forward. I did what I could at 16 or 17 to learn about the spiritual practices of my ancestors, and recover what I could about their gods, goddesses, myths, and rituals. Where information was lacking, I tried intuitive connection. I tried to call out to them, and I heard no answer. I tried to visualize them, and could see nothing. After trying my hardest, no matter what I did, I felt nothing.

What I came to realize about myself is that it is simply not in my constitution to believe in gods and goddesses as actual beings with personalities and narratives of battles and romances and petty squabbles among them. I can appreciate them as cultural symbols, as mythological characters that speak to the experience of a people located in a particular time and place. But I cannot honestly see gods and goddesses as anything other than products of the imagination of humans. We made them; they did not make us.

My realization that I could not believe in goddesses and gods put an end to my burgeoning Paganism. Since I associated Paganism with belief in deities, I felt I could no longer be at home in the Pagan community. And this was a great loss for me. In the Pagan community I had found the first examples of adult womanhood that spoke to me. In B., my mentor, I had found a woman who was fierce, intelligent, creative, sexual, loving, exuberant, and deep. I had found married couples—heterosexual and not—that were truly egalitarian and celebrated each others’ unique powers. I had found a circle of open and artistic people, who practiced together even though they served different gods and believed different myths. I had found a deep experience of beauty and wonder in the ritual practices and warmth in the togetherness that came from being in the circle.

I mourned the loss of Pagan community. I felt a deep absence in my life. But I was also unwilling to fake belief in goddesses and gods. I could not be inauthentic in that way.

After leaving the Pagan community, I spent a few years studying meditation. I read Buddhist and Hindu texts. I started learning what I could about physics. And it was through this combination of meditation and physics that I found my way back home to the Pagan community. Instead of in goddesses and gods, I found sacredness in the structure and process of the universe. It is this sense of the sacred that grounds my Pagan practice.

The Sacred Universe Regained

Contemporary physics tells us that the universe began denser, hotter, and smaller than most humans are capable of even imagining. All matter/energy in the universe at that moment was together and relatively uniform. It was the pure potential out of which all objects and beings would be born.

As the universe expanded, it also became less and less uniform. What began out of only two elements became increasingly diverse. New elements were formed out of the life and death of stars. Eventually, stars were joined by planets. Over billions of years, the universe that was once characterized by its uniformity, heat, and small size grew and changed. Diversity had begun to emerge alongside development.

The Earth was formed. It too went though periods of tremendous transformations. Meteorites rained down on the earth. Continents broke apart and collided. In the oceans, eventually, life formed. As life progressed, it too became increasingly diverse. Life took on multiple forms that would eventually either evolve or die off.

My sense of the sacred comes from the fact that, with sentience in humans and perhaps other animals, the universe has evolved to be able to recognize itself. As physical beings, we are made from the elements birthed in the stars. We are part of the Earth. Life emerged out of the chemicals on her surface. We exist because of the long chain of evolution and life’s generous diversity with respect to forms. So, not only are we connected in deep and meaningful ways to all things in the universe and in the world. It is also in us (and potentially in other beings) that the universe, through our sentience, is able to gaze upon herself. Our sentience allows us to witness the majesty from which we come. And this witnessing, this recognition of our interconnectedness and embeddedness, grounds my sense of the sacred.

Biologists and other life scientists speak of a common ancestor for all life, LUCA. But our commonality, the oneness that grounds our existence goes back much further. All the way back. All the way back to the mysterious, dense, hot beginnings of the universe. Our story begins at that moment. Together. With everything that has ever been and everything that ever will be. That knowledge is awe inspiring to me. It fills me with deep wonder and gratitude. The oneness of all things, our eventual emergence, our dependence and interconnection with the Earth. To me, this is the Sacred. To me, this is divine.

For some, this sense of the sacred might not seem particularly Pagan, since my experience of the divine is not grounded in some external personality or authority. But the values I came to hold in Pagan community and the energy states I experienced in Pagan practice thoroughly pervade my spiritual experiences. In their eclectic circle, I learned reverence for the earth, the interconnectedness of all beings, a deep love and for the wisdom and beauty of the life cycle—of birth, growth, death, and decay. In circle and in meditations guided by my mentor, I felt the warm peace and ecstasy that comes from the experience of union with the universe. I may have given up on finding the goddesses and gods. But I have reclaimed and rediscovered those values and experiences that I think most importantly capture the spirit of Paganism through a naturalistic, Earth-based practice.

All of this is perhaps only a very long winded way of saying what Neil Degrasse Tyson may have said best: “Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.”

The Author

Crafter Yearly earned a PhD in political philosophy and now works as a professor at a teaching institution in the midwest. Her research is in the areas of antiracism, feminism, and social constructivism. She was introduced to Paganism by Wiccans, but has come over time to adopt a purely naturalistic reverence for the Earth and the Universe. She lives her Paganism by celebrating the movements of the sun and the moon, connecting to the cycles of the earth through crafting handmade goods, and connecting to her body through yoga and dance. Crafter Yearly maintains a blog at:

DE NATURA DEORUM: “Polytheism, Emergence and the One” by Gus DiZerega

July 20, 2014

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published at Gus DiZerega’s blog, Pointedly Pagan.  Readers are reminded of HP’s comment policy: This site is for constructive expression and debate. Comments of a harassing or discriminatory nature will be deleted.

Patheos has had some ‘intense conversations’ about polytheism.  Some radical polytheists claimed only their position could coherently be called polytheistic. Others, and I was one, denied this was so. A great deal of discussion centered on past and present Pagan practice, but little focused on the actual nature of polytheism. Recently Christopher Scott Thompson did an excellent historical and philosophical analysis of the relationship between polytheism and monism.  My post complements his, coming at the issue from the perspective of recent discoveries in contemporary science.

The crucial link in my argument came to me while I was not focused on these kinds of issues. I was writing a chapter for an academic anthology exploring the relations of individuals and society.  When I had finished I realized I also had found a way to make better sense of how we and the Gods relate to the One. And I could relate it to fascinating discoveries in biology.

Individuals in society

A long debated issue in the social sciences is how individuals relate to society given that individuals exist and every individual seems to be an expression of his or her society and times. Individualists claimed that a clear understanding could come from focusing on how individuals interacted, an approach called “methodological individualism.”

Like methodological individualism, most opponents are reductionist, arguing a different fundamental unit or relation explains all that is truly most important in society. Individuals are expressions of deeper causes. For Marxists it is class relations.  For racists it is people’s race.  For nationalists it is their national identity.  For some psychoanalytic perspectives individuals are reducible to basic unconscious drives.  And so on.

A small academic industry has arisen as advocates of each of these views, including the methodological individualists, attack weaknesses in the others.  It’s gone on for over 100 years.

In terms of my present discussion methodological individualism can be equated with radical polytheism, the claim the Gods are radically distinct from one another and there is no One from which everything somehow emerges. The solution to the problem of what individuals are is remarkably similar to a logical theory of polytheism.

I think the first clear step freeing ourselves from this endless debate was made by two sociologists during the 60s, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann,  in their The Social Construction of Reality they argued understanding either individuals or society required understanding how three things (they called them “moments”) operated simultaneously: that individuals are social creations, that society is created by individuals, and the crucial link, that society is an objective reality.  By “objective reality” they meant that when we start becoming socialized as infants and children terms such as “mother” or “father”  that are social constructions, are as real to us as trees and rocks.  As we grow up to some degree we free ourselves from this view, as when we learn other societies have different views of the role of mother or father, but we always do so only partially and piece meal.

All three processes are always going on. From this perspective individuals are emergent expressions of complex relations rather than some basic unit that gathers together with others like itself to form society.  In fact, Berger and Luckmann described both societies and individuals as patterns emerging from relationships, each helping to create the other. This was a kind of ecological perspective though they did not use the term.

It is now turning out that even the individual physical organism shares fascinating similarities with Berger and Luckmann’s sociological description. This insight began to take shape again in the 60s, when Lynn Margulis confirmed endosymbiosis theory, that key organelles of eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus) originated from symbiotic relations between once separate single-celled prokaryotic organisms, such as bacteria. The cells that make up our bodies consist of simpler cells who have become more complex organisms while still to some degree maintaining their own identity.

Far from evolution being generated only by competitive relations, it was also a deeply cooperative process. Margulis even suggested that ultimately cooperation would prove to be more fundamental to evolution than competition. Amazing as Margulis’s research was at the time, no one then imagined how far this breakdown of what we regarded as irreducible individuality would eventually go, or just how prescient her suggestion would prove.

There is a huge difference between an amoeba and a fish, although the amoeba is a eukaryotic cell and a fish is shaped by such cells.  A major difference is that fish, and other complex multicellular organisms are made possible through their cells’ ability to form different tissues.  But how did this ability arise?  Today, at least so far as has now been discovered, the origins of cells’ capacity to form tissues such as skin and bone is derived from viruses.   Parts of viruses were incorporated into a cell, thereby making tissue formation possible.

We are also learning that bacteria form essential components  of our bodies, performing tasks necessary for us to live, such as synthesizing vitamins, digesting food, and protecting against pathogens.  We might not be able to survive without bacteria to perform these tasks, and many of them cannot survive outside us.    Each person has perhaps 1000 species of benign to beneficial bacteria, possessing far more DNA variability than our strictly mammalian body, and the bacterial mix differs with each person.

These patterns of relationship have undermined the traditional idea of what constituted an organism and convinced many biologists we should really be considered ecosystems.   Other biologists prefer describing us as super organisms. 

Long rejected, the term “super organism” is coming into renewed biological prominence from another direction as well: E. O. Wilson’s work on the social insects.  Wilson was once a key advocate of the “selfish gene” hypothesis, but has now abandoned it. Wilson now argues for the importance of sociality, and certain kinds of it, as in ants, generate super organisms. We are far removed from traditional models of competition and individuality.

In all these fields the traditional; model of individuals as having firm boundaries is dissolving in front of us.  But perhaps we can preserve the distinction between an individual, no matter how complex, from its environment?  It is turning out this is not the case.

Scientists recently discovered a bacteria present in the soil can increase the intelligence  of mice once they are exposed to them.  When the bacteria were removed, their intelligence slowly declined.  Mice are mammals, and bacteria that normally live outside of their bodies, when present within them, make them able to run mazes faster.  If the minds of mice, and presumably other mammals, can be shaped by organisms living separately from their physical bodies.  This discovery adds a fascinating possibility as to why kids like to eat dirt.

Even the genomic distinction between different individuals is breaking down. A woman was tested for an organ transplant.  The results indicated that she was not the biological mother of two of her three children. But she had clearly given birth to them.  She had originated from two genomes, one of which gave rise to her blood and some of her eggs.  The other genome was carried in other eggs. It now turns out that many people, particularly women, possess the genome of multiple people.  Our genome is not unique to us and we can have several, sharing some with other people. These discoveries are transforming what we think of as physical individuality just as analyses such as Berger’s and Luckmann’s are solving old debates by reframing what it is to be an individual psychologically and mentally.  As with the soil bacteria that increase the brain power of mice and the existence of more than one genome within some people’s brains, even this distinction between biology and society is breaking down.

We are not organisms that enter into an environment external to us, we are organisms constituted out of at least some of the relations existing within the environment.  Some of these relations are tightly coupled, as in the eukaryotic cell made up of what were once prokaryotic cells.  Other relations are looser but still tightly bound, as with the bacteria on which we depend and which depend on us, but unlike in endosymbiosis maintain a separate individuality.  Then there are bacteria that live separately from us but which might be essential for a truly human mind, as the mice research suggests.  Finally there are very loosely coupled but still connected organisms, such as plants, which create the air we breathe and which we animals in turn help to survive. The division between the tightest and most loosely coupled organism is not a boundary, it is a continuum.


The key concept for understanding the phenomena I am describing is called “emergence.”  The term refers to how complex orders arise “spontaneously” without anyone being in charge.  New qualities emerge that cannot be predicted by the qualities of their parts. While emergent processes are found in both the living and nonliving worlds, I’ll focus on the living.

In biology emergence describes how patterns arise in evolution and ecosystems.  In the human world it explains how language grows and develops; how the internet is enormously useful to everyone seeking information on it; how the market economy coordinates billions of people making trillions of exchanges, and how science hangs together and grows even though no scientist knows more than a tiny fragment of the whole.  And much more.

Not being coordinated “from above,” emergent processes possess what can be described as decentered or distributed authority.  Think of language. No one designed English, no one decides to add some new words and not others.  Most of us are not even aware of the grammatical rules we follow as we speak.  Sometimes we say things we never said before, or hear things we have never heard before, and everyone involved understand what was said. How English maintains itself and changes is something over which every English speaker exercises some authority but no one exercises much.  And yet it all holds together. Order emerges.

Along with language, in ecologies, science, the market economy, the World Wide We, and much else, impressive orders, intricate variety, and spontaneous adaptation occurs in the absence of any central authority or directing hand. (For those interested in a deeper analysis I published a secular scholarly paper on emergence  to kick off the inaugural issue of an online international academic journal.)

The centrality of relationship

In emergent processes order arises from feedback arising out of relationships. Human individuals are quite real, importantly so, but we are not little soul atoms dropped down by God or the Gods, to enter into the world as strangers from afar.  Nor are we isolated organisms existing in an environment separate from us, whether in a state of existential absurdity as Sartre suggested or as Richard Dawkin’s gene powered robots.  Instead, as conscious entities, we are like self-aware nodes within an extraordinarily complex network of relations encompassing biological, ecological and social realms.

At least.

Now for the crucial insight that carries over into understanding polytheism.   Our individuality is quite genuine and important, but it arises as a kind of self-aware gestalt formed by relationships.  We are self-aware, creative, beings made possible by fundamentally cooperative relationships over which we exercise some influence.  What are called moral values are intrinsic to the existence of individuals such as us. There are no fundamental individual entities, just a field of relationships some more tightly coupled than others.

“The Gods of Olympus” by Giulio Romano

Comprehending the Gods and the One

The above considerations give us a new foundation for probing one of the most important experiences people have had for thousands of years: the monist experience of the One, and encountering deities where, as Christopher Scott Thompson’s article makes clear, traditional notions of individuality break down.

My argument requires making two assumptions modern science does not make. Both assumptions are pretty standard in Pagan religions, and one is standard in all religions of which I am aware.

The first assumption we need is that awareness in some sense is a basic dimension of reality.   I believe this assumption is more reasonable than its opposite.  Awareness is an internal state. Objective reality is external.  It is impossible to imagine how purely external phenomena, such as mass and energy, can generate internal phenomena, such as awareness.  Thomas Nagel is a philosopher who describes himself as an atheist, and in Mind and Cosmos  makes a very good argument as to why some kind of inner experience must be a fundamental quality of reality.

We know that complex phenomena emerge from simpler relations, which is what emergence is all about. If individuality arises from relationships and relationships include some dimension of awareness, then the more complete the network of relationships, and the more aware that network is, the more complete it can be. Two additional good and much longer discussions of this issue are by Emma Restall Orr and Christian de Quincy.

The second assumption (which Nagel does not make but Orr and de Quincy do), is that once awareness is self-conscious in some sense, that self-consciousness does not necessarily disappear when the material form that originally enabled it to emerge disappears.  Anyone who has encountered a spirit or deity, or astral projected, should have little difficulty granting the possibility this is so.  It may be that material existence in our sense is a necessary precondition to the development of individuated consciousness, or not.  I certainly do not know. But it is clear to me, and to many Pagans, that disembodied consciousness does exist, because we have experienced it, sometimes frequently.

These two assumptions, which I regard as reasonable, lead to a coherent model of the deities able to easily explain why they are so varied, and ways of connecting with them so varied as well.

Hubs in networks

Extrapolating what modern science is now discovering about human individuality into this model, the One is the field as a whole, and our individuality is a node in a network within that field. Sometimes our ‘self’ is quite narrowly focused, as when I hit my thumb with a hammer.  Other times it grows far beyond my physical body, as when I empathize with the pain or joy of a loved one.  Selves in the modern sense of conscious individuality are not things, they – we – are patterns of relationship that can include more or less. As self-aware nodes we to some degree choose our present and future relationships even as we are constituted from out of them and we have some say in just how far we will seek to acknowledge and shape the relationships out of which we emerge.

By extension, deities can be thought of as larger, more inclusive, and far more important foci of relationships within the divine network.

Richer relationships lead to richer and more multifaceted individuality.  This is true for people and it seems reasonable to hold the same is true for deities.  Because relationships imply more than one, deities can have many of the same qualities and still not be reducible to one another. Aphrodite is not Venus is not Oshun, but all three are, among other things, Goddesses of beauty. And they themselves can have different dimensions, as Thompson argues.

To my mind this context of similarity and difference is in some ways like what holds for most readers of this essay. We share many of the same aspects shaping who we are (early 21st century English speakers identifying as Pagans). We share far more with one another than we do with first century Chinese or even a 18th century English speaker, but we are still individually distinct. That distinctness is itself fluid, depending on how aware we are of the varied relationships we weave together into a self.   As each of us is a hub where our experiences come together to create a world of conscious individual awareness, and at the same time our relations are connected to other hubs, deities are “super hubs.”

I am using human concepts to describe the more-than-human.  And so they are at most the best road map out there. But they are still a map, not the territory.  That is all any human being can do when trying to comprehend this ultimate reality and then communicate it to others.  That is all the writers of sacred texts and the people who write theology can do.

Polytheism and individuality

If my argument is on target there is no contradiction between being a genuine polytheist, one arguing there may be unimaginably huge number of deities, and holding to the existence of an ultimate impersonal/transpersonal Source from which everything emerges, including the Gods.  Even without the metaphysics, modern science is demonstrating that we ourselves are genuine individuals, but at the same time are such only because of our relationships at every level. We make no great jump to suggest the same holds for Spirit.

About the Author

Gus diZerega is a Gardnerian Elder with over 25 years practice, including six years close study with a Brazilian shaman. He has been active in interfaith work off and on for most of those 25 years as well. He has conducted workshops and given presentations on healing, shamanism, ecology and politics at Pagan gatherings in the United States and Canada. He is the first Pagan blogger for Beliefnet. His first Pagan book Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from The Coalition of Visionary Resource. His second, Beyond the Burning Times, is a joint Pagan and Christian authored book discussing relations between the two religions. He is completing a new book: Faultlines: The Sixties the Culture Wars and the Divine Feminine. This will argue the US’s current political and cultural struggles reflect a four-way division between “traditional” religion, liberal and “Baconian” secular modernity, and spiritual traditions that have gone beyond the modern paradigm.

“‘As mortals pour, so do the gods': A critique of divine reciprocity” by John Halstead (Part 1)

July 18, 2014

Note: Part 1 of this essay is a critique of one conception of divine reciprocity, where a deity gives material blessings in exchange for devotion.  The second part, which will be published next month, proposes an alternative conception of divine reciprocity, one founded on the idea of the interconnectedness of all things.


I’ve been accused by polytheists of just “not getting it”.  And they’re right.  Setting aside the whole issue of whether or not the gods exist, I don’t just get the idea of divine reciprocity, specifically material reciprocity.  This is the idea that the the gods will grant worshipers material or practical well-being in exchange for something, like worship or offerings or oaths.  This is a foundational idea for many Pagan polytheists, as well as many Christians and other monotheists.  For Christians, the reciprocity seems to usually take the form of good behavior for blessings.  For Pagan polytheists, reciprocity often takes the form of material offerings to the gods, like foodstuffs.  And often this is done in conjunction with and in the expectation of a request for some material or practical blessing.

I was prompted to write this after reading a post some time ago by a well-known Pagan polytheist on the concept of divine reciprocity.  She wrote that, if you are striving to be a good Pagan and your life is “going to crap”, then you must be “doing Paganism wrong”.  But if you are “doing Paganism right”, she writes, your life should be improving.  I can accept this, to a certain extent, if we are talking about spiritual or emotional well-being, as opposed to material well-being.  I do believe that spiritual practice is generally conducive to happiness — a deep sense of inner peace and joy.  But even the most spiritually centered individual will encounter crisis and tragedy.

But that’s not what this particular Pagan polytheist was talking about at all.  She was talking about material well being.  She went on to conclude that her recent financial and residential problems had occurred because she wasn’tt listening to the gods and the gods wanted her to relocate.  So she promptly picked up her stakes and moved across the country.  This attitude is all the more disturbing to me because of how similar it is to Christian discourse, which contemporary Paganism distances itself from in so many other ways. As a Jungian, Neo-Pagan agree that religion (whether theistic or non-theistic) can produce psychological or spiritual well-being.  But what I cannot buy into is this idea that theistic worship produces material well-being.  Here’s why:

FIRST ISSUE: The idea of theistic reciprocity relies on too many assumptions.

The notion that the gods will grant worshipers material well-being assumes certain things:

  1. that deities exist (whatever that means) in some sense independently of you (whatever that means),
  2. that your deity is aware of you,
  3. that your deity cares about you,
  4. that your deity has the power to alter your life circumstances,
  5. that your deity has more power than you alone have to alter your life circumstances,
  6. that your deity will chose to help you under certain circumstances (i.e., in exchange for offerings), and
  7. that your deity’s influence on your life circumstances will be greater than other influences working in the opposite direction.

Even if we take #1 for granted (that your god exists), I just can’t see how you get through the rest of the assumptions.  Even if you have had an experience of a powerful personal presence which you identify as a god, how do you infer the rest of the assumptions from your experience?

SECOND ISSUE: It doesn’t work.

The concept of divine reciprocity should dictate that, on average, theists (including monotheists and polytheists) are better off materially than non-theists (including pantheists, atheists, Buddhists, etc.).  If the gods could grant material or practical well-being, then we should see a noticeable difference in the material quality of life of theists overall, and that’s just not the case — despite the promises of all the peddlers of the prosperity gospel.  The fact that (mostly non-theisticUnitarians are among the wealthiest of religious people and (theistic) Pentecostals are among the poorest is sufficient to me to disprove this thesis.  For every single instance where a person has felt they were materially blessed by their deity, there are probably nine more instances where they have not been blessed — eight of which they have probably forgotten about.

THIRD ISSUE: It all boils down to personal responsibility anyway.

When their deity inevitably fails to bring the promised material blessings with any measure of reliability, then theists (both poly- and mono-) fall back on another assumption, one that I left out of the list above:

8.  If your life circumstances are still unfavorable, then you have done something wrong.

If things don’t work out for the theist, they end up blaming themselves.  They say, they petitioned their god in the wrong way.  Or they weren’t faithful enough to the god’s demands.  Or the bad fortune is a message from the god that they have to change something.  In the end, it’s always the petitioner’s fault — not the god’s — things didn’t go right.  And it’s up to the petitioner to make it good.

Here’s the thing:  I can get to #8 by skipping numbers #1 through #7 entirely.  The theist and the non-theist ultimately arrive at the same place — personal responsibility — but the non-theist does not have to assume the existence of unreliable deities that they have to placate and who will inevitably fail them.

FOURTH ISSUE: It’s regressive.

We all want someone to love us and take care of us.  It’s natural.  We want to be loved unconditionally and taken care of like children.  In brief, we all want a perpetual parent.  And so, if we are Christian, we imagine an invisible father in the sky who loves us and cares about us and watches over us.  If we are polytheists, then we imagine someone a little closer, like an invisible friend, who will love us and watch over us and tell us what to do.  But no matter how I look at it, this arrangement seems infantile and regressive.  While it’s natural, it is also something we should grow out of — not the belief in gods, necessarily, but the desire for them to take care of us.  I understand religion as a product of a desire to connect with something larger than us.  But why do we need that something to care for us?

A Greek pouring libation to the gods

Some Pagan polytheists of the reconstructionist variety might respond that this is what ancient pagans did.  It certainly was.  But why should we imitate it?  Why should we believe or act like people thousands of years ago if what they believed or did was infantile?  As a contemporary (Neo-)Pagan, I believe we should take the best of what our Paleo-Pagan ancestors had to offer and blend it with the best of what we moderns have to offer.  The ancient pagans were not infallible, after all; they were human just like us, and their religions were products of the helpful and the unhelpful, just like ours are today.

What about hope?

I ran all this by my son a few years ago.  (He who was Christian at the time. He’s now atheist.)  I asked him, what the belief in gods gets people if they can’t count on material blessings.  He astutely responded: “Hope.”  I think maybe he’s right.  Maybe theism is all about giving people hope.  Hope, when they feel that their efforts are not enough.  Hope, when the world itself is not enough.  Hope, in spite of everything.

Personally, I prefer Nietzsche’s challenge to live without the hope of this kind of divine reciprocity:

“You will never pray again, never adore again, never again rest in endless trust; you do not permit yourself to stop before any ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power, while unharnessing your thoughts; you have no perpetual guardian and friend for your seven solitudes; [...] there is no avenger for you any more nor any final improver; there is no longer any reason in what happens, no love in what will happen to you; no resting place is open any longer to your heart, where it only needs to find and no longer to seek; you resist any ultimate peace; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace: man of renunciation, all this you wish to renounce? Who will give you the strength for that? Nobody yet has had this strength!”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science

In part 2, of this essay, I will propose an alternative understanding of divine reciprocity, one rooted in the notion of the interconnectedness of all things.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis).  He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square.  He is also the author of the website  John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

Mid-Month Meditation: “Adorations to the Sun” by thalassa

July 16, 2014

Pharaoh Akhenaten with his wife, Nefertiti and children worshipping the Sun, Aten

Waking Fire, I adore you
Aurora, rosy fingered in saffron robes, I adore you
Khepri, I adore you
Extinguisher of darkness, I adore you
Thesan of the Dawn, bringer of new life, I adore you
Evaporator of fresh morning dew, I adore you
Infant King I adore you
Producer of helium, I adore you
Shapash, I adore you
Who brings a new day, I adore you

Warming Fire, I adore you
Supplier of Light, I adore you
Protector from cosmic rays, I adore you
Definer of shadows, I adore you
Growing Sun, Boy King, I adore you
Arinna, I adore you
Cosmic Nuclear Furnace, I adore you
Eye of the Heavens, I adore you
Amaterasu, I adore you
Who holds the planets with immense gravity, I adore you

Burning Fire, I adore you
Ra, I adore you
That which the planets orbit, I adore you
Photon source, I adore you
G-type main sequence star, I adore you
Sun King, Lord of the Longest Day, I adore you
Converter of hydrogen, I adore you
Creator of the solar wind, I adore you
Helios, I adore you
Who drives all weather on Earth, I adore you

Relentless fire, I adore you
Courageous Malina, I adore you
Center of this solar system, I adore you
Luminous disk, I adore you
Inspiration of man, I adore you
Bringer of rainbows, I adore you
Free source of energy, I adore you
Sustainer of life, I adore you
Tama-nui-te-rā, I adore you
Who ripens fruits and fields, I adore you

Waning fire, I adore you
Evening light, I adore you
Sol Invictus, unconquered and unbounded, I adore you
Grandfather Sun, stately and wise, I adore you
Setting Sun, I adore you
Worshiped by the ancients, I adore you
Driver of photosynthesis, I adore you
Surya, Guardian of the Year, I adore you
Green flash, I adore you
Who sets circadian rhythms, I adore you

Slumbering Fire, I adore you
Source of the moon’s reflection, I adore you
Maker of dancing polar lights, I adore you
Torch of Gnowee, I adore you
Mithras, I adore you
Resurrecting Sun, I adore you
Random walk, I adore you
Radiant heat, I adore you
Galactic wanderer, I adore you
Who shines on, even as we turn away, I adore you

About the author

Thalassa:  I’m a (occasionally) doting wife, damn proud momma of two adorable children, veteran of the United States Navy, part-time steampunk hausfrau, a beach addict from middle America, Civil War reenactor and Victorian natural history aficionado, a canoeing fanatic, Unitarian Universalist and pantheistic Pagan,and a kitchen witch and devotee of various aquatic deities.


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