Literal Gods Are for the Literal Minded: Re-Enchanting Polytheism

“Our language became that which removed us from the intersectional communicative experience of a sensual world. This is because language was no longer an empathic animistic conversation with reality, but rather a capturing of reality into small boxes by which each ‘thing’ was separated from the other so we could discern its properties.  Our madness was the vivisection of the connective experience, a separation caused by our need to trap the reality of interbeing into quantifiable states. But we soon realized such a thing was impossible.”

— Mathieu Thiem, “Interanimism: On the Mutual Inspiration of a Dreaming Earth”

“Really, really real”

Here and there in the tiny echo chamber that is the Pagan blog-o-sphere, I am once again hearing repeated the false dichotomy of archetypes vs. “real gods”.  As in, “My gods aren’t just archetypes. They are real…literal, distinct, independent gods.” With the recent premiere of the series American Gods (which is awesome, by the way), I anticipate we’re going to be hearing a lot more talk like this–especially considering the influence the publication of the book American Gods had on the growth of Pagan polytheism.

Setting aside the fact that the people making this distinction don’t seem to understand what archetypes are, what bothers me about what I’m hearing from some polytheists is how they equate “real-ness” with words like “literal,” “distinct,” and “independent.”  While, on the other hand, those working on the cutting edge of science–from physics to biology–are telling us that reality is not like that all.  Reality is not literal, distinct, or independent–it’s complex, fuzzy, and interdependent.

The assumption of some polytheists seems to be that for a thing to be “real” it must exist in some reified form disconnected from every other thing.  This seems to me to be a throwback to an antiquated, Newtonian vision of the universe, consisting of theoretical billiard balls bouncing off of each other in empty space.  In this atomistic model of the universe, reality consists of solid objects with unambiguous causal relationships.  But it turns out that reality is much more like a web or a field, in which nothing is really solid and everything is far more intimately interconnected than we ever imagined.

Comparing Apples and Apple Trees

Let me give you an example that does not require recourse to quantum mechanics (which is so much abused in Pagan discourse).  About a year ago, polytheist blogger John Beckett compared gods to apples…another round object which, like a billiard ball, seems to have a definite beginning and ending.  At least at first glace, an apple appears to have a defined surface and seems to exist independently as an object, separate of all the other objects in the world.

But what if the apple is still connected to a tree?  Is it still a distinct and individual apple or is it an extension of the tree?  And if it is a part of the tree, is it not also connected to the the earth, the other trees in the grove, and the whole ecosystem, of which we are a part too?

And if we pick the apple, does not the apple remain connected to the tree in myriad ways, through a shared ecosystem of soil, air, water, and sunshine?  Does it not carry within it the the seeds of the tree itself?  Do these connections make the apple any less real?

And if we take a bite of the apple, does it remain an apple?  How many bites of the apple can we take until it ceases to be an apple and becomes a part of us?  Or can it be both at the same time?

And we don’t even have to consume the apple for this exchange to take place.  The apple is shedding its molecules to the breeze at every moment, just as everything is.  If we inhale the apple’s scent, some of its molecules bind to our olfactory nerves.  Has not the apple then become a part of us in some small way?  Even as we hold the apple, we leave part of ourselves on its skin, and it leaves part of itself on us—in us, actually, since our skin is not a solid boundary, but a permeable membrane.

And this is only the gross physical interactions.  When we get to our subjective experience of the apple, things get way more complex.

The point is that these relationships, this interconnectedness, don’t make the apple unreal.  In fact, these connections are the very things that make the apple real.  An apple which didn’t grow on a tree and couldn’t be smelled or eaten, some kind of Platonic ideal apple, would hardly deserve the name “apple.”

And if the gods are “real” in any sense, if they are part of nature as some polytheists claim, then the same must be true of them as well.

Positively Real

Redefining what is “real” in this way has profound implications for how we understand our own nature and our relationship to the world.  Pagan theology takes the interconnectedness of all life as axiomatic.  In fact, contemporary Paganism is a reaction to a reductionist positivism which dominated the 19th century scientific mindset, and which has unfortunately persisted in the public consciousness through today, even while much of the scientific community has moved beyond it.

The mistake positivism makes is to confuse a methodology with a conclusion about the nature of reality.  The scientific method strives for objectivity in observation.  But it is one thing to say that observers should strive to be objective and another to say that a world of objects is more real than a world of subjects. Objectivity makes for a good methodology, but does not provide for a complete understanding of the world. In fact, any account of the world that excludes the subjective can only ever be a partial account.

Positivism divides the world up into separate and discrete units which can then be measured (and bought and sold) and asserts that only this is “real.”  But according to the interconnected view of life, we and everything else are a part of…well, everything else.  As the naturalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Our own lives are entangled with the lives of foxes and forests, wolves and wetlands.  Our minds are entangled with our physical bodies, and our physical bodies are entangled with the flesh of the earth.  From this perspective, the lines that we draw to separate ourselves from the rest of the world are artificial and unreal.  This view is being confirmed by scientists in many scientific fields, from physicists to botanists, from microbiologists to meteorologists.

Re-Enchanting Polytheism

I sympathize with polytheists’ eagerness to prove that their gods are “real.”  Having “real” gods is a prerequisite to being considered a “real” religion in some circles.  But by emphasizing the “separateness” of the gods, polytheists are implicitly accepting the assumptions of the same positivistic paradigm which Paganism is a reaction to.  And by doing so, they have already lost the battle, the battle to re-enchant the world.

An atomistic theology which insists that the gods must be “literal, distinct, and independent” mirrors the alienating discourse of positivism.  Rather than insisting that the gods are real because they are separate from us, polytheists should being arguing that what is real is not the radically separate, but the radically interconnected.  And that applies whether we are taking about living beings, the earth, or gods.

This seems to be the view described recently by Mathieu Thiem:

“Gods are not separate disembodied ideals, but are instead the emergent agencies from the vast networks of ancient entanglements within which we are embedded. Gods arise not as archetypes, but as the long lived intellects of ecosystems and bioregions. … The Gods need not be abandoned, but rather we must find them homes and root them into the land.”

If we are to reenchant the world, it won’t be (re-)populating it with individual gods and spirits in nature.  The disenchantment of the world happened, not when we stopped seeing gods and spirits in nature, but when we stopped seeing our essential connection to nature.  Personifying rivers and trees with dryads is not going to accomplish this.  Rather, we need to realize our essential oneness, the manifold ways in which we are connected to the rivers and the trees–whether or not we find gods in them.


About the Author

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. You can also find his writing at AllergicPagan.com (which was previously hosted by Patheos) and “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.

To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.

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9 Comments on “Literal Gods Are for the Literal Minded: Re-Enchanting Polytheism

  1. I don’t see the re-enchanting of the world and the belief in the literal existence of gods as actual beings to be mutually exclusive.

    Especially given that polytheism often goes hand-in-hand with the belief that the world is not only full of gods but of spirits as well. Indeed, many polytheists are also animists.

    I don’t see this as being exclusive of a perception of interconnectedness either.

    Though I also understand some polytheists’ concern that such a belief can (and has) led in the recent past to monism. Given the way that monism has been used within Paganism to brush aside the beliefs and concerns of polytheists, I can appreciate their strong aversion to anything resembling monism.

    Just because we’re interconnected does not mean that you or I are not real beings. Just as the gods are also real beings. Beings that those of us who are polytheists have interacted with and love.

  2. Pingback: Literal Gods Are for the Literal Minded: Re-Enchanting the Gods – The Allergic Pagan

  3. I wrote a whole comment and then my phone deleted it. Trying this again…

    I’m a little disappointed that the archetype/polytheist ceasefire has come to an end.

    I can’t speak for you, but I came to my practice out of atheism and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where I stand on the question of the Gods’ literal reality. (It may be worth noting that my path to Paganism is, in some ways, a mirror image of your own. You came to atheist Paganism from–I think I recall–a fairly literal-minded Mormonism. I came to a pretty literal polytheist Paganism from hardcore atheism.)

    I was raised on a steady diet of Jung. The language of archetypes makes sense to me, and I agree with a lot of the things you say about the archetypal reality of the Gods. I also sympathize, because the word “archetype” gets thrown around a lot in the broader Pagan community by people who have never read Jung and who represent archetypes as something softer and fluffier than they actually are. When I first started to explore religion, I worked with and experienced the Gods as archetypes, and there is no doubt that I experienced them as real. Super real. Really real in a real way.

    However, my current experience of the Gods as literal is different than my previous experiences of them as archetypes. It’s neither better nor worse, but it is different in a fundamental way that I have difficulty quantifying. I don’t experience the Gods as more real than I did previously, but the nature of their reality (as I engage with it; I cannot speak to questions of their reality beyond the bounds of my experience) has changed. The way I interact with the Gods as literal beings is simply not the same as the way I interacted with Them as archetypes, although the difference is subjective and difficult for me to explain.

    I disagree with your claim that polytheists “equate ‘real-ness’ with words like ‘literal'”. Of course a thing can be real without being literal. I would never dream of denying that archetypes are just as real as literal Gods, nor that people who work with archetypes are really engaging with the Gods. But archetypal reality and literal reality are two distinct ways of being real. Your stance always seems to be that these two forms of reality are or ought to be interchangeable. This might be the case in your experience, but it hasn’t been so in mine. I think this article misses out on that nuance.

    I’d like to emphasize that I am not trying to pass a value judgment here. I don’t think that experiencing the Gods as literal is in any way better than experiencing Them as archetypes. And there may well be people, such as yourself, who have experienced then both ways and who find that archetypal and literal reality are equivalent. But it’s also worth noting that some people, like myself, have experienced the Gods both ways and do find a difference.

    Ultimately, though, people should just practice how they practice. How others experience the Gods doesn’t affect my practice, and I doubt that how I experience Them affects anyone else’s. Frankly, this debate has never seemed all that productive to me.

  4. Pingback: Literal Minded Atheism – The Allergic Pagan

  5. It’s not a priority for me as a practitioner and community leader to add fuel to the war between theists and non-theists. Others’ beliefs and practices in no way affect mine, or mine theirs.

    We all seem to want the freedom to practice as we see fit, until someone comes along and disagrees with our beliefs. When that happens, most of us shrug it off and move on. For some, though, they feel it necessary to engage and take a stand. I’m not for all that unnecessary drama.

    At the end of the day, any religion or movement who spends a good portion of its time telling others they are ‘wrong’ for their beliefs, and uses their own model to promote how it ‘should’ be, is no different than Christianity and other Abrahamic religions.

    I’m seeing this trend in several atheist/secular/humanist Pagan groups and it’s tired. I love being challenged and prompted to think about something differently than I did before. There is great value in that. The rest, though, the parts that imply there is a wrong way and a right way, are really born from out of control egos and bids for power as far as I can tell, and it needs to be done.

    Stay focused on what you believe and how you express that in your practice, and leave your opinion and judgment about what others believe behind.

  6. Pingback: The Marginalization of Polytheists in the Public Sphere of Paganism | Of Axe and Plough

  7. Yes, everything is interconnected–quantum physics and all that. Nevertheless, if I eat, you are still hungry. We understand this about people, and dogs, trees, etc. Why is it difficult to apply to deities? Why is hard polytheism such a challenge?

    • No one is denying there is a degree of separation. The question is whether the “realness” of the gods is defined more by the separation or by the connection? I think it’s the latter.

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