Humanistic Paganism

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.

The Problem and the Promise of Paganism, and Why One Looks a Lot Like the Other

The Problem of Paganism

The question why I am “still” a Pagan implies that there might be reasons why I would not want to identify as Pagan any longer.  And there are.  I believe that Paganism has the potential to transform our relationship with the earth, with each other, and with our deeper selves—but a lot of the time, I cannot relate to other Pagans. Read More

Within Aquarius

Most of you have probably heard the latest news in space exploration, and if you haven’t, you probably noticed it as a Google illustration or other sightings. On February 22nd, NASA released news to the public the discovery of 7 Earth-sized exoplanets (exoplanets are planets that exist outside our solar system) orbiting a dwarf star that is 10 times smaller than our Sun, and 2 ½ times cooler. We have named this exoplanet system TRAPPIST-1, named after the type of telescope used. Though the star is so much smaller than ours, the planets’ orbit is much closer to it than ours are to our Sun, which gives them warmer temperatures. Of these seven exoplanets, three are found in what is dubbed, “the habitable zone”- that is, a zone where there may be methane, ozone, oxygen, and is located close enough to their star that they may have water, yet far enough away that it doesn’t just evaporate. Translation: There could be life on these planets.

Now before you start flashing back to Roland Emmerich’s ‘Independence Day,’ we still don’t know how advanced this life could be. It might just have single-celled microorganisms or small amphibians. Or it may have a race of Klingons. And this is if water and other gasses are existing; it’s still too early to tell. But it’s the findings of exoplanets in habitable zones that has the scientists raising glasses for two reasons. First, as mentioned, the possibility of finally finding life somewhere out there. It is the age-old question perplexing humankind since the dawn of time: Are we alone? We have named these foreign organisms a multitude of identities like aliens and UFOs, or maybe even ghosts and gods (which opens a whole different train of thought!), and so on. The second reason for the hype is that we may have just found alternative Earths. With an increasing overpopulation on our planet, as well as its contribution to global warming and Climate Change, alternative homes have been increasingly sought out by NASA for years. This isn’t to say this is the government’s first remedy to the population crisis, but it is an egg that is worthy to be added to the basket.

Before you put your house on the market, however, consider this: Are we ready to move to a different planet? We may realize the mistakes we’ve made to Earth since the Industrial Revolution, but it’s our habitual lifestyles that keep it going. Like a sinner perpetually returning to Confession, we continue to consume, waste, and pollute; yet pass environmental laws and regulations to compensate. Now don’t get me wrong, without these statutes and organizations, we would be in a far worse state! But even a triathlete with a smoking habit can get lung cancer. TRAPPIST-1 is located 40 light years away from us, which is 235 trillion miles, located in the constellation of Aquarius. According to some archaeoastronomers and astrologers, we are currently in the Age of Aquarius. This is the Age of independent thought and self-development, where we don’t base our decisions off a ruler’s. A king or a god has no power over our free will and can only influence of what we allow them to. So it is ironic to me that we have this ability to change our destructive daily habits and make differences within our communities, and yet we choose the comforts of damaging familiarity knowing what we’re doing in the process, instead. Talk about a contradiction if we relocate to an exoplanet found in Aquarius, and we’re not able to independently act out our thoughts and end up recreating the cycle.

Of course, being so far away we aren’t yet able to get to TRAPPIST-1, even if its habitable zone does have all the necessary components for humans. But that doesn’t mean we should discontinue our search for other, closer exoplanets. It does, however, mean that we should appreciate how awesome it is that we discovered this miniature version of our Solar System because it shows us there’s hope. Hope that there could be life out there somewhere, and hope that when we do find a second Earth, and the transportation means to relocate to it, we’ll be in a place in our lives where we can act more consciously as better stewards of our planet. A time when we aren’t only living in the Age of Aquarius, we are the Age. As we know, magic is the results of a physical change in our surrounding environments, but this can only happen when we use our energy and intention. So let’s stop using our comfortable habits and traditionally outdated ethics as our inner dictators and start thinking and acting for ourselves. TRAPPIST-1 is a wake-up call to each of us how important it is to begin these little differences in our lives, so that some day in the future, we’ll be ready.

Kansas Stanton

Kansas Stanton is a Naturalistic Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.

He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to law school to receive his Juris Doctor in Environmental Law. When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.

See Kansas’ posts

[Dead Ideas] “Russian Serfdom VIII Finale: George Lucas’ Serf Wars (with Guest Daniel Daughhetee) – Star Wars Mashup”, by B. T. Newberg

Our serfdom grand finale! Guest Daniel Daughhetee of the Lesser Bonapartes and Canon Ball helps us bring it home in this cinematic mashup of the autobiography of runaway serf Nikolai Shipov with… Star Wars! Featuring music by David and Henry Dutton of 8-Bit Cinema!

Be sure to support the show at www.patreon.com/deadideaspod to get your portrait drawn!

 

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[A Pedagogy of Gaia] Science in Service to Mother Earth, by Bart Everson

I fully intended to participate in the local New Orleans version of the big March for Science which took place last month. I was especially excited because science informs my Earth-based religious practice, and the march was scheduled for Earth Day. What a grand confluence of politics and spirituality! Read More

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