Confronting the Black Hole (Pagan Blog Project Week 5)

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So, last week, I started mentioning the various drama going around the Pagan and/or Polytheist communities, and offered the advice that people ought to butt out of situations, conversations, and issues that just don’t concern them.

This week, I want to do something else. I want to confront an important thing that lies behind and perhaps even permeates the entire conversation and back-and-forth on these issues.

In astronomy, a black hole is defined as a hole in space that has such gravity, such vacuum power, that not even light can escape it. When trying to locate a black hole, scientists can’t actually point to a spot in space and say “oh look, there it is!” How do you find a vacuum inside a vacuum?

You find a black hole by looking at the things (in this case, the stars and planets and space) around it. Everything around a black hole is changed by the black hole’s proximity. The black hole affects its surroundings, even though it is not part of its surroundings, and thus it reveals its presence through the repercussions, or ripples, that its force is exerting on its environment.

It’s high time that we addressed the black hole at the center of all neo-Pagan (or contemporary Pagan, if you will) movements. This black hole also applies, to lesser or greater degree, to the reconstructionist, polytheist movement, though usually a lesser degree, depending on how well those people understand the culture/religion they are reconstructing, and how much of the ancient mindset they embrace.

This black hole is called monotheism. Even without being there – it’s still there.

Monotheism versus polytheism is thrown around everywhere I read in contemporary Pagan blogs lately. It’s a hot topic, and probably always has been. Various people are dealing with post-Christian trauma, or trying to define themselves independent of the monotheistic cultures that the Western world (and most of us on the Internet) were born into. The M word is generally taken to be a bad word. It is always paired with other bad words, like intolerant, or bigoted, or repressive, or exclusionary; or worse words, like fundamentalist or terrorist. Defining the M word (or the P word for that matter) is also a big topic lately, with many bloggers chiming in on their own thoughts.

Yet, the difference between monotheism and polytheism is more than a numbers game. It’s not just about Mary Monotheist worshipping one god and Patrick Polytheist worshipping many. Monotheism and polytheism represent two incredibly different worldviews. These worldviews aren’t actually directly opposed (more on that below), and in fact, the monotheistic worldview grew out of the polytheistic one, like a child. Note that monotheism is not in any way a “better” worldview value judgment wise, nor is it an evolution of, or an intended replacement to, the polytheistic worldview, even though monotheists will often claim all of those things. A quick summary of the two worldviews goes like this:

The monotheistic worldview: one god outside creation, religion from deity to people (people-focused)
A deity (almost always just one; there are exceptions, but these are slippery and often syncretize into being one, like the Christian Trinity) created the world. This deity is outside creation, and is often also omnipotent and omniscient, as would befit a deity that is not part of its creation. The deity provides written instructions to its creations in the form of scripture to be adhered to, in order to achieve the goal of salvation and/or reunion with this outside deity. Monotheistic religion must be about people at its center: who they are, how they are related to their deity, how they create a personal relationship with this deity, and how they work to reunite with this deity outside creation, usually in an afterlife.

The polytheistic worldview: many gods inside creation, religion from people to deity (gods-focused)
In a polythestic worldview, all deities emerge from primordial matter that may or may not be a deity itself. None of these deities are greater than the primordial matter, but they emerge from it or merge back into it, and into each other, as they choose. None of the deities controls the entire universe, because they are not outside of it; as a consequence, none of the deities are omnipotent are omniscient, either, powerful as they might be. Since there is no one director, there is no single, mandatory scripture, nor is there a need for reunion beyond creation. The way that humans unite with the deities is through learning what They want, and then serving them – through practice of religious rites rather than belief in scriptures. It is about interacting with the deities in creation, here and now.

So, when you read John Jungian arguing for an archetypal paganism that is about “the gods inside us,” or Wayne Wiccan telling you that All Gods are One God and All Goddesses Are One Goddess, or Holly Hellenist waxes nostalgic about how she won’t join a temple because her personal relationship with Artemis means she cannot ever take part in any community, even though Her ancient practice was always part of a community culture? These are the stars that point to the black hole.

People who identify as hard polytheists aren’t any better necessarily. They, too, can be too close to the black hole. When Roger Reconstructionist and Peggy Polytheist talk about how incredible it is that they are able to translate ancient rituals, and yet they only choose parts of the practice that they are personally comfortable with and justify that with a weak “but the gods have evolved,” again – it’s that black hole, sucking everything back into the monotheistic worldview where people are more important, where there is no deity inside the world, where only an Angry Beard Dude and/or a Magic Candy Machine in the Sky exist, to judge us, or shower us with goodies.

You don’t have to believe in only one god to be affected by monotheism. There are more pagans circling that monotheistic black hole than you think. Many of them might not even realize it. After all, you can’t see the vacuum in a vacuum. You can only feel it when you’re close enough for it to change you. Perhaps it would be useful for all who define themselves as polytheists – if they weren’t raised in a completely polytheistic worldview and they’re sure their culture and family is also far enough away from the black hole – to figure out where they rest in the religious galaxy.

Especially before they start telling other pagans and/or polytheists what to believe. There’s a clue right there. Polytheism is about how to practice, how to act, how to do things, with and for the gods. How to believe, in some ways, is irrelevant. As one of my Norse friends used to say “It’s about God, stupid.”

[A caveat: this article may read to imply that I am anti-monotheist. I’m not a monotheist, but I also don’t have an opinion about monotheism beyond that it doesn’t represent my universe. I am troubled when people call something one thing, then do and/or believe another, and I think that there is a great deal more monotheist baggage among pagans who claim no association with monotheism than is acknowledged. I suspect this conscious or subconscious monotheistic pull is behind much of the current difficulty in online discussions around paganism and polytheism. Not everyone who claims they have the same worldview in these discussions really does.]

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18 thoughts on “Confronting the Black Hole (Pagan Blog Project Week 5)

  1. A very interesting thought. I don’t believe I’m going to be the one to dismiss your black-hole theory, but let me add this tidbit of intellectual fiber for you to process; monotheism as a myth?

    It does depend on your definition of “god,” which my own experiences and studies has widened quite a bit. Although modern monotheists profess a belief in “one god” whom they claim to be omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful, their religions are full of other figures who would, until recent times, be defined as “gods.”

    If you scratch the surface of these religions, they all include various entities that were considered gods and have been repressed by modern practitioners. It’s fairly easy to find the evidence in their written works, if you are able to acquire a translation that doesn’t attempt to hide them. (I’m withholding any further evidence or examples here because this comment is quite long enough already!)

    Increasing the definition to include “anti-gods” and every monotheistic belief system becomes polytheistic, or perhaps henotheistic would be a better term. II don’t know of any modern evangelist Christians, for instance, who don’t “give the devil his due.” If the devil is an entity with his own powers and influence outside of the scope of control of the monotheistic god, why fear him?

    If you increase the definition of god to include saints, the Catholic Church is polytheistic. Increase it to include demons, angels, djinn, and other etheric spirit-helpers or enemies of those gods, and there are few religious practices that wouldn’t be considered polytheistic, or at the minimum henotheistic. Throw in deceased human spirits and it would seem monotheism could be a mythical beast?

    As I said, something to process.

    • I would agree that there are curious things going on in some of the monotheisms that don’t really seem to be monotheistic/one-deity focused, as you note. However, I can assure you that there are Jews, Christians, and Muslims who profess only one deity in one form, and who do not acknowledge the dead or the spirit world as having power over them. Not all monotheists are Trinitarian or fundamentalists. There are people who have taken this shift from polytheism to its end.

      But I also must reiterate that the problem we as polytheists encounter with monotheism has very little to do with how many gods are involved. It has to do with the completely opposite worldview of a distant and disconnected deity, and with the idea that humans exist only in an imperfect universe that is just a stopping point between here and somewhere else gained only through the grace of salvation. This concept, of the otherness, and the disconnectedness, never had a place in polytheism and still doesn’t, and it makes it difficult for both sides to have productive conversations without taking that into account.

      Please also be assured that I really do mean it when I say that I do not bear monotheists any ill will. I also have no desire to deconstruct their beliefs or their practices in a value judgment way. I simply am drawing attention to the number of issues in neopaganism and contemporary polytheism that are either caused or exacerbated by people not understanding the monotheist bias and how it makes it very hard to understand how polytheism works, if you were not born to it.

      As far as “myth” goes? Polytheism is a myth too. Myth does not mean something isn’t real or valid or important or useful. It means it’s a particular way of speaking about intangible, numinous things. Every religion has myth, no matter how many gods it comprises, or even no matter which of the two worldviews it takes. The modern idea of “myth” as meaning “not true” or “made up” has nothing to do with that word’s actual meaning and is very misleading.

  2. Ah, intellectual discussion without hostility! How I love it, and get it so infrequently. Thank you.

    I understand your point, and there are certainly those of the Abrahamic faiths who are truly monotheistic. It seems to me that these are the minority, however. Perhaps its simply a case of the loudest voices shouting in the wilderness. It can be supremely misleading because the loudest voice doesn’t always voice the majority’s opinion. Still, I do see an awful lot of credence to “the devil” in Islam and Christianity; less so in Judaism where they seem more content to take responsibility for their own lives. Well, that is the appearance. Admittedly, there are people who are genetically Jewish who are religiously atheist or agnostic, but still count themselves as Jewish. There are even those who count themselves as Jewish witches (aka “Jewitchery”). They do appear to be the minority; I’ve only encountered a handful of people in those categories myself.

    I agree with your theory of the black hole here in your second point; “the distant and disconnected deity.” It is difficult for pagans in general, and was excessively difficult for me as well, to deal with the inheritance left to us be either being raised as monotheists, or at the very least being raised in a monotheistic-assuming world.

    I would even take this a step farther; I see so many “pagans” giving their patron/ess many of the same attributes as the monotheistic deities. They are often portrayed as omniscient and omnipotent, something the legends of these pagan deities never previously claimed. It is enough for most of us to have one patron/ess, and to completely ignore any others. Yes, it is henotheism, and very common among religions who have more than one true deity. It’s common, for instance, in modern Hinduism. But as far as the historical deities from the cultures most of us are now involved in, not so much. Each god/dess covered his or her own dominion be it fertility, money, war, fire, or what have you, leaving others in their pantheon to cover other topics. Yes, they covered more than one dominion frequently, but you didn’t often find a god of war invoked for love work. Yet most modern polytheists (at least the ones blogging) seem to turn to their patron/ess for everything. Is this then a result of being raised with monotheism? Possibly so, I would imagine.

    I myself began with one patroness…and ended up with, well an assortment of entities; some gods, some not…each one with their own particular set of specialties. Is it possible that, like my own experiences, these polytheists are gently being drawn in to work with more than one? Are the gods simply holding their hands until they can get used to the temperature of the water before shoving us into the deep end of the pool?

    Like you, I have no hostility toward those who are monotheistic. At least not because they are monotheistic. Like every other human, I have problems with people based on their behavior, not on their religion. I am myself in a strange situation spiritually, and find myself working with entities from primarily monotheistic pantheons on occasion. They wouldn’t count me as one of them, but I’ve often said that polytheism includes monotheism, I don’t expect monotheism to include polytheism. A dog is an animal, but not all animals are dogs.

    And now we argue semantics. Admittedly, that is one definition of “myth,” and likely the most authentic. However, the other use of the word “myth” which I used in my first comment is commonly accepted in modern vernacular. I’m sorry if my use of that word did offend you, it was not intended as such, simply to point out that what is often defined as monotheism is not truly monotheism, but a carefully cloaked polytheism. This would, possibly, make it easier for many of us to shake off the hold that monotheism has on us and more easily accept polytheism in a more whole form?

    Thank you for responding; I’m sorry I’ve virtually hijacked your blog. It is an interesting topic, however. So in addition, thank you for presenting it. It was refreshing to read a “Pagan Blog Post” topic that wasn’t so predictable. There are only so many “A is for Altar” posts that one can read, after all.

    • No apologies necessary; I don’t feel you’ve hijacked anything, and have enjoyed the conversation!

      I don’t think people who believe in the monotheistic worldview but also acknowledge spirits and/or god-like beings (devils, saints, etc.) are “cloaked polytheists” – they’ve given up on the idea of living in a world where the gods live alongside them, so they aren’t polytheistic anymore even if they still retain some of the memories of having more than one Power in their universes. Perhaps those are the monotheists who live near the other side of the black hole? πŸ™‚

  3. Thank you!

    And another interesting discussion. Thank you again!

    If you define polytheism as people who *work* with multiple entities, as opposed to simply people who *believe* in those entities, then you are correct. Personally, I do include anyone who gives more than one entity acknowledgement, respect, and responsibility to be polytheistic. So by my own personal definition, all the Christians who blame Satan for all their lives’ ills, or for the problems of another humans (Satan being responsible for all homosexual activity, for example, a common accusation), or for the apparent detriment of society and/or the world in general, are also polytheistic. In my own definition, *worship* or *work* with an entity is not necessary. It is, my correctly known as “Henotheism,” worshiping one particular deity, but acknowledging the existence of others. Again, by my own definition, Henotheism is an offshoot of polytheism, so I do tend to use those terms somewhat interchangeably.

    So I will correct myself and say “cloaked henotheists,” which is most probably a better term.

    At any rate, even if we agree to disagree about who is and is not a monotheist, you have a *very* interesting theory. Let me propose that the black hole is rather like an ink blot from a Rorschach test; a mirrored image. On one side of it are the people with a polytheistic worldview who are still affected by the remains of their monotheistic upbringing, while across on the mirrored reflection are the people who profess a monotheistic worldview who are still affected by entities from the remains of polytheism’s effect on their religion. Two sides, being pulled in a similar fashion into the black hole…yes, it is a very interesting theory, and one I certainly agree with.

    • “Belief” is not necessary to polytheism in many ways. It’s what you do and how you act and interact, not what you believe in or think about, that defines polytheism. The gods do not require our belief to exist; They are not creating a scriptural salvation template for us to follow that would itself require a dogma or a creed or even a faith (faith defined in its most basic form; not the general (and monotheism-fueled) trend to equate faith with belief). The monotheistic deity in its own scriptures acknowledges the existence of other deities, so that would imply that monotheism is a red herring, if that’s the sole definition of monotheism. Again I must reiterate that how many gods there are or aren’t is not the main definition of monotheism despite the literal meaning of the Greek words that create that term – it’s the idea of a unidirectional relationship to a god that is outside of creation in a monolithic level, an eternal and omnipotent god that creates everything else, rather than multiple deities (none of Whom must be omnipotent or even eternal to be gods) that emerge from a Source.

      If you don’t think worship or work is necessary to your relationship with the deities, but only belief in the deities…by my writing here, you are yourself in much closer proximity to the black hole than I am. Is that a bad thing? Not at all, if it works for you. It just means we’re in different places. But I was also raised a polytheist, so it doesn’t surprise me that the gravitational pull of the monotheistic universe is not as present in my life. Again that is not a value judgment. It is a point of definition. Belief, creed, faith, salvation, grace, the idea that one must have an intellectual comprehension of one’s deities and be able to recite what they “believe in” are not parts of ancient polytheistic religions, and I would argue that contemporary reconstructions of same have been influenced by monotheism. Even Hinduism has embraced this as it has embraced the West; earlier forms of Hinduism focus much more on cultic practice and what you do for and with the gods (and vice versa) than on endless metaphysical contemplations of one’s personal beliefs and how they relate or do not to the divine.

      The reason I used the black hole theory was as you note – it is showing two opposing sides of a thing, but it also provides for the idea that the things are still potentially connected, and that the closer that you are to the actual switching-point between each side of the black hole, the more likely you are to be informed by certain notions from ‘the other side,’ whether that’s as a Trinitarian who believes in nature spirits, or as a Wiccan who believes the Goddess wrote the Three-fold Law, and that Wiccans must profess that law like Christians profess the Apostle’s Creed. It has nothing to do with who’s right, wrong, up, down, sideways, backwards, or anything of value. It’s just a way that I am defining various religions on a continuum, and acknowledging the messy reality that things are rarely as separate as people like to think that they are.

  4. It does seem that, as is common in philosophy, semantics take up the largest portion of this discussion, doesn’t it? First and foremost, we must understand what each term means before we can discuss them with any intelligence. Just an observation.

    I believe you’re right, that *belief* is not necessary to polytheism in many ways; perhaps it is not necessary at all if one includes the many people claiming to be Jungian or “soft” polytheists. I do find it to be extremely helpful however. Without some small amount of belief, I have found that Spirits have a difficult time approaching us. We, being human, have a much more difficult time perceiving their existence without at least a small opening in the hole of disbelief, some way for the Spirits to, if necessary, sneak in to speak with us.

    Which is a theory that I’m working on right now, a theory that the recent apparent explosion of hard polytheists is a result of our slowly opening our beliefs to include the possibility of Spirits, and therefore finding them. I suppose that’s something for my own blog, however.

    I agree that theoretically speaking, a person who professes to be monotheistic but has a fear of other entities within their pantheon is a bit closer to the proposed black hole. Let us say in this example, a person working with Enochian or Ceremonial methods of practice would be an example of a person professing “monotheism,” in a more polytheistic context. We could also extend that to include practitioners of Santeria and some paths of Voodoo (however you’d like to spell that) where a creator-god is acknowledged but generally not worked with or worshiped at all, only the lower entities be they Lwa, Orishas, or “saints” are ever petitioned with regularity. I still maintain that there are those who have a more henotheistic Christianity, but I agree with you that they would be closer to the black hole of “pure monotheism” where others intentionally working with entities would be farther away, but still not quite polytheistic.

    And, as I understand this, on the other side of the black hole would be Gavyn and Yvonne Frost followers; the controversial monotheistic, female-deity only “Wiccans.” would be close to that black hole, with Dianics right alongside them. Both would only intentionally worship one deity; whether or not the individuals acknowledge others, or even believe that the entity is a god not a construct of their own subconscious or a collection of all the higher consciousnesses of mankind.

    I understand, this isn’t about judgment, not in the least. I have never arrived at the conclusion you were developing any opinion about who is “right” and who is “wrong.” If anything, you’re looking at human religious belief in a multidimensional way, which I appreciate. Spiritual beliefs and practice are seldom simple, seldom a case of “are” or “are not,” but a range of selections based on the individual’s upbringing, preferences, social status, geographical location, etc., etc., etc. I’m not interested in passing blame myself, there are more than enough people on the internet willing to take up that torch. If anything, your theory does show the relationship between each mindset, and a spectrum of beliefs that demonstrates we are not so very far apart which, in my view, eliminates prejudice rather than breeds it. I find the theory to be fascinating to develop, and have found you to be an interesting person to discuss this with. Thank you for sharing your comment section with me, I have enjoyed this discussion tremendously.

    • Thanks for engaging in the ongoing conversation with me! These aren’t new thoughts, but it was the first time I’d really started thinking about their implications, and it’s useful to sound that off other people, especially when we can do it without being all angry with each other about it.

  5. Very interesting analogy, I’m more likely to say “the elephant in the room” but yours is a lot more nuanced. I do think we talk about Abrahamic influence on our religions and secular cultures a lot, but often we don’t recognize aspects of it in ourselves- but mostly in others when someone else, say calls on angels in magic, or gets into Kabbalah etc. Years ago I remember there was a Hellenic group called Elaion that officially dissapproved of the idea/practice of patron gods, because they thought it was not part of ancient practice, and that it was an influence of “Jesus is my personal savior/therapist” style American Protestantism in particular. I don’t have a problem with patron gods, but I do think they are over-emphasized in modern paganism due to monotheist influence. It’s impossible to completely avoid that, but we need to be aware of it so it does not distort our perspective as we re-build/re-vitalize our religions. Modern innovation is necessary for our religions to fit our time and place(s) while keeping the ancient values/worldviews in mind.

    I also talk on my blog (on the Nuff Polytheist Street Cred post) about “functional polytheism” how officially monotheism can differ in actual practice (esp. local folk practice) Then there’s monism, which I consider different from monotheism- pantheism in particular sees the Universe itself as divine, rather than the God vs. creation separation you were mentioning. That’s a view you find in Hinduism, Neoplatonism etc.

    • Thank you for the post! I agree that the emphasis on personal god(s) is different now because of monotheistic worldviews, but it doesn’t mean it’s not useful. I have been trying really hard to get these concepts across without expressing value judgments. I think that every person has to find their place on the spectrum wherever that is – but I wanted to talk about the spectrum. There’s too much emphasis on binaries of late, and the world is far messier than “all x” versus “all y.” I’m also conscious of the need to understand our biases, and to make sure that the foundations we are now laying for future contemporary polytheists, reconstructionists, or contemporary pagans are very clear on where their various “parts” come from, so that those people can be free to make the same nuanced decisions we have been able to make about how we form our practice and worldview.

      Can’t wait to read your blog – there is a lot to be said about the differences between practices and theoreticals/”beliefs” that I didn’t have time to say, or opted not to say because I wanted to talk about a very specific group of a larger set of issues that others are also addressing, in many cases far more eloquently than I am. Monism is a different creature too. Part of me wants to name it the black hole itself – it’s neither thing but contains portions of both in many ways. But that’s oversimplifying.

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