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.]