Posts Tagged ‘deliberation’

Narrowing Brings Discernment

March 19, 2015 8 comments

In reading this post by Helio, I found myself nodding at other times, having to reread sections to parse my feelings in others.  Overall I do not disagree with the idea of the Gods existing in a kind of Venn diagram where there is intersection between the Gods, Ancestors, landvaettir, and vaettir otherwise.  I think where I disagreed most profoundly is in the differentiation of Gods.

But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.

My understanding is that a God is a kind of spirit, but not all vaettir (spirits) are Gods.  This is because vaettir lack the spheres of influence, recognition, and/or Being that a God does.  I do not use God and vaettir interchangeably for ease of language, as I do recognize that some vaettir may well be Gods in Their own right, i.e. a local God of a river, lake, stream, tree, grove, etc. and in such a case, I use the word local God to denote this.  Venn diagrams are useful because they contain a discrete category, a pole, around which the circles are drawn.  These can then overlap, and this is the bleedover we can see between ideas of Gods, Ancestors, and landvaettir where these centers intersect and cross one another. While the notion of Gods, Ancestors, landvaettir, vaettir, etc. can overlap, in order to be useful as terms, they must be discrete categories in some fashion or else we are effectively describing nothing with any usefulness.  In other words, discrete categories, circles, are needed or else we are not describing a Venn diagram, but a single circle.

If godhood is to mean anything with any substance, then godhood should, as a term, be restricted to certain more-than-mere-human-beings.  In example, not all of those who live in Asgard are Gods.  The Gods have servants who may be offered to, but are not, so far as I know, recognized as Gods.  The Einherjar, honored Dead hand-picked by Odin, reside in Valhalla in Asgard.  Hunin and Munin are not Gods, yet They serve Odin, live in Asgard, and fulfill very important functions mythologically, and in terms of human-divine communication.  It would be remiss of me to recognize Them as Gods or to ascribe godhood to these holy Ravens.  This not a monotheist idea; rather, it is a polytheist means of discerning between Gods and not-Gods.  It is not a matter of value, but of substance, inquiring into the thingness of a Being, and recognizing It for what It is or may be.

Parsing what is and is not a God is a pretty important theological question, and I expect that each tradition, group, and indeed each person, may wrestle with this idea several times over their life.  I find this to be a good thing.  I find that marking out boundaries is equally a good thing because it aids in discernment and in understanding by having clear ideas of what constitutes this idea of a Being.  In developing the idea of discrete categories we can come to understand where the Venn diagram has Beings who overlap into different categories of Being, and where and how these categories can bleed into one another, and where a discrete understanding of what those boundaries are, and where in the Venn overlaps a Being is may be found.  If a person believes in the concept of a single circle and that labeling that as ‘g/Gods’ is sufficient, so be it, but I do not agree with it.

Helio uses the example of Disir, stating:

Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.

Here again, I disagree with him.  The Disir, such as I understand Them, are not Goddesses Themselves, but powerful female Ancestors.  They may be divine women, but They are not Goddesses, per se.  Semantics, especially when we are talking about how we parse Who is what, is important.  While the word dis may be related to the word goddess, I do not see the Disir as Goddesses in the same arena as, say Freya.  It is more than Freya being more recognized; the Disir’s spheres of influence are less than Freya’s, and Their importance to the Heathen cosmology is less in impact than Freya.  While the Disir are very important in my spheres and perhaps regionally emenating out from Their relationship with me and I with Them, in the larger spheres of the religion the Disir do not carry as much weight.  Freya is more than what She is within the myths and stories, of course, but those myths and stories point to Her importance cosmologically, to the spheres of influence She has, and the relationships and relationality between Her and other Beings.  There is also the understanding that She simply wields a good deal more power than other Beings, going along with the notion that Her spheres of influence are larger.  At the very least She wields a good deal of power in areas other Beings do not.  So, because of Their roles within the religion, and Their relative effect on the religion and the power They each wield, I look at the Disir as powerful female Ancestors.

I also believe that were I to relate to Freya to as an Ancestor, I would understand this as an intersection between Goddess and Disir.  These distinctions between how I understand Goddesses and Disir would not disappear, however.  There would be a difference in calling to Freya as a Disir comparative to, say, the Vanadis.  That understanding is why I count Odin among my powerful male Ancestors, the Väter, and yet also relate to Him as a God.  His God-ness is not set aside, but my understanding of Odin also carries the nuance of relating to and understanding Him as one of my Väter.

Again, overlap in a Venn diagram does not and cannot erase the circles or it will cease to be a Venn diagram.

I do not disagree that humans have the potential to become Gods nor do I believe the categories should be so discrete that the circles never cross.  As I have thought on this, one issue that keeps coming up is that the idea that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir share similarities to kami.  While Helio does not go into this in the main article, he does in the comments.  I recoil at the notion that we should view our Gods this way, as there are categories of Beings.  The Aesir are not the Dvergar, the Dvergar are not the Vanir, the Vanir are not the Jotun.  While I may worship, for instance, Andvari, He does not become a God by dint of my worship, or the landvaettir would all enter into godhood as well.  While that notion would be what I assume, from his writing, Helio advocates, I find distinct categories as a useful thing.

Lumping everything into one category, i.e. ‘god’ does not strike me as respectful of the differences between different kinds of spirits, nor of the Gods.  It is one thing to worship a river God, and another to assume that all the Beings in that river, or that all big rivers, would associate themselves with such a notion.  From an animist point of view, Gods are big or more influential spirits compared to those spirits which are smaller, more localized, and/or have less spheres of influence.  So while I am not actively denying God-as-spirit, I believe that referring to all spirits as Gods misses the point of the word ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’.  Just because the Germanic and Scandinavian people saw some Gods and vaettir as being one in the same, that does not set aside that they had different divine categories.  Bleedover between categories in how they saw the Gods and vaettir does not mean they saw Them as one in the same.  Even if there were related concepts, the sources I have seen and how I understand the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir deny homogenization of identity.

Narrowing, in my view, is not missing.  Not narrowing is erasing by homogenization, in this case.  It would be a disservice to our religions if we were to strip the meaning of ‘God’ and ‘Goddess’.  If words such as ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ are to retain any meaning in dialogue or theology, the circles need to be defined even if they sometimes bleed over into one another.  Divinity may be everywhere, and there may be a potentially unlimited number of Gods, Goddesses, but we would be unable to recognize Them as such without some clear ideas on what a God is, what makes a God a God, and what differentiates it from other spirits.  Categorizing all beings as such erases the meaning of the words.


Defining Terms and Setting Boundaries

June 18, 2013 18 comments

In reading a good deal of blog posts I am in agreement that part of the core problem of communication between different Pagan traditions and religions is that there is a sloppy use of words.  To help with this I first list the dictionary definition from the online Oxford English Dictionary as a starting point for discussion.  Then I will dig into the words and what they mean from my perspective if I have any perspective to add.  From there, I’ll go into where I see boundary lines in Paganism, and ask questions I find there.

Polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than one god.

This is pretty straightforward.  Each polytheist relates to the many Gods in a number of ways, some as son or daughter, some as servant, some as a worshiper, or a combination of these or something beyond this simple breakdown.

Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.

Atheism: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

Agnosticism: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

Henotheism: adherence to one particular god out of several, especially by a family, tribe, or other group.

This is a term I came across during my Religious Studies core courses, and it came up again in a Hinduism course.  It is a term rooted in polytheism in that it recognizes many Gods and worships only one.  Some bhakti worshipers are henotheists, and some Pagans devoted to one God are henotheist.  For instance, a Lokian may be a henotheist in that they believe in many Gods as Beings unto Themselves but only worship Loki.

Pantheism: a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.

Panentheism: the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.

Monism: a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in a particular sphere, such as that between matter and mind, or God and the world.  The doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

Monism started off as a philosophical term and used in philosophy by Christian von Wolff which purported there is a unity to all thing, lacking a mind/body divide.  Religiously speaking the term monism has been used to mean that there is no divide between ourselves and God/the Gods.  So a person who believes we ‘are all part of the body of God’ or ‘we are all part of the Goddess’ is a monist.

Humanism: a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Naturalistic: the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.

Rationalism: the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.

Archetype Psychoanalysis (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.

Pagan: a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.

Neopagan: a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or ritual practices from traditions outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe and North America.

Most of these definitions are fairly straightforward.  A polytheist is one who believes in and may worship one or more Gods.  A monotheist is one who believes there is a single God.  Henotheists believe in many Gods and worship just one of Them.

When I see these terms in this context it boggles my mind how archetypes are supposed to work in Paganism.  Archetypes are essential symbol sets we are supposed to have inherited from the Collective Unconscious.  While they may be full of meaning they are, boiled down, symbols, not Gods.  They are reflection of psyche rather than inputs from the Gods Themselves.  That said, I do not understand how one builds a religion around the notion of archetypes.  It is one thing to recognize something as archetypal, i.e. a fertility symbol being strewn out across many cultures and recognized by each culture as a fertility symbol.  It is quite another to boil a God, Goddess, or other Being down to an archetype, i.e. Odin is a Warrior, Loki is a Trickster.  While it may be true that Odin is a Warrior and Loki is a Trickster, that is not all they are.  Odin has up to 300 heiti.  How could one archetype possibly encompass all He is with so many heiti?  What does an archetypal Pagan cosmology look like?  How does it function?  What does it teach about the relationship one has with the world?  It would seem to me to be very hard to build a religion out of archetypalism, as it first stems from psychology and not religion, and its insights are geared toward the psychological rather than the religious.  That is not to say the two may not learn from one another, but describing deities, spirits, and people in merely archetypal terms belies the whole Being behind such categorizing.  It does not delve into the why of a God, or even into details, but what the God as a whole might represent to a person, i.e. Odin as a Warrior God or Dead-and-Risen God.  In viewing Gods through such archetypal lenses, while it may be useful to bridge a viewpoint or gain insight, it does disservice to the God or Goddess as a whole as it boils their Being down to this single facet.   It would be like someone boiling my whole identity down to a Psychology major or just my job title.

Where does atheism take its place in Paganism?  Do they hold religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions?  Well, considering all the followers of the major world religions, with the exception of Buddhists, believes in some sort of God, then the answer is yes in a basic sense.  But do atheists hold religious belief?  The hallmark of atheism is that, as the above definition shows, there is disbelief or lack of belief.  That is, that there is no belief in the Gods.  An affirmative belief from an atheist would then be “There are no Gods.”  What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.?  What kind of religious foundation can be placed here, in unbelief?  Again, I do not understand how one can be an atheist and a Pagan from these definitions and the understandings I have of Pagan and atheist.  If an atheist does not believe in the Gods, how does one have a cosmology?  If one does have a cosmology, how is it Pagan?  

Monism purports that there is no separation between the physical and spiritual.  One can take that to mean in the materialistic sense, that all things are part of the physical world, or in the more pro-spiritual sense, that physical reality and spiritual reality are on in the same.  Either way, the physical is it, all there is, encompassing all of reality.  How does this work within Pagan religion?  I do not see how a philosophy that would deny something as fundamental to Pagan religion as the Otherworld, the Summerlands, Helheim, etc. would effectively fit Paganism at all.  If the physical world is all there is, there is no Asgard, and Asgard’s usefulness from the view of cosmology is completely limited to symbolism or abstraction.  Accordingly, so is all that is told of the place to us from myth, legend, experience, etc.

I have many of the same questions for humanism, naturalism, and rationalism as I do for atheism as it relates to Paganism.  How do any of these engage Paganism within its own bounds rather than imposing its own philosophy on Paganism?  How does humanism, naturalism, or rationalism fit into any Pagan belief structures, many of which are deity-centric?  How does, as the Humanistic Paganism blog states “we carry on a long tradition going back to ancient times” if it actually denies the central tenets of many of those traditions?

I am a polytheist, and there is a great deal of unpacking that so simple a label now asks us to do.  Am I a ‘soft polytheist’?  Am I a ‘hard’ polytheist?  This seeming dichotomy is actually what I view as an improper use of language.  If you believe that everything is part of a single God in the end you are a monist,  pantheist, or a panentheist (depending on the particulars of your belief(s)), not a polytheist, no matter how many permutations of ‘God’ you feel and/or believe there are.

During the last few months I have read a great deal of posts and responses, and there is a pretty consistent question that comes up: why should we be so discerning or heavy handed in dissecting what Paganism means?  I won’t speak on anyone else’s behalf, but share my own answers.

First, the boundaries of my religion are sacred to me.  There are ways to properly believe and engage in my path.  There is such a thing as a blasphemy within polytheist Paganism, and every time I see the Gods called ‘nothing more than archetypes’ or the ancient traditions used as a medium for what I consider to be vacuous religion and/or spirituality, I see blasphemy being committed.  Can the Gods punish blasphemers?  Certainly, if They care to.  That said, as a member of the Pagan community it is also on me to say ‘this is not acceptable within my religion’.  If I am silent in the face of blasphemy I am giving it my tacit acceptance.

Second, the sloppy use or intentional misuse of language is often a way of erasure for minority paths in Paganism.  Statements such as ‘all Pagans believe’ are, like most blanket statements, incorrect.  Far too often have I heard this, whether from fellow Pagans, academics, or any number of well-meaning souls who are trying to speak on my behalf.  I may not agree with Atheistic Paganism, Humanistic Paganism, but I will not speak on their behalf.  The perspective I speak of is my own, from my own tradition and in my own voice. I recognize there will be polytheists who are just fine with Atheist Pagans, Humanist Pagans, and accept them as Pagan as they are.  Given my beliefs on the Gods I cannot do this.  I may not agree with you, and I will do my best to avoid characterizing you and your words wrong, but I will not speak for you.  

Third, I like my words to have concrete meaning.  Atheist Pagan, as with Humanist Pagan, leaves me with too many questions that are unanswered.  It, as a religious path from within Paganism, makes little sense to me, even on a baseline reading of the words without digging into the theology, or lack thereof.  If one does not believe in the Gods, and/or has a lack of belief in religion and/or spirituality it makes no sense to me to claim to be, in any way, shape, or form religious and/or to claim a religious title.  Archetypal Paganism leaves me with as many question, maybe more; are you worshiping images from the Collective Unconscious?  Are the Gods nothing more than thought/image symbols?  Is such a thing worthy of worship, or worth your time to worship?  If you are not worshiping, what is it one does with an archetype, religiously or spiritually speaking?

Fourth, I believe that having a better Pan-Pagan community means that we will run up against one another’s boundaries, and rather than pretend they are not there, I would rather acknowledge them.  You might hold the opinion that because I am opposed to including Humanist Pagans, Atheist Pagans and others in the Pagan community, that I am close-minded or a bigot.  Granted, you are entitled to your opinion.  This is not some decision I made overnight.  I’ve bandied this about back and forth for a significant amount of time both in my own head and with others.  I’ve thought on this a lot, prayed on it, and spent some time sussing out how I feel, and how best to talk about this subject.  You do not have to respect my opinion, or even my beliefs on this matter.  Acceptance, for me, does not change how I feel, or what my beliefs are in this.  I will respect your right to an opinion even if I cannot bring myself to respect the opinion itself.  In this, I am treating you no different than Christian friends or family, who feel much the same way toward me.

I know that, given the demographics, and overall feeling that is in the Pan-Pagan community the kind of boundary setting and exclusion I am speaking of will probably not happen.  There are too many people who accept Atheist Pagans, Humanistic Pagans, and so on as part of the community.  That is, after all, their right.  It is also mine as a polytheist Pagan to speak up and out against it, and against the marginalization of our voices in Pagan circles when and where it happens.  May the Gods be hailed, the Ancestors praised, and the spirits honored.

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