And… we’re off. This is not going to be a lecture (this blog is about my spirituality, not just spirituality in general :), but for the benefit of any non-pagans reading this I need to lay a little groundwork.
There is a wide spectrum of opinion in the pagan/polytheist community regarding the nature of the Gods. On one end is hard polytheism, which IMO is closest to what most ancient Europeans would recognize – in very general terms, the belief that the Gods are fully independent beings, as autonomous as we are (if not more so). On the far other end is the belief that the Gods are just aspects or faces of some sort of cosmic Unity (actually, farther than that is the “myth studies” model that says they’re all just creations of our collective unconscious anyway, but the stories are still really really important… but in my view that falls outside the bounds of polytheism, and we won’t consider it any further here).
Back in just a little from that end is the duotheism of traditional Wicca, which holds that all the named Gods and Goddesses are ultimately just aspects of “The” God and Goddess, an irreducible cosmic pair from whose joining the universe was born. I’m probably somewhere near the middle, but definitely on the hard side.
I believe – absolutely bred-in-the-bone believe – that whatever may be the true nature of What Is, we can’t fully understand it. I am also, at this point in my thinking, a pretty firmly convinced panentheist: I do think that there is some sort of ultimate Unity of which all things, including the material universe, the Gods, and us, are a part, and that It is more than just the sum of Its parts. Beyond that, what I suspect is that the Gods are more-or-less independent manifestations or self-revelations of that Power; the appropriate term to use here would depend in part on whether this Power is a Person, or is simply the Ground of Being. Since that’s part of what I think we ultimately can’t answer, I don’t worry too much about it… although I have heard one intriguing theory regarding this, which I will discuss in a future post. (ADDENDUM: after a short conversation with Pagan Sojourner, I realized that I need to add another sentence here: In saying that we can’t fully understand Ultimate Reality, I need to also say that we can come to some degree of understanding, and that I think that it is primarily, if not solely, through coming into relationship with the Gods, and more intentional relationship with the rest of the natural world, that we can get at that deeper understanding.)
Of course, all of that just answered the question “Which Polytheism?”, which – I notice – is not the title of this post. So, why polytheism? Because it makes sense of my experiences.
Some background – I am 41, the son and grandson of Lutheran ministers; from age 5-14 I was raised in the house of my grandfather (of blessed memory), and was trained to be a devout Christian. This training failed. It is important to note here that I had never had any real Christian faith or any sort of experience of God or Christ in all my life in the Church, despite – believe me – years of devout prayers of the “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief” variety. When I was 14 my mom remarried and we relocated, and I dropped gratefully out of the Church; I did nothing religion-wise except a lot of reading (I read Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man in 5th grade, and haven’t stopped reading comparative religion yet :).
In college I tried out Buddhism for a time; after that I was nothing again for a bit, until I came across Wicca, took some classes and briefly (and disastrously) joined a coven. I was only formally Wiccan for a few months, but it introduced me to paganism and gave me my first actual religious experiences; and so paganism became my “default setting”. The following year I met the lady who would become my wife, but we didn’t start dating for a couple of years, during which time I continued to study paganism (she was actively Christian). When we became romantically involved I decided to try to go back for her sake, this time to the Episcopal Church, where we were together for two years and where we got married. Shortly after our marriage, however, I realized that I was really, truly NOT capable of being any kind of Christian, even a nominal one, and that it was disrespectful to myself and the other folks in the church to continue to pretend otherwise.
Shortly after that, we attended a series of free “Taste of Judaism” classes at the local Reform synagogue (out of casual interest – remember that comparative religion thing?); we became so intrigued with what we learned that we started attending services, and then were invited to join the choir, and then started studying with the Rabbi for conversion… and then Christmas rolled around, and my wife realized that *she* was not capable of being Jewish. So we dropped out of shul for a while and did nothing religiously, and I began to revert to my “default setting”. I did rejoin the choir after a few months, and attended the occasional service; and it was here that I had my next religious experiences, of the Presence of what I can only assume is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
That shook me up a bit, as you might imagine; but in a roundabout way it confirmed my tendency toward polytheism. Consider: at that point I had a background of direct personal experience of spiritual Persons from the pagan side, and now had similar experiences from the Jewish side. While the Persons I encountered were clearly not identical, they were also clearly of the same Being-ness, if that makes sense; and I hope it does because I don’t think I can explain it any more clearly. That’s the shortest answer to the title question.
After that, although I continued to sing in the choir (I have a lot of friends there, I consider it a second spiritual home, and I love singing in Hebrew), I mostly turned back to paganism. Around that time (1998) we also started attending the UU church at the invitation of friends, mostly because we wanted a religious community, a base from which we could continue our somewhat different spiritual journeys – and UU is good for that.
In 2000 I stumbled across the Reconstructionist Religions forum on Beliefnet, and discovered Hellenism. But that’s the next post.