Recently, I was interviewed on the This Week in Heresy podcast. (You can listen here) The first few of comments to the interview are in, and they’re enlightening.
To sum up some of my points in the interview, I said that we can have a solid spiritual communtiy dispite differing theologies if we can communicate clearly and without judgment about our spiritual expereinces. Key to this is having defined terms with which to do this communicating. Polytheism means the worship of many gods, duotheism means the worship of two gods, and monism means the worship of a single divine entity, experienced (perhaps) one small part at a time. None of these are better or worse than the others (if the gods want to reveal themselves to me as many and to someone else as one, I’m not going to tell them to do otherwise), but they are different, and we can’t respect those differences or work with them without being able to name them and talk about them.
The first comment, however, is that the commenter sees no reason to distinguish between polytheism and monism. Which might indicate that I didn’t make my point clearly, so I try again. I describe my own experiences of the gods very generally, which description the commenter quotes back, says matches their own, and then says that they don’t see that having that experience means they aren’t a polytheist.
Which is odd, given that I described that expereince to explain what I meant when I said I am a poltheist. At any rate, I’m skipping details for the sake of brevity. If you really want to get into it, you can read the comment thread (but listen to the interview first).
Reflecting on it, what I think I’m seeing here, and in a good many other discussions of polytheism as distinct from other Pagan expereinces on line and off, is a confusion between the definitions of the terms and the emotional connotations of the terms.
People who use a very broad (including monism, duotheism, and so on) definition of polytheism seem to be less interested in the details and differences of various Pagan spiritual experiences and practices, and more in defining their positions as not monotheism. Monotheism is what they left behind or rejected upon becoming Pagan. Monotheism is the belief of Abrahamic sects; and so Polytheism is anything not those, which is to say, Pagan.
This ignores the fact that there are non-Abrahamic monotheisms, such as the Sikhs, but we’re talking about gut reactions here, not technical definitions.
What I’m seeing is that there is a fundamental dualism in practice, where defining Pagan as “not Abrahamic monotheism” is equated on an almost unconscious level with Pagan=Polytheist vs. Abrahamic=Monist. So when someone who’s using polytheism to distinguish a particualr variety of Pagan practice and experience tries to explain the difference, what’s being reacted to on an emotional level is not, “What you’re describing isn’t polytheism, it’s some other kind of Paganism,” but “You aren’t really Pagan.”
This leads to a reaction like, “I am too polytheist! You can’t invalidate my Paganism!” Which was, of course, never the intention.
Which, in turn, leads to a massive derail as we argue about just what “polytheism” means and whether or not someone making the distinction is a disruptive splitter.
I’m not sure what can be done to avoid triggering this gut reaction. Possibly, the problem will age out as folks who never identified as part of an Abrahamic faith (and thus are not invested in defining themselves as not-Abrahamic) become the majority in the community. For the moment, I’m just going to keep patiently explaining what I actually meant, and how that’s different from what someone may have felt I meant.