I Think I See What the Fuss is About

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.

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About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

15 responses to “I Think I See What the Fuss is About

  • EmberVoices

    But Monism and Monotheism AREN’T the same thing either. So not only are people equating Pagan with Polytheist, they’re equating Monotheism with Monism.

    Equating Pantheism with Monism makes some sense, as they’re similar to the point that even religious scholars aren’t sure what distinction is being made. (Personally, my favorite is that Monism is from the perspective of the Whole, while Pantheism is from the perspective of the Parts, but the model is basically the same – all is one, and the One is Divine).

    Argh.

    Yes, I see your point about the emotional connotations, and it makes a great deal of sense. But it’s frustrating to me. Hugely. Because no amount of clarifying will fix it if they aren’t *listening*.

    -E-

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  • EmberVoices

    Reblogged this on EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir and commented:
    This just kind of makes me go ARGH. I think Lon has nailed it on the head, and I’m trying not to throw my hands up and give up.

    If the response to a technical clarification is an emotional outburst, no amount of clarifying the technical terms will assuage the emotional problem. But no amount of emotional outburst will actually change the need for the technical clarification, either. So you’re at an impasse.

    As a religious scholar, words like “Pantheism” and “Panentheism” mean very different things to me. “Monism” is very clearly different from “Monotheism”. But to people who aren’t familiar with all these words, “Monotheism” and “Monism” sound interchangeable, and the difference between “Pantheism” and “Panentheism” is hard to understand. “Polytheism” seems really straight forward to me, but that doesn’t mean it’s straight forward to anyone who isn’t used to it as a technical term. Where does Polytheism end and Syncretism begin?

    It wouldn’t be that hard to write up a glossary, but if what Lon is saying is true, I’m not sure a glossary is the only thing missing.

    Still, I should write up a glossary soon, just for the sake of having it, I suppose…
    –Ember–

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lon Sarver

      PSVL has argued that polytheism and syncretism are coexistent, citing many ancient sources where concretely polytheistic thinkers still syncretized deities. So asking where does polytheism end and syncretism begin might be a meaningless question.

      But, hey, I’m not a religious studies scholar, so I may be missing something.

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      • EmberVoices

        Oh, I know, I was riffing.

        Polytheism and Syncretism are actually orthagonal.

        But so are Monism and Polytheism. It’s quite possible to believe in many gods, and still believe that They, like everything else, are part of a Whole.

        -E-

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  • caelesti

    I’ve tried following discussions/arguments between Pagans & polytheists about the definition of monism, and it makes my head hurt. I don’t really care if someone believes all the gods are ultimately One, so long as they don’t keep insisting I’m less enlightened for having a different view.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Silence Ocelfa

    Does ‘the poster’ know you are using them as an example in this blog post? Why not write about theological definitions without talking about someone who is not present?

    Like

    • Lon Sarver

      The post flowed best starting from a more personal place, which I felt required a bit of context for readers who may not have already listened to the podcast or read the comment thread. I don’t know if the poster knows, though they could find out easily enough. Since the original comment thread is public, and may be viewed by anyone, I didn’t feel as if I were breaching any confidences. In any case, no identifying information is given in either place (so far as I know), and we’ve already talked through the miscommunication over there.

      I actually thought the comment conversation I’m referencing was a very good example of people misunderstanding one another talking it out and coming to an understanding.

      Like

      • Silence Ocelfa

        >I actually thought the comment conversation I’m referencing was a very good example of people misunderstanding one another talking it out and coming to an understanding.

        It seemed from your post that you were frustrated with the poster, and were continuing that discussion here, which is awkward to say the least.

        Like

      • Lon Sarver

        “It seemed from your post that you were frustrated with the poster”

        Not particularly. I am frustrated with the general situation, but that shouldn’t be read as any animosity towards that particular individual.

        I wasn’t meaning to continue that specific discussion, but to comment on an insight I had while having that discussion. This is why I felt a need to reference the original discussion for context’s sake.

        Liked by 1 person

  • G. B. Marian

    Personally I think of polytheism as treating the Gods as individuals in terms of cultic and ritual practice. This doesn’t necessarily require that one believes They are distinct individuals. For example, I don’t know if someone like Sabazios is actually real or not, having never directly experienced this entity myself (or at least not to my knowledge). But since I’m a polytheist, I’ll refer to Him with capitalized pronouns and in terms of His own unique myths and cultural milieu, just the same. I think part of the problem is that modern Pagans are generally too concerned about beliefs and not enough about actions. This isn’t necessarily in keeping with how ancient polytheists saw things, but is more a hangover of monotheistic cultural conditioning in my opinion.

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    • Lon Sarver

      Not simply monotheism, but Protestantism, specifically the branches that reject the ritualistic aspects of other Christianities (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and so on). I think it also has something to do with having to re-invent much of our praxis; without a cultural steeping in what to do and when, what one thinks and feels seems more important.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Berin Kinsman

    I just listened to this episode for the third time, because I keep finding great points to mull over. From experience I have seen to many people go down the long, dark road of doctrine, dogma, and vocabulary while forgetting to have a spiritual experience, or even acknowledging that having a spiritual experience is a part of what their religion is about. I see this in American Christianity, where people fall back on the printed word rather than listening to what their deity might be trying to tell them.

    I know that people of different faith can get along and even worship and practice together on common ground. I’m a nontheist on a Buddhist path. I have seen Buddhists of different schools come together. “Oh, you’re Thereveda? I’m Mahayana. I practice this way, what do you do?” or “I’m a secular Buddhist, you’re a religious Buddhist, I see this precept as meaning this, how do you interpret it?” It’s mostly a celebration of differences, with the acknowledgement that what works for me might not work for you and vice-versa, and there is no universal right or wring, just different. Again, is it getting you to the spiritual experience that you’re supposed to be having? Then more power to you.

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  • Lon Sarver

    I think what I’m seeing inside modern Paganism is growing pains. The previous generation of Pagans worked very hard to create a community that gave them what they needed. The next generation doesn’t need the same things, in the same way, and expanding the community to make it a place where everyone can come together in a meaningful way can be a painful process.

    In practice, most of the people I know in person aren’t particularly dogmatic. Dogmatism, or something that looks much like it, seems to come into play mostly when someone feels like their way of doing things is being criticized or dismissed.Then it becomes all about the how of it, and the why of it gets lost in the background.

    Like

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