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Gods! Hard or Soft or ???

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Are the Gods individual Beings or Cosmic Forces or Psychological Archetypes? Or are we just sticking Them in Boxes?

There are interesting if contentious discussions amongst Pagans of the hard polytheist vs. ‘soft’(?) variety, vs. the atheist and humanist varieties, about the nature and place of the Gods. It is a sign of our maturity that we are having the conversation, and a sign of our immaturity and the pervasive lack of historical and philosophical training, that it is so contentious. On top of this is fear of the other and an inability to sit still while someone disagrees with you. We will need to get over this…

First, we need to realize that Paganism is big enough to embrace all of these positions, and while debate is fine and traditional, in no case do we need to denigrate our contrary interlocutors. One reason for this is that these positions can be found in the ancient world and they all got along without religious warfare.

In ancient Rome, thoughtful persons debated the existence of the Gods on the way to and from temple to make offerings. Their ‘belief’ or lack thereof was no impediment to worshipful acts. I think the epitome of this kind of thinking can be found in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

With a little analysis you can get hard and soft polytheism, as well as atheism and humanism, out of this one quote.  The fact that it is from one writer also shows a lot of agnosticism, or perhaps some humility in the face of the Divine. While we can apply logic and common sense, we can even collect and analyze our experiences, can we ever really say we know the whole of the Divine? The ancient Egyptians, it is said, present their Gods in profile so that with every revelation we know there is at least as much hidden.

While we go through this process of ‘speciation’, becoming all the varieties of Paganism that we will, we need to maintain comity amongst our kind so that we have the solidarity to face what is coming. Ritual is our great tool for doing this. In traditional ritualizing societies the meaning of the rite is left to the individual and not enforced as dogma. One of the great values of ritual is that it does not ask what we believe, but lets us engage in Divine labor together.

Over time our philosophies, our theologies, will develop. We have much to learn from our elder siblings and our own deep past. Indeed, they have developed notions of non-dualism, that slice through the either/or thinking we are wrapped in, yet do not fit well in linear words. We will get there, if we sit still with each other, continue to practice, and challenge our thinking to go beyond the limits of our inheritance.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.

Comments

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 13 November 2013

    Mr. Webster,

    Thank you for saying what needs to be said.

    I was thinking similar thoughts the other day, when I was reading a well-known hard polytheist trashing soft polytheism [monism] for the umpteenth time. Certain members of this camp seem like 1970s Canadian nationalists: Is their sense of identity so incredibly weak, so insecure, that underneath the postmodernist language all they've got is the Pagan equivalent of, "I'm NOT American!" ?

    Mind you, some of these folks are often the first to complain that they or some other group is being "Othered". Oh, the hypocrisy, it must burn.

    That's fine, and that's their choice, but in my opinion they would be better served by defining their beliefs in positive terms. I can simply say that I'm a Hellenistic Platonist, and try to explain why.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Wednesday, 13 November 2013

    Hi Jamie, thanks for your comment.

    Can you help me with something: folks are getting down on monists in some kind of opposition to polytheism? Seriously? That would be entirely unhistorical. The Memphite cosmology of Egypt was monist (I don't remember the name of the Mesopotamian version but it was older). Hard to call them anything other than polytheist. Many contemporary Hindus are monist.

    What do you think the basis of the hard polytheists' beef is?
    cheers,
    )O+
    sam

  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Mr. Webster,

    I don't think this faction sees its members as getting down on monists in opposition to polytheism, so much as demanding that hard polytheists be regarded as the only true polytheists. This is why they refer to themselves simply as, "Polytheists", implicitly [and ahistorically] asserting that panentheistic Platonists like myself (as well as many other Pagan groups) do not also merit that descriptor.

    If you wish to learn more, I would definitely recommend lurking about. Many questions would be answered.

    I absolutely agree about the ancient pedigree of Pagan monism. I am reading an awesome book right now called, "Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity", by Algis Uzdavinys, which discusses just how far back the roots of monism go in the Pagan world. You know all this stuff, it's being taught in universities now. I'm reiterating for the readers, that it's a matter of academic scholarship and not just my personal opinion.

    By the way, nice way to end your post. You can't go wrong with the holy symbol of Hermes!

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Thanks for replying, Jamie.
    Ignorance is astonishing. . .
    I'll return your favor and recommend a book to you: Thomas McEvilly's The Shape of Ancient Thought. It chases monism and other core philosophical questions in the ancient dialogue between India and the Mediterranean. A page turner for a contemporary Pagan. It tracks the origins of most of our major ideas.
    blessings,
    )O+
    sam

  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 14 November 2013

    Mr. Webster,

    I'll check out that book for sure.

    Thanks, man.

  • Kalyca Schultz
    Kalyca Schultz Thursday, 14 November 2013

    This is such an interesting--and sometimes polarizing--discussion amongst the Pagan blogosphere, and I've been wanting to engage for a while now. But there are just too many articles and posts to read! Lol For myself, I generally fall into the "hard" camp, although I've also always identified with panentheism. In any case, I feel pluralism is the answer to these disputes. Believe and practice what ye will with all your might; let others do the same. Blessings to all.

  • Henry Buchy
    Henry Buchy Thursday, 14 November 2013
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