All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.
For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
Deities and diversity: the limits of theology
My religious practice is mostly Wiccan. Were I practicing a Heathen, Celtic Reconstructionist, or some other NeoPagan tradition, my examples would differ but I think my point would remain the same.
Wiccans have a primary pantheon of two major deities, the Lord and Lady. We also have a number of mythologies describing these deities’ relationships. Taken literally they are not consistent with one another. In some but not all Wiccan traditions She is viewed as having three guises: Mother, Maid, and Crone. Sometimes She will have three dimensions but not as mother, maid, and crone, as with Hekate. Sometimes She is treated as a single goddess. The Horned Lord is sometimes seen as the Oak King and the Holly King. At the solstices they engage in ritual combat, dying to be reborn. In other Wiccan contexts and traditions He is treated as a single deity, and sometimes as an aspect of a more inclusive deity.
Wiccans also deal with other deities, usually but not always from EuroPagan traditions, such as Bhride, the Celtic goddess of healing, poetry, and smith craft. In fact my first coven was named Tobar Bhride, “Brigit’s Well.”
In other words, within the Wiccan NeoPagan tradition the primary Gods can be masculine and feminine, or different manifestations of these qualities which may or may not be considered and treated as distinct manifestations of a single deity. In addition, deities of other traditions are often incorporated and honored. Finally, in our quarter callings, many Wiccans include a variety of other Sacred entities to participate in the average circle, from elemental and animal powers to heroes to other deities.
We are in harmony with Pagan traditions thousands of years old. For example, some Pagan Greeks focused only on a limited number of Olympian deities whereas others, such as Thales, held that “all things are full of Gods.” Modern philosophers seek to explain Thales’ statement away, but the same thinking exists today in African Diasporic traditions. Several major Orixas are usually the main focus but there are an indefinite number of Orixas and distinct aspects of Orixas. There are also different understandings as to what the Orixas really are.
Some Orixas or Classical deities were never human and some were said to have been at least at one time human or partly so. Dionysus had one human and one divine parent, as did Herakles. Xango is usually treated as a Orixa who was once an earthly king. The genealogical pattern is messier in these traditions than in Wicca.
Pagan pantheons also do not translate without remainder into ours, or into any other. For example, at first glance the Orixas (Orishas) in Candombleand Santeria seem to resemble the Greek and Roman deities. And to a degree they do. Oxum (Oshun) is the Orixa of feminine beauty and sexuality and seems remarkably close to the Roman Venus and Greek Aphrodite. Venus was sexually connected to Mars, as Aphrodite was to Ares. But while a God of war, Mars,was also a God of spring and other more pacific qualities. Ares, often connected with Aphrodite, usually was more narrowly associated with battle. Oxum is not so connected to Ogum, the Orixa of war and iron work. Ogum’s wife and consort is Iemanja (Yemaja) Orixa of the ocean. She is more a mother figure than a sensual one. Oxum is the wife of Xango, who is said to be mutually hostile with Ogum. While Oxum is associated with fresh flowing water, Aphrodite is connected with the sea. Hephaestus and Brigid share little in common besides an association with smith craft and fire., and have even less in common with Ogum.
Resemblances without correspondence exist between one pantheon and another. Some Wiccans might argue the female Orixas or Classical Venus and Aphrodite are aspects of the Goddess, the male deities aspects of the God. But this effort at categorization does not take us very far and would probably not impress followers of Santeria, Candomble. In Classical times Apuleius made a similar claim about Isis but devotees of Cybele probably did not regard Her as simply Isis under a less precise name.
Any coherent explanation about Pagan deities must be able to account for this mutually exclusive variety.
This incommensurable variety is enough to drive a person seeking orderly understanding crazy. A secular argument then emerges: the deities are nothing but cultural constructs, with no greater reality than the imaginations of their followers.
There is one fatal problem here. The Gods are real. This may not matter to people who have only read about deities, but it matters a great deal to those of us who have experienced at least one of Them.
Many Pagan traditions, including traditional Wicca, are based on personal encounters with deities. I am a Pagan today because of such an encounter well over 20 years ago. In my experience the Goddess is much more than a poetic metaphor or cultural construct. In my experience, and not just in my experience, the Gods partake of a reality greater than my day-to-day reality.
She is also quite individual. To refer to another deity whom I encountered in ritual, She is not the Celtic Goddess Bhride. They are distinct.
Traditional Wiccan Priestesses experience Drawing Down of the Moon, where the Goddess enters their body and mind, a personal connection inconceivable to secular thought. Less often the presiding High Priest experiences “Drawing Down of the Sun.” For those of us to whom this has happened, attempts to reduce these experiences to purely social or psychological explanations are like trying to picture a rainbow with a black and white drawing.
Nor is Wicca alone in this respect. In African Diasporic drumming rituals even people entirely new to the experience can find their bodies “ridden” by their “divine horsemen.” From shamanic traditions to Neo-Platonic Theurgy to incorporation of spirits in African diasporic religions, to the personal encounters of many NeoPagans, and many more, Pagan religions offer people direct encounters with divinity. Pagans know their deities are real. Not every Pagan has (or wants) such experiences, but they are common across Pagan traditions.
These experiences have nothing at all to do with theology, book reading, or in many cases even having heard about them from others. They can be unexpected. They trump theology, texts, and others’ opinions. Any adequate framework making sense of spiritual reality also has to account for these encounters.
Transcendence within Immanence
There are many cross cultural accounts of what could be called “unitive” experiences, where people experience everything as comprising a divine unity. Many having them describe everything as coming from an ultimate Source that is not a personality or an individual. These experiences are reported in Pagan and monotheistic cultures alike. Monotheists usually distrust them because these experiences do not fit the usual account of what a single deity is supposed to be. In Pagan cultures they do not cause such problems.
Shamans in traditional cultures report such experiences, as Jordan Paper explains in The Mystic Experience. (75-79) The Roman Neo-Platonist Plotinus called it the One. Gardnerian Wiccans refer to it as the Dryghton:
In the name of Dryghtyn, the Ancient Providence,
Who was from the beginning and is for eternity,
Male and Female, the Original Source of all things;
all-knowing, all-pervading, all-powerful; changeless, eternal.
What conception of Divinity might fit a spiritual reality of many deities not reducible to any ordered hierarchy, deities that enter into intimate connection with people, and existing within a ultimate unity with no one on top?
While Pagan religions are truly primordial, our understanding of them has always been shaped by the societies within which they were practiced. Authoritarian hierarchies did not exist among hunter gatherer societies, and were absent in their religions as well. Authoritarian hierarchical agricultural societies shaped their religious practices as well, ultimately giving birth to monotheism as hierarchy’s most extreme expression. It is this tradition, so alien to modern life, that still structures how many think of Spirit, and so of the religions to honor it.
Today the modern world provides new ways of making sense of reality, ways that are not hierarchical in this sense. They are also able to make sense of the diversity of spiritual experience we know exists across cultures and times, without resorting to hierarchies. They enable us to free ourselves from conceptions of the sacred distorted by imports of secular metaphors rooted in kingship and domination.
The key concept is called “emergence.” The term refers to new and more complex order arising without anyone being in charge. The term applies to evolution and to ecosystems, to language and to the internet, to a market economy and to science as a whole. And to much more. “Emergence” includes that large range of phenomena that are neither chaotic nor deliberately constructed.
Emergent phenomena are characterized by what can be described as decentered or distributed authority. A political example sheds light here. In modern democracies the people as a whole are supposed to be the ultimate political power. In relatively non-corrupt ones they are. But there is no unified “people.” There is no unified will except in times of external threat, which is why enemies of democracy always seek to find threats. But despite this lack of a central will or plan modern democracies provide many services far better than alternative governments, as Scandinavia demonstrates.
In ecologies, science, the market economy, and the World Wide Web among other things, impressive orders, intricate variety, and spontaneous adaptiveness arises in the absence of any central authority or directing hand. (For those interested in a deeper analysis I published a scholarly secular paper on emergence to kick off the inaugural issue of an online international academic journal.)
Relationship all the way down
Emergence’s other core concept is that order arises from relationships. Relationships, like turtles in the old story, go “all the way down.” One of the most fascinating examples is our own bodies. We now know the cells that make up our bodies are themselves symbiotic combinations of simpler cells into more complex organisms whose components to some degree maintain their own identity. We know that the origins of the capacity enabling these cells to form tissues, at least so far discovered, is derived externally, from viruses. We know that bacteria form essential parts of our bodies, which could not function nearly so well in their absence. We know that bacteria present in the external environment increase the intelligence of mice, and presumably other mammals. Many people, particularly women, have been discovered to possess the genome of more people than their own dominant one, even within their brains.
We are not organisms that enter into our environment, we are organisms constituted out of some of the relations existing within the environment. Some relations are tightly coupled, like in the eukaryotic cell, others loosely coupled like that between ourselves and plants, but we are describing a continuum, not a division. Many scientists now argue we should be thought of as ecosystems or super-organisms rather than our traditional ideas of ourselves as fundamentally discrete individuals.
Our individuality arises from our social, biological and ecological relationships. It does not enter into these relationships from the outside, it emerges from them. But it cannot be reduced to them. Our individuality is very real, but it is not a basic unit in physical, biological, or psychological terms. Our individuality emerges as a self-aware hub connecting the network of our relationships, of “all our relations." If awareness is at all related to tightness of linkage, and this linkage exists along a continuum, we can make sense of terms like expanding and narrowing our consciousness.
This modern emergent perspective emphasizing relationships as constitutive of individuals enables us to grasp a more satisfactory view of deities, and so make sense of the complexities I have described.
Deities are also individuals normally requiring particular relationships to encounter and who change over time. The perspective modern science is discovering about our most basic model of individuality, ourselves, may well apply to deities. The only jump we need make from science to spirituality is to hold that awareness in some sense is as basic a dimension of reality as anything else. By virtue of our being Pagans, this should not be much of a jump.
Our individuality is a node in a network the whole of which is the One. As self-aware nodes we to some degree choose our present and future relationships even as we are constituted from out of them. By extension, deities can be thought of as the most important nodes in this network, the most important foci of relationships within the divine network.
The richer relationships lead to richer and more multifaceted individuality. This is true for people and it seems reasonable to hold the same is true for deities. Because relationships imply more than one, deities can have many of the same qualities and still not be reducible to one another, in a sense like most readers of this essay share many of the same aspects shaping who we are (early 21st century English speakers, mostly Americans identifying as Pagans). We share far more with one another than we do with first century Chinese, but we are still individually distinct. As we are the hubs where our experiences come together to create a world of conscious individual awareness, deities are by comparison “super hubs.”
Of course I am using human concepts to describe the more-than-human. But that is all any human being can do when trying to comprehend this ultimate reality and then communicate it to others. That is all the writers of sacred texts and the people who write theology can do. The difference is that I am using some of the most modern intellectual tools we have rather than metaphors derived from hierarchical prescientific agricultural societies. I believe these tools enable me to solve the problems that have long vexed traditional theologies.
I am not saying I know what deities are. I suspect no one does. I am saying that the model I am presenting covers the reported experiences of deities better than the alternatives I have encountered.
It has one additional advantage. This perspective shifts how we think about religion away from texts and theologies towards practice. If my argument is correct, the importance of any particular theory of Pagan religion, including my own, is far less important than a good ritual. Emphasizing theology grows from the distortions arising from seeking a coherent model of monotheism.
In my final section I argue we are enabled to shift from seeing getting the theology right as important for a religion to viewing it as Sacred Performance Art. We shift from focusing on religion primarily with our head and intellect to holding our hearts and bodies are of at least equal status with our intellect.
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