When exploring polytheism in an ecological context, we quickly find ourselves beyond the pale: out in the wilds shaped by natural forces of forest and river, sea and shoreline, wind and rain, the slow dance of erosion and the sudden violent shifting of tectonic plates. Where do the gods fit into this wilderness? How does our theology grapple with the realities of the natural world that transcend yet include human civilization and our familiar anthropocentric concerns? What does it mean to worship beyond the pale?
Deepen Your Relationship with the Gods
In theology, as in magic, words have a deep power. They define concepts and construct mental abstracts that we map onto the world, creating boundaries where once there was only the chaotic beauty of what is.
But certain words are particularly powerful. They invoke not only what they mean, but what they do not mean. Words like “fast” or “loud” have obvious opposites that jump to mind immediately. (Try your hand at the 30-second word test below for a great example.)
“Hard” is one of those words that is especially potent. When Pagans talk about “hard polytheism,” they invoke a theological framework which places hard polytheism in opposition to other forms of polytheism, usually referred to as “soft polytheism.” Soft polytheism might include anything from the duotheism of many Wiccans, to a Jungian theology of archetypes among humanist Pagans, from animism or pantheism, to panentheism, monism, henotheism or even syncretic monotheism. Most hard polytheists define their theology as “a belief in many individual deities as separate and distinct entities” and define soft polytheism as a belief that all gods are manifestations of a single Divine source or spirit.
But by choosing to draw this distinction using the language of a dichotomy between hard versus soft, they also evoke another pair of opposites: hard versus easy. There’s the unspoken suggestion (or sometimes directly stated opinion) that someone who is “soft” on polytheism (like a politician who is “soft” on crime) is somehow taking the easy way out, reducing a complex issue to an overly simplified solution.
In my post last month, I suggested that ecological or “natural polytheism” might provide an alternative to a theology of hard polytheism that struggles with complex questions of human and deity identity. Where hard polytheism draws hard and fast lines separating the gods from humans, from natural forces, and from each other, natural polytheism embraces a theology of interweaving and interpenetrating boundaries of identity. From a hard polytheistic perspective, this might sound a lot like “soft” polytheism: individual deities as expressions of the complex relationships and patterns of force and consciousness in the cosmic soup of existence.
But natural polytheism doesn’t have to be “soft” at all. In fact, you can be a hard polytheist and a natural polytheist — it’s just a matter of deepening your relationship with your gods and learning to ask the tough questions.
Start Asking the Tough Questions
In the introduction to his book, The Natural History of Puget Sound Country, Arthur Kruckeberg explores how a text on natural history differs from a guide book or reference book about plant and animal species in the region. His musings lay bare the revolutionary importance of ecology as a science of systems:
In probing the natural world, what kinds of questions do we ask? Easiest are the “what” and “how” questions. What is it? and How does it work? usually can be given direct answers. The unknown tree or insect gets a name and a place in its family tree to satisfy the What is it? question. Though more demanding of observation and thought, the How does it work? question also has ready answers. The literature of how things function in the world of life is the product of patient experiment and observation by plant and animal biologists. It is only when curiosity persists to the How come? stage that science reveals its tentative and ever-probing qualities. The answers to What for? questions asked of the color of a flower, the hair on an insect’s body, or the slime of a slippery slug, are within the domains of ecology and the study of adaptations.
For centuries, the hard sciences of physics, chemistry and biology have been absolutely essential tools in our exploration of the physical universe as we look for answers to questions like What is it? and How does it work? It’s only in the last few decades that ecology — the scientific study of the relationships living organisms have with each other and with their natural environment — has begun to bring these separate fields of investigation together into a more holistic understanding of the natural world. If we want to understand “how come” the propagation of palm trees affects the mineral and nutrient levels in the surrounding coastal waters of a tropical island, and why this in turn influences the fluctuating population of manta rays…. we need to understand not just biology, botany, chemistry and geology, but how all of these sciences work together as a single system.
Ecology does not reject the hard sciences that came before it, but brings together and expands upon them.
In this same way, natural polytheism draws on an ecological approach to theology to build upon the insights of hard polytheism, challenging us to deepen our relationships with the gods by asking more challenging questions about their relationships with us, with each other and with the natural world. Natural polytheism does not reject hard polytheism any more than natural history excludes hard sciences like biology, geology or chemistry by embracing ecology. But it does draw connections and invite us to think about the world holistically, as systems nested within systems, wholes nested within wholes. An ecological perspective can deepen our scientific understanding of the world by moving us beyond the questions “What is it?” and “How does it work?” to the more challenging questions, “How come?” and “What for?”
In the same way, natural polytheism isn’t content merely to name the gods and identify their associations, symbols and spheres of influence. It challenges us to ask: How did the gods come to be the way they are? How do the gods relate to each other, within cultures and across cultural boundaries? What is the cultural, physical or spiritual reason why this particular deity manifests in this way but not that way, embodies these associations or symbols but not those?
Why the Tough Questions Matter
During a conversation with a Pagan friend of mine recently, she mentioned in passing that Apollo wasn’t the Greek god of the sun as many people believe — the Greek sun god was actually Helios. For many reconstructionist or hard polytheists, this distinction is an important one and getting a fact like this wrong is a big faux-pas.
But from the perspective of natural polytheism, this kind of distinction is only part of the truth. It brings up many more fascinating questions that can deepen our understanding of deity far beyond just “Who is it?” and “How do they work?” For instance: What is the relationship between Apollo and Helios? Why is one a personification of a physical celestial body, while the other has associations not just with solar energy and light, but also with music and culture? How has the relationship between Apollo and Helios evolved and changed over time, and what might this tell us about changes in Greek culture (and aspects of our own culture today)? What might it tell us about our attitudes towards the sun as a physical object as well as a culture symbol? What does it tell us about our personal relationship with the sun, and with gods of the sun? And what are those relationships for?
From the natural polytheistic perspective, the question of whether or not Apollo is a “god of the sun” is not nearly as interesting as the question of how he is connected to the sun. After all, there is no plant, animal or ecosystem on earth that does not have some relationship with the sun as the planet’s primary source of energy — the real investigation begins when we start to wonder how an entity’s relationship with the sun expresses itself in ways that are unique to the local landscape, and how this relationship affects the ways that everything else in that landscape lives and works together as a whole. Accepting that beings in an ecosystem, and the ecosystem itself, have a relationship with the sun, or with global patterns of ocean currents or air circulation, does not make them any less unique or complex — quite the opposite! The same is true for natural polytheism.
Natural polytheism is polytheism beyond the pale: polytheism beyond the restrictions staked out by our grasp of human history alone, embracing instead the whole of natural history and the modern sciences that give us insights into our world in new and startling ways. Hard polytheism demarcates boundaries that separate the gods from each other and from the natural forces and patterns (human and more-than-human) that enrich our world. Natural polytheism does not reject or ignore these boundaries. Instead, it places polytheistic theology in a new, more challenging context and provokes our curiosity to discover more powerful ways of living out our relationships with the sacred. It forces us to ask not just “Who is this god that I have experienced in ritual?” and “How do I worship him?” but also: “Why did I experience this god in this way?” and “How does my practice itself shape my beliefs and my experiences of the gods?”
Natural polytheism embraces the science of ecology as a basic metaphor for theological inquiry. In other words, natural polytheism seeks to understand our relationship with the gods as an aspect of interrelated systems of being, consciousness and meaning. Its focus is, first and foremost, on the wildernesses that defy our carefully mapped boundary lines, that penetrate even the most civilized cultural centers and underlie our most cherished notions of what it means to be human.