Natural Theology: Polytheism Beyond the Pale

September 14, 2012 by Categorized: Natural Reflections, Science & Spirit.

Campsite AltarWhen 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.

Woods in FogNatural 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.

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38 Responses

  1. I love this post, since I am currently struggling with naming myself, placing myself somewhere along the spectrum of Pagan theology. Are there any books yet written that speak more to “natural polytheism?”

    • Duffi, Thanks for the love! :) There is so much diversity among Pagans when it comes to theology, I think even elders and old-timers still struggle with it from time to time. So you’re definitely not alone!

      As for books: I’m not sure. I kinda just made this idea of “natural polytheism” up a month or two ago as I was mulling over my own ideas about theology and my relationship with the gods. I don’t think there are any books that are specifically about this approach to polytheism, but I’m happy to recommend a couple of books that I’ve found inspiring in general: both of David Abram’s books (The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal), David Suzuki’s book The Sacred Balance, and (I promise they’re not all named David!) John Michael Greer’s most recent book, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth (though I think there are some flaws and inconsistencies in that last one).

      Hope that helps! If you have any thoughts (or book recommendations), please share them! We can craft a natural polytheism together! :)

  2. This is a fantastic post. The older I get, the more I realise that the tight boxes I want to put gods (and other spirits) into are difficult to maintain, since we are not gods and don’t have direct insight into their reality. Does that make me a soft polytheist? That’s not how I would define myself – but then I care far more about what the gods think about me than about what people think about my theology.

    Thanks for the food for thought (which RTs and comments suggested was enjoyed by other people too).

  3. Thank you for these thoughtful and insightful articles. I’m a questioning agnostic and someone on Reddit pointed me to this blog. It’s wonderful.

  4. Star Foster seems to think you are a pagan Calvinist. Maybe you care to respond? I do not think she understands you are pleading for a different religious language first and foremost. She accuses you of the exact thing you are pleading against. Now you are a secret humanist, which seems to be a foul word now.

    • Thanks for the heads up, Soliwo! I might check out her post at some point, though honestly I don’t read much of her stuff anymore. I’ve found that a lot of Star’s writing tends to provoke reaction instead of thoughtful response, and I want to try to keep my writing thoughtful and creative rather than merely reactionary. But I do hope to keep on exploring these topics here and on my own blog (not to mention on!) …so maybe I’ll end up answering her questions or clarifying issues she brings up just by accident as I try to explore and deepen my own ideas in my own way.

      I am intrigued, though. I don’t know much about Calvinism, but what I do know about it seems to be in direct contradiction to the concepts of humanism. Calvinism emphasizes the “total depravity” of humanity and humans’ complete dependence on the grace of God, while humanism emphasizes the inherent dignity and freedom of humanity. So I have no idea how I could be both a secret Calvinist and a secret humanist! :) Especially since I’m not either (I’m pretty much not a secret anything, just a Pagan-in-process writing about my own explorations.)

      • Quick follow-up: I did end up reading Star’s post, but I don’t see much in it that I can respond to, since it doesn’t seem like she’s actually talking about any of the ideas that I explored in this post. I definitely didn’t say that hard polytheism was stupid or wrong (would an ecologist say that botany was stupid or that geology was wrong? it depends upon the insights of those kinds of specialization!). So I think I’ll just leave my writing to speak for itself. :) Thanks for letting me know, though, and I hope at least with the various blog posts out there cross-linking and responding, the discussion can continue.

        • I also though it was a bit weak that she didn’t link to your blog post. But if you misrepresent someone’s writing, it is of course not very convenient when readers can actually check the original piece.

          • Um, she did include a link – directly to this piece. If you don’t like Star’s writing, fine, but she actually pretty consistently links to (Pagan) pieces she is writing in response of, even when she doesn’t like them.

  5. I enjoyed this a lot! I am a Pantheistic polytheist, which I suppose makes me a soft Polytheist. For me a reverence for nature is a natural outgrowth of polytheism. Because I came by my Paganism as an individual journey, rather than studying in a tradition, it never occurred to me until fairly recently that other Pagans saw things differently. Most of us spend so much time talking about practice that we seldom speak to Pagan theology and philosophy.

    • I love a good theological discussion! I’m really happy you enjoyed it, too. There’s so much to learn by talking about how diverse our views are, even when our practices might seem very similar on the surface. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Phil!

  6. I also struggled with categorizing myself, until I realized that categories are artificial. They are at least one step removed from the direct experience of reality. So I use them as tools to organize reality a bit, but they do not define me or my experience of the Divine.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Really enjoyed your perspective.

    • Hanusia, This is a lesson I have to keep learning again and again! Partly because, being a Gemini with major Mercury energy going on, I really love words, and all that they let us do — categorize, define, compare, compose, construct arguments and counterarguments, make bad puns! Balancing the joy of language and theology with the insights of intuition and direct relationship is one of those things I’m going to keep practicing at for the rest of my life. :)

  7. As an environmentalist, I find it interesting to read how people see their beliefs in concern with the environment and ecology. So I thought this piece was interesting, but:

    -were you intending to say that hard polytheists don’t ask hard questions? The questions you asked in this piece are ones that any person who has any sort of belief and involves their critical mind asks – whether monotheist, polytheist, pantheist, whatever.
    -”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.” Actually, hard polytheism is just believe the gods are distinct entities. Nothing about hard polytheism automatically says the gods don’t interact with each other, with the world and humans, or influence the natural world or its cycles.

    • Hi, Aine, Thanks so much for your questions. I’ve had some similar responses over on G+ with people asking for clarification, and I can see where some of my examples weren’t the best or didn’t help clarify what I really meant. I’ve been mulling over how to answer and realizing that I’m probably (okay, definitely) going to need a follow-up post. I can’t do your questions justice in a comment thread. :)

      So I hope you’ll be patient with me while I work on another post (I can drop a comment with a link here once it’s up, if that helps). In the meantime, ladyimbrium did a really good job in her comment below of kind of summing up where I’m going with this idea of natural polytheism when she said:

      “We, being anchored as we are, tend to see all things as discrete objects existing in space and enduring through time but when we catch a glimpse of what it may look like outside that framework, and begin to look not at things but at the interactions between those things, then we might be getting closer to the type of theology that I think you’re suggesting”

    • I am responding to your other comment here.

      I like some of Star’s articles, and some I don’t. For me. it is not personal. Someone’s writing leads a life of their own, and I can critic someone’s writing without attacking the person. Personally, I feel Star doesn’t feel the same way. She writes some very thoughtful things sometimes and at other times she sniffles any discussion saying those respond are idiots or disrespectful. But asides from this …

      I honestly misted the link. I found out by accident that Star’s response was to this article. Yet, there is something in academics – I do not know how it is called in English – that one should always try to respond to an article in its entirety. Writers usually give this courtesy to other writers. I thought Star’s article was very interesting, but she used this piece completely out of context. And that is not a very polite thing to do. Even if the end result is good.

  8. ChristopherBlackwellSeptember 16, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    There is also the question of humanizing the gods,making them human like or understandable to humans. Originally they were forces of nature.

    Think of sun, moon, earth. Think of water in all of its forms. Think of fire in its protective, useful and dangerous forms. Think of wind, breezes, and storms. Think of light and darkness. Think of earth quakes volcanos, landslides, mudflows and swamps, mountains hills,valleys, canyons, and gorges.Thing of gentle rains, little streams, rivers great floods and oceans. Think of the sky and beyond.

    None of these things are the least bit human, nor do they think about humans. Focus on their power, feel them, see them, taste them, hear them,revel in them. We pay attention to them for our very survival, and we can appreciate them, respect them, and their power. We can learn from them though the lessons that interaction with them gives us. None of this require that we make them human like or give them names or personalities. All of the rest came much later in human history.

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated this piece. Our perspective is so limited, and trying to break out of our dimensional anchors to see things in all their dynamic complexity has just the slightest tendency to make my head hurt. Your theory about natural theology makes a lot of sense. We, being anchored as we are, tend to see all things as discrete objects existing in space and enduring through time but when we catch a glimpse of what it may look like outside that framework, and begin to look not at things but at the interactions between those things, then we might be getting closer to the type of theology that I think you’re suggesting. At least, that’s what I’m getting out of this.

    • I think you’re getting out a lot of what I’m trying to put in, ladyimbrium, though I think that’s a reflection of your own insights more than the quality of my writing. ;) This post was far from perfect, and some of the questions and conversations it’s generated have helped me see where I still need to work on clarifying my ideas some. But I think your comment does a really good job of summing up where I’m trying to go!

  10. More and more Druids are finding themselves evolving away from Polytheism and more towards a Naturalistic Pantheism. This is being discussed on the Facebook groups, Reformed Druid Gorsedd and Druid Mysticism.

  11. Great piece. I like the term natural polytheism. To understand ancient polytheism, I think it is really important to realize that polytheism grew out of and is deeply rooted in oral culture. Oral cultures are story cultures. In an oral culture information, history and values are preserved and passed on through stories. For centuries after the invention of writing, western cultures continued to be primarily oral based, with writing being used more as an aid to memory, that most important Muse, then as a replacement. I suspect the switch from an oral to literate culture is a major unrecognized factor in the decline of traditional polytheism. With the development of a true prose culture, theology shifts from being under the providence of the poet to that of the philosopher.

    The oral nature of polytheism has a lot of implication for natural theology and the questions you raise. I don’t think this necessarily means that the gods are not or cannot be something “supernatural,” but only that the ancients may have related to the gods in less rigid ways then many modern folks. I think it was humans who named, shaped and told the stories of the gods, but that these names, images and stories represented something real, a real experience of and relationship with the mysterium tremendum that is Nature. Whether or not a culture has one, three or three hundred sun gods depends on the stories it needs to tell about the sun and the people’s relationship with the sun. The characters in the story that are the forces essential to the life of the people are the gods that receive cult.

  12. Because you mentioned Helios and Apollo, I can’t resist clipping this passage from one of my very favorite books “When They Severed Earth from Sky”:

    “Like the Egyptians, the Greeks had several “sun gods”, but each represented a different aspect of the sun and its activities. Helios was at base the light-giving disk, whereas Hyperion (literally “going over”) fastened on the sun in its aspect of crossing the sky each day, and rosy-fingered Eos (“dawn”) represented the phenomenon of sunlight reappearing each morning. Each of these aspects of the sun contributes in important (willful) ways to the total picture. But then what’s left for Phoibos (“bright”) Apollo—that handsome and vibrant young man who gave oracles and at least in classical and late Greek times, as sun god paralleled his twin sister, Artemis, as moon goddess? His attributes give him away: he appears to represent all that the sun causes by shedding its warming rays on us—vibrant life, hence youth and beauty. And oracles? To understand this, we need to know that most ancient Mediterranean peoples believed vision occurred through light coming out of the eye (cf. Plato, Timaeus 45; you’ve seen evidence—animal eyes shining back at you and your lantern/flashlight/headlights at night). By analogy, the great producer of light in the sky must be an eye (cf. figure 6). But its light shines on everything in the world, so it sees—hence knows—everything. 1 Who better to ask for information, then, than the owner of that all-seeing eye?”

    Barber, Elizabeth Wayland; Barber, Paul T. (2011-12-20). When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (Kindle Locations 1108-1120). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

  13. Great post! I have a Master’s degree in Ecology, and I think that makes me think differently about polytheism than some people do. I’ve also been accused of not being “hard” enough in my polytheism.

    I do worship my gods as distinct personalities, because that’s how they interact with me, but I also keep in mind that it’s probably more complicated than that. I usually explain by saying “the gods are as individual as we humans are, but we humans aren’t as individual as we think we are.” Except in order to interact with other humans, you have to perceive each other as individuals. Same thing with the gods.

    Humans love to put things into little boxes. It’s a useful, but it’s merely a model for understanding the universe. For example, most people (even a lot of biologists) think of a species as being distinct. One species is completely different from another. In reality it’s a much more fluid and complicated concept. You have things like ring species, hybrid zones, polyploidism, etc. all blurring the lines between different species of organisms.

    Maybe gods are like that too. They appear distinct unless you look very closely, and then they start to blur around the edges (some more than others). But the species is still a useful concept to biologists, and I still find polytheism to be the most useful -theism for me.

  14. Huh. The theological level of the ecosystem. I like it!

  15. I love this post. Being a theology nerd, I especially appreciate the questions concerning natural theololgy and “hard polytheism” versus “natural polytheism.” These are the same type of questions that arise in monotheistic traditions (of course) when trying to make sense of “special revelation” and “general revelation.” Arguably religious establishments prefer to give priority to “special revelation” (like sacred texts) and “hard theism” (with its creeds) over general revelation and natural theology, which are by nature (pun intended) more subjective. I think that for many people the Divine speaks most clearly through nature and natural theology is more compelling than special revelation. Arguably any special revelation or “hard theology” had its origins in the natural experiences of shepherds, farmers, hunters, and the like. Arguably therefore natural theology is more primal, and to many folks therefore more real. But obviously many people take comfort in special revelation, hard theology and the like. I vote for mutual respect among theists of all stripes. May we all soak in the wonder in beauty that is revealed to us both naturally and through our sacred traditions.
    Great post.

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Continuing the Discussion

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