Definitions and Discussion

Polytheology, Part Two:
Approaching Pagan Theology

Refined 19 October 2007

*Index of This Page*

* What is Polytheology?

* What is Neo-Paganism?

* What is Polytheism?

Some Definitions
theism and deism
other terms

* Beyond Polytheism

*More Related Pages*

* Polytheology, Part 3: What is Mythology?, including:
• Some Standard Definitions of Myth and Mythology
• What Myths Do
• But What is Mythology, Really?

* A Theory of Polytheism, excerpted from Hindu Polytheism by Alain Danielou.

* Polytheology, Part 4, The Deities and How We Find Them

For books cited, see my Sources

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What is Polytheology?

Theology is defined monotheistically as "the field of study, thought, and analysis concerning the nature of God, His attributes, and His relations to the universe and humans in particular." More broadly it is the study of divine things or religious truth, usually a specific form or system as expounded by a particular religion or denomination. These explanations of doctrines, practices, and beliefs may or may not be as actually practiced by the majority of a religion's members, but reflect the intellectual speculations of trained clergy and theologians.

Polytheology, then, is the study of the religious thought of Pagans and their deities. It can encompass monotheism, since the god of a particular monotheism can be discussed as other deities are. This paper focuses on Neo-Paganism. While polytheology is not yet a recognized field, as more Pagans become accredited scholars, we can create a true dialogue among religious thinkers and create a REAL theology which is more than monotheistic.

I do not pretend here to develop one true right and only way (OTROW). Rather i am attempting to present a spectrum of thoughts and ideas. Neopaganism is a many splendoured thing, it doesn't take one shape or form. In fact, many Neopagans actively participate and practice several different spiritual paths.

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What is Neo-Paganism?

According to Diana Paxson:
"A useful term for the faith we practice is "The Old Religion," which includes both the uninterrupted tribal religions of native peoples all over the world, and contemporary attempts to recover native traditions interrupted by Christianity, and to combine religious elements from a variety of sources into a faith suitable for our pluralistic society. The various traditions of the Old Religion share a belief that Divinity may be worshipped in many forms and addressed by many names; that the physical world is as holy as the spiritual realm; that humankind should live in harmony with nature; and that magical or sacramental practices are effective. Most of these traditions also believe that both women and men have spiritual power, and that individual inspiration is as valid as inherited traditions.

"An additional characteristic of the Old Religion is that its symbols are imprinted in the collective unconscious, and many of its practices come from the most instinctive levels of the mind. This gives us an advantage in recovering our traditions, since some material can be accessed by developing channels of communication between the conscious and unconscious minds. Our sacred book is Nature Herself. We are at a disadvantage when discussing with people whose sacred authority is the written word, for those are the people who have written most of the books by which people judge religion. Much religious writing assumes the inherent primacy of monotheism and masculinity, and the inherent inferiority of the physical world. Without allowing ourselves to fall into the opposite trap of assuming that everything monotheistic and male is bad and everything female or polytheistic good, our study of the history of religion must be informed by intuition, and we must read as much, written from as many points of view, as we can."

Used with permission

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What is Polytheism? A Few Definitions

In a discussion of polytheology, we need to define a number of terms which have been applied to religious beliefs over the course of time. I begin with animism because it is sometimes cited as the most "primitive," or primal, spiritual/religious belief system.

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* [The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged]
1. the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls.
2. the belief that natural objects have souls which may exist apart from their material bodies.
3. the doctrine that the soul is the principle of life and health.
4. belief in spiritual beings or agencies. [from Latin = anim(a) air, the breath of life, spirit, soul]

* [Webster's New World Dictionary]
1. the belief that all life is produced by a spiritual force that is separate from matter.
2. the belief that natural phenomena and objects, as rocks, trees, the wind, etc are alive and have souls.
3. the doctrine of the existence of soul as independent of matter.
4. a belief in the existence of spirits, demons, etc.

* According to E.B. Tylor, an early anthropologist, inside the ordinary tangible body there is a normally invisible, normally intangible being, a "soul"; this is known as The Doctrine of Souls.

* Cultural Variations:
(1) people have 2 or more "souls" [NOTE: these 'souls' may be of different types, as in Egyptian, Jewish, and Norse cultures];
(2) some people have more souls than other people;
(3) extra souls may be acquired.

* [Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon]:
"Animism is used to imply a reality in which all things are imbued with vitality. The ancient world view did not conceive of a separation between 'animate' and 'inanimate.' All things from rocks and trees to dreams were considered to partake of the life force. At some level Neo-Paganism is an attempt to reanimate the world of nature; or, perhaps more accurately, Neo-Pagan religions allow their participants to reenter the primeval world view, to participate in nature in a way that is not possible for most Westerners after childhood. The Pagan revival seems to be a survival response to the common urban and suburban experience of our culture as 'impersonal,' 'neutral,' or 'dead.'"

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* [The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged] the attribution of consciousness to inanimate objects and natural phenomena. [from Latin = animat(us) filled with breath or air, quickened, animated] [NOTE: this is often the definition 'popularly' given for animism]

* According to Marett, another early anthropologist, this term is used to distinguish the concept of a life force from that of a soul. This concentrated life force gives certain objects, animals, and people extra-ordinary powers independent of the power derived from souls and gods. This power can be called mana (a term from the Maori culture, meaning a generalized, supernatural force or power, which may be concentrated in objects or persons). It can relate to non-religious or quasi-religious beliefs. This is related to hylozoism which perceives a life-fource in all things, although not a soul.

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* [W.L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, Eastern and Western Thought] from Greek pan and psyche, meaning everything is possessed of soul. Although there is a distinction between possessing soul (panpsychism) and possessing life (hylozoism), in paractice this division is difficult to maintain. Early Greek philosophers viewed matter as intrinsically active, some (Thales) even held that all things are full of gods. Aristotle is on the line between panpsychism and hylozoism.

Giordano Bruno, in the late 16th C., "advanced the first clear theory of panpsychism. For him the basic unit of reality is the monad, animated with its own energy. Souls and gods are likewise monads, and the innumerable worlds of the universe ar interpreted in organic terms, as having lives of their own." "Campanella [in the 16th and 17th C.] presented the notion of a graded reality from matter to God, yet each level has to some extent the qualities of knowledge, power, and love." Numerous theologians and philosophers, such as Leibnitz, Goethe, Schopenhauer, William James, and A. N. Whitehead have followed the discussion with such notions as: "all of nature [is] alive, even if slumbering on its lower levels; but all levels of nature are directed toward consciousness" (Schelling); and "the world is characterized throughout as a throbbing will, more or less informed by awareness, depending on the level of reference" (Schopenhauer).

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* [The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged]
1. the doctrine that God is the transcendent reality of which the material universe and [humanity] are only manifestations: it involves a denial of God's personality and expresses a tendency to identify God and nature.
2. any religious belief or philosophical doctrine which identifies the universe with God.

* [Webster's New World Dictionary]
1. the doctrine or belief that God is not a personality, but that all laws, forces, manifesta tions, etc. of the self-existing universe are God; belief that God is everything and everything is God
2. the worship of all gods.

* [Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon]:
"For many Pagans, pantheism implies much the same thing as animism. It is a view that divinity is inseparable from nature and that deity is immanent in nature. Neo-Pagan groups participate in divinity. The title of this book implies one such participation: when a Craft priestess becomes the Goddess within the circle. [The ritual act of] "Drawing down the Moon" symbolizes the idea that we are the gods, or can, at least, become them from time to time in rite and fantasy"

* [W.L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, Eastern and Western Thought]
"Pantheism in the West arose in the context of philosophical speculation, rather than in the context of religious practice." The term was first introduced in 1705 by John Toland. The term has been "applied to a variety of positions where God and the world are held to be identical." Pantheism is distinct from Panentheism, in which "the world is regarded as a constituent of God but not identical with Him." Some form of Pantheism has been a part of the philosophy and theology of the ancient Greeks, the Jews, Moslems (especially in Sufism), and Christians, and continues to develop in the 20th Century. Reese breaks Pantheism into several basic schools, which can be intermingled or broken down further. His basic pattern include:

  • Hylozoistic Pantheism, as many ancient Greek philosophers found matter and life inseparable
  • Acosmic Pantheism, in which according to the ancient Greek Parmenides, "the world and the absolute are one, the change and variety of the world are apparent only," not actual. In some Hinduism ("the world is the phantom of a dream and only the unmanifest Brahman is real"). In Buddhism ("only the Absolute exists"; "the Absolute and the Void are identical"; "ordinary existence is based on illusion, only the Pure Mind exists")
  • Immanentistic Pantheism, for the ancient Greek Heraklitos, "fire is the divien and controlling element, working from within a single but basic aspect of the universe." Anaxagoras substitutes Nous for fire, but basically shares this view.
  • Stoic Pantheism - The philosophy of Stoicism combines the motifs of Heraklitean fire and a world-soul much like the Anaxagorian Nous, while at "the same time the theme of determinism by the universal reason introduces a sense of the absoluteness of the divine in relation to the world. The world reason is immanent in men."
  • Emanationistic Pantheism - Neoplatonism developed a system in which"all that is comes from [emanates from] the Divine Being, and is that Being in attenuated form." Hinduism also contains aspects of Emanationistic Pantheism ("the qualified world emanates from the unmanifest Brahman...) combined with Relativistic Monistic Pantheism (...thereafter, until the end of the cycle, is the body of Brahman")
  • Identity of Opposites Pantheism - According to Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th C., "in God there is an identiy of opposites. This means that contradictory ascriptions apply equally to God." Giordano Bruno in the 16th C. held similar view, applying this "to statements concerning God's immanence and transcendence."
  • Monistic Pantheism "the world is not lost in God, but the two concepts exist in an indissoluble unity" or in Hinduism ("a human's inner self and the divine are identical").
  • There are also Relativistic Monistic Pantheism ("the world is real, changing, and in God although God remains absolute and is not affected by the world") and Absolutistic Monistic Pantheism ("God is absolute and identical with the world; thus the world, though real, is changeless")
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* Not in my dictionary. Literally: "all within God"; all things make up God; every thing exists within the Divine." And that Divinity is both immanent and transcendent.

* [Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: the Healing of Mother Earth and the Coming of a Global Renaissance]:
"Divinity is not outside us. We are in God and God is in us. That is the unitive experience of the mystics East or West. Its technical name is panentheism, which means that "God is in all things and all things are in God" This means that it is not theistic, which envisions divinity "out there" or even "in here" in a dualistic manner that separates creation from divinity."

* [W.L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, Eastern and Western Thought]
"The view that all reality is part of the being of God, as distinct from Pantheism which identifies God with the total reality." The term was first used by Krause (1781-1832) who said that "God includes in His being, while transcending them, both nature and humanity." Thus "the world is a finite creation within the infinite being of God; and that the whole is a divine organis so constituted that higher organisms have lower organisms as their constituents."

Some Panentheists combine Panpsychism, such that "every entity [is] sentient to some extent, and exist[s] as a component in the life of a more inclusive being. The series ends with the Divine Being whose constituents include all of reality. Just as a cell has a certain freedom within the body, so we hve a certain freedom within the Divine Being." (Fechner) For A.N. Whitehead, in whose metaphysics feeling is spread throughout a reality interpreted in organismic terms, "Deity is dipolar, both absolute and relative, and man's immortality is his continued reality within the consequent nature of God."

* Some friends of mine describe a way of conceptualizing the difference between pantheism and panentheism as follows: visualize two circles, one, a blue circle which represents the World/ Cosmos/ Universe; the other a yellow circle which represents the Divine/ God. In pantheism, the blue circle and the yellow circle unite to form one green circle; in panentheism, the blue circle and the yellow circle overlap, with the blue unified within the yellow and appearing green, but the yellow circle extending beyond the circumference of the blue one. Everything is within the Divine or part of the Divine, but the Divine is greater than or more than all of creation. (Thanks, Paul and Michele)

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* Both terms came into common use in the 17th century. The Deists believe that God created the world and then had little or nothing to do with it. Theists believe that God created the world and remains involved with it. The contrast between Theism and Pan-Theism is that in Pantheism deity, identified with the world, is wholly immanent, whereas in Theism deity is both transcendent and immanent. Some Neopagans believe that the Divine is both immanent and transcendent. Therefore some neoPagans are actually THEISTS, conforming to the modern so-called dipolar theism which posits a balance between transcendence and immanence, absoluteness and relativity, in the conception of deity.

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* [The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged] the doctrine of or belief in more than one god or in many gods [and/or goddesses].

* [P.E.I. (Isaac) Bonewits, Real Magic]:
A style of religion in which the theologians claim that there are many deities, of varying power, and many lesser spirits as well, all of whom are considered to be "real" and to be worthy of respect and/or worship.

* [Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon]:
"The idea of polytheism is grounded in the view that reality (divine or otherwise) is mul tiple and diverse. And if one is a pantheist-polytheist, as are may Neo-Pagans, one might say that all nature is divinity and manifests itself in myriad forms and delightful complexities. On a broader level, Isaac Bonewits wrote, "Polytheists develop logical systems based on multiple levels of reality and the magical Law of Infinite Universes: 'every sentient being lives in a unique universe.'" Polytheism has allowed a multitude of distinct groups to exist more or less in harmony, despite great divergence in beliefs and practices and may also have prevented these groups from being preyed upon by gurus and profiteers."

"In beginning to understand what polytheism means to modern Neo-Pagans we must divest ourselves of a number of ideas about it mainly, that it is an inferior way of perceiving that disappeared as religions "evolved" toward the idea of one god."

* Another view is that Polytheism, at its simplest a belief in many deities, is a way of personalizing and personifying the many and varied energies in the cosmos, and of acknowledging this personification and personalizing. Pantheism and Panentheism are ways of relating to everything as divine. We tend to anthropomorphize the Divine, since as humans it is often easier to relate to it clothed, somewhat, in our own form. While we do not forget that our goal is integration, polytheism breaks the ONE into smaller parts to deal more easily with various aspects of the whole when we need to concentrate on specific energies and manifestations of energies, on specific aspects of life. The deities can be considered as actual beings or as symbols. Since they are facets of a larger whole, no single deity is necessarily dominant.

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* [Henge of Keltria, a Druidic organization] "We see Deity in many different aspects, both male and female. These different aspects of Deity each represent different aspects of life, nature and the seasons. We use appropriate aspects of Deity in rituals and in our lives to help us maintain contact. The idea that these aspects of Deity are separate from each other is called polytheism (many Gods). The idea that these aspects are part of a larger whole (often called the unmanifest and sometimes God) is called pan-polytheism. In Keltrian Druidism, we see both polytheism and pan-polytheism as valid views of Deity."

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* [W.L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, Eastern and Western Thought]
from Greek "a" (no, not) and "gignoskein" (to know). Coined by T. H. Huxley (1825-95), it refers to the position of suspended belief. It can be applied to ANY proposition for which the evidence is insufficient for belief, not only a suspension of belief in a god. Even among the ancient Greeks, Protagoras held that with respect to the gods he had no way of knowing that they exist or not. Some Neopagans are agnostics.

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* [The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged]
1. The doctrine or belief that there is no God or [deitie]s. 2. disbelief in the existence of God or [deitie]s.

* [W.L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, Eastern and Western Thought] "The doctrine of disbelief in a supreme being. The term has frequently been applied to those who disbelieve in the popular gods." In a polytheistic world, it has been applied to monotheists. In a monotheistic world, it has been applied to pantheists."

"There exists a long tradition of those who have believed that religion rests on superstition." This was true of certain ancient Greek philosophers, 17th century philosophers, as well as 20th century philosophers and scientists, and is not limited to Western thought. Religion can be viewed as a tool to control the masses

* Some Neopagans are atheists in any of several ways.

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* We Neopagans are quite sincere about our spirituality. However, we still have time to look at ourselves with a sense of humor. Among terms we may apply to our polymorphous approach to religion are AtheoPagan and PolyAtheist.

Although our spirituality keeps us in touch with Nature, we are not Luddites, seeking to destroy technology. While some of us live in rural regions or the wilds, many of us live in urban and suburban areas and, as you can see here, use computers. Therefore, another term we use is TechnoPagan, to indicate a Neopagan with an especial interest, personal or professional, in technology, particularly computer technology.

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A Few Additional Remarks on Polytheology

Andraste, a Neopagan and Wiccan friend, pointed out to me two possible forms of Paganism:

  1. there are forms based on a fertility religion model, which recognize an inherent dualism in the universe, especially that male and female energies are very different, are embodied within us by the nature of our physical makeup, and which must be present equally in ritual for a balance of energies;
  2. there are forms based on a tantric religion model, which work toward unifying perceived dualisms or other subdivisions of the universal energy, and therefore, individually and together, we can, through our spiritual and magical work, embody the various energies of the universe, not limited to our current physical makeup.

A third possibility which comes to my mind is that:

  1. there are forms based on an ecstatic religion model, whose goal is a rapturous, non-rational experience of the divine through altering consciousness, especially one in which the participants feel a union with a particular deity or the ultimate Divine/ Universal Essence/ Cosmos.
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In fact, contemporary American Neo-Paganism can encompass atheists who perceive a universal principle which doesn't have to take a particular deity form, nor include sentience, consciousness, or will; monistic pantheists, who see the divine as permeating everything in the universe; monotheists, such as Gavin and Yvonne Frost of the Church and School of Wicca, or some feminists and others who practice Goddess-monotheism; duotheists, such as many in British Traditional Wicca groups who worship one God and one Goddess who may each have several different aspects; polytheists, who believe in the literal existance of their many deities; henotheists, who, while acknowledging the existence of other deities, chose to focus their devotion on one in particular, such as members of the Ancient Egypt oriented Church of the Eternal Source and some practitioners of Afro-diasporic New World religions such as Loucumi, Santeria, Vodou, Candomble, Macumba, Umbanda, Quimbanda, etc.; those influenced by Jungianism, who see the deities as useful concepts rather than actual realities; and a surprising number of humanists, agnostics, and even atheists. An individual may practice several of these, and there are Neo-Pagans who are concurrently practicing Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, or on other spiritual paths. Neo-Pagan polytheism can include them all.

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For the books cites, see my Sources

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Beyond Polytheism

In the larger contemporary American society which does not acknowledge multiple deities, polytheism has taken on different, although not unrelated, meanings. Chief among those "redefining" the term are Jungian phychologists and writers who espouse various aspects of Jungian thought. To oversimplify, Jungians break down the human psyche into archetypes, larger-than-life roles in which we may be casting ourselves (Mother, Father, Judge, etc.). They have especially taken the names of certain Greek deities to identify these archetypes: Athena, the masculine-identifying Daughter; Hera, the typical Wife; Demeter, the Good Mother; Dionysus, the party animal; Zeus, the stern Father; Apollo, analytical and unemotional; etc. There's no doubt that this is a useful system, and one to which many Neo-Pagans can relate, but do not mistake this application of Greek names for the deities themselves. Jungians are not describing with these terms the deities as conceived by the Greeks, and they are applying the terminology in a context which is not necessarily religious.

* [David L. Miller, The New Polytheism]:
"Polytheism is not just a matter of having many roles in the social order that each individual plays from time to time in his life. It is not that we worship many Gods and Goddesses (e.g., money, sex, power, and so on); it is rather that the Gods and Goddesses live through our psychic structures. They are given in the fundamental nature of our being, and they manifest themselves always in our behaviors. The Gods grab us, and we play out their stories.

"This means that the new polytheism is not simply a matter of pluralism in the social order, anarchy in politics, polyphonic meaning in language. The new sensibility is a manifestation of something far more basic. The Gods are Powers. They are the potency in each of us, in societies, and in nature. Their stories are the stories of the coming and going, the birth and death, of this potency as it is experienced. Our culture is apparently pluralistic; actually it is polytheistic."

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Among people active in areas of feminism, the human-potential movement, liberal to radical politics, and other exploring processes, there is a accent on the acknowledgement of the multi-faceted quality to humanity, human culture, and human ideas, and the attitude that there need not be One True Right and Only Way to do or imagine anything. Some of these people, too, and many Neo-Pagans working with these ideas, use the term "polytheism" to express this attitude, even though they, too, are not necessarily applying it in a spiritual context.

* [Naomi Goldenberg, Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions]:
Contemporary polytheism "recognizes that there are a variety of forces at work in human life and thought. One can be polytheistic without believing in gods per se. A person may be polytheistic in her or his political, social, and aesthetic attitudes simply by recognizing that several dynamics and sets of standards determine people's organization of their world. Monotheists are those among us who always want to 'get it together' - to decide on one overriding principle which will explain all life, all thought, all feeling. Monotheism becomes increasingly untenable as we recognize the rights of people to live out a variety of life styles under a variety of rules."

For books cited, see my Sources

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End of "Introduction to PolyTheology"
Please continue to the next page for "What is Mythology"

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Copyright1990-1997 Lilinah biti-Anat, except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

An earlier form of this essay was presented for The Fellowship of the Spiral Path, Old Religion Class, Tuesday, 13 November 1990

1. Theology and Ethics 3. What is Mythology

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* For books cited, see my Sources*
* A Theory of Polytheism*
* PolyTheology Part 4: The Deities and How We Find Them*

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