January 8, 2014

Hard Polytheism as Starting Point

I didn’t much like the way she framed the previous post, but this second post on hard polytheism by Morpheus Ravenna is excellent.

It does bring to my attention that “Are the gods cosmic and universal or local and individual?” is a question people are actually asking as if it’s meaningful. I just. What?

Like MR, I think that certainly there are different perspectives and scales from which it’s possible to view the gods, and like her I think that there are certainly very local gods. But how would we know if they’re “cosmic” and “universal”? What would that even mean to us as mortals? We could maybe figure out if they’re global, if we travel around the world (individually or as a coordinated group) and attempt to call on specific gods to see if they respond, but of course this is a bit shaky on its own. Even those who have a god phone* don’t necessarily get a response every time, and how do we know why they didn’t get a response? How many different places would we have to verify that they respond before we accept it as a definitive answer? Would even one be enough to disqualify that particular god? How many gods would we test before we accept that gods-in-general are global? And if we find that most gods are not global, then doesn’t that mean that they are also not universal? (I didn't actually mean to start designing an experimental protocol for testing this hypothesis. It got away from me.)

As for “universal,” as I said, how would we know? No human has ever walked on another planet, and only twelve have even walked on a satellite of this one. No human has left our planetary system, much less our solar system. “Universal” isn’t a meaningful term in a human frame of reference. Not yet, and maybe not ever. If we mean "universal" as in "common to everyone," then obviously the answer is no, as there are and apparently always have been those who do not and cannot perceive the gods.

But of course, the people asking this question don’t mean it literally. They mean some kind of conceptual sort of “universal,” though I'm not sure how they'd define it. But the thing is, this is, in principle, a falsifiable question, to those who already accept the existence of gods. Everyone is treating it as purely theoretical and theological (or everyone I’ve run across), but it’s not. This isn’t “Can an omnipotent god create a rock so big he can’t lift it?” As hard (or squishy, if you like) polytheists, we understand our gods as beings we can communicate with. We may not be able to get them a straight, simple answer that we can understand — which probably has more to do with our ability to comprehend than theirs to specify — but we can investigate the practical effects. At least if it’s something we actually want to know, rather than just something we want to debate.

Personally, I don’t care much about the question. I can worship the gods I do from where I am, and they can reach me. If I take to worshipping a more local god, a genius loci, then that would be one near me, and I could go to them wherever they are. Theological questions are fascinating, but this one is far more practical than people are making it.

Why am I insisting that it is? Because this is one of the things that I find so fascinating and wonderful about immanent deities and polytheist religions. If the gods are here, close by, where we can reach them, then we can find out far more about them. Not, as I said, necessarily by asking them, because they can’t necessarily give us meaningful answers, as I said. But we can, as we already do, try things and see what we experience, and then pool our knowledge — as indeed many of us do, often, and find that we have widely varying or even contradictory experiences, but hell, even that gives us information.

Different people’s experiences of the same gods have always varied somewhat, even in one place, and far more from place to place. That’s one reason for the different cultic practices. The gods are greater than we, more than we. More than we can comprehend. This is apparent even in mythology. (Just look at what Zeus' true aspect did to poor Semele.) We can only see of them what they give us to see. But that does not mean that we cannot use the faculties they gave us to learn more collectively than we know individually.

I am, as I’ve mentioned, not particularly connected to the wider neopagan or recon communities, and my frustration at debates like this one are part of why. But I do like to read about other people’s experiences, because it can and does expand my knowledge, even when I disagree with their starting points and conclusions.

As I said, I didn’t care for the way Morpheus Ravenna framed her previous piece on hard polytheism. I think it ignores the ways in which we know ancient rituals were performed, and the way they’re performed now in cultures with continuous polytheistic religious traditions. I think her casual use of “theater” as opposed to “religion and magic” not only ignores but actively dismisses the history and practice of actual theater as a sacred ritual. In general, it makes a lot of assumptions about how other people ought to do ritual, if they start, as she does, from the assumption that the gods are distinct entities with agency. But hey, at least she’s considering ritual theory from the gods as a starting point.

*A consistent ability to contact or commune with a particular god or gods and get some sort of meaningful response. Somewhat controversial idea. I trust it in principle, but have not trusted everyone who claims to have one.