Pagan Opinions

or, Against Pagan Perennialism

I don’t believe in God. I mean I don’t believe in God with a capital G, YHVH, The God of the Hebrews, The Almighty. Or, rather, I guess I do: I believe that the ancient Levantine deity El got himself a fan club and changed his name. I’ve even had flirtations with worshipping the big guy, from time to time.

What I mean when I say that I don’t believe in “God” is that I don’t believe that any one divinity—or force, or whatever—that is the Ultimate Reality, the Truth. And I definitely don’t believe that such a force, even if it existed (which it doesn’t) could possibly be the same entity that talked to Moses on Sinai, or revealed himself to Muhammad—or the non-illusion toward which Buddhist monks strive—or an amalgamation of all the deities of India, Japan, or anywhere else—or any philosophy, for that matter.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe in The Ultimate, or The One. (*)

And so you can imagine how torqued I got a few weeks ago at an interfaith event at which a participant remarked, “Well, I think we can all agree that all gods are one and that god is love.” I certainly don’t agree.

Sure, this sort of statement isn’t going to get a room full of agnostics and UUs into an argument, but I think that it underscores a deep problem within the interfaith movement, and also Paganism. ((Briefly, let me preface what I’m about to say by acknowledging that interfaith work is absolutely essential in today’s world—especially in areas riddled with religious persecution or war—but that I’m talking about the sort of interfaith dialogue that I have seen here in the States over the last few years, which is much more luke-warm.))

You see, interfaith work today is often realized around the central idea of unity among all religious communities. That is, those involved in interfaith discussions concentrate on the commonalities among all religious traditions and search for a so-called “Perennial Philosophy” that undergirds all faiths. The idea is that all differences of doctrine or belief are culturally and historically brought about, and that such differences can be set aside for the purposes of everybody getting along.

A big problem is that the perennial philosophy is so often clothed in the language of the major monotheisms. Indeed, the perennial philosophy that is tacitly agreed upon at many interfaith gatherings that I’ve been to goes something like this: “Well, I think we can all agree that all gods are one God and that God is love.”

My issue is that I don’t agree with the whole perennial philosophy business in the first place. I don’t think that you can reduce all religions down to a few concepts, because in doing so you inevitably strip every tradition of everything that makes itself meaningful: You can’t take the divinity of Jesus out of Catholicism or the sole-ness of Allah out of Sunni Islam; If you do, you’re not dealing with either tradition anymore. Additionally, when you do try to reduce traditions into any sort of pan-religious belief,  those beliefs are usually at odds, in my view, with earth-centered, Feminist spirituality the second you get more specific than “It’s probably good not to flay people alive”. When all religious beliefs are boiled down to belief in one all-powerful personal and yet transcendent force, you are excluding the view points of anyone whose beliefs are predicated precisely upon the irreducibility of experience or deities into an ultimate reality or One. Anyone like me.

Let me put it another way: I think that we would all benefit from a rejection of inter-faith dialogue, which would be replaced by attempts at extra-faith interactions. In concentrating on our commonalities during interfaith dialogue, we essentially side-step all important (or interesting, for that matter) points of discussion. Why don’t we allow each other to hold to our own views instead of ignoring them and setting them aside as cultural “baggage”? Let’s really hash out why we believe things and then deal with those beliefs instead of constantly throwing our hands up and allowing that everyone’s opinion is “equally” valid.

Excuse me, no they’re not. Racist, sexist, classist, and agist ideologies are not valid. To me, ideologies that deny the body are not valid. Ideologies predicated upon gender essentialism or racial superiority are not valid. Ideologies which valorize large scale industrial warfare are not valid.

A Buddhist monk might say that the world we perceive is an illusion that must be denied. I COULD NOT DISAGREE MORE FUNDAMENTALLY.  But, I can choose to participate in a discussion in which we both engage with our held beliefs and try to convince each other of our view’s merits.

This would amount to active evangelism on the part of each participant in “extrafaith” situations. You believe you’re right, and I believe I’m right. Here, try to convince me otherwise! Then I get to try to convince you! This would require a certain amount of maturity, it’s true, and I hope that we as Pagans can work toward fostering that sort of maturity within our own community. In order for us to do that, I think, we’ll eventually have to start forming some definite opinions of our own.

Yes, opinions. Real ones. In order for us to coalesce into any real sort of religious community, I believe that we must set about rejecting the absolute relativism that plagues Paganism today. How can we work toward theological depth if we have to constantly ping-pong between the beliefs (and they have them, oh they have them, despite what some might say) of all the various groups that make up Paganism today? This issue is something that I touched on here.

Any ritual practice supposes a politics. I believe, then, that we need to start coalescing around our political ideologies and seeing them through in our philosophical, theological, and ritual outlooks. As an anarchist eco-Feminist, my Paganism will necessarily look much different than that of a free-market obsessed misogynist. Here we must draw the lines of our communities.

Listen, even though we both call ourselves Pagans, there are a whole lot of folks out there today that I have absolutely nothing in common with: If we weren’t all trying to get along all the time, there would be no reason for me to ever chill out in “circle” with people I disagree with on every point. We all need to get some opinions and stick to them! I don’t care if we all agree—well, I do, but we can hash that out later—but it’s important that we move beyond the wishy-washy theological kindergarten that we’re stuck in now.

I don’t believe in God, the ultimate Creator; but a lot of Pagans do (anyone who engages in a kabbalistically-arranged cosmology does, for example). Isn’t this difference fundamentally important enough that it should begin to define the contours of two or more separate religious communities? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, then, we could all sit around a table and actually get somewhere by discussing our differences instead of ignoring them?

(* Note: Long-time readers might recognize this as a far cry from some of my earlier declarations of faith; All of this represents the evolution of my own theology, which I’ll get to soon enough.)


About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

14 Responses to Pagan Opinions

  1. Hystery says:

    I spent a great deal of time with an interfaith institute working on its planning committee and serving on its board of directors. The experience was discouraging. In particular, I was annoyed by their insistence upon agreement. Their focus was on promoting peace, but I could never figure out how ignoring substantive differences could lead to peace. I also resented the way they ignored the hegemony of Abrahamic traditions. It was always their party. We were invited to participate but only if we played by their rules.

    • cartweel says:

      Yes, very well put! “Their focus was on promoting peace, but I could never figure out how ignoring substantive differences could lead to peace.” That is exactly what I mean. And, like I said, I think that the ecumenical Pagan community (as you run into when you go to large festivals, for example) suffers from exactly the same sort of problem.

      As always, thanks for reading, Hystery!

  2. Ali says:

    Love this post! So many things in here needed saying and remind me of thoughts I’ve had recently or points that have come up in conversation. You focus on those who would have us all subsume our personal beliefs into the common belief in a monotheistic-like kind of divinity… whereas lately, among Pagans themselves, I feel like it’s our very insistence that we’re all different that becomes the common call that obscures what those differences are.

    It drives me nuts, for instance, when I attempt to ask a probing question about a person’s theology or philosophy, and they dodge it by saying, “Well, everyone thinks something slightly different.” This is a kind of backhanded agreement that preserves and protects our own thoughtlessness, I think. First of all, when I ask such a question I want to know what that person thinks, not whether or not (a) there is a consensus or (b) they agree with that consensus. And second of all, the more Pagans I talk to, the more I’m beginning to suspect it isn’t really even the case that there are “as many opinions as there are Pagans.” Yes, people who hold vastly different opinions might still all call themselves Pagans… but it seems to me that the average Pagan tends to hold a few very common precepts (one being that Paganism is so utterly diverse that it’s impossible to describe or define, which many will defend tooth and nail whenever anyone attempts it).

    What I would really like is for someone to step up and do a wide-ranging and thorough survey of people’s personal beliefs and practices, along with information about what groups/communities/labels they associate with, and then analyze that data for patterns. I would bet money that some clear patterns emerge, with certain “types” of Pagans tending to hold x set of beliefs in common and leading to y set of practices while other groups practice z techniques and hold n beliefs. But it is difficult to get a handle on our true diversity and differences (and what those differences can tell us about the relationship between practice and belief, theology and politics, etc.) when we’re all too busy agreeing that we disagree.

    • cartweel says:

      Right. This is the part of your comment that I find most piercing: “And second of all, the more Pagans I talk to, the more I’m beginning to suspect it isn’t really even the case that there are “as many opinions as there are Pagans.”

      As I touched upon in my “Towards A New Paganism” post, I think that it’s fairly possible to look at Paganism broadly and see areas of commonality; for example, what I’ve called “Wiccanate Paganism” in the past is that flavor of Paganism that is derived from both “traditional” sources (Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, for example) but also from the slue of Wicca 101 books that have flooded the market: It’s generally true, I’m fairly comfortable saying, that there is a large group of Pagans whose views can be pretty well summed up by statements about Wiccanate theology–There is the One Source, Gods and Goddesses are iterations of that source, there are four elements, male and female energies permeate reality, etc. This definitely contradicts the belief that there are ‘as many opinions as there are Pagans’. It’s simply not true; as you say, we’re just reticent to acknowledge these things (often, because people shy away so virulently from words like “dogma,” which all religions have, whether that dogma is explicit or not). What I’m trying to say in this post is that I think we all need to really take up our theology and engage with it, deeply and thoroughly. Hopefully in the next week or two I’ll be able to publish some writings on my own deep grappling with my own theology, in the hope that–perhaps–others might do the same.

  3. Oh, I’ve long thought that there is something I call “Catholic Eclectic Wicca” or “Catholic Eclectic Paganism” starting to grow in this country.

    • Hystery says:

      Before I became a Quaker Pagan, I used to refer to myself jokingly as a “Protestant Pagan” by which I meant that I was protesting against my sense of the ritual-focus of Wicca as it appears in the popular literature. I find myself both defending Wicca to non-Pagans who confuse it with their own fears of satanic activity and defining myself against Wicca to those familiar with at least the popular manifestations of Neo-Paganism. The other day I had to explain to a non-Pagan why it was not an oxymoron for a Pagan to prefer plain dress. No, we are not all theatrical types who believe in gender dualism in the universe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…. I’m just tired of having to discount stereotypes with both Pagans and non-Pagans before I can even begin to discuss what I’ve been thinking about in my own spirituality.

      The need to have real, juicy, challenging conversations about ethics, thea/ology, faith and practice is a real one. Otherwise, too many of us will be marginalized while the best marketed of us will fail to deepen for want of truly challenging discourse.

  4. Yewtree says:

    Hi, I did do a survey of personal Pagan theologies, and attempt to engage people in an in-depth discussion of theology. People reacted in much the same way that Ali describes, and accused me of trying to force everyone to subscribe to the same dogma, as well.

    That is one of the many, many reasons that I have defected to Unitarianism, and given up calling myself a Pagan.

  5. ~jtk says:

    I was reading an article today, a feminist critique of androcentric bias in archaeology, that made me think of this.

    “…any search for a commensurating framework which will encompass and unify all frameworks – the central aim of Enlightenment science – must be abandoned. Such a framework is not only unattainable…but the quest for it is pernicious; “Only to the extent that one person or group can dominate the whole can ‘reality’ appear to be governed by one set of rules or constituted by one privileged set of relationships”.”

    I think the biggest problem I have with the “all gods are one god” theory is that the logical followup to “there’s a way to see these things as part of the same thing” is “and that way is *this* way” (“and god is love”), and that in order to make that statement and make it stick you have to be in a position of power and/or authority. And so it comes back around to hegemony and dominance all over again, instead of being about pluralism at all.

    Which is all to say, I agree. Opinions, let’s go.

  6. Jarred says:

    Good post! Another common interfaith claim which drives me batty is “we’re all trying to get to the same place.” It’s simply not true. I believe in reincarnation, but unlike some other believers in reincarnation, I view coming back again and again as something that is to be desired rather than a cycle to be broken. (If my faith is a celebration of life, then it only makes sense to seek out to celebrate it again and again.)

    When I think of interfaith dialogue, I tend to think about interfaith relationships, which is ultimately what I’m interested in. And along those lines, I think that trying to find a common underlying theology misses the point. It seems to me that the proper common ground in any relationship — interfaith or not — is our common humanity. The point of interfaith dialogue is to acknowledge our common humanity and our need to get along (and sometimes, getting along requires applying the old adage that good fences make good neighbors), how our religious traditions encourage or hinder that process, and what we can do about it. Sometimes, we’ll find a way to share parts of our lives with one another as a result. Other times, we may just agree not to throw stones at each other.

  7. Yewtree says:

    I like your thinking, Jarred (I usually do).

    My personal view is that every religion that wants to have interfaith dialogue has to have a theology of where other religions fit in their scheme of things.

    The Pagan model tends to be “we are all worshipping different deities, and that’s fine, because it’s all about the process of engaging with deities, not which one you choose”.

    Liberal monotheists tend to take the view described in the blogpost – which works in terms of their theology, but not in terms of a polytheist one. (And the “many paths up the same mountain” view is better than the exclusivist view.) The problem comes when most of the people engaged in interfaith dialogue take this view, and assume it’s the only valid one.

    The exclusivist model embraced by many Christians is that their religion is the only way to salvation / theosis / heaven. This just makes no sense, imho.

  8. Thank you!!! This is brilliant, and crystallizes something that’s been bugging me but that I’ve been unable to put my finger on, much less articulate.

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