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.)