We are not One; Neither are our Gods

I just finished reading one of the article submissions for Issue 4 of Walking the Worlds and I came away quite dismayed. We put out a call on several academic list-serves (both to Classics and to Philosophy) and we’ve been getting some interesting pieces for consideration. We’ve also been getting quite a few that completely miss the mark. As I was reading through this latest, I couldn’t help but find some of the rhetoric familiar but I couldn’t place where I’d heard it before until one of the other editors pointed out that it’s the same type of language you hear from would-be-allies in interfaith settings who want to be inclusive but can’t quite fathom actual polytheism as being on par with their own monotheistic tendencies. It gets quite tiring but I’m going to talk about this in brief today because I’m pretty sure my own experiences with this well-meaning interfaith trend aren’t isolated incidents.

I do quite a bit of interfaith work. I even taught for an interfaith seminary for a year. I can honestly say that without exception the most accommodating attitude toward polytheism tends to be some variant of either ‘well, our Gods are all One anyway so that’s ok,” (until we point out that no, They’re not), or “I’ll respect your right to have many Gods because God is ineffable and you’re just not evolved yet enough for Unity.” Some of the best interfaith allies I know suffer grievously from this latter attitude.

I think that in most cases these people mean and want deeply to be inclusive, to live up to the interfaith ideals around which they’ve worked hard to build their lives. I really do and that complicates this issue for me because I don’t know how to effectively educate them out of what is at its core a deeply disparaging and condescending position. And as much as I actively dislike interfaith work (and I often question its usefulness), with the situation in the world being what it is today I think that it’s important to at least find ways to meet on common ground and discuss and share knowledge and perhaps solutions to issues facing us all. So I persevere but it is deeply discouraging to see the same offensive tropes come up again and again and again in people who A) know better and B) would probably be horrified to realize the depth of their actual intolerance.

99% of people in the interfaith community with whom I’ve talked have no comprehension of just how monotheistic in general and Protestant Christian in particular their baseline model for normalcy in liturgy, prayer, and education actually is. In addition to being effectively clueless about polytheism, they are in general equally clueless about the importance of vocations in prospective clergy as well as anything approaching mysticism. I have always maintained that to do effective, really effective interfaith work there can’t be a “normal” model. You have to deal with people as they come. To have one accepted model means that there will always be a plethora of religions that are outsiders, that don’t fit and that means that those who do will be in the power position of granting or denying “tolerance.” Not a very good place from which to begin interfaith dialogue is it?

I suspect the problem is that our “allies” simply can’t imagine a world where monotheism isn’t the norm. The corollary to that, of course, is that anything that isn’t monotheistic is deviant from that norm. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: once upon a time (only this isn’t a fairy tale but actual historical reality) the entire world was polytheistic. Monotheism was, at best and when it existed at all, an aberration. Even those philosophers like Socrates and Plato whom we’ve largely been taught are atheists were in fact devout polytheists. The polytheistic world was one of culture: art, philosophy, theatre, literature, architecture, science, and reasoned debate. It was only with monotheism that these things ground to a screeching halt to be partially rediscovered during our Scientific Age.

There was a time when walking down a city street meant passing a multitude of temples large and small, where the sights, sounds, and smells of reverence dominated the spatial landscape. One can still see this in parts of India today as historian Edward J. Watts points out in his rather sympathetic book The Final Pagan Generation. (1) The landscape was infused with a sense of the sacred and that sacred was a diversity, not unity of Beings. Even after Christianity began rearing its ugly, lowbrow head, it was still largely incomprehensible to Pagans of the time that exclusivity of belief would be demanded. It was outside of their way of doing things, outside of the way things had been done for millennia. That of course, was their downfall but that’s a subject for another post.

There was a time when it was the Christians or other monotheists who couldn’t imagine a world that wasn’t polytheistic. There was a time when polytheism was the only norm. I’ll be honest too, I’d very much like to see our world return to that. That too, of course, is an article for another day. We must of needs deal with the shit storm we have here and not the one we wish. Thus John Halstead.(2)

To return to point, when I am dealing in an interfaith capacity with the condescension, however well meaning and however subtle; when I am dealing with allies who very much want to be supportive but look at our religion like one might examine a bug under a microscope or an animal in a zoo (as a novelty, an exoticism, or worse those who look at it in self-congratulation as a clear expression of their tolerance), I always strive to keep this in mind: once, we were the norm. Once the world was polytheistic and it could be again. It is you who represent the aberration and look where it has taken our world: to the brink of its own destruction; and when I engage with interfaith allies, I do so in a way that verbally normalizes polytheism yet again. I simply do not acknowledge their “normalcy” or their majority. It is an imperfect solution but it is the best I have yet been able to manage.

I would like to come up with tips for those non-polytheists who wish to be allies in this fight but I’m a bit at a loss. I simply become so dismayed by the lack of simple comprehension and the reification of “unity” as something necessary and matter of course. I almost feel as though I have been tasked with deprogramming lunatics. The best I can come up with is this: “Understand that your way of doing things is the novelty. Though it be two thousand years old, in the span of religious life on this planet that is put a drop of water in an ocean of reverence.” I don’t think that’s a very good way to approach this though so I turn to you. What would you tell our erstwhile allies? Can we get up a ten-point list of suggestions or something? Help.



  1. Watts, p. 18-20.
  2. Was that too low a blow? Sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Posted on March 6, 2016, in Interfaith, Polytheism, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I will say this from the VERY beginning: I do not have any experience in inter-faith work apart from deep conversations with friends, curious classmates, and professors at my theology department. Some of this may come across as very fluffy and ideal simply because I have not had professional experience with inter-faith work, which is something that I REALLY want to do, so I know that I will be learning a LOT from you.

    I actually think that the reminder that Christianity was not always around and that monotheism was a completely new way of understanding divinity IS an important point to make. When Christianity came into being, they were considered the odd ones out. I think that many people understand their history but, at the same time, don’t connect it to the realization that there is a reason and context for that history. Look at the theological debates from pagan scholars asking Christians to clarify how the Trinity WASN’T polytheistic, or how the rite of the Last Supper WASN’T cannibalism/human sacrifice. There was a time that Christianity wasn’t taken seriously, and it is a GREAT point to make when someone in your presence clearly seems to be approaching the situation as if polytheism were just a fad. For all of the theology programs and practical resources offered to people, I really think that many don’t actually understand the history/roots of their faith, and so it’s very easy to forget that, once upon a time, there was no such thing as Christianity and monotheism. Of course, part of the work of inter-faith dialogue, as you may well know, is the skill/struggle to word things well while not being afraid of standing tall and asserting your own boundaries, nor disrespecting others. Remind them that you’re going through a very tough period of reconstruction, debate, and theology while fighting the current – very similar to how early Christians struggled.

    Don’t be afraid to explain how difficult it is for you to speak about monotheism’s effect on polytheism and the reasons why. I don’t think you should hide any of that – why should you? I think it’s important to map out the places of pain and destruction of polytheism, because it will show others something they may not realize: that the growth of monotheism deeply, irrevocably impacted polytheism almost to the point of complete erasure. It impacted culture, gender roles, society, and religion. (Show them how little we know of our gods historically, for example, or of the blatant discrimination and evil done to the Native Americans).

    I think another point you need to make very clear is this: because another is the norm, that doesn’t make our beliefs “the odd one out.” Having a majority doesn’t make law and righteousness bend towards it, and part of the thinking that comes with a “unity” mindset is that everything has to correspond with that. You need to start right from the get-go that you are speaking from two different traditions that hold up very different kinds of values and constructs, but that our differences can work together in conversation. We have the right to maintain our beliefs, but at the same time do make very clear the expectation for a meaningful conversation where there is mutual learning. As the whole shit-storm with Halstead has shown, some people identify differentiation of traditions and beliefs as discrimination.

    Remind people that inter-faith discussion is not the place to measure dick sizes or historical whoo-ha. Check the ego at the door and be prepared to understand things from another tradition, which may or may not bring about a change in perspective in one’s view. When someone brings up something smugly, remind them that this is not a place to have one’s beliefs validated; this is a place to understand each other and debate in attempts to have a truly meaningful conversation. At the very same time, I know for a fact that many people do not know how to word their thoughts correctly. I always try to take a step further and clarify and ask a lot of questions about someone’s points to make sure they have had the opportunity to really say what they mean.

    I am openly polytheist at my theology department, and one of the things that really made several of my classmates (and friends) understand how deeply serious the polytheist movement is that I make it very, very real for them. I am friendly and I always try to answer questions as deeply as possible, and I carry myself as if polytheism were normalized. Because it IS to me; there’s no reason to act as the minority and I refuse to do so. Although they come to me like approaching a tiger in a zoo (I don’t blame them – we’ve been mystified and romanticized as much as we’ve been mocked and demonized and destroyed), I quickly make change the scene so that they are the looking at the tiger in the eye without anything to get in the way between myself and them. I talk to them about the problems and drama with the grater pagan community and I express my frustration at how intense and petty the struggles are and can be. Make the polytheism real – make the gods real, because to everyone else, they are simply myths (in the definition of fake, not sacred) and muses.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. It’s difficult because some people, like Halstead, are so set firm in their beliefs or what they have been taught to believe, they refuse any kind of alternative thinking. I’ve been experiencing this a friend lately who was raised a catholic. He is mostly agnostic but what he was raised with has left a permanent mark on his world view. I think no amount of education or mutual empathy will change his way of thinking. The only thing I can do is acknowledge this and leave it be.

    If interfaith person does consider themselves ‘allies’ I suppose I’d recommend:
    1 Respect the gods of all people.
    2 Open your mind to other possibilities.
    3 To not preach or get defensive against something contrary to what you believe.
    4 Do not refer to the gods as modern constructs like archetypes.
    5 Do not enforce synchronism when you don’t understand.
    6 Be mindful of what words are used.
    7 Question yourself, ask is my beliefs getting in the way of understanding?
    8 Ask questions.
    9 Respect others beliefs and traditions.
    10 Empathy is key to everything.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. My experiences at the WPR were very much along the lines you mention…and worse, at some points, which is why I’m done with larger “interfaith” organizations that are really only monotheist clubs, and only those non-monotheists who toe their line of monism-as-qualification-for-inclusion get any notice or respect. In any case…

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  4. I intend to return some time tomorrow to offer less sleep-deprived thoughts. This is a necessary conversation. The Interfaith Council on which I serve was begun by religious leaders from decidedly non main stream organisations, and May provide some useful insight here.

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  5. Well, best intentions and all that. Still.

    The Interfaith Council on which I serve is county-based and was started up by members from the local Latter Day Saints ward, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, several Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches, a local Wiccan leader and me. We’re definitely starting with the outliers and working toward center, rather than the more common center-out pathway. Largely because we are all used to being ignored, screamed at, and put down, we have a solid practice of respecting each others’ points in conversation and of being far more interested in what our different faiths encourage us to DO than in what we say. This organization is action-oriented, rather than seeking any unifying theology. I find that this approach keeps everyone much happier and more interested in what we’re doing. In fact, we did that exact thing that a few of your other essays have recently stressed. We accepted the plurality and moved on with getting stuff done.

    It is my sincere hope that what’s happening here in southern MD will provide an example for others. We aren’t ‘one.’ We are, however, all trying to help this world and its human inhabitants out. Different motivation, same goals. I’m not 100% certain that this is the same goal you’re seeing or if I’ve completely missed the target, but this is definitely working here.

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