Faith & Healing in Paganism – Postmodern World, Pagan Theology, Pt. III
Part III: The Postmodern Experience
While there are religions that are traditionally monist or henotheist, these two views of godhood can be expanded to describe what have become common approaches to nominally “monotheistic” religion in the West. This isn’t the strict monism and henotheism which is referenced by Tylor (see previous post), but rather a more open view of what is meant by these terms.
Traditional theology and personal theology of a religious adherent are not always the same. If an adherent of Christianity were to ascribe to the saying “there are many paths up the mountain, but we all see the same moon from the summit,” then there is something fundamentally monist and therefore not purely monotheistic about the belief.
Field of Meaning
These four ideas, monotheism, henotheism, monism, and polytheism, do not exist on a linear continuum, but rather on a plane, a field of meaning (see Figure 1). Both henotheism and monism have certain attributes in common with monotheism or polytheism. Both monotheism and henotheism predicate that there is one correct was for the believer to worship, but disagrees about the nature (and number) of deity. Monotheism and monism agree that there is only one deity, but disagree about whether there is a singularly correct way to worship. These relationships are, of course, inverted with polytheism.
As a population, the daily experiences of people who live in modern Western culture are different from those who have lived at any other time in history. For the most part, we all have what has historically been an “urban” experience: Every day we interact with people who believe differently from the way we do. Not only do we see them on the streets, but they are our co-workers, our spouses and partners, and they are, in a very real sense, participants in the same culture.
This experience of meeting, and working, with others who have fundamentally different beliefs, has always been part of the life of those who lived in major cities. However, until the Industrial Revolution and the migration of populations away from subsistence farming, it was not the general rule. This heterogeneity of large populations leads to “urbanity,” a true lack of naïveté, in our interactions with the world.
As a though-exercise, compare our lives to the population a century-and-a-half ago, just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning in the United States. Travel, while not unheard of, was much rarer. The industrial base was just beginning its shift away from agricultural production. Most importantly, people commonly made effort to reduce the diversity in their lives. Mixed-religion marriages were rare, and mixed-“race”1 marriages rarer still.2
The world was not less diverse two centuries ago. Arguably, it was more diverse, with a greater number of languages and distinct ethnicities. However, while diversity in the world (and even in America) was great, the expected diversity in people’s everyday experiences was quite low.3 Class, ethnic and racial separation were expressed both geographically and culturally. Much of the population lived in smaller communities, which often had a limited cultural and social makeup.
Looking to the Past
A yearning to recapture the “simplicity” of the past, along with a desire to maintain the power-relationships of those times, is a current subtext, if not theme, that shapes modern political debate. Among some social groups, there is a desire for less diversity, with such expressions as a desire for all Americans to learn English, or be of the same religion. This might be an attempt to regain the advantages of the pre-modern experience (less cognitive dissonance created by diversity) without the associated loss of other advantages of the modern and postmodern world (e.g., access to education, healthcare, and such).
We humans, as social creatures, have the desire to be surrounded by others who believe as we do; this might well be part of human nature.4 But this longing can easily, and sometimes dangerously, translate into a need to suppress or remove difference as a whole.5 When this need lines up with other goals, the synergy can create social momentums that grow beyond both the expectations and aims of the original ideas. For example, a desire to honor the sacred somehow managed to become the many Christian crusades and Muslim Jihads in the Middle East.
It would be incorrect, however, to attribute these “holy wars” to wholly religious motivations. Pure religious motivation is as much a myth as the purely “rational” man: it removes the humanity of the actors and reduces an actual human experience to a fable or morality play. Life is not a fiction, and is seemingly infinitely more complex. Looking closely, we can find how the confluence of religion, political aspirations, and economic trends led to these conflicts.
Perhaps not so strangely, there is a contrast here between strict monotheism and urbanity. Urbanity necessitates the ability to deal with difference within our daily lives, and to live with the cognitive dissonance that comes from being consistently exposed to systems so complex that our minds have no hope of grasping the variables in any but the most intuitive way.
This is, ironically, the opposite of how urbanity and monotheism interacted during the Late Roman Empire, when pagan6 polytheists were associated with the periphery of the empire and Christian monotheists were associated with the urban elite. Now, I would argue, a more monist or henotheist approach is associated with the “liberal” urban elite. Unlike Rome, with an economy based on imported slave labor and a government budget paid with the tribute of conquered nations, Western cultural elites in general are not bent on genocide or military domination.
In this postmodern world of multiculturalism and accepted difference, people find themselves exposed to incredibly high levels of cognitive dissonance for extended periods of time. This exposure chips away at clung-to beliefs that are grounded in any but the most fundamental experiences. Beliefs that are tied to our identities are, and indeed must be, defended most vigorously.
As denizens of the Information Age, we constantly defend religious aspects of identity from being worn away. Every day brings exposure to a world more potent than we can comprehend, let alone withstand. To this end, people can choose either to mentally shift themselves away from the exposure, or to change the way they comprehend these religious differences so that the “inherent conflicts” between their beliefs and others are no longer quite as inherent. In other words, we either run away from difference, or learn to accept it.
With the knowledge that others, around the world, find deep and meaningful experiences through other religions, we have little choice but to either be atheist/agnostics, refusing to see anything deeper connecting religious experiences, or monists, believing that there is something that ties these experiences together. The alternative is to fall into the “I am right, you are wrong…and probably evil” approach that characterized the early Christian Church (and was to some extent responsible for its amazing success).
Neopaganism, having a gestation that began no earlier than the 1850s, reflects these modern and postmodern experiences. Neopaganism does not simply skirt the edges of monism and polytheism, but embraces them. At the same time, it generally neither proselytizes nor ties itself too tightly to any particular dogma.
Whether Neopagan religions are monist or polytheist, they spiritually reflect the makeup of the modern experience just as much as the monotheism of Christianity reflected the Age of Empires, from the Romans to the British. We live in a world of complexity and competing voices, in many ways wealthier than anything past, but certainly lacking a sense of stability.
Beyond E. B. Tylor’s “ultimate” evolutionary step is a worldview where we can see all of his “stages” as descriptions of the same world, and know that all of them are happening at once. The world in which we live is beyond our individual efforts to categorize; the world is the world itself; it is beyond complete comprehension, and more complex than any model we make.
As communication increases, and the vastness of the world has become clearer, “pagans” are not some culturally isolated throwbacks who live in the wilderness. They are instead people who live out on the forefront of this wider world. The modern Neopagan movement—especially Wicca, which often embraces monism—attempts to reconcile the larger, postmodern world with a spiritual vision of unity.
- While “race” is the traditional term, I mark it here to point out that it is cultural. “Races” are cultural constructs which have often been replaced with “ethnicity” in modern academic writing. This represents work toward removing the a priori assumptions of what a “race” is.
- Mixed-“race” marriages were, in some places in the US, illegal until 1967.
- Ironically, and perhaps importantly, the current nostalgia for a more homogeneous “America” evinced by some political groups in the United States is based around a desire for a world that never existed. This longing is for an experience of the world in which we are able to shield ourselves from the cognitive dissonance caused by exposure to true diversity.
- I am not suggesting that the desire to be exclusively surrounded by people whom we identify as similar is part of human nature, or that this desire cannot be moderated and mediated by other influences.
- This need does not only come with religion, but with atheism, political beliefs, race and ethnicity to name just a few arenas where it displays itself.
- For reference see almost any of the myriad online discussions of the origin of the word pagan, from paganus — Latin for “country dweller.” In English, this word is perhaps most viscerally translated with the cultural baggage of urban views of “rednecks.”
© 2013 Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.