Faith and Healing in Paganism: Postmodern World, Pagan Theology: Pt. I
Author’s note: This is part one in a three-part series on some of the challenges of a modern pagan theology.
Part I: Monotheism and Polytheism, Monism and Henotheism
Neopagan religions are often described as fundamentally “polytheistic” — worshiping many gods. This lay classification usually assumes that there are only two options, with the other being “monotheistic.”
In Western culture, when something is labeled “polytheistic,” what is really meant is “more polytheistic than the monotheism of an ‘ideal’ Christianity.” A more accurate description of the way these two terms are commonly used would be “like Christianity” and “other.” Any religion that does not match an “ideal” Christianity1 is, perforce, considered “more” polytheistic.
By examining a little of the complexity of the ideas behind these two terms, and by looking at a pair of alternatives, we can hope to expand our understanding of these basic ideas of theology, and thereby improve our ability to think about and discuss them. Additionally, by looking at the connotations associated with the terms “monotheism” and “polytheism,” I hope to illuminate some underlying cultural assumptions and provide context to understand what prompts these words’ misuse.
As I have written elsewhere in my column, Western culture, to a large extent, describes religion based on the influence of Western Christianity, that religion’s history, and the schools of thought that have come from its own scholarship and its influence on wider scholarship.2 In much of the discussion of Christianity through the past millennium-and-a-half, a theological decision has been repeatedly made to promote a strict monotheism: a belief that there is only one God, and only one correct way to follow the dictates of that deity. At various times in history, those who have disagreed even slightly have been subject to a range of religious and non-religious sanctions ranging from social disapproval to excommunication, forced conversion, and execution.
In the past century-and-a-half, there has been a massive global and cultural upheaval, of which globalization is only the most recent phase. The Industrial Revolution’s shift of population to cities created widespread access to secular education. Late colonialism and post-colonialism has modified the relationships between ethnic groups and social polities. The modern era has increased access to travel, and the postmodern era has given us widespread, near-instant communication.
Throughout this period of change, there has been a growing, though hardly overwhelming, trend toward a more “open” spiritual worldview. It has led to a belief that is common enough to be worth discussing: “There are many paths up the mountain, but we all see the same moon from the summit3.” This saying, in addition to being catchy and sounding quite wise, promotes two theologies that are neither monotheism nor polytheism: henotheism and monism.
The first task is to determine working definitions of monotheism, henotheism, monism, and polytheism, which describe four different views of the nature of deity or deities. While truly defining these terms is beyond the scope of this series, for the purpose of discussion, I would like to quickly gloss them.
Monotheism is the belief in one deity as the only deity. Lesser spiritual beings, such as angels, may be part of the belief system, but are subordinate to the one true “God.” Monotheism is held up as a cultural value in the West, which is traditionally Christian, as well as in areas strong in Islam. As part of Christian and Islamic evangelism, this belief has been spread to other parts of the world. Monotheism has cultural associations with modernity, and it has been argued that the unified structures of authority found in kingdoms and states are commonly reflected in the theology of adopted monotheistic religions.
Henotheism is the exclusive worship of one deity, though it admits that other deities exist. It is similar to monotheism in that the members of a group, usually what we would now call an ethnic group, worship only one deity. Yet it is different because it admits other deities, although their worship is forbidden within the group. One famous example of this is early Judaism, where members are exhorted not to worship other deities. Such worship was considered not appropriate for members of the community.
Monism, like henotheism, trends between monotheism and polytheism. Monist theology recognizes only one deity, though it allows that different groups, or even individual worshipers, may worship that same deity in a variety of ways. It often sees a variety of names for such a deity, as well as ways of worship. The variation in both name and ritual obligation may make these religions, to monotheists, appear to be separate. To a monist, this variation does not change the underlying truths that each of the religions strives to express. Unitarian Universalists generally fall into this group, as do some Wiccans.
Polytheism recognizes multiple deities as distinct. Some traditionally polytheistic religions show aspects of monism: There can be recognition within the theology of some polytheistic traditions that multiple deities are actually “faces” of the same deity. This is true of Vedic traditions (modern Hinduism is one descendant) as well as many, but not all, varieties of Wicca. Other traditions, however, notably many modern Heathenism, adhere to a strict, “hard” polytheism, recognizing multiple deities as completely distinct entities.
The Western Cultural Value of Monotheism
Many modern monotheists in Western culture are probably, in the strictest sense, actually henotheists or monists. Any Christian who believes that other religions are fine for other groups would be closer to henotheism. Any Christian who believes that other religions are trying to say the same thing in a different way is actually a monist.
This label would not mean much were it not for the cultural and social-political weight associated with being monotheistic. Polytheism, for many Westerners in general and Christians in specific, is a slur-word invoking primitive man, bloody sacrifices, and painted bodies.
These divisions are not merely something of the past. Some Protestant Christian sects claim that Catholics are not Christian because they are not monotheist. The veneration of Catholic saints is seen from that outside perspective as something akin to polytheism. By the same token, the Protestant Christian worship of God as a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is sometimes claimed to be proof that they are not monotheists (usually by Muslims, as it turns out).
I will leave it to the varying Christian denominations, and monotheists in general, to work out their own internal political struggles. I mention all this to set the scene for Neopaganism as it comes into its own. Neopaganism is arising in a cultural landscape where there have historically been wars and persecutions over what seem to be comparatively minor points of doctrine regarding how our culture counts deities. At the same time, this shift illuminates why modern monism is an important development, and why some members of monotheistic religions react so badly to it.
So Why Do We Care?
Understanding these terms is important, and not just for informing our own pagan thoughts about the nature of deity, our theologies. Neopaganism, by its very existence, challenges historically important connections between monotheism, social legitimacy, modernization, and power.
In the next installment, I will examine and address some of the links between these ideas, and talk about how the West is trapped in the myth of social evolution.
- This discussion is intended to be neither an attack on Christianity nor on Western culture.
- At its most abstract, the form of higher education in use today came from the monasteries of Europe. The evidence of this is shown in the use of ecclesiastical robes as formal dress for ceremonial occasions, such as graduation. The links, however, are much deeper.
At one time, it was common for all students attending universities to be legally considered members of the clergy and therefore under church law. Because of the way legal questions were administered, without these protections, students from outside a city would have lacked citizenship and therefore had no legal protections at all.
Even today, the relationship of a graduate student to his or her primary academic advisor has much in common with the older mentoring and apprenticeship models of instruction. Such relationships are far deeper than simply teacher/student, and the lineages of ideas are often traced back through the generations of students.
- As far as I have been able to find an origin for this, it is a traditional Japanese saying, likely associated with Zen Buddhism. Typical Asian models of religion have a tendency not to be exclusive; one might participate in two or more religions without social critique or personal internal conflict.
- Notably, in this vision of the “other,” there is also a distinct lack of cell phones, modern medicine, and hygiene.
©2013 by Christopher Drysdale.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.