The other day I shared a story about praying to God using different names. That experience has sat with me deeply these past couple days. There have been times in my life when I believed that having one God was morally superior to having many gods, and I could give you many reasons why that must be true. But these days I’m holding my need to be right loosely, and exploring our beautiful world of ideas with a loving God as my guide.
Before I go any further, I need to make it clear that I am not advocating for a certain set of beliefs, or even trying to convince anyone that they should hold their beliefs more loosely. Our views of God are some of the tenderest beliefs we’ll ever have. If you’re not interested in where this conversation is going, feel free to ignore this post. My experience is my own. This is the path that I feel drawn to. I feel peace and goodness in it, and the thing I’m learning the most is how to be more loving, so this feels like it just might be what I need. Now, that said, I like paganism.
Before you light the fire to burn me at the stake, let me explain. Throughout time, people have had different ways of describing their world and the unseen forces that seem to be at work. This higher power has taken all sorts of forms and names over the millennia, based on the culture, history, geography, and desires of the people who are trying to describe it. Humanity has flowed into and out of these different ideas, borrowing, trading, rejecting, and developing them constantly. Many of our traditional beliefs about Jesus were borrowed from what once would have been considered pagan mythology, like the value of virgin birth.
Hold on, put down the matches. Myth as a false and fanciful story is only its second definition. In an academic worldview, myth is any story, true or false, that is told by a group of people because it has meaning for them. So, when I say mythology, I’m using this version of it. The historical accuracy of a myth is completely besides the point and irrelevant to its value for the people who use it as a teaching tool. Noah and the flood is a myth. Maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. Regardless, the story has value to those who share it. It has value to me.
The value of virgin birth narratives for describing divinity was something more widely known in pagan cultures during the first century after Jesus’ birth and it fit in nicely with the other stories being told. It’s a myth with an important meaning to Christians. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Knowing it was once a pagan belief shouldn’t diminish the value of it for Christians, but understanding its origins can help build bridges as people start to see that we really are more similar than not.
People do not form ideas in vacuums. We are influenced by our upbringing, experience, culture, and our reactions to the surrounding cultures. We are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting our world as we learn and grow. If guided by love, we generally mature into kind and compassionate, open-hearted humans. If plagued by fear, our interpretations build walls between us and others and set up enemies that must be fought. Sometimes religious groups get stuck in the fear for a while, but I do believe that in general God is helping us lean into the love, so that’s all I’ll say about that.
I think it’s great that Christianity has been able to incorporate its context into its development. I don’t like that we then turn around and call the groups that have influenced us names, like heathens or pagans. It’s almost like we love and accept until that makes the world feel too big then we get scared and start putting up walls. That makes sense as a phenomenon because we can see microcosms of that in our own lives. Seems like a rather human thing to do, and something that Christ came to specifically teach us not to do anymore.
As far as we can tell, paganism was originally just what the in group would call the out group’s religion. It was a slur, of sorts. Once monotheism became the language of historians, polytheism was pagan. The historical Judaism found in the Old Testament is one example. Their one God was mightier than everyone else’s many gods. And He was a jealous God. Funny thing though, in order to be jealous, there actually has to be something to be jealous of. That’s just one clue, among many others, that even early monotheism didn’t necessarily dismiss polytheism outright, but it did place a moral preference on one over the other. People have been arguing this for a long time.
Then, just in case monotheism needed any more opposition, Jesus shows up and claims that he’s a god. Some Jews really loved what Jesus was teaching, and really had to try to figure out how he could seem so godly without actually admitting that he was a god, as to not upset their own cognitive biases, or those of the ruling classes. The debates were endless.
You had Jews who wanted to keep their traditions and follow Jesus, like Peter and the gang in Jerusalem. You had Jews who felt Jesus was a threat to their way of life and had him killed, like the Sanhedrin. And you had Jews who tried to completely leave their Jewish traditions behind and find a new way, in fact they even called it The Way, following only the teachings of Jesus, like Paul.
Out of those debates came an idea that married polytheism and monotheism and should have put that fight to bed forever. The Trinity. God is One and Three. Woah. That’s hard to wrap your mind around, and yet when you do, a whole world of nondual thinking starts to unveil itself. Within Christianity, you have different denominations that have different takes on this idea. Some lean more towards One. Others lean more towards Three. Still others will use whatever is convenient for that day’s sermon and don’t seem to worry much about the debate at all. The one I choose to community with leans more towards Three, but it depends on what you mean when you say God. Christians call themselves monotheistic, but there’s some wiggle room.
I really don’t get too worked up about the distinctions here because there’s just a lot we don’t know, and I’m not convinced that any one belief on this point is needed to have experiences with God and develop my own humanity the best I can. What this conversation does do for me is loosen my grip on monotheism. And after my prayer to Great River (that I mentioned in the article I linked to at the beginning), I began to see the draw towards polytheism.
Loosely-held polytheism can be a doorway into contemplation of our natural world. Being in nature grounds me. And when I’m with a tree, I’m with that tree. I want to feel the texture of its bark, feel it’s warmth or coolness, and take in the light that cascades through its branches and leaves. I feel alive. I can almost hear the spirit of the tree and feel the vibration of its unique voice. There is divinity there. And had I been raised in a polytheistic religion, I may have recognized the God of Trees flowing through its being. But I wasn’t. I was raised in a trinity-based religion where two of the three have physical bodies, so that means I’m inclined to recognize that the feeling I get from the tree is the Holy Ghost.
It doesn’t seem to matter what I call it, the experience is the same. When we fight about how we are describing our experiences, we get distracted from the experience and loose the connection we have to those God moments that enlighten our minds and enliven our souls. These God moments are common among us. They unite us all together in a shared humanity. The experiences we have are real. What we call them are constructs of our context.
I’m far more interested in our shared experiences than in arguing about the way we describe those experiences. I want to hear all the beautiful ways these experiences show up for others. I’m fascinated by the way polytheists describe their experiences, and I like it. I like “paganism”. I also like the ways monotheists describe their experiences. It’s all so wonderful, and it all points in the same direction, regardless of our differences. One god, three gods, a thousand gods, it all points to love. God is Love. And as Paul taught, love doesn’t get jealous. Love never fails.