Posted by: aediculaantinoi | February 6, 2013

Does Pluralization Work?

Earlier this year, I wrote on “Polytheism, Transcendence, and Number”; and, likewise, over at Patheos.com, Aidan Kelly recently wrote about “There Is More Than One Infinity.” As you can imagine, number is very important to me–I’m a polytheist, after all! ;)

But, I’m also wondering if, for those who are not already doing so, if particular linguistic shifts can begin to bring about a change in theological position and one’s own thinking in regards to these matters.

Namely, I’m wondering: can simply turning some general statements of monotheistic religions into plurals rather than singulars make them viable within polytheism?

One of the things I most commonly encounter amongst modern pagans, and some of my earliest experiences with a particular Wiccan, struck me as odd the first times I heard them (even though I was not a monotheist myself): instead of saying “Oh God” or just “God!” when things were unusual, strange, or surprising, the individual concerned would say “Goddess!” Of course, that makes sense within a more goddess-centered Wiccan context…but, it still preserves the singularity of the monotheist statement. (And, the goddess monism of many Wiccans, thus, is accurately reflected in the linguistic usage here.) For myself, now, after over twenty years of being a pagan and a polytheist, I tend to say “gods” or “dear gods” when things are strange, troubling, or unexpected.

There’s a case where simple pluralization works quite well and effectively, not only in conveying the sense of either sacredness to such occurrances (though not often!) or the call to divine powers for help, but also doing so accurately within my own theological framework as a polytheist.

But, what about other things? For example, the first statement of the various creeds used in many Christian churches: “We/I believe in [one] God.” For polytheists, is it enough to say “I/we believe in [many] gods”? Of course, a great deal depends on the understanding of “believe” in this statement (as I’ve outlined here recently), but if those considerations are taken seriously, then there’s not a lot of problem with it.

What about something a bit more complex? For example, the statement paraphrased from Deuteronomy, “I am the Lord your God, worship no god but me,” which is taken as a declaration not of henotheism (which is what it actually is!) by many monotheists, but instead as a declaration of the singularity of gods in general, which is not at all applicable to polytheism. Can we just change it for our own situation, then, to “We are your gods, worship no gods but us”? Again, no, I don’t think it’s that simple–and yet, this is the position of a HUGE number of polytheists, particularly in certain recon communities, who only think their own chosen culture’s pantheon is viable; while they may not demean or discredit the existence of other gods, at the same time, they also don’t think “their own people” should be worshipping them, which leads to anti-syncretism (even when syncretism is demonstrably historical within their traditions), and so forth.

Obviously, the answer to this question is simple and (mostly) twofold: no, mere pluralization isn’t a good strategy because A) such pluralizations are context-dependent, and preserving some bits of the original monotheistic context might create distorted situations or understandings in a pluralized polytheist usage, and B) it is never a good idea to take the religious norms of one system and assume they apply to another, are applicable to another, or are even remotely appealing to another.

And yet, in many cases, it seems like this is exactly what many modern pagans and polytheists are doing in some of their assumptions about how theology, community, and the regulation of both should be carried out.

I’d be interested in hearing your own thoughts on some of these matters.


Responses

  1. “Obviously, the answer to this question…&c.” I think that paragraph and the one that follows are a nice summation of the dynamic of a lot of us who self-identify as (neo)pagan or polytheists of some stripe or another experience, especially insofar as many of us were not raised polytheists but rather came to it later. As a personal example, though the Christianity of my youth is well abandoned (I love being able to use the word “apostate”), there are nevertheless important ways in which the liturgy still influences me because of its deep enculturation. Especially when I was first emerging into a contemporary pagan matrix, it was those old prayers reframed and recontextualized for my own use that were the patterns for my worship. “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” was as easily be addressed to Eros Phanes in whom I took refuge as it was to YHWH.

    Whether that’s as it should be or not, only time will tell. But I think that it’s an understandable transition that many of us make (or even maintain) as we embrace new views while also honoring particular cultural artifacts that may still resonate.

    I am not a strict reconstructionist, so that opinion would probably grate on the nerves of someone who was. As my particular view is that religions (like all cultural and artistic expressions) evolve and shift over time, it is not surprising that different elements of varying traditions should emerge within other contexts.

    • Indeed, and I think many of the spiritual technologies in dominant forms of Christianity can be much better, and very effective, than some of the pagan alternatives.

      As a few examples: the litany form of prayers (e.g. the litany of the saints) ended up being a very important influence in several Antinoan practices, e.g. the Antinoan Petition, which is a litany of his syncretisms and other deity connections.

      The entirely sung liturgy is also nice; too many pagan rituals I’ve been to literally do not sing, and the only bits in them that do seem to work or move any energy are the songs…so, why not have more of those rather than less?

      And yes, the “Magnificat” is probably one of the most beautiful hymns in any tradition, ever–and all of the musical settings of it over history have been wonderful, too.

  2. Well, having had the pleasure of singing Antinoan liturgy with you, I can definitely vouch that certain aspects of pluralization are very effective in contemporary Pagan and esoteric practices. It’s also interesting to note that these forms of chanting were preserved from earlier Pagan praxis and, well, preserved and innovated on and sound a whole lot better than the nursery rhyme chants I’ve read and seen in some public rituals. Also, your use of contemporary music as a backing for things is definitely approachable and further brings to fore the influence of the profane on the sacred.

    • I’m always thankful for your input…And, while this is not directly related to your statement, you’ve made me think of it, so there we go!…

      Pluralization in almost every respect would be a very useful thing for us. In the EA, there is not “another me,” and while that’s impossible to truly address as a problem without cloning, at the same time, it’s also a concern. I’d like for more people (particularly Mystai) to “step up” and start taking more active roles in what we do, and to start playing those roles on their own without prompting by me, as Jay (for example) has done with Spring Mysteries. Having you as the “co-celebrant” at our Natalis Dianae ritual this past year was such a refreshing and wonderful thing, not only because it was an experience enhanced by being shared, but also because it made me realize that I had less to fear in “getting it wrong” since you were literally backing me up (and in many instances leading) the vocals, etc. If my voice failed, yours was there to provide substance, and so forth…

      So, pluralizations of various kinds would be desirable, I think, even outside of adapting monotheist models to a polytheistic context.


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