Posted by: aediculaantinoi | March 4, 2014

Pantheism, Panentheism…and, that whole bit about “-theism” not really being in ’em…?!?

There’s a lot of promised posts still to do, and many other things besides…but, I don’t have much time today, so it will have to be the following.

And, I realize this could be a much longer post than it will likely be, but perhaps this is a subject that doesn’t need to be elaborated upon too much to make the point I’m seeking to at present.

Of the various matters that get mentioned theologically amongst a variety of pagans, “pantheism” and “panentheism” are kind of buzz-words that a lot of people like to use, often in conjunction with polytheism. While I think there is an obvious bit of discord with monism and polytheism (which may not exist for other people–and if it doesn’t and you’re one of those people, good for you! But don’t try and tell me that I’m wrong for not finding that theological formulation adequate for my own purposes or experiences), many don’t feel this is the case with pantheism or panentheism.

Whether that is true or not, the biggest problem I find with the terms “pantheism” and “panentheism” as they are used amongst pagans today is that the second part of the word, “-theism,” isn’t really present in them. Or, theoi get re-defined to the point that they don’t really exist within the term any longer, and it becomes not unlike monism (where “everything is divine,” which is somewhat tantamount to saying “nothing is sacred”–what is sacred or what is divine is necessarily different in quality and kind than things that are not) in practice and in conceptual realities, which is why I think that monism and pan(en)theism often get paired together.

Certainly, anything can become sacred, it’s an in-built property of the universe, I think, that everything from the most humble piece of matter to the highest divine being can become holy and powerful and filled with the capacity to awe and to exalt those who encounter such things. But, they’re not all “automatically” at that level; if they were, we wouldn’t be able to get through a day without being constantly and consistently overwhelmed with amazement at every moment…which would make driving impossible, talking to people impossible, or doing any of the jobs that any of us are paid for impossible. If pantheism or panentheism are really what they say they are, then that would have to be the default state of people who believe in that fashion, or what they aspire to…and, to be honest, I find anyone who suggests that is their default state or their aspiraton to be dishonest, unless they are so fortunate and privileged as to be in a position where they can just become a monk and have that be their full-time occupation.

It almost seems as if these terms have been engineered to edit the theoi out of one’s existence. I know that a lot of pagans have an allergy to anything that looks like “worship” or “holy awe” at anything other than their own power or divinity, and these positions have the advantage of making oneself a part of that divine spectrum by default as well. It’s not that I don’t think it is possible for humans to attain that–indeed, I revere a number of former humans who have done exactly that!–but I don’t think it’s good to assume that anyone or everyone or even a single someone (like myself!) starts at that point from the beginning.

But, whenever I state an opinion like this, people are bound to take offense…so, it’s likely that such will happen again here. Oh well.

I would be interested, though, in hearing whether my interpretation of these terms as they are practiced is off in the experience and perceptions of a variety of readers here. Go ahead, folks…


  1. Greetings. I’ve been going down the rabbit hole with your blog for a few months now. Very interesting work you and your tradition has been given. As someone who is queer, and someone who is a witch of various lineages with devotional relationships spanning a few different ‘orbits’/pantheons, what have you, its been a good read. Not that I always agree with your positions, but still a very good read.

    I have an extreme aversion to theology. As someone with some experience in acadamia, particularly cultural anthropology, it smacks too much of philosophy for me. A cute language game entertaining for a certain kind of mind. I understand your focus on it’s development for your tradition and polytheism generally, respect, and enjoy your passionate articulations of such. Particularly since you have an interest in engaging with the interfaith community. Something all of my teachers since I was a teen had long given up as a waste of time. So more power to you. But I’m unsure if the terms as you (and others generally) seem to have defined them are useful in describing the way I have experienced the Gods and/or the Mighty Dead.

    In the first coven I was involved with the whole “All goddess/gods as one” bit was quite downplayed. Every single god or goddess was seen as an individual personality. This actually sometimes took a more heavy tone than the usual “drawing down” and looked a lot more like some possession ceremonies in the Northern traditions described be Raven Caldera, but with Celtic gods. These gods were celebrated for their flaws as well as their strengths, and I see a lot of the devotional relationship techniques communicated to me at this time in contemporary ‘hard’ polytheism. We did call circles and did degrees (apparently we got them from some Alexandrians), but this sense of reduction of the individual personalities of deities and other spirits we worked with which you seem to be ascribing to Wiccans here was not present in my training. We didn’t call ourselves Wiccans btw but would cop to the term if working in intercoven contexts… which was done rarely and then not at all.

    After this period I spent a long time practicing chaos magic, particularly the nature-oriented walking trance style of Jan Fries. This made me very aware of the concrete presence of place spirits, and other inhabitants and characteristics of the Otherworld. I perceive these beings as having co-evolved with humanity, and having a palpable objective presence (if difficult to quantify given current technology). At the same time I am engaged with the concept of the Kia, or whatever you want to call it (language again seems useless on approach). I believe that our connection to this thing, whatever it is (I kind of like the idea that its a huge jizz stream myself) is how we have mystical experiences, see gods, do magic, yadda yadda. These came about as an evolutionary adaptations and who knows why. This is all obviously my own UPG, as they say in the blogs.

    Many years later now. I am a Quimbandeiro, though not a Tata, and this comes with a certain theology*. In Quimbanda there is no ‘god’ but Nzambi. A very abstract force. Beings like Exu and Pomba Gira are almost all originally human beings who by some act or unknown reason were given power in the Kingdoms which connect our world and the numinous Calunga. We watch them, speak to them, work them, take their advise if it seems prudent, but we do NOT worship them. Nor consider them gods. Some of these Exu, if the stories our elders tell of them are true, are as old as or older than Antinous and have been traveling around Europe or Africa as autonomous patrons of various witchcrafts until they found themselves in Brazil and joined the People of Quimbanda,

    Actually one thing I often contemplate as I read your work is if Antinous is a God rather than a powerful Exu/Hero/Ancestor only because Hadrian used the power of the Empire to declare him such. This would reflect on certain academic theories regarding power and the sacred quite interestingly don’t you think?

    So am I a panetheist? As it would appear I am? And if so how am I denying the theos of the beings I interact with, both devotionally and otherwise?

    *This is only a representation of my understanding of what I have been taught thus far and surmise through my own experiences, and in no way do I speak for any other Quimbandieros or my Cabula.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I don’t know about your own traditions, so I can’t really usefully comment on them.

      What I can do is comment on Antinous. Hadrian did not “make him a god,” Egyptian tradition made him a god, and Hadrian merely spread his cultus more widely than it would have been observed otherwise (as there are MANY Egyptians who drowned and were deified whose records and even temples still exist, e.g. the two brothers whose temple is now in the MET in NYC). Antinous is always considered a Hero (in some locations) or a full-on God/Deus/Theos (in far more locations), which is very different in those cultures than an Ancestor. If your own system doesn’t allow for that, that’s fine; but in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and many other cultures, he was considered a god, and to most of us who practice Antinous’ modern devotion, that’s how he is understood and that’s how he has manifested.

      • One reason I became interested in your writing is because your research uncovers much of the nuanced language used at the time to describe different kinds of numinous (can we use that term?) personalities. I didn’t know, until after I posted and was reading further, about the tradition concerning people drowning in the Nile. Not sure how I missed that before.

        Here I can actually use a recent example to speak to what I was trying to get at. My parents were in India, traveling in a fairly remote region. They were informed the bus needed to pull over at this next stop, out in the middle of nowhere. There was a shrine which their guide described as important for the bus drivers to visit. Featured there was the glass encased wreck of a motorcycle and the photograph of a young man. Apparently some years back the unfortunate man died in an accident. When the police took the motorcycle wreckage back to their station, the next day it had mysteriously returned to the site of the accident. Thinking it a prank by the young mans friends they took it back again and kept it under lock, where it again miraculously returned to the site. Upon this happening the people realized that the young man had become a (insert name of Hindu entity here) and that he had to be venerated. In the time since he has become the patron of bus and delivery drivers in the region, and receives regular offerings by every one passing the area. In a Quimbanda lens such an entity would probably be ‘like’ an Exu, but that is a broad classification. A nickname if you will for a number of things. Some spirits in that tradition, known as encantados, are similarly the spirits of people who disappear in the jungle without a trace, or in some other extraordinary circumstance. I would personally categorize these deified people drowned in the Nile in a similar way. And therefore the establishment of the cultus which transformed Antinous into a full-fledged god. If we were to allow such cross-cultural and time-distanced comparisons to be useful explorations. Just a thought.

        So its is not what my tradition ‘allows’ or not. I wouldn’t come on to your blog to try to push some classification on you. I am more interested in yours. Can you point me at some resources which inform your distinction between a Hero and an Ancestor? Recently I have begun to venerate, separately from my blood ancestors, what I call ‘path ancestors’. Those artists, musicians, magicians, activists, etc who I consider to be ancestral to my path. Particularly the queer ones, since many of them had no children. You seem to have a sophisticated system of this sort of veneration in Ekklesia Antinoou. Where have you explained this system in the most depth?

    • Also, I’m a bit confused about your mention of “Wicca” or my characterization of it–as I never mentioned that in my original post on this occasion.

      • I guess you were speaking about pagans generally. I understand what you are talking about here, but I guess the point is I don’t find your characterization of pagan panetheism to be a constant, but more of a tendency. This may also be a difference between more ‘public’ pagans, than private ones. I can’t think of any one of my witch teachers, or really any person I have met in real life who I knew to actually practice, who ever held to that image of panetheism in their actual practice. The gods and goddesses and other beings we were working with, however they were defined, were always treated as independent and autonomous, having their own history and motivations. But I learned from some very strange people, admittedly.

  2. I do find that a (perhaps idiosyncratic🙂 understanding of panentheism makes sense to me as a philosophical lens for thinking about the cosmos and the divine; but claiming any kind of true knowledge on that point is WAY above my pay grade as a human… and even if it’s true, it seems to me that that Ultimate is too abstract and removed from our level to be in any way relatable.

    And also – as I generally say to the folks who claim there’s no point in worshiping individual gods if they’re all “really one anyway” – even if it is true, then that Ultimate has chosen to manifest TO ME as individual Persons, and I’d rather not argue with them!

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more, Lupus. Without the non-sacred (or the Profane, as Eliade calls it) you can’t have the sacred, or else everyday life would be impossible. The universe is a wonderful and majestic thing, and the sacred can exist in many places, but I doubt my shower is sacred (except, perhaps, to Cloacina). At least I’ve not detected a hierophany in there (yet). To think otherwise seems very impractical to me. When I’m rushing about trying to get ready for a trip I”m in a sort of automatic, almost mindless state, and a sacred state must be, at least, mindful. Most of us are incapable of being totally mindful, in the moment, for more than short time spans, and I’m including Buddhists in this, who do it for a living, as it were.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned Cloacina, Kirk! When I get my own place, there will be a shrine in the bathroom to both Sterculinus and to Cloacina…and considering the latter is a Venus epithet, and the former is often syncretized to Saturn, that makes for some interesting theological connections there, too! 😉

  4. I wrote a long reply earlier and then WordPress ate it. Probably for the best!

    My take, as a panentheist (at this stage of my development), is that humans develop buffers that inhibit our ability to recognize and access the sacred in our lives, in part as a natural consequences of becoming autonomous beings. I emerged from God Hirself and developed my own ego and sense of identity and separateness, which helps me get through the day, develop ourselves, grow, feed myself, stop at traffic lights, all that stuff. But part of that process ends up tamping down my awareness of that divine awe that is possible.

    It’s like, when someone first falls in love, they might think they could spend all day staring at their lovers’ faces and just feel so wonderful, and it sucks that they have to go work and do things that aren’t staring at their lovers’ faces. It’s too much! That has to fade eventually. But if it fades too much, then there’s no fire. So people who spend a lot of time together sometimes have to develop a practice of remembering to see the love and beauty in each other while simultaneously living their lives.

    In the path I study, my take on things is that I am developing my ego and autonomy while also developing my ability to access and stay connected to awareness of the sacred so that I can become more conscious of the sacred in my daily experience without completely losing my shit.

    Because our culture does not foster an awareness of and reverence for the sacred, it’s easy to forget and feel that I’m only this body and daily existence. That’s why I need spiritual practice and devotion. Remembering Cloacina and honoring her with prayers every time I flush the toilet helps me to remember to experience the sacred. Experiencing the sacred is deepened when doing it in a shared religious context, or in devotion to a God, and it’s not just me being autonomous and disconnected.

    I have this whole other piece about viewing my consciousness as the expression of one or several larger consciousnesses, the way I can “hear” many conflicting inner voices, but simultaneously that does not mean that I am interchangeable with other people who are also an expression of that consciousness. Same with the Gods. Maybe I look like my sister, but it’s rude to treat me like we’re the same person.

  5. You know, I’m glad you’ve touched on pantheism. I’ve gone back and forth on how best to describe my, well, whatever it is I’m doing. Funny enough I actually like “pantheism” better than “polytheism” – at least when it comes to how – I – interpret those words. While I don’t find myself in complete agreement with how the devotional polytheist community defines the term their definition does work better for me than how pantheism is commonly used.

    Re: The implicit monism in pantheism – Yes! I’m VERY glad you pointed that out. I don’t think pantheism HAS to be understood in monistic terms (not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s your thing) but I hate how people just look at you dumbly (at best) if you try to make any other interpretation of it. Honestly? The same could probably be said for monism itself, i.e. different interpretations than some of the more common ones being more compatible with polytheism (at least in my view).

    Ultimately, the “en” aspect of panentheism suffers from the same problems as monism – it’s just not relevant enough to my actual experience for me to care about it one way or another. At least in terms of how they’re most often used. Ditto “non-dual” – whatever that term actually means. While I’m not attached to monism or non-dual (even less so panentheism) I might like to use pantheism, if not for the fact that its common usage doesn’t work. Probably for the best but it’s still frustrating, words having meaning and all.😉

  6. I have not done the research to completely confirm this, but my impression is that “pantheism” already had lost its “theism” by the late nineteenth century. 20th century process theologians coined “panentheism” essentially to put classical theism back into pantheism.

  7. Certainly, anything can become sacred, it’s an in-built property of the universe, I think, that everything from the most humble piece of matter to the highest divine being can become holy and powerful and filled with the capacity to awe and to exalt those who encounter such things.

    When I read that, and I think about the moments out in the world when that holy awe has come over me, I find myself wondering: is the sacredness something that comes and goes (that is, this piece of land is sacred, but that one over there isn’t) or is it that I am open, brought into a point of view where I can see/experience that sacredness here, but not over there? *Is* the difference between a place or object being sacred rooted in the place or object, or rooted in what we are able to perceive?

    I realize that this isn’t the main point of your post, and I’m not attempting to derail it. I’m not all that in touch with many Pantheists or Panentheists, so I can’t speak to that. This, though, makes me curious and gets my brain firing, and I thought, heck, I’d post the comment. But it may end up spawning a blog post on its own, because, well? Brain firing and all.

    • If the scattered thoughts here result in further food for thought and blog posts, all the better! 😉

      But, I don’t know if it is a matter of us being perceptually defective in seeing the divine presence or possibilities all around us (though I don’t deny that they are *possibilities*), or if there are some things that are just, for lack of a better term, “more special” in certain ways than other things. What is holy can be terrifying, and there are some numinous places that don’t fill me with mere dread, they fill me with terror; while others are peaceful and wonderful and serene. Even someone who exudes a very holy demeanor and presence, like (as I’ve heard) the Dalai Lama, probably isn’t nearly as holy when he’s taking a shit, or the shit that comes from him probably isn’t that much more numinous than the shit of anyone else…and while that may be an extreme example (and, also, remember that I’m a cultist of Sterculinus, so “doing useful things with shit” is a regular exercise of mine–though generally in a metaphorical sense!), nonetheless, it might help to illustrate the point.

  8. My opinions and experiences on this subject are just as you describe yours in this post, Dr., especially with regards to the sacred and using terms to avoid emphasizing the deities (if I understand correctly what you are saying).

    “It almost seems as if these terms have been engineered to edit the theoi out of one’s existence….”

    Yes, this exactly. And I have long puzzled over it. To be completely blunt, I think using the terminology this way is an artifact of the memetic and draconian domination of Monotheism. That is to say, either consciously or unconsciously, Pagans use these terms as a sort of apologetic to the domineering religious culture in our society. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that many of us have been conditioned to “accept” that pure Polytheism is “evil, “erroneous,” or at least ignorant and “primitive,” don’t you think? I believe we have internalized these messages far more than we’d like to admit, even to ourselves. I like to boldly confront such conditioning. But that confrontation is very hard to do when the dominant culture still assumes that a Monotheist view is the only correct one. Using terms like Pantheism and Panentheism allows one to sort of skate around any direct confrontation with the messages we’ve been given since childhood. Well, that’s my two cents, anyway.😉

    • Indeed…and, “pantheism” has been used as a pejorative since the 6th and 7th centuries (at very least) in Christianity to show that some people who exalt creation at the expense of the Creator is “wrong”–rubbish, of course, but anyway…So, those who end up identifying in that direction as if it is some kind of concession to monotheism and mainstream religions are sort of deluding themselves as well, unfortunately. Hmm…

  9. I wanted to weigh in here as someone who ‘converted’ to polytheism from pan(en)theism about 8 or 9 years ago after doing a lot of reading and thinking about Neoplatonic philosophy (which is supposedly monist!). My perspective is that the distinction between monism and the pure-and-simple polytheism that Lupus is describing is largely one of emphasis. Monists emphasize that the gods are of the same divine substance, while polytheists emphasize that they are separate persons. Personally, I don’t see a contradiction between those ideas.
    On the other hand, as a polytheist, I think that the more important thing, practically speaking, is the cult we offer to the gods. The theology underlying that cultus—the attempt to get to grips with the true nature of the gods through reason and dialectic—is never worth getting adamant about, for who but a god can claim to have comprehended the full nature of the gods? Even if a god were to tell us in elaborate detail what his true nature was, the fact remains that he would be telling it to *us*, and that therefore the message was tailored to meet our own limitations as well as to elevate our intellects.
    I do think, however, that Ariel makes an important point in saying that Christians (and also Muslims) have done an insidiously effective job of painting anything that is not monotheist as primitive. This is no doubt a large part of the reason why monotheistic and monistic apologetics for Hinduism are so fashionable in India, and why 4th-century pagan philosophy made much of its monistic credentials.
    By the way, Lupus, I wanted to say how much I enjoyed the rituals you presided over at PantheaCon, especially the beard-blessing one. I was one of those whose beards were blessed, and there was Serapis, chuckling and rolling his eyes as I never knew he could!

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, and for attending the ritual! I’m very glad you enjoyed it! Serapis seems to be a deity who would have to have a sense of humor, I think, for all sorts of reasons. 😉

    • “This is no doubt a large part of the reason why monotheistic and monistic apologetics for Hinduism are so fashionable in India, and why 4th-century pagan philosophy made much of its monistic credentials.”

      I like that you mentioned this, deomercurio. That has been my take on the situation as well.🙂

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