Put your thinking caps on today, boys and girls – this essay is worth it. The critique of Neopaganism given here is provoking me to completely rethink the way I relate to the gods. – B. T. Newberg
We Neopagans often say that the gods are archetypes, but rarely do we hear how the archetypes are gods.
In the 1960s, Neopagans grabbed onto Jung’s conception of archetypes as a way of making polytheism seem legitimate in the modern world. In the process, however, some Neopagans lost the sense of the gods as numinous.
Psychologizing the gods
By psychologizing the gods, we have contributed to the ongoing disenchantment of the world which began with the Enlightenment. We have humanized the gods, but in doing so, we have sometimes lost the sense of the gods as gods.
In reaction, many Neopagans in search of communion with the numinous Other have rejected Jungian theory in favor of a radical polytheism which sees the gods as beings existing independent of the human psyche. This presents a challenge to Humanistic or Naturalistic Neopagans who cannot identify with this conception of the divine.
The disenchantment of the modern world is a common topic of Neopagan authors. The phrase “disenchantment of the world”, coined by Weber, derives from Friedrich Schiller, who wrote about die Entgotterung der Natur, the “de-godding of nature.” Neopagan myth and ritual is supposed to be a counter-movement to this disenchantment, a re-enchantment of the world or a “re-godding” of nature.
However, some of the pre-modern cultural forms which Neopaganism claims to reconstruct may actually be transformed in the process, so much so that the “enchantment” is lost in the translation. For example, Wouter Hanegraaff has argued that “occultist” magic has survived the disenchantment of the Enlightenment by becoming itself disenchanted. Hanegraaff explains how part of process of the disenchantment of magic was its psychologization.
In contemporary Neopaganism, we see the process of psychologization present not only in discussions of magic, but also in explanations of the gods. This often takes the forms of describing the Neopagan gods as Jungian archetypes. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the claims to historical continuity with an ideal Pagan past began to come under attack, Neopagans turned to Jungian psychology as a means for legitimating Neopagan practice. Unfortunately, the Jungian interpretation of Neopagan gods came to be oversimplified as it was popularized.
Neopagans often describe the gods as archetypes, but sometimes we lose the sense of how the archetypes are gods. In other words, the numinous quality of the archetype is lost.
The gods may be a part of us, but we must remember that they are also other than us, if by “us” we mean our conscious mind or ego-self. It is not without reason that Jung called the archetypes gods. He wrote:
“They are the ruling powers, the gods, images of the dominant laws and principles, and of typical, regularly occurring events in the soul’s cycle of experience.”
We experience the archetypes as gods, because they are beyond our conscious control and because they have the power to transform our lives. A true encounter with the gods is not only an experience of re-enchantment (what Rudolf Otto calls mysterium fascinans), but also an experience which shakes us to our core (which Otto calls mysterium tremendum).
While the gods are part of the human psyche, we should always keep in mind that the Greek term psyche is better translated as “soul” than as “mind”. Too often, in discussions of the psychological nature of Neopagan gods, the modifier “just” is inserted immediately preceding the word “psychological”, as in “So the Neopagan gods are just psychological?”
It is as if to say “So they are figments of your imagination?” Not only is this a profound misunderstanding of Jung’s theory of the psyche, but it contributes to the disenchantment of the Neopagan concept of divinity.
In effect, the Neopagan discourse has de-godded the archetype.
Re-godding the gods
This in turn led to a backlash against Jungian theory in Neopaganism. David Waldron writes how, in the 1980s, the Jungian approach to Noepaganism came under fire from a number of sources. Feminists like Naomi Goldenberg criticized Jungianism as being Eurocentric and patriarchal, while queer scholars criticized Jung’s male-female polarization of the psyche. As a consequence, Jungian psychology was gradually displaced as the dominant Neopagan interpretative paradigm.
Since the 1990’s, radical polytheistic theory has entered the foreground of Neopagan discourse. Neopagans’ gods came to be described less as Jungian archetypes and more as literal beings that exist independent of the human psyche. Radical (or “hard”) polytheistic discourse in Neopaganism can be seen as a reaction to this disenchantment of the Neopagan gods. It is an attempt, if you will, to put the “god” back into the gods.
The de-godding of the archetype in Neopaganism is a consequence of a fundamental misunderstanding of Jung’s theory, namely a confusion of symbol with archetype. Waldron explains:
“It is one thing to acknowledge that symbols and archetypal images have a deep impact on the human psyche through religious experience. It is a profoundly different thing to believe that one can consciously and arbitrarily create and ascribe meaning to symbols, based upon that which is seen to be suited to consciously designated psychic needs.”
One of the most conspicuous examples of this is the practice of “using gods” in Neopagan magic, also sometimes referred to as “plug-and-play” gods.
Jung clearly differentiated between consciously constructed symbols and numinous archetypes. According to Jung, symbols refer to, but are not identical with, the archetypes located deep in the unconscious. While symbols have a conscious and known meaning, an archetype is always necessarily unknown. Thus, the archetype retains a numinous quality.
The apprehension of an archetype by consciousness is always necessarily partial, never total. The meaning of the unconscious archetype is inexhaustible.
The claim that any one symbol exhausts the archetype is the substance of what John Dourley calls “psychic idolatory”. If a symbol can be totally explained or rationalized by the conscious mind, then it ceases to be an archetype. While a symbol may masquerade as an archetype, it actually is a representation of the ego-self and becomes, in Waldron’s words, “a collaborator in the suppression of the shadow.”
Neo-Jungian James Hillman writes:
“Just as we do not create our dreams, but they happen to us, so we do not invent the persons of myth and religion [i.e., the gods]; they, too, happen to us.” (emphasis Hillman’s)
It is no coincidence that historically and cross-culturally, the gods have spoken to mortals in dreams. As Neopagans came to consciously construct and “plug-and-play” their gods, we lost the sense of the gods as something that happens to us. It may be said that we overemphasized the immanence of the gods and lost the sense of their transcendence.
The modern hubris
In ancient Greek tragedy, heroes who were guilty of the sin of hubris, disregarding the existential gulf between themselves and the gods, were invariably punished for it. In contemporary Neopaganism, hubris takes the form of conflating the creations of the conscious mind with the numinous aspects of the unconscious.
On the one hand, this modern form of hubris results in the loss of our experience of the gods, a further disenchantment or de-godding of our world. But on the other hand, it invites the retribution of gods, who may be repressed in the unconscious, but will not be ignored. If they are not given their due honor, the gods will make themselves known forcibly and often with disastrous results in our lives.
In A History of Ancient Greek Literature, Gilbert Murray writes:
“Reason is great, but it is not everything. There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life. These things are Gods or forms of God: not fabulous immortal men, but ‘Things which Are,’ things utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his life to shreds without a break in their own serenity.”
To confuse Murray’s “things not of reason” with the conscious creations of our own mind is hubris, and we do so at our own peril. The gods may be archetypes, but we must also always remember that the archetypes are gods.
As Neopagan discourse moves increasingly in the direction of radical polytheism, those Humanistic or Naturalistic Neopagans who find this position rationally untenable may find themselves (more) marginalized in the Neopagan community. The pendulum which previously swung to the humanistic extreme by reducing the gods to symbols is now swinging to the other extreme of transcendental theism, denying that the gods are part of the human psyche.
Jung’s theory of archetypes offers us an opportunity to create a golden mean between these two extremes, one which may simultaneously satisfy the humanist or naturalist who sees the gods as products of the human psyche, while also satisfying the mystical longing for contact with a numimous Other which is greater than any creation of our conscious mind.
Dourley, John P. The Goddess, Mother of the Trinity (1990)
Hanegraaf, Wouter. “How Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World”, Religion, vol. 33 (2003).
Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology (1975)
Jung, Carl. The Collected Works: The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious
Waldron, David. The Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival (2008)
 By “numinous”, I refer to an experience of that which transcends or is other than our conscious ego-selves, but is not necessarily supernatural.
John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neopagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation. He maintains the website American Neopaganism and the newly-minted blog The Allergic Pagan.
Hot damn am I glad you wrote this, and equally glad that this is apparently a growing movement. I’ve always found the concept of “the gods are just in our heads” to be so bizarre. Because even if we theoretically understand our experiences of the gods to be psychological (i.e. mental) phenomena, they do completely lose their numinous qualities when we treat them as such in practice. “This god is just in my head” produces a completely different experience than “this god is real and is infinitely more powerful than I’ll ever be.”
Anyway, good stuff. Keep it up.
Agreed, Luke! It’s not thinking the gods are in our heads that’s the problem, it’s thinking they’re just in our heads.
>“This god is just in my head” produces a completely different experience than “this god is real and is infinitely more powerful than I’ll ever be.”
It certainly does. And in my experience, those different experiences can be used to different ends. I’ve found it is entirely possible, and probably most natural, to maintain different ideas about the gods in different situations. I can think about them as “in my head” when contemplating them objectively and abstractly, and that produces what I consider the most consistent, evidence-based, and conciliatory theory about their place in the natural universe. But while relating to them subjectively in ritual, I can work with them as “real,” and that produces the most meaningful and emotionally-powerful response.
I say this maintaining multiple theories about the gods is probably most natural because the human mind seems to be designed to come up with a variety of hypotheses about things. That’s what gives us an evolutionary advantage over our more instinct-bound cousin species. We can contemplate the nature of fire before actually burning our hand in it. We can hypothesize a number of different ways that fire could be. It’s only by trying different things, like sticking wood in it, pouring water on it, sticking our hand wrapped in drenched wool in it, etc., that we come to decide between our different ideas about fire. Likewise, there’s no reason why we need to choose one idea about the gods from the get go. Only by trying out different ideas in different situations and gradually accumulating evidence should we ever start to favor a given hypothesis.
The evidence of my experience has demonstrated that relating to the gods as “real” during ritual – in almost the same way that you suspend disbelief while watching a movie, or conveniently “forget” that pets don’t speak English when you talk to them – results in a distinct subjective experience that is highly integrating, beneficial, and meaningful in ways I can hardly communicate.
That right there is already enough to “re-god” the gods for me.
Brandon, I think the suspension of disbelief you described is really hard for humanists/naturalist/non-theists. I know it is for me. I think turning off the internal critic is essential to having a powerful ritual experience. But I don’t think it’s so much about *thinking* of the gods *as if* they are real, as is turning off the thinking part (as much as possible), and having an experience which *is* real. This a real challenge to those of us who abhor the notion of faith (understood as a suspension of reason) and are always seeking to be conscious to the fullest extent possible. But I think the most real experiences we have are the ones we have while we’re not thinking about it. Annie Dillard describes this as “innocence”, “the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object.” She says that consciousness itself does not hinder these experiences, but as soon as we become *self*-conscious — looking over our own shoulder, as it were — the experience ends, the doors of perception come crashing shut.
I could be reading you wrong, but it doesn’t sound like we’re talking about different things. My experience of the suspension of disbelief is usually characterized by the (temporary) cessation of the internal critic. Whether watching an absorbing movie, talking to my pet cat, or speaking in prayer to Isis, I am in a state that is not self-conscious. Later, it may becomes self-conscious as I think back on it, but it is not so in the moment. And I can move in and out of the non-self-conscious states with relative freedom.
One of the remarkable things about ritual is that it sets up a temporary arrangement called sacred space where we feel comfortable suspending the internal critic, knowing that when we leave that sacred space we are able to resume the internal critic and all the benefits its grants.
P.S. I don’t really like the “internal critic” language because it suggests that the state in ritual/meditation is not critical, but I think it is, just it’s critical about different things, or according to different rules.
I agree 100%.
Well that answers a question I’ve been wanting to ask you for a little while, Brandon: “When practicing nontheistic ritual, do you treat the gods as real?”
Based on your comment, I’m going to go ahead and disagree with your calling it nontheistic ritual, as it seems to me that you actually do take part in theistic ritual. You instead have a nontheistic understanding of the experience.
The real thing I’m wanting to point out here, though, is something I said on The Wilderness Voice recently: more goes on in ritual than a suspension of disbelief. With a movie, suspension of disbelief is all that is needed, but ritual/spiritual/religious practice requires active engagement with belief to be effective, since it is something we create and experience at the same time (much like playing music).
I’m glad you appreciated it. Although I am afraid that Jungian Neopaganism is a diminishing influence. It seems the real growth is with the hard polytheists. In fact, there is a growing sentiment that if you are not a hard polytheist, you are not a “real” Pagan. And I think that is because people, Pagans included, want to have powerful, transformative experiences of the divine or numinous — of the infinitely powerful, as you say — and believing that the gods are radically other than you helps them have that experience. As a Jungian, however, I believe that there are parts of “us” that *are* radically other than what we ordinarily think of as our *selves*, parts of us that would seem as strange and powerful to us a literal god.
Ah, I understand now. I was confusing your statements about the hard polytheists and the Jungian Neopagans.
I’m tempted to say that hard polytheists and Jungian Neopagans are referring to almost the same experiences when referring to the gods/archetypes, but I’m also tempted to say that there would probably be a slight difference in how our minds engage a “hard” god versus a godded archetype.
The main difference I can think of at the moment would probably be the polytheist’s tendency to associate tangible events and situations (weather changes, relationships, etc) with the gods while a Jungian would not need to associate those parts within himself that are not himself with any external, tangible things.
Does that make sense? I don’t have much experience with paganism or polytheism of any stripe, so I may be way off.
No, I think you are right. It’s a very good question whether it really matters whether we conceive of the gods as parts of our psyche or separate beings. Erich Fromm wrote, in *To Have or To Be*:
“God, originally a symbol for the highest value that we can experience within us, becomes in the having mode, an idol. An idol is a thing that we ourselves make and project our own powers into, thus impoverishing ourselves. We submit to our creation and by our submission are alienated from ourselves.”
I’m not sure about this. I think it may be possible to have the same experiences regardless of how you theorize about it. Just as you can get nourishment from eating without understanding the chemistry of digestion.
Well, it’s not so much the theorizing that interests me; I’m really more interested in how our perception of the gods affects our experience of them.
To go back to the food example, you’re absolutely right about food being the same regardless of our thoughts on the chemistry, but at the same time it is pretty well established that our perception of the food (presentation, price, etc) will give us a genuinely different experience of the food (especially flavor).
>I’m really more interested in how our perception of the gods affects our experience of them.
Same here. Best part: it’s an entirely empirical question!
John, I’d like to hear what ideas you have for how we might go about “re-godding” the archetypes? What ways forward do you see?
My first thought would be through story telling with new stories. The Bards/Skalds etc. were masters at creating that experience and think that there should be no reason for it to be any different for today. – Just one thought.
What kind of stories are you envisioning?
That would be up to the bard now wouldn’t it?
One example would be of Starhawk’s “The 5th Sacred Thing” planned for the big screen (a modern form of story telling) that is one story being told that will likely bring about a great experience for those involved in receiving the telling. Potentially creating new myths and legends to be handed down.
Another example would be of Star Wars. This might be a surprising example, but such story tellings have led to Jedi spiritual practitioners.
I think part of it is cultivating an attitude of real reverence towards those parts of ourselves that are not the conscious ego. One thing the hard polytheists in contemporary Paganism are getting right, I think, is that they really take their gods seriously. They understand that interacting with the gods is dangerous, as well as beneficial. I just attended an “Introduction to Heathenry” workshop at the Chicago Pagan Pride Day, and those people don’t play around. They have plenty of fun at their gatherings, but if you mess around with your interaction with the gods (i.e., invoke the wrong gods, or make a careless oath), they will kick you out.
But what I think the hard polytheists are wrong about is the notion that you have to believe the gods are separate beings in order to take them seriously. The ancient Greeks reverenced the gods as much out of fear of their power as anything else. As modern Jungian, I recognize that the things that have power of me and my fate are not all external to me. A lot of those powers are internal, what I think of as the unconscious archetypes. But I think it is critical to maintain the same reverence for those powers as the Greeks did for their gods. A reverence born, perhaps not out of fear, but at least out of respect, respect for the power that have to shape your life.
That’s a powerful idea: you are not in control of your (whole) self. Those parts beyond your conscious control may be as dangerous as anything external. Taking that idea seriously could provide the oomph necessary to organize genuine religiosity.
This links up a bit with the idea I was getting at in Encounters where the inner reaches of the subconscious are another frontier of “wild nature.” And just as we’ve learned that nature outside us must not be romanticized, but should be taken seriously, so too should we avoid romanticizing the inner subconscious. Thus, we’re not looking for some fluffy New Age warm goodness inside us. We’re looking for something that can offer medicine in one hand and a sword in the other.
It seems the next question then is, what are the “dangers” that follow upon not dealing well with these internal gods? I think it’s safe to say we’re no longer concerned about earthquakes and plagues anymore. But what is it that we should be concerned about? And is it realistic to suppose that those who fail to deal with these in some effective manner do so to their detriment?
I love your comparison of the inner wild with the outer wild. In his book *Soulcraft*, Bill Plotkin calls the soul (the psyche) the “inner wilderness”, and goes on to posit that our inner wilderness actually longs for and responds to genuine experiences with the outer wilderness.
I think you have raised a very good question when you ask what the dangers are of interacting with the archetypes. I think the dangers include, on the one hand, the danger that the archetypal powers will remain repressed and continue to rear their heads in unhealthy ways when we let our guard down when we tired, depressed, scared, and so on. But that is actually the benign side of dealing ineffectually with the archetypes, because, on the other hand, I think the other danger is genuine madness.
Herman Melville, in *Moby Dick*, describes the relationship of the conscious mind to the unconscious by way of an analogy to the land and the sea:
“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. …
“Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”
This is not hyperbole I think. Jung compared the unconscious to water, a source of life, but also death:
“The water simile expresses rather aptly the nature an importance of the unconscious. Where there is no water nothing lives; where there is too much of it everything drowns. It is the task of consciousness to select the right place where you are not too near and not too far from water; but water is indispensable.”
In the Bible, God does not create the world ex nihlo. He creates it from the pre-existent chaotic sea called Tehom (personified in Bablyonian myth as the mother of the gods, Tiamat). The job of the creator god in Hebrew myth is to organize the chaos, separate the lower waters from the upper waters, to regulate the flow of the waters. When the water flows in a controlled manner, there is rain and the earth is fruitful. But when the pillars of heaven are removed, then the world is flooded with the powers of chaos.
In Jungian terms, the creator god is the conscious, rational mind, and the chaotic sea is the unconscious. The unconscious is the source of life, but if it is not structured by the conscious mind, then madness ensues.
Good religious ritual, I believe, acts as a kind of canal. If the canal does not connect to the unconscious it cannot be a source of vivification, and it remains a “dry canal” (to borrow a phrase from The Apocalypse of Peter). On the flip side, without the canal, the release of waters into the landscape of the conscious mind results in a flood, or in psychic terms, madness.
So, ironically, it is better perhaps to have ritual completely fail, then to have it only partially succeed.
>danger that the archetypal powers will remain repressed and continue to rear their heads in unhealthy ways when we let our guard down…
>the other danger is genuine madness.
Can you point me to some experimental research that supports this?
P.S. Thanks for recommending Plotkin. I’ll check him out.
I would refer you to the writings of R.D. Laing, especially *The Politics of Experience*. Laing’s ideas are not orthodox in psychology. (Neither is Jung for that matter.) But he argues that psychotic experience is actually the same thing as mystical experience, with the difference being that the mystic returns from the journey to the unconscious, while the mentally ill person does not. (Jung said something similar and I am looking for the quote.) Laing argued that what psychotics need is not to be treated as if they have an illness. Rather they need a guide, someone to lead them back. But he believed that people who did come back would be more whole, more wise, for having gone through the experience. He famously wrote: “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal.”
I would also refer you to Jung’s own autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, (in the chapter entitle “Confrontation with the Unconscious”, in which he describes his own psychotic break. The actual content of his hallucinations is described in his “Seven Sermons to the Dead” and The Red Book. There is an interesting comparison of Jung’s “Seven Sermons” to Wiccan theology here: http://home.earthlink.net/~delia5/pagan/sgw/jung-divine.htm
I know you are looking for research, but I can’t help throwing in myth, in this case the Bacchae, which is all about repression and respect for archetypal powers. One of your previous contributors, M.J. Lee, wrote about this. https://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/being-human-when-surrounded-by-greek-gods-by-m-j-lee/ She described the gods as “poetic encapsulation of our human experience”, but also representing “very real, powerful, even dangerous forces”. She writes: “This for me is the message of the Bacchae. In the Bacchae, I believe Euripides was warning the men of Athens that to ignore a god like Dionysus can bring disaster.”
If you’re looking for a discussion of repression, I would refer you to this article: “Does Repression Exist” http://img2.tapuz.co.il/CommunaFiles/28421076.pdf to begin with. But I take repression as a given from my own experience and my observation of family and close friends.
Wow. Thank you very much!
What you said about the unconscious and madness was quite intriguing. Something I definitely would like to learn more about.
I think I just realized something, Brandon. After your talk of the “inner wild” in Encounters (I can’t remember the exact wording, so forgive me), you basically asked Drew and Urban, “Don’t you think that’s a genuine type of wilderness?”
Drew quickly responded with what was essentially, “Fuck no! The wild is the wild!”
It’s interesting to me that he is drawn to this external spirituality which features some very close to, if not truly, hard polytheism, while you seem to be drawn to the internal, featuring more of an archetypal polytheism. Hmm…
Okay, I’m done with that tangent. Carry on.
*approves of tangent*
You put your finger right on it, Luke.
I suspect it emerges from differences in personality between Drew and I. If I can dip into Pagan-ish talk for a moment, I’d say he’s very much a Fire element person while I’m quite Air.
I don’t think he was saying I was wrong per se, just that he didn’t feel the inner wild should steal the thunder of the outer wilderness. That’s how I took it, anyway.
Very thought provoking- thank you very much.
I found this article very inspiring, because it helps me to relate my humanistic priorities to my mystical yearnings. On the one hand, I tend to judge the goodness and healthiness of a religion and its practices in terms of how well they can benefit human individuals and societies in their co-existence with the non-human environment. I value human ethical good above the service of deities. On the other hand, I personally feel an instinctive need to worship something deeper than or beyond myself. Perhaps the theological doctrine of panentheism would be appropriate, here, wherein the gods can be located both within and beyond our selves.
>I value human ethical good above the service of deities.
It certainly sounds like you’ve found the right place here for that. Welcome!
>On the other hand, I personally feel an instinctive need to worship something deeper than or beyond myself. Perhaps the theological doctrine of panentheism would be appropriate, here, wherein the gods can be located both within and beyond our selves.
Perhaps. Although I think John might be on to something in suggesting that the subconscious is also beyond our “selves” (read: conscious, ego-directed selves). Also, I feel the forces of nature, from mountains to gravity, our very much beyond ourselves. So I personally think a pantheistic view is very capable of relating us to that which is beyond ourselves, without necessitating the -en in panentheism.
I feel something of the same needs you mention. In the end I have to prioritize responsibility to humanity over a personal craving for worship, so that it becomes important for me to propagate a view of reality which is not confabulated with hopeful but potentially dangerous concepts, like literalistic deities or magic, while also striving to keep some of that mystical sense of life. In short, I’m trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
By “potentially dangerous” I mean that others may be deceived into thinking I’m saying something I’m not, by reading me too literally, and make poor decisions based on a faulty view of reality.
That is exactly how I think of it PC. And I am glad you brought up pan-en-theism. There is a wariness about panentheism among naturalists, because it seems to re-introduce a transcendent dimension into the immanent divinity of pantheism. I don’t think it needs to be understood this way though. I do think it is important to preserve the sense of the “otherness” of divinity, because there is always more than we can see, more than is manifest, part that is hidden.
Hegel explains this by using the metaphor or example of a plant, that grows from seed, to bud, to blossom, to fruit, each seeming to be a new thing. But, says Hegel, “at the same time their fluid nature makes them moments of an organic unity in which they not only do not conflict, but in which each is as necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole.” The “organic unity” or “life of the whole” which can never be experienced in any moment, but only in succession, is that (for lack of a better word) transcendent dimension of divinity for me.
Starhawk actually describes a panentheistic perspective when she describes the Goddess as the “Ground of Being” and the God as”That-Which-Is-Brought-Forth”. She says, “She is the Wheel; He is the traveler.“ She is the Dance and He is the Dancer.
In psychological terms, the manifest divinity is our various symbols, stories, and imagery that we use to consciously think and talk about divinity, but the unconscious is that hidden and (as you say) deeper divinity, which can never be fully known, only partially apprehended. In that sense, it “transcends” us (in so far as “us” means our conscious ego-self), but it is a transcendence which includes rather than excludes. Hence, pan-en-theism.
Warning: Detour into theological technicalities ahead!
Hmm… that fits certain established, naturalistic meanings of “transcendence.” Transcendence doesn’t always mean a supernatural entity that is beyond or above nature. It can also mean going beyond or above yourself, overcoming certain obstacles, or reaching a new level of achievement of potential.
But panentheism is a technical theological term that draws a direct contrast to pantheism, and the difference between the two is whether or not Deity extends beyond the natural material universe or not. I don’t see anything in what you’ve described that goes beyond the natural material universe.
So, what you’ve described seems like a form of transcendence, but not the form that qualifies panentheism. Respectfully, I would still describe it as a form of pantheism.
That said, there’s a lot in what you’ve said that appeals to me, particularly the part derived from Hegel, where the divine is all that has been and potentially can be (detour over, conversation back on track).
“I tend to judge the goodness and healthiness of a religion and its practices in terms of how well they can benefit human individuals and societies in their co-existence with the non-human environment. I value human ethical good above the service of deities.”
This I can totally concur with.
“I personally feel an instinctive need to worship something deeper than or beyond myself.”
I feel similar in this regard, but not so much in terms of worship, but more in terms of spiritual experiences. That heightened feeling of well-being and goodness or perhaps even epiphany that comes out of spiritual experiences.
Loving the comments, everyone. Right now we’re attempting to upgrade the site to the domain name http://humanisticpaganism.com, so if this causes problems that interrupt the conversation, please check back shortly.
And if you have trouble accessing the site, try updating your bookmarks or typing in the new address.
Wow… I put on my thinking cap and I still need to read this one a second time! This article is very well put. Haven’t caught up on all the comments yet, but they seem equally engaging – very glad this got posted!
When I was thirteen, I had a wonderful dream. The dream was quite complex and involved, but here are the main elements. I was in a huge arena, which I came to understand was the “arena of the world.” There was a large crowd of people walking up stairs into the arena, but I was walking down a set of stairs away from the arena. I walked down many flights of stairs, and came to an underground passageway. I entered the passageway and I saw a door ajar with a golden light coming from it. I opened the door, and inside was a beautiful woman, giving off a radiant golden light. We exchanged no words, but I felt a great joy in her presence.
The dream was so beautiful and powerful, that I wrote it down when I woke up, so I was able to remember many of the details. I had never heard of Jung at the time, but years later, when I read Jung, I immediately recognized the woman as the Jungian anima. While I know a Freudian would quickly read such a dream in a youngster at the age of puberty in sexual terms, there was absolutely nothing sexual about the dream.
Many years later, at the age of twenty-two, I had a dream that contained the following. I was on the North Shore of Lake Superior at a place like Gooseberry Falls. There was a gas station built out on the rocks by the water, a Mobil station. I stopped in the station and went into the bathroom. There was a stairs leading down into a lower level, and men were walking up the stairs. I walked down. When I got to the bottom of the stairs there was a women there lying naked in a pile of rags. Semen was dripping out of her vagina. I looked at her and I knew she was the same woman I had visited in that earlier dream.
A few years before this second dream, I set about living the hedonistic life style. I wanted to explore every avenue of pleasure and maximize the amount of pleasure I could have. Being the early seventies, there was a great opportunity. I lived the sex, drugs, and rock and roll scene to the maximum. I had a great time, but after a few years, I felt like ashes.
It was at this time I had this second dream. It had a very powerful effect on me. I understood immediately the connection between the two dreams. The first dream was a calling, and the second a dream to tell me I was failing in my calling. Recognizing this, I put an end to my pursuit of hedonism, and went back to my Zen Buddhist practice that I had abandoned. (The Mobil station and the North Shore are personal elements of the dream — my earliest sexual encounter is associated with a Mobil Station, and the North Shore has always been for me a sacred, holy place.)
The encounters with the Anima, the Goddess, did not end there. The most recent was a few years ago on an October night at Gooseberry Falls on the rocks by the Lake. I was meditating in the moonlight. During the meditation, I had made a commitment towards a certain course of action in my life. But as I was getting up to leave, a female voice said to me, “No, that is not the way it is to be,” and then told me the way it was to be. From the distance of a few years, I can now see that the course of action I was told to take, was both wise and also aligned with that original calling.
Now, I understand if at this point the reader thinks I’m simply crazy. It is very un-modern to hear voice and heed them. I write all this only to give a concrete example of how the archetypes can operate. I do not believe that the Goddess I have so wonderfully met exists as an entity out in the world, but nor is she something solely in “my” mind. I do not think she belongs to the supernatural, or is in violation of the dictates of naturalism, but I do think she challenges any simplistic understanding of dreams or the nature of the unconscious.
While I’m not sure what level of reality all this occurs on, I do know that through these dreams and in this calling, I feel deeply blessed, and I wouldn’t trade that blessing for anything.
This is truly moving and beautiful. Thank you for sharing this.
It doesn’t sound crazy in the least to me. I’ve had experiences so similar that I confess my eyes were close to welling up as I read it.
Thomas, thank you for sharing your very personal experiences. I have had similar dreams, though not often. In fact I had one recently and blogged about it here — http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/atonement-with-the-father/. I have always felt there was a clear distinction between these numinous dreams, which felt very vivid and intense, and my “ordinary dreams.” The imagery you described, the melding of places and things of personal significance with more universal symbolism (i.e., going down to a lower level) has been present in my dreams as well.
In addition to your openness and honesty, I really appreciate your comment about the reality of these experiences. You wrote:
“I do not believe that the Goddess I have so wonderfully met exists as an entity out in the world, but nor is she something solely in “my” mind. I do not think she belongs to the supernatural, or is in violation of the dictates of naturalism, but I do think she challenges any simplistic understanding of dreams or the nature of the unconscious.”
I could not have said it better. Your comment calls to mind William James’ words in his chapter on mystical experience:
“No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,-for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”
The mystical experiences and vivid dreams I have had in my life have *not* provided me a map, though they have sometimes acted as signposts along the way. I have not always followed them, but I have held to the notion that, whatever their meaning, they do prevent me from prematurely accepting any simplistic understanding of psyche or nature.
I have read more than one Pagan author who regards the deities of polytheism as part of the natural world, unlike the Gpd of monotheism, yet still more than human.
Can you share any author names?
John Michael Greer, in “A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism,” (Tucson, Ariz.: ADF Publishing, 2005), p. 14, writes,
“In most polytheist faiths, then, gods are superhuman, sometimes tremendously so, but they are not without limits. In the strict sense of the word, in fact, they are not supernatural. They exist within the natural order, shape its manifestations, and are bound by a least some of its laws: a condition that puts polytheism on intimate terms with the natural environment, and defines a radically different relation between divinity and nature from that of the Western monotheisms, whose god is not only outside of nature but in important senses opposed to it. By contrast, many of the gods of poytheist faiths are closely identified with some aspect fo nature: an element of geography or ecology, a region of space or time, or a phase of human or nonhuman life cycles.”
There are more similar thoughts elsewhere in this book. To mean it seems like a overlap of the deities with the natural, including the human, world. The god of monotheism seems more abstract and seemingly distant and unreachable.
Wonderful piece and great discussion!! John has done a great job of articulating the very sophisticated concept of the archetype. The concept of the archetype is made of such subtle distinctions, that we do not create archetypes, but perceive them, that archetypes exist no where, but are found everywhere, that they are our grasping for and interaction with this mysterium tremendum of being. It kind of reminds me of the Tao, that nonsense that makes so much sense.
I am particularly grateful for the Gilbert Murray quote. I had not read any of Murray’s work, but I am reading it now. The Kindle version of his book the “The Five Stages of Greek Religion” is available for free and it is very good. From what I am reading from Murray and others, It seems to me that the primitive and archaic religion of ancient Greece was much more animistic and less anthropomorphic, more connected to the rhythms and needs of the human life, then the more self-contained personal gods of latter periods. The ancients were of course not naturalistic, that is they did not have a mechanistic view of the world. The world was not an “it” but a “thou”. Still it was the world that contained sacredness, the world that was important.
To me hard polytheism takes the sacredness away from the world and puts it into a race of beings, a race that is really too good for the world. These beings may live in the world, but they are not the world. They often come off like New Age spirit guides who take an interests in various aspects of the world as if it were a job. To me this seems like a diminishing of the gods. There is a big difference between honoring gods that live in the world, and honoring the world, the mysterium tremendum of the world, through the gods.
John, you say you have attended some hard polytheist rituals. As an archetypal polytheist/pagan did you feel these rites connected you to the archetypes or were they too focused on the gods as supernatural conscious people to take on that role?
>To me hard polytheism takes the sacredness away from the world and puts it into a race of beings, a race that is really too good for the world. These beings may live in the world, but they are not the world. They often come off like New Age spirit guides who take an interests in various aspects of the world as if it were a job. To me this seems like a diminishing of the gods. There is a big difference between honoring gods that live in the world, and honoring the world, the mysterium tremendum of the world, through the gods.
Well said! Thank you.
M.J., sorry it took me so long to respond and your comments are well worth responding to.
As much as I love that Murray quote, and a lot of what Jane Harrison (another Cambridge Ritualist) wrote, I think they probably were not the greatest historians. They, like Nietzsche (who they were influenced by), projected what they wanted to see onto ancient Greek history. However, I still find what they wrote interesting, less for what is says about an ancient religion, and more for what it might mean for a religion of the present.
To answer your question, the rituals I have attended with hard polytheists have not been all that problematic for me. It’s when they talk about it before or afterwards that I want to run. Like I wrote above, I think one thing they do very well is reverence; they take their gods very seriously. And I appreciate that. It is probably a matter of personal taste, but most of the “generic” or “Wiccanate” Pagan rituals I have attended tip too far into the mirth side of the balance, often using humor to cover up sloppy ritual planning. I don’t see that as much in rituals with hard polytheists. Their rituals can be joyous, but they are serious about ritual planning and about their interactions with the deities. And I think that is a product of their belief that the gods are real. I believe they are “real” too, just not in the same way. So I can get along well in most hard polytheistic rituals. But when I hear people start talking about gods like spirit guides, as you said, then I check out.
I think an archetypal pagan like myself and a hard polytheist may perform rituals that look very much the same externally. (One difference would be that I don’t tend to use ancient names for divinities, or if I do, it is part of a whole string of associations — like Apulieus’ invocation of Isis — something hard polytheists now seem to hate.) But I’m still not convinced that it makes a difference psychologically how we think about the ritual, so long as we are able to lose ourselves in it, so to speak.
Pingback: Upcoming work « Humanistic Paganism
Pingback: Holy Crow! This S*** is REAL!?! | Chrysalis
Pingback: Upcoming work « Humanistic Paganism
Pingback: Pagan, but with a small “p” | The Allergic Pagan
Pingback: The call of the Immensity: An interview with Brendan Myers, philosopher – part 2 « Humanistic Paganism
Before I start, I would like to make it clear that I am not a pagan of any stripe at the moment. I am more concerned with philosophy than with religion, but the two fields of thought overlap in some areas.
At the moment, I am considering the idea of being a pagan. I am an atheist and to some extent a pantheist. I cannot see myself worshiping deities, even as archetypes. I can, however, see myself revering the concepts that the deities personify. Due to my empirical, scientific and rational worldview, I can only revere the gods as Jungian archetypes and personifications of cosmic forces.
Well, you are welcome here, Nobilis. You’ll find a variety of folks, some who don’t engage mythic figures at all, some who do so as archetypes, and some who do so as cultural traditions whose rituals can have powerful effects on the mind.
Pingback: My daily practice: Morning ritual, by John H. Halstead « Humanistic Paganism
Pingback: Soul-Centered Paganism | The Allergic Pagan
Pingback: Pagan ritual as an encounter with depth, part 1, by John H. Halstead « Humanistic Paganism
Pingback: Pagan ritual as an encounter with depth, Part 2, by John Halstead « Humanistic Paganism
Pingback: The questions that led me to Neopaganism | The Allergic Pagan
Pingback: Settling Into An Ever Changing Practice « The Spinning of the Wheel
Excellent piece, John. Thank you for writing this.
I have two comments. First, I would urge against the use of the term “radical polytheism” for two reasons. Firstly because hard polytheists themselves don’t use it; they call themselves hard polytheists. Secondly, the implication of “radical” doesn’t fit here. You and I disagree with hard polytheism, but it is by no means radical in the history of polytheism; in ancient Europe it may well have been the dominant, mainline form of polytheism.
(I personally don’t like the term “hard” polytheist because it sounds so fundamentalist, but they can call themselves whatever they like. I rather like what you used in your closing paragraph: “transcendental [poly]theism” would be a great descriptor.)
My second comment is a question. You wrote:
How does this apply to full atheists, i.e. people who don’t engage the divine or spiritual practice at all, not even as “mere” symbols?
I mean it in the philosophical, not the historical sense. See http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199754670.001.0001/acref-9780199754670-e-689
But you’re point about the historicity of “hard” polytheism is well taken. I also agree that its best to call people by their self-descriptors unless you need to do otherwise for the purpose of making your point.
“How does this apply to full atheists, i.e. people who don’t engage the divine or spiritual practice at all, not even as “mere” symbols?”
People can give the “gods” their due honor without recognizing them as gods. And I think people can have a “spiritual” practice without recognizing it as such. But I do believe that people who truly do not have any spiritual practice are leading impoverished lives and do invite retribution from the unconscious.
Concerning the above quote: “But I do believe that people who truly do not have any spiritual practice are leading impoverished lives and do invite retribution from the unconscious.”
How can we be sure of it? It’s not like as if everyone considers having a spiritual practice to be important. Their lives may be just as rich without them, for all I know. I’m curious as to how the unconscious could make retribution. For me, it seems, it could mean that we live as finite creatures in an immense universe, which contains forces beyond our control, and that to ignore such an existential truth can lead to trouble. Hubris and the like.
Sent from my iPhone
Pingback: Religion vs. Therapy | The Allergic Pagan
Pingback: “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.” — Friedrich Schiller | The Allergic Pagan
Pingback: The HPedia: Archetype | Humanistic Paganism
Pingback: Interesting Blog Posts | A record of thoughts
Pingback: A tropical rainforest ontology: In search of a non-reductive naturalism, by John Halstead | Humanistic Paganism
Reblogged this on Jeremy D. Johnson and commented:
“As Neopagan discourse moves increasingly in the direction of radical polytheism, those Humanistic or Naturalistic Neopagans who find this position rationally untenable may find themselves (more) marginalized in the Neopagan community. The pendulum which previously swung to the humanistic extreme by reducing the gods to symbols is now swinging to the other extreme of transcendental theism, denying that the gods are part of the human psyche.”
Very interesting essay, thanks for sharing! I’ve reblogged this on my page with a favorite passage:
“As Neopagan discourse moves increasingly in the direction of radical polytheism, those Humanistic or Naturalistic Neopagans who find this position rationally untenable may find themselves (more) marginalized in the Neopagan community. The pendulum which previously swung to the humanistic extreme by reducing the gods to symbols is now swinging to the other extreme of transcendental theism, denying that the gods are part of the human psyche.”
I find myself appreciating the Jungian stance mentioned here in that “middle-space,” between acknowledging the gods as a real, valid Other, a real person, and recognizing that personhood is, to borrow from Dr. Kripal of Rice University, “authoring” us as we author “it.”
Love your blog! I’ll be sure to read some more articles and catch up with what you’ve got going on here!
Thanks Jeremy. Love the idea of personhood authoring us as we author it.
I agree that a corrective like this is needed, but I’m not convinced that it’s sufficient. Jung didn’t quite seem to know what he meant by archetypes sometimes, and I think his flip remark about the old Gods being archetypes just muddied the definition. None of the other examples of archetypes that I’ve seen so far were as complex as a deity, really. Even the Great Mother and the Wise Old Man archetypes are only imprints for a particular role that a person plays at times, nothing near a full psyche themselves.
You’re also apparently using the term “symbol” more the way Freud used it than Jung. Jung was very clear about symbols being open-ended and mysterious, and also that archetypes communicate with the personal unconscious by means of whole systems of symbols, not one per archetype.
I don’t have any final answer to the nature of the Gods, and I don’t expect to. However, since I experience them as something much higher and more powerful than a single Jungian archetype, I just don’t see the pieces of this argument fitting together.
>”Jung didn’t quite seem to know what he meant by archetypes sometimes …”
>”None of the other examples of archetypes that I’ve seen so far were as complex as a deity, really. Even the Great Mother and the Wise Old Man archetypes are only imprints for a particular role that a person plays at times, nothing near a full psyche themselves.”
I think that’s because the descriptions of the archetypes are usually generic, rather than specific. Take for example Jung’s encounter with Philemon, his person manifestation of the Old Man archetype:
“Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force that was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. […] I understood that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend, things which may even be directed against me. […] Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious figure to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality.”
“>You’re also apparently using the term “symbol” more the way Freud used it than Jung.”
True. Unfortunately, I think it’s misleading to contemporary audiences to use “symbol” the way Jung meant it. I’ve written more about this here: