Tuesday, August 14, 2007

moving the goal posts

Here is an example of "moving the goal posts".

(1) The assertion is made that modern Paganism is completely different from historical Paganism.

(2) It is pointed out that the Theurgic Paganism of late antiquity is in fact very similar to modern Paganism.

(3) It is then asserted that Theurgic Paganism wasn't "real" Paganism - it was already some kind of "neopaganism" - 1700 years ago!

This recently happened to me. The person I was arguing with, however, made a blunder. He insisted that one way that you could differentiate "real" Paganism from neopaganism was that real Paganism places a great emphasis on the importance of sacrificial rites. Ooops. Of course the Emperor Julian, a student of Iamblichean Theurgy, as famous for his enthusiasm for sacrificial rites!!!

(this entry originally appeared in my old blog "Pagan History" - but now I've moved it to my new blog "egregores".

Duotheism, Schmuotheism

Pagans, of all people, should know to avoid the grave sin of literalism. If taken literally, certain things that Wiccans say can lead to the ridiculous theological concept that goes by the name of "duotheism". Not only does this require a bone-headed literalism - it also requires completely ignoring other things that Wiccans also say.

It is obvious that Wiccans have always believed in and revered many Gods and many Goddesses. It's also true that sometimes Wiccans talk about "the God" and "the Goddess". And it's also true that one often hears things like "all Goddesses are aspects of THE Goddess." But none of the statements made by Wiccans or any other Pagans should ever be interpreted to imply that the Gods are limited by our limited understanding of Them, let alone by our limited ability to articulate that understanding.

It is not for the Gods to conform to our conceptions of Them. Rather it is for us to try to understand the Gods as best we can, while always being mindful of the limitations of our understanding. This is not some new-agey principle, but rather a well established and fundamental principle of Pagan theology. Socrates himself said, concerning the various names that humans give to different Gods:

"[T]here is one excellent principle which, as men of sense, we must acknowledge, that of the Gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names which they give themselves; but we are sure that the names by which they call themselves, whatever they may be, are true. And this is the best of all principles; and the next best is to say, as in prayers, that we will call them by any sort of kind names or patronymics which they like, because we do not know of any other. That also, I think, is a very good custom, and one which I should much wish to observe. Let us, then, if you please, in the first place announce to them that we are not enquiring about them; we do not presume that we are able to do so; but we are enquiring about the meaning of men in giving them these names, in this there can be small blame."
(Cratylus, taken from: http://www.greektexts.com/library/Plato/cratylus/eng/1255.html )

Personally I would say that Socrates overstates his case when he asserts "of the Gods we know nothing", or "we are not enquiring about Them; we do no presume that are able to do so." If these statements are taken in isolation and interpreted literally then one will end up with a similar problem to the one plaguing those who have concocted the idea of "duotheism". In other places in Plato's dialogs (especially in Theaetetus, Phaedrus, Phaedo and the Symposium) Socrates clearly speaks in a way that implies the possibility of some knowledge of Divine things.

Last weekend I attended a beautiful outdoor ritual honoring the Goddess Hecate. The ritual was scheduled to take place to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower - which was the traditional timing for the Festival of Hecate in classical Greece. During the two-hour long ritual a very bright meteor streaked across the northwestern sky. In my opinion Wicca is first and foremost an experiential religion. We do not rely on books or theories to tell us about our Gods. We meet with our Gods - face to face, even eye to eye. It is almost certainly true that the Gods only reveal part of Themselves to us in our rituals, and even that we only understand partially. As we grope for words to try to express our experiences of the Divine, we should treat those words with caution.

Literalism is for fundamentalists - in fact it is one of the tell-tale signs of fundamentalism. Wiccans and other Pagans conceive of the Divine in ways that are subtle and dynamic. Whether we express those conceptions in prose or poetry, whether in published books or in ecstatic outbursts, is it really necessary to point out that we should never let those words get in the way?