The Matter Of The Gods
Roy Cohn: What’s it like? After?
Roy Cohn: This misery ends?
Belize: Hell or heaven?
Roy Cohn: [laughs]
Belize: Like San Francisco.
Roy Cohn: A city! Good! I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.
Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.
Roy Cohn: Isaiah.
Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.
Roy Cohn: And Heaven?
Belize: That was Heaven, Roy. 
Many Gods; Beyond Belief?
There is something strange happening within Paganism. It is strange not because it is unexpected—indeed, all families of religions go through it at one time or another—nor because it is unusual—indeed, its like happens all the time. What is strange about it, is that it seems to run contrary to the social circumstances of Paganism today. Indeed, given our highly networked and increasingly virtual world, and the relatively small size of the Pagan community (small, even when compared to the number of Pagans who don’t “do” the Pagan community, but are solitary), it seems quite remarkable.
Paganism is diverging.
In America, we are witnessing the ascent of a new kind of hard polytheism. The familiar refrains of Gaia-theorists, duotheist Wiccans, archetype-channelers, and feminist Mono-theaists are now joined by the carousing of a bunch of upstarts. These contend that no, the gods are not all aspects, incarnations, or faces of The One (or The Two), that is Nature, or its Creator Goddess and her God. The gods are real, and distinctly so–each a person in their own right, just as we [humans] are, and that believing in them as Actually Extant Beings is, really, okay. These polytheists reject the slippery theorising documented by Tanya Luhrman’s trailblazing ethnography [2,] and the postmodern construction of experience-as-basically-subjective articulated by Sabina Magliocco . The Gods, for the new polytheists, are Real.
In Europe I have seen a different trend. The same old order –in which the same gentle theologies held sway—is being complicated here too, but not by a radical call for belief in many gods. Rather, belief itself is being set aside. European Pagans increasingly do not identify as “religious” or “believers” per se. Rather, to them, Paganism is something that is lived through, crafted, cast, brewed, known—hewn from raw being itself. To talk of “believing in the gods” here seems inappropriate. The gods as we know them are real, but the question of how they are real is both an open one, and one that doesn’t matter very much. They are like love, maths, or motion sickness; part of our world, part of our traditions and customs—in a way that makes what we might think about them, well, purely academic. Fun to discuss, certainly. A question for the philosophers, perhaps. But not important for defining what we do, and think.
As the late (and much loved) author Terry Pratchett once said,
“Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.” 
The witches of Britain are, in my experience, much like those of Pratchett’s Discworld. Why bother believing in something, if you know it exists?
Much of this could be put down to broader differences between European and American societies. Although American society has been shaken by the rise of the unaffiliated “nones”, religious ideas and themes nonetheless hold tremendous power in the collective imaginaries of the American people. In Europe, however, religion itself is a highly discredited concept—exhausted by millennia of ecumenical strife, and bored by centuries of tame state churches, European peoples no longer see religious concepts as being especially meaningful or relevant. As such, Paganism has increasingly developed along lines that are cultural, aesthetic, or philosophical in nature, rather than expressly religious.
Talk is not of setting up churches, temples, and monasteries; but villages, festivals, and campaign groups. Although the Druid Network did succeed in getting approved as a religious charity by the Charity Commission recently, this development was greeted with disapproval amongst the majority of the Druids I know—Druidry, as many said to me, is not even a religion. I cannot say for certain if this is a purely Druidic phenomenon, but there does appear to be evidence from across the continent that suggests a gradual transformation of Paganism from a “religious” phenomenon, into a broader “cultural” one that is anything but “fundamentalist” – whether or not we look to socially progressive Asatru of Iceland, or the nature spirituality of atheistic Estonia.
Making sense out of Chaos, out of Order
It might be imagined that these changes are pulling in opposite directions—the American trend reflecting a “radicalisation” of religious doctrine in the form of polytheism, while the European trend representing the fulfillment of the secularisation thesis. I would disagree with this characterisation. To my mind, these trends have far more in common than might appear at first glance.
If we consider the old theological consensus, what becomes readily apparent is that in many respects, it really isn’t too far removed from the spiritual conventions of the Western world’s established religious orthodoxy. Pantheism and Panentheism have a vibrant life outside of Paganism, and the Goddess has her anchorites even within Christianity and Judaism. Even the duotheism of Wicca arguably puts very little clear water between itself and the distributed godhead of Christianity; instead of a Holy Trinity, we have a Holy Tryst. In short, from a theological standpoint, the first generations of Pagan writing owe far more to lay Catholicism and the New England Transcendentalists, than to anything recognisably pre-Christian.
However, what it did do was create a formal break with Christian and Jewish religious authority and the commitment to dogma that came with it. For 1500 years, the Christian Churches—be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Restoration—held almost exclusive sway over the souls of Western Europeans; no spiritual life—save that of the oft-persecuted Jewish community—existed outside their universal purview. By creating a new category of spiritual expression that was officially outside both the Christian and Jewish communities, any mandatory requirement to fit with the creeds and customs laid down in Holy Scripture, Halakha or Canon Law was abolished. This was in itself startlingly radical; though the Enlightenment established the legitimacy of secular thought, it was the rise of new religious movements, including that of Paganism, that actively challenged the formal, ecclesiastical control of the spiritual realm.
In short; the first few generations of Pagan sages made a gateway through which forgotten beings, old souls, and the old ways could return to human society.
And that is exactly what is now taking place.
The Old Ways, Plural
The crucial thing to remember is that what defined the old Paganism was explicitly not a single set of beliefs, nor a single set of customs. Europe, before the arrival of “the Nazarene” and his vision of the world, was a patchwork of different traditions, methods of enlightenment, esoteric systems, state cults, philosophies, and initiatory systems—all flourishing and fighting with one another, all very different in range and content. What united them—if anything—were cultural exchanges and political alliances that took place over time. The Druids, for example, commanded influence across tribal and linguistic boundaries in Iron Age Europe, just as Greek art, language and philosophy came to flourish across the Mediterranean during the same period. The Cultus of the Divine [Imperial] House united all who lived within the Roman Empire, just as various state-sponsored reverential traditions had forged civic or national identity prior to the Roman conquests.
Before the arrival of Christianity, a wide variety of interpretations of divinity existed—from the dualism of the gnostics, to the naturalism of the Stoics; from the pragmatic polytheism of the official cults to the mystical techniques advocated by Plotinus. When Christianity developed into a powerful force within Imperial politics, the drive to produce the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth became the new unifying ideology across the Roman world—an exclusive one, at that. Lacking any term to describe what they stood for, the opponents of this new order came to refer to the old ways as “Hellenism”; the defining attribute of which being a love of the Greek classical heritage that the Romans had inherited, and everything that had been syncretised with it. As Talal Asad has argued, before the rise of religion as a category, Christianity was once described as a disciplina—a system of government—just like that of the Empire itself . The Christianisation was, then, the bringing of Imperial rule in line with the expectations of Christian discipline, at the expense of pre-Christian mores.
In a sense, what can be seen in the rise of The Church is a continuation of the process of conquest initiated by Rome itself. When Rome began, it was one political vision amongst many—the Capitoline Triad were just one constellation in a myriad of political cults, spreading out from Alexandria to Bibracte and beyond. But as Roman rule became ever more absolute, the geopolitical reality of many peoples, each with their own moral, legal, and spiritual alliances faded away; being replaced by the singular authority of the Roman State. As the notion of this single disciplina became ever more established—manifest in the deification of the Roman State in the genius of the Emperors – it became possible to re-imagine the divine order in a way that better reflected what had been realized on Earth; a total system of control, focused upon a single authority.
Christianity, with its emphasis upon one God and an absence of idols, was the perfect theological companion to this new arrangement. The fact that the unstable bricolage of Hellenism failed to halt the Christian advance is not at issue here: what is interesting is that the term adopted by the proponents of a non-Christian influence was linked to a loosely-organised cultural assemblage—Hellenism—that grew out of a long, mutual history of trade, war, and intellectual and ritual expression, and not a singular body of authoritative doctrine or law, laid down by a prophet and codified by his disciples.
My analysis so far is heavily influenced by a school of thought—propounded by such scholars of religion as Talal Asad, S. N. Balagangadhara, and Timothy Fitzgerald—which argues that our contemporary concept of “religion” is highly specific to the context of modern, Western Christianity. Religion—as a separable sphere of life, concerned with spiritual beliefs, divinely-sanctioned morality, ritual, prayer, and mythology—is not a human universal. It is perfectly possible for spiritual life to exist in forms and varieties that look strikingly different to “religion”, as that word is normally understood. Pre-Christian spiritual life in Europe—in all its bewildering diversity, contradiction, and creativity, inseparable from the rest of both public and private life—is a case in point. Indeed, it is arguable that the very fact that people define the spiritual so differently today—largely through the lens of “religion”, rather than disciplina or anything else–means that it is impossible for us to posit any real substantive similarities between ancient and modern Paganisms.
But to my mind, the development of highly diverse, de-centralised expressions of “unChristian” practice in Europe and America suggests otherwise. Once the spiritual authoritarianism of Christendom was declared to be in abeyance, people began to adopt a much wider spectrum of positions, covering territory theologians have not dared occupy for a thousand years. And this is not just to be expected; it is to be celebrated. It represents a gradual, and quite organic, restoration of state of affairs truly authentic to pre-Christianity—one that puts clear water between itself and Christendom, and thrives in its own right. By acknowledging the lesson taught by Asad and his fellow social constructionists—that “religion” is a term with a specific history and social context that limits its relevance—we are freed from the expectation to conform to the implicit standard of what “counts” as a religion.
Rather than trying to revive ancient spiritualities by consciously trying to reconstruct specific rites and rituals, we have delivered a spiritual environment similar in key respects to that of the ancient world, without even meaning to. Though what Pagans think and do is thoroughly contemporary; the fact that we’re all doing it differently, in ways concordant with our particular contexts, is quintessentially pre-Christian.
Like the common heritage that gave some semblance of unity to the Classical world in the face of the conquering army of Christ, so it is with Paganism today. As Ethan Doyle White points out, Pagans are united not by a common set of rituals, beliefs, or literary canon, but by a common social history; involving diverse groups exchanging ideas, practices, concerns, and themes over time, who began appearing in the 1800s, all drawing on the pre-Christian past in various ways [6.] Just as there are Dharmic religions (who look to Dharma), or Abrahamic religions (who look to Abraham and his legacy), so, Doyle White argues, there are Pagan ones (who look to the pre-Christian inhabitants of Europe).
But this observation also points out a crucial difference between the Pagan religions of today, and the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity; Abrahamic faiths tend to focus upon the teachings of a specific prophet—Jesus, Moses, Muhammad—and earnestly affirm and search for compliance with such figures’ singular authority. All other trusted teachers and texts are judged by their compliance with the truth stated by these great men; a truth which itself originally comes from a [singular] divine source. Paganisms, however, both past and present, look to many different sources of authority – without any one of these trumping the others.
Beyond the Big Tent and into the Earthly City
Although this epistemology is applied extensively in practice, the theory has yet to catch up. Many authors within the community and in the academy still attempt to define “Paganism” with reference to the everyday definition of “religion”—as a bounded belief system pertaining to spiritual matters. Rather than allowing for a historical understanding of contemporary and ancient pagan spiritualities—whose connections are constructed through the relationships between Pagans living and dead – it is assumed that the question “What is Paganism?” can be answered with reference to a particular set of ideas, that owe their validity to a single authoritative source. In doing this, we treat Christianity – with its emphasis on just such an arrangement – as the gold standard to which we must aspire.
We see this clearly in attempts to create a “Big Tent” of Paganism, based as they are around a desire to establish certain broadly-worded statements of belief. Do you, like the Pagan Federation, believe in the role of the feminine in the godhead? Theological pluralism? Sacredness of nature? Perhaps Paganism is—as Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest argued, a triangle –with strong polytheism, an aspecting pantheism, and Jungian humanism at its points?  Or do we describe Paganism with reference to four poles—Nature, Deity, Community and the Self?  Such efforts are interesting, and noble—but they nonetheless attempt to shape Paganism after the fashion of the Christian ecclesia—a community joined by common belief[s]—and as a result, fail to do justice to our traditions. Rather than devote our energies to dreaming into being successors to the older, pre-Christian relationships that were barely hinted at by the word hellenismos, we instead spend a lot of time and effort trying to herd conceptual cats.
But such efforts are doomed to either shoe-horning the wild variety of Pagan lived experience into a conceptual prison, or being so broad as to be empty of usefulness or rigour. We are left with Hobson’s choice, of either leaving some Pagans out in the cold, or frogmarching those who would rather be outside the tent—often people of colour and indigenous communities—into its confines. Rather than create our own discourse about how our communities fit together, as Foucault might suggest we do , we consistently adopt the familiar mythos of the powerful.
The problem with a tent, is that it is a pre-defined space—it has a canopy, canvas walls, pegs, ropes, and—most of all—poles. All these things delimit the space, setting its dimensions firmly in time and place, rendering it static. If anybody tries to move any of these components, there is a very real risk the entire edifice will come crashing down.
Paganism, as a movement encompassing a range of very distinct religions, is ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-shifting. As such, it is as profoundly un-like a tent as you can imagine. Instead, Paganism is much more like a spontaneous gathering of people, in a place open to the elements—a crowd, a throng, a rally, a carnival. And as it has been going on for some time, it has become the permanent version of these: a city.
Cities do not have fixed borders, edges, limits in the same way that a tent does. Though we can easily point out the dimensions of a city in any given moment, this act is in no way is that definitive—indeed, cities are constantly changing in population and extent. All you need is for more people to come in, or for some others to leave, for some buildings to be built or torn down, and you have changed the city’s limits. Nor is a city defined by single function or concept. Certainly, something will have attracted the first settlers there—a spring, a fertile field, a crossing place, or a defensible hill—but oftentimes this feature will vanish and be forgotten as the city grows. Over time, the city will gain its own character, based on the people who have lived there, the land upon which it is built, and the events that have happened there. In short, what defines a city—and attracts more people to it—is not any one thing you find within it, but rather its history; the ongoing story of its making.
Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. 
Saint Augustine of Hippo once wrote a searing invective against what he called “The Earthly City” – a metaphor for the disciplina of the Roman Empire and all polytheistic societies. For Augustine, in such places it was Mankind who was the measure of all things, and not the Holy Spirit to which he professed allegiance. He exhorted Christendom to dwell instead within the City of God, wherein it was God, not mankind, who was the subject of devotion, and therefore the absolute standard against which society was weighed.
It is, perhaps, unfair of us to be too hard on Augustine. The Roman Empire was indeed an evil Empire; in which many bad men were raised up to a station they did not deserve. But Augustine’s vision of the City of God and the Earthly City – one holy, one fallen, each centred on one thing – is, in the terms I have lain out above, less of a tale of two cities, but more of a tale of two big tents, with big poles in their middle. The reality behind Augustine’s metaphor was, of course, but one city—Rome—that had yet to decide whether to accept the Divine Providence of Christ Crucified. In that choice, Augustine saw all of human history.
But in Augustine’s Earthly City, we can see an echo of our own situation. His City of the Pagans did not recognise the total authority of the One True God, and neither do we. In echoing this refusal, we share in a key aspect of our ancestors’ broader attitude toward the spiritual. But against Augustine, I would say that the true solution to the iniquity of Empire is not to choose an Emperor-God over a line of God-Emperors—but to dispense with the throne upon which both would sit.
The Earthly City – if by that, we mean the example of Ancient Europe that inspires Pagans today, and not the decadent late-Imperial Rome that Augustine knew – has no one king, no one centre, no one idol to occlude the vibrancy and variety on its streets.
Let us not search in vain for the one public square, the one scenic landmark, the one ancient temple, the one leader who shall take precedence. Let us not worry unnecessarily over the matter of the gods; but explore it with curiosity, and accept the inevitably of many answers to the same questions. Let us leave belief—and all the problematic baggage that it carries—behind.
For there are far more important conversations; over how we should govern ourselves, about the security of our water and our weather, and about who our friends [and enemies] are. Because the more situated, the more contemporary, the more specific in time and space, the more rooted in the pragmatic concerns and the lived experiences of people today our spirituality is, the more like the wisdom of the ancients it becomes. Let us no longer falsely aspire to dwell in the City of God – obsessed with abstraction and unattainable discipline – but rather build together an Earthy city – where we are all sensitive to the way we need to live now, and are free to do so.
And may no one god, nor no one man, be the measure of all.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
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