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Pagan Monotheism?

Author: Stifyn Emrys
Posted: February 1st. 2009
Times Viewed: 2,979

Many modern Pagans assert that all gods are one, reflecting various facets of the universal whole. It's an idea that seems, at first blush, to present Paganism as a variety of monotheism - a label usually applied to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

But wait a minute. Isn't each of these paths historically antagonistic toward Paganism? Surely these fiercely monotheistic religions don't see Pagans as monotheists. So what gives? Are the Pagans just trying to "fit in" with so-called "mainstream" society by minimizing their differences with these other groups? Are we compromising our roots in a sellout to New Age fluffiness?

Personally, I'd have to answer "no" to such questions. First of all, the three western monotheistic faiths aren't just hostile to Pagans - they've been at one another's throats for centuries (and deriding heretics within their own traditions for just as long) . Second, the idea that all gods are one is hardly a new or fluffy idea. It can be found in Gnostic belief systems that viewed various gods, angels and/or heavenly beings as emanations from a single ineffable source. And if Pagans are merely selling out in an effort to conform, we're doing a pretty lousy job of it. Most Pagans I know have no interest in mirroring Christianity, and few Christians have welcomed our ideas any more readily than in the past.

There are, I would argue, significant differences in between Paganism and western monotheism. First of all, you don't have to be a monotheist to be a Pagan. There are plenty of pure polytheists around who are every bit as Pagan as the "all gods are one" crowd. By contrast, monotheism is fundamental to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. You can't really profess one of these faiths without believing in one and only one god (Trinitarian ideas notwithstanding) .

Just as important are the origins and character of these two profoundly different kinds of monotheism. To boil it down simply, Pagan monotheism is the result of a synthesis, while western monotheism is the result of conquest. For evidence of the latter, one need look no further than the person most responsible for the vast spread of Christianity: the Roman Emperor Constantine. According to legend, his conversion to Christianity was all about conquest. He reportedly saw a Christian symbol in the clouds, accompanied by words that announced, "In this sign you shall conquer."

Perhaps the contrast between Paganism and western monotheism can best be expressed as follows: The former recognizes each of the gods as a valid expression of the universal whole, just as each member of a legislative council is recognized equally as a representative of that body. All the members may not agree, and they may even quarrel or try to seize power, but in the end their votes are taken and produce a unified consensus. It's noteworthy that rivals on such divine councils never seem to prevail with any finality, but the tensions created among them serve as the dynamic force that keeps the universe in motion, turning the wheel of the year time and again. The eternal struggle between Set and Horus in Egyptian mythology is but one example, and the process is exemplified by the yin-yang symbol of light and darkness.

Western monotheism is quite different. Instead of continual tension and dynamism, it postulates that light will ultimately prevail over darkness, ushering in a state of stasis or "rest." A look at the history of this tradition reveals why. Unlike Pagan monotheism, with its many quarrelsome but collaborative gods, the origins of western monotheism can be traced to a single god bent on conquering - and destroying - all his rivals.

If the single Pagan god can be likened to a democratic divine council, the single god of western monotheism is an autocratic warlord on the rampage. This is only natural, as he began life as a storm/war god who was called upon to ensure victory in combat with rival nations. As those nations grew, so did this god's power, and he eventually engineered a "coup" against the other gods on the council. It's interesting to note that "god" is often derived in the early part of Genesis from the name Elohim - a plural construction denoting more than one god. In later literary traditions, the war god's mysterious name YHWH (or Yahweh) is used much more frequently and "Elohim" disappears.

Yahweh's warlike influence can be seen in the Israelites' conquest of Palestine, complete with the burning and pillaging of cities, and the slaughter of women and children. Similar widespread (and often brutal) conquests were conducted during Mohammad's campaigns across North Africa and the Christian crusades for the "holy land."

Pagans, of course, have been victims of such campaigns, as well. Nowadays, the campaigns are more likely to be conducted by evangelists seeking converts. The United States is a nation with split personality of sorts: Its government is based on the ancient Pagan model of the divine council, while its spiritual identity is largely based upon western monotheism. This internal conflict has raged for years, leading to a sort of self-conscious schizophrenia as we attempt to live up to both philosophies. Is the United States a "Christian nation" first, subject to the rule of a single autocratic god, or is it an open and democratic society in which many different ideas can be heard and honored in arriving at a consensus?

This is the very question that most western monotheists and Pagans answer quite differently. It can be posed on a scale as large as a nation's identity or as small as an individual's moral code. And how its answer reflects a view of the world that is either dynamic or static. With conquest comes finality, death and, ultimately, decay.

With dynamism comes an eternal cycle of birth, death and renewal that the ancients recognized in the seasons, the tides, the constellations and virtually every other aspect of their lives. This dynamism, ironically, was at the heart of early Christianity, with Jesus taking on the role of the eternally dying and rising Green Man. He had not conquered death, but embraced it as part of the eternal cycle. This is what the western monotheists failed, so tragically, to recognize. And in that failure, they sowed the seeds of eternal death.


Stifyn Emrys

Location: San Luis Obispo, California


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