Sunday, March 13, 2005

Pagans and Monotheism

An individual who is a proponent of a pagan spiritual
tradition sent an e-mail which suggested such a
person (i.e., a pagan) and a Sufi had nothing in
common about which to talk. This person was of
the opinion these two approaches to spirituality
were inherently opposed to one another. The
following was my response.

In view of what you have said about our having
nothing to talk about and how we are destined to
be "perpetual opponents", I pursue that which
follows with a certain amount of 'fear and trembling'.
Nonetheless, I wonder if there might not be --
at least, up to a point yet to be determined --
more of a commonality than you might suppose
between your polytheistic perspective - which,
admittedly, I do not know much about - and the
kind of monotheism that is at the heart of the
Sufi mystical tradition to which I subscribe.

To begin with, I fully agree with you concerning
your critical commentary on the way people of
all spiritual stripes have an ugly habit of using
force to impose their way of thinking on anyone
who disagrees with them. The Qur'an, which is
the Holy book of Islam, clearly states there can
be no compulsion in matters of spirituality. Each
individual must be able to freely make her or his
own choice in such matters.

Unfortunately, there are all too many Muslims --
as well as individuals from other spiritual traditions
-- who have glossed over this boundary of propriety
and delegated to themselves the right and duty to try
to tell others how to live their lives. We all have values
which we believe are right and, as well, we all consider
certain other values to be incorrect, but this does not
justify violence, killing and cruelty in relation to other
individuals who do not share our particular hierarchy
of values.

Although Sufi teachers maintain there is one ultimate
Reality which makes everything in the seen and unseen
worlds possible, nonetheless, Sufi masters also indicate
the structural character of the created world, on whatever
level, is the result of an interplay of Divine Names and
Attributes. Each of these Names and Attributes has its
own "personality', if you will, or its own sphere of
responsibility and activity through which the dynamic
or potential character of that Name or Attribute is given
expression in accordance with an underlying and unifying
Divine Will.

These Names and Attributes combine in dynamic,
complex ways to color, shape, orient and structure
what goes on in created reality. Moreover, these
Names and Attributes generate an array or spectrum
of opposites.

Light and dark; hot and cold; presence and absence;
fullness and emptiness; wet and dry; good and evil;
truth and falsehood; beauty and ugliness; pain and
pleasure; struggle and ease; clarity and confusion;
the known and the unknown; strength and weakness;
health and sickness; just and unjust; - these are just
a few of the opposite pairings. In order to understand
one of the aspects of any given pairing, one must come
to know, in some way, its opposite. For instance, one
cannot come to appreciate the nature of light unless
one has had some experience with darkness.

While Sufi masters maintain that the overall play of
these opposites is ultimately harmonious, nonetheless,
on a given level, the clash of opposites can appear to be,
and can be experienced as being, quite fractious.
Furthermore, during this clash of opposites, different
Names can seek to acquire dominance in a person's

In addition to the foregoing, when a Sufi seeker is given
a certain chant by the teacher, this chant often focuses
on one or several of the Divine Names and, in effect, is
calling upon God to manifest Divinity in the form in an
individual's life toward Whom the chant is directed. At
different times or circumstances, and at different stages
on the mystical path, different chants, featuring different
Names and Attributes of God may be given to the individual

These Names and Attributes may be both female and
male in character. Alternatively, they, also, may be
neither primarily male nor female in character.

In fact, one needs to develop an appreciation of, and
insight into, just what the notion of 'male' and 'female'
might entail when talking of Divinity. Unfortunately,
people on all sides of this issue who are caught up in
various aspects of the gender wars, fail to realize that
in a spiritual context, maleness and femaleness have
nothing to do with biology or socialization processes.

Instead, the aforementioned qualifiers of 'male' and
'female' refer to, among other properties, a principle
of acting, or being acted, on. In other words, whenever
some aspect of reality operates on or acts on another
aspect of reality, then the first, relative to the latter,
is said to manifesting a property of maleness, whereas
the latter, relative to the first, is exhibiting female

In actuality, there are very few manifestations, if any,
of Divinity which do not give expression to female and
male qualities simultaneously. This is true even in the
realm of biology and gender since we all are often
simultaneously required to both act on, as well as be
acted upon by, different dimensions of reality --
whether our own or that of different facets of the
world around us.

If one separates-off some of these individual
manifestations from the underlying Oneness of
Divinity, then one easily might begin to speak
about distinct male gods and female godesses.
In effect, in doing so, one has chosen to emphasize
and deitize a given particular manifested aspect
of the figure/Ground relationship through which
Divinity gives expression to Itslelf.

The decision to give emphasis to figure or Ground
--or, multiplicity or unity, selves or Self -- is a
conscious choice made by an individual to go in
one hermeneutical direction rather than another.
That is, if one construes hermeneutics as having to
do with the problem of interpretation -- whether
in relation to a written text or the text of Being,
then, an individual who is committed to a spiritual
tradition populated by gods and godesses is
someone who has chosen to construe his or her
experience through a particular kind of hermeneutical
lens which has certain optical properties associated
with it.

From a Sufi perspective, the use of such a lens
has both revealing as well as problematic features.
The revealing side is that those who would use this
kind of interpretive lens of perception concerning
experience do grasp, to varying degrees, that Divinity
operates in Creation through the Agency of Divine
Names and Attributes, each of which has various
qualities or dimensions of 'maleness' and 'femaleness'
(in the foregoing sense) associated with It. The
problematic side of the use of such an interpretive
lens -- at least from the point of view of a Sufi -- is
that in following the aforementioned sort of interpretive
orientation, one risks separating off manifestation from
the One Whom is making these manifestations possible.

In effect, one creates gods and godesses without
necessarily understanding what Divinity is. As such,
one runs the risk of conflating manifestations of Divinity
in the form of a given Name or Attribute with the
hermeneutical judgement that such manifestations
are evidence for the existence of separate gods and

From a Sufi perspective, one who is interested in the
way Divinity is manifested through different modalities
and combinations of 'male' and 'female' properties is
not necessarily wrong in having such an interest or set
of beliefs, and such an individual need not be wrong in
wishing to act in accordance with this hermeneutical
perspective. After all, on a certain level, and from a
certain hermeneutical orientation, one is committed to,
and wishing to act on, the way Truth manifests itself
under cetain circumstances. On the other hand, difficulties
can arise when such an individual permits this kind of
perspective to get in the way of futher spiritual exlorations
which have the potential of taking one back to the underlying
Ground out of which the manifestation of Divine Names and
Attributes arise.

A Sufi master would agree with those so-called pagan
spiritual traditions which teach that every created thing,
whether animate or inanimate, has a spirit which can be
contacted and which can offer assistance of various kinds
to the one who has made the appropriate kind of contact.
Indeed, from a Sufi perspective, since every thing in
creation is a function of some combination of Divine
Names and Attributes, then the spirit of a thing --
whether animate or inanimate -- merely gives
expression to the way Divnity chooses to manifest
Its Will through any given locus of created existence.

The healing properties of plants and herbs or the
effect that various kinds of minerals have upon us
are just a small indication of how this interplay of
Names and Attributes may come to the surface of
our everyday lives. Similarly, the respect that we
owe to all dimensions of creation is a reflection of
the sacred presence of these Names and Attributes
in every single aspect of Creation.

I could go on, but I think enough has been said to
let you know some of the basic features of a Sufi
perspective vis-a-vis certain aspects of so-called
pagan spiritual traditions. Perhaps, in addition,
enough has been said to suggest there may be
more points of commonality and overlap in our
respective perspectives - as divergent as those
perspectives may seem from certain vantage
points -- than you previously might have believed
to be the case. I suppose a lot depends on whether
we wish to emphasize our differences or whether
we want to see where we can cooperate and come
together in order to help heal a troubled world.

Anab Whitehouse

1 comment:

kevin said...

selam alaykm hu

hi, you have some very interesting thoughts on the similarities on the Asma Al Husna and pagan metaphysics. Your wife, Bilquees directed me over here to your blog from Dr. Godlas's egroup, my name is kevin, but you can probally see that from my 'idenity' :)

I found myself using the simliar line of thought once with a polytheist, it is nice to see that, perhaps, I wasn't too far off base.

selam, kevin