Words transmit meaning. We often say that they “have” meaning, as if it’s an intrinsic part of their existence. But, as we invent new meanings we, consequently, invent new words to transmit them or, sometimes, use existing words in new ways. Therefore, I say meanings have words.
Consider the word computer. For centuries it simply meant a person who could do mathematical calculations, especially when mathematics weren’t readily available to the masses. But, eventually we developed the concept of machines that could do these calculations for us. And, I’m not even talking about the 20th Century yet; Charles Babbage came up with the idea of a mechanical calculator in the early 19th century. Over 100 years later, Alan Turing (and others, but I like Turing best) began to conceptualize the ideas that became the modern digital computer. Fast forward another few decades and it could be argued that we routinely hold the sum of all recorded human knowledge in our pockets.
We all have words we use to describe ourselves. These words likely have personal meaning for each of us; a nuance that others may not–perhaps cannot–understand. Beyond that personal meaning, many words also have a narrowly accepted one which is easily understood by those within a community but harder for those outside it. And, finally, there is a word’s generally understood meaning; the one (or ones) most likely to be found in a dictionary.
The rub: these meanings can contradict and they compete for dominance not only within ourselves but also between individuals and communities.
Context is Key
The only way to differentiate between these meanings is to understand the context in which their words are used. Online, where our context is so often made up of words, what we mean to say isn’t always what’s perceived. Suddenly it’s not a single hard-to-understand word vying for our attention but a flurry of them, each with their own competing, conflicting meanings.
But, if you understand the context in which someone is using a word, you can begin to understand, though not necessarily agree with, their meaning. To do so, we need to be willing to invest time and attention into the words of others but also into our own words, offering explanation when we think it necessary or when it is requested of us.
We must also be willing to understand that our context travels with us. When I read the words that someone else writes, I work hard to set aside my own understandings, and I seek to adopt the author’s context. This doesn’t always mean that I fully accept their meaning, but I do seek to respect them and to recognize that this other person’s meanings are as important to them as mine are to me.
I detest the fact that there are those who use the term polytheism to refer to their religious path rather than as a description thereof. It took me a long time to understand why I feel this way, but I think I’ve hit upon it: the meaning that some of them attribute to polytheism is their own personal and/or narrowly scoped meaning, and that meaning conflicts and competes with the widely understood definition, i.e. the one I use.
This specific example of conflicting meaning is very personal to me because I see this term used thusly by people with whom I have a lot in common; often they’re people who I would have mistakenly termed Pagan. Therefore, their usage of polytheism not only conflicts with my meaning, but it also intersects with my sense of self. It’s that intersection which causes the most visceral, emotional response from me.
What’s perhaps more interesting (at least to me) is that I have less hang-ups around the term pagan even though it, too, has a personal meaning to me and that meaning is a foundational part of my self. But, pagan is a word that has been largely socially constructed over centuries.
From its origins as a Latin term for the country (pagus) or the people who live there (paganus), it became a term used to describe those who were not Christian. Then, it morphed to include those who were not Jewish and Muslim as well. Today, that one probably remains the widely accepted meaning, and there are probably at least as many narrow ones as there are Pagans. And, the fact that there are so many ways that we use the term Pagan might help soften the blow when I encounter it used in ways that I don’t expect.
Polytheism, on the other hand, has a more rigid, academic construction: the prefix poly, the suffix ism, and the root word theos, the Greek word for god. Each of these alters the meaning that the entire word transmits. Adding poly means that we’re talk about more than one god while ism indicates that this is a structured form of practice or philosophy arising from those many gods. This construction produces the widely accepted meaning.
In which I commit an act of logic
I sat down to write this post about a week ago. I made it through some of the introductory stuff at the top and then began to construct this latter part in my head before writing it. My intent was to try to explore why the use of polytheism bothers me so much in the way that some people contextualize it. I thought that I’d get to the end of the preceding paragraph comfortable in my understanding of the widely accepted meaning and simply agree to disagree; that the meaning that others use is more narrow/personal, and I just use the widely accepted one.
But, that wasn’t exactly what happened. In working my way through all of that, I actually talked myself into more fully agreeing with the way that others are using this term. I still don’t think it should be used to refer to a specific religious path; I hope we don’t start to see or use this term to indicate an in-crowd and an out-crowd. Though, to be honest, I feel that I have already seen attempts at doing so. Perhaps, then, I hope we don’t see this practice become prevalent.
But, my logic circuits are weak and easily overridden by my emotion chip. I suspect that the dissonance between meanings will continue for me, and that I’ll often continue to be puzzled by it no matter how much I try to work through it logically. Especially since I tend to favor the big tent over an exclusive club, the use of polytheism sometimes feels to me as if it implies that Paganism is somehow lacking.
And that, in the end, is probably why I tend to feel defensive when exploring the other contextualized meanings that people have begun to give to the term polytheism. Paganism has always been a religious identity for me (as opposed to a social or political one) and one that includes many, many gods. When I encounter others who feel that, for them, Paganism is lacking in some way it makes me question if I fully understand Paganism.
By extension, it makes me question if I fully know myself.