Are Our Communities Ready for Theology?

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I had an interesting conversation with my partner Sannion this morning. Over breakfast, I mentioned that my book “Devotional Polytheism” had gotten a good review on The Wild Hunt, but of course that the comments were cracked. He said that he’d read it, as well as the comments to my latest theological piece over at polytheist.com and was amazed. He had always thought, that when I said Heathens weren’t interested in the Gods, I was exaggerating. It was rather shocking to him to realize that no, really, I wasn’t; and while this latest round of comments and nastiness is par for the course when my name comes up in some quarters, the way that some Heathens choose to engage with theological material — regardless of whether they agree or disagree with it–really makes me wonder if our communities are ready for theological discourse and if not, why not.

I found the Wild Hunt and Polytheist.com comments fascinating in what they betrayed about part of the Heathen community. Take for instance the way many of them seek to position themselves in relation to those of us espousing a more Deity-centered practice. I will happily admit that there are large sections of Heathenry who object to this. I think they’re tremendously wrong-headed, mind you, but I look at this as inter-denominational discord. My opposition on the other hand, denies that Deity-centered practice in general and I in particular are even part of Heathenry. That is significant. As much as certain Theodsmen accuse me of trying to dominate the language of community discourse to exclude those who do not think as I do, the fact is, that shoe is very much on the other ideological foot.

More telling is the way ideological and theological disagreements are handled. I’d never thought about this before, but it really became clear with my Lectio Divina article. Good theological discourse is a meeting and often a clash of ideas. The clash is ok–it forces each side to consider their position more deeply, to articulate it more clearly. It is part of an evolving, vibrant religious tradition. That’s not what happens in our community. Instead of looking at what each side is saying and responding specifically to what is written — to ideas expressed– we argue across what is there (and I’m as guilty of this at times as others). We argue about things that are not even stated in the position or article or book that we’re ostensibly condemning. Maybe our community just needs whole-sale phonics immersion but I think it goes deeper than that. I think there is a deep anxiety in parts of the community over the idea that our tradition might encompass diverse beliefs. I would like to think, after all, that both sides of this equation are *capable* of theological thought.

Instead, however, of engaging with the theological position stated, I’ve seen my opposition tie themselves in knots attacking my sexuality, my appearance, the way I dress. If i write an article about prayer, my work as an ordeal master will be brought to the fore, regardless of the fact that it’s irrelevant. Rumors and slander — regardless of their lack of substance or truth–are brought out to discredit whatever I might be talking about and I won’t even comment on the ingrained misogyny. Those who agree with me and dare to say so are dismissed as toadies, obviously only commenting because we *must* have a personal relationship (as though I am the only one pushing for Deity -centered practice. I’m not, by a long shot, I’m just one of the most vocal). Instead of debating ideas, there is character assassination, bullying, and other attempts to “poison the well.” It does not speak well of my opposition and it makes me ashamed for them.

One of the arguments against my work that has recently been coming up a lot is that the “elder Heathen,” those who practiced their ancestral traditions before the devastation of Christianity would not recognize Deity-centric practice as a valid form of Heathenry. There are a few problems with this approach. Firstly, they wouldn’t have recognized the term “Heathen.” This word, much like Paganus,a,um, was a term of derision applied by Christians to those in the Northlands who weren’t. The elder Heathen didn’t need a term for what he or she practiced. It was what their people did, their ancestors, and their community. Nor would they have considered their practices as monolithic, representative of the entire tradition. There were massive regional differences. This is the beauty of regional cultus: even the same Deity may be worshipped in drastically different, even unrecognizable ways, in various locales. I won’t even go into the fact that contemporary Heathens consistently look to the Viking age for inspiration more than any other period in our history, a time when the religion was under attack and in decline.

Moreover, there is plenty of textual evidence for the piety of the elder Heathen. We simply edit it out in our interpretation today — and that, I think, is partly the influence of academia and partly pseudo-rational modernity. The farther back we look with sources however, it’s there. Take Tacitus for instance. He may have been writing propaganda to shame the Roman state for its lack of commitment to Roman values, but he did not invent the piety he wrote about in his “Germania,” piety so intense that the elder Heathen didn’t hesitate to go down prostrate before images of his Gods. Ibn Fadln noted the same. Piety was everywhere amongst our elder kin. Far from not recognizing Deity-centric practice today, I rather think they might be appalled at the arid reconstitution of their practices and beliefs.

My friend and colleague Edward Butler noted just this when tweeting about the Wild Hunt review of my book. Looking at the comments he noted that this is what happens when you have an undocumented tradition. I think it’s worth exploring that a little and with Edward’s kind permission, I am quoting him here:

“Reading the comments on Galina Krasskova’s latest column on polytheist.com, I learned something about poorly documented traditions. The traditions I work with are abundantly supplied with texts–not to say that one doesn’t always hunger for more! But what if all we had to grasp Hellenic religion was archaeology, and things like the medieval Roman de Troie? What if the Egyptians hadn’t engraved so much theology onto the stone walls of temples? What if the climate of Egypt wasn’t such as to preserve all these local traditions and baroque learned cosmogonies on scraps of papyrus? What if no texts survived to testify to personal religious experience in the Hellenic world? Archaeology alone would show us little.

The result of this dearth of texts would be that we would only see the most mainstream and social dimensions of religious experience. We would see, as it were, a kind of statistically averaged religious experience from these cultures, and might mistake it for the truth. Moreover, we would know these cultures disproportionately not from their own words, but from those of scholars.

The archaeologist’s or historian’s method is positivistic; what happens if we absorb that into the religion we are reviving? This positivism would become a senior partner in our own metaphysics. We would thus create a religion embodying, not the values of an ancient polytheism, but of the modern Durkheimian study of religion. Such a religion would in effect have no Gods, because belief leaves no trace strong enough in the record to reach the threshold of evidence.

Such a religion would emphasize practice over belief, and public action over interior experience, all because of its unexamined metaphysics. Something similar happens when certain pagans privilege the kind of ritual that survived antiquity in Catholic practice. Because this is what *could* survive, under the conditions, does not mean that this was what was most valuable or the core of truth. “

I think that this is precisely what has happened in contemporary Heathenry. It was not something that I had considered in quite so concise a manner until this past week. This dearth of texts is likely compounded all the more by the fact that we are dealing with a religiously oral culture. When I talk about the influence of the Protestant Reformation, and the impact of modernity, this reduction of religion to its social expression, this excision of the Gods and of mystery is precisely what I’m in part referring too, and I do believe it’s not just a matter of how we use the texts we have but of what those texts are. We simply do not have anything written from a cultic perspective. It’s not something that would have been recorded.

While we were discussing this over breakfast this morning, Sannion asked me ” do they really want a religion that puts the human contingent first? Do they have any idea what that would look like?” I had to shake my head and respond “yes, sadly, they do.”

Ironically, when people protest putting the Gods first, arguing instead that it’s all about their family and children, they are the ones setting up a false dichotomy. Putting the Gods above everything else does not in any way mean that one does not and should not value family, kin, etc. and take care of them. We need desperately to move beyond these false dichotomies. That either/or, black/white approach is essentially monotheism in the mind, and oh so deeply rooted. It colors everything, seeping into every aspect of our religion and our religious discourse.

I’ve given my readers quite a bit to chew on here, so I”m going to close with the following observation. In one of my classes one of the professors occasionally suggests “let’s have a thought experiment.” I was quite charmed by this idea when first I heard it. Perhaps it’s a common expression in various academic disciplines but I come from religious studies and classics and there it was not something I had ever heard. What that means, “a thought experiment,” is to put an idea on the table and to wrestle with, tear into it, really delve into it allowing it to unfold in its fullness without worrying about whether or not there’s a right or wrong answer. So this is my challenge to the community: let’s have a thought experiment. Let’s imagine a community where we do just that, where we engage in theological discourse at that level, instead of personal attacks — and where we can understand and recognize the difference.

Because in the end, whether I like it or not, the non-Deity-centric folks are probably here to stay; and whether they like it or not, so are we. Our Gods and our traditions deserve the best we can give, and that includes not being afraid to explore the boundaries of theological possibilities and investigation even when we disagree, perhaps most especially when we disagree; because in the end, whether or not our communities are ready, theological discourse is happening and we can resist that or stand up like adults and take part in what our communities ultimately become.

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Posted on February 25, 2015, in community, Heathenry, Polytheism, theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I was not entirely impressed with the review, personally (though I’m honestly not very impressed with most book reviews by pagans of pagan-related materials)–not because of what it said, but because of some rather stupid assumptions and ignorant asides I felt it had…but, nonetheless, at least it was a positive review overall in a major pagan media source.

    I did not follow the comments further than what was there on first-pass when I read the review yesterday, but what amazed me was the people who said that the deity-centric viewpoint was alien to the ancient Heathens, and that they would have been more ancestor- or land-spirit-focused in their practices, and therefore G.K. is wrong. I thought that was incredibly myopic of them, considering you’re also one of the greatest proponents of ancestor veneration (and wrote another book on that!) and on having good relations with one’s local landscape and land spirits. In addition to your point of the dead-endedness of the “all-or-nothing” argument, it just shows how very poorly informed they are of you and your work. (Like the people in ’13 who were calling me a Nazi fundamentalist for wanting to bring the gods back and seeing that as a major focus of modern paganism, and also saying that I’m probably for only allowing one pantheon, etc.–fucking idiots who know nothing and know jack-squat about what I actually do or say and are instead wrestling with monsters in their own minds of their own creation.)

    Fuckin’ pagans, is all I can say. I’m getting very sick of, and have very little patience these days for, people who do nothing but shit on other people’s work and have no major contributions themselves to anything other than nasty blog comments, or stupid newsletters at conferences, or anything else of that nature that ultimately does nothing original and accomplishes fuck-all.

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  2. I came to your writing first through your books and then your blog when I started looking for rune resources I felt I could trust– that was a year-ish ago. I have a great deal of respect for you and your writing, and had no idea at all that you were a ‘controversial’ voice in the Heathen community until quite recently. Out of curiosity, I went digging to see why, exactly, someone would so strongly imply everything you wrote was crazytalk.

    Imagine my surprise when not a single person had anything at all to say about your writing or practice at all, instead focusing on your relationships, sexuality, and other such alternative lifestyle practices, as well as what was, as far as I could tell, ‘she gets more attention than me and I hate her for it’.

    Uh.

    Those are not valid arguments.

    I’ve never met you and probably won’t ever meet you (huzzah internet), but I’ll keep following your literary presence and, well, probably won’t involve myself with the Heathen community.

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    • What I find ironic is when a heathen man says exactly the same thing, in some cases even going so far as to quote me, and receives praise for his work. LOL. misogyny is alive and well in Heathenry. And while I personally can shake it off, I feel that it does speak to a dynamic within our communities that needs to be examined and addressed. This is detritus held over from a very monotheistic culture, that does not hold women in high regard. When patterns like this arise, we need to recognize them and examine them, call them out, root them out. One may not agree with my work, or even like me personally and that’s fine, but this pattern is not and ultimately, I believe does great harm to our community dynamics. (not to mention people who have much to say, yet are not at the point where they are accustomed to the attacks. –and why should they HAVE to be accustomed to attacks?. I want to hear the voices of the young, up and coming Heathens and other polytheists and I want a community where they can join in these discussions, agreeing, dissenting, whatever, without having to fear personal attacks.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t understand why can’t the Gods come first. Is the resistance to this very idea centered in Western intellectual tradition? Somehow, if we are less for acknowledging something greater than ourselves. Or is this monotheism hangover when people were taught “God will provide, etc.” and they are rebelling from that. Christianity ideas of putting their God first and polytheistic ideas of putting Gods first are two different animals. One fosters absolute dependence and fear of doing the wrong thing; the other fosters self-reliance and awe.

    I am not surprised at the ad hominen arguments against reading your book. Yes, background of an author is needed when discussing their book, since the reader is focused on their voice. But knowing about your particular lifestyle practises doesn’t give me any more background to reading a book about polytheistic practise. Unless you are advocating that in order to be a good polytheist, the reader must embrace what you do. But that notion is lacking in this book.

    I suppose if you wrote about the physics of the grass being green, there would be those who would scream, but she’s (fill in the blank)! It’s wrong! Don’t read it!

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    • I think resistance comes very much as an outgrowth of Western intellectual tradition, and the influence of Protestant values. I think Edward nailed a key component that I’d never really considered before in depth. I think it’s also our culture that prioritizes the self and all but pathologizes devotion, and a fear of not lookign modern, of looking “primitive,” or “silly,” or “superstitious.” Some of it, imo, is just plain stubborn wrong-headedness and being Heathen, they’ll stick to that till they die. lol.

      re. my lifestyle practices—there are a hell of a lot of assumptions made about that, which no one ever bothers to ask me if they are correct. Some of those assumptions are very creative and cracked. I dont’ care if people embrace the way I do things or not — esp. since the Gods are going to want different things from different people– but I do care about respect and piety for our Gods, and I do care about people *thinking* about their approach, their engagement, the Gods Themselves. I think all too often the Gods and what They might want don’t even figure into people’s equations and that is a very, very “modern” outlook.

      and yes. to your last comment: yep.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. By the time I read the review comments had already been closed. It seems that the e-mail notifications are sometimes a bit late ;-).
    Yes, I am a theology nerd/junky. There does come a time when the theologies of polytheism need to be written. They also need to be written in their own language and not in terms of monotheism/monism. Our differences in metaphysics is amazing. This is the reason that I want to go back to school. We don’t need snarky asides from Sarah Iles-Johnson, PhD, about us Recons/Revivalists. (She did write an article about us.) I could go on and on like you, Galina, However, I will stop now.

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  5. I’m really upset to see that there are other people who have made this observation – pagans don’t care about the Gods. I was hoping that it was just my imagination, because it is so absurd. But you’re right for one more thing – we, “Deity-centric” heathens are here to stay. 🙂

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  6. I remember telling my wife how shocked I was to see those comments at wildhunt: they’re not just slanderous, but completely irrelevant to a book review.

    Whether they like it or not, your critics are basing their objections to Deity-centric practice on substantive metaphysical assumptions about the natures and roles of the Gods, assumptions that aren’t obviously correct to everyone apprised of the facts. Serious theology (natural and revealed) is going to require such assumptions to be made transparent and vulnerable before those who do not share them.

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  7. I read your blog(s) and I agree with some stuff, other stuff I do not. But regardless, your writing challenges me to think, and articulate why or how when I do disagree. But I respect you, because you actually go out and do stuff- whether its rituals, house calls, organizing conferences, doing divination etc. Others who disagree can write their own books and form their own groups devoted to whatever they think the One True Path ™ of Heathenry or other forms of polytheism. I’ve noticed in most sectors of Pagan-dom, people are threatening by anyone who *builds something* and is *successful*. If our religions were successful, it wouldn’t just be a rebellious game anymore. We might actually have to take it seriously! Someone could build a temple, and have trained clergy, and other people can still have Discordian rituals in their basements. No one is forcing everyone to follow the same spiritual. If people want a religion that is focused on (some) humans and their needs (at least intellectual needs) I can point them to UUism. I belong to a local UU church for a sense of stable, sane community that I haven’t been able to find in Paganism. And a building I can consistently get to (I don’t drive, and everyone seems to want to start Druid groves in 3rd ring suburbs) There are a lot of things I like about, but yeah mostly its a social club for liberals, and the spirituality is basically like therapy. Weirdly, my church is known in the area for being more “traditional” and “Christian” in contrast to the more humanist congregations in Minneapolis, which I think is hilarious- the vague Alcoholics Anonymous- god talk still manages to offend the humanists. I may struggle with belief and theology but I am still looking for something more than therapy and social justice activism, which are both things I can find/do other places. Thinking of starting a polytheist/animist discussion group. Not Pagan. Not CUUPS. Polytheist.

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    • “Someone could build a temple, and have trained clergy, and other people can still have Discordian rituals in their basements.” Good point, which raises good questions. Even if one day a temple of Apollo, e.g., is built, with trained clergy, what will that mean? An Apollo-centered worship for people in the region who have different calls? Although I personally would love a temple to Apollo near my hometown, I can´t answer for other polytheists in the region. But this has been always like this. You can´t please everyone.

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  8. I really wanted to comment on the book review, but comments were closed when I found it as well. I wasn’t a huge fan of the book review due to some misconceptions on the part of the reviewer and some obvious biases against some of the ideas, but it was an honest review, was respectful, and at least it focused on the contents of the book, unlike the comments.

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