Are Our Communities Ready for Theology?
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.