The Problem with Piety
Piety is a hard word for a lot of us. I don’t have a particular problem with it, but I suspect that’s because I had good models personally and I’ve also spent the last ten years immersed academically in ancient texts wherein piety was a good thing, and presented without the baggage both of Christian influence and modern disbelief. Words mean things. They’re important. They’re building blocks of communication, and containers of culture and experience. To speak is an act of translation — a process that right there is already fraught with the potential for grievous misunderstanding (there’s an Italian saying, known to every translator: “translator:traitor.” The translator always betrays the original material by the very act of translation, necessary though it might be). We are translating our experiences and desires from the immediate but abstract realm of our own interior world into something that can influence others, even if only by evoking a response. It helps to use the same lexicon. It helps if we all understand the words we’re using. It helps if we’re all speaking the same language.
One of things that I’ve been fascinated by as I study Classics is the linguistic shift that happened when the dominant structures of the world went from being polytheistic to monotheistic. Long before our temples were closed and our practices outlawed, long before polytheists were put to the sword for their faith, early Christian writers seized control of the language of faith itself. My favorite example of this is the word “anathema”. To us, it means something evil or bad and has occasionally been used to even imply a curse. Originally, to polytheists, it was the word used for devotional offerings set before the image of the Gods. Think about that. Really step back and think about what a drastic shift in worldview the theft of one little word implies. Control the language and one controls the way we are able to conceptualize our experiences. Control the language and you control how we are able to conceptualize our Gods. Control the language and you control the common expression of the people. Why do you think it is that contemporary polytheists fight so hard over the word “polytheism”? We’ve seen where the theft of words leads.
“Anathema”, of course, wasn’t the only word co-opted and I’m going to talk about one more in the body of this post: piety. Yes, early Christianity stole piety. They didn’t just steal it, they redefined it. This actually came as a huge shock to me. I only recently discovered it in a medieval theology class that I took last term. We kept reading through the early church fathers and I would see the word “pietas” (which means ‘piety’ in Latin. It’s where our English word comes from). When I would read from Latin to English, I’d just use the word “piety.” But as I started cross referencing with published English translations, I began to notice that this word was almost inevitably translated as ‘love.’ I asked the professors about it, and they confirmed that this was the way Christians interpreted that word. I was floored. There are many, many Latin words that can be translated accurately as “affection, regard,” or “love” but “pietas” is not one of them.
I’m still a little flabbergasted by this translation even now, months later, as I write this. Let me share with you the way pre-Christian polytheists (particularly Romans from whom we actually get the word, though you see this idea pretty much throughout the ancient world) approached and defined “piety.” Looking here (I used perseus so those of you without a Latin dictionary can read for yourselves), with respect to the Gods, piety means duty. It’s one’s obligations to the Gods, the ancestors, the community, one’s family, and oneself. It’s loyalty and conscientiousness. You don’t see it used as ‘love’ ever with the Gods, and you don’t even see that definition really coming into play until quite late.
I’m going to reiterate that. Piety is one’s obligations to the Gods. It has absolutely nothing to do with emotion. It does not rest on what one might feel in the moment. It is not defined by whether or not one loves one’s Gods. It is defined by maintaining one’s obligations to the Gods. I think this is a very, very important difference.
To yoke piety to one’s emotions is a rather insidious means of shaming a person into feeling (or faking) what one considers “appropriate” emotions. This is something that I’ve been reading a lot about with respect to evangelical Christianity, and the Quiverfull movement. I’ve seen articles that talk about how there is an expectation in these homes that one will be or present as happy and grateful, and that if one doesn’t it is viewed as a moral failing. That type of emotional manipulation and the anxiety it can produce has no place in one’s spiritual life. We all have our spiritually fallow times. We all have our lazy moments. We have those times where we might be really angry at our Gods. Even for the most devoted person in the world, it’s not always a bed of roses. One should not feel guilty for feeling or lack of feeling in this respect. I think there’s potential here for great harm. One cannot command affection and leveraging piety as ‘love’ can too easily be used as a means of emotional control. Of all the places that we walk, surely with our Gods, we should be able to be and feel in a way that’s authentic.
If we return to the original definite of piety, that of duty and obligation — doing what is right and what we’ve promised, then what we feel in the moment is irrelevant. There’s no shame attached to not feeling a particular thing and feeling blasé at any given time is not a moral failing. Our feelings, which after all can be transient, are no longer the arbiters of our spiritual life. Now, it’s a glorious thing, those moments when one feels the fullness of love for one’s Gods. It’s a powerfully transformative and motivating factor when one is overcome by love and longing for Them. The fallow times, however, will come. What then? Then, there is piety. Then, there is doing all the small practices that make up devotion: praying, meditation, shrine work, offerings. Every day cannot be a conflagration of feeling. What gets us through when the only thing we may be feeling is tired? Piety. What makes us toe the line when the last thing we want is another argument about offerings? Piety. What is the most foundational building block of a tradition? Also, piety. It’s doing our duty by the Gods. That’s not such a bad thing, though I suspect for many reading this, ‘duty’ might be as highly charged a word as ‘piety.’
Aristotle said that excellence is a habit. It’s something we can choose to cultivate within ourselves and our practices. Piety, I think, is making that choice. Repeatedly, day after day. We need to reclaim the language of our devotion. That too, is restoration, and we can start with piety.