Tradition vs. Individual Pleasure
I’ve noticed in the pieces I’ve been posting lately challenging John Halstead, and for quite awhile with my own work and that of other polytheists, that there are always a couple of nay-sayers who don’t understand why we would bother doing such a thing, i.e. challenging those who also claim to be polytheists or pagans but whose work is perceived (by us) as damaging and/or impious. Today, there were several posts (which frankly I deleted) bitchily suggesting that we honor our own Gods instead of calling out atheist-pagans. These people are missing the point and I’ve seen this time and time again and it really highlights how we are coming at this issue of religion from completely, diametrically opposed viewpoints.
I’m going to do my best briefly to clarify why we challenge what to us is either gross misuse of our traditions or an attack upon them when we see it. First and foremost, don’t presuppose that we’re not avidly and fervently honoring our Gods. We do, quite often daily. In fact, for some of us, challenging these attacks is part of our work for our Gods. There are binding obligations there that have nothing to do with us, and everything to do with leaving behind a tradition of integrity and strength and as unsullied in its clean polytheism as we possibly can. Traditions are containers for the mysteries of the Gods. They’re important, all the more so when we are the first or second generation to really take up the work of restoration.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it comes down to a focus on the tradition as a whole and its future over and above current individual practice (which is not to say individual practice isn’t important. It is and moreover it forms the building blocks for the tradition). This, I think is where there is one of the most significant divides within our various and often overlapping communities. The “live and let live” crowd are, I think, concerned solely with the individual and don’t see or don’t consider as equally important the impact on our traditions long term. The here and now, individual autonomy and agency take precedent.
Those of us who are moved to challenge hold as sacred the future and integrity of our traditions as a whole, and often hold this as far, far more important in the grand scheme of things than current individual praxis. We have an obligation not only to the Gods and ancestors but to the tradition itself to ensure that it is well rooted, nurtured, and allowed to grow without being poisoned from within. We see ourselves as caretakers and guardians of our traditions, a weighty obligation and one far, far more important than personal practice or a desire to avoid conflict.
Words and ideas are important. They have the ability to shape a tradition, to shape the future of a tradition, or to destroy it. To allow something like atheism being equated with polytheism for instance to exist unchallenged is to allow for potential unthwarted attack on the tradition itself. It’s not about Halstead or me or Lucius Helson, or any other polytheist or atheist writing. It’s about our obligation to something bigger and far more long term than we ourselves.
Many of us polytheists working and writing and praying and offering now are doing so knowing that we will never see the full renaissance of our traditions. We’re doing these things knowing that at best we’re laying the groundwork upon which future generations will build. We have a fucking obligation to do that to the best of our ability and to do that in a way that fully and unequivocally serves the Gods and the ancestors and by extension those future generations as well.
Now this begs the question: why should we care about anything other than the here and now? Why should we care about something we won’t even be around to see or enjoy? Well, that is the million-dollar question isn’t it? One could say the same thing about the environment, or global warming. Why should we care? I could say we have a moral obligation to leave the world better than we found it (that’s one of the core aspects of engaged ancestor work). I suppose though in a modern society where half the time we don’t even know our next-door neighbor’s names, where we have been taught to elevate our feelings, wants, and desires to the level of objective truth, and where we are obsessed with immediate gratification that this may be a difficulty for the average person. It’s easy to think that we get nothing out of such prioritizing because the benefits are often intangible.
I think, however, that we elevate ourselves as human beings when we give a shit about something other than ourselves. We connect ourselves not only to the ancestors that have come before us, but become a powerful link to those who will come after. We restore within ourselves the sundered places, inherited down the generations from the moment our traditions were first destroyed. Science is finally starting to catch up with ancestor workers with the field of epi-genetics, which posits that trauma can be inherited down the ancestral line. We knew this already, mind you, but it’s good to see science starting to acknowledge that devastation in one generation doesn’t just go away. There is no “away.” I believe very strongly that we ensure a better quality of life, spiritual and physical for ourselves by looking beyond ourselves to the future. We are called to be fierce visionaries, each and every one of us.
When I was thinking about this, I said to my husband: it would be a hell of a lot easier to make this point if people consistently had civics in high school. He responded that even if they had, our traditions have been so effectively sundered that most people wouldn’t think to connect what we might learn in a civics class to our religions. He has a point. I maintain that by tending to our traditions properly we are, in fact, tending to ourselves in the here and now but it can be difficult for someone inundated with modern social and cultural mores of 21st century American culture to adequately connect all those dots to see how.
It goes against my grain to reduce the idea of protecting and tending a tradition to a personal level—it’s not about us personally. I’m going to try though, because I think way too many people never look beyond the personal (it’s really hard to do so sometimes). I believe that so much of what is wrong with our world can be traced in part back to the loss of our indigenous traditions. Anything we can do to restore those traditions, to restore our connection to our ancestors, to restore our connections and contracts with the Gods is a good thing that will help untangle and heal some of the disease of our world. I would go so far as to say it’s a crucial part of doing so. Every day we deal with the effects of a world out of balance: in what we eat, what media we’re exposed to, the mess of our educational system, the political arena, the economic shit-storm that we’re constantly finding ourselves fielding, racism, sexism, and damage to our own humanity that seems to be occurring on a meta level. Anything we can do to repair even one tiny iota of that is a good thing, a beneficial thing to us in the here and now.
By contributing to the long term tradition, you’re changing the way you engage with and view the world in the here and now. You’re one step closer to seeing and engaging with the world the way our ancestors did and that’s a good thing.
For me, it comes down to clean service and devotion to my Gods. What can I live with? What kind of human being do I want to be? Having once been given a clear vision of what an engaged, rooted polytheistic tradition looks like, I can’t live with turning my back on doing whatever I can to make that a reality, one step at a time. If that means embracing challenge and conflict occasionally, that’s a small price to pay for knowing that I am doing my part to protect this thing that the Gods once gave us, that we –our ancestors—once squandered away or fighting to the death, once lost. It is a treasure beyond price. We’re not going to get it back by shrugging our shoulders and saying ‘anything goes.’