Some Random Thoughts on Polytheism
Before class today I was having a really good discussion with several folks on fb including Andrew B. and Ian C. We were talking about a number of different issues relevant to contemporary polytheisms and I want to recap some of my own responses here.
Firstly someone was asking about all the categories that have begun to crop up on Patheos and elsewhere: devotional, mystical, relational, etc. polytheism. My book “Devotional Polytheism” was brought up as an example to clear things up and that’s when I jumped in.
Devotional polytheism is just polytheism. There are a few people who want to parse out polytheism into varieties like ‘mystical,’ ‘devotional,’ ‘relational’ but it’s just silly. Polytheism is polytheism and inherently all of those things if we allow it to be so. I used “Devotional Polytheism” as the title of my book not to parse it out, but because devotion is made up of specific practices of veneration and that’s what I talk about in the book. I didn’t realize that then outsiders were going to take the term and use it to try to marginalize polytheists even more.
Polytheism is pretty easy. One either believes in the Gods as independent beings or one doesn’t and if one doesn’t, one is not a polytheist. People raise the question of ancient religion all the time without in most cases having the faintest clue what that meant or the context in which debates about religion occurred. They prioritize the non-theist thinking as the typical view when it wasn’t. I find that much of modern scholarship on ancient religion is eager to reduce it all to monotheism or cosmotheism (the work of Jan Assman is a perfect example of this latter nonsense). Likewise, modern arguments often argue in favor of praxis over belief, when in fact the two things go hand in hand. Really, the only thing that can and should define a polytheist is belief in the Gods. Anything else is a matter of personal approach and practice. Devotional, mystical, relational…it’s all polytheism and I am deeply suspicious of anyone attempting to parse it out like that.
Ian brought up “Bhakti” devotion and this started us on a really interesting discussion about what exactly devotion is.
Devotion isn’t about “Bhakti” (though that can be *part* of it). It’s about maintaining right relationship with the Gods, about duty — what Roman polytheists would call piety. It’s not something special or out of the ordinary in modern polytheism (or ancient for that matter). It’s the norm. It’s what reasoning adults do. To make it a special category undercuts the core of polytheism, and to render it as something solely emotion-based (as many modern arguments do) diminishes it.
Of course the corollary to belief is that it leads to the actions of devotion. If we know the Gods exist then what does that mean for us and what are our obligations? That is where devotion comes in
I think by setting up “devotional” against other “types” of polytheist, one is creating a false dichotomy. A polytheist can engage in many different ways of going to the Gods. They can engage with heart and head. It’s not an either or, though I do think some people are going to gravitate by nature to certain approaches to the whole devotional scheme. I really think as a community we need to move away from thinking that devotion automatically equals emotion. It doesn’t.
I mean, emotion can certainly be part of it — I love my Gods dearly and that does fuel my devotion, BUT what do you do when you’re not feeling it? Emotion alone is a dangerous thing to base a practice on.
I also think it is erroneous to assume that our ancient forebears did not believe. That they didn’t go on obsessively about belief in their writings reflects more the emphasis on praxis and the lack of “Scripture,” I think. There was no need for established dogma in the way that you see with monotheistic religions, which look to Scripture for both ethical codes and religious inspiration. But to assume that belief was unimportant simply because praxis was more important is, I think, a misreading of the texts; or rather, it’s a reading of the texts that falls in line with modern scholarship that works from a very, very anti-polytheistic stance.
Ian brought up that sometimes belief comes after praxis. I had to admit at this point that I’ve also advised the ‘fake it till you make it’ approach. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, so long as that person then doesn’t try to start dictating a polytheism devoid of belief…which sadly I’ve also seen happening in the communities. It’s often engaging in the practices that opens one up to the experience of the Gods, the sense of Them…that leads to belief. This presupposes of course, that one enters into polytheistic spaces with integrity and a desire to approach the Gods, a desire to develop an awareness and belief.
Returning to the idea of devotion, the problem with defining devotion as “love” of the Gods only, is that sometimes we don’t love Them. There are those dark nights of the soul and what do you do then? And there are times when we’re just not in a particularly receptive head and heart space. Does devotion cease because you’re in a mood? Devotion should be the thing that consistently carries us through. It’s a commitment, a necessary discipline of consistency of practice but if we base it in emotion, then it’s something very easy to give up when that emotion isn’t there. Make sense?
I’m familiar with Bhakthi poetry and it is lovely and that has in many ways been my experience of certain of my Gods, but I would parse that out from devotion…for all the reasons I raised above. I didn’t always do that, but I’ve seen in the past year or so devotion being twisted to marginalize those who are actual polytheists and it’s made me reconsider a need for greater clarity where the nature of devotion is concerned. Devotion is all the practices one does in veneration of one’s Gods, which hopefully flow from a deep love of the Gods, but maybe not. Maybe they just flow from the awareness that this is what a healthy, responsible, adult human being does.
I don’t think we can afford to yield on the question of whether one believes in the reality of the Gods. We are not in the position our ancient forebears were in, wherein everything in their world supported polytheism. We’re in exactly the opposite setting and I very much think that the dividing line needs to be based around the question of belief. Because it’s never enough for those who are uncertain about belief to come and experience, they always seem to want to come and take over. There are enough spaces amongst Pagans where belief doesn’t matter. In polytheism, modern polytheism, it does and very much so. It’s becoming, and I very much support this, the litmus test– if not belief than a willingness to believe, to be moved to it.
At this point in the conversation, Andrew B. brought up the idea of “adaptational orthodoxy,” i.e. moving to a position of requiring belief specifically because of the social and cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves during this restoration. I thought this was brilliant and told him so.
One day, I hope that polytheisms will have the same cultural and social influence that they had in the ancient world, the same position. I work toward that goal. I would like to see us with every bit of the influence we used to have. It won’t happen in our generation but I think: things were not always like this, and it only took a couple of generations for them to change from polytheism to monotheism. That was unthinkable once. That tells me things don’t have to be this way in the future. A pipe dream? Maybe, but I would very much like to see us fully restored. Granted, it won’t happen in my lifetime and probably not in the next generation but it is a goal: to take back our world. There’s a quote from, ironically, the Talmud that I find very inspiring when I despair on this: “you are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you permitted to set it down.”
We began talking briefly about the fact that we don’t require a statement of belief before celebrating rituals with someone and I noted that I don’t hold open rituals. I will allow non-House members to attend but they are briefed as to proper protocol and behavior before hand. I also assign a House member to be their chaperon, I guess one could say for lack of a better word. I don’t query their belief (even though I have had a non-theist profane a ritual once). Visitors are welcome to participate. That is hospitality. That doesn’t, however, mean they are polytheists or part of a polytheistic community or part of my particular tradition. They are guests. There is nothing wrong with that. It is an honorable position and it is one that can, with time and trust, transition into something more.
At that point, Ian came up with something that I absolutely love, and this is why I’m sharing my part of this whole conversation. He said that he tries to create pockets of normative polytheism starting with his home. This is an absolutely brilliant idea and I so wish I’d thought to phrase it this way.
This is exactly what we need: taking back our spaces one step at a time, normalizing polytheism in all the various places we exist. Start at home and expand that outward. Little by little let it become the norm everywhere. Again.
(best thing about this discussion? While we didn’t always agree, we were all civil and it turned into a really productive conversation).