What Early Christianity Can Teach Us About How To Be Good Polytheists
I’m taking a class this term on Medieval communities and in addition to the mass of social theory we have to read, we’re also reading some of the early Church Fathers and other theologians. This week it was Augustine, Jerome, and Peter Damian.
I like Jerome (something that causes several of my academic friends to raise surprised eyebrows): he’s curmudgeonly; I’m curmudgeonly. He writes in beautiful (for a Christian) Latin, I like Latin and wish I could write like that. He seems to value the spiritual well being of the lay people with whom he corresponded and didn’t condescend to them or truncate his letters, instead he included a substantial and nuanced theology in his responses, even when writing to someone as insignificant in the Roman world as an unmarried teen aged girl. I was very impressed by that, even though I might not agree with the positions he was espousing.
Apparently he was quite a bastard. Palladius in his Lausiac History comments that Jerome’s assistant Paula is much more spiritual and learned but will surely die soon “just to get away from him.” This only makes me like him all the more. I can relate.
I think reading him really impressed on me how important it is to wrestle with all the nuances our theologies present. I think we’re accustomed to both accepting but moreover wanting the easy, neatly compartmentalized answers. We like things orderly and I get that. I like things orderly too. Religious experience isn’t though, at least not at first. It’s messy, explosive, confusing, contradictory and wonderful and I think we need to not be afraid to delve in, to examine and accept those contradictions, to discuss and discuss and discuss. In a way I envy these early Christians. They had such a vibrant network of communication and support for their little death cult. This unknown Roman virgin was corresponding with one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day as a matter of course. When this girl had questions, she didn’t hesitate to reach out to this scholar. That unified sense of purpose, that willingness to work at understanding and faith, to sacrifice, to struggle, and to reach out in mutual support was one of the things that helped Christianity grow. I think this was especially true when they were a nascent sect wisely condemned by the Roman state.
It really highlights for me that contemplation of all the permutations of praxis and faith is not something just for scholars or theologians. It’s something for all of us engaged in and desiring a devotional practice. We should care about these things. We should want to know what those scholars and theologians amongst us are saying. We should want to learn more, to talk about it, to grow and expand our understanding of what it means to be a polytheist today.
Before I wrap this up – I don’t want to go on too long tonight – I want to note Peter Damian’s take on the soul. This is simplifying dramatically but in a nutshell, he talks about the soul as being an empty house. What he means by this, at least insofar as I’ve read to date, is that for a person of devotion (and I think this analogy can be applied to us as polytheists too), we are making, through the practice of faith and right contemplation, our souls a fit dwelling place for our Gods. For this reason, it’s important to take care with what we choose to fill that space.
There’s a discipline in these early religious reformers (for that’s what Damian essentially was) that served the development of a fierce faith. They believed it was important to take care over what filled one’s waking thoughts, what occupied one’s time, what honed the way one approached the world. That’s what it was about largely: creating a mind and heart that made the holy a central point of reference for living in the world (of course Christians often took this to a rather nihilistic place, never being particularly comfortable with the world, despite their god having taken human flesh).
To bring this back to Jerome, he wrote a letter to a young Roman woman who wanted to take a vow of perpetual virginity to Christ. He was offering this contemplative advice on how to do this well and cautioned against the habit of showing off, performing piety for the adulation of others, and most of all against putting herself in situations where she might be exposed to temptation. For Jerome, one could lose one’s virginity not with the deed but with a thought (the thought being parent to the deed, though Jerome is quoting the NT here – I forget which book—where Jesus tells his apostles that one who has lusted after a woman has committed adultery just as much as if he committed the deed in true – and boy aren’t we all screwed, if you’ll pardon the pun). He’s urging her to take care of her surroundings and to foster relationships that encourage and nurture her spiritually, to develop daily habits that do the same rather than fighting against a daily regimen that is in opposition to her religious goals. I think that part of laudable.
Doing devotional work right, remaining in right relationship with our Gods takes work and effort – ongoing work – on our part. It’s a process and a huge part of that process is completely within our control to do well, to ignore, or everything in between. It takes work not because our Gods are petulant, capricious, and punitive – I do not for one moment believe that They are. I think they are, in fact, anything but. It takes work because that is the nature of the soul. Because neither we nor the Gods are stagnant creatures. Because we are human beings with all of our faults and imperfections and we have been given the complicated grace of free choice in these things. Because service and devotion that is compelled has little value. Because the best things, the things most valuable in one’s life take effort. Because it is right and proper to want to become the best people we can be for ourselves and for our Gods too, and because that house of the soul, like all dwellings requires maintenance. (How’s that for a list of run on sentences?)
There’s a term that many of these early Christian writers used extensively: ἄσκησις. We get our word ‘asceticism’ from it but before you get your panties in a twist over what you think that word means, consider its original meaning, one which the early Christians, for all their terror of a proper education in literature and rhetoric, knew well: training, practice, and exercise, also ‘mode of life.’ They may have taken it to frightening (and inefficient) extremes, but this idea of spiritual life taking work is an important one. We must exercise our souls in the pursuit of devotion. The men and women who discussed and indeed practiced this weren’t clergy. They weren’t shamans. They weren’t specialists of any kind. They were lay people, lay people hungry to serve their God well. I know plenty of lay people within polytheism who share an equal hunger to do right by their Gods.
Now I’m not advocating ascetic practices (unless one feels so called – it is a powerful path for some). What I am advocating is that we take the time every day to recommit ourselves to this work, to the craft, practice, and mode of life of polytheistic devotion. The exercise of our souls, like exercise of the body, hones and strengthens: our devotion, our faith, our ability to serve our Gods well, our desire to do so – yes, most importantly our desire to love and serve Them well—and of course our discernment. These are good and necessary things and they are not things that should ever be reserved for the specialists. They encourage mindfulness and proper ordering of one’s life, so that one’s life reflects one’s values and priorities. Nor are they things that we should barter away for the ideological whim of the moment.
I think Christianity gained dominance precisely because it was originally marginalized. It was forced to network to survive. It was forced to come together in unity (such as it was – they did have a remarkable preoccupation with heresy) because it was unsupported at the State level. Those Pagans and Polytheists happily going about their business did not have to worry about their faith, or thought they didn’t. They had come, I believe, to take it for granted because it was the way of the world and had been for generations. Perhaps one thing we should always remember both in working for restoration and in maintaining it once it is firmly established: the world was not always as it is now. Take that as hope. Take that as a warning. Because it wasn’t always thus, it need not be this way in the future. That’s a convoluted way of saying that we should value our Gods and traditions and damn it, we should fight for them, first and foremost in the battleground of our own minds and hearts. If we are unwilling to do that, then perhaps we don’t deserve the Gods or Their holy traditions. We need, I think, to remember the lesson of that last Pagan generation: what you don’t consciously hold precious, what you take for granted (however understandable and good the reason), what you do not fight for you will lose.