What is Religion?
When I started my MA in Religious Studies years ago, I remember sitting in the very first class (Theory and Methods) and being faced with this question. We were asked to define religion in a way that encompassed all of them and the final consensus was that such a task is functionally impossible. (1). While that class did not really parse out the essential, ontological differences between polytheistic religions and monotheistic religions, I often find myself pondering just this question. It leads of course to – and in fact is predicated on—the question ‘what is the purpose of this thing we call religion?’ It’s here that I think the greatest and most fundamental differences between polytheism and monotheism lie.
Monotheism provides a sacred text, believed to be revealed, that provides rules and precepts whereby a believer can ensure salvation of his or her soul. The ultimate goal, as I understand it (being an outsider to that worldview) is salvation of individual souls and restoration of those souls to the presence of God. The purpose of those monotheistic religions is, at least in part, to provide a pious scaffolding whereby believers can be led down the proper paths to reach that goal. It’s rather like an equation: do x+y and you will be assured of eternal life. This is, of course, something of a generalization, but at their core, especially within Christianity, this is what you have.(2)
I’m not here to argue that. It is what it is, however; the ontological purpose of polytheisms is different. It may be that this is a significant difference between what we might call “religions of the book,” i.e. religions that have a revealed (and closed) scriptural canon, and those that are not religions of the book (animist, often polytheistic traditions). Nor am I ruling out exceptions – exceptions to any standard always exist.(3) As a general rule, however, our polytheistic traditions are not focused on salvation. Individual mystery cultus may be, but in general writ large, we do not draw a moral compass from our traditions (4).
Within polytheisms, the purpose of ‘religion’ is to learn how to be in right relationship with our Gods. It is about tending to the Gods in the way They wish, and by doing so, ensuring the overall health of our households and communities. The rites and rituals whereby we do this exist within our traditions and if we maintain right relationship, our world will be better, it will benefit from what the Romans called pax deorum. (5) Over a thousand years ago, Roman author Aulus Gellius wrote: Dii immortales virtutem adprobare, non adhibere debent.(6) We are not, therefore passive recipients of salvation. We have powerful agency in developing and determining the nature of our devotional relationships. It’s up to us to choose rightly and while we may (and probably should) ask our Gods for help, ultimately, we must consciously choose devotion over and over again. There is a potentially productive tension here that I think Christian theologians miss when they write about free will, predetermination, and grace (I’m looking at you, Augustine). Yes, we have wyrd or fate, a scaffolding partly created by our choices, partly inherited from our ancestors, and partly determined the moment we’re born by a number of other factors and we are defined by how we meet it, bear it, and in some cases, rise above it. We are honed by the fate we carry. Yet the Gods are there waiting for us to reach out. They absolutely offer grace and blessing but we ourselves must reach for it too. We are charged with not being passive recipients of Their gifts. Our traditions are less about salvation and more about fruitful working relationships that bleed out into our world at large. If we are doing that, everything we can to maintain that right relationship, as our Gods wish, as our traditions teach, then worry about salvation is pointless (I suspect it probably is anyway – salvation from what? Rebirth? Union with our ancestors? Joyous entry into the hall of our Gods? From what exactly would we seek to be saved? Are we seeking salvation from the flow and twisting turns of our wyrd? Was that perhaps a draw of religions like Christianity? Is it really more comforting to think oneself potentially “elect” than to deal like an adult with one’s wyrd?).
As I write this, I can’t help thinking of a quote from Plato:
If a good man sacrifices to the Gods and keeps Them constant company in his prayers and offerings and every kind of worship he can give Them, this will be the best and noblest policy he can follow; it is the conduct that fits his character as nothing else can, and it is his most effective way of achieving a happy life. “…but for the wicked, the very opposite. For the wicked man is unclean of soul, whereas the good man is clean; and from him that is defiled no good man, nor god, can ever rightly receive gifts,” (Plato, Laws IV, 716e).
In parsing some of this out with Dr. Edward Butler this morning, he noted,
“There is the community of humans and the Gods, which needs not to be fouled by the selfish and perverted intentions of the bad man, on the one hand, and there is the purely human community, which needs to develop its standards and morality on a relatively autonomous basis, on the other, precisely so that humans can be made fit to participate in the community that includes the Gods. This is why morality is not simply given by commandment and why there is independent philosophical reflection upon ethics, morality, and political/economic organizations, as well as psychology. The always relative independence of these fields of thought from theology does not make them atheistic, though, and this is the difference with how these disciplines organized themselves in modernity, where they were left no choice by hegemonic monotheism.”
And with that, I’m going to return to my original point: our religions are not about us. They’re designed and transmitted to us that we may know how to engage with the Holy Powers rightly, productively, and well. This in turn does benefit us greatly, but that is not, I think, the point. If such proper engagement is anathema to a person, then that person should not seek entrance into our communities and traditions. It is important to keep our traditions clean and properly ordered and with everyone focused and desirous of that end, that goal is in itself difficult. Modernity has not been a good teacher of things sacred. There is a huge learning curve when we wade eager but untaught into devotional waters. That is where our surviving texts come in handy. We can reach across the centuries, and across the devastation of our traditions to those whose entire worldview was influenced by and inculcated with polytheism and we can learn.
1. It also highlighted how hard it is to really move away from your own religious tradition – those who grew up in monotheistic traditions for instance, had a horrible time conceiving of traditions that do not center around some type of revealed tradition as ‘religion’. This makes perfect sense: our traditions pattern how we see the world, the Gods, and what religion means to us.
2. The Hebrew bible is a narrative of liberation from slavery, tribal history, and laws by which to maintain their covenant with their God. The New Testament is the story of Jesus, letters detailing the spread of early Christianity, and precepts for right living. The Qu’ran praises God and likewise offers precepts for living according to that God’s will. In each case, rules and regulations for “right” living according to that tradition are encoded in their scriptures. There are exceptions within polytheism. As my colleague Edward Butler pointed out (with my gratitude – I’d been afraid I was doing a disservice to Kemeticism and Hinduism, for instance),
“In Egypt, for instance, I think that we see the divinity of texts and a focus on soteriology outside of a delimited “mystery cult” setting, and the same is true of India. The Vedas are every bit as divine in themselves as the Torah or Qur’an. I think that the difference lies rather in how such texts are used, and in particular the ongoing productivity of divine textuality in polytheisms. Think of the magnet analogy Plato uses in the Ion. The ongoing presence of the Gods in polytheist communities means that new texts are continually generated, but without erasing or writing over the previous ones.
With textuality, part of the difference is also between cultures that are more oral, like Greece, and those which are focused more intensely at an earlier period on the written word, like Egypt and India. One can see Plato in the Phaedrus wrestling with how to incorporate writing more into Hellenic culture and theology. A written text in one way is less flexible than an oral tradition, but it also permits for a different kind of engagement where commentary and interpretation have a status of their own, rather than being invisibly and anonymously absorbed into the tradition, which is what you tend to get in more oral cultures.”
I think he’s absolutely correct. Within polytheisms, new revelation can constantly occur. It’s not a closed system because the Gods are still engaging quite actively with us, and we with Them and that has an ongoing transformative power, not just for our traditions but for the world. We have the potential to constantly reaffirm and restore Their creation and order.
3. Nor am I saying that there are no writings relevant for polytheisms. We do not, however, have something accorded the same weight as monotheistic Scripture, as a matter of course…as much as some Heathens try to take medieval poetic and literary output, which we call ‘lore’ and frame it as such. Scripture is something considered holy in and of itself. The beautiful and insightful writings that we have may contain windows to the holy, stories about the holy but are not in and of themselves inherently holy and that’s an important difference. They lack, and rightly so, the normative authority of ‘scripture.’
4. This is not to say that polytheisms lack moral referents. That is in part, what philosophy is for – to teach us how to live virtuous lives pleasing to our Gods. That is why we are encouraged as a matter of piety in some cases, to become involved in our communities – because this is what an adult does, it – preserving our world for the future- is a logical extension of honoring our ancestors. I think in many ways, many polytheisms lacking the religious dichotomy that polarizes so much of monotheistic thought have an easier time infusing the world with a sense of the sacred. It is good (and according to some polytheistic thought, Divine in and of itself) in and of itself, not something to be endured until we die. It’s been said before that morality in polytheisms came from the respective cultures in which those polytheisms thrived and that is true, but it’s quite a different thing to draw morality from a culture inculcated on every level with polytheistic awareness and to do the same with a monotheistic culture or one dominated by modern secularism.
5. These things should themselves come via inspiration of the Gods and ancestors – we have diviners and priests, spirit workers, shamans, and oracles to help with this, as well as what we know from literary sources about practices in ages past – there are many ways in which our traditions navigate this. This is part of a healthy tradition. Cicero, drawing on somewhat dubious etymology posted that the word ‘religio’ came from ‘religere’ in other words ‘to be bound to the ways of one’s ancestors.’ That pretty much defined the Roman view of religion and I think there is much good sense in that. If our traditions are there to help us maintain right relationship with the Holy Powers, and if we accept that the structure of those traditions came in large part from the Holy Powers, then we must in good sense and good faith hesitate to change those structures for our own convenience. We must consider carefully how our tradition teaches us to adapt to modernity, rather than throw our pious practices away because they do not immediately accord with modernity.
6. The immortal Gods ought to support, not supply, virtue. – Metellus, quoted in “Noctes Atticae” 1.6.8 by Aulus Gellius.