The More Things Change…

The more I study theology the more I see just how effectively contemporary Heathens have been colonized by monotheism, in their minds, in the way they look at religion, and most importantly in what they reject. Too often, and especially among less reflective Heathens, anything remotely theological- anything that discusses the nature of the Gods, that discusses our position as human beings created by the Gods with respect to the Gods (i.e. theological anthropology), anything that delves into our cosmology as something more than stories to be memorized, anything that discusses devotion – is immediately dismissed as Christian.  Why? Because only Christians have theology? Only Christians cared to discuss the nature of the Gods and our pious obligations toward Them? Only Christians ask questions about why they are here and what their Gods want and how they can be better people in relation to their Gods? Only Christians cared about their traditions and positioning themselves rightly within their cosmological framework? Only Christians (for this is what such Heathens are saying though they don’t realize it) have actual religion?

Of course, all of this is nonsense. Theology existed well before Christianity was a blip on the world stage. Our ancestors were not foolish. They weren’t oblivious to the implications embedded in the very cosmology that defined their religious lives. They too had questions about what it meant to live as people of devotion. The thing is, many of the questions that we want to shove under the umbrella of ‘religion,’ those same ancestors would have instead given to philosophy or relied on engagement with mystery cultus to answer. Morality, for instance is not a religious question for us; (To be fair, of course how I engage with my Gods and what that teaches me about being human will impact my morality greatly but) as polytheists (of nearly any stripe) our ancestors would not have looked to their religions when the question of morality arose. Those questions were for the realms of philosophy, ancestral custom, and law. One of the great simplifications of monotheism was yoking morality to the question of which God to follow and how. For ancient polytheisms, that was not a healthy or natural pairing.

Instead, polytheists developed schools of philosophy and rich intellectual milieus in which one could discuss, debate, and develop ideas about ethics, morality, and what it means to live as a fully realized human being. In similar fashion, Mystery cultus often engaged with soteriological questions but religion, religion was about right relationship with the Gods, tradition, and all the protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers properly and well. At some point in one’s life these things might all connect and play off each other, but they nonetheless at their core remained distinct spheres.

It is a shame that literacy came to the North only with Christianity. The only significant records we have post-date conversion by at least two hundred years. This is problematic. Many of our converts today, and we are still a religion of converts primarily, come from Protestant denominations and they do so want a holy book, a scripture, some normative, written authority upon which to rely. This can lead to one hell of a cognitive disconnect because polytheisms don’t work that way. Heathenry certainly doesn’t for all that we try to force lore to fill the gap.

Heathens are, to put it bluntly, afraid of theology. Our religious traditions function very differently than the monotheisms A) with which we were raised and B) that form the primary lens through which our culture defines what constitutes licit religion. We are likewise living in a culture very different ethically and morally from the cultures in which our ancestors lived and in which our religions thrived (and different in ways not necessarily better, healthier, or more just). This makes the interstices where religion brushes up against morality more difficult for us to navigate and while our cosmological scaffolding can help in these moments, one has to understand that scaffolding as something other than a cycle of stories to be memorized and regurgitated for that to be effective.

You are not absolved from theological questioning because you are Heathen. You are not absolved from engaging with theological ideas that make you uncomfortable and that challenge the often lazy, unexamined ways in which we choose to live in the world. Heathenry, like any religion, demands such consideration be done again and again. Theological conversations (and that is what theology means: discourse about the Gods) are the lifeblood of our religion in a certain respect. It is what will drive our traditions forward, that ongoing point and counterpoint by which we are better able to see and consider what it means to be devout in the modern world, how best we might approach our Gods, and what our sacred stories tell us about the nature of those Gods (for though I don’t believe lore is sacred, I do believe it contains unexpected windows and keyholes into something sacred).

Why is this important? Aside from the need to root our traditions sustainably, in ways that will allow it to grow strongly and well into the next generation and beyond, these questions allow us to determine what it means to be in right relationship with the Holy Powers and what that might mean in our daily lives. Granted, each God is different and each devotional relationship unique but that should give us all the more impetus to do this necessary work.

Why? Because when we are in right relationship with our Holy Powers, then we are constantly reifying that moment of creation. Then, that moment when the world of ice and the world of fire ground Being into being, when the Gods tore apart Their own ancestor and set in place the scaffolding of reality, of the cosmos, of all the worlds, when They breathed sense and life and warmth into us too is happening again and again, constantly being reaffirmed and we are, in a tiny way, sustaining and participating in it and that is the holiest work we will ever do.

What theology cannot do, of course, is help someone see why that is a good thing, an important thing, a necessary thing. It cannot make one want to be in right relationship with the Gods. It cannot make one value devotion. It cannot make one value the Gods. It cannot make anyone address their own moral and spiritual disorder and I’m afraid on that terrifying fulcrum the future of our traditions may rest.

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on November 12, 2019, in Heathenry, theology, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this post. As a polytheist who came out of mainstream Protestantism, I have often seen in myself the tendencies you point out time and again about the baggage many of us carry over from having been raised as part of a monotheistic people of a book. (Although I love theology, and hope to do more to contribute to the development of that area.) I’m sure you’ve written about the distinction our polytheistic ancestors made between morality and religion, but reading this post finally drove the point home for me. As a former Christian, for whom morality was very deeply rooted in my faith, I’ve had a lot of discomfort in this area as a Pagan. Your observation that “. . .polytheists developed schools of philosophy and rich intellectual milieus in which one could discuss, debate, and develop ideas. . .” suddenly made perfect sense to me. Religion is about our relationship with the gods and the cosmos. Philosophy and ethics are about human morality, which may or may not be reflected in the deities we worship. And in fact, expecting the morality of deities and that of humans to be exactly parallel doesn’t make a lot of sense when I stop to think about it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Literacy only came to the North with xistianity…sigh…have you ever heard of runes?

    Like

    • I should qualify: widespread literacy. We don’t, after all, have an extensive corpus of writing left to us in runes. We rock carvings, a few inscriptions, which are cool but compare that to philosophical, theological, epistulary texts, to plays, to epics, dialogues, etc. THAT level of widespread literacy came only with the Christians. There is no literary evidence of great intellectual engagement until christianity. this does NOT mean that such engagement didn’t happen. It means it happened within an oral culture.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “You are not absolved from engaging with theological ideas that make you uncomfortable and that challenge the often lazy, unexamined ways in which we choose to live in the world.”
    Yes! Brilliantly said. Let me add that his thought applies also to so many areas: ideas (in general) relationships, entertaintment, our work…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. One problem is how religion is taught. Usually, it is when people are young, and they just learn the history of the faith and the basics. Few go beyond into the why and wherefores.

    Then in schools, there is religion (i.e. monotheism) and stories i.e. myths. Since myths are depicted not as religious thought, people don’t really see them other than entertainment. Then there is the subtle idea that Bible stories are not myths but history or at least real.

    Plus, people have become monotheists in thought. They cannot reconcile different creation stories and simply accept them as is. They have to somehow distill the stories into one thing. When I read the creation stories of Mesopotamia, they highlight a different aspect of Gods and their relations with the world. It is a plurality that people have difficulty in grasping.

    Even I have problems with monotheistic thinking and theology. It is a parasite that rests in the mind and whispers but that is not theology…. it is only entertainment.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The overt Protestant epistemology of the Anglo-American sphere is very pervasive. At least in my experience raised in the Catholic Church, nominally “pagan” spaces carry that same epistemology of individualized, atomistic relationships with god divorced from a wider tradition, conversation, and community. I’ve noticed anecdotally that people who tend to claim the term “Polytheist” over “Pagan” generally have gained some self awareness of this tendency and work against it. De-Christianizing one’s worldview is similar to the process involved in adopting a new politics, such as the shift from liberal to Marxist described by people who have seen their critiques of Capitalism through to their logical conclusions. It takes a lot of time and effort to deconstruct that and replace it with something new.

    I think a large part of the problem rests in the victory of monotheistic philosophies in the Western tradition. Pluralism of thought is difficult to entertain because we see contradiction and think they must resolve somehow into a single “correct” notion. Faced with this impossibility, many Pagans simply retreat into reductionism and call everything personal gnosis. Pushing back against this trend extends into many other areas of politics, sociology, etc. but at least we can do what we can in our little corner.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The distinction between “Polytheist” and “Pagan” happened c. 2012. there was quite the schism in online communities over use of the term, because anti-theists, humanistic playgans, and non theists began using the term Pagan AND taking leadership positions in various Pagan/Polytheistic spaces and those of us who are actually devout objected. At the time, while Pagan and Polytheist should be synonymous, it seemed best to cede the term, but I now believe that was a mistake. Instead, we need to be drawing clear boundaries around our communities that exclude such people from taking positions of influence. Many polytheists who either weren’t involved in the conflict, or who just disagreed with ceding the term, continue to use Pagan. As I said, it’s time to take it back.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m less concerned with the label being used and more interested in the epistemic justifications of the claims being made about Paganism writ large. Though that being said I wasn’t involved in that schism (and wasn’t actually aware it was a real thing; I thought I was just imagining it!) I agree that crypto-atheists and crypto-monotheists should be in their own community and those of us under the Pagan/Polytheist umbrella shouldn’t be afraid to demarcate what the boundary actually is. That way we can focus our efforts against the ultra-reductionist “it’s whatever we want it to be” tendency pushed by Llewellyn.

        Like

  6. i think the label was and is extremely important. We cannot allow these things to be erased to meaninglessness. they are ways of creating cognitive space in which our traditions may grow. I also think we really need to be better gatekeepers. Our traditions are precious. We lost them once. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again. These lines, these labels mean something and it’s precisely that ultra-reductionist attitude that the whole fight over the term was about.

    Like

%d bloggers like this: