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.