Coping with Conversion

After reading my last practicum post, Chase from Nevada asked a really good question and I said I would touch on it here. Chase asked, “Quick question for you regarding the conversion from Christianity to Heathenry: what are some of the key things one is able to do to make that transition a bit smoother?”

This is a great question, but one that doesn’t have a single clear cut answer. Firstly, understand that it is a transition. Conversion is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not a matter of waking up one day deciding that today is the day and from now one you’re Heathen. Even if you are deeply devoted to your new Gods, even if you have committed to practicing your new religion and are doing your absolute best to learn what you need to learn and to root yourself in the practices that will serve you best from the get-go, problems –issues—may still arise. Truly changing everything from one religion to another can take years of careful, mindful work. There’s a deconstruction mentally that has to occur. Give it that time! It’s important to do this carefully and cleanly because it can be a messy and painful process sometimes. Now, this is an intense and weighty topic, too much to cover in one blog post, but I’m going to hit a couple of what I consider to be key points here. There is a good deal of literature on the psychology of conversion and it’s worth checking out. The one thing I would emphasize is this: be certain that you are running to the Gods, not away from the God of your birth religion. That can change everything.

Most importantly, understand –because this can really trip one up unexpectedly—the way we were all taught to see “God,” our expectations of “God,” and of “liturgy” were formed by our birth religion. Moreover, we learned how to be in relationship with our Gods, what it means to be in “right relationship” with the Holy from those self-same birth religions. That may or may not be congruent with what those things mean in Heathenry. This can lead to moments of intense discomfort, unexpected anger, and cognitive disconnect: our ingrained and unexamined expectations aren’t matching up with the reality of our new faith.

There can often be sadness or grief, not just at losing one’s religious community but at the loss of those things familiar and comforting. It’s ok to mourn your birth religion. It’s quite natural, actually and you may find yourself mourning different things at different times. That process isn’t necessarily one that will be completed all at once. You may feel incredible guilt at times, particularly if you converted from an evangelical branch of Christianity. Those fears are normal too. Just sit with it, talk about it with a supportive network of friends, journal, and most of all pray about it. Eventually, you will work your way through.

Also, sometimes there are things that we don’t want to leave behind. Prayer, for instance, doesn’t belong to any religion. Polytheists have always prayed so when people tell you that it’s Christian behavior, you can dismiss them as simply not knowing what they’re talking about. Maybe a particular prayer still resonates – that’s fine. Rework it so you can still use it. Maybe you have a devotional relationship with one of the Gods or Holy Powers of your birth religion. It’s ok to maintain that. It doesn’t make you a bad polytheist. In fact, it makes you very surely polytheistic. It can, however be awkward and there are those in our community who may shame you for it and you may end up with conflicting religious requirements that need to be carefully navigated. In those cases, seek out a specialist. Polytheists have done this for millennia.

It’s a sad reality in contemporary polytheism in general and Heathenry in particular that spiritual direction is sadly lacking. This can lead not only to fumbling during dark nights of the soul – which are a perfectly normal part of any healthy spirituality – but also to incredible isolation and loneliness. You may have to struggle to find community but it is out there. The internet has really transformed this and made it much easier to connect with like-minded co-religionists. Don’t let anyone bully you. The most important thing you can do is to take the time to develop a clean devotional relationship with your Gods. That happens through prayer, meditation, offerings, shrine work. Even if you fumble (and you will. We all do.), have courage and do your best to begin some type of consistent practice. I always tell people to “start where you start” because people will struggle inevitably with different things but everyone can do something and then you build on that. New converts often get caught up in one of two things, both of which are terribly damaging to one’s spiritual life: perfectionism (what Christians termed ‘scrupulosity’) and fundamentalism. The first involves becoming obsessed or obsessively worried with getting every little thing perfectly correct and with never making a mistake. You won’t always get things perfectly correct, and you will make mistakes and you have to in order to learn anything. Almost everything else can be sorted out with a diviner or specialist if need be. Scrupulosity can destroy a person. It is right and proper to be concerned about miasma and to approach the Gods reverently but scrupulosity will cause your love and devotion to wither because all you will be worried about is whether or not you are making errata. If this starts to be an issue, change up your practices. Change your routine, your rhythms, even the way you pray. There is a spiritual discipline inherent in carefully training yourself to avoid scrupulosity but to cultivate piety, and it’s something that you can develop over time with practice. The Gods will not hate you when you make honest mistakes. You will not be a bad Heathen.

Many converts also become very fundamentalist in their new religion. They want one way of doing things and it is the only correct way ™ and if you don’t do it that way, you’re wrong/evil/deluded/insert term of choice here. This isn’t a Heathen specific thing, though Gods know we see enough of it within Heathenry (lore thumping anyone? We get a great deal of our converts from Protestant Christianities, especially the evangelical varieties, and this has had a tremendous influence on mainstream Heathen ritual structure and the obsession with lore and having something analogous to scripture.), but common with new converts to any religion. Don’t do this. Polytheism is ontologically different from monotheism. There are so many different ways to honor the Gods within various traditions. While each tradition will have its rules, when it comes to personal devotion, and what we call “hearth cultus,” or household worship, it is as manifold and varied as there are Gods and ancestors.

One thing that converts should be aware of is possible hostility and pressure from families. I have found that parents and relatives can take it very personally when a child converts. I can understand this. Were I a parent, I wouldn’t take it well should my child convert away from polytheism. It strikes at core values and there can be a deep concern for the well-being of the child. I have no answers on how to deal with this. Truthfully, each situation is different, but just be aware that it can become an issue. It helps to be mentally prepared.

Far more difficult are the tensions that can arise when one converts as a married adult, particularly if there are children involved. I think that it is crucial that we raise our children as polytheists, but if you are married to a non-polytheist and then convert, this may create significant problems. Hell, even converting may be an issue depending on the religious persuasion of your spouse. You’ll need to figure out your priorities and what you can compromise on and what you absolutely will not. This can destroy marriages, I won’t lie. It doesn’t have to though, because polytheism can encompass Christian (or other) cultus. It cannot, however, encompass monotheistic exclusivist claims and that is usually where the problems arise. If custody becomes an issue, get a damned good lawyer because it is almost inevitable that your new religion will become an issue. We shouldn’t have to fight these battles in 2020 but they’re hardly the only battle we still have to fight. Again, be prepared. This may seem harsh, but that is not my intention. I am trying here to be as realistic as possible.

Finally, converting is not just a matter of replacing one God or no Gods with many. It involves a total shift in worldview, in values, ethics, and in one’s way of being in the world. It is often quite a cognitive shock to realize for the first time the degree to which one’s polytheism is incompatible with the values of the modern (or post-modern) world. Realizing that we live in a “world full of Gods” as the philosopher Thales wrote, changes everything. It eventually transforms our values, our priorities, and the way that we ourselves choose to be in the world. Like coming out of Plato’s cave, there’s no going back to the state one was in before, and that can be very uncomfortable. One area where I have seen people really struggle is understanding that morality/ethics and religion were not yoked in ancient polytheisms. This is a really big issue. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) draw their morality from their religion, specifically their holy books. This is not the case in polytheism. The position of religion is very different. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers (Gods, ancestors, spirits).
  • Philosophy, custom, culture, and civic engagement were ways of developing virtue, morality, and an ethical sense.
  • Soteriological concerns fell under the warrant of various mystery cultus.

Abrahamic traditions tend to roll all those things into one (I’m not sure why. I’ve never thought about it from their perspective). We do not. Religion is restricted to the Gods, the Holy, the Powers. So, when we have sacred stories that present the Gods in ways we find less than stellar, they’re not meant to be read as literal necessarily, and they’re not meant to serve as the Ten Commandments or a similar ethical guide. They are meant instead to give us windows into the Mysteries of a specific Holy Power. They can be read in multiple ways, but their purpose was never to teach ethics or virtue. That’s what philosophy was for.

So, when you run across people who say “I would never worship a God who does X.” or “If my God told me to do X I would cease worshipping Him” you know you’re dealing with someone who has no idea of how to engage with the Holy Powers, and certainly no idea of how to engage with surviving lore. Instead of squawking like rabid marmots about how the Gods don’t live up to our standards, we should instead be concerned with venerating Them. It is for us to live up to Their standards not the other way around, because whatever standards They have are not necessarily presented through the cosmological stories, but rather through the intricacies of personal engagement via devotion (also because we are not ontologically on the same level as the Gods and our purpose is Their veneration). We are tasked with undoing two thousand years of terrible propaganda directed toward polytheism, starting with dubious claims that our Gods lack virtue, claims that were made precisely because of our cosmological stories (1).

Finally, (for real this time), it can take a while to learn to be proudly polytheistic. That’s ok. If you have moments of doubt, it doesn’t make you a bad polytheist, a bad Heathen, a bad [insert polytheistic tradition here], it makes you human. If you sometimes find yourself feeling awkward when talking with relatives or colleagues and slip and use the singular when referring to the Gods, that’s ok. Note it and do better next time (if it is safe for you to do so). I find that there can be terrible pressure to hide one’s polytheism, curbing our language to reflect monotheistic mores and/or to make those around us who are not polytheist comfortable. I think it is beneficial to train yourself out of this. They will not curb their monotheistic language for you and really, neither side should have to do so. Our religious reality is different from that of a monotheistic interlocutor and that’s ok. If they are not big enough to handle that, such a thing is on them. Of course, I have flat out been asked, “You are so educated…do you really believe in Gods?” I’ve taken to responding, “Of course. It is because I am educated that I believe in Them.” This is facile though – yes, it is the most sensible thing in the world to recognize the Holy Powers, but …it is simply reality and a reality that will not be denied. Falling into linguistic patterns or marking yourself as a polytheist publicly in other ways may feel awkward at first, especially if you don’t have a support network of co-religionists, but it’s never good to pretend to be something or someone that you are not (2).

There is so much more that I could discuss about this topic, but these are just a few key points that I think particularly relevant. Also, if you have just converted: welcome. This is a glorious time to be a polytheist.  

Notes:

  1. While examples abound in early Christian writing, a brief perusal of Augustine’s De civitate dei (City of God) will provide plenty examples of this. It’s filled with purposeful misrepresentation of indigenous polytheisms and co-opting of Neo-Platonism to some degree, something that Christians continued doing well into the modern period. Augustine really set the stage for later scholastic appropriation of ancient philosophy.
  2. Take the time to develop a support network, of polytheists if you can, but at least of supportive, understanding friends. It is a godsend, as friends always are, and can do wonders in helping you through the rough times spiritually.

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 June 28, 2020, in Heathenry, Lived Polytheism, Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. With these last few posts, I see a possible(and important and needed) book in the making.

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  2. Great advice Galina to those who are having difficulty changing their former religion/belief. Some of us even after decade or so after a conversion have deep roots in the former beliefs. Know that you are not alone in your battle within your soul. Have a trusted friend or spiritual mentor to guide you when the path is dark & can be painful. Find comfort in the Deity/Deities that call to you. They are there, to give support & their divine love as balm to your soul.

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