Rebuttal to a Very Sad Piece
A friend sent me this article today. I read through it once and then again and knew I had to respond. There is so much wrong here, so much that could have been handled with a little decent pastoral care, but also a little cultivation of piety. In fact, the first thing I thought upon reading this, was why was a supposedly Pagan site publishing it. We really shouldn’t be advocating for people leaving the various traditions that might fall under that umbrella. It would be nice, instead, to see posts encouraging newcomers and providing guidance for those who may be struggling. We do not proselytize – across the board that seems to be a commonality between Pagans and Polytheists, the result of having our traditions destroyed via forced conversion generations ago. Still, once someone comes into our house, so to speak, it’s only right to provide proper hospitality and that sadly, seems to have been lacking here. I may come back to this, but there are a few other points I’d like to touch on first.
I will say this though before going further, I think this piece highlights more than anything that I’ve read recently the practical difference between Polytheists and Pagans. Should the terms be synonymous? Yes. Are they? Not by a long shot. I think it would have been much, much easier for this person had he been working within an established tradition, other that Wicca, which is pretty much do as you please.
Taking this from the opening paragraph, the author mentions roadblocks as though they only occur when one is meant to leave one’s “path” (1). This simply isn’t the case. No matter how deeply entrenched one is in one’s religion, “roadblocks” occur. That’s a normal part of any faith and working at them, struggling, holding the course or overcoming those blocks is one of the things that makes one’s faith stronger in the long run. It’s part of spiritual sustainability, a necessary part. Nothing true and worth having is without difficulty. One can absolutely be devoted to one’s Gods and working within a nourishing tradition and still encounter “roadblocks.” In fact, it’s often a sign that something is amiss, that one is too complacent if one isn’t occasionally struggling.
I also want to point out sooner rather than later, that in this article (2) there is no mention of any devotion to the Gods, spirits, or Holy Powers of any sort (3). Conversion is a different experience when one is running to a Deity or Deities that one loves. Note, that does not necessarily mean that there is ekstasis or any mystical experience happening. It can and should be enough to simply love the Gods for what They are, that They are (4).
The author mentions conflict over “societal norms” that “came into play from Christian parents.” Man the fuck up. This is inevitable when one converts. Hell, it’s inevitable when you’re a fucking adult. Show a little moral courage. (Even in Christianity, the whole point of growing up is that you start your own family, move away, and live an adult life. See Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:31). This is a matter of personal integrity and character and if one is devoted not just to a tradition but to the Gods Themselves, then what does the opprobrium of family and friends matter? We don’t, after all, honor the Gods to virtue signal or get the pats on the head. We honor Them because it is the right thing to do. This goes back to what I have often complained about in our contemporary culture: the lack of character, morality, and virtue formation in young people. There are consequences for every choice we make. Maybe you will become alienated from your family and that is a sad and difficult thing, but are you behaving correctly with your Gods? Quite frankly, anyone who would put you in that position needs to take a hike. Why would their opinion even matter?
The author mentions having a “mind heavily influenced by the sciences that could not comfortably move forward without help.” This seems to be setting up an equation where science and religion are in opposition. That has never been the case in the polytheistic world. We invented many of those sciences after all. This is a false dichotomy and really, betrays a lack of personal and internal work – which is not all on the author. There IS a lack across our traditions of competent pastoral care. Converts do need help. It’s not a one and done experience but an ongoing and often difficult and painful process. I feel very badly for this guy that he lacked any competent help. He’s also right about the shallowness in so many branches of the community. I think if we focused more devotion and faith and less on acting like a badly dressed, downwardly mobile social club maybe this latter problem would repair itself (5). I may disagree with some of what he writes and his reasons for leaving his faith but I appreciate him writing about this openly because it really draws attention to the deficits in our communities.
I don’t understand approaching a religion with the idea that one will see if it’s a good fit or not, as the author mentions considering, nor relying on social media for one’s spiritual enlightenment. Where are the Gods in this? And if one doesn’t have any interest in or devotion to the Gods of the tradition one is following, then why practice any religion? Part of this really does come down to commitment to one’s practice, and that’s a choice each devotee makes every day again and again. No religious tradition is going to immediately answer every single life question one has. That’s not its purpose. The purpose of religion is to manage the protocols of relationship with the divine. It does not absolve us of wrestling with the hard philosophical questions.
The author opines that it is best to seek out knowledge from “individuals who have put in the effort to establish a level of scholarship.” Yes, provided you’re not expecting them to do the work for you. Go to your clergy, your spirit workers, your mystics, the devotee with a particularly potent practice. Learn from them. Go to your scholars in like fashion. Just understand that, as I noted in a previous article, all the learning and lore in the world isn’t going to make up for a lack of perseverance and piety. There is, after all, academic knowledge and gnosis and one does not take the place of the other. Nor should we prioritize scholarship. Some of the smartest, most devout people are just regular people. They love the Gods and have put in decades venerating Them. There’s no academic degree but a remarkable level of piety and frankly, I’d take that person over someone like Dr. Mary Beard who is going to shit all over our religions as she has done in the past. Again, this comes down to values. What do you value? What do you prioritize? Are the Gods even on that list? You can study until you’re blue in the face, but if you’re not backing that up with ongoing, consistent devotional practice you will achieve nothing.
The author suggests asking “has this path served its purpose?” What is the purpose other than to bring us closer to the Gods, that we may serve more fully and well as Their devoted retainers? Other goals require other criteria but aren’t really part of a religious tradition. I would ask instead, “Have I done all that I can? Is this where my Gods wish me to be?” but that requires a different set of priorities, one that doesn’t put us and our sense of entitlement at the center of our cognitive world.
Moreover, the author notes that our communities have “leaders, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and so on.” I don’t see him mentioning clergy there, or spirit workers, or devoted laity. This speaks to a particular set of values out of alignment I suspect, with any religious tradition. Maybe the problem is that he went to the wrong people for help. Your average lawyer doesn’t owe you anything and your average teacher is tired and underpaid (I’m guessing there was never any question of exchange of services when he bombarded folks with his existential issues). I’d also add that if you demonstrate lack of commitment and devotion, no elder or teacher worth their salt is going to open the doors to Mystery for you. First, you have to deepen yourself, persevere, and make yourself capable of receiving those Mysteries. It’s not a self-help class or a quick fix to making friends and influencing people. The growth does have to start with each individual but the purpose of that growth is to better reach the Gods, a goal I see lacking in the original article. There are no quick answers worth having.
There has been plenty of material written on devotion and how to deal with some of the problems that arise in centering oneself in one’s tradition. Research is exhausting. That is one statement in the article with which I’ll agree but if something really matters, you stay the course. Better yet, balance that research with devotional practices. When someone comes to me asking to join my House, I don’t start them with a ton of academic research. I start them with shrine work, with learning how to pray, with meditation, and making small offerings. The problem with clinging to “modernity” as an identifier (the author says, “Modern Paganism is simply that, modern.”) is that it all but ensures that devotion and piety will be expunged. The modern worldview is part of the problem. The more time one spends cultivating devotion, the more one realizes that modernity is a cesspit and our spiritual goals would be better served by returning to a way of engaging with the world that is far more organic and rooted in an awareness of the divine and our place in relation to it.
The author talks so fervently about leaving Paganism, determining a course of action, creating goals, seeing them through. It might have been more productive had he approached his faith with that same attitude. While the author occasionally mentions “faith,” throughout the article I kept finding myself asking “faith in Whom? In What?” He writes about religion as though it is all about his own “personal growth and knowledge.” That is indeed, a very modern and very self-absorbed lens through which to approach any tradition. I would say the problem isn’t the tradition, it’s that there was no one in his community to help guide him out of this destructive attitude and into an awareness that it is our privilege to venerate the Gods and doing so elevates us as human beings.
Faith, real faith is never “blind” as this author asserts. He seems to want everything laid out for him without contradiction or difficulty. Everyone who takes it seriously struggles with faith and that’s ok. That’s actually necessary. But here we get to the crux of the author’s issues: he reduces “Modern Paganism” to “blind faith in astrology, divination, spells, deities, and magick” (sic). A) I have faith in actually knowing how to spell magic, B) astrology, divination, spells, and magic are all specialties that the lay person has no reason to engage in; moreover, they require training to do well and they’re not devotion; and C). real faith in the Gods isn’t blind. It’s an ever-evolving relationship. Like any relationship, you have to put in the work. Maybe focus less on fumbling spells and more on prayer. Maybe put the books away and sit before your shrine contemplating the Gods. Where your faith is weak, ask Their help in making it stronger. Faith is never blind. It’s a commitment, a light in the darkness, the central core around which one’s life revolves. You know what it isn’t, ever? Easy.
I’m going to stop here. I feel badly for this guy.
- I detest the term “path.” You’re either practicing a tradition or you’re not. It’s not a “path”, it’s a tradition. The difference is between witless meandering and nurturing a container of the holy.
- This is the only piece that I’ve read from this person, so I don’t know if he mentions these things in previous articles. My friend, who read through several pieces said no, and I’ll accept his hearsay in this instance.
- This is perhaps THE major factor in whether one chooses to call oneself a Polytheist or Pagan—do the Gods actually matter to you?
- I again refer readers to Dver’s marvelous piece here.
- A lot of times those who don’t have a very strong devotional practice feel that they don’t have space in the religion – well, reaching out to newcomers and helping them to get oriented, networking, and making sure that folks know to whom to reach out to if there are spiritual issues, well, this is the type of social stuff that those less interested in devotion could be doing. It’s important work and those folks should also be given the resources to help newbies. Some of this clergy need to be handling or at least overseeing but the day to day can easily be done by lay people. This would actually build community in a sustainable way. Look at pretty much any Christian tradition: they have hospitality committees for Gods’ sake. They don’t expect their specialists to be doing all of that AND liturgical stuff on top of it too. We need to adjust our value system, so that we value the work of prayer, devotion, liturgy, spirit work, but also so that we equally value lay people and hospitality. Everyone has something he or she can contribute.