I am indebted to Rowan Williams for his work “On Christian Theology,” wherein he offers a rich and nuanced discussion precisely about how to speak theologically – i.e. about the Gods—without crossing the line into speaking. *for* the gods. I was first exposed to his writing two years ago when I TA-ed for one of my professors who was teaching an intro to theology course. Now, I am teaching Williams’ text, or at least the excerpt on theological integrity, in my own intro course. It’s something that crosses all religious boundaries and denominations and something with which anyone who is writing, blogging, speaking, or presenting on theological issues really should be aware. It has changed the way I write and also changed the way I evaluate the writings of others. If we are writing about our Gods publicly, with the thought, however remote, that newcomers might read and be influenced by our writings, then there is an obligation there to do that writing with utmost integrity. What constitutes “integrity” is something that I think we’re always examining, learning, and refining.
Theology is complicated and the ways in which our religious experiences touch our lives, impact us emotionally, shape us spiritually, and guide us down various roads of virtue are likewise complicated and often antagonistic to mundane, secular living. There’s always a process of negotiation happening as we try to live our religious traditions and to cultivate our devotional lives with integrity. Sometimes we make poor compromises that set us back, or negatively impact our devotion. We ALL do this at different times in our lives and then we have to go back, figure out where we went awry, and do a bit of course correction. That’s ok. If we handle that well, it can make our faith much, much stronger. We make decisions about how we mark ourselves out as devout people, about how we carry our faith into the secular world, about how we define and delineate the spaces in which we move as marked by our awareness that the Gods are all around us. We carry Them after all, wherever we go. That itself is a process of negotiation and figuring all of this out can make us clumsy and fumbling as we are formed and remade anew again and again in our practice and in our faith. Having some scaffolding, some sense of how to do this with integrity can serve as a guidepost, a lifeline, a small handbook to see us through.
“Integrity” has two meanings:
- The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
- The state of being whole and undivided.
So, what does that mean when it comes to discussing our Gods? How is theological discussion rooted in integrity or not? How do we know? Rowan Williams dives right into this question and comes up with a few answers. Firstly, a “discourse is without integrity” if it “conceals its true agenda.” It must be honest, and an honest attempt to communicate and create dialogue. The language and arguments must mean exactly what they seem to mean on the surface. There’s no hidden agenda or quest for power. Keeping it open and honest in this way allows for a conversation to happen. It allows for the possibility of “a genuine response.” The essential agenda of one’s conversation is clearly articulated, without deceit or shifting goalposts.
Because it is a conversation, there is a certain open-endedness to the discussion. There’s the possibility for growth and correction, of going more deeply into the issue at hand, of finding different answers and then finding new and different ones again. If that is lacking, if there is concealment of purpose, of the agenda, then the “conversation” is little more than a strategy for the acquisition or retention of power (and I’m quoting Williams here again). This is one of the reasons I am so critical about polytheistic writing that pushes a political agenda: it is dishonest about its purpose. If you’re writing about the Gods, write about the Gods. If you’re writing about your politics, write about your politics. Be up front and stop trying to convince your readers that one equals the other.
Writing about the Gods with integrity is more than that though. Yes, we start by being completely upfront and open about our agenda, but that’s not enough. We have to seek and write and speak in a way which allows for answers, but also for a continuation of the discourse. There is no final end to theological discussions because in part, the Gods and Their work is never-ending. And this is what specifically sets theological discussion apart from any other type of conversation. There’s always an unseen participant. When we talk about the Gods, it’s a conversation in which the Gods take part. What this means is that if we want to do this with integrity, we cannot then speak FOR the Gods. When we speak for the Gods, we are taking upon ourselves a claim to power and authority that shuts down any dialogue, that prevents a continuation of the discussion, and prohibits free exploration and response (1). We are putting ourselves in the position, of the Gods.
This is problematic. It lacks integrity for sure, but it’s also impious and intensely disrespectful of the Gods Themselves. If I am writing about any topic, and I say, “You will have to answer for Odin for your position here because He thinks…” then I am stepping onto unholy ground. I am speaking in place of my God and taking for myself an authority that belongs to no human being.
If instead, I say, “well, in my experience I would be cautious because I think that Odin might not like it” or “I’m inferring from what we know in lore” or “based on this divination, I think…” then that is different. I’m qualifying my statement. There is room for the Gods to move and express Themselves. I’m not taking Their position. In other words, I’m qualifying my statement, leaving room for those reading or listening to me to have their own experience with Odin and leaving room for theophany, or individual discernment, and for the Gods to speak on Their own. This care in speech is all the more important for us when we serve as oracles because we are imperfect vessels and even in the case of an oracular statement, it is filtered through the lens of our minds, our cognition, our experience. I might be 110% sure of something that comes up in divination but I’m always going to qualify it. Why? Because I am translating and interpreting. I receive information, patterns, and sensory input, then filter (translate) it into human idiom, words and images that make sense and then I convey (interpret) that for my client. There’s room for error (2). Likewise, when we are writing or speaking about topics that are deeply important to us: there’s always room for error.
Williams states this more boldly: “religious and theological integrity is possible as and when discourse about God declines the attempt to take God’s point of view” (3). How often do we see this on blogs and in our communities?
God hates f*gs. (This one is easy to argue against. We see groups like Westboro Baptist Church preaching their message of hate, using vile rhetoric like this and most of us are rightly disgusted. I can’t even bring myself to type it out fully. We can see the lack of integrity here. It’s not so easy though when we agree with the message like my second example below).
Freya loves trans people. (well, yes, I think we can infer this from Her stories but let’s not state it as a totalizing perspective. We don’t *know.* We must resist the urge to speak as though we are Freya, as though we know with 110% certainty.).
I can even see speaking with utter certainty within the bounds of one’s relationship with a God. I know for instance, inasmuch as any human being can, what Odin wishes of me at a particular moment. But even there, I have to interrogate my discernment, constantly, because I want to be sure, because I want to avoid error, because it is important that I know. I wouldn’t say that Odin wants X for every single Odin’s person out there. If we realize that the Gods are there, silent conversational partners in every discourse we have about Them, then it changes the way we approach that discourse. We must, if we wish to write and speak with integrity, leave space for the individual to encounter the Gods for him or herself. We cannot claim what Williams calls a “totalizing perspective;” we cannot claim to be the moral voice of a God, unerring and infallible (4).
We may suggest. We may infer. We may consider. But to put ourselves forward as speaking or writing infallibly for a Deity is to silence the voices of our Gods. Always, always we must leave that space for the Gods to be Their own voice, Their own presence. We must direct our conversation and our writing to the Gods without closing the door to Their response. In this way our work not only has the honesty that is so much a part of what “integrity” means, but it forms a unified whole, working with the Gods, rather than against, rather than pushing the Gods out of the conversation completely.
- See Williams, 5.
- Now of course, it’s my job to study and practice, and pray, and meditate, and maintain my protocols and cleansing rites, so that my discernment is sound, but there is always room for human error. There’s a saying in translation studies that I can’t help but think of here: “Translator: Traitor.” Every time you touch a text to translate it, you’re twisting it away from what the original intended. You might be brilliant. You might have the best of intentions. Your result might be equally brilliant but there is a process happening that allows for subjectivity and interpretation and that is where error may creep in. It’s no longer the original voice of the original author.
- Williams, 6.