Category Archives: Interfaith
(caveat: really bad pain day, yesterday and today. I’m right at the cusp of a migraine and the arthritis in my hands is flaring so badly I can hardly think. This might be a tad bitchier than usual. You have been warned).
For many years, I worked in the interfaith community, thinking that a polytheistic presence in such a space would be useful and productive (it wasn’t). Eventually I gave up on it realizing that there isn’t really any true desire for religious parity and the whole project is just various monotheists, nominally (but not really) committed to [the most modern iterations of] their traditions wanting to stroke each other’s egos about how tolerant they are. Maybe they are, until a polytheist enters the picture and isn’t willing to put piety second nor to pretend that the monotheistic way of doing things is some holy norm, and especially one who isn’t willing to say that all Gods are facets of their precious one. It grew very tiresome very quickly.
Every so often, one will pop up in a discussion on facebook and today that happened and really, I’m just fucking done. I’m tired of having people for whom their entire religious experience is about how good and precious they look to other people coming into polytheistic spaces and shitting on our traditions. You have never stepped away from yourself long enough to be snatched up by the terrible, terrifying hand of the Holy? That’s not my fucking problem. I’m tired of having their way of viewing the world, a way that erases the Gods and spirits, sanctity, and magic from daily living thrust into my face along with their condescension and spiritual pollution.
This is not all monotheists. I have very good and devout friends who are monotheists. This is a particular breed who have chosen to identify as “interfaith” practitioners or ministers or what have you and who are very proud of how “enlightened” and “tolerant” they are. It’s pathetic. Yes, I’m going off on a bit of a tear here but really, what do they ever hope to get out of conversations with us when inevitably they approach us in ways that spit on the foundations of true spirituality: the Gods, the land, the ancestors. I’m happy to talk about religion with people. Hell, in a way it’s my job and I enjoy discussing how we might differ in our approaches and what other traditions do and as I said in earlier posts, I’ve had very nourishing conversations with fellow theology students who were staunch monotheists and very committed to their traditions.
Perhaps that’s the key: being committed to one’s Gods and traditions. I don’t think those who define their spiritual practices solely by the rubric of “interfaith” are. Perhaps that is unfair. It is, however, an opinion based on quite a lot of experience. I suppose there are ways to do interfaith work well (in fact I’ve articulated them in previous pieces on interfaith work) but so often that just doesn’t happen. So often instead, those of us committed to our polytheistic traditions get treated to smugness and condescension. (I suspect monotheists rooted in their traditions, really rooted, who are not obsessed with modernism and getting external validation from other people about how accepting and “tolerant” they are would get treated exactly the same as we do).
I’m really not sure what we have to say to each other. I can sit down with a devout monotheist and find common ground, or at least have an interesting and productive discussion. I can’t do that with someone who mistakes modernity for integrity and pseudo-tolerance for piety and who only talks about “god” when it doesn’t inconvenience them or who thinks about God solely in the abstract as love or peace or what have you, ways that elide Presence and therefore the obligations such Presence might bring. I am always curious though about why these people feel the need to come into our spaces and post or argue or whatever it is they think they’re doing. They know the space in question is that of a polytheist. I’m sure they can find other interfaith people or modernists or even atheists (though frankly, I think your average atheist has far more integrity than your average interfaith practitioner) who completely agree with their way of viewing the world. I’ll bet they’re far, far more respectful of such people than they ever are to devout polytheists.
I’ll wrap up before I go off the rails. This all just pisses me off, some days more than others. Honor your Gods. Honor your ancestors. Honor the land. Try not to be an asshole. That is all.
So today I found out that this is happening.
At first I thought, I don’t want the Hudson River ritually linked to the Jordan (all respect to the spirit of the Jordan river). This is purposeless. This serves neither river. Not only is there no practical reason to do this, but it massively elides the individuality of each river spirit. Then of course I looked at the groups doing the ritual and realized that I can put my mind at rest. Competent ritual work has never been a hall mark of the interfaith agenda.
Still, w.t.f? The clear implication is that by linking the Hudson to the Jordan that the Hudson would participate in some derivative divinity. Setting aside the obvious Abrahamic religious underpinnings of wanting to specifically connect to the Jordan River this way, what about we start by recognizing the existential locality of the sacred? Why don’t we honor the individuality of each of these river spirits? The Hudson does not stand for all rivers. The Jordan sure as hell doesn’t stand for all rivers (again, let’s consider for a moment the Abrahamic religious underpinning of such an idea, keeping in mind that “interfaith” usually just means chatter amongst Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities occasionally adding Westernized Buddhists if they’re feeling particularly tolerant and the occasional Native American). If someone is Jewish or Christian, I can see that person relating to the Hudson as a mirror of the Jordan quite well but what does that have to do with the rest of us? Moreover, what does that have to do with either the Hudson or Jordan rivers in and of themselves? It’s obscene. Has any divination been done to see if the rivers consent? And no, I’m not being facetious. We’re animists. The world is sacred and alive and sentient. There are even countries that have recognized the rights of the river as if it were a person. So what this interfaith group is doing with their aggressive and dare I say it colonialist guilt driven hate magic is essentially stripping that personhood away. It’s obscene.
The Jordan river should have its due. It should be honored with regular songs, offerings, with care, with attendance. So should the Hudson. So should every river in the entire world. Pointless rituals like this, designed for nothing more than assuaging western guilt at the devastation we’ve wrought on the world (largely by abandoning our sacred traditions first in favor of Christianity and then of post-modern pabulum) do not make up for that lack and they never will.
A professor at my university posted this piece on twitter (he’s orthodox and this is a thought-provoking piece of relevance to modern orthodoxy) and it raised for me a number of thoughts concerning our own traditions too. First, go read the original article because much of this post was prompted by it or is in response to it and it’s nice to be on the same page for any discussion.
I work in a tradition that encourages head covering (of both men and women) during religious rites. I want to emphasize that it is encouraged, not required. Working in a blended tradition as I do, I find that in cultus deorumpractices, we almost always cover, and within Heathenry, generally only for ancestor stuff but this may vary depending on the way in which one is devoted to one’s Gods. I’ve known Heathen women who covered once they married, and Heathen men who do so out of respect for particular Gods but within Heathenry it’s not a common thing. In cultus deorumit was tradition for both men and women to cover their heads during offerings and religious rites, and that is one that at least within my branch of the tradition, we maintain. There are also times in which one might cover for purification purposes in general.
This piece piqued my interest, however, because over the past ten years I’ve come across a growing number of polytheists across traditions who are choosing to cover their heads, not just during religious rituals but out of modesty and piety, all the time (and kudos to any woman who can do this with a migraine. I’ve always wondered what those who veil or cover do when they get a migraine because I sure as hell can’t stand anything on my head then!). I think we should be encouraging modesty in our people (which does not mean that one need to cover one’s head to be modest) as a general rule, whatever that might mean.
One of the things that I very much appreciated in the article, which I otherwise found rather vexing, is the comment that modesty wasn’t about how long one’s skirts are or whether or not one covers one’s head, it’s a “line in the heart.” Some time ago, I read a Christian article on modesty by a mother of a young child. She said that her child had put on a new dress and was standing in front of the mirror commenting that she could not wait until her friends saw her and how nice she looked and the mother despaired. She despaired because she realized that no matter how modest the dress might be, the child wasn’t: her heart wasn’t modest. She wanted to show off for others and receive attention that way. It was one of the more nuanced discussions of modesty that followed, one that wasn’t about clothing, that I’ve read in a long time). Our ancestors had a deep sense of morality and propriety. Unlike so much of modern Paganism, it wasn’t an ‘anything goes’ culture where every manner of sexual impropriety was encouraged. Multiple partners, promiscuity, immorality, molestation – all of which seems way too rampant in modern Paganism (Kenny Klein anyone? Or better yet, find me outspoken monogamists within the community—please. We need more of them.) were not held up as licit in the ancient world. Of course, all of these things may have occurred (we are a terrible species), but they did not represent the accepted norm. Instead, decorum, gravitas, piety, and modesty (for both men and women) were encouraged. What the hell happened to us? We have a culture in which women are proud to be called “sluts” and marriage is considered outmoded, young people are ‘hooking up’, a culture in which devotion is ridiculed, but reality TV a cultural pastime and we call this progress. I’m not going to rant too much on this – I think y’all know my feelings on these matters and I want to get to the article in question – but suffice it to say that I think in restoring our traditions we have a seriously uphill battle and not just because of monotheism, but because of the utter lack of focus on character building in our culture. We’re starting so far behind the starting line that I wouldn’t be surprised if our ancestors were appalled.
To get back to the article, it discusses head-covering in Orthodoxy, past and present, between converts and cradle practitioners and the politics thereof. My initial reading of the piece is that the author elides what should be a nuanced and complex topic into something more black and white. She accuses converts who choose to express their piety by actually obeying the customs of their religion, as dismissing the experiences of grandmothers and older generations of women within the faith. In doing so, I think she dismisses the religious experience and devotion of the converts to which she is referring. Covering one’s head is not just a political act. It’s not about feminism or assimilation. First and foremost, in the context in which she’s talking it is about an expression of piety and submission to one’s Church/church doctrine. By presenting it in one light alone, she’s not only attacking converts, but eliding the deep complexity of this practice, turning it into a social or political action rather than a licit expression of devotion. She is asking (or rather demanding) that converts place political considerations and submission to the experience of other women, above the dictates of their conscience and faith. I find that…misguided to say the least. And, as one commenter on twitter noted, she’s turning this practice into a fashion statement (if others around you wear the scarf, wear it, but if they don’t, then you don’t either or you’re self-aggrandizing – my paraphrase) rather than an expression of religious piety. Her own experience of wearing a headscarf (in Egypt) was one of convenience that she quickly abandoned when Egyptian women pointed out the struggles they and their mothers had endured in fighting against growing fundamentalism is not, in my mind, analogous to covering in Orthodoxy. She was covering in Egypt to avoid harassment, not as a religious mandate for herself.
To abandon a religious practice like covering one’s head in church because it is not popular, because it marks you out as religious, because it is not feminist-approved, or for any other reason, is ceding sacred space to modernity. It is saying that devotion and our Gods are not important enough that one is willing to be a bit uncomfortable. Devotion is always an embodied practice: through song, dance, ritual gestures, clothing choices, bowing our heads in prayer, prostration, and so forth. The act of putting on a head covering for some women can be a significant indicator that they’re shifting into sacred space and I wonder if some of the objection to that isn’t some of the author’s discomfort with drawing boundaries and elevating personal piety as a priority.
It always comes back to what takes precedence: the Gods or our own human bullshit. The author of this piece cannot even seem to conceive of a motive in the converts to which she is referring beyond wanting to draw attention to themselves and she focuses on them as a way to delegitimize the practice, a practice she herself apparently finds personally offensive. I do think that when we do those things that mark us out as pious we have to be careful that they are actually done for the Gods and out of devotion and not to draw attention to ourselves. She has a point there. One shouldn’t cover because it’s popular, not cover because it’s unpopular, but one should do what brings one closer to the Gods and what is mandated by one’s tradition. Next, she’ll be suggesting we engage in sacred dance by twerking in the aisles before the monstrance.
As to women who cover all the time, quite often it’s a desire to maintain some sense not just of appropriate modesty, but of connection to the sacred. It reminds them to privilege that, it brings their bodies into a space of accommodation with their devotion. Yes, we must charge ourselves to avoid immodesty, to avoid spectacle, to avoid showing off, (I’m all in favor of these things in devotion, when it’s for the Gods, but not ever when they are for the glorification of the person). but that doesn’t mean abandoning practices that have served since antiquity. Finally, if women are to have self-determination of practice and being-ness, which they should!—then we have to accept that sometimes they’re going to make choices with which other women may not agree. It’s never as easy as this author wants to make it.
“Our way of life, our holy places, our festivals and religious practices, our ancestors and Gods – these are everything.”
On twitter, I’m having a rather interesting discussion about this article. It details how the archeologist currently in charge of Çatalhöyük is going out of his way to push an anti-theist agenda, using linguistic gymnastics to avoid acknowledging the site as one that was once polytheistic, and specifically denying that any Goddesses were venerated there. As Dr. Edward Butler noted in this twitter conversation,
“General avoidance of the term Gods is common in Western writers. …Interpreting religion as religion, and Gods as Gods, gets in the way of interpreting religion instead as a proxy for social and economic organization, an imperative since Durkheim and Weber. Hence, for instance, part of the reason why Hodder (the archaeologist in charge fo the site. –gk) wants to suppress the idea of any kind of theistic devotion having been practiced at Çatalhöyük is because of that site’s egalitarian social organization, whereas he wants to associate religion with the emergence of “domination”.”
I cannot tell you how many classes I’ve endured where the professors – who should have known better – pushed the idea that the ancients believed all Gods were the same, or that they didn’t understand their own religion. They jumped through hoops – in complete opposition to the surviving evidence, I might add — to deny the polytheism of our ancestors, to paint is as primitive, a minority position, to insist that anyone intelligent or educated was monist, monotheist, or atheist (this is especially so in the wake of Christian scholasticism when it comes to ancient philosophers, most of whom were in fact deeply pious men and women).
This is important. This should be noted and called out. It is, in some cases blatant, an attempt to rewrite history, to strip polytheism and by extension the Gods from the historical narrative. If we are left with the falsehood that our ancestors had no piety and no religion than there is nothing to restore. If we buy into that falsehood, then the coming of Christianity and other monotheisms can indeed be painted as “progress,” instead of the religious and culture destruction that it actually was. It reduces the complex body of religious practices that our ancestors held dear to superstition and misguided error. It obliterates the reality of our Gods in favor of either monotheism or secular anti-theism (and sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference).
This is why I think it’s so important for us to not elide the term ‘Gods’ in our own discourse with non-polytheists. I think too many of us do that to make them comfortable, to find common ground, but we really, really shouldn’t. Even I’ve been guilty of this more times than I can count, especially in academic discourse. We’re trained to find common ground for discourse, and all of us know how charged a term ‘polytheist’ or even ‘pagan’ can be. It’s sometimes very difficult to resist the unconscious push to use words like “the divine” or “deity” or (worst of the lot) “spirit”(1). I think it’s very, very important that we not do this, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. To elide the plurality of our Gods is to allow our listeners to assume (which they will because it is their place of comfort) singularity, unity, that no matter how many Divine Names we use, how many Gods we call, we really are referring to one being. It further erases the polytheistic voice from whatever narrative in which we’re engaged. It removes our Gods’ presence, denies it, all to placate monotheists or anti-theists, and largely because we are not strong enough to endure their discomfort.
To actively be a polytheist in the world is to be a living, breathing challenge to the comfortable paradigms by which others define their lives. We challenge the narrative that we’ve all been raised with, one that privileges monotheism or better yet atheism while positioning polytheisms as primitive superstition. When we verbally elide Their presence, we are contributing to that, even if we don’t realize it, even if that is not our intention. It is a small thing we can do to further our traditions, to give our Gods a place in this world: refuse to conform to the expected. When we yield to the pressure to conform to monotheism, anti-theism, secularism, we are allowing those traditions a position of superiority to our own. We are confirming in the minds of those with whom we debate, reinforcing their own inherent and often unacknowledged assumptions of that presumed superiority.
This may seem like a small thing and maybe in the end it is, but it does us no good at all when we lack the confidence and courage to use our words wisely in ways that acknowledge our Gods and give Them and our traditions a place in discourse, discourse with those whose traditions once attempted the eradication of ours, discourse with those who have in their hearts – for all they may claim otherwise – contempt for all that we represent. By refusing to elide the polytheism from our language, especially in interfaith settings (2), we force our interlocutors to acknowledge that polytheism exists and that there are those who have fervent devotion to the Gods with everything that entails. This challenges, quite directly, their hegemonic biases (and is one the main reasons that interfaith settings, with their default monotheistic-light positions, are so unwelcoming to actual polytheists who will not play their game).
To again quote Dr. Butler,
“I think it’s significant in this that even where there isn’t monotheism, there is the notion of a mono-causality, that social facts can only have one true cause, whether that’s economic, or has to do with dispositions of power, or whatever else somebody is pushing. This is a subtler intellectual legacy of monotheism, the refusal to recognize that the same social fact can be analyzed according to multiple causes at once, and hence that religious phenomena can have specifically religious causality. Instead we have reductionism, and what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of suspicion, where whatever our privileged explanation is, is seen as unmasking and undermining the other modes of explanation as “mere ideology”.”
- Of all the insipid language used in interfaith dialogue, I particularly detest the use of “Spirit.” I recall when I was teaching at a local interfaith seminary, and refused to allow my students the use of this term (I don’t care which Deity or Deities the students honored, but if they couldn’t be specific about who was on the other end of the metaphorical phone when they got the call to ministry, they had no business in a seminary.), the uproar it caused. “Spirit” is a tremendously polyvalent term. Many, many things qualify as “spirits” and not al of them good. If you cannot be specific, go home. There’s a wonderful quote, that ironically comes from Revelation (3.16 if I recall correctly): be hot or cold but don’t be lukewarm water in the mouth of God.
- Keep in mind that as much as we may bend over backwards to accommodate monotheism, they would not do the same for us in any way, shape, or form. We are, in interfaith settings, expected to conform in ways large and small and our voices are given very little weight (one of the reasons I am seriously on the fence about whether or not engaging in interfaith dialogue is useful – after all if mutual respect and good faith isn’t there, what’s the point?). We too often grovel out of sheer gratitude to have been included and it needs to stop. Our traditions existed for thousands of years before monotheism was even a blip on the religious radar. We created civilizations and gave the world philosophy, art, culture on a grand scale. The last thing we should do is feel grateful to have a voice in these settings. The next thing we’ll be expected to do is thank them for their traditions having engaged in religious genocide of ours. Where we go, our Gods and ancestors go as well. We represent and it’s incumbent on us to do that courageously and well.
So I had a discussion this evening with someone about syncretism. Apparently, there had been some push back recently over certain Gaulish Deities having been treated to the interpretatio romana. It really made me think about the process of syncretization, how it works and why it’s an important way of engaging with certain Deities.
For the most part, the Romans were very respectful of indigenous religions. The times when they oppressed or legislated against a particular tradition it was never (despite how Roman propaganda may have spun the issue) purely about the religion. It was, without exception, due to political issues. For instance, four examples spring readily to mind: there was the persecution of Bacchic Cultus in the second century B.C.E. Southern Italy was a hot bed of resistance to Roman rule and much of that resistance was fomented by leaders of that particular cultus. Likewise with the Druids and the Isle of Mona. It was central to resistance to Roman rule. The cult of Isis was briefly prescribed by Octavian but this had little to do with the cult itself and everything to do with the aftermath of the civil war with Antony, in which Cleopatra (who positioned herself as an incarnation of Isis) was central. Then of course there was Christianity. That rather, in my opinion, speaks for itself. Romans were a bit horrified when they found out what the cultus of Cybele entailed but they never prescribed it. There was a period where Roman citizens were forbidden from becoming galli, but the cultus itself was otherwise allowed to flourish uninterrupted. For the most part, the Romans attempted to respect and engage with indigenous religion. They were very pious people. Quite often this was done through the interpretatio romana.
When Rome took over a province, they would often append the names of their Gods to that of local Deities. For instance, we have Sulis-Minerva, Mars-Lenus, and Tacitus in his Germania gives us an account of Germanic Deities where suddenly Odin becomes Mercurius, Tyr becomes Mars, and Thor becomes Herakles. This was not done out of disrespect but as a means of finding a keyhole, a window, a doorway to understanding and engaging with these Deities. This was especially true for those Romans who settled permanently in a territory. Looking at Britannia or Gaul or any other province, the syncretism became a meeting point for both the indigenous people and the Romans and it gave the Gods more power.
Moreover, insofar as the Romans went, this was done as a mark of respect, an acknowledgement of the Deity’s power. Gods are powerful and the Romans ever and always acknowledged that in their religious and military practices. They had several specific religious rites performed by their military to ensure that the Gods of those people they conquered would support the Roman cause, rites like evocatio, which invited those Gods to join the Roman side. In this respect, it seems the Romans used the names of Their Gods almost as titles. If they saw a particular aspect of an indigenous Deity that in their minds connected that Deity to one of the Roman Ones, then it was easy to augment that connection with syncretization. For instance, with the Gaulish God Lenus, there is significant martial symbolism. Therefore, the Romans logically
equated connected Him with Mars. In other words, They were putting Him in a place wherein He would receive the same attention and awareness as their own Deity Mars. It is almost as if the names were titles, markers, placeholders wherein the Gods might dance. It was also on the Roman point of view, a mark of respect. Rome was the greatest power in the world during its time, and to acknowledge a Deity with a Roman title was one of the most respectful things to the Roman mind that one might do.
Now, I will admit, as I once told my [academic] students: syncretism is not a simple term. When it comes up, it means that something happened. There was movement, interaction, migration, colonization and that might happen naturally and organically or it might be a matter of conquest. It should never be taken at face value. Where there is syncretism there is a story, and sometimes a bloody history. Like it or not, however, syncretism is part of the history of polytheism. Sometimes in fact, that syncretism was spurred by the indigenous peoples themselves and not always under duress. Points of syncretism became a point of weaving culture, religion, and a meeting point for the indigenous communities (be they Celts or Gauls or Britains, etc.) and the Roman people. Ignoring syncretism takes away a place of power from the Gods in question and ignores that complex history of Their worship.
All of this, of course, raises questions for us about whether or not we should include Roman imagery in our icons of various Deities and more importantly whether or not we should venerate syncretized Gods. I think it is important that we do. The syncretic form and space in which the God or Gods (because after all, we don’t know what deals the two deities in question might have made with each Other regarding that form) are honored is part of that Deity (or Deities’) history. It’s part of Their cultus. It is a huge part of how the ancestors for generations engaged spiritually. To cut that off, to ignore it, to demand that it be erased is deeply disrespectful not only to the Gods but to the ancestors as well. It is nullifying their religious experience of their own Gods. It is also nullifying a point of peace, neutral territory if you will, between the Romans and the various peoples they conquered. In some cases, it is nullifying the horror and pain our ancestors experienced (i.e. in the Middle Passage which gave us religions like Lukumi, Candomble, and Voudoun) and the fact that their Gods followed them into exile.
Returning to the question of specifically Roman syncretism, if nothing else, we should remember, I think, that we owe the Romans a debt. For Heathens at least, we know the names of certain Deities (including the Matronae) largely from Roman inscriptions. This is not because Rome destroyed sanctuaries (they didn’t) but because literacy was not widespread in the northlands until the Christian invasion. Knowledge of certain of our Holy Powers exists because Roman men and women were grateful to Them, prayed to Them, petitioned Them, and then left markers and offerings of thanks. They did this in their own vernacular. They did this via interpretatio romana. If the Gods in question could accept it and allow Their cultus to flourish, can we do any less?
Shutting that out and excluding all of that in the hopes of having some illusionary purity of religion shuts out all of these complex conversations that we could be having about the subject and ignores a very uncomfortable reality: there was never any such pure practice. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Religions and cultus always developed in conversation with each other.
If I were confronted with a syncretic form of a Deity I venerate, and I were uncertain as to whether or not I should venerate this God or Goddess via such a form, I would simply divine on it. That is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Polytheisms ancient and modern were always religions of diviners. In the end, this isn’t a difficult question at all. It comes down to one thing, between the individual and their holy Powers: what do the Gods want? That answer should define practice not the opinions of so-called community members you’ll never meet face to face, who will always find something to be critical of in your devotion usually reflecting the paucity in theirs.
Why Couldn’t Cybele Just Restore Attis’ Dick? This is an actual conversation that I’m having with a Christian relative. (#polytheistproblems). This relative asked to read the papers that I’d written over the last semester so I printed them up, per her request and sent them off. Foremost amongst them was my recent article in issue 5 of Walking the Worlds: “Ecstasy and Identity in Catullus 63. This piece talks about Attis sacrificing his manhood in devotion to Cybele and what that meant to him (her?) as a Roman.
Here is the email I received in response:
“G., I just finished reading this paper. It is a wonderful example to everybody to avoid the occult. Messing with the so-called gods (actually demons) is dangerous physically and spiritually. Attis totally destroyed himself in his
ill advised “devotion” to Cybele.
If Cybele is such a great and powerful “goddess,” why could she not have restored Attis’ manhood? A devastating and true statement: You cannot go home again. I believe that in many situations.”
(the rest of the email talked about another paper on Augustine so I didn’t quote it here. Nor did I point out to her that her comments about the Gods being demons isn’t even biblical. The bible after all, acknowledges other Gods.).
Now, this relative knows that I’m a polytheist but it’s like some mental tick. They just can’t help themselves from calling our Gods demons. Interfaith work at its finest, isn’t it? Interfaith work just has a polite veneer over this, but it’s still there.
So what did I respond?
“You took the article where I did not intend. I think it’s a powerful example of devotion. May Cybele be venerated forever.
It also tells you that it’s a terrible thing to fall into the hands of a living God.
As to why Cybele couldn’t restore his manhood: obviously She didn’t want to. That is the price of initiation into Her priesthood and Attis, despite his later existential pain, paid it willingly.
Nor was Her religion “the occult.” It was an international religion openly practiced. It’s still practiced today — there’s a Cybellan monastery not far from me (well, three + hours).
My article was not in any way meant to imply that She should not be venerated, but to point out that all transformations come with a price, that we must understand this when we plumb sacred Mysteries: that they transform, irreversibly.
Asking why Cybele didn’t restore Attis’ manhood is like asking why Jesus didn’t save all the martyrs. Did he not have the power to do so? Did he not care? Or was it more a case of not invalidating their sacrifice, devotion, and faith and the example they provided for the rest of their community. These are mysteries. It’s pretty foul to denigrate them.”
We disagree but I’m not going to suddenly punch this poor relative in the face. One can have decorum in such disputes. Still, this is the type of mental brainwashing with which we all must cope when we engage in interfaith dialogue. Here it is, in black and white. (#checkyourmonotheistprivilege). I have said before that I consider monotheism to be something of a mental illness. It eradicates a person’s ability to see reality and to function in a healthy society. You want to change all these problems we’re dealing with today? Reject the secular (which is really just monotheism taken to its natural conclusion) over-culture. (#fighttherealpatriarchy).
If you have any doubt about this, the situation going on with patheos right now is a good example of what happens when you’re around ‘tolerant’ Christians. They’ll keep you around so long as you’re making them money through your click bait titles and engineered community conflict but the second you turn on them and question their motives you’re gone.
It doesn’t come with a cool pussy hat, but this is the real revolution. (#makinghashtagswontbeenough)
Or “I don’t believe in Gods because polytheists are mean. Muh feelings. Muh feminism. The patriarchy.”
My husband is a bit of a provocateur. He often sends me articles of which he thinks I ought to be aware. Today was one such example, though I think he mostly does this to wind me up and get me going. Sometimes I even allow that to work. Like today. I woke up to find this piece of steaming horseshit in my inbox. Because my husband cares.
Ah what the hell. I haven’t gone on a good tear in awhile.
So the author of the aforementioned piece begins by announcing that she has “god-fatigue.” Makes me wonder what the Gods have with us sometimes but oh well, let’s look at the piece paragraph by paragraph. cracks knuckles
“After taking a couple of weeks off from blogging, and then being gently informed by my editor that those couple of weeks were actually six months, I realized that I’m burned out on gods.”
Yes, that’s called acedia, and reams of paper have been expended with advice on how to combat its degenerative effects on one’s spiritual life. It’s certainly not something to indulge, nor is it something of which to be proud.
Generations of Christian theologians have written about this particular spiritual vice with a goal of preparing people to combat it. It was once considered one of the eight deadly vices, which Gregory the Great compressed into the seven deadly sins. Acedia is spiritual negligence but it leads to a listlessness and torpor in attending to spiritual duties. John Cassian referred to it as a ‘persistent and obnoxious enemy’ and Psalm 90 calls it the ‘noonday demon.’ (1). It can afflict anyone engaged in spiritual practice and the generally accepted “cure” for this affliction is work: lack of idleness, consistent prayer, more spiritual engagement.
Evagrius of Pontus in his text Praktikos also talks about Acedia and Cassian was deeply influenced by and indebted to this earlier theologian:
The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon —is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.(2)
While Evagrius was writing specifically for monastics, it was understood that acedia wasn’t just something against which monks and nuns had to guard. It could afflict anyone. It’s spiritual laziness, spiritual torpor…I might even go so far as to call it a spiritual depression and it requires treatment. Monks had an advantage over the lay person in that they had a systematized access to teachers, spiritual directors, superiors, etc. Pagans and Polytheists can suffer from acedia too and unlike monks, we don’t generally have access to competent spiritual direction. Our communities just aren’t there yet (as this article so clearly shows. Commentators on the piece are more interested in spewing pseudo-feminist claptrap about “the patriarchy” than offering advice on how to overcome spiritual depression). Acedia is horrible and it can be wrenchingly difficult to haul oneself up out of the pit into which it can thrust a person.
The author of the piece goes on, declaring:
“I never came to Witchcraft for the gods,”
and that says it all right there. But you stayed, you know, so you could do your part in preventing any actual spirituality from happening.
Still further, we’re told:
“…but mythological deities–you know, the ones whose stories you can read at your local public library–hold such a fundamental place in modern Paganism that they quickly seeped into my practice. Starhawk’s writings center on nature, the immanent Goddess, and the horned God; Reclaiming Witchcraft centers on gods from world mythology and folklore to the point that–and this is a very gentle, loving critique–we hold rituals in Redwood forests and on dramatic beaches and give only the most cursory nod to the abundant spirits around us, focusing instead on gods and stories from faraway cultures. I stepped back from my local ritual planning circle in part because we invoked gods even for business meetings, and I was tired of elaborate, theatrical invocations for deities I didn’t care about. Other Reclaimers find deep meaning in the gods they work with, and I’m happy for them. But I eventually had to admit that it wasn’t for me.”
Wow. So you’re shallow and it just rubs you the wrong way that people participating in a RELIGION want to actually focus on Gods (though I agree: nature spirits should also be given their due, especially when in their domain).
I also question the term ‘work with Gods.’ Do we work with Them or honor Them, venerate Them, praise Them, celebrate Them? I know that this term is in common usage and I’ve used it myself in the past but more and more it rubs me the wrong way. What message are we sending when we talk about working with Gods? If it’s the sense that we are in Their employ, well ok. I can see that. Too often though it comes across more as though They are pieces in some game that we’re playing, an attitude that sets my teeth on edge. I think it’s important to be mindful of the language we use in discussing the Gods and in discussing our relationship with Them and I’m aware there’s a learning curve here for all of us. It can be sometimes difficult to find comprehensive terminology for experiences and Beings that seem so far beyond the power of language to adequately describe. It’s important to try though.
Asa continues: “This isn’t to say that I’ve never had good or powerful experiences with gods. I have, and I continue to. It’s just taken me a long time–an embarrassingly long time–to realize that the antlered god I love so fiercely is older and wilder than the embossed silver figure with the Roman name; that statements like “the Morrigan is the goddess of sovereignty” currently accomplish nothing except to carve off and lock away swaths of the Morrigan’s infinite potential; that it really is ridiculous to take stories recorded and adapted by Christians and try to pound them into Pagan orthodoxy. (All the dogma thrown down by thin-skinned BNPs, all the shrieking and squawking between hard polytheists and atheist pagans, haven’t helped, either.)”
The names don’t carve off and lock away anything because actual devotees realize that a name is just that: one way of calling on a tiny part of an enormous Force. They allow us a means of engagement, of interaction but no one with any sense thinks that a single name encompasses the fullness of any Deity.
And all those hard polytheists? They’re engaged in something called theology and tradition-building which is important to people who care about their Gods. It’s how traditions grow and become something that lasts beyond one generation. It’s how we develop praxis that actually keeps the Gods central instead of tangential to our traditions. It’s how we develop theology.
Beyond that, you really shouldn’t be giving people on the internet power over your religious practices and beliefs. If it’s that much of a problem, disengage from the internet and focus on your Gods and spirits. If you don’t think land spirits are getting enough attention, well, work on that, because that’s important. Spirits of the land, spirits of our cities, spirits of place often don’t get the attention or the offerings they deserve. It’s only been in the last seven or eight years that I’ve seen our various communities really grasp the importance of honoring the ancestors. I don’t think as groups that we’re really there yet with land vaettir.
“What is the purpose of this post, exactly? I’m not sure. Partly it’s to explain where I’ve been all these months. And partly it’s to hold myself accountable to the heart of my practice, which I found breathtakingly articulated by Peter Grey when I first discovered his writing:
‘Witchcraft is quintessentially wild, ambivalent, ambiguous, queer. It is not something that can be socialised, standing as it does in that liminal space between the seen and unseen worlds. Spatially the realm of witchcraft is the hedge, the crossroads, the dreaming point where the world of men and of spirits parlay through the penetrated body of someone who is outside of the normal rules of culture. What makes this all the more vital is the way in which the landscape of witchcraft is changing. Ours is a practice grounded in the land, in the web of spirit relationships, in plant and insect and animal and bird. This is where we must orientate our actions, this is where our loyalty lies’.”
well, accountability is good. It is the heart of any spiritual practice so maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for you yet. Certainly polytheism is deeply relational. It is all about that interconnecting web of relationships: with Gods, ancestors, land spirits, elders, one’s community, one’s family, one’s country, one’s world.
“For many Pagans, working with named and storied gods reinforces their connection to the land. That’s beautiful and vital and life-giving, and I’m glad that it’s happening.”
…those relationships should be reinforcing relationships with the Gods. Engaging with the Holy Powers shouldn’t have to be a step toward something else, something more human, more oriented to our world for it to be considered valuable. Ever and always it seems the Gods get short-changed.
“For me, though, those names and stories have proven to be a distraction.”
It shouldn’t be. Story is powerful and transformative. If it’s a distraction then perhaps it’s not being engaged with properly. The stories are only the beginning, not scripture, not end-points. This article began by neatly dismissing ‘myth,’ which shows rather a lack of knowledge about what ‘myth’ actually is. μῦθος is story, speech, that which is worthy of being recorded and retold. It has purpose, design, and power. It has the ability to transform the listener. It is a container for Mystery. We can remake ourselves through the power of Story and re-ignite and remake our relationships with our world and our Gods. To dismiss our myths as distractions shows a remarkable lack of both clarity and creativity.
But let us continue, “When I write about deities in public, I find that some readers’ comprehension stops where a god’s name begins (Oh, yes, that god, I’m already an expert in that god, no need to listen further), and accusations of “unverified gnosis” (can you think of a sillier, more pointless term?) take the place of any semblance of theological discussion.”
Well, shame on those readers and yes, I agree UPG is the most idiotic expression ever to come into being. It’s often used as a means of shutting down discourse, especially theological discourse. All religion, if we want to think about it academically, might easily be termed UPG. Lack of comprehension on the part of readers is an incitement to better clarity not a reason to stop engaging.
“When I call to them in private, the names veil everything around me in a vague demand for reality to conform to some myth. I mean, not all the time. When I see Venus, I smile at Inanna in the sky. I pray to Sophia and to Shekhinah. I pour milk and whiskey for Anu and the Bucca. But it’s a matter of calibration, of catching the moment when the name and the prayer stand in for actual contemplation, when we swap modern Christian hegemony for the hegemony of some other wealthy priesthood from the past.”
Ah, I forget sometimes when dealing with Marxists that anti-theism is at the core of Marxist theories so of course it all eventually comes down to hegemonic structures with them. So sad. Is it any wonder depth of engagement is difficult? It’s actually not a matter of catching the moment when it comes to devotion. It’s a matter of learning to put oneself in the appropriately receptive head and heart-space for engagement to occur. There is an element of surrender there, and the accountability of personal preparation. But I guess Marxists are only good at getting other people to submit.
To continue, “What I’m saying, I suppose, is that despite (because of) Very Serious High Priests and impassioned flame wars, concepts like “Morrigan” or “Cernunnos” have started to feel like brightly colored illustrations in a picture book to me. We can do better with our theology, opening up possibilities instead of shutting them down. (Demands to “verify” gnosis serve only to stamp out any insights that don’t serve the most powerful voices.) Meanwhile, in my own practice, I’ve gone back to my roots, finding the exact same gods I left behind–only older and wiser, with names that are unpronounceable.”
First of all, THEY’RE NOT CONCEPTS. Maybe that’s your problem. Start approaching Them like Beings and not concepts and you won’t have a spiritually empty life. This is what we can learn from our ancestors. But oh, I forgot: Marxist. Ahistorical. I guess following a belief structure (Marxism) that once encouraged throwing shamans out of planes to see if they could fly (and in reality to break the religious structures of indigenous peoples) does put a “fly in the ointment” so to speak, when it comes to serious engagement.(3)
Finally, she concludes, “As I write this, it’s raining in Los Angeles–a precious event that may actually have a chance of pulling us out of our six-year drought. The gratitude coursing through me at the sound of water, the sense of peace I feel when I look out at the winter clouds, is what brought me to Witchcraft. Witchcraft, to me, is keeping my eyes open to the countless spirits and oracles all around me.”
But not Gods apparently. Fuck them I guess.
- See Cassian’s Institutes, Book 10.
- Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), pp. 18-19.
- See here. It was actually Soviet policy in the early years of the Soviet Union to attack shamans and spiritual leaders int his way.
There has been quite a bit of discussion about miasma of late. I’ve seen discussion threads and articles and posts cropping up all over the place. Unfortunately it seems that many of the people writing on the topic lack the faintest idea of what miasma actually is.
The idea of miasma and spiritual pollution is absolutely crucial to our practices. It’s important therefore not to stretch the meaning to fit some political agenda, not to misidentify and mis-equate one thing with another, and not to transfer monotheistic ideas of sin and shame onto these pre-Christian religious terms. It’s important to understand precisely what we’re talking about, why it’s so important, and how best to put it into practice. So let’s start with what miasma actually is.
Miasma is spiritual pollution. I’ve written on it before here, and here and here. Likewise I wrote about the Roman idea of ‘nefas,’ which is somewhat analogous to ‘miasma’ here. (I think that the biggest difference between the two is that nefas has a definite and very negative charge, whereas miasma is neutral. Even positive things can carry miasma as we shall see). I think that while these pieces have been a good starting point to the discussion for me personally, my understanding of the topic has deepened and become far more nuanced over the years.
The seminal work on miasma is a book titled “Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion” by Robert Parker. In that book, he discusses miasma thusly, looking first at the root of the Greek word:
“The basic sense of the ‘mia—‘ words is that of defilement, the impairment of a thing’s form or integrity.” (Parker, p.3).
This is crucial information right here: miasma is about integrity. It is a twisting of things out of true. If we think of it as some impairment to the integrity of a person, place, or thing, then that can help us move away from thinking about miasma as ‘sin.’ One does not have to do anything wrong to fall into a state of deep pollution. It is the natural side effect of certain experiences. For instance, if I spend an extended amount of time in the company of people who are themselves in some way polluted spiritually, then I may also end up miasmic. Why? Because miasma is a spiritual contagion; just like dirt or germs, it is easily passed from one person to another. If I am in lengthy company of someone miasmic, I may find myself influenced by their words, ideas, and actions. I may start behaving, thinking, or approaching the Gods similarly. Without ever meaning to, my spiritual integrity may be corrupted. Drama is not a necessary component to this at all. What is necessary is attention to what we absorb, to whom we pattern ourselves after, and to the influences in our immediate social world.
I recently fell into an intense state of miasma after reading a book. A colleague had recommended this book detailing the incredibly abusive upbringing of the author. It was extremely well written but the subject matter was searing. I read through it in one sitting and found myself upset – furious on behalf of the child—jagged, and so out of balance within myself that there was no way I could even think about approaching one of my shrines to pray. I didn’t realize what was wrong, only that I felt this terrible ugly energy, as though I had been coated in grossness. I was talking to my husband about what I’d read and how horrible I felt (it had a tremendous impact on me) and he told me to go do some cleansings. I did and felt immediately a thousand times better and I realized that one can end up in a state of miasma from things experienced second and third hand – they still have the ability to shift one in head and heart and spirit out of integral balance. Anything that closes us off to the Gods, that clogs us up like dirt in a drain is problematic. Anything that shifts us out of true, “impairs” our inner “integrity” can put is in a state of miasma. (1)
I’ve had the same thing happen with watching certain movies. I felt spiritually polluted afterwards. It was the same when I witnessed an act of verbal blasphemy during a ritual. I, everyone there, and the space itself were polluted simply by having been present when such a thing occurred.
Miasma doesn’t have to be from things so obviously – dare I say it? –dramatic though. In his book, Parker goes on to note:
“Things that in English we term ‘dirty’ are a common source of such defilement, but there are defilements deriving from things that are not dirty in themselves, or not deriving from matter at all. Miaino can be used for the pollution of a reputation through unworthy deeds, or of truth through dishonesty, justice, law, and piety are in danger of defilement. (p. 3)”
This clearly points to how one positions oneself in their world. How do you carry yourself, behave on a day to day. How are you situated with respect to your neighbors? All of these things combined to create what we might term ‘character.’ Part of good character to our polytheistic forebears involved piety.
Of course, as my friend L. pointed out, the roiling energies of community drama can create situations that may lead to miasma but so can a wedding. Seriously, amongst the list of things that put one in a state of spiritual pollution are weddings. These are happy things, the union of two families, a building block for one’s community and its longevity but (like birth and death) they create imbalance. They create pollution. There’s nothing bad at all about them, but they still put those present in a state of miasma. Some situations just do that. We may feel perfectly fine. We may even feel happy (for instance at one’s own wedding) or celebratory but we are no longer in a state of spiritual attunement.
Miasma is considered an extremely dangerous condition (Parker, p. 4). For this reason it’s important not to misinterpret it as being reliant on our emotions, how we feel in a given moment. Can one often feel the pollution? Yes, but not always. This is why it’s so important to have and maintain proper spiritual protocols with respect to cleansing and purification. Have your traditional protocols intact and try not to deviate from them and then this takes care of itself. Of course it also helps to take equal care in keeping your environment clean and surrounding yourself with people who are themselves not polluted.(2)
Why is miasma so crucial? Its effects are long term. It’s not like the Gods are going to smack one down for being in a miasmic state after all, but it corrodes and compromises one in one’s relationship with Them. It impairs signal clarity and a lot of times the consequences of it aren’t immediately noticed, in fact, may not be felt at all until suddenly the spiritual relationships that were once so vital and present and true are blurry, distant, and hard to reach.
It impairs luck and health. It twists all that is spiritually balanced and good, beneficial and ordered into something plebeian, mundane, and gross. It lowers us in the eyes of the Gods and part of the reason that people may not recognize when they are in this state, or approaching it, is that our world is so out of balance. Our world is riddled with spiritual pollution on every level. In a society where people are blowing up mountain tops from sheer greed, poisoning our food supplies, where children are picking through mountains of garbage for food, and the Kardashians are considered role models it’s difficult for people to recognize such spiritual disease. When once piety and purification were the expected adult norm, now it’s the exact opposite and people look askance, even in our communities, when one seeks to take proper precautions around one’s spiritual health by insisting on healthy boundaries.
Not only do we need more conversations about this, we need to take more action, especially when we’re doing group rituals and gatherings.
- For those wondering, would I still have read the book knowing all of this beforehand? Yes, absolutely but I would have gone in with my eyes open and would have prepared myself better and immediately cleansed afterwards.
- Two further comments on this that I’d like to offer: 1. This is where divination can be extremely helpful, if one is uncertain of whether a particular person, place, or thing might be polluted and 2. What to exclude, whom to avoid are not decisions that can be made for an individual by anyone else. What is miasmic to me, may not be to my husband and vice versa for instance. We serve different gods, have different levels of purification expected of us. What to allow into one’s world and whom to associate with are decisions that each person must make for themselves after careful consideration and perhaps prayer and divination.
(We are all one. Resistance is futile).
It occurs to me reading Helson’s latest article that this type of erasure is exactly what polytheists experience in the interfaith community. Diversity is all good and well, after all, so long as it doesn’t challenge the homogenization (read “globalization”) of a community.(1) Yes, I’m being sarcastic there because I think we’ve been fed one hell of a lie about “unity” and “globalization” being things that embrace diversity and difference when the very opposite is the case. Diversity—and I think this holds true globally as well as in the interfaith world– is only embraced when it begins the slow but inexorable slide into unification and sameness. (2) Keep your exotic costumes and practices so we can feel good about being inclusive but don’t actually believe or hold to anything that challenges our status quo. That’s interfaith work in a nutshell. This is one of the main reasons that I have little patience for interfaith work these days. It simply does not serve. At least, it doesn’t serve our agenda. I think it serves the monotheistic agenda quite nicely.
How many of you working in interfaith groups or communities have heard the following:
- Oh Spirit… (with great resistance to specifying which One. Exactly to WHOM are you praying? I once had a 45 minute argument with a group of students when I taught seminary because they didn’t want to have to name the Being to Whom they were praying. They couldn’t. Their spirituality was a nebulous thing of feel good platitudes. Gods or even one particular God had very little to do with it. )
- Mother/Father God (again, which Ones and are you talking about: One hermaphroditic being or are you trying to lump all different Deities into yours? They’re not all the same you know.)
- God, Goddess, All that Is (as though there is only ONE God or Goddess)
- Oh They’re all aspects of the One (um, no motherfucker, “They” really aren’t. Stop trying to foist your unexamined monotheism off on us).
- Or how many of you have sat with interfaith colleagues, maybe even friends and noticed that your polytheism was being treated with a deeply ingrained condescension hidden behind a veneer, a pleasant veneer, of tolerance? I’ve seen this even with friends, the idea that we’re simply not evolved enough for monotheism or worse “awww, look at the primitive little polytheist, isn’t it interesting? We just have to be patient until they grow up and accept Oneness.”(3)
I’ve been in interfaith gatherings where a great deal of lip service was paid to the idea of honoring all “paths” (and gods how I detest that word. I’m building a tradition not wandering lost in the woods) until it became clear that polytheism was not about erasing the differences between the Gods so that we could all “get along.” They were fine – and this has been across the board in my own interfaith experience—with the idea of polytheism until they were confronted by the reality of a group of people who actually believed in and venerated the Holy Powers and for whom it wasn’t some spiritual pabulum to make us feel good about ourselves but actual piety.(4) I had someone say to me once “ well how can you hold to the things your various Deities require over mine? Isn’t that going against the interfaith ideal?” (Y’all are welcome to imagine my response to that particular bit of self entitlement). It just goes to show the old adage is true: if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything).
More and more I have come to look at interfaith relations as a type of cultural appropriation. It is dominated by people who cannot commit to one religion, but who want the benefits and blessings of engaging with the Holy Powers within specific traditions, all without actually having to commit to those Powers or those traditions. Hence, you’ll often see people claiming titles in Hindu or Native American religions without actually having gone through decades of study and devotion and without actually having any type of devotion to any particular Deity. They smudge. Maybe they do yoga. All paths are one after all, dontcha know.
It becomes all about making the person feel good, about making them look “enlightened” and “spiritual” so they can get a pat on the head without ever having to challenge any oppressive status quo, especially any religious status quo. Their model is monotheistic. The model for their rites and rituals is, whether they acknowledge this or not: monotheistic and actual engagement with the Powers of any tradition is generally lacking. Most interfaith rituals I have observed are not just doggedly human centric but, despite whatever trappings the organizer might appropriate, devoid of Gods. I mean, you sort of need to name the Gods to call Them into a space and that might be exclusive. Everyone has to feel comfortable after all so let’s just go with the lowest fucking common denominator and call it a day. Hence you end up with what I call impious and unclean space.
More to the point, for all the lip service paid to diversity, it isn’t. Any diversity present is at best on the surface and at worst a complete illusion. This actually saddens me because I think that the idea of interfaith cooperation is a good one, perhaps even a necessary one but it’s one that’s never going to work until all parties are equal. Right now polytheists working in an interfaith setting are anything but. We are expected to sacrifice our religious integrity to make these people feel good about themselves. That, my friends, is never going to happen.(5) One of the things that I have learned as a tribalist is that there actually can be parity…when all groups are treated as sovereign equals. My tribe, your tribe, that person’s tribe are all different but we are each sovereign powers within the sphere in which we’re meeting. We can meet on equal ground. That’s a hell of a lot better than being expected to sacrifice actual diversity for the illusion of enlightenment.
- and we can be global citizens participating in a global economy without sacrificing our identities as individual nations, religions, and cultures.
- Or in the interfaith world when it allows a new ager to feel good about how accepting of difference they can be.
- So let me be blunt for a moment. Let me tell you something, my monotheistic, interfaith colleagues: your position is this: You are a polluted blip on the broad spectrum of religious life, history, and experience across the world, a single moment in the vast spectrum of religious history and your time in ascendancy is over. We as a world are waking up from the lies you told us. We’re recovering from the Stockholm syndrome our ancestors experienced when you GENOCIDED our fucking indigenous religions and co opted our ancestral cultures as your own. We are waking back up and returning to our ancestral ways. You are done. Take that to your next interfaith gathering and choke on it.
- I’ve worked in the interfaith community since 1999, having taught at a local interfaith seminary, including becoming the first polytheist elected Dean at an interfaith seminary. It was very, very eye opening and while I started out thinking it was a good venue in which to find common working ground, I no longer think it useful at all. It will never be until monotheism is not looked up on as the default ‘norm.’
- To do interfaith work well, there either cannot be a ‘norm.’ or we actually admit our differences and find common working ground despite them.
I tell my students to avoid tumblr. I tell those who come to me to learn about the gods or for initiation and/or spiritual training to avoid people who don’t take their Gods seriously. I tell them to take care with whom they spend their time. I tell them to take care with what they pollute their eyes and hearts and minds. This is important. We inevitably become like that with which we associate. The choice of course, whether or not to take my advice is always left with the student, but I lay out my case early on.
Pollution is an actual thing and I don’t think that there’s enough discussion of it in our communities. As human beings, we are affected by those things with which we associate, by what we watch, by the character and conversation of our friends. If a person is serious about developing good devotional habits (and good devotional character), then early on, one learns to avoid those situations that diminish our spiritual worth.
Instead, it’s important to learn to cultivate the people, hobbies, habits, and things that encourage and nourish right relationship with the Gods. If you’re surrounding yourself by people steeped in piety, it will rub off! You’ll be influenced to likewise treat the Gods with respect. You’ll observe good habits and absorb them almost by osmosis. When everyone around you is modeling right behavior it’s a thousand times easier to cultivate that in yourself. The opposite is also true. Peer pressure, as it were, can work both ways.
Now I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade. If you like a particular pop culture TV show, for instance, go ahead and watch it, but be aware of the message it sends. Understand that you’re doing yourself no favors. You’ll have to take extra care to ensure that you don’t unconsciously (subliminally?) start copying the behavior and attitudes you’re seeing. That’s the problem with so much of this. It’s not that any person or thing is bad in and of itself (usually), but that we pick up unconscious messages from what we’re around. We imitate and often do so unthinkingly. We do things on auto-pilot, unmindfully and it’s mindfulness that is called for here. We cannot afford to assume that the structures of our lives automatically support devotion. Generally they don’t and very little in our immediate environments do.
I’ll admit that I find this sobering. It has, however, made me very selective about how I spend my time. We each have a great deal of power over our spiritual lives. We have the power to carefully choose that which will nourish our relationship with our Holy Powers or to choose that which does not. We can choose our companions. We can choose our associations, our hobbies, how much and what we allow in. We should choose—even if one takes away the spiritual imperative, we should always be selective about those influences that enter our personal orbits. I always encourage my students to ask: “What attitudes does this thing or person encourage? What is its/their message? Is this making me better as a human being? How does this further my spiritual goals? What does this contribute to my overall life? My character? What is it telling me about devotion? What does it cultivate in psyche and soul?”
It takes a great deal of personal integrity to do this work. It takes a great deal of personal integrity and commitment and yes, courage to resist the pressure to confirm and to water down our devotions to the silliest common denominator imaginable. We are charged, I very firmly believe, with being better.
Before our traditions were destroyed, we’d have all grown up in polytheistic households and communities. We’d have had ample opportunity to see right behavior modeled and we’d have been surrounded by numerous people and factors that would likewise reinforce it. We’d have had plenty of people to go to if we had questions and plenty of good models not just for how to do devotion well but how to become mature, engaged, mindful human beings. We don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, most of us are not surrounded by a community or family that models and reinforces right behavior. We have to learn to do it for ourselves.
So if you find yourself suddenly become flippant about the Gods when you generally know better, look around and see what might be influencing you. Take stock of your company and surroundings. Likewise, if you find yourself needing to cut jokes about the sacred, when normally you would quietly go about the business of devotion, as yourself why? Take a good, long look at the people with whom you’re surrounding yourself. Take a good long estimate of the media influences in which you are willingly steeped and ask yourself if it’s doing your devotion any good. Ask yourself if it’s beneficial or worth it. Then make your choice.
That’s what all solid devotion comes down to: learning to make the right choices, the most beneficial ones day after day, and that is something within all our reach.