Category Archives: theology
So I was recently reading “Amazing Grace” by Kathleen Norris and while overall I found the book rather simplistic and at times naive, every so often I found a gem. One such was a brief discussion (p. 72) on something she terms “idolatry of the self.” I was struck by this passage because I think it nails so much about current threads in Paganism. We bring the poison of our over-culture with us, after all, even as we convert and it can be a damned difficult thing to root out. Here’s the passage that gripped me so:
“The profound skepticism of our age, the mistrust of all that has been handed to us by our grandfathers and grandmothers as tradition, has led to a curious failure of imagination, manifested in language that is thoroughly comfortable, and satisfyingly unchallenging. A hymn whose name I have forgotten cheerfully asks God to “make our goals your own.” A so-called prayer of confession confesses nothing but whines to God “that we have hindered your will and way for us by keeping portions of our lives apart from your influence.” to my ear, such language reflects an idolatry of ourselves, that is, the notion that the measure of what we can understand, what is readily comprehensible and acceptable to us, is also the measure of God. It leads too many clerics to simply trounce on mystery …”.
While she is referring to her own Christian experience, I think that the same trend is found in large part in contemporary Paganism and even Polytheism. We work so hard to make ourselves the limits of our Gods. Our comfort becomes the highest good, and we doggedly flee anything that challenges our fiercely held comfort zones. It’s not religion many of us are seeking but self-validation. Mystery challenges all of that.
Mystery is not about comfort. I think many of us talk blithely about “mystery traditions” without ever realizing what that truly entails. It’s a fancy word for experiences of the sacred that have the potential to tear one’s life to shreds. Mystery renders. It distills. It is an atomic explosion, Rumi’s knife in the dark. It is not the experience of a Deity in the bright, clarifying light of day, but rather the terror in the night that throws us down into the piss and shit of our own ugliness, that then rips us open and leaves us arched and bleeding on the dark empty floor of our souls. Then all of that is stripped away too, and we are brought into the heart of the Powers and spat forth again in dizzying ecstasy, mad dervishes whirling forth vomiting up color and poetry and song into a world rich only in its emptiness.
It always seems to come as a surprise when the focus of the spiritual experience is not on us. I think this is *the* point of tension within contemporary Pagan and Polytheist religions. Is it about us, our feelings, our morality, our wants or is it about something greater than we, something ancient, elder, and Holy? We whine to the Gods to reinforce the boundaries of the narrow worlds we’ve created for ourselves and condemn those Gods when They do anything but. We are self-absorbed children resentfully, petulantly working through mommy and daddy issues and wondering why our traditions aren’t’ sustainable at all. But then we shouldn’t wonder when we reject tradition in favor of feel-good exceptionalism and the illusion that we are courting ancient Mysteries. But when Mystery comes calling we piss ourselves trying to escape it.
This isn’t just a Pagan or Polytheist problem. I think it is the influence of modernity on all aspects of devotion. We have a culture in equal parts hungry for and disdainful of mystery. Norris noted in her book something that I’ve seen other Christian authors comment upon as well: the attempted erasure of mystery within Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. In many respects it was the protestant agenda. It certainly does make all aspects of religion accessible to everyone when Mystery is removed, accessible to everyone and truly meaningful to none.
In my opinion, a huge part of the problem is the ingrained arrogant belief that we are “evolved,” and superior to our ancestors. We want what we want on our terms, without any inconvenience rather than with the raw integrity and humility of actual engagement. Instead of looking at what our ancestors were doing right when polytheism was the world, we claim superiority and hold fast to the imprint of two thousand years of monotheism on our spiritual psyches. Throw in a little bit of contemporary self-absorption and one wonders why we bother at all. Polytheistic religions do not offer instant salvation. They offer a chance to right the breach of ancient contracts, to restore and renew and transform our world, to regain right relationship with Powers we can only begin to imagine. That is terrifyingly hard work, challenging work, rewarding work. It is work that reminds us that we are not at the center of it all, but merely one part of the problem and hopefully one part of its solution. It is work that reminds us there is indeed a hierarchy out there and it is good and natural. It’s work that begins with the first prayer uttered and the first offering made and ends in reverence for Mystery, Mysteries to which we may never be given entry; and in between is an awareness of our own pollution.
I don’t have any solutions to this. I only know that our traditions are worth fighting for, they are worth plumbing the depths of our cultural and spiritual pollution and fighting our way back to the right relationship our people once had with their Powers. It’s worth the attempt. It’s worth seeing clearly the abyss of emptiness that our culture terms ‘normal,’ and primes us to want with all our being. It’s worth rejecting that and seeking instead a path of integrity. The Gods are worth the fight. They are worth confronting ourselves for. They are worth fighting step by painful and wrenching step to be worthy of what Mysteries They bestow. Somewhere along the way, for the promise of salvation, for the lure of ‘progress’ we sacrificed ourselves and the wisdom and sacred rites of our ancestors. It’s worth the long hard battle to get them back. Perhaps that is what faith is: a long term belief that restoration is possible. In the end I have faith. I have faith that, though it may take generations, we can restore all that was lost. When it seems the most hopeless, I have faith because the ancestors are at our backs and the Gods above and below are there, waiting only for us to cross the chasm of our own self-absorption and fear. I have faith that we can do this uphill though the battle may seem. I have faith that when we fall at last into Mystery, should our Gods grant that it be so, we will have the courage to throw ourselves forward and carry those Mysteries back to transform the world and faith is stubborn, stubborn thing. Sometimes, it is enough.
(originally posted in 2014)
Last week I had a FB discussion with a former Heathen, who has since left Heathenry to become agnostic. We were arguing over the death of that missionary who tried to pollute the Sentinalese. I considered his death well deserved and my interlocutor disagreed. I had assumed that I was arguing with a co-religionist but it was almost immediately apparent that our worldviews were drastically different and finally it came out that he was agnostic. He had left Heathenry because the community was mean (whine whine), and there were white supremacists, and blah blah SJW talk blah. Dealing with Heathens of all different approaches and opinions apparently proved too much of a challenge to his “progressive” values. Ok fine. Bye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I wish you well. But I also said that our disagreement, in light of this, made perfect sense. At which point, he first starts trying to explain why he’s become agnostic (I do not care. In fact, I could not possibly care less why you chose to abandon your Gods and I certainly don’t want to hear your life story unless you’re paying me to provide pastoral counseling and probably not even then) (1) and when that wasn’t well received, opined “don’t you think my path is as valid as yours?” um, no, I don’t.
Firstly, it’s a mistake to fetishize community. Yes, we all want it. Yes, it’s important. It is not, however, equal to the Gods. Religion is all about being in right relationship with the Gods. That a community is not, should not impact the faith of the individual. That’s a hard thing, I know that but I don’t think anyone should belong to a particular religion solely because of the community. People are fallible and it’s inevitable that at times they will disappoint, sometimes deeply. One’s faith should not rest on the infallibility of any human creation. One’s faith should instead rest on experience of the Gods and ancestors, devotion to Them, and a commitment to veneration.
Secondly, why on earth would I consider an agnostic (or atheist, or anything else, including other religious positions) point of view as valid as that of polytheism? From the perspective of devotion, it’s simply not. One either believes in one’s tradition and Gods and values those things as the highest good or one doesn’t. If one does, then that is obviously the healthiest and best position one might hold; and while I may not condemn someone for making a different choice, neither do I have space for them in my emotional or spiritual world (and we’re not even talking potential miasma). From the perspective of faith, all religions and choices are not actually equal and what’s more, they don’t have to be. We are not, after all, attempting to build one overarching religion. Everyone does not have to agree. I think we’ve all been brain washed by a society that elevates “tolerance” over everything, including moral courage. I prefer “respect.” I respect your right to follow a different tradition. I will even fight for your right to do so. I do not, however, have any need of your company and I may think you are very misguided, foolish, and possibly deluded in my heart of hearts.
Finally, as a person of faith – at least on my good days ;)—I don’t see the point of allowing those who do not share my worldview to take up cognitive space. I’d rather expend my rather limited energies on building up a devout community, on engaging with co-religionists, and on doing what I can to honor my Gods and ancestors. I remain astounded that someone would think that I would consider any other faith or lack thereof to be equal to polytheism. Our traditions are not interchangeable after all. Our Gods actually matter.
- Inevitably those who have chosen lack of devotion and impiety insist on explaining themselves, but this is usually merely a means of gaining our support and approbation. There’s really no reason to care. I’m not in the business of proselytizing. Nor am I in the business of encouraging atheists and agnostics to proselytize in my presence. I kind of side with the Sentinalese on this one.
“Between “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy”, I privilege neither, but rather affirmation of the Gods Themselves. This is not reducible to “orthodoxy”, because there can be multiple doxai concerning Them, nor to “orthopraxy”, because practices can and do change.”
–Edward Butler, Phd
For one of my classes, I recently had to read Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth. In one of the chapters, Orsi discusses the impact of Vatican II on devout Catholics. Now, I personally think that Vatican II was one of the biggest mistakes the Catholic Church ever made (pandering to Protestants in the name of ecumenism, excising devotion, Marian cultus, saint cultus, and embodied devotional practices, putting the mass in the vernacular, easing up on regulations binding priests and especially nuns, devaluing the latter almost all together) and we in other traditions can learn quite a bit about what not to do from it as we engage in our respective restorations. It was a surrender to secularism and modernism and the end of the Church as a functional entity. It was also an outright attack on devotion. That being said, as part of his work, Orsi discusses several interactions with clergy on the matter of lay devotion and it’s that which I wish to discuss.
One chapter discussed a priest, post Vatican II, who was so against any aspect of devotion that he talked about the immense disgust and rage that he had whenever he saw statues of the saints or Mary, or any old school devout Catholic practice. He told Orsi that he wanted to destroy the statues and sacred images and spewed an immense amount of vitriol toward the very idea of actual devotional practices. This is a priest saying this, someone who ought to be encouraging devotion. It was striking and one of the most polluted things I’ve had to read this year. The account involves a Father Grabowski and occurs on p. 56-57 where we have a priest encouraging desecration and sacrilege — in the name, of course, of progress. “’The urge to destroy…haunts me’” Father Grabowski confesses” (57). He is talking about seeing statues of saints, and in the same paragraph, a statue of the Virgin. Time maybe to call an exorcist.
Disgust, aversion, and especially rage toward things associated with devotion or the sacred is one of the first signs at best of spiritual pollution and at worst of demonic obsession or even possession. What so many Catholics would term the demonic, I tend to see as an extension of what some of us term “the Nameless.” Evil exists, evil being that which is categorically ranked against the order that our Gods have created and that They work to maintain. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. It is insidious. It is the thing that we must ever and always guard against in our spiritual lives. It may have only the openings we give it, but it is very, very good at conniving to have us give those openings.
When holy things, devotion, and other sacred things begin to cause a reactive response of rage and disgust, an urge to destroy, that is a serious warning sign. I’ve gone through this myself, time where being in the presence of the sacred has been like razor blades down the skin of my mind, and every single time it has been an attempt to derail my work, to put a wedge between me and the Gods, to pollute. I have regular cleansing practices and this is one of the reasons. After the first time I noticed this, once I took care of it, I heightened those protocols to prevent just such a thing. With those cleansing practices in place, it’s much easier to recognize this state of spiritual emergency and deal with it as soon as possible. That’s exactly what it is too: a spiritual emergency. In better times, I might feel sorry for this Father Grabowski that he lacks appropriate spiritual direction to overcome this, but with things being as they are now, I’m just disgusted. It’s not just that one person may feel disgust, part of their poisoned state is a desire, no, a needto spread that poison as far as they possibly can, and to destroy devotion wherever it might be found.
This isn’t something that only affects specialists either. Lay people are every bit as susceptible. This is one of the many reasons why having a good prayer practice is so incredibly crucial. It realigns us every single time we choose consciously to engage, even if we do so imperfectly. Sometimes we must fight our way to the Gods inch by bloody inch, against the press of “progress” that would cast our devotion as superstition, against “modernity” that would urge us to abandon belief and practice, against evil.
Today on facebook I saw an image that had an heroic looking warrior on it and the words ‘There are no Nazis in Valhalla.’ I stopped and looked at the image for a very long time. I do appreciate where the artist is coming from – the rise of political insanity (both right and left I might add) of late is terrifying and bodes ill for our future as a cohesive nation. I understanding wanting to reclaim space from anything smacking of neo-nazism. That being said, from a theological perspective, I think the image is, at best, misguided. It might make us feel good now, pointing out that Heathenry is nota haven for white supremacy and that most of us find neo-nazism disgusting and vile but if one looks at the purpose of Valhalla theologically, I’m afraid I would have to make the argument that yes, there probably are those who were Nazis in life, in Valhalla. The question is why?
Valhalla is the hall of Odin. Its name literally means ‘Hall of the Slain.” Staffed by Valkyries and peopled by warriors slain in battle, it is where Odin collects the best of the best [fighters] in preparation for the inevitable battle of Ragnarok. That preparation is to battle and stave off the destruction and unmaking of the order the Gods have carefully created, a destruction far worse than anything of which humanity can quite conceive. That is Odin’s primary goal: protecting the order of creation. That is His primary agenda and nearly everything He does throughout our mythos is designed to further His ultimate success. In furthering that particular agenda, Odin is absolutely ruthless, as His particular stories clearly show.
To fill His hall, Odin sends His Valkyries out to collect those skilled and brave fighters who fall in combat. Half the slain goes to Odin and half to Freya (the result of an agreement the two of Them made – note that Freya has nothing whatsoever to do with the Valkyries). To think that this God would put any political affiliation ahead of fulfilling His goals goes against both common sense and His essential nature. There is no specification given in anything written about Valhalla in the surviving lore that points to Odin excluding valiant fighters on the basis of their political affiliation. It would be foolish, in light of the purpose of Valhalla, to do so and one thing Odin is not, is foolish.
Given Odin’s goals and the nature of Valhalla, it may be expected that He will snatch up anywarrior of mettle regardless of that warrior’s living allegiance. Death is, after all, a great equalizer. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Valhalla is peopled only by soldiers who share our favored political stances. The only point of discrimination indicated in stories of Valhalla, is that of skill in battle. The only requirement, that one die in combat.
To assume, moreover, that the Gods share our political affiliations is incredibly narrow minded and naïve. It might help motivate us to become involved politically, it might allow us to feel a certain connection to whatever Gods we venerate, it might even make us feel better but it is a terribly humanizing view of Powers that are well beyond our factiousness, or the limitations of temporality and human foolishness. It’s really a shame that we insist on bringing our Gods down to our short-sighted level (and I think we all do this at times).
The purpose of Valhalla is to prepare for a war beyond the scope of human imagining. Death relieves those warriors there of any political allegiances they may have had in life and they become part of the Einherjar, the warriors of Odin, ever-training to protect that which the Gods have wrought: creation. A God as ruthless and far-seeing as the All-Father would be, I think, unlikely to pass up an able addition to this group solely on the basis of politics. Everyone has the right to honor the Gods, and I think it’s a grave mistake to project onto those Gods a political litmus test, or to use Their stories to further our agendas. We can fight for what is good and right, I think, without doing that.
It’s easy to love the Gods when things are going well in our lives. It’s not so easy when every day is a struggle. It’s not so easy when mired in depression or pain or when one’s life is shattering. It’s when we need the Gods the most that it’s the hardest to reach out to Them. It’s so hard then not to become like churlish children, blaming Them, spewing vitriol at Them, pushing Them away in a myriad of ways. I think They understand when we do this (and no matter how devoted we are, I think we all do this sooner or later). I don’t think They blame us for our humanity but I have, in my own moments where I clutched at whatever shards of grace were allowed me, had glimpses of how deeply They ache for us when we suffer. Loki told me once that the Gods number every tear and I believe that to this day, though it’s damned hard to remember when all you want to do is smash your shrines and screech to the heavens, “why?”. (No, this is not a reflection on my own personal life, though there have been times; rather it’s something that hit me strongly when I was watching the tail end of a random tv show that dealt with pain and finding faith despite it). One would think loving the Gods would make things all better – and I think it does, but it doesn’t remove challenges and obstacles and the pain of living, of navigating a sad and twisted world. We are shaped by that world after all and we are human. There is fragility and magnificence, cruelty and kindness in that state of being. It’s up to us what we choose to nourish. One of the most courageous things we can do is choose, consciously choose (and it is a choice) to nourish devotion in the midst of crises.
One of the biggest graces that we’re given though is that the Gods will wait for us. As much pain as I think we cause Them, They are there even when we deny or try to push Them away. I think one of the most important things we can do for ourselves spiritually is not allow jealousy or bitterness or pain or anything else twist our devotional relationships with Them out of true. I pray about this all the time. I pray for lay people and specialists, for those struggling and those momentarily secure in their purpose. Prayer is a powerful, potent tool in this struggle and I think one of the things it does is remind and restore us in relationship to our Gods. It opens us up to Their grace. That’s no small things. The times we want to pray the least are the times we desperately need to reach out. It should be our go-to when things become difficult. (I learned this recently the hard way from Sigyn). This is why it’s so important to develop good devotional habits when things are going well, consistencies that we hold to as a matter of course, a base line that can sustain us when our world falls apart because no matter how devout we are, we move in a fractured world, a mortal world, an imperfect world and those earthquakes will come. How we choose to respond can bring us so much deeper into devotion and faith, can provide us with the most potent of all lifelines or…we can mire ourselves in our own sense of isolation. The Gods don’t do that, we in our pain do it to ourselves. Those times that hurt the most are opportunities to renew ourselves in the presence of our Gods and when we commit to that, we can indeed endure.
There was a moment today where I was filled with awe and gratitude for what it means to belong to a God. The path of Odin that I follow is that of Gangleri. This is how He comes to me most of the time, and when it comes to ordeals and challenges that define the boundaries of my spiritual life, they tend to be dictated by this aspect of Odin’s nature. I had a moment today where I realized what that truly means and how deeply and significantly it can impact one’s life.
There are things I want or want to force into a specific shape so badly that I would rip my own entrails out in order to be able to do so. There are things for which I ache, actions I wish to take driven by raw emotion, desires, life paths I want desperately to follow, even the indulgence of certain emotions and I cannot – no matter how much it feels like not reaching for these things will tear me apart – I cannot because of obligations I have to the Gods, because of my reason for being, because of whom They have made me, and whom I’ve agreed to be with Them. I cannot do and be in some ways that I want (healthy or no, good or no) because to do so would be to abandon everything I have promised my Gods; and sometimes I hate it (such a mild word – hate—for the cyclone of emotions embedded in all of this) and I rage and it takes me to a point of almost suicidal despair. If I have also neglected my devotions, if I am unable to slide my heart and mind and spirit into a place of receptivity, humility, and deep love for the Gods, if I am unable to sense or touch Their reassuring Presence than it is very easy to go to that darkest of places, to feel oneself being drawn to within a hair’s breadth of that precipice. But if I am able to reach out, and if I’m given the grace of the touch, barest touch of Their presence, of Odin’s presence, everything changes and I am restored.
It happened ever so briefly today and I realized that in carrying my own pain and rage and disappointments, I carry His. Perhaps this is a small bit of what He goes through, over and over, this most passionate of Gods Who must sublimate everything – even His own desires– to His own higher purpose, His own question for power and knowledge and that which will enable the Gods to maintain cosmic order. Perhaps this is what it means to be devoted to a God, to belong to a God. If I can re-position my own struggles thusly, it allows me to connect so intimately and so directly with Him. It changes everything. Then these things are a glory to bear, and they carry sweetness because they lead to Him. Then, bearing them lightly becomes part of my spiritual work and a joy.
I wish to Gods I could stay in this head space always. I can’t do that though and so I have to bring myself consciously back via prayer and meditation. Still, the mark of that initial grace remains and I am grateful. I wish gratitude to always be the motivating force in my relationships with Them. It resets the soul. It cleanses and restores. It brings a joy so deep that the soul laughs. It lightens and sustains. It restores focus and with Gangleri, it’s all about that ultimate focus. I praise Him, now and always.
I’ve been thinking about love a great deal the past few days. I’ll keep this brief and to the point, mostly as a reminder to myself. Love needs to be tended. It needs to be mindfully cherished and nurtured and if it isn’t, if we take it for granted, grow complaisant, grow comfortable, it can be damaged and then it is so very hard (not impossible but so painfully hard) to restore and rebuild. Love isn’t an emotion (or rather not just an emotion), it is conscious, decisive, willed action. It is choosing to invest attention and emotion, time and above all else, care into the relationship. It is hard, bloody hard work. I think maybe this holds true for human-human relationships too. It’s not that absence can’t be fruitful, but I think there must be a longing for the sweetness of return, not a closing off, a turning away. It’s so damned easy to grow complaisant too and to take this precious thing for granted, to forget that it is something very sacred given into our care to tend. This is the true meaning of paying cultus, of maintaining good cultus: to tend and nourish. It comes from the Latin colo, colere, colui, cultus and the word is used both for tending the Gods and Their rites, and for tending a field, preparing it for seed and harvest. It’s hard, hard work but oh the reward is great.
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.