Category Archives: theology
The more I study theology the more I see just how effectively contemporary Heathens have been colonized by monotheism, in their minds, in the way they look at religion, and most importantly in what they reject. Too often, and especially among less reflective Heathens, anything remotely theological- anything that discusses the nature of the Gods, that discusses our position as human beings created by the Gods with respect to the Gods (i.e. theological anthropology), anything that delves into our cosmology as something more than stories to be memorized, anything that discusses devotion – is immediately dismissed as Christian. Why? Because only Christians have theology? Only Christians cared to discuss the nature of the Gods and our pious obligations toward Them? Only Christians ask questions about why they are here and what their Gods want and how they can be better people in relation to their Gods? Only Christians cared about their traditions and positioning themselves rightly within their cosmological framework? Only Christians (for this is what such Heathens are saying though they don’t realize it) have actual religion?
Of course, all of this is nonsense. Theology existed well before Christianity was a blip on the world stage. Our ancestors were not foolish. They weren’t oblivious to the implications embedded in the very cosmology that defined their religious lives. They too had questions about what it meant to live as people of devotion. The thing is, many of the questions that we want to shove under the umbrella of ‘religion,’ those same ancestors would have instead given to philosophy or relied on engagement with mystery cultus to answer. Morality, for instance is not a religious question for us; (To be fair, of course how I engage with my Gods and what that teaches me about being human will impact my morality greatly but) as polytheists (of nearly any stripe) our ancestors would not have looked to their religions when the question of morality arose. Those questions were for the realms of philosophy, ancestral custom, and law. One of the great simplifications of monotheism was yoking morality to the question of which God to follow and how. For ancient polytheisms, that was not a healthy or natural pairing.
Instead, polytheists developed schools of philosophy and rich intellectual milieus in which one could discuss, debate, and develop ideas about ethics, morality, and what it means to live as a fully realized human being. In similar fashion, Mystery cultus often engaged with soteriological questions but religion, religion was about right relationship with the Gods, tradition, and all the protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers properly and well. At some point in one’s life these things might all connect and play off each other, but they nonetheless at their core remained distinct spheres.
It is a shame that literacy came to the North only with Christianity. The only significant records we have post-date conversion by at least two hundred years. This is problematic. Many of our converts today, and we are still a religion of converts primarily, come from Protestant denominations and they do so want a holy book, a scripture, some normative, written authority upon which to rely. This can lead to one hell of a cognitive disconnect because polytheisms don’t work that way. Heathenry certainly doesn’t for all that we try to force lore to fill the gap.
Heathens are, to put it bluntly, afraid of theology. Our religious traditions function very differently than the monotheisms A) with which we were raised and B) that form the primary lens through which our culture defines what constitutes licit religion. We are likewise living in a culture very different ethically and morally from the cultures in which our ancestors lived and in which our religions thrived (and different in ways not necessarily better, healthier, or more just). This makes the interstices where religion brushes up against morality more difficult for us to navigate and while our cosmological scaffolding can help in these moments, one has to understand that scaffolding as something other than a cycle of stories to be memorized and regurgitated for that to be effective.
You are not absolved from theological questioning because you are Heathen. You are not absolved from engaging with theological ideas that make you uncomfortable and that challenge the often lazy, unexamined ways in which we choose to live in the world. Heathenry, like any religion, demands such consideration be done again and again. Theological conversations (and that is what theology means: discourse about the Gods) are the lifeblood of our religion in a certain respect. It is what will drive our traditions forward, that ongoing point and counterpoint by which we are better able to see and consider what it means to be devout in the modern world, how best we might approach our Gods, and what our sacred stories tell us about the nature of those Gods (for though I don’t believe lore is sacred, I do believe it contains unexpected windows and keyholes into something sacred).
Why is this important? Aside from the need to root our traditions sustainably, in ways that will allow it to grow strongly and well into the next generation and beyond, these questions allow us to determine what it means to be in right relationship with the Holy Powers and what that might mean in our daily lives. Granted, each God is different and each devotional relationship unique but that should give us all the more impetus to do this necessary work.
Why? Because when we are in right relationship with our Holy Powers, then we are constantly reifying that moment of creation. Then, that moment when the world of ice and the world of fire ground Being into being, when the Gods tore apart Their own ancestor and set in place the scaffolding of reality, of the cosmos, of all the worlds, when They breathed sense and life and warmth into us too is happening again and again, constantly being reaffirmed and we are, in a tiny way, sustaining and participating in it and that is the holiest work we will ever do.
What theology cannot do, of course, is help someone see why that is a good thing, an important thing, a necessary thing. It cannot make one want to be in right relationship with the Gods. It cannot make one value devotion. It cannot make one value the Gods. It cannot make anyone address their own moral and spiritual disorder and I’m afraid on that terrifying fulcrum the future of our traditions may rest.
(some thoughts that I’ll likely be fleshing out over the next year…)
Someone mentioned today in a discussion on twitter: are we never then to question our Gods?
There is, I responded, a huge chasm between questioning as in, ‘I don’t understand. Can You explain further?’ and projecting our values, morals, and expectations onto the Powers, expecting Them to adhere to our sense of what is correct and right relationship rather than allowing Them to define those things in relation to us. There is a huge difference between questioning in confusion, desperation, or in piety for greater clarification and questioning in a way that elevates us to Their level, even if just in our own self-righteous moral minds.
We are not equal to the Gods. Let me say that again for those in the back: WE ARE NOT EQUAL TO THE GODS. I’m not sure why this is so very difficult (oh wait a minute: modernity, post modernity, marxism, popular culture, and a thousand other fragments of our culture). We are, of course, charged with using our common sense, developing our devotional relationships to the best of our abilities with the tools we have at hand, and developing discernment. Understanding that a natural hierarchy exists between us and the Gods shouldn’t have any impact at all on whether or not we cultivate discernment. If we are uncertain about something we have received in prayer or through personal gnosis, then there are avenues by which we can seek clarity (elders, diviners, etc.). The tradition itself provides a scaffolding by which to support such discernment. That is, in part, what it’s there to do. That is not, however, the way or reason many people question. They don’t want clarity. They want to reify their presumed position as equal to or above the Holy Powers. That is when questioning becomes impiety.
The question that followed was this: Do you believe the Gods are perfect?
I was taken aback by this question because…it’s just not all that relevant. Do I believe that our Gods possess what I call the “three omnis” that Christians commonly ascribe to their God: omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience? No, I don’t. I can think of no more selfish or horrible thing to project upon our Gods (for reasons beyond the scope of this paper). That being said, considerations of Their perfection or imperfection automatically place us in the position of making a value judgment over Their worthiness and that is problematic for me. On some level, within Their sphere of power, I do believe that the Gods are perfect in and of Themselves. Is that perfection the same as what we humans mean when we trot out the term? I don’t know (nor care). Odin is Odin and that is enough. To fixate on divine perfection or lack thereof is a strawman, a rhetorical ploy to again avoid positioning ourselves vis-à-vis the Powers in a subordinate position.
I’m not sure why the idea of having something above us in the celestial hierarchy is so problematic for some. I understand that there may have been issues with clergy in their birth religions, or damaging parental figures, or problems with authority but that’s what secular therapy is for –and I’m not being sarcastic. If there is damage like that, therapy can be a godsend. While the Gods are more than big enough, I think, to take our projections onto Them of whatever issues we might be working out, or simply our own arrogance and lack of humility, we are denying ourselves right relationship with the Powers. We are hurting ourselves.
Then of course, I was accused of having incoherent theology. Sweetheart, if you think theology is coherent, you need to read more of it because let me tell you, it’s anything but. On this point, however, it could not be more coherent. Our Gods created a beautiful cosmological hierarchy, the scaffolding sustaining all creation, all the words, and They created us too. There is an essential ontological difference between humanity, created by the Gods and the Gods Themselves. That difference is beautiful and profound. It underscores the Gods’ care of Their creation, including of us (all the more so since our stories tell us They went out of Their way to travel amongst us fathering children). There is the potential for a very fruitful devotional relationship there. I would go so far as to say it is our duty and obligation as fully realized human beings, as functioning adults to honor Them.(1)This is not punishment. This isn’t some horrible tyranny. It should be a beautiful fulfillment of the potential of that divine connection.(2)
Within the devotional relationship, further situated within the cosmological scaffolding of our traditions there is tremendous coherence and it is just that coherence that enables us to develop spiritual discernment.
The day that we put our reputations above doing right before our Gods, above venerating Them well, above following Their wishes as revealed to us through discerned gnosis is the day that we have sacrificed all integrity as polytheists, Heathens, and as human beings.
Let this be my prayer today and every day: may I have the courage not to care, or to care and do what the Gods want of me anyway. Let devotion be the fire that inspires my courage. Let it be the fire that burns away all fear and all cowardice. Let me do what it is my Gods have set forth for me to do even if in fear and trembling and may I never yield.
1. One of the most beautiful passages of lore occurs in the lay of Hyndla where Freya’s man Ottar is praised for having made so many sacrifices to Her that the rock of the shrine turned to glass from the blood and ostensibly heat of the sacrifices (it implies to me that he made the offerings and then burned them).
2. That it is so often fraught I blame on a society that has tainted and misrepresented the entire concept of sovereignty and hierarchy.
Ok, so i’ll preface this by saying that after several days of significant ritual work (this time of year is an incredibly intense series of holy days for some of us, ones that focus on honoring the dead, and particularly our ancestors), I’m so tired I could just about face plant into the keyboard. Dragging myself into class today was very, very difficult (thank the Gods for coffee) but I’m so glad I did.
I just got out of my morning theology class wherein we were discussing religious leadership, authority, and the positive and negative ways one can exercise authority. We’re discussing all of this through the lens of the play “Doubt” (which I highly recommend) which has several, occasionally ambiguous clerical figures who exercise different types of authority within the milieu of the play, and today was a particularly meaty discussion. Eventually the conversation percolated around to Joe Biden recently being denied communion and one of the class members noted that a decade ago it was common for LGBTQ+ partners to be denied communion at the funerals of their partners, spouses, etc. and I nearly had to leave the classroom. I can think of nothing more vile than desecrating a ceremony for the dead, and violating someone’s grief by interjecting one’s own politicized interpretation of religion into it. It made me sick to even contemplate.
Yes, traditions have rules and scaffolding but there is a time and a place to enforce that; there are the hard line rules on paper and the compassion that should be shown to a person in pain when they show up on your doorstep. I have trouble conceiving of anyone who calls him or herself clergy causing such harm at the moment of a person’s greatest vulnerability: when grieving the death of a loved one. Frankly, I think it’s obscene. There are things that I think a religious leader ought to teach (namely how to engage properly with the Gods) but things like abortion, LGBTQ+, etc. are not (within my tradition at least) religious issues but rather social ones, and each devotee needs to hash his or her feelings on those matters out with their Gods. My own feeling is that the Gods created us exactly as we are and there is NOTHING in our theology that teaches that we are sinful due to our essential natures and nothing that condemns same sex attraction. In fact, quite the opposite. I think we are called as clergy to carefully tease out our own socially programmed ideas of what is licit and right with those supported by our tradition and Gods. That can be really, really difficult but before we take positions of liturgical authority it has to be done (and granted, it’s an ongoing task. I don’t think this is something that ever really ends) and if you’re not sure in a given situation, err on the side of compassion.
We also read an article that posited that the primary role of a priest was the act of blessing. Of course the article specified “Christian” priest but I’m opening up the field. The whole class got me thinking whether or not there are circumstances where I would ever deny a blessing to someone. I think I spent most of the class contemplating this. I’ve been a priest since 1995 and I’m a hard ass, I admit that. I believe our first obligation is to protect and nurture the tradition that the Gods have given us, so that we can pass it carefully into the hands of the next generation. Still, I’m not sure it’s my place to ever deny a blessing from the Gods to anyone, not when I’m acting in my capacity as a priest. If someone who had spent the better part of the last decade slandering me and spreading baseless rumors and lies came up to me and asked for a blessing, once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I’d give it. It is not for me or any human to determine whom the Gods might bless. Even the language of blessing reflects that humility before the Powers. The most common phraseology for a blessing is “May the Gods…” or “May the Lord…” or “I pray that…” It’s the hortatory subjunctive. We are asking that a particular God or the Gods in general do a thing, not assuming that They will, not demanding that They will. We are asking and exhorting. That to my mind is hugely important. It expresses syntactically our awareness that it is not for us to command the Gods nor to deny Them what They will have done. It puts our own place in the cosmic hierarchy in stark relief and that is good and maybe even necessary. We may always ask of our Gods, but the moment we think to command Them, we overstep and egregiously so.
I also think there is a certain lack of integrity in assuming that the Gods hold our position on political matters. Firstly, we should not need the Gods to tell us not to be horrible human beings, not to be cruel, not to hate someone just because of whom they might love, or whether or not they want children, or x or y or z. These things do not violate the scaffolding of our traditions in any way. They are not relevant to how we might or might not engage with the Holy Powers (the purpose of religion). Therefore, they are not licit categories on which to exercise pastoral authority. Moreover, we cannot as clergy speak in such a way for the Gods without risking hubris and without risking serious potential harm to those we are trying to guide in their devotions and in rooting themselves in our traditions. It gets a little more complicated for polytheistic clergy because we are traditions of diviners, but even with divination, it is a translation and interpretation – unless direct Deity possession happens, which is a whole other can of worms I’m not going to discuss here. We do have our oracles and those who carry the Gods, but they are special cases and for every rule there is an exception and ways to engage within those exceptions with integrity.
This is one of the reasons why divination is such a sacred art and why those who do it need to study, pray, cultivate piety and devotion, cultivate humility, and keep themselves brutally clean spiritually (because these things foster clear communication with the Gods and ancestors, which is the main purpose of divination). Here, more than anywhere else in our traditions, there must be self-awareness, personal responsibility, integrity, and care. We must be utterly precise in every possible way, not just the words we speak, but the tone, the language, the shading, the expression with which we speak it. At the mat, we are interlocutors for the Holy and if we err by interjecting our own personal views onto the matter, if we do not clarify, clarify, clarify, we are responsible to the Gods for our error and it’s a grievous one.
All of this means owning our needs and desires, our opinions and fractures, and most of all our emotions utterly. The diviner’s mat or priestly setting are two areas where it is utterly irrelevant how we as civilians feel. Those things can be dealt with later. We must be centered, focused, and in clear communion with our Gods when we are exercising the authority of those roles and if we can’t do that, then we have no business whatsoever taking on those responsibilities. This is why it’s good to be challenged by one’s support network, to work under supervision, to have elders and senior clergy to whom to turn. This is why any personal agenda other than honoring the Gods well and acting with integrity to sustain Their traditions is so damned dangerous.
And…now I need to rustle up more coffee.
Lately I’ve seen some egregiously bad advice percolating around tumblr (no surprise). The most recent is the idea, articulated as though it was historical fact, that to refer to the Gods as ‘my God’ or ‘my Goddess’ is hubris.(1) I’m not sure where this nonsense is coming from but it’s just that: utter, misguided bullshit.(2)
Each devotional relationship with a Deity is unique. To indicate ownership of that relationship by using the possessive acknowledges that reality. It articulates responsibility for one’s role in that relationship. It acknowledges that someone else may have a very different relationship with the same Deity, that the Gods are independent Beings, capable of relating to Their devotees as individuals, unrestricted by the narrow confines of anything written about Them.
To say “my God …” also articulates an essential difference between one’s own tradition and that of whatever interlocutor with whom one might be speaking. It expresses uniqueness, as each Deity is unique and each devotional relationship is unique, while at the same time giving voice to the tremendous power of such relationships. It is indeed possible to engage with the Gods in significant ways. One’s own engagement does not impinge upon someone else also having an equally significant devotional reality. Language is often problematic when it comes to discussing spiritual reality, the Gods, or indeed anything Holy but I do not believe that this is a situation that falls under that particular rubric.
If we rule out such intimate language than we are tacitly agreeing with the idea, promulgated so frequently in academic circles, that polytheists in the ancient world had no personal devotional relationships with their Gods. This is, of course, also nonsense. Use of the possessive acknowledges the unique nature of each devotional relationship and the rich complexity such relationships bring to one’s devotional and religious life. The only hubris lies in not acknowledging that.
- Not only is it anything but hubris, in many indigenous religions, particularly certain ATR, it is common parlance to refer to “my [insert Deity name here]” precisely as a matter of respect, and a reference to certain initiatory realities. If using such language is “hubris” in one tradition, then the implication is that it is “hubris” in every tradition, which I’m sure was not the intent of the original tumblr post. Still, language is a precise instrument, a tool to foster clarity of expression and sentiments like this matter. Now the main focus of the tumblr in question is a rather narrow type of progressive politics, and I cannot help but wonder if the idea of articulating distinctions in one’s devotional and religious worlds bothers the poster because it is creating a border, distinguishing clearly between your tradition and mine, your Gods and mine, your praxis and mine. I don’t think such distinctions are bad things. I think, for the integrity of traditions, they’re necessary. It also brings clarity to any conversation about these topics; after all, one is not by such possessive usage speaking for the Gods, which would indeed be ethically problematic.
- So is the same poster’s advice on miasma. Katharmos (cleansing) is NOT just for murder/killing. There are many, many reasons that some type of cleansing might be required. I would suggest R. Parker’s classic text “Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion” or “Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion” by A. Petrovic and I. Petrovic. My Gods, I wish people would read and critically consider what they read. Also, maybe go beyond Homer, ffs.
I just returned from a conference at Villanova this past weekend. The Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance (PMR) conference is one of the leading theology conferences held every year just outside of Philadelphia. It’s really my favorite conference, the one I really, really try to do every year. It’s a lovely group of people and I always learn so much when I attend. This year the panels were so good (they pretty much always are) and I feel I have new things to gnaw upon, so much productive feedback to integrate into my work, and so many new books to track down and read. I can’t wait for next year (and for me to say that about any conference is miraculous. I might enjoy them but they generally wear me out. This one, well, I was sorry when it ended).
This year I chaired a panel and presented a paper. Usually I work in Patristics. My ongoing area of interest is developing a cultural poetics of the eunuch, looking at early Christian sources and the way ideas of the self and the holy were mediated through the figure of the eunuch. Because this conference covers more than just late antiquity, however, I was able to present a side project, one that is rapidly becoming a major secondary area of interest for me. I first gave an iteration of this paper, titled “Ravens in the Mead-hall: Rewriting Faith in the Wake of Charlemagne and the Saxon Wars” at last year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Conference and in between then and now, I’ve tweaked it considerably. This paper discusses Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons and their consequent forced conversion through the lens of post-colonial theory. It utilizes the Heliand, the 9thcentury Saxon translation of the Gospels as a lens through which to explore the re-positioning of the Saxons as a subaltern people, and the ways in which their indigenous religious traditions remained vividly relevant within the framework of Christianity. It gets a little darker than this implies, discussing things like forced child oblation, genocide, and the erasure of indigenous religious cultures too (and these darker threads are things I intend to continue exploring with this line of research). It was remarkably well received.
This is partly my way of holding space as a polytheist for our ancestors. Yes, it is useful to go to professional conferences. It’s a chance to explore these side topics, to get valuable feedback, in an atmosphere that – at least in this case – is fairly relaxed and congenial. Yes, I really want to look more closely at the ways post-colonial theory can be applied to Charlemagne’s atrocities. The more I learn about forced child oblation, forced exile, forced conversion and all the various ways the Franks impeded on and erased Saxon religious culture, the more I’m convinced that it’s here specifically that structures were first put in place that came to be used throughout the conquest of the New World, six hundred years later. Before all of that, however, I am holding space for the dead.
This is important. This is part of our history as contemporary polytheists. This is the story of our traditions, what happened to them, and why we are in the position we’re in today of having to reclaim, rebuild, and restore. If we do not understand what happened and where we came from, then we will never truly appreciate the importance of that restoration, of holding staunchly to our traditions, of cultivating piety and respect and reverence for our dead.
Why do I do this? Let me give one small example: during the Q&A, one of the attendees, a senior scholar who herself later presented a fascinating paper on a piece of Arthurian lit., said to me very earnestly, “I think it’s important to remember that the Franks had good intentions.” When I picked my jaw up off the floor I responded, “I’m sure that makes all the difference to the five thousand plus Saxons butchered at Verden.”
I’m sure that makes all the difference in the world to the men, women, and children who fought to maintain religious and cultural independence and instead ended up exiled, impoverished, with their children forcibly interred in monastic “schools” where they were Christianized and denied a Saxon identity religious or otherwise. Are you fucking kidding me? That is like saying Hitler had good intentions too. Who the fuck says that? Yet here we are in 2019 and I’ve an intelligent, educated scholar in all earnestness urging me to remember: the Christians had good intentions. That’s why I do this, because that attitude is everywhere in academia. It isn’t genocide if it occurred before the 19thcentury and was blessed by the cross.
Of course, not everyone thinks that way and most of the scholars that I work directly with would be equally appalled by such a thoughtless comment, a comment that erases the religious and cultural genocide of a people. Still, there are enough who do not question the narrative of the goodness of conversion, of Christian expansion, who do not realize that such expansion came with a heavy price, writ in blood, who do not realize it was forcibly done against the will of numerous peoples, or who do not care, that it is important to hold the line openly and at times vociferously. The evidence is there for those scholars who care to look. It is my obligation to do so. The intentions of those who destroyed our traditions really don’t matter. The results speak for themselves.
For those interested in reading my article in full, it will be coming out in the next issue of Walking the Worlds.
There are times it’s really funny being an academic. I have noticed over the years that there is the assumption (from other academics) that we are all “secular moderns.” This is not the case, not at all, in theology but it generally is in history and I’ve encountered exactly that terminology (“secular modern”) again and again.
For instance, I was sitting in a history class a few weeks ago right next to our professor. He’s great and the class is a lot of fun but he made a comment that began innocently, “as secular moderns…” and I just growled under my breath to which this gentleman (and I use that term in the most positive sense: he was a very gracious gentleman) immediately reevaluated “well, most of us. I am at least …” and went on with his comment. I appreciated the reconsideration immensely because it’s not the first time, nor the second, nor the tenth that I’ve encountered that assumption and I think it makes a difference not just to how we approach material but also to how we comprehend the motivations and practices of religious people that we’re studying. Not to mention erasure of experience is never good and never serves academic inquiry however innocently that erasure may occur.
We should of course interrogate our automatic biases, question our approaches, and evaluate our integrity consistently and honestly but we should be working with our whole selves not cutting off the most important part of who we are as human beings just to get a job done. No, I am not a secular modern and in one of the beautiful ironies of being a polytheist haunting the halls of academe, I think most of my colleagues in theology, most of whom belong to staunchly monotheistic faiths, would say exactly the same (I know some of them would at least, because several of us have had precisely this conversation).
It is irritating the assumption that we are divorced from religious practice simply because we are educated. The academic world is space that for thousands of years was not only defined by religion but was in fact, created by it. Polytheists: philosophers, scientists, educators, and thinkers developed not only schools and methods of pedagogy, but the intellectual agora of their time and Christians and later Muslims adopted and continued this process (perhaps, I will grant, with a little less in the way of free thinking and exploration at certain points in history). Jewish communities had always had, as far as I know, strong cultures of learning. There would have been no scientific revolution without deeply devout thinkers and library shelves of great literature would be empty. Far from culling one’s intellectual acumen, being deeply rooted in one’s religious tradition, in devotion to one’s Gods, is a logical outgrowth of a proper education and it is precisely one’s devotion that inspires and challenges one every moment of every day to use those gifts, most especially the intellect, that those Gods have given. The main difference between secularists and the rest of us is that our work is rooted in humility, the knowledge that just because we have the capacity to do something doesn’t mean we perhaps ethically and morally should, and an immense gratitude. It is rooted in awe and respect. It is rooted in a sense that there is a purpose to the underlying scaffolding of creation, and most importantly of all that we are connected to something far greater than we shall ever be and perhaps even answerable to those Powers.
I work at a university whose motto is ad maiorem dei gloriam– for the greater glory of God. (I will admit whenever I see it, in my mind I usually change the dei to deorum lol unless I’m thinking of one specific God like Odin or Mani at the moment I walk inside). When I walk into our theology building, that motto is inscribed on a huge carpet right inside the entrance and this is good. There is comfort in that reminder of what our ultimate purpose is, of what it is –our Holy Powers—who undergird everything that we do within those walls (and without for that matter). I like the reminder. It centers me. It restores my focus. It allows me a split second to reorient myself and to remember that there is not a single place I shall ever go where my Gods are not. Every single thing that I do should in some way glorify Them, every thought, every moment every action. This is what it means to live a connected, engaged, spiritually rich and fulfilling life. We bring our Gods with us and They open up the mysteries of the world for our exploration. The whole of learning is a conversation with our most beloved Holy Powers. The whole of learning is a long, extended moment of devotion.
I’m not secular for one very important reason: because that implies that there is a space somewhere where the Gods are not. I do not believe such a thing is possible. I’m not modern because that would accept this idea of deity-privative space as good. I do not think it is. For those sputtering about how we have such amazing technology as moderns, yes, we do and so did our polytheistic ancestors. The Greeks had steam engines for Gods’ sake, and the Romans flushing toilets, to give but two exempla. Technology is not something that just existed in the unhallowed halls of modernity nor is the problem with “modernity” or “post-modernity” or whatever you want to call it (they’re all slippery and inaccurate concepts) technology and science. Rather, the problem is the way we frame ourselves in relation to the world. The corollary to secular-modern then, is a reorientation of our purpose as thinkers. Instead of building up the world so that it reflects the Gods Who made it, we deconstruct. Instead of approaching our insights and work with humility, we have hubris (especially in the area of science). We no longer see the inherent connection not just between us and a world that is wondrous and full of Gods, but between each other too.
The argument of course is that religion has no place in the public sphere and I disagree. I think intolerance for or violence over another’s religion has no place in the public sphere but that is a different thing all together. I welcome the richness and multiplicity of perspective that happens when I’m sitting in a classroom with two orthodox deacons, a pacel of Jesuit seminarians, a Coptic monk, an atheist, a Unitarian minister, some random Catholics, and me with the class being taught by a devout Anglican (to give but one example of one particular class breakdown). If we are honest about where we’re coming from and the forces that have shaped our perspective and perceptions, fruitful and fulfilling dialogue can occur. It is in fact possible to be honest and openly devout without shitting on someone else’s religion. Instead, we find common ground in the acknowledgement of our devotion. Then we get down to the intellectual work at hand.
I need to wrap this up, though there is in fact more I would say on the matter. I’m currently attending a conference at an Augustinian university where I am sure I’m the only polytheist presenting. The conference focuses on theological currents in patristics, the medieval period, and the Renaissance and yesterday I gave a paper on Charlemagne’s butchery of the Saxons where I discussed forced oblation of Saxon children by the Franks. It was well received and the questions gave me insight into the next part of this project. In about twenty minutes I’ll be attending a panel on Apocalyptic narratives in the Roman and Byzantine worlds. In each case I come away enriched and in each case I come away with a thousand questions that further my own work; and yes, for those of you who are wondering, I’m completely open here as a Heathen.
As I’ve mentioned before in my newsletter and on my blog, I’ve just started PhD work in theology. I attend a Jesuit university (it was my first choice and I really love the program) and to my knowledge, I’m the first polytheist to be admitted to their theology program. I work with lovely people, most of whom are either clergy or in some way very active in their own religious communities, and my classes are really thought-provoking and actually quite relevant to the work I do within my own tradition. One of the things I intend to do as I move through the program is share my experiences and thoughts, those relevant to my position as a polytheist in a traditionally monotheistic discipline, here on my blog. So, this is really the first of what I suspect will become an ongoing if occasional thing.
I’ve been in coursework now since the end of August and I’ve begun to notice a few things about myself.
Having taken theology classes in the department even while doing my MA, I knew that it was surprising to some people to meet a polytheist who was also a theologian. I also knew that for every person who took it in stride, I’d meet those who dismissed my religion or were condescending or mocking (the latter two are definitely in the minority at my school). I was ready for that and for the most part, I get asked really good questions and then we have equally good theological discussions. It’s great. I really like the people with whom I work. What I wasn’t prepared for and what isn’t so great – and I want to make it clear that this does NOT in any way come from anyone in the department nor the department itself, it’s completely my own psyche—is that I’m starting to feel a certain insecurity and defensiveness about my legitimacy being a Heathen priest, compared to and when surrounded by Orthodox and Catholic priests and other devout but monotheistic clergy. I have also been feeling not only on edge (some of which may just be normal as a first-year PhD student), but somewhat ashamed, as though I’ve in some way failed my Gods –though there was no reason to feel so: I’ve never once hidden or denied my faith. It was really weird and it took me awhile to realize what was happening.
I started getting a push from Odin to be more visible as a polytheist. I thought, I don’t hide it at all, how much more visible should I be? Am I being given a new clothing taboo or something (I have certain religious taboos by virtue of my work as a vitki or shaman, mostly around the colors that I’m permitted to wear)? That didn’t feel right and I took it to divination last weekend. That’s when all of this got sorted and I realized how I was allowing myself to be affected. I was pushed, not just by Odin but by other Gods too (including Athena, Whom I’d consulted for a client) to remember who I was and that as a priest, my position is every bit as licit as those other clergy members with whom I work. Moreover, our traditions have ancient roots. I was urged to remember that we are rebuilding now specifically because our traditions were decimated by the spread of Christianity (and later Islam). I was urged to fight off this mental miasma, which is precisely what I was told it was, and keep in the forefront of my mind that they have very little they didn’t steal from us. Their religions are built on the remnants of temples they destroyed, on the graves of our polytheistic ancestors, from fragments of our mysteries. I am there representing not just myself and my own tradition but our collective polytheisms. I’m the kick in the teeth, by presence alone, that says you did not succeed and your way is not the only way. I carry the rubble of every sacred space destroyed by the spread of monotheism in my soul. I walk with a thousand upon thousand ancestors who remember their sacred ways. I am there to remind you that you did not win, you will never win, and one day we will outnumber you all. On that day, things will change. Polytheists invented theology and I am the first of what will become a steady flood ready to take it back. We are here and it’s our time to have a seat at this table.
I am very fortunate however, that this is a department in which being devout is not an issue. That is not generally the case in academia in general. In theology, we are not generally your “secular moderns.” Pretty much every single person that I’ve encountered is in some way connected to a particular religious tradition and/or active in their devotion and praxis. It’s always interesting to see what I’ve always assumed to be true being played out: two or three of us who are very devout, even if we come from dramatically different religious traditions, have more in common overall than a devout polytheist would with someone who was atheist or agnostic (though there are always individual exceptions). That opens up the ground for conversation and I think we learn from each other and that is good.
I thought long and hard about writing this and even longer about posting it. What decided me was that I know of several polytheists either in theology or religious studies programs or contemplating the same (and that we so often get pushed into the latter field rather than theology proper is a conversation in and of itself). I know several polytheists in other graduate programs, including at my university, and have encountered a few undergrads as well. The mental pressure of opening up previously monotheistic spaces is real and on the off chance that I can help prepare others and spare them some of the cognitive disconnect I experienced the last month, then I felt it important that I post. I am in a very, very supportive department. I’m completely open and out as a polytheist. If I reached out to my advisor or any of the professors about this, they’d be the first to offer support and the same with my student cohort. That is not going to be the case in every grad student’s life. It’s important to be prepared for these things. Pressure often comes from unexpected places and I would never, ever have considered this to be one of them.
My solution to Odin’s request that I be more visible as a polytheist is to simply speak more openly about it. Yesterday, a fellow student asked me what I did this past weekend for instance, and I told him I’d done a good deal of ritual work, that we have a moon God (Mani), venerated extensively in our house and with the beautiful harvest moon it was the perfect time for rituals to Him. Last week when I was questioned about a brooch I was wearing, I said honestly, “It’s a shrine piece. I wanted to feel closer to our moon God today so I decided to wear it to keep me in devotional headspace.” I’m owning my space without being obnoxious and creating space for important conversations to occur. I’m doing that by not eliding my own experience and devotional world when it comes up in conversation. Monotheistic students, as far as I know don’t have to think about this in a theology department. As a polytheist, I do. It’s no one’s fault but simply the status quo as it stands. I am grateful that my Gods trust me to do this and I am grateful that I recognized what was happening (it’s good to have a tradition that has the sacred art of divination!) before it had eaten too deeply into my confidence. For those of you in grad school, develop a good support network. You never know how the stress of the work you’re doing will affect you. Sic itur ad astra.
In one of my classes we’re reading the Dialogues of Epictetus. This has led to a lively discussion about what constitutes a human being. What does ‘care of the self’ mean in the equation that Epictetus sets up, particularly in book II of his Dialogues where he emphasizes cultivation of character, discernment, and self-control on the one hand and proper performance of one’s social roles and maintenance of natural hierarchies on the other? I really love his emphasis on fidelity to the Gods, to one’s spouse, to fulfilling one’s roles for the common good – fidelity in general, fidelity as a key aspect of a properly developed self – and on duty and self-control and that by doing these things we are helping to sustain the divine order, the order of the cosmos.
This led me to think (after weeks of reading Plato and Epictetus in this class) about how we as contemporary polytheists define the self (realizing that this may differ significantly between traditions).
For me, a clear development of the self is predicated on being in right relationship with the Holy Powers, and aligning one’s will with Them. It is predicated on allowing that sense of reverence and respect to inform every decision, every possible way that we chooseto move in our world. It is acknowledging that we have a choice and part of devotional living is deciding to make the proper one with respect to our Holy Powers and traditions (particularly prioritizing those things especially). Without that essential orientation, there is simply no fullness of being, self-awareness, or properly developed character. Without that, we are at best semi-beings. (This is, of course, within our control. We can choose to pursue devotion, choose to align our lives rightly, to be in right relationship with the Holy Powers, etc. We’re in no way helpless here. We may have to unlearn certain bad habits and poor priorities that our society has taught us, curb unruly or spiritually unhealthy impulses, or reprogram things we’ve learned in non-polytheistic birth religions, but we can do that. We’ve been gifted with reason, intellect, passion, and the ability to focus. We just have to want to do the work).
If we participate in maintaining divine order by the way that we choose to live our lives and by cultivating a devotional consciousness – which I very much believe we do – then a proper ‘self’ is one that rooted in an actualized awareness of one’s place within cosmological hierarchy and the rightness of one’s duties within that system. A fully developed self willingly participates in fulfilling its duties within that cosmological framework. Without that, there is no personhood.
That’s my position on the matter – quickly articulated while on break between classes. I would love to hear what you all have to say.
A (civil) discussion on twitter today got me thinking about our various traditions and one of the key things necessary in making them sustainable and inter-generational: namely, marrying other polytheists and raising your children as polytheists too — and I don’t think it matters which polytheism because that is a very particular lens through which to view the world and one’s relationships to the Powers and there are commonalities there in ways that there simply aren’t with monotheisms.
I’m always surprised at the push back I get on the idea that we should marry within our communities. Granted, now our communities are small but they will grow, with our cultivation. I should point out that early Christians had no trouble requiring their prospective spouses to convert…and while I don’t support proselytizing, I do support this. I’ve seen far too many people who find themselves in households where they have to hide, limit, or downplay their practices. I would at the very, very least have a marriage contract in place that stipulates to the religious upbringing of any and all children. Let me add that getting rid of an impious spouse who demands one hide one’s polytheism is, as a friend of mine would say, “addition by subtraction.” Christians have a term “unequally yoked” that I think applies here. It’s when the two partners are not on the same spiritual journey, are not of the same religion and thus cannot support each other in building a spiritually nourishing household effectively. It’s a terrible thing to be unequally yoked.
Even more push back comes at the thought of raising children in the faith. Why would you not do this? THIS even more than marrying other polytheists is so key, so fundamental to the future of our traditions that it just boggles my mind why someone would even consider doing otherwise. If you don’t love your Gods and you don’t want to see Their traditions grow, why are you here?
Of course, the argument always raised is ‘I don’t want to force my religion on my child’ but this is no argument at all. Firstly, it is a parent’s duty to provide spiritual education. That is part and parcel of raising a healthy child just as one would instill proper virtue and understanding. Secondly, there are plenty of ways to raise a child in one’s faith without being abusive about it. Why not – and I mean this in all seriousness, because this is where I think the real issues lie—deal with the damage and wounds from your own religious upbringing instead of denying both your children and your Gods the blessing of a tradition? It should be unthinkable to raise our children any other way. If we do, we’re cutting off our traditions at their knees. Each generation has to retread ground those before them already walked (and we do this anyway by our disrespect toward the elders in our communities, by ignoring or pissing on their work, and by attempting to write them out of their own traditions’ histories).
Standards are not oppressive. I’m going to say that again for those of you in the back: standards are not oppressive, at least not if you want to accomplish something worthwhile. Moreover, we can in fact choose whom we love and with whom we spend the rest of our lives. It’s important to make good choices here. It’s not enough to love someone in the moment. One must consider making a life with that person and having children (if one wants children), and what one is willing to compromise upon and what one isn’t. Hopefully commitment to the Gods and Their traditions form an absolute hard line, a sine qua non in that equation.
Someone complained today that this separates groups into “us” vs. “them” and yes, it does. This does not mean that “they” are bad, just other, different, outside the community of faith and practice, and as lovely as they might be, potential dead weight in a relationship founded first and foremost in shared piety and love. One’s relationship with the Gods is always personal and needs to be nourished regularly but as religious people we are not separate from a community, hopefully one that is coalescing into a tradition. One of the greatest challenges facing us today as polytheists is how to ensure that our traditions are sustainable and we can work hard and do all we want as individuals but eventually unless we’re raising our children in the faith, we’re never going to get past the place that we’re at now. Only through inter-generational transmission of the tradition and love for the Gods is any community truly sustainable.
I’ve seen people talk about personal sovereignty, free will and such being important and they are. We have the free will to make good decisions, decisions that further our traditions, decisions that honor our Gods. Why is it so damned hard to put something other than ourselves first?