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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.
Let us speak for the military dead.
Let us venerate them.
Let us honor those men and women,
all people, who laid down their lives in defense:
of us, of our children, of our future, our dreams,
that we might sleep safely in our beds.
Let us pour out libations to the souls
of all those forced by poverty and desperation
into the arts of war
that they might have a future.
Let us offer prayers and incense
to those who fell in battle
fighting far away from home
for a future they will never see,
and for loved ones left behind.
Let us offer prayers for those
currently in the armed forces,
and those veterans who bear wounds
seen and unseen when they come home.
Let us never, ever forget them.
We are here because our ancestors were warriors.
We are here because they did what was necessary.
We are here because they did not flinch, and did not run,
but took up arms, and sometimes laid down their lives.
Let us honor them;
and let us honor the living soldiers among us.
The military is not what it once was,
but there are still men and women worthy of honor
in its ranks.
Hail to the military dead. Hail to our Soldiers,
and hail to the Gods of soldiers.
Keep them safe.
(by Galina Krasskova)
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.’
‘For the Fallen’ | Robert Laurence Binyon 1914
by John Mcrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Wow. so this hellenic (polytheist) group would rather consort with a pedophile (who commits blasphemy) than have someone call them out on that bullshit. Good job, guys. You shame us all.
This is my latest book. It’s an updated version of Exploring the Northern Tradition but I’ve added over 70K (that’s right, seventy thousand) words of new content. This will be out in stores December 1 (US & Canada) and later on January 25 for those in the UK.
UK PRE-ORDER LINKS
Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2WxU6cr
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.