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Marrying and Raising Children within the Faith

The other day, I posted this documentary on facebook with the comment that I wish our communities were as committed to intergenerational longevity and growth as the Jewish communities depicted in this documentary seem to be. Part of that, I noted, indeed one of the most crucial parts, is firmly being unwilling to marry outside one’s faith and being absolutely committed to raising one’s children within one’s faith. The inevitable pushback to these ideas never ceases to amaze me. Yet, it’s the only way that any type of sustainable restoration is going to happen. This is one of the reasons I think it’s so important that we establish in-person, geographically distinct communities where we can practice our traditions and raise our children in ways that reinforce our religious and cultural values. Religion doesn’t happen without culture and right now, we’re all living and working in a post-modern culture deeply antagonistic toward the very idea of Gods and devotion and especially toward challenging the status quo in the way that true restoration would do.

One of the biggest push-backs I get on the subject of marrying within one’s faith is that the pool of viable mate-material is sadly very small and scattered. This is true. See my point above. In the facebook conversation about this documentary, someone also mentioned the sad fact that finding a “Pagan” man/woman who isn’t an “utter loon” can seem a downright impossibility. (Maybe it’s time good, devout polytheists reclaimed the word ‘Pagan,’ away from non-theists, new agers, atheists, and the terminally confused). That it is difficult does not change the fact that it is essential. It’s less of a problem when one is not planning to have children, though even there being what some Christians term ‘unequally yoked’ can be problematic; but when one plans on having children, issues of religion and religious upbringing that may not have seemed a problem when it was just the couple, quite often become a divisive issue. I’d go so far as to say that if one must marry a non-polytheist, have a pre-nup that specifically states the children will be raised polytheist. I’m a big fan of marriage contracts. So many issues can be countered by a well thought out marriage contract.

I think it also challenges us to re-evaluate what we think the purpose of marriage might be. In a tribe, a unified community with a shared tradition of piety and faith, it’s not just about the happiness of the two people involved (though that is an important factor to consider). Marriage is the building block of a healthy civilization and it ensures uninterrupted transfer of one’s tradition to the next generation. It’s there to unify houses and strengthen the community, to provide for the next generation, and to be a stabilizing force within the community. In a healthy community, I’d actually support arranged marriages (provided no one was forced. That arrangement would, of course, involve consultation with elders, diviners, senior family members, careful evaluation of compatibility, goals, working out of the dowry, etc. and the marriage contract). This is not to say that everyone must have children – far from it. Those who choose to remain happily child free have important roles to play within the community as well. I would think that even if one was not planning to have children, one would not wish to be unequally yoked to a non-polytheist if one could help it. Our generation may have no choice but I’m thinking ahead to future generations, to fully functioning communities, to the restoration of tribes and traditions and what it will be like then. Furthermore, the non-polytheist (in polytheist-monotheistic marriages) must submit to polytheism. After all, unlike monotheism, there’s nothing in polytheism that says they can’t worship their Gods but to reject the Gods wholesale is to challenge the very foundations of a community and that community is more important than individual needs and happiness.

The other issue brought up was that there are different polytheisms and then the question arises of which one gets elided. This is easy to answer: neither. There are more parallels between the various polytheisms than there are between that and secularists or monotheists. I think that within polytheism, if we look at how it was practiced in the ancient world, there was zero conflict in honoring the Gods of two different *polytheistic* traditions. Neither would have to be diluted. but there’s a huge breech between polytheism and monotheism in outlook and an even bigger one between that and secularism. It’s a question of shared worldview rather than specifically shared Gods, one of shared worldview and religious values.

That being said, when it comes to polytheism vs monotheism, all religions are not the same and frankly, we should consider our own to be the best and most necessary. They’re not interchangeable. If we are devoted to our Gods and committed to practicing our traditions for those Gods then it should, in a rightly ordered mind, be absolutely unthinkable to raise one’s children any other way.

I think the push back against these two ideas really shows us how far we still have to go in building communities and restoring our traditions. There is a necessary shift in worldview that happens when one is rooted fully within one’s polytheism. That polytheism becomes the lens through which everything else is viewed and the thing that delineates our priorities. It’s a very different way of living than what we’ve been raised with in monotheisms within a secular state. We will never have proper restoration and reconstruction until this is no longer an issue, until it will be unthinkable to either marry outside polytheism or raise our children outside of it. We struggle now because we lack intergenerational transmission of tradition, well, this is precisely how that intergenerational transmission happens: by marrying within the religions and by raising children within them. There is no other way, short of conquest and forced conversion, and I don’t think anyone wants to do that.

Polytheist Pride

Think-of-the-Children

Someone recently pointed out an article wherein the author, ostensibly a Hellenic polytheist, goes on and on about her home not being a polytheistic one, and insisting that she is not raising her children in her faith. (1) This comes up every so often. Usually I see it from neo-Pagan quarters, not so much in general from polytheistic ones but whenever it comes up my response is the same: Shame on you. What a disgrace to yourself and the Gods.

If we are not going to pass our traditions on to the next generation than what are we doing this for? The strength of any tradition is its intergenerational transmission of praxis and belief. Without that transmission, our traditions will wither again on the vine. There will be no restoration.

There are obligations inherent with taking up this restoration and this is one of the really fundamental and base-line things: raise your children polytheistic. Inoculate them against the depredations of secularism, consumerism, and monotheism. If one is living one’s faith, this should occur naturally. We learn by osmosis and imitation at first after all. To doggedly refuse to expose your children to your faith is pathetic. It’s a cop-out. It speaks volumes for how little one truly values one’s Gods and traditions. I find it contemptible. Why this is even an issue, I truly don’t understand.

Now I realize some people come from deeply troubled and perhaps even traumatic backgrounds where their birth religions were concerned and may associate raising up a child in a faith as forcing one’s faith upon that child. Firstly, I would counsel that person to get therapy to work through those issues; first and foremost because they will impact one’s new faith deeply and often in deeply deleterious ways. Also, if you can do something that helps heal pain, that’s a good thing. One’s religion should not be a thing that brings one existential anguish, especially not because of other people misusing religious teachings. Monotheism is a terrible thing, soul destroying and cruel. If there is healing to be done, work on that. That is a separate issue from denying your children contact with your Gods.

Secondly, I hear many in this situation fretting about denying their children freedom of choice. Well, I guess you just let them do anything then? I guess they can stay home from school, not learn to read, never brush their teeth, and run out in public naked. We deny children freedom of choice in a thousand ways every day and we do it so that they will grow up kind, intelligent, healthy, and whole. It is the job of a parent to educate a child and that includes teaching them how to approach the Gods rightly and well. This need not be abusively imposing one’s religion on a child. Our theologies after all are not generally rooted in self-hatred, shame, and abuse. What it means is teaching them to see the world as a polytheist.

Furthermore, for those who may not be familiar with how polytheisms worked in the ancient world (when the entire world was, for the most part, polytheistic), adults were free to initiate into whatever cultus they wished, but there was almost always the veneration of one’s family, ancestral, and community Gods as well. One did not negate the other but because people were raised with a polytheistic understanding of the world, raised steeped in family and community cultus, they understood far better than we how to approach the sacred. It’s not that easy to learn when one is older.

There’s been a lot of study done on the acquisition of grammar and apparently there is a very brief and finite window wherein a child can learn to use grammar.(2) If a child is not exposed to language at that time (and it is very young, if I recall my reading correctly, before the age of three), then he or she will be incapable of learning it later. That part of the brain shuts down. The connections are not made and the capability for them to be so later disappears. I would maintain that the same paradigm can be carried over to teaching about spiritual and devotional connections. If a child isn’t exposed to it young, maybe they’ll never learn to do it well. Maybe it will always be a struggle. Maybe those spiritual connections, the ability to form them, will atrophy. Hell, half the issues we are dealing with in the polytheistic communities today are a direct result of the fact that almost none of us were raised polytheistic.

Thirdly, there are those in mixed marriages, where a spouse is not polytheistic. Well, this is one of the main reasons I don’t favor mixed marriages and as a priest refuse to do them. (3). Now, I should be clear about what I consider a mixed marriage: a monotheist (or atheist) and anything else. It’s one thing to have two polytheists from differing traditions forming a household. That can be negotiated fairly easily: the worldview is the same, for the most part. It’s quite a different thing to have a polytheist and monotheist (or polytheist and secular humanist) raising children together. Unless the non-polytheistic partner really doesn’t care (and it’s amazing how otherwise reasonable people suddenly care very much when children are involved), the child usually does not end up being raised in our traditions. Compromises are made and one should never, ever compromise on the integrity of one’s faith.

I suppose some people may also feel that they just don’t know enough. I would encourage those people to share in the exploration of their tradition with their children. None of us know enough, but we can still honor the Gods and celebrate the holy tides, and live as polytheists learning and letting your children see you engaging in that process of learning (and maybe getting things wrong and having to make reparation or unlearn/relearn, stumbling but persevering) is a really good thing. It will teach them that devotion and faith is a process and that just because mistakes are made, it doesn’t mean that one has to give up. Ours are not traditions that fetishize damnation after all. By sharing that process parents will be teaching their children how to live a faith in a healthy, human way, and that’s a powerfully valuable lesson.(4)

I’ve also heard parents say that they’re afraid that their children will be marginalized for having a ‘different’ religion when they go to school. Not to sound dismissive, but so what? Hindus, Muslims (in America), Sikhs, Wiccans, Shinto practitioners and any other non Christian or non-Jew in the US, depending where they’re located, may face discrimination and ignorance from fellow students and even teachers (and sometimes even Jewish students are harassed for their religion. Christian privilege really is a thing). That does not mean that we should deny our children our polytheisms, which are their birthright I would add, because people are assholes. People are always going to be assholes. That’s why I encourage parents to stay involved with their school, school board, PTA, etc. I encourage them to know their options, and to take proactive measures in educating the teachers. When problems do arise, there are legal steps that can be taken and while it may be an awful thing to have to go to those lengths, sometimes shit happens and this could just as readily be happening because your child were gay or trans or overweight, or not popular, or because the kid was very smart, or because some asshole bully took a dislike to them. I very much understand wanting to protect children from every possible harm, but the way to do that is not by causing more harm in the long run. Ready yourself with all the educational information you need, and be ready to fight like a pitbull if your child is discriminated against or bullied.

Monotheists aren’t shy about raising their children in their faith, sometimes rabidly so. It was the cutting off of avenues of intergenerational transmission in the community at large that contributed to its spread and eventual victory over Paganism and Polytheism, a victory from which we are only now beginning to recover. It is what gave their traditions, (just as it imbued ours once) longevity, growth, and strength. There is absolutely no point in doing this if it stops with us.

Hiding one’s faith, refusing to share it with the child, makes it seem like a shameful thing. If you don’t think your Gods are good enough for your children, if you don’t think that the traditions are wholesome and ennobling, why are you venerating Them and why are you practicing those traditions? In all things we should strive to be consistent.

 

Notes:

  1. She also whines about everything she doesn’t know (despite apparently doing something she calls Hellenic polytheism for twenty years) and shares her belief that people who practice the more mystical or esoteric aspects of our traditions should be institutionalized. I’m purposely not sharing the link. It doesn’t need more traffic.
  2. This has come up with the subject of ‘feral’ children, or children raised without any language or without human contact. Apparently if they’re denied language very early, their ability to learn grammar and syntax disappears and they are incapable of learning it later. It’s really rather heart-breaking and horrifying.
  3. I didn’t always feel this way. When I first started working in the interfaith community, a great deal of attention was paid on training clergy up specifically in order to provide marriage resources for those of differing faiths who wanted to wed. It was only when I really looked at the consequences to the next generation that I came to hold a position adamantly against such a thing.
  4. It’s more complicated when one converts after having children. Then I suppose the best one can do is simply not hide one’s faith from older children; but if they are younger, I would bring them right along with me. It’s not as if one has to throw them into hard core esoteric practices. One can make very simple rituals: like “let’s give a portion of our food to the ancestors in gratitude now” or “let’s light this candle for Freya on Friday”.

Defending Courage

Two weeks ago as I was driving home, I saw something seemingly innocuous but in reality very disturbing that has stuck with me since. I wasn’t going to write about it but I can’t get it out of my mind and I think it highlights something important in what we’re teaching our kids. Let me first describe what I saw and then I’ll tell you why it so disturbs and even angers me.

I live about a quarter mile from an elementary school. Driving home as parents were picking up their children, I saw two kids, at most maybe five years old, one boy and one girl playing on what passes for monkey bars these days. An anxious father was there holding his arms out under the girl in case she should fall. That’s all and I can’t stop thinking about it.

He’s teaching his daughter to limit her world, to be afraid. He’s teaching her that she can’t get hurt and get up again and conquer. He’s teaching her to not be bold or curious or adventurous, not to push herself to her limits and beyond. He’s teaching her that she needs a man to rely upon in scary situations, that she can’t problem solve, and he’s teaching that boy that the girl is so much more important, that he is expendable in relation to his sister (and if you don’t think that message has a part to play in man on woman violence, think again).

Years ago I read a psych article that posited that by age five a child has learned whether the world is a good place, or whether it is a scary and dangerous place and that whatever message they have internalized is almost impossible to fully unlearn later. The message the father was sending his children is clear and I understand a parent wanting to protect a child from hurt but as hard as it is sometimes those children need to be allowed to fall.

It is not a gift to a child to teach them that their world needs to be limited by fear, that they cannot cope, that stumbling or hurt or injury is the end of the world, a catastrophe from which they cannot possibly hope to have the internal resources to overcome. We do them no favors by instilling not just caution (which would be sensible) but anxiety, fear, and dependence.

Fear should not be what defines a girl or a woman. Fear should not be what defines any human being.

The past two months, I’ve read at least half a dozen articles of parents who had child protective services called because they let their children play unsupervised in their own back yards, let them walk home alone from a local park close to their home, and so on and so forth. Barely a week goes by where I don’t read something similar, parents harassed because they are raising independent children.

The result of this helicopter parenting? We have children who need trigger warnings whenever they encounter an idea with which they disagree. We’re harming our children by stifling and over-protecting them. We’re raising children who lack emotional resiliency (sooner or later we all fail, we all get hurt, we are all confronted by ideas that offend us, we all have to learn to pick up the pieces and get on with things without being utterly crushed when life doesn’t go our way). We’re raising children who can’t handle differing opinions and ideas sanely. We’re raising children who lack the baseline ability to thrive in a diverse and often divisive world. We’re raising children who will be crushed by life. That’s what I fear the most: that in wanting to protect our kids from everything that might ever hurt them (I get that. I don’t have kids but I have a god daughter whom I love dearly, and a pacel of nieces and nephews and I would give my right arm to spare them pain, but when I pray for them, I pray that they be given only the amount of suffering needed to make them capable and compassionate human beings) we are in reality crippling them.