I rarely find myself in agreement with Christian clergy on many points, but today has proven an unexpected exception. I woke up to several articles and videos of pastors/priests in Canada, Ireland, and England having had their Easter weekend services broken up by police, in at least one case, mid-service. This, despite the fact that interfering with a religious service is against the law in Canada, and in many of the cases (though not all) congregations were properly masked and distancing. The police thought nothing of attempting to break up services, or actually doing so, on what for Western Christians is their holiest time of the year (1).
I may be all for most Covid restrictions, but let’s apply them consistently. When government is breaking up BLM and Antifa riots with as much alacrity as they’re interfering in people’s religious obligations, I’ll step back from my position here, namely that I don’t think the government should EVER interfere with religious services (2).
I worry about the long-term precedent being set. If a government, be it federal or local, is willing to disrupt Christian religious services (and so far, I’ve only seen this happening to Christians, with one exception here in NY of an Orthodox Jewish funeral), without a doubt, those self-same government bodies would be more than willing to disrupt ours. I really don’t want to be in the position of holding a blót and having the police show up to profane it – of course, I suppose we could all dress in black, set something on fire, and claim to be protesting “oppression” and maybe then we’d get a pass but who wants to bring that type of pollution into the space of one’s Gods?
- Many Orthodox Christians, adhere to the Julian calendar and thus celebrate Easter later than Catholics and Protestants. See here for more info.
- Now, I think clergy have an obligation to their parishioners to be flexible and to comply with guidelines as much as possible and for the most part, clergy have been quite creative in dealing with restrictions. I think my favorite that I’ve heard about so far is a Catholic priest who used a water gun filled with holy water to bless and/or baptize via drive by. Lol
(I want to preface this with the caveat that I am writing this pretty much stream of consciousness in between workshops and classes today. This is not a polished piece and I think there is much more intellectual and practical work to be done on this as on many topics. I’m putting this here as a place to begin articulating my thoughts on this issue).
This morning I attended a Racial Equity/diversity workshop geared toward faculty and grad students who will be teaching introductory courses in theology over the next year or so. It was an excellent course and raised a lot of really good and necessary questions about how we approach our materials, how we teach theology, and how theology has been used – past and present—to define the boundaries of what constitutes the human.
The question isn’t what constitutes human in relation to the Gods, but quite simply, what is categorized and recognized, acknowledged as human by those in power, particularly by those in theological and religious positions of power. Rightly, we are urged as theologians and teachers to push ourselves and our students to consider not only this question of power and privilege, but to look for ways to productively challenge that status quo. I don’t argue that. I think it is part and parcel of the work of being a theologian. Here is where I digress from many of my colleagues, however: I don’t think the problem began with race. I think racism is a wicked symptom of something quite different.
Because this didn’t start out as a racial question, I don’t believe that the answer toward deconstructing racism and systemic structures of racism is ever going to happen by focusing on race alone. The problem didn’t start with race. It started with a particular way of looking at the world. It started with monotheism, specifically Christianity (1). It began with the spread, at first through rhetoric and then, after 313 C.E. through imperium and often violent coercion by and to Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. It started with the destruction of temples and the extortion (2) to conversion of the devout. It started with slaughter of all those who would not abandon their indigenous polytheisms and embrace the new religion (of their conquerors). Christians were human. All others…weeeeeelll, not so much; and that “not so much” opened the door to genocide, slaughter, expansion of slavery, and the theft and torture of children (3).
I hear a lot of talk about ‘problematizing whiteness.’ Maybe. I think that ‘whiteness’ is a rather artificial construct (and one that lets monotheistic religions off the hook, I might add). If I’m looking for ancestral identity, I’m going to look to my Lithuanian, Russian, German, Swiss, Scots-Irish, Huguenot, and Appalachian forebears. I’m going to look at culture and what soils hold the bones of my dead. I’m going to look at language and customs, and most of all, I’m going to tell the stories of my dead. Not all of those dead had white skin. What does it matter? What we should be interrogating, “problematizing” if you will, is monotheism. That is where, I firmly believe the true impetus toward racializing and dehumanizing began, that moment when Christianity began to look at those non-Christians around them as less than human (4).
There is no reason that Christianity had to assume a dogmatic monotheistic stance. Had it been satisfied to be one religion amongst many, a henotheistic tradition privileging only the Trinity, I do not believe that would have led to the same blood-stained place. It’s the monotheism, a worldview that is based on exclusivity and intolerance that I think is the problem. Specifically, when that worldview twinned itself with militaristic imperium (i.e. after 313 C.E.), it transformed both imperium and Christianity into something quite vicious, quite dehumanizing, quite hungry for conquest and power. That hasn’t changed. Just ask an altar boy.
Ok. That was low but I think my point stands and it’s not just polytheists who have suffered under monotheistic hegemony but Christians too. It’s been no better a system for the Abrahamic faiths living under its dominion than it has for the rest of us. Monotheism is a brutal equation. It’s a simple equation, an uncomplicated one, which is perhaps part of its appeal. Here’s how I break it down:
You’re only human if your humanity feeds the machine. Or let’s turn that around, you don’t get to be human if your lack of humanity likewise benefits the monster, instantiating and reifying its lust for power. This is not a condemnation of Christianity. There are very good and sacred aspects of practice and thought, devotion extant across the spectrum of Christian traditions from which we could benefit greatly by studying. Likewise, I know many, many good, compassionate, and devout Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) who are well aware of their respective traditions’ failures. That is theirs to carry and many people that I know are working to rectify where they can. Moreover – there are a lot of ‘moreovers’ in this – there were early iterations of Christianity that were polytheistic, iterations that elevated women to positions of power, iterations that approached the body and sexuality very differently from what became the norm. As with every religion, the reality was never monolithic. What I am condemning is a system: the structure of monotheism, the eradication of the sacred from the world, from our minds, leaving only the smallest, narrowest channel through which we can define that which is sacred…and by extension our humanity in relation to it. Christianity was, in many respects, one of the first victims of monotheism.
I have said in the past (most likely in the heat of debate) that I don’t think someone is a fully realized human being unless they are honoring their ancestors and their Gods and are engaged in some kind of devotion. I never however, said that they weren’t *human*. I never question the humanity of those who aren’t polytheists. I don’t see that in the antique texts with which I work either from the polytheistic side. You may not be one of *my* people, but obviously you’re a person, a human being. Your humanity doesn’t end where my religion begins. I’m not sure that monotheism, and by extension traditions under its domination, can say the same.
Nor is this a question of hierarchy. There will always be hierarchies and in many respects, hierarchy is good. It allows us to function effectively and well. Hierarchies occur in nature, and when they are properly organized can be extremely productive and positive — that is, when they don’t exclude from the human people on the basis of race, gender etc. So in no way do I advocate an abolition of hierarchy. The Gods after all are hierarchically above us and that is good and holy and proper. That represents the cosmic order and architecture instantiated by Their will. I do have a problem when hierarchies exist solely to diminish the humanity of others. I don’t think that’s inevitable though.
I think what I find most frustrating as a theologian is the unwillingness I see in so many circles to interrogate the structure of monotheism. It’s not that I think restoring our polytheisms will fix everything, but I think that doing so will restore a way of looking at the world that is not predicated on domination and eradication of everyone and everything that is different (5).
- Though to be fair, if one reads the bible, it’s clear that it actually started with Judaism attacking various neighboring tribes in the name of their newly minted “one God.” That didn’t last, however, and by the time Christianity began its life as a Jesus movement within Judaism, there was not the call to active, violent proselytizing found in the parent faith anymore.
- And yes, I mean extortion not exhortation. After all, often families – children, elderly would be threatened. Some people were given the choice: convert or everyone you love will be killed. One does have to question how sincere such conversions were. Of course this is still the modus operandi of Christian missions in poorer parts of Africa and India, etc.: you’re starving? Well, I’ll give you food but first you need to be baptized. Just look at how evangelicals responded to Haiti after the earthquake a few years ago.
- Not a single early Christian source that I have found condemns slavery. Not a single one and slavery was pandemic in the Roman world, (though to be accurate, one must note that it was not race based slavery. Anyone, including other Romans might become slaves. They could eventually win, buy, or be granted their freedom). The theft and torture of children began with Charlemagne forcing the conquered Saxons to send their sons to monastic schools. It continued in the Americas with Native schools where children were beaten, starved, abused, and tortured as a matter of course, but especially for speaking their native tongues and practicing their native faiths.
- Yes, ancient polytheists saw the differences between skin tones and racial identifiers but these were not problematized in the way that we see in later monotheistic cultures. They recognized them, were curious about them, but you don’t see religion being used to dehumanize the people bearing them – at least not in the part of the ancient world with which I engage. I can’t speak for others. I think the Alexandrian and Christian theologian Origen (184-253 C.E.) was the first to equate “the devil” with an Ethiopian boy, hence blackness. It’s an association that stuck well into the early modern period.
- Moreover, there is room in polytheism for all the Abrahamic traditions to exist and thrive. The opposite is most assuredly NOT the case.
This week for one of my Patristics classes (1) we’re reading the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (2). I had only previously read his letter to the Romans, so I wasn’t prepared for the lush and sensual language of the others (3). He urges his congregation to “by symphonic in your harmony, taking up God’s pitch in unison, that you may sing in one voice…” (4) employs complex building and architectural metaphors (5), baking metaphors (6), and urges his people to take care in what they intellectually, morally, and spiritually consume (7). Finally, he talks about his service to his God using the metaphor of military service, positioning baptism as weaponry, faith as a helmet, love as a spear, and endurance in one’s faith as a full set of armor (8).
As I’m reading this, keeping the context always in mind: these pastoral letters are being written by a man being dragged to Rome, under guard and in chains, heading to a truly horrid death, I can’t help but wonder how our communities would respond today were our religions suddenly proscribed by the Government. Would we lay down our lives for our traditions and Gods? I hope this is never put to the test because frankly, I don’t think most would, not when they can’t even stand up against name calling by an anonymous online mob. Recanting and bending the knee is so much easier after all, regardless of what one truly believes. Why be good when one can put on a passable seeming?
Yesterday, I saw someone express a yearning for new temples. I thought, will our communities be paying priests, administrative staff, cleaning staff, those tending and raising sacrificial animals, attendants, oracles, etc.? No? Well, then you can’t have a temple. They don’t run themselves. They are community and community funded endeavors and moreover fully functioning micro-economies. We don’t actually have functioning communities, so we’re already behind that curve. We have way too many people who pay lip service to faith when it doesn’t impact their day to day lives or cause them inconvenience (be that latter of thought, of public image, time, or physical wellbeing). People who purport to love the Gods, but see no value in sacred service, are unlikely to lay down their lives in loyalty to those Gods, especially when they have zero respect for those who do serve Them. And oh, I can hear you all formulating your rebuttals about all the ways you’d keep your faith alive in secret. Why only in secret? How many of you reading this lack the courage to stand proudly as polytheists in your daily world? Yes, that comes with consequences and if those are too harsh for you to bear, what happens when you’re asked for more?
Don’t you want to give more? Is there any limit to what you would give the Gods that have made you, formed you, Who have stepped up to claim you, Whom you venerate, the act of which is our raison d’etre as creatures made by Divine will, heat, hands, and breath? What precisely should be the limit to honoring Those that gave us everything?
To be fair, I know how scary it can be to consciously ‘other’ yourself, as publicly claiming your polytheism openly in your world might do. I get it and there can be consequences. Just this year I lost a very good friend who finally expressed the contempt for my religion that had apparently been bubbling under the surface of his little agnostic mind for Gods know how long. It’s probably going to be a significant issue in my academic field when the time comes for me to find a job. I’m fully aware that it may preclude me from that actually happening (and this doesn’t take into account denominational differences and arguments within our religions). There are cases where I think silence is perhaps golden: if custody of one’s children is at risk, if you live in a country where you can be dragged out killed. We do not. Of course, then the question arises of how do you work to change those settings, situations, and laws to make it better for those who come next (9)? There is a point though where one has to just trust the Gods and do the work, whatever that work may be. It’s about learning to prioritize correctly, learning to value the right things, and developing good habits of living those choices day to day. Each day is a choice, an opportunity to make a new choice, a better choice. That holds true not only devotionally, but pretty much in every aspect of our lives.
Ancient polytheists saw virtue as something that could be cultivated, and as something that should be cultivated. This was in part, the purpose of philosophy and also of one’s education and civic training. We allow ourselves none of those arenas in which to train ourselves in moral virtue today. When we come to our Gods consciously, it’s without the external scaffolding that would encourage healthy mindsets, healthy behavior, commitment, and courage and a whole host of other good moral (and spiritual!) habits. Even the idea that one can cultivate good habits of devotion (whatever those may be for a devotee within a tradition with his or her Gods) is a new and possibly revolutionary thought to many.
So what do we cultivate in ourselves? Are we even kind and encouraging to new converts, some of whom may be going through a very natural grieving process for the religions and religious cultures they have left? Do we do anything to actually build in-person communities that will thrive in a sustainable manner after we are gone? Are we doing anything to actually repair those threads broken in the first century?
It starts with good, solid personal devotion, with household worship, with raising children in one’s tradition, with overcoming fear, and in a thousand other ways. It means changing how we think and most importantly of all, how we live in the world. None of that is easy and each of us will make mistakes, from which we’ll hopefully learn. We should be proud of our traditions, of what we are doing and what polytheists before us did. We should be joyous in glorifying our Gods through lives well lived in Their service. Let it not be said that Christians have better, stronger, more committed faith than we do. Let it not be said that they do more for their God than we do for ours. As our world is falling apart around us, we can’t afford to be complacent. Now is precisely the time to throw ourselves fully into our traditions, into our devotions, into our practices and to ask how we can do more. What “more” means, will be different for everyone based on health, wealth, calling, Deity, etc. But there is always a “more.” Complacency is the death of a tradition and maybe that’s the biggest lesson we can take from the first century and its interlocutors Polytheist, Christian, and otherwise. When we stop caring and moreover stop striving we might as well pack up our shrines.
- Patristics is the study of the early church fathers, writers of the generation after the Apostles, so roughly second century C.E., whose writings laid the groundwork for the theologically orthodox positions that became the early Christian church.
- Not much is known about Ignatius. According to what can be gleaned from his letters, he lived in the second century C.E. and was caught up in one of the sporadic persecutions against Christians. He was sentenced in his own province, but then for some reason (scholarly opinions vary) transported to Rome for the sentence (death by wild beasts) to be carried out. On the way, he wrote pastoral letters to various churches and at least one bishop of his acquaintance.
- Several of us have been known to joke that the letter to the Romans is torture porn, but having read them all as a set, I think it more a matter of a man going to a horrible death, writing pastoral letters to encourage his community but also pumping up his own courage so that he can go to his martyrdom (he’s already been sentenced at this point) in a way that does his faith proud.
- Letter to Ephesians, chapter 4.
- Ibid, chapter 9.
- He talks of good and bad yeast, and the preservative qualities of salt, and the aroma of healthy food in his Letter to the Magnesians, chapter 10.
- Letter to the Philadelphians, chapter 3, wherein he uses an agricultural metaphor.
- Predating the medieval ‘armor of God’ by several hundred years, this passage may be found in his Letter to Polycarp, chapter 6. I should point out that Ignatius isn’t in any respect without fault. One passage in this letter made me quite literally throw up (chapter 4). Instead of taking a stand against slavery – which in the Roman empire was a prospect anyone of any race, creed, or color might face—he uses language that goes well past accommodation. It’s sickening. I have never read a single early Christian author that challenged slavery. Many polytheistic Romans questioned the institution, philosophers positioning it as a moral stain on the slave owner. I have never – yet, there’s much I haven’t read – seen anything approximating this in Christian language. The slave owner may be told to “not be arrogant towards male and female slaves” but also is cautioned to “neither let them become haughty; rather, let them serve even more as slaves for the glory of God.” (letter to Polycarp, 4). It makes me sick. I don’t know if it was a matter of the apocalypticism that so defined early Christianity making temporal suffering seem unimportant, that Christianity spread through lower classes, especially slaves first, if they didn’t care, or if they thought suffering was bringing the people closer to Christ (This sickens me even more: If one is going to offer suffering to a God, one should have the option to fucking consent first, not have that forced upon one). None of this changed with Christianity’s ascension to imperial power in the 4thcentury, no matter what narrative you might read in Christian sources about how this improved people’s lives. Slavery wasn’t abolished in the Western Christian world until the 19thcentury. It continues today throughout much of the Islamic world.
- I don’t think it’s ever correct to disavow our Gods. That matters and, I believe, marks us spiritually in a way that is very hard to erase.
(again, rambling…you’ve been warned)
So, the subject of ‘kenosis’ came up in the first paper I heard today. When I looked it up (because I’m toggling in this conference between Catholic and Orthodox perspectives and also, I’d heard of it solely in the context of a goal of devotional practice), initially I saw it defined as Christ’s rejection of his divine nature during the Incarnation. It’s more complex than that, but that initial definition did get me thinking. Why would this ‘putting aside’ of divine nature have to be ‘rejection?’ So, thinking of our theologies, I’m immediately reminded of Euripides’ play “The Bacchae,” in which the poet has Dionysos declare that (to educate Thebes) He will “put aside His divinity” taking human form. While this is a play, Dionysos is the God of theatre and it does reflect the practices and language and ideas and mysteries related to this particular God. Could one say that what is happening when Dionysos does this is a type of kenosis? (which the theologian just described as ‘self-emptying, taking the form of the servant’).
I wouldn’t describe any of this as a rejection of divine nature. Rejection would imply a permanent disavowal, wouldn’t it? ‘Putting aside’ implies that one can then put it back on (the root of the word ‘rejection’ implies a throwing back of something). Even within the Incarnation, was it a rejection? Was not God the father ever with the son even through the intense humanity and human suffering of the Incarnation? For our purposes did not Dionysos remain divine even when He was wearing human flesh?
Kenosis is more readily Christ’s emptying out of Himself to be open to God’s will. It’s…complicated. I do think ideally, we as devout people should seek to empty ourselves out (the meaning of κενοω) so that we can be filled with our Gods, so that we can be completely receptive to Them and Their will. The lecturer now speaking keeps talking about “self-emptying obedience” and I take issue with the way in which she’s using the latter term…devotion is more active, an active annihilation of all those things that would keep us from being fully open to the Gods. There’s nothing passive in it, save for the receptivity that allows us to eventually experience our Gods. And even within that level of receptivity, whatever obedience there is becomes full alignment, a partnership not an abrogation of personal will but a uniting of that will with our Gods…do Christians mean the same when they use this term?
Back to my initial point, I can totally see kenosis as a means and goal of devotional living (regardless of one’s tradition. I think ultimately we should empty ourselves of ourselves, of all our bullshit so that we can be the most useful tools and servants possible of our Gods. THAT is exactly what devotion entails), but I struggle to see it applied to the incarnated Christ. Returning to Dionysos, which is far more relevant to our praxis than Christ (with all respect to my Christian friends), when He put aside His divinity, was He emptying Himself out so that He could better align with HIS true will?
I want to parse that out…what does it mean that a polytheist could accurately say Dionysos is putting aside His divinity…here’s the Greek:
ὧν οὕνεκ᾽ εἶδος θνητὸν ἀλλάξας ἔχω
μορφήν τ᾽ ἐμὴν μετέβαλον εἰς ἀνδρὸς φύσιν.(Bacchae, line 54)
for which purpose, having set aside my form (lit: that which is seen)
I bear a mortal shape and I have changed mine into the nature (φύσιν) of a man. (my translation)
If we look at ‘nature’ in the Aristotelian sense, it is the motivating essence, the material cause for a thing. It is the essential substance of a thing. In the Heraclitan sense, it is a thing’s natural development. Is Dionysos here lowering Himself down to the human level and allowing things to thus play out according to human rules and decisions? Its opposite is νομός, or law and custom so is this a means of giving more freedom and loopholes for events to play out? Is there a freedom in incarnation not found in the immortal sphere (a horrifying thought)? I was discussing this with Edward Butler (wanted to be sure that I was correct, that this was as intriguing a passage as it always had seemed to me, because surprisingly little’s been made of it in classics) and he noted that, “eidos often means just the visual appearance of something; but what does a mortal look like, qua mortal? Then in the next line we have andros physin, which has the same ambiguity. Physis can mean just the outward appearance of something, but it can also mean something deeper, the “nature” of something. Euripides seems to be playing a bit with the idea that Dionysos is taking on more than just the look of a human.” So, I think something is going on here and I can’t help but wonder if it’s something more than just a poet taking theological and poetic liberties.
Perhaps it makes no sense to make this comparison – Christians do what they do with their theology and kenosis is a particularly Christian theological term—but the entire conversion reminded me so strongly of that passage about Dionysos I could not help but doing playing with it here.
And…I went back to the Greek to the word εἶδος. It is the word from which we get our word ‘icon’ and I believe also ‘idol.’ It is something that can be seen, a form which can be seen. So, Dionysos is transforming His appearance. The presence of the word φύσιν complicates things for me. It has certain specific meanings philosophically, Is it all simply a change in appearance not reality here (unlike the licit view of the incarnation in which the humanity assumed by Christ is reality … unless one is a Docetist lol). I could go round and round with this for hours but I need to stop myself. Argh.
EDIT: So, thus am I served for writing this, while taking notes during a lecture, and discussing it all withe a friend via email. I had my etymology wrong above. “icon” comes from “eikon” and ‘idol’ from εἴδωλον. We get our word “idea” from εἶδος. What i wrote above still stands though: Dionysos is transforming into the idea of a mortal man…close enough to appearance to still ask: what does that mean? what is a God’s idea of mortal man and how would that translate to other mortals?
(This rambles…a lot lol. You have been warned).
So, I’ve been in New York City the last couple of days attending a theology conference. The title of the conference is “Faith, Reason, Theosis” and so far, it’s been pretty amazing. The scholastic currents being discussed (at least in day one) are well outside of my wheelhouse so I won’t discuss them here save to say that the entire idea of theosis makes me deeply uncomfortable. I did have an interesting talk with a Jesuit professor of philosophy (I took his course on Augustine a few years ago and it blew my mind) who agreed that, at least in part, ideas of theosis for Christians were influenced by pre-Christian concepts of deification. Still, it makes me deeply uncomfortable when it’s applied as a goal of faith, especially when post-modernists remove the sacramental scaffolding and even at times “God” from the equation. Thank you, no. If I want that, I can listen to a ceremonialist drone on and on. Lol. (Granted, this isn’t my area, so I may be grossly minimalizing the issues here and I’m drawing the questions and comments below largely from only a single day of speakers – there’s still two more to go. At any rate, the focus of the conference is discussion of Orthodox and Catholic responses to the idea of theosis). I was tired when I arrived at the conference, and at first, despite excellent presentations, I was a little bored (Thomas Aquinas—not my thing) but then the Q&A started and that was absolutely fascinating. It was almost enough, almost, to make me want to hold another polytheist conference. Hah. Don’t hold your breath.
Anyway, during the opening talks, I was scribbling notes and several questions arose from the speakers. Ignoring the pages of my journal where I kept noting that “Modernity=Nihilism”, (I also made crazy little sketches of presenters – idle hands after all and all that) the relevant things I want to discuss here are as follows (I will reframe from the singularity of the Divine articulated by the speakers to a more natural and appropriate plurality in my responses):
• How can a conscious spirit be anything other than a desire for God?
• God owes His creatures grace within the terms of creation (the grace to achieve theosis) but it’s a debt owed only to His own goodness.
• How can there be “excess” in loving one’s God? Many modern philosophers/theologians seem to speak of the “excessive qualities of the cross” in ways that seem to imply that they want to erase their God from the process and goal of theosis and replace the sacramental scaffolding with the human ego.
The first question, I believe, comes from Neo-Platonic influences on religious (in the case of the conference, Christian) thought. I don’t argue that our souls and the fullness of our being should be comprised, materia prima, of longing and love for the Gods. I think it is the only part of us that truly matters. When we peel away the dross and pollution of modern living (hell, just of living because let’s face it, the ancients wrestled with these issues too), at our core I firmly believe that (when we are rightly ordered), our spirits are expressed longing for the Gods. I also think that every single thing in our current world teaches us to obscure, deny, and annihilate that longing.
I will admit, listening to this particular speaker, I did think “well, aren’t you a bit of an optimist about the human condition” lol but it’s important to remind ourselves not to mistake external ephemera for the true, essential nature of our beings. I also suspect that this statement: that at the core of a soul is longing for the Gods may make some readers angry. If so, consider why. Why would you not long for the Gods with every fibre of your being? I think the real challenge of our various spiritualities is not only the discovery of that longing, recognizing it as our essential state of being, but also cultivating it, tending that fire, stripping away the dross, feeding it, and allowing it to burn away everything else.
A day or so before I came into the city for the conference, I was watching a movie with my husband and a friend and the lead female reminded me strongly in appearance of a student – call her H.– I had over twenty years ago. This student was three or four days away from her initiation and bailed. She became pissy about it too, justifying her decision by trashing the idea of the experiential devotion inherent in the initiatory process (as being only relevant to specialists. “Not everyone needs to be a mystic” blah blah blah. No, not everyone does, but baseline devotion does not a mystic make). A friend of mine who was hanging out with us asked me why this woman would do such a thing. I said “at the eleventh hour she realized initiation would change everything.” My friend agreed but didn’t see the problem (unlike H. my friend is not a spiritual coward). I explained that “H. didn’t want to make the Gods a priority in her life. She was afraid it might interfere with her secular, job-related priorities of climbing the corporate ladder and making money. She didn’t want to become the kind of person she thought could live a devoted life and she didn’t want to have to reprioritize her life.” My friend asked the most salient question of the night, “Didn’t she realize that putting the Gods first makes everything better? On the basest most crass level, They help us in our work in the world. They fill our lives with bounty and blessings.” And that is the question. My only response was a poem by the Islamic poet Rabi’a:
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
(Rabi’a, “[O my Lord]” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).)
I will let this stand for now and move on to the second question or comment really, since I wrote it down because I have very strong feelings that the Gods owe us nothing. They may give us everything but They don’t owe us. We ought not give sacrifices and offerings just to get things, but because it is the right thing to do, because it honors Them, because those relationships are the most essential we will ever have and it is right and proper to make windows into the world through which the Gods may walk. It isn’t and shouldn’t be about us. Yes, at times offerings and devotion may follow a do ut des model – if I need something from a Deity, I won’t approach with empty hands. It’s rude. But that is not the only nor the most essential model of veneration. To imply that it is cheapens our traditions and frankly spits in the faces of our ancestors. It shouldn’t be “I give in order to receive” but “I give because I have received” or maybe better still, “I give because I love.”
Returning to the bullet points I noted, I was struck by the idea articulated in bullet point #2 that God owes humanity His grace by virtue of the contract of creation but the debt is NOT one owed to humanity itself but rather to His own goodness. In other words, God owes Himself. It’s a nice reframing and re-articulation of an issue that plagues the Heathen community: the entitlement we all too often feel before our Gods. We are not owed a god damned thing for the paltry devotion we deign to show. We have been given everything and it is a debt we cannot hope to replay. The devotional relationships that we ought to cultivate with our Gods aren’t for the purpose of getting things, or even with any hope of repayment of a contract. It is our natural, good, and rightly ordered state of being. It is our purpose, the highest and most natural expression of our souls.
Finally, one of the issues that kept coming up in post-modernist pushback against scholastic and pre-scholastic ideas of theosis was this language of “excess” in devotion. One source talked about the “excess of the crucifixion” rather the excess of devotional response to it. I see this in some modern Catholics. Case in point: I recently gave a Catholic relative L. Montfort’s classic devotional text on Mary and while she is very devout she really struggled with it, because it wasn’t Jesus focused in the way that many Protestant “devotionals” might be. The idea of giving reverence and specifically heart-felt devotion to the Mother of God—in the way that was traditional, licit, and universal within her tradition for generations– was uncomfortable (and I blame Vatican II and its bullshit for a lot of this but, not my circus, not my monkeys. I do find it complicated though. Gods know that the weakening of the organizational Catholic Church is not a bad thing for growing polytheisms, but then on the other side of that, I think that any weakening of devotional fervor is a win for evil and doesn’t serve us in our devotions either so …my response to that all is rather complicated). It seemed “excessive” to her. Post-moderns would, I believe, cast any devotion as excessive. This is problematic.
Personally, I do not believe it is possible to be too excessive in one’s fervor and love for one’s Gods. That is exactly what ought to fuel our soul’s longing, feed it, nourish it, encourage it. Whenever I hear Pagans or Polytheists (and especially Heathens) talk about how one is too excessive in one’s devotions (and it happens, less now than a decade ago but it still happens) I really just want to laugh in their faces and tell them they are theologically unschooled. Not today, Heathen child, not today. This is a bullshit free zone. Still, I think it’s important to think about what it is in our culture (that has seeped into our traditions) that would teach us that devotion, any devotion particularly the messy, emotional, embodied kind is ‘excessive.’ What does that mean? When loving the Gods is our souls’ reason for being, how can there be any excess?
This last question I’m going to explore more fully and hopefully will have time to do so over the next couple of days. Right now, I’m going to bring this to a close since it’s running rather long and I actually need to get my butt up and get out the door for day two of this amazing conference. Enjoy your day, folks.