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Rebuttal to a Very Sad Piece

A friend sent me this article today. I read through it once and then again and knew I had to respond. There is so much wrong here, so much that could have been handled with a little decent pastoral care, but also a little cultivation of piety. In fact, the first thing I thought upon reading this, was why was a supposedly Pagan site publishing it. We really shouldn’t be advocating for people leaving the various traditions that might fall under that umbrella. It would be nice, instead, to see posts encouraging newcomers and providing guidance for those who may be struggling. We do not proselytize – across the board that seems to be a commonality between Pagans and Polytheists, the result of having our traditions destroyed via forced conversion generations ago. Still, once someone comes into our house, so to speak, it’s only right to provide proper hospitality and that sadly, seems to have been lacking here. I may come back to this, but there are a few other points I’d like to touch on first.

I will say this though before going further, I think this piece highlights more than anything that I’ve read recently the practical difference between Polytheists and Pagans. Should the terms be synonymous? Yes. Are they? Not by a long shot. I think it would have been much, much easier for this person had he been working within an established tradition, other that Wicca, which is pretty much do as you please.

Taking this from the opening paragraph, the author mentions roadblocks as though they only occur when one is meant to leave one’s “path” (1). This simply isn’t the case. No matter how deeply entrenched one is in one’s religion, “roadblocks” occur. That’s a normal part of any faith and working at them, struggling, holding the course or overcoming those blocks is one of the things that makes one’s faith stronger in the long run. It’s part of spiritual sustainability, a necessary part. Nothing true and worth having is without difficulty. One can absolutely be devoted to one’s Gods and working within a nourishing tradition and still encounter “roadblocks.” In fact, it’s often a sign that something is amiss, that one is too complacent if one isn’t occasionally struggling.

I also want to point out sooner rather than later, that in this article (2) there is no mention of any devotion to the Gods, spirits, or Holy Powers of any sort (3). Conversion is a different experience when one is running to a Deity or Deities that one loves. Note, that does not necessarily mean that there is ekstasis or any mystical experience happening. It can and should be enough to simply love the Gods for what They are, that They are (4).

The author mentions conflict over “societal norms” that “came into play from Christian parents.” Man the fuck up. This is inevitable when one converts. Hell, it’s inevitable when you’re a fucking adult. Show a little moral courage. (Even in Christianity, the whole point of growing up is that you start your own family, move away, and live an adult life. See Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:31). This is a matter of personal integrity and character and if one is devoted not just to a tradition but to the Gods Themselves, then what does the opprobrium of family and friends matter? We don’t, after all, honor the Gods to virtue signal or get the pats on the head. We honor Them because it is the right thing to do. This goes back to what I have often complained about in our contemporary culture: the lack of character, morality, and virtue formation in young people. There are consequences for every choice we make. Maybe you will become alienated from your family and that is a sad and difficult thing, but are you behaving correctly with your Gods? Quite frankly, anyone who would put you in that position needs to take a hike. Why would their opinion even matter?

The author mentions having a “mind heavily influenced by the sciences that could not comfortably move forward without help.” This seems to be setting up an equation where science and religion are in opposition. That has never been the case in the polytheistic world. We invented many of those sciences after all. This is a false dichotomy and really, betrays a lack of personal and internal work – which is not all on the author. There IS a lack across our traditions of competent pastoral care. Converts do need help. It’s not a one and done experience but an ongoing and often difficult and painful process. I feel very badly for this guy that he lacked any competent help. He’s also right about the shallowness in so many branches of the community. I think if we focused more devotion and faith and less on acting like a badly dressed, downwardly mobile social club maybe this latter problem would repair itself (5). I may disagree with some of what he writes and his reasons for leaving his faith but I appreciate him writing about this openly because it really draws attention to the deficits in our communities.

I don’t understand approaching a religion with the idea that one will see if it’s a good fit or not, as the author mentions considering, nor relying on social media for one’s spiritual enlightenment. Where are the Gods in this? And if one doesn’t have any interest in or devotion to the Gods of the tradition one is following, then why practice any religion? Part of this really does come down to commitment to one’s practice, and that’s a choice each devotee makes every day again and again. No religious tradition is going to immediately answer every single life question one has. That’s not its purpose. The purpose of religion is to manage the protocols of relationship with the divine. It does not absolve us of wrestling with the hard philosophical questions.

The author opines that it is best to seek out knowledge from “individuals who have put in the effort to establish a level of scholarship.” Yes, provided you’re not expecting them to do the work for you. Go to your clergy, your spirit workers, your mystics, the devotee with a particularly potent practice. Learn from them. Go to your scholars in like fashion. Just understand that, as I noted in a previous article, all the learning and lore in the world isn’t going to make up for a lack of perseverance and piety. There is, after all, academic knowledge and gnosis and one does not take the place of the other. Nor should we prioritize scholarship. Some of the smartest, most devout people are just regular people. They love the Gods and have put in decades venerating Them. There’s no academic degree but a remarkable level of piety and frankly, I’d take that person over someone like Dr. Mary Beard who is going to shit all over our religions as she has done in the past. Again, this comes down to values. What do you value? What do you prioritize? Are the Gods even on that list? You can study until you’re blue in the face, but if you’re not backing that up with ongoing, consistent devotional practice you will achieve nothing.

The author suggests asking “has this path served its purpose?” What is the purpose other than to bring us closer to the Gods, that we may serve more fully and well as Their devoted retainers? Other goals require other criteria but aren’t really part of a religious tradition. I would ask instead, “Have I done all that I can? Is this where my Gods wish me to be?” but that requires a different set of priorities, one that doesn’t put us and our sense of entitlement at the center of our cognitive world.

Moreover, the author notes that our communities have “leaders, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and so on.” I don’t see him mentioning clergy there, or spirit workers, or devoted laity. This speaks to a particular set of values out of alignment I suspect, with any religious tradition. Maybe the problem is that he went to the wrong people for help. Your average lawyer doesn’t owe you anything and your average teacher is tired and underpaid (I’m guessing there was never any question of exchange of services when he bombarded folks with his existential issues).  I’d also add that if you demonstrate lack of commitment and devotion, no elder or teacher worth their salt is going to open the doors to Mystery for you.  First, you have to deepen yourself, persevere, and make yourself capable of receiving those Mysteries. It’s not a self-help class or a quick fix to making friends and influencing people. The growth does have to start with each individual but the purpose of that growth is to better reach the Gods, a goal I see lacking in the original article.  There are no quick answers worth having.  

There has been plenty of material written on devotion and how to deal with some of the problems that arise in centering oneself in one’s tradition. Research is exhausting. That is one statement in the article with which I’ll agree but if something really matters, you stay the course. Better yet, balance that research with devotional practices. When someone comes to me asking to join my House, I don’t start them with a ton of academic research. I start them with shrine work, with learning how to pray, with meditation, and making small offerings. The problem with clinging to “modernity” as an identifier (the author says, “Modern Paganism is simply that, modern.”) is that it all but ensures that devotion and piety will be expunged. The modern worldview is part of the problem. The more time one spends cultivating devotion, the more one realizes that modernity is a cesspit and our spiritual goals would be better served by returning to a way of engaging with the world that is far more organic and rooted in an awareness of the divine and our place in relation to it.

The author talks so fervently about leaving Paganism, determining a course of action, creating goals, seeing them through. It might have been more productive had he approached his faith with that same attitude. While the author occasionally mentions “faith,” throughout the article I kept finding myself asking “faith in Whom? In What?” He writes about religion as though it is all about his own “personal growth and knowledge.” That is indeed, a very modern and very self-absorbed lens through which to approach any tradition. I would say the problem isn’t the tradition, it’s that there was no one in his community to help guide him out of this destructive attitude and into an awareness that it is our privilege to venerate the Gods and doing so elevates us as human beings.

Faith, real faith is never “blind” as this author asserts. He seems to want everything laid out for him without contradiction or difficulty. Everyone who takes it seriously struggles with faith and that’s ok. That’s actually necessary. But here we get to the crux of the author’s issues: he reduces “Modern Paganism” to “blind faith in astrology, divination, spells, deities, and magick” (sic). A) I have faith in actually knowing how to spell magic, B) astrology, divination, spells, and magic are all specialties that the lay person has no reason to engage in; moreover, they require training to do well and they’re not devotion; and C). real faith in the Gods isn’t blind. It’s an ever-evolving relationship. Like any relationship, you have to put in the work. Maybe focus less on fumbling spells and more on prayer. Maybe put the books away and sit before your shrine contemplating the Gods. Where your faith is weak, ask Their help in making it stronger. Faith is never blind. It’s a commitment, a light in the darkness, the central core around which one’s life revolves. You know what it isn’t, ever? Easy.

I’m going to stop here. I feel badly for this guy.

Notes:

  1. I detest the term “path.” You’re either practicing a tradition or you’re not. It’s not a “path”, it’s a tradition. The difference is between witless meandering and nurturing a container of the holy.  
  2. This is the only piece that I’ve read from this person, so I don’t know if he mentions these things in previous articles. My friend, who read through several pieces said no, and I’ll accept his hearsay in this instance.
  3. This is perhaps THE major factor in whether one chooses to call oneself a Polytheist or Pagan—do the Gods actually matter to you?
  4. I again refer readers to Dver’s marvelous piece here.
  5. A lot of times those who don’t have a very strong devotional practice feel that they don’t have space in the religion – well, reaching out to newcomers and helping them to get oriented, networking, and making sure that folks know to whom to reach out to if there are spiritual issues, well, this is the type of social stuff that those less interested in devotion could be doing. It’s important work and those folks should also be given the resources to help newbies. Some of this clergy need to be handling or at least overseeing but the day to day can easily be done by lay people. This would actually build community in a sustainable way. Look at pretty much any Christian tradition: they have hospitality committees for Gods’ sake. They don’t expect their specialists to be doing all of that AND liturgical stuff on top of it too. We need to adjust our value system, so that we value the work of prayer, devotion, liturgy, spirit work, but also so that we equally value lay people and hospitality. Everyone has something he or she can contribute.

Coping with Conversion

After reading my last practicum post, Chase from Nevada asked a really good question and I said I would touch on it here. Chase asked, “Quick question for you regarding the conversion from Christianity to Heathenry: what are some of the key things one is able to do to make that transition a bit smoother?”

This is a great question, but one that doesn’t have a single clear cut answer. Firstly, understand that it is a transition. Conversion is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not a matter of waking up one day deciding that today is the day and from now one you’re Heathen. Even if you are deeply devoted to your new Gods, even if you have committed to practicing your new religion and are doing your absolute best to learn what you need to learn and to root yourself in the practices that will serve you best from the get-go, problems –issues—may still arise. Truly changing everything from one religion to another can take years of careful, mindful work. There’s a deconstruction mentally that has to occur. Give it that time! It’s important to do this carefully and cleanly because it can be a messy and painful process sometimes. Now, this is an intense and weighty topic, too much to cover in one blog post, but I’m going to hit a couple of what I consider to be key points here. There is a good deal of literature on the psychology of conversion and it’s worth checking out. The one thing I would emphasize is this: be certain that you are running to the Gods, not away from the God of your birth religion. That can change everything.

Most importantly, understand –because this can really trip one up unexpectedly—the way we were all taught to see “God,” our expectations of “God,” and of “liturgy” were formed by our birth religion. Moreover, we learned how to be in relationship with our Gods, what it means to be in “right relationship” with the Holy from those self-same birth religions. That may or may not be congruent with what those things mean in Heathenry. This can lead to moments of intense discomfort, unexpected anger, and cognitive disconnect: our ingrained and unexamined expectations aren’t matching up with the reality of our new faith.

There can often be sadness or grief, not just at losing one’s religious community but at the loss of those things familiar and comforting. It’s ok to mourn your birth religion. It’s quite natural, actually and you may find yourself mourning different things at different times. That process isn’t necessarily one that will be completed all at once. You may feel incredible guilt at times, particularly if you converted from an evangelical branch of Christianity. Those fears are normal too. Just sit with it, talk about it with a supportive network of friends, journal, and most of all pray about it. Eventually, you will work your way through.

Also, sometimes there are things that we don’t want to leave behind. Prayer, for instance, doesn’t belong to any religion. Polytheists have always prayed so when people tell you that it’s Christian behavior, you can dismiss them as simply not knowing what they’re talking about. Maybe a particular prayer still resonates – that’s fine. Rework it so you can still use it. Maybe you have a devotional relationship with one of the Gods or Holy Powers of your birth religion. It’s ok to maintain that. It doesn’t make you a bad polytheist. In fact, it makes you very surely polytheistic. It can, however be awkward and there are those in our community who may shame you for it and you may end up with conflicting religious requirements that need to be carefully navigated. In those cases, seek out a specialist. Polytheists have done this for millennia.

It’s a sad reality in contemporary polytheism in general and Heathenry in particular that spiritual direction is sadly lacking. This can lead not only to fumbling during dark nights of the soul – which are a perfectly normal part of any healthy spirituality – but also to incredible isolation and loneliness. You may have to struggle to find community but it is out there. The internet has really transformed this and made it much easier to connect with like-minded co-religionists. Don’t let anyone bully you. The most important thing you can do is to take the time to develop a clean devotional relationship with your Gods. That happens through prayer, meditation, offerings, shrine work. Even if you fumble (and you will. We all do.), have courage and do your best to begin some type of consistent practice. I always tell people to “start where you start” because people will struggle inevitably with different things but everyone can do something and then you build on that. New converts often get caught up in one of two things, both of which are terribly damaging to one’s spiritual life: perfectionism (what Christians termed ‘scrupulosity’) and fundamentalism. The first involves becoming obsessed or obsessively worried with getting every little thing perfectly correct and with never making a mistake. You won’t always get things perfectly correct, and you will make mistakes and you have to in order to learn anything. Almost everything else can be sorted out with a diviner or specialist if need be. Scrupulosity can destroy a person. It is right and proper to be concerned about miasma and to approach the Gods reverently but scrupulosity will cause your love and devotion to wither because all you will be worried about is whether or not you are making errata. If this starts to be an issue, change up your practices. Change your routine, your rhythms, even the way you pray. There is a spiritual discipline inherent in carefully training yourself to avoid scrupulosity but to cultivate piety, and it’s something that you can develop over time with practice. The Gods will not hate you when you make honest mistakes. You will not be a bad Heathen.

Many converts also become very fundamentalist in their new religion. They want one way of doing things and it is the only correct way ™ and if you don’t do it that way, you’re wrong/evil/deluded/insert term of choice here. This isn’t a Heathen specific thing, though Gods know we see enough of it within Heathenry (lore thumping anyone? We get a great deal of our converts from Protestant Christianities, especially the evangelical varieties, and this has had a tremendous influence on mainstream Heathen ritual structure and the obsession with lore and having something analogous to scripture.), but common with new converts to any religion. Don’t do this. Polytheism is ontologically different from monotheism. There are so many different ways to honor the Gods within various traditions. While each tradition will have its rules, when it comes to personal devotion, and what we call “hearth cultus,” or household worship, it is as manifold and varied as there are Gods and ancestors.

One thing that converts should be aware of is possible hostility and pressure from families. I have found that parents and relatives can take it very personally when a child converts. I can understand this. Were I a parent, I wouldn’t take it well should my child convert away from polytheism. It strikes at core values and there can be a deep concern for the well-being of the child. I have no answers on how to deal with this. Truthfully, each situation is different, but just be aware that it can become an issue. It helps to be mentally prepared.

Far more difficult are the tensions that can arise when one converts as a married adult, particularly if there are children involved. I think that it is crucial that we raise our children as polytheists, but if you are married to a non-polytheist and then convert, this may create significant problems. Hell, even converting may be an issue depending on the religious persuasion of your spouse. You’ll need to figure out your priorities and what you can compromise on and what you absolutely will not. This can destroy marriages, I won’t lie. It doesn’t have to though, because polytheism can encompass Christian (or other) cultus. It cannot, however, encompass monotheistic exclusivist claims and that is usually where the problems arise. If custody becomes an issue, get a damned good lawyer because it is almost inevitable that your new religion will become an issue. We shouldn’t have to fight these battles in 2020 but they’re hardly the only battle we still have to fight. Again, be prepared. This may seem harsh, but that is not my intention. I am trying here to be as realistic as possible.

Finally, converting is not just a matter of replacing one God or no Gods with many. It involves a total shift in worldview, in values, ethics, and in one’s way of being in the world. It is often quite a cognitive shock to realize for the first time the degree to which one’s polytheism is incompatible with the values of the modern (or post-modern) world. Realizing that we live in a “world full of Gods” as the philosopher Thales wrote, changes everything. It eventually transforms our values, our priorities, and the way that we ourselves choose to be in the world. Like coming out of Plato’s cave, there’s no going back to the state one was in before, and that can be very uncomfortable. One area where I have seen people really struggle is understanding that morality/ethics and religion were not yoked in ancient polytheisms. This is a really big issue. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) draw their morality from their religion, specifically their holy books. This is not the case in polytheism. The position of religion is very different. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy Powers (Gods, ancestors, spirits).
  • Philosophy, custom, culture, and civic engagement were ways of developing virtue, morality, and an ethical sense.
  • Soteriological concerns fell under the warrant of various mystery cultus.

Abrahamic traditions tend to roll all those things into one (I’m not sure why. I’ve never thought about it from their perspective). We do not. Religion is restricted to the Gods, the Holy, the Powers. So, when we have sacred stories that present the Gods in ways we find less than stellar, they’re not meant to be read as literal necessarily, and they’re not meant to serve as the Ten Commandments or a similar ethical guide. They are meant instead to give us windows into the Mysteries of a specific Holy Power. They can be read in multiple ways, but their purpose was never to teach ethics or virtue. That’s what philosophy was for.

So, when you run across people who say “I would never worship a God who does X.” or “If my God told me to do X I would cease worshipping Him” you know you’re dealing with someone who has no idea of how to engage with the Holy Powers, and certainly no idea of how to engage with surviving lore. Instead of squawking like rabid marmots about how the Gods don’t live up to our standards, we should instead be concerned with venerating Them. It is for us to live up to Their standards not the other way around, because whatever standards They have are not necessarily presented through the cosmological stories, but rather through the intricacies of personal engagement via devotion (also because we are not ontologically on the same level as the Gods and our purpose is Their veneration). We are tasked with undoing two thousand years of terrible propaganda directed toward polytheism, starting with dubious claims that our Gods lack virtue, claims that were made precisely because of our cosmological stories (1).

Finally, (for real this time), it can take a while to learn to be proudly polytheistic. That’s ok. If you have moments of doubt, it doesn’t make you a bad polytheist, a bad Heathen, a bad [insert polytheistic tradition here], it makes you human. If you sometimes find yourself feeling awkward when talking with relatives or colleagues and slip and use the singular when referring to the Gods, that’s ok. Note it and do better next time (if it is safe for you to do so). I find that there can be terrible pressure to hide one’s polytheism, curbing our language to reflect monotheistic mores and/or to make those around us who are not polytheist comfortable. I think it is beneficial to train yourself out of this. They will not curb their monotheistic language for you and really, neither side should have to do so. Our religious reality is different from that of a monotheistic interlocutor and that’s ok. If they are not big enough to handle that, such a thing is on them. Of course, I have flat out been asked, “You are so educated…do you really believe in Gods?” I’ve taken to responding, “Of course. It is because I am educated that I believe in Them.” This is facile though – yes, it is the most sensible thing in the world to recognize the Holy Powers, but …it is simply reality and a reality that will not be denied. Falling into linguistic patterns or marking yourself as a polytheist publicly in other ways may feel awkward at first, especially if you don’t have a support network of co-religionists, but it’s never good to pretend to be something or someone that you are not (2).

There is so much more that I could discuss about this topic, but these are just a few key points that I think particularly relevant. Also, if you have just converted: welcome. This is a glorious time to be a polytheist.  

Notes:

  1. While examples abound in early Christian writing, a brief perusal of Augustine’s De civitate dei (City of God) will provide plenty examples of this. It’s filled with purposeful misrepresentation of indigenous polytheisms and co-opting of Neo-Platonism to some degree, something that Christians continued doing well into the modern period. Augustine really set the stage for later scholastic appropriation of ancient philosophy.
  2. Take the time to develop a support network, of polytheists if you can, but at least of supportive, understanding friends. It is a godsend, as friends always are, and can do wonders in helping you through the rough times spiritually.