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Salvation???

In one of my classes we’ve been talking about soteriology and someone asked me what polytheists did for salvation. The question brought me up short. Leaving aside the question of what precisely was meant by ‘salvation,’ in this context, I had to step back and think about how we order our metaphysics and where precisely we place them, because the question of salvation is a metaphysical one. That being said, where we position this thing called ‘metaphysics’ (and, I suspect, ethics too for that matter) differs greatly from the monotheistic perspective. We’re just so inculcated with the latter when the subject of metaphysics arises that I don’t think many of us think about how our own traditions may differ. They do, though, and in ways that I consider significant.

In answering my fellow student, I parsed it out as follows: it falls into a three-fold equation with philosophy providing the space for the development of the human being, how to exist in society (and hopefully make that society better), and to some degree ethics, (though Neoplatonists skew the equation a bit: there are elements of mystery cultusthere at certain points, at least I think so),  religion provides protocols for engaging with the Holy, and then soteriological questions and metaphysics are handled by various mystery cultus (which may or may not involve savior Deities — Dionysos for instance comes immediately to mind with Bacchic rites).

All of this means that when someone asks what polytheists do about ‘salvation,’ the only accurate answer that I can think of at the moment is, “depends on the polytheist” and “depends on what you mean by salvation.”

We have dozens, maybe thousands of myths that A) teach us something about the individual Gods and Their natures and B) teach us important lessons about how to be better humans and in some cases C) teach us how to be better humans in relation to our Gods. We also have many theories about what is going to happen to us after we die but to live solely to secure one’s place in the afterlife is, to my mind, missing the point. I know what our religions teach about the afterlife and I know what I personally believe about it (I think there are options depending on the Gods we venerate). I don’t think there is some petrified, unchanging “paradise.”  To live solely for the “prize” of salvation is to ignore the lessons our very corporeality has to teach. We shouldn’t need the implicit threat of absence of salvation to make us decent human beings. I’m not saying that there aren’t polytheistic soteriologies – there absolutely are, but I can’t help but wonder if they don’t function just…differently than say Christianity.  

When I venerate Odin or Mani or Apollo or Hermes, or Sigyn or any of the Deities that form part of my spiritual cadre, I do so first and foremost because I both love Them dearly and secondly because I am so grateful for all the palpable blessings They’ve poured into my hands.  I also believe that as a polytheist, this is right action, it is what I should be doing as a responsible adult. I hope that after death I will be reunited with my ancestors and brought into my Gods – to Them and ever in service—but even were that not to happen, it would not change one iota of how I conduct myself here and now. Perhaps it is a stoic thing: we cannot control what happens after we die, nor truly know but we can absolutely control what we do and how we behave while alive and it is that, those choices, that I believe I shall have to answer for to my Gods and my dead when I pass on. Nor do I think that is a bad thing. It is how we grow. It is how we learn and I do not believe that our Gods are uninterested in our soul’s evolution.

 So, there is some theology for y’all today. I am still feeling my way along these topical lines. I love being forced to think about these things. It’s easy for me to go throughout my day without ever having to consider the metaphysics of our polytheisms – I just want to love Them and pour out offerings. I think it’s important for our theological growth as traditions that we do consider these things, argue about them, discuss them, and keep doing that over and over again though. I would, therefore, welcome my readers’ thoughts as I now wrap up and head to class.

Apollo at st regis

^a cool mural of Apollo that I saw yesterday.

Nine Noble Virtues

I’ve been seeing a lot of push back lately on the nine noble virtues including dismissals that they are Nazi-ish, racist, homophobic, etc. etc (insert buzzword of the year). I remain confused by the pushback. (There are blogs both pro and con here). It’s as though having any ethical guidelines at all offends some people. Note, they’re not trying to replace them with a different set of values, but rather to negate any values that might in any way constrain or shape their character.(1)

For my readers who aren’t familiar with them, here is the list of the commonly accepted NNV:

  1. Courage
  2. Truth
  3. Honor
  4. Fidelity
  5. Discipline
  6. Hospitality
  7. Self-Reliance
  8. Industriousness
  9. Perseverance

Shocking, aren’t they?

These are very Protestant virtues, but examples of them can easily be found in the Havamal and Sagas too. I think they are fitting exemplars for a society in which existence was a constant struggle. If you think that isn’t applicable today, try living below the poverty line. These guidelines are meant to develop a strong character. None of these virtues are objectionable to a reasonable person.  Do you really want to be the kind of person without honor? Without courage? Who is incapable of hospitality or personal discipline? The kind of person who lacks fidelity in relationships, or who is incapable of telling the truth or holding to his or her word? The NNV may be simplistic, but they are meant as touchstones to aid in the development of character. Note that they do not tell you how to be courageous, or how to be truthful but one is encouraged to be introspective in discovering this for oneself. I rather like that. It’s not the end of the conversation, but the very beginning. What is truth? What does it mean to me as a devotee of Deity X? How can I cultivate that in my life? Yet, those throwing out these virtues without consideration or without providing an alternative don’t want to have that conversation. To hell with the Socratic method. We don’t need no stinkin’ philosophy here. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Everybody needs philosophy).

Of course, given how pervasive the NNV are within Heathen traditions, it is inevitable that someone holding alt right views will subscribe to them. So do many people holding the opposite. To say that they are racist, is to say that there is something inherently racist about the concept, the abstract ideal of truth or fidelity or hospitality, etc. It also implies that people who are not white, are incapable of upholding these ideals, which is utter nonsense.

Yes, they were created by (depending on your source) the AFA or Odinic Rite. So what? We have space travel because of the work of Nazi scientists. I remember when I found out as a seventh grader, that the US imported Nazi scientists to work on its Manhattan project and later the space program and I was ashamed, horrified, and appalled. I still wrestle with the ethics involved in such a thing. Can good come from evil? Is necessity motivation and justification enough? And that opens up a whole other ethical can of worms. We still use Volkswagens though, and they were made by Nazis too. Same with Hugo Boss and Ford, who was a rampant anti-Semite. By the standards of some of these people, we should be eschewing birth control too because Margaret Sanger was pro eugenics. Strange how the same logic that allows for the dismissal of fairly common virtues doesn’t apply to our technologies. Yet I’ll bet more blood was spilled with the latter.(2) Hell, the internet was made by the US military. Are you cool with the hundreds of thousands of people who have died because of the military industrial complex? If this is a problem, why are you online? Oh wait, I guess one only objects when such things are inconvenient.  Convenience allows for a great deal of overlooking I suppose.

I’ve also often seen the NNV condemned as ablest. As someone with physical disability, let me tell you, you need a metric fuck-ton of courage to get through life. Those disabled in some way can fulfill every one of these virtues, otherwise what the detractors of the NNV are actually saying is that disabled people are disabled not only in body but in mind, heart, and character. That’s pretty foul. It’s infantilizing and really quite disrespectful to the struggle of differently abled people in our communities.

We should be encouraged to define the NNV for ourselves in our own lives, with respect to our own relationships with the powers.  Or we should be encouraged to come up with our own system and values sustainably within and coherent with our traditions. Either way, character matters and it’s often difficult for people coming from monotheisms where they’re told what to believe and how to act, to encounter a system of ethics that encourages self-reflection and independence. I’d love to see discussions of other philosophies and ethical guidelines but it’s a whole lot easier to criticize and condemn than to create something positive. The NNV are situational guidelines and principles. I would love to see discussions on what it means to have courage in the modern world, what it means with respect to each person’s individual circumstances, what it means to have hospitality, to show hospitality, especially when one is impoverished or in the midst of scarcity. How does the hospitality shown to one’s Gods differ from what one shows to one’s friends or to strangers? Where are those philosophical conversations? Maybe we should all go back to Plato.(3)

 

 Notes

  1. What amuses me the most is the people protesting the NNV often do so on the grounds (in part) that’s not ancient and yet, these are often pop culture pagans. So either antiquity is a valid criterion across the board, or this particular objection is bullshit.
  2. Not that I expect logical coherence from the pop culture crowd.
  3. Ironically, I’ve never been a fan of the NNV, because they are simplistic. One has to start somewhere though and it was only after reading The Six Questions of Socrates, that I began to look at them as more than formulaic.