(We are all one. Resistance is futile).
It occurs to me reading Helson’s latest article that this type of erasure is exactly what polytheists experience in the interfaith community. Diversity is all good and well, after all, so long as it doesn’t challenge the homogenization (read “globalization”) of a community.(1) Yes, I’m being sarcastic there because I think we’ve been fed one hell of a lie about “unity” and “globalization” being things that embrace diversity and difference when the very opposite is the case. Diversity—and I think this holds true globally as well as in the interfaith world– is only embraced when it begins the slow but inexorable slide into unification and sameness. (2) Keep your exotic costumes and practices so we can feel good about being inclusive but don’t actually believe or hold to anything that challenges our status quo. That’s interfaith work in a nutshell. This is one of the main reasons that I have little patience for interfaith work these days. It simply does not serve. At least, it doesn’t serve our agenda. I think it serves the monotheistic agenda quite nicely.
How many of you working in interfaith groups or communities have heard the following:
- Oh Spirit… (with great resistance to specifying which One. Exactly to WHOM are you praying? I once had a 45 minute argument with a group of students when I taught seminary because they didn’t want to have to name the Being to Whom they were praying. They couldn’t. Their spirituality was a nebulous thing of feel good platitudes. Gods or even one particular God had very little to do with it. )
- Mother/Father God (again, which Ones and are you talking about: One hermaphroditic being or are you trying to lump all different Deities into yours? They’re not all the same you know.)
- God, Goddess, All that Is (as though there is only ONE God or Goddess)
- Oh They’re all aspects of the One (um, no motherfucker, “They” really aren’t. Stop trying to foist your unexamined monotheism off on us).
- Or how many of you have sat with interfaith colleagues, maybe even friends and noticed that your polytheism was being treated with a deeply ingrained condescension hidden behind a veneer, a pleasant veneer, of tolerance? I’ve seen this even with friends, the idea that we’re simply not evolved enough for monotheism or worse “awww, look at the primitive little polytheist, isn’t it interesting? We just have to be patient until they grow up and accept Oneness.”(3)
I’ve been in interfaith gatherings where a great deal of lip service was paid to the idea of honoring all “paths” (and gods how I detest that word. I’m building a tradition not wandering lost in the woods) until it became clear that polytheism was not about erasing the differences between the Gods so that we could all “get along.” They were fine – and this has been across the board in my own interfaith experience—with the idea of polytheism until they were confronted by the reality of a group of people who actually believed in and venerated the Holy Powers and for whom it wasn’t some spiritual pabulum to make us feel good about ourselves but actual piety.(4) I had someone say to me once “ well how can you hold to the things your various Deities require over mine? Isn’t that going against the interfaith ideal?” (Y’all are welcome to imagine my response to that particular bit of self entitlement). It just goes to show the old adage is true: if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything).
More and more I have come to look at interfaith relations as a type of cultural appropriation. It is dominated by people who cannot commit to one religion, but who want the benefits and blessings of engaging with the Holy Powers within specific traditions, all without actually having to commit to those Powers or those traditions. Hence, you’ll often see people claiming titles in Hindu or Native American religions without actually having gone through decades of study and devotion and without actually having any type of devotion to any particular Deity. They smudge. Maybe they do yoga. All paths are one after all, dontcha know.
It becomes all about making the person feel good, about making them look “enlightened” and “spiritual” so they can get a pat on the head without ever having to challenge any oppressive status quo, especially any religious status quo. Their model is monotheistic. The model for their rites and rituals is, whether they acknowledge this or not: monotheistic and actual engagement with the Powers of any tradition is generally lacking. Most interfaith rituals I have observed are not just doggedly human centric but, despite whatever trappings the organizer might appropriate, devoid of Gods. I mean, you sort of need to name the Gods to call Them into a space and that might be exclusive. Everyone has to feel comfortable after all so let’s just go with the lowest fucking common denominator and call it a day. Hence you end up with what I call impious and unclean space.
More to the point, for all the lip service paid to diversity, it isn’t. Any diversity present is at best on the surface and at worst a complete illusion. This actually saddens me because I think that the idea of interfaith cooperation is a good one, perhaps even a necessary one but it’s one that’s never going to work until all parties are equal. Right now polytheists working in an interfaith setting are anything but. We are expected to sacrifice our religious integrity to make these people feel good about themselves. That, my friends, is never going to happen.(5) One of the things that I have learned as a tribalist is that there actually can be parity…when all groups are treated as sovereign equals. My tribe, your tribe, that person’s tribe are all different but we are each sovereign powers within the sphere in which we’re meeting. We can meet on equal ground. That’s a hell of a lot better than being expected to sacrifice actual diversity for the illusion of enlightenment.
- and we can be global citizens participating in a global economy without sacrificing our identities as individual nations, religions, and cultures.
- Or in the interfaith world when it allows a new ager to feel good about how accepting of difference they can be.
- So let me be blunt for a moment. Let me tell you something, my monotheistic, interfaith colleagues: your position is this: You are a polluted blip on the broad spectrum of religious life, history, and experience across the world, a single moment in the vast spectrum of religious history and your time in ascendancy is over. We as a world are waking up from the lies you told us. We’re recovering from the Stockholm syndrome our ancestors experienced when you GENOCIDED our fucking indigenous religions and co opted our ancestral cultures as your own. We are waking back up and returning to our ancestral ways. You are done. Take that to your next interfaith gathering and choke on it.
- I’ve worked in the interfaith community since 1999, having taught at a local interfaith seminary, including becoming the first polytheist elected Dean at an interfaith seminary. It was very, very eye opening and while I started out thinking it was a good venue in which to find common working ground, I no longer think it useful at all. It will never be until monotheism is not looked up on as the default ‘norm.’
- To do interfaith work well, there either cannot be a ‘norm.’ or we actually admit our differences and find common working ground despite them.
I just finished reading one of the article submissions for Issue 4 of Walking the Worlds and I came away quite dismayed. We put out a call on several academic list-serves (both to Classics and to Philosophy) and we’ve been getting some interesting pieces for consideration. We’ve also been getting quite a few that completely miss the mark. As I was reading through this latest, I couldn’t help but find some of the rhetoric familiar but I couldn’t place where I’d heard it before until one of the other editors pointed out that it’s the same type of language you hear from would-be-allies in interfaith settings who want to be inclusive but can’t quite fathom actual polytheism as being on par with their own monotheistic tendencies. It gets quite tiring but I’m going to talk about this in brief today because I’m pretty sure my own experiences with this well-meaning interfaith trend aren’t isolated incidents.
I do quite a bit of interfaith work. I even taught for an interfaith seminary for a year. I can honestly say that without exception the most accommodating attitude toward polytheism tends to be some variant of either ‘well, our Gods are all One anyway so that’s ok,” (until we point out that no, They’re not), or “I’ll respect your right to have many Gods because God is ineffable and you’re just not evolved yet enough for Unity.” Some of the best interfaith allies I know suffer grievously from this latter attitude.
I think that in most cases these people mean and want deeply to be inclusive, to live up to the interfaith ideals around which they’ve worked hard to build their lives. I really do and that complicates this issue for me because I don’t know how to effectively educate them out of what is at its core a deeply disparaging and condescending position. And as much as I actively dislike interfaith work (and I often question its usefulness), with the situation in the world being what it is today I think that it’s important to at least find ways to meet on common ground and discuss and share knowledge and perhaps solutions to issues facing us all. So I persevere but it is deeply discouraging to see the same offensive tropes come up again and again and again in people who A) know better and B) would probably be horrified to realize the depth of their actual intolerance.
99% of people in the interfaith community with whom I’ve talked have no comprehension of just how monotheistic in general and Protestant Christian in particular their baseline model for normalcy in liturgy, prayer, and education actually is. In addition to being effectively clueless about polytheism, they are in general equally clueless about the importance of vocations in prospective clergy as well as anything approaching mysticism. I have always maintained that to do effective, really effective interfaith work there can’t be a “normal” model. You have to deal with people as they come. To have one accepted model means that there will always be a plethora of religions that are outsiders, that don’t fit and that means that those who do will be in the power position of granting or denying “tolerance.” Not a very good place from which to begin interfaith dialogue is it?
I suspect the problem is that our “allies” simply can’t imagine a world where monotheism isn’t the norm. The corollary to that, of course, is that anything that isn’t monotheistic is deviant from that norm. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: once upon a time (only this isn’t a fairy tale but actual historical reality) the entire world was polytheistic. Monotheism was, at best and when it existed at all, an aberration. Even those philosophers like Socrates and Plato whom we’ve largely been taught are atheists were in fact devout polytheists. The polytheistic world was one of culture: art, philosophy, theatre, literature, architecture, science, and reasoned debate. It was only with monotheism that these things ground to a screeching halt to be partially rediscovered during our Scientific Age.
There was a time when walking down a city street meant passing a multitude of temples large and small, where the sights, sounds, and smells of reverence dominated the spatial landscape. One can still see this in parts of India today as historian Edward J. Watts points out in his rather sympathetic book The Final Pagan Generation. (1) The landscape was infused with a sense of the sacred and that sacred was a diversity, not unity of Beings. Even after Christianity began rearing its ugly, lowbrow head, it was still largely incomprehensible to Pagans of the time that exclusivity of belief would be demanded. It was outside of their way of doing things, outside of the way things had been done for millennia. That of course, was their downfall but that’s a subject for another post.
There was a time when it was the Christians or other monotheists who couldn’t imagine a world that wasn’t polytheistic. There was a time when polytheism was the only norm. I’ll be honest too, I’d very much like to see our world return to that. That too, of course, is an article for another day. We must of needs deal with the shit storm we have here and not the one we wish. Thus John Halstead.(2)
To return to point, when I am dealing in an interfaith capacity with the condescension, however well meaning and however subtle; when I am dealing with allies who very much want to be supportive but look at our religion like one might examine a bug under a microscope or an animal in a zoo (as a novelty, an exoticism, or worse those who look at it in self-congratulation as a clear expression of their tolerance), I always strive to keep this in mind: once, we were the norm. Once the world was polytheistic and it could be again. It is you who represent the aberration and look where it has taken our world: to the brink of its own destruction; and when I engage with interfaith allies, I do so in a way that verbally normalizes polytheism yet again. I simply do not acknowledge their “normalcy” or their majority. It is an imperfect solution but it is the best I have yet been able to manage.
I would like to come up with tips for those non-polytheists who wish to be allies in this fight but I’m a bit at a loss. I simply become so dismayed by the lack of simple comprehension and the reification of “unity” as something necessary and matter of course. I almost feel as though I have been tasked with deprogramming lunatics. The best I can come up with is this: “Understand that your way of doing things is the novelty. Though it be two thousand years old, in the span of religious life on this planet that is put a drop of water in an ocean of reverence.” I don’t think that’s a very good way to approach this though so I turn to you. What would you tell our erstwhile allies? Can we get up a ten-point list of suggestions or something? Help.
- Watts, p. 18-20.
- Was that too low a blow? Sometimes I just can’t help myself.