A professor at my university posted this piece on twitter (he’s orthodox and this is a thought-provoking piece of relevance to modern orthodoxy) and it raised for me a number of thoughts concerning our own traditions too. First, go read the original article because much of this post was prompted by it or is in response to it and it’s nice to be on the same page for any discussion.
I work in a tradition that encourages head covering (of both men and women) during religious rites. I want to emphasize that it is encouraged, not required. Working in a blended tradition as I do, I find that in cultus deorumpractices, we almost always cover, and within Heathenry, generally only for ancestor stuff but this may vary depending on the way in which one is devoted to one’s Gods. I’ve known Heathen women who covered once they married, and Heathen men who do so out of respect for particular Gods but within Heathenry it’s not a common thing. In cultus deorumit was tradition for both men and women to cover their heads during offerings and religious rites, and that is one that at least within my branch of the tradition, we maintain. There are also times in which one might cover for purification purposes in general.
This piece piqued my interest, however, because over the past ten years I’ve come across a growing number of polytheists across traditions who are choosing to cover their heads, not just during religious rituals but out of modesty and piety, all the time (and kudos to any woman who can do this with a migraine. I’ve always wondered what those who veil or cover do when they get a migraine because I sure as hell can’t stand anything on my head then!). I think we should be encouraging modesty in our people (which does not mean that one need to cover one’s head to be modest) as a general rule, whatever that might mean.
One of the things that I very much appreciated in the article, which I otherwise found rather vexing, is the comment that modesty wasn’t about how long one’s skirts are or whether or not one covers one’s head, it’s a “line in the heart.” Some time ago, I read a Christian article on modesty by a mother of a young child. She said that her child had put on a new dress and was standing in front of the mirror commenting that she could not wait until her friends saw her and how nice she looked and the mother despaired. She despaired because she realized that no matter how modest the dress might be, the child wasn’t: her heart wasn’t modest. She wanted to show off for others and receive attention that way. It was one of the more nuanced discussions of modesty that followed, one that wasn’t about clothing, that I’ve read in a long time). Our ancestors had a deep sense of morality and propriety. Unlike so much of modern Paganism, it wasn’t an ‘anything goes’ culture where every manner of sexual impropriety was encouraged. Multiple partners, promiscuity, immorality, molestation – all of which seems way too rampant in modern Paganism (Kenny Klein anyone? Or better yet, find me outspoken monogamists within the community—please. We need more of them.) were not held up as licit in the ancient world. Of course, all of these things may have occurred (we are a terrible species), but they did not represent the accepted norm. Instead, decorum, gravitas, piety, and modesty (for both men and women) were encouraged. What the hell happened to us? We have a culture in which women are proud to be called “sluts” and marriage is considered outmoded, young people are ‘hooking up’, a culture in which devotion is ridiculed, but reality TV a cultural pastime and we call this progress. I’m not going to rant too much on this – I think y’all know my feelings on these matters and I want to get to the article in question – but suffice it to say that I think in restoring our traditions we have a seriously uphill battle and not just because of monotheism, but because of the utter lack of focus on character building in our culture. We’re starting so far behind the starting line that I wouldn’t be surprised if our ancestors were appalled.
To get back to the article, it discusses head-covering in Orthodoxy, past and present, between converts and cradle practitioners and the politics thereof. My initial reading of the piece is that the author elides what should be a nuanced and complex topic into something more black and white. She accuses converts who choose to express their piety by actually obeying the customs of their religion, as dismissing the experiences of grandmothers and older generations of women within the faith. In doing so, I think she dismisses the religious experience and devotion of the converts to which she is referring. Covering one’s head is not just a political act. It’s not about feminism or assimilation. First and foremost, in the context in which she’s talking it is about an expression of piety and submission to one’s Church/church doctrine. By presenting it in one light alone, she’s not only attacking converts, but eliding the deep complexity of this practice, turning it into a social or political action rather than a licit expression of devotion. She is asking (or rather demanding) that converts place political considerations and submission to the experience of other women, above the dictates of their conscience and faith. I find that…misguided to say the least. And, as one commenter on twitter noted, she’s turning this practice into a fashion statement (if others around you wear the scarf, wear it, but if they don’t, then you don’t either or you’re self-aggrandizing – my paraphrase) rather than an expression of religious piety. Her own experience of wearing a headscarf (in Egypt) was one of convenience that she quickly abandoned when Egyptian women pointed out the struggles they and their mothers had endured in fighting against growing fundamentalism is not, in my mind, analogous to covering in Orthodoxy. She was covering in Egypt to avoid harassment, not as a religious mandate for herself.
To abandon a religious practice like covering one’s head in church because it is not popular, because it marks you out as religious, because it is not feminist-approved, or for any other reason, is ceding sacred space to modernity. It is saying that devotion and our Gods are not important enough that one is willing to be a bit uncomfortable. Devotion is always an embodied practice: through song, dance, ritual gestures, clothing choices, bowing our heads in prayer, prostration, and so forth. The act of putting on a head covering for some women can be a significant indicator that they’re shifting into sacred space and I wonder if some of the objection to that isn’t some of the author’s discomfort with drawing boundaries and elevating personal piety as a priority.
It always comes back to what takes precedence: the Gods or our own human bullshit. The author of this piece cannot even seem to conceive of a motive in the converts to which she is referring beyond wanting to draw attention to themselves and she focuses on them as a way to delegitimize the practice, a practice she herself apparently finds personally offensive. I do think that when we do those things that mark us out as pious we have to be careful that they are actually done for the Gods and out of devotion and not to draw attention to ourselves. She has a point there. One shouldn’t cover because it’s popular, not cover because it’s unpopular, but one should do what brings one closer to the Gods and what is mandated by one’s tradition. Next, she’ll be suggesting we engage in sacred dance by twerking in the aisles before the monstrance.
As to women who cover all the time, quite often it’s a desire to maintain some sense not just of appropriate modesty, but of connection to the sacred. It reminds them to privilege that, it brings their bodies into a space of accommodation with their devotion. Yes, we must charge ourselves to avoid immodesty, to avoid spectacle, to avoid showing off, (I’m all in favor of these things in devotion, when it’s for the Gods, but not ever when they are for the glorification of the person). but that doesn’t mean abandoning practices that have served since antiquity. Finally, if women are to have self-determination of practice and being-ness, which they should!—then we have to accept that sometimes they’re going to make choices with which other women may not agree. It’s never as easy as this author wants to make it.
I woke up this morning to find this article on my facebook feed. It’s something I never, ever, ever, ever, ever imagined I would see the fucking pope saying. First, go here and read the article. Watch the video there too, so you can make up your own mind.
Apparently Catholics no longer believe that Jesus is the unique redeemer – you know, like the New Testament says (it’s somewhere in John) not to mention the entirety of their tradition. Now, all roads lead to the same goal. Now, I don’t believe squat about Jesus. I’m a sensible, educated, devout polytheist. I’m not deluded. They are and have been for two thousand years. That’s been the single defining characteristic of their tradition. Well, their Marxist pope just tossed that all to hell now, possibly by their theology, literally. I think this is the guy who abolished limbo after all. Not too many places for them left to go.
Now, he has pretty much declared that there is no difference between any religion (except of course, for indigenous or polytheistic religions. We’re still fair game for evangelization). I was suspicious of this guy for a long time, especially when he kept making these social justice statements, that all of my Pagan and Polytheist friends were applauding. I wasn’t, because I saw this is just incipient Marxism and that inevitably leads to the subjugation of traditions. When it comes down to it, they’re always going to have to make a choice: which is more important, the religion or the politics and politics inevitably wins (when you’re a Marxist). That may be ok for a freshman in college, but maybe not the head of a world religion. The uniqueness or exclusivity of a tradition is part of the tradition (a lesson we as polytheists really need reminding of on occasion).
If this Pope decides to further water down Catholicism – you know, the tradition he is tasked with protecting and defending—into further nothingness, we are going to be left with the Protestant crackpots. Catholics, once they got over the whole inquisition thing, have pretty much been preservers of Western tradition, art, and values – all of which they stole from polytheism granted. Anglicans likewise have held this position. That’s not the case with the crazy Protestantisms: dominionists, end times fatalists, bible thumpers, etc. They want to bring down the world and remake it in the image of their repressive, life-hating pseudo-theology. Just like Muslims and SJWS. Oh hey, look: a new alliance is formed. Always mistrust the radical.
But on the plus side maybe all the SJWs in Paganism and Polytheism will flee into the Catholic Church and we won’t have to deal with them damaging our traditions anymore. Or, maybe we should start evangelizing these displaced Catholics. They already have the basics of piety and cultus down and their own Church has abandoned them. We just have to teach them to count beyond three.
Why Couldn’t Cybele Just Restore Attis’ Dick? This is an actual conversation that I’m having with a Christian relative. (#polytheistproblems). This relative asked to read the papers that I’d written over the last semester so I printed them up, per her request and sent them off. Foremost amongst them was my recent article in issue 5 of Walking the Worlds: “Ecstasy and Identity in Catullus 63. This piece talks about Attis sacrificing his manhood in devotion to Cybele and what that meant to him (her?) as a Roman.
Here is the email I received in response:
“G., I just finished reading this paper. It is a wonderful example to everybody to avoid the occult. Messing with the so-called gods (actually demons) is dangerous physically and spiritually. Attis totally destroyed himself in his
ill advised “devotion” to Cybele.
If Cybele is such a great and powerful “goddess,” why could she not have restored Attis’ manhood? A devastating and true statement: You cannot go home again. I believe that in many situations.”
(the rest of the email talked about another paper on Augustine so I didn’t quote it here. Nor did I point out to her that her comments about the Gods being demons isn’t even biblical. The bible after all, acknowledges other Gods.).
Now, this relative knows that I’m a polytheist but it’s like some mental tick. They just can’t help themselves from calling our Gods demons. Interfaith work at its finest, isn’t it? Interfaith work just has a polite veneer over this, but it’s still there.
So what did I respond?
“You took the article where I did not intend. I think it’s a powerful example of devotion. May Cybele be venerated forever.
It also tells you that it’s a terrible thing to fall into the hands of a living God.
As to why Cybele couldn’t restore his manhood: obviously She didn’t want to. That is the price of initiation into Her priesthood and Attis, despite his later existential pain, paid it willingly.
Nor was Her religion “the occult.” It was an international religion openly practiced. It’s still practiced today — there’s a Cybellan monastery not far from me (well, three + hours).
My article was not in any way meant to imply that She should not be venerated, but to point out that all transformations come with a price, that we must understand this when we plumb sacred Mysteries: that they transform, irreversibly.
Asking why Cybele didn’t restore Attis’ manhood is like asking why Jesus didn’t save all the martyrs. Did he not have the power to do so? Did he not care? Or was it more a case of not invalidating their sacrifice, devotion, and faith and the example they provided for the rest of their community. These are mysteries. It’s pretty foul to denigrate them.”
We disagree but I’m not going to suddenly punch this poor relative in the face. One can have decorum in such disputes. Still, this is the type of mental brainwashing with which we all must cope when we engage in interfaith dialogue. Here it is, in black and white. (#checkyourmonotheistprivilege). I have said before that I consider monotheism to be something of a mental illness. It eradicates a person’s ability to see reality and to function in a healthy society. You want to change all these problems we’re dealing with today? Reject the secular (which is really just monotheism taken to its natural conclusion) over-culture. (#fighttherealpatriarchy).
If you have any doubt about this, the situation going on with patheos right now is a good example of what happens when you’re around ‘tolerant’ Christians. They’ll keep you around so long as you’re making them money through your click bait titles and engineered community conflict but the second you turn on them and question their motives you’re gone.
It doesn’t come with a cool pussy hat, but this is the real revolution. (#makinghashtagswontbeenough)
(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.
This is a good article, one that touches on the experience that I and I suspect many other polytheists have had, not only with those who call themselves “interfaith,” but with other non-polytheistic pagans as well. It’s worth taking the time to read.
I will admit that I don’t understand giving two shits about whether one’s friends accept one’s polytheism, or whether one is part of a group etc. From the beginning of my religious journey i’ve made it a point to cull from my life those who interfere with my work, my faith, who don’t nourish my relationship with my Gods as a matter of choice, no matter how deeply I might care for them. Gods come first. So I can’t speak to the experience of a younger generation for whom this is a concern.
What I can speak to and will is the vignette the author describes at the beginning, your interaction with the so-called interfaith lady. yes and yes. I’ve worked in various capacities in the interfaith community since 1999 (including as dean of an interfaith seminary, to my knowledge the only polytheist to hold such a position) and it has always been an uphill fight. I have found not only no comprehension for polytheism, but also no respect or tolerance. Interfaith is ok until these people are challenged to move outside of their ultimately monotheistic comfort zone.
The problem is, as I see it, that the interfaith community still looks at monotheism as the “norm,” whereas to actually do interfaith work well, there can’t be that type of automatic default. Moreover, diversity isn’t something encouraged in interfaith work despite their rhetoric to the contrary. It’s all about homogenization of the Gods as “it’s all one anyway”. No, Virginia, it bloody well isn’t. I’ve found over the years that many of the people involved in interfaith work are deluding themselves with respect to the depth of their spirituality. it’s a feel good movement when it could be so much more. I think real interfaith involves wrestling with one’s prejudices and discomforts and stepping up to find common *working* ground with those of radically diverse faiths (working, not theological ground). It can be done but it takes a hell of a lot more mental and emotional effort than the easy pabulum of “well, we’re all one”.