I have no problem with atheism. Do your thing. I have a huge problem when atheists come into religious spaces (especially when it’s our religious spaces), and aren’t there as respectful guests but attempt to take on leadership positions. It’s polluting to the tradition and disrespectful to the Holy Powers and community both. It also twists the tradition out of true alignment with the Holy.
I cannot count how many Heathen kindreds I have heard of or personally encountered that allow atheists to take on leadership roles, including that of Goði or even spaekona. Obviously, these groups don’t give a flying fuck about the Gods or simple common respect.
Today, a friend sent me this article.
Apparently this isn’t just a Heathen, Polytheistic, or Pagan problem. This is a problem across traditions. Harvard has just appointed their new “chaplain” and guess what? The fucker is an atheist. Like what even is the point? This is modernism, secularism, and the woke in action and it’s just revolting. I’d long ago written Harvard off as a serious school but this just proves it to me.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- This is perhaps THE major factor in whether one chooses to call oneself a Polytheist or Pagan—do the Gods actually matter to you?
- I again refer readers to Dver’s marvelous piece here.
- 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.
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
Our elders are the backbone of our traditions. Without elders, there is no tradition and certainly no clean, sustainable transmission of our traditions. There’s a trend now, largely from the Pagan left (no surprise there) to dismiss, erase, eradicate the contributions of our traditions’ elders, all the while reaping the benefits of the learning, traditions, and Mysteries those elders carry. People who spent and spend their lives pouring themselves out for their Gods are being excoriated and slowly pushed out of their traditions by those with little learning, less sense, and no humility at all. It’s really rather disgusting. It’s not surprising – I’ve seen the attitude before—but it is disgusting.
It also betrays a deeply flawed understanding of what tradition and lineage are and why they’re important. It speaks to modern discomfort with hierarchy and authority. It speaks to the quality of person modern Paganisms way too often draw, but it also speaks to a dearth of competent elders in some cases. An elder, however, can be “troublesome” without being wrong. A good elder knows better than to allow him or herself to move with the wind. Rather an elder stands strong and committed to service to the Holy Powers and Their traditions.
Should we have elders, prophets, diviners, etc.? Well that’s really up to the Gods isn’t it? And the Gods have, from time immemorial resounded with a clear and present YES. (This is particularly true in the case of prophets – the community has zero part to play in making a prophet. That is something the Gods alone do).
I am grateful to the elders in my world, living and dead. I am grateful for the doors they’ve opened, for their struggles, their hard work, their sacrifices.
In a recent patheos article, John Beckett opined that he wasn’t seeing much devotion from polytheists online. Well, John, maybe we got sick and tired of anti-theistic, humanist and/or Marxist trash coming into our online spaces attempting to pollute them (1). Maybe, sweetheart, we took the bulk of our devotion offline, where that contamination isn’t happening. Maybe we’re just not sharing it with you. No one, after all, is entitled to a bird’s eye view of our devotional lives. Some of us are still blogging, because it’s part of our spiritual Work, but you won’t mention that, will you?
For years now, I’ve taken the high road when it comes to the bullshit thrown my way in the community, thrown not just at me, but at devotional polytheists across the board who won’t bend the knee to the current pollution du jour. Expect that to stop as of now. There is not a single Pagan news outlet that accurately reports Heathen and/or polytheistic news (2). There are only scared, weak, pathetic people who can’t stand the fact that some communities are doing just fine without them.
I am frankly tired of the arrogance of people like Beckett, who assume just because they aren’t seeing something or haven’t been invited in, that “something” isn’t happening. Just because you’re not seeing people discussing their devotion on twitter or facebook, don’t assume it’s not happening. Maybe they’re on different social media sites (I personally have been using slack-chat quite a bit), or maybe, as I said above, some have just stopped publicly blogging.
Moreover, our traditions aren’t trends or fads. Fuck you, Beckett. We aren’t here to entertain or validate you and we are under no obligation to put our relationships with the Holy Powers out there for assholes like you to gawk and mock.
- I have no problem with atheists. Rock on. I have a tremendous problem with anti-theists who come into our community demanding leadership positions.
- And by the way, John, well before I came along, the majority of Heathens did not generally like the “Pagan” label. I really don’t think that has changed, unless you’re only counting as Heathen those who agree with your politics. We, after all have both Gods and ethics, something I see very little of in the generic Pagan community.
This just makes me so sad. At this stage in the game, an attack on any Deity is an attack on all Deities. I”ll be dedicating quite a bit of time tonight to prayer.
I bind myself today to the Holy Powers:
Their hands to guide me,
Their wisdom to teach me,
Their ears to hear me,
Their words to give me speech,
my heart always to love Them.
So today I found out that this is happening.
At first I thought, I don’t want the Hudson River ritually linked to the Jordan (all respect to the spirit of the Jordan river). This is purposeless. This serves neither river. Not only is there no practical reason to do this, but it massively elides the individuality of each river spirit. Then of course I looked at the groups doing the ritual and realized that I can put my mind at rest. Competent ritual work has never been a hall mark of the interfaith agenda.
Still, w.t.f? The clear implication is that by linking the Hudson to the Jordan that the Hudson would participate in some derivative divinity. Setting aside the obvious Abrahamic religious underpinnings of wanting to specifically connect to the Jordan River this way, what about we start by recognizing the existential locality of the sacred? Why don’t we honor the individuality of each of these river spirits? The Hudson does not stand for all rivers. The Jordan sure as hell doesn’t stand for all rivers (again, let’s consider for a moment the Abrahamic religious underpinning of such an idea, keeping in mind that “interfaith” usually just means chatter amongst Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities occasionally adding Westernized Buddhists if they’re feeling particularly tolerant and the occasional Native American). If someone is Jewish or Christian, I can see that person relating to the Hudson as a mirror of the Jordan quite well but what does that have to do with the rest of us? Moreover, what does that have to do with either the Hudson or Jordan rivers in and of themselves? It’s obscene. Has any divination been done to see if the rivers consent? And no, I’m not being facetious. We’re animists. The world is sacred and alive and sentient. There are even countries that have recognized the rights of the river as if it were a person. So what this interfaith group is doing with their aggressive and dare I say it colonialist guilt driven hate magic is essentially stripping that personhood away. It’s obscene.
The Jordan river should have its due. It should be honored with regular songs, offerings, with care, with attendance. So should the Hudson. So should every river in the entire world. Pointless rituals like this, designed for nothing more than assuaging western guilt at the devastation we’ve wrought on the world (largely by abandoning our sacred traditions first in favor of Christianity and then of post-modern pabulum) do not make up for that lack and they never will.
Excellent documentary for anyone interested in and concerned about the loss of free speech. I’m posting a trailer from youtube below, but the movie itself is available on amazon prime.
Well, I got my first question almost immediately after my last post, and it’s a good one so I’m going to make a separate post to answer it.
“Anon” asks: “Why are you so adamantly against interfaith work? Aren’t there instances where it can be useful?”
I used to be very invested in interfaith work but I grew up. Ah, that’s a bitchy answer, I’ll admit, but after 20 years of interfaith work, it accurately describes my opinion of the whole experience. I attended the oldest interfaith seminary in the US, receiving my ordination and diploma in 2000, taught there for a couple of years, and then was Dean of second year students for a year. In the interim, I participated in various interfaith gatherings and conferences and found my opinion on the matter changing significantly and I’m happy to tell you why.
There are a couple of reasons that I no longer find interfaith work helpful or productive and in fact find it potentially deleterious to our traditions.
When I was in seminary, both as a student and a teacher/dean, there were a few troubling commonalities that I observed. Many, if not most of the students were attending seminary specifically to gain the accreditation necessary for performing interfaith marriages. At the time, I didn’t have a particular feeling one way or another toward interfaith marriage but again, over the years, I’ve become most definitely against it. (I should note that I don’t have the same negative opinion of it when it’s polytheist to polytheist of two different traditions. The worldviews tend to be compatible). It’s almost inevitably the polytheist in the equation who ends up compromising and sacrificing their traditions and faith. Then there is the question of children: if you’re not going to raise your children as polytheists, why are you here? If you don’t care about your Gods and traditions enough to pass them on as truth, as lawful good, as necessary, sustaining things, to teach piety and veneration to the next generation then you’re not helping. You’re not doing a damned thing for polytheistic restoration. Many of these questions don’t come up prior to marriage (I might point out that I’ve never seen an interfaith minister conduct effective pre-marital counseling. It’s one thing to be respectful of other traditions and another to have utterly no values, boundaries or requirements and all too often interfaith work ends up accommodating the lowest common denominator. One won’t challenge couples in pre-marital counseling because “all paths are one” or some such nonsense. No. Just no.).
As an aside, some Christian denominations have the concept of being “unequally yoked.” I think this is a very, very wise concept. What it means is that one should not marry someone who is not of the same faith, and the same commitment level to one’s faith and Gods because that will lead to inequalities and struggles down the road. We should marry those with whom we can walk hand in hand in our faith, supporting and sustaining each other, honoring the gods, and passing on those traditions. Marrying someone of a different incompatible faith is like trying to sit on a two legged stool when drunk. It doesn’t work so well. Anyway, back to the interfaith issue.
I’ve seen interfaith ministers with whom I taught refuse to include modules on African Traditional Religions because they have the sacrament of sacrifice. Likewise, they refused to include atheism because it made them uncomfortable. I detest atheism but if one is training in interfaith work, I think it’s necessary to understand it. The majority of interfaith ministers with whom I worked were, overall, very good at avoiding anything that made them uncomfortable and if interfaith seminary is supposed to train ministers capable of engaging with people of all faith traditions, comfort shouldn’t enter into it. There was absolutely zero encouragement in overcoming prejudice with respect to indigenous religions, especially indigenous polytheisms. If it was Wicca, ok. Anything else, anything that involved individual Gods made them –across the board, I might add in almost every interfaith gathering I’ve ever attended – deeply uncomfortable. It was, inevitably, the polytheist who was expected to compromise on their values, piety, faith, and devotional language in order to make the monotheist or new ager feel better. That is actually one of the major reasons I find interfaith work a lost cause:
There is always the assumption of a monotheistic norm. Anything that deviates from that is expected to comply or conform. In many cases, they’re not even aware of it. The accepted ritual structures are Christian/new age but no actual Deities can be named lest people be made uncomfortable. No standards can be maintained for the same reason. I remember a rather hostile student asking about my polytheism and complaining that by upholding my own religious taboos in my own personal practice, I was violating the spirit of interfaith. Sorry, sweetheart. My Gods are more important to me than your feelings and ‘interfaith’ isn’t a religion.
The Gods, any God even the monotheistic one, seem to have no place in interfaith work. It’s feel good pop religion, designed to present religion in a way that challenges no one. Moreover, it’s habitual to see sloppy language like “oh spirit” (what kind? Which one? Demons are spirits? If you can’t tell me which Deity is calling you to service then maybe you’re not ready for ministry. Likewise, way too many people came to seminary when they were suddenly interested in exploring their spirituality, not because they had vocations and not with any developed devotional practice to any Deity) and a deep antagonism toward specificity. Anything too far away from the monotheistic norm is typically rejected and to do interfaith work cleanly, there shouldn’t be a norm. There should be respect and common working goals.
What I see instead is a watering down of traditions, lack of comprehension of tradition, mixing and matching without respect to any Holy Power, eschewal of the Holy Powers as anything other than “all are one,” “Father/Mother God,” “Spirit,” or maybe even archetypes, and other such platitudes designed to erase the boundaries and differences between traditions. There’s deep discomfort with actively engaging and discussing those areas where traditions do not agree, and unwillingness to respect piety. Moreover, there’s always, always an arrogance in the monotheists or new agers toward polytheists, as though we simply aren’t evolved enough to recognize that all Gods are one. Interfaith work is monotheism dressed up in fancy clothes, maybe with some sage and the occasional meditation.
Most people that I’ve encountered are good hearted and want to be good people but their religious education is almost non-existent. The training at most interfaith seminaries, certainly the one I attended is pure fluff. It barely brushes the surface of the traditions presented and all one has to do to “pass” is largely show up. That’s not the way to turn out people into whom others will place their spiritual well being! Of course, the focus of the training is never that I’ve seen on serving or honoring the Gods. It’s always about people and there’s confusion when polytheists refuse to elide their Gods into this one nebulous “Spirit” to accommodate interfaith mores. Our Gods are not interchangeable, but this is incomprehensible to interfaith people.
I remember maybe 17 or 18 years ago attending a COG interfaith event. I was there by invitation and there was one other polytheist, a staunch devotee of Aphrodite (I don’t’ recall her name but she was awesome). I remember Michael York and another Wiccan complaining about the problems they had working with Heathens, Hellenics, etc. and they truly didn’t understand why. Then they made a comment to the effect (and it’s been nearly twenty years so I’m paraphrasing from memory) that they didn’t believe the Gods actually existed outside of one’s human consciousness and before I could object, this wonderful, beautiful devotee of Aphrodite stood up and said ‘that right there is why you’re having problems. That’s a line of piety that we will not cross. Our Gods are everything. Our practices begin and end with our Gods.” And truly, for a polytheist, that is what determines every engagement with the Holy, how one practices ritual, how one behaves, what one looks for in religious engagement. It really IS a line we cannot cross and … York and his compatriots found it incomprehensible. I’ve found that attitude across the board in the interfaith world and while it might be understandable in laity, it’s not appropriate in clergy.
It’s my observation that the sacred plays no part in interfaith work. The sacred is inhuman. The sacred challenges, it hurts, it’s terrifying, it forces change, it changes us and it can bring ecstasy and gnosis and inspiration and a thousand other things but first there is the intensity of direct engagement. It requires protocols for engagement, which is what religious traditions at their best are. I’ve never seen any of that in the interfaith community. There is a deep desire to be helpful to people, I think, and a deep (and by the very nature of interfaith work, deeply cultivated) lack of spiritual discernment.
I’m painting with a broad brush here and I’m certain there are very devout people dedicated to interfaith work, who will neither compromise on their traditions and with their Gods nor expect others to compromise. I haven’t met them. (Ironically, I’ve met plenty amongst the Jesuits with whom I work). Ecumenism should never mean sacrificing the sacred things and practices of one’s own tradition. (This is, by the way, and much to the amused horror – not sure which – of my Catholic friends that I’m very much against Vatican II, which watered down Catholic theology to pander to Protestantism. If that’s ecumenism, count me out. There are many things we can and maybe even should compromise upon but our Gods and their traditions and protocols are not one of them).
I do think there is a way to do interfaith work well, but first and foremost it requires that we all meet on common, neutral ground, that no one is unconsciously treated as an anomaly, one’s traditions met with arrogance and disrespect. I think it is possible to find common goals and maybe even common ground and to have incredibly fruitful discussions and do incredibly productive work (hell, I do it all the time with the Christians with whom I work) but only if all things are equal and where polytheists are concerned, the interfaith community isn’t.
Now, I haven’t experienced the same things at all when doing interfaith work amongst polytheists of various stripes. I think there are commonalities across polytheistic traditions in worldview and approach that make it much easier to find common devotional and working ground. Perhaps it is simply that those engaged in restoration understand the necessity of respect and piety, protocol and devotion and are unwilling to erase their Gods from the religious equation. We know what our traditions are going through and how hard the restoration is and there’s not generally the expectation that one will impinge upon one’s piety. It’s much easier to find common ground, perhaps not liturgically (though I also find that easier too) but certainly in discourse and community work. Perhaps it’s that interfaith work really started between Judaism and Christianity and later branched out and there was the initial assumption that everyone was worshipping the same God. Polytheism really complicates that assumption, doesn’t it?
I think we are a thorn in the side of monotheists – and let’s be honest, interfaith work is still largely a monotheistic endeavor. It’s one thing if it’s Jewish to Christian, or Muslim to Sikh, or Buddhist to New Agers but quite another when a polytheist steps on the scene. We are living reminders that their traditions did not succeed in our eradication and that there are options that challenge their entire worldview. I think that’s alien and threatening and with the sense of ingrained superiority that most of them have, when we then refuse to accommodate them, refuse to accept their ‘all gods one god/all goddesses one goddess’ dictum, but hold to the integrity of our own traditions, our contributions are largely ignored and our presence largely unwelcome. We are treated as infidels, interlopers, and perceived as less evolved or educated and our voices are silenced or ignored accordingly.
The truth is, we’re NOT all on the same theological page and we shouldn’t HAVE to be. But discussing those differences is verboten in most interfaith groups – it might lead to conflict, disagreement, which is viewed as intolerant and so there is no integrity and in the end, one must ask exactly how much of one’s energy one should expend in pissing into the wind. That energy is better spent building our own traditions, honoring our own Gods, teaching our children and passing a stronger polytheism down to the next generation.
These days the only interfaith work I find useful is polytheist to polytheist.
“Our way of life, our holy places, our festivals and religious practices, our ancestors and Gods – these are everything.”
On twitter, I’m having a rather interesting discussion about this article. It details how the archeologist currently in charge of Çatalhöyük is going out of his way to push an anti-theist agenda, using linguistic gymnastics to avoid acknowledging the site as one that was once polytheistic, and specifically denying that any Goddesses were venerated there. As Dr. Edward Butler noted in this twitter conversation,
“General avoidance of the term Gods is common in Western writers. …Interpreting religion as religion, and Gods as Gods, gets in the way of interpreting religion instead as a proxy for social and economic organization, an imperative since Durkheim and Weber. Hence, for instance, part of the reason why Hodder (the archaeologist in charge fo the site. –gk) wants to suppress the idea of any kind of theistic devotion having been practiced at Çatalhöyük is because of that site’s egalitarian social organization, whereas he wants to associate religion with the emergence of “domination”.”
I cannot tell you how many classes I’ve endured where the professors – who should have known better – pushed the idea that the ancients believed all Gods were the same, or that they didn’t understand their own religion. They jumped through hoops – in complete opposition to the surviving evidence, I might add — to deny the polytheism of our ancestors, to paint is as primitive, a minority position, to insist that anyone intelligent or educated was monist, monotheist, or atheist (this is especially so in the wake of Christian scholasticism when it comes to ancient philosophers, most of whom were in fact deeply pious men and women).
This is important. This should be noted and called out. It is, in some cases blatant, an attempt to rewrite history, to strip polytheism and by extension the Gods from the historical narrative. If we are left with the falsehood that our ancestors had no piety and no religion than there is nothing to restore. If we buy into that falsehood, then the coming of Christianity and other monotheisms can indeed be painted as “progress,” instead of the religious and culture destruction that it actually was. It reduces the complex body of religious practices that our ancestors held dear to superstition and misguided error. It obliterates the reality of our Gods in favor of either monotheism or secular anti-theism (and sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference).
This is why I think it’s so important for us to not elide the term ‘Gods’ in our own discourse with non-polytheists. I think too many of us do that to make them comfortable, to find common ground, but we really, really shouldn’t. Even I’ve been guilty of this more times than I can count, especially in academic discourse. We’re trained to find common ground for discourse, and all of us know how charged a term ‘polytheist’ or even ‘pagan’ can be. It’s sometimes very difficult to resist the unconscious push to use words like “the divine” or “deity” or (worst of the lot) “spirit”(1). I think it’s very, very important that we not do this, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. To elide the plurality of our Gods is to allow our listeners to assume (which they will because it is their place of comfort) singularity, unity, that no matter how many Divine Names we use, how many Gods we call, we really are referring to one being. It further erases the polytheistic voice from whatever narrative in which we’re engaged. It removes our Gods’ presence, denies it, all to placate monotheists or anti-theists, and largely because we are not strong enough to endure their discomfort.
To actively be a polytheist in the world is to be a living, breathing challenge to the comfortable paradigms by which others define their lives. We challenge the narrative that we’ve all been raised with, one that privileges monotheism or better yet atheism while positioning polytheisms as primitive superstition. When we verbally elide Their presence, we are contributing to that, even if we don’t realize it, even if that is not our intention. It is a small thing we can do to further our traditions, to give our Gods a place in this world: refuse to conform to the expected. When we yield to the pressure to conform to monotheism, anti-theism, secularism, we are allowing those traditions a position of superiority to our own. We are confirming in the minds of those with whom we debate, reinforcing their own inherent and often unacknowledged assumptions of that presumed superiority.
This may seem like a small thing and maybe in the end it is, but it does us no good at all when we lack the confidence and courage to use our words wisely in ways that acknowledge our Gods and give Them and our traditions a place in discourse, discourse with those whose traditions once attempted the eradication of ours, discourse with those who have in their hearts – for all they may claim otherwise – contempt for all that we represent. By refusing to elide the polytheism from our language, especially in interfaith settings (2), we force our interlocutors to acknowledge that polytheism exists and that there are those who have fervent devotion to the Gods with everything that entails. This challenges, quite directly, their hegemonic biases (and is one the main reasons that interfaith settings, with their default monotheistic-light positions, are so unwelcoming to actual polytheists who will not play their game).
To again quote Dr. Butler,
“I think it’s significant in this that even where there isn’t monotheism, there is the notion of a mono-causality, that social facts can only have one true cause, whether that’s economic, or has to do with dispositions of power, or whatever else somebody is pushing. This is a subtler intellectual legacy of monotheism, the refusal to recognize that the same social fact can be analyzed according to multiple causes at once, and hence that religious phenomena can have specifically religious causality. Instead we have reductionism, and what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of suspicion, where whatever our privileged explanation is, is seen as unmasking and undermining the other modes of explanation as “mere ideology”.”
- Of all the insipid language used in interfaith dialogue, I particularly detest the use of “Spirit.” I recall when I was teaching at a local interfaith seminary, and refused to allow my students the use of this term (I don’t care which Deity or Deities the students honored, but if they couldn’t be specific about who was on the other end of the metaphorical phone when they got the call to ministry, they had no business in a seminary.), the uproar it caused. “Spirit” is a tremendously polyvalent term. Many, many things qualify as “spirits” and not al of them good. If you cannot be specific, go home. There’s a wonderful quote, that ironically comes from Revelation (3.16 if I recall correctly): be hot or cold but don’t be lukewarm water in the mouth of God.
- Keep in mind that as much as we may bend over backwards to accommodate monotheism, they would not do the same for us in any way, shape, or form. We are, in interfaith settings, expected to conform in ways large and small and our voices are given very little weight (one of the reasons I am seriously on the fence about whether or not engaging in interfaith dialogue is useful – after all if mutual respect and good faith isn’t there, what’s the point?). We too often grovel out of sheer gratitude to have been included and it needs to stop. Our traditions existed for thousands of years before monotheism was even a blip on the religious radar. We created civilizations and gave the world philosophy, art, culture on a grand scale. The last thing we should do is feel grateful to have a voice in these settings. The next thing we’ll be expected to do is thank them for their traditions having engaged in religious genocide of ours. Where we go, our Gods and ancestors go as well. We represent and it’s incumbent on us to do that courageously and well.