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A Weekend Away and Some Theology

(This rambles…a lot lol. You have been warned).

So, I’ve been in New York City the last couple of days attending a theology conference. The title of the conference is “Faith, Reason, Theosis” and so far, it’s been pretty amazing. The scholastic currents being discussed (at least in day one) are well outside of my wheelhouse so I won’t discuss them here save to say that the entire idea of theosis makes me deeply uncomfortable. I did have an interesting talk with a Jesuit professor of philosophy (I took his course on Augustine a few years ago and it blew my mind) who agreed that, at least in part, ideas of theosis for Christians were influenced by pre-Christian concepts of deification. Still, it makes me deeply uncomfortable when it’s applied as a goal of faith, especially when post-modernists remove the sacramental scaffolding and even at times “God” from the equation. Thank you, no. If I want that, I can listen to a ceremonialist drone on and on. Lol. (Granted, this isn’t my area, so I may be grossly minimalizing the issues here and I’m drawing the questions and comments below largely from only a single day of speakers – there’s still two more to go. At any rate, the focus of the conference is discussion of Orthodox and Catholic responses to the idea of theosis). I was tired when I arrived at the conference, and at first, despite excellent presentations, I was a little bored (Thomas Aquinas—not my thing) but then the Q&A started and that was absolutely fascinating. It was almost enough, almost, to make me want to hold another polytheist conference. Hah. Don’t hold your breath.

Anyway, during the opening talks, I was scribbling notes and several questions arose from the speakers. Ignoring the pages of my journal where I kept noting that “Modernity=Nihilism”, (I also made crazy little sketches of presenters – idle hands after all and all that) the relevant things I want to discuss here are as follows (I will reframe from the singularity of the Divine articulated by the speakers to a more natural and appropriate plurality in my responses):

• How can a conscious spirit be anything other than a desire for God?

• God owes His creatures grace within the terms of creation (the grace to achieve theosis) but it’s a debt owed only to His own goodness.

• How can there be “excess” in loving one’s God? Many modern philosophers/theologians seem to speak of the “excessive qualities of the cross” in ways that seem to imply that they want to erase their God from the process and goal of theosis and replace the sacramental scaffolding with the human ego.

The first question, I believe, comes from Neo-Platonic influences on religious (in the case of the conference, Christian) thought. I don’t argue that our souls and the fullness of our being should be comprised, materia prima, of longing and love for the Gods. I think it is the only part of us that truly matters. When we peel away the dross and pollution of modern living (hell, just of living because let’s face it, the ancients wrestled with these issues too), at our core I firmly believe that (when we are rightly ordered), our spirits are expressed longing for the Gods. I also think that every single thing in our current world teaches us to obscure, deny, and annihilate that longing.

I will admit, listening to this particular speaker, I did think “well, aren’t you a bit of an optimist about the human condition” lol but it’s important to remind ourselves not to mistake external ephemera for the true, essential nature of our beings. I also suspect that this statement: that at the core of a soul is longing for the Gods may make some readers angry. If so, consider why. Why would you not long for the Gods with every fibre of your being? I think the real challenge of our various spiritualities is not only the discovery of that longing, recognizing it as our essential state of being, but also cultivating it, tending that fire, stripping away the dross, feeding it, and allowing it to burn away everything else.

A day or so before I came into the city for the conference, I was watching a movie with my husband and a friend and the lead female reminded me strongly in appearance of a student – call her H.– I had over twenty years ago. This student was three or four days away from her initiation and bailed. She became pissy about it too, justifying her decision by trashing the idea of the experiential devotion inherent in the initiatory process (as being only relevant to specialists. “Not everyone needs to be a mystic” blah blah blah. No, not everyone does, but baseline devotion does not a mystic make). A friend of mine who was hanging out with us asked me why this woman would do such a thing. I said “at the eleventh hour she realized initiation would change everything.” My friend agreed but didn’t see the problem (unlike H. my friend is not a spiritual coward). I explained that “H. didn’t want to make the Gods a priority in her life. She was afraid it might interfere with her secular, job-related priorities of climbing the corporate ladder and making money. She didn’t want to become the kind of person she thought could live a devoted life and she didn’t want to have to reprioritize her life.” My friend asked the most salient question of the night, “Didn’t she realize that putting the Gods first makes everything better? On the basest most crass level, They help us in our work in the world. They fill our lives with bounty and blessings.” And that is the question. My only response was a poem by the Islamic poet Rabi’a:

O my Lord,

if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.

If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.

But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.

(Rabi’a, “[O my Lord]” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).)

I will let this stand for now and move on to the second question or comment really, since I wrote it down because I have very strong feelings that the Gods owe us nothing. They may give us everything but They don’t owe us. We ought not give sacrifices and offerings just to get things, but because it is the right thing to do, because it honors Them, because those relationships are the most essential we will ever have and it is right and proper to make windows into the world through which the Gods may walk. It isn’t and shouldn’t be about us. Yes, at times offerings and devotion may follow a do ut des model – if I need something from a Deity, I won’t approach with empty hands. It’s rude. But that is not the only nor the most essential model of veneration. To imply that it is cheapens our traditions and frankly spits in the faces of our ancestors. It shouldn’t be “I give in order to receive” but “I give because I have received” or maybe better still, “I give because I love.”

Returning to the bullet points I noted, I was struck by the idea articulated in bullet point #2 that God owes humanity His grace by virtue of the contract of creation but the debt is NOT one owed to humanity itself but rather to His own goodness. In other words, God owes Himself. It’s a nice reframing and re-articulation of an issue that plagues the Heathen community: the entitlement we all too often feel before our Gods. We are not owed a god damned thing for the paltry devotion we deign to show. We have been given everything and it is a debt we cannot hope to replay. The devotional relationships that we ought to cultivate with our Gods aren’t for the purpose of getting things, or even with any hope of repayment of a contract. It is our natural, good, and rightly ordered state of being. It is our purpose, the highest and most natural expression of our souls.

Finally, one of the issues that kept coming up in post-modernist pushback against scholastic and pre-scholastic ideas of theosis was this language of “excess” in devotion. One source talked about the “excess of the crucifixion” rather the excess of devotional response to it. I see this in some modern Catholics. Case in point: I recently gave a Catholic relative L. Montfort’s classic devotional text on Mary and while she is very devout she really struggled with it, because it wasn’t Jesus focused in the way that many Protestant “devotionals” might be. The idea of giving reverence and specifically heart-felt devotion to the Mother of God—in the way that was traditional, licit, and universal within her tradition for generations– was uncomfortable (and I blame Vatican II and its bullshit for a lot of this but, not my circus, not my monkeys. I do find it complicated though. Gods know that the weakening of the organizational Catholic Church is not a bad thing for growing polytheisms, but then on the other side of that, I think that any weakening of devotional fervor is a win for evil and doesn’t serve us in our devotions either so …my response to that all is rather complicated). It seemed “excessive” to her. Post-moderns would, I believe, cast any devotion as excessive. This is problematic.

Personally, I do not believe it is possible to be too excessive in one’s fervor and love for one’s Gods. That is exactly what ought to fuel our soul’s longing, feed it, nourish it, encourage it. Whenever I hear Pagans or Polytheists (and especially Heathens) talk about how one is too excessive in one’s devotions (and it happens, less now than a decade ago but it still happens) I really just want to laugh in their faces and tell them they are theologically unschooled. Not today, Heathen child, not today. This is a bullshit free zone. Still, I think it’s important to think about what it is in our culture (that has seeped into our traditions) that would teach us that devotion, any devotion particularly the messy, emotional, embodied kind is ‘excessive.’ What does that mean? When loving the Gods is our souls’ reason for being, how can there be any excess?

This last question I’m going to explore more fully and hopefully will have time to do so over the next couple of days. Right now, I’m going to bring this to a close since it’s running rather long and I actually need to get my butt up and get out the door for day two of this amazing conference. Enjoy your day, folks. 

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Ritual Modesty: A Response

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.