I just returned from a conference at Villanova this past weekend. The Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance (PMR) conference is one of the leading theology conferences held every year just outside of Philadelphia. It’s really my favorite conference, the one I really, really try to do every year. It’s a lovely group of people and I always learn so much when I attend. This year the panels were so good (they pretty much always are) and I feel I have new things to gnaw upon, so much productive feedback to integrate into my work, and so many new books to track down and read. I can’t wait for next year (and for me to say that about any conference is miraculous. I might enjoy them but they generally wear me out. This one, well, I was sorry when it ended).
This year I chaired a panel and presented a paper. Usually I work in Patristics. My ongoing area of interest is developing a cultural poetics of the eunuch, looking at early Christian sources and the way ideas of the self and the holy were mediated through the figure of the eunuch. Because this conference covers more than just late antiquity, however, I was able to present a side project, one that is rapidly becoming a major secondary area of interest for me. I first gave an iteration of this paper, titled “Ravens in the Mead-hall: Rewriting Faith in the Wake of Charlemagne and the Saxon Wars” at last year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Conference and in between then and now, I’ve tweaked it considerably. This paper discusses Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons and their consequent forced conversion through the lens of post-colonial theory. It utilizes the Heliand, the 9thcentury Saxon translation of the Gospels as a lens through which to explore the re-positioning of the Saxons as a subaltern people, and the ways in which their indigenous religious traditions remained vividly relevant within the framework of Christianity. It gets a little darker than this implies, discussing things like forced child oblation, genocide, and the erasure of indigenous religious cultures too (and these darker threads are things I intend to continue exploring with this line of research). It was remarkably well received.
This is partly my way of holding space as a polytheist for our ancestors. Yes, it is useful to go to professional conferences. It’s a chance to explore these side topics, to get valuable feedback, in an atmosphere that – at least in this case – is fairly relaxed and congenial. Yes, I really want to look more closely at the ways post-colonial theory can be applied to Charlemagne’s atrocities. The more I learn about forced child oblation, forced exile, forced conversion and all the various ways the Franks impeded on and erased Saxon religious culture, the more I’m convinced that it’s here specifically that structures were first put in place that came to be used throughout the conquest of the New World, six hundred years later. Before all of that, however, I am holding space for the dead.
This is important. This is part of our history as contemporary polytheists. This is the story of our traditions, what happened to them, and why we are in the position we’re in today of having to reclaim, rebuild, and restore. If we do not understand what happened and where we came from, then we will never truly appreciate the importance of that restoration, of holding staunchly to our traditions, of cultivating piety and respect and reverence for our dead.
Why do I do this? Let me give one small example: during the Q&A, one of the attendees, a senior scholar who herself later presented a fascinating paper on a piece of Arthurian lit., said to me very earnestly, “I think it’s important to remember that the Franks had good intentions.” When I picked my jaw up off the floor I responded, “I’m sure that makes all the difference to the five thousand plus Saxons butchered at Verden.”
I’m sure that makes all the difference in the world to the men, women, and children who fought to maintain religious and cultural independence and instead ended up exiled, impoverished, with their children forcibly interred in monastic “schools” where they were Christianized and denied a Saxon identity religious or otherwise. Are you fucking kidding me? That is like saying Hitler had good intentions too. Who the fuck says that? Yet here we are in 2019 and I’ve an intelligent, educated scholar in all earnestness urging me to remember: the Christians had good intentions. That’s why I do this, because that attitude is everywhere in academia. It isn’t genocide if it occurred before the 19thcentury and was blessed by the cross.
Of course, not everyone thinks that way and most of the scholars that I work directly with would be equally appalled by such a thoughtless comment, a comment that erases the religious and cultural genocide of a people. Still, there are enough who do not question the narrative of the goodness of conversion, of Christian expansion, who do not realize that such expansion came with a heavy price, writ in blood, who do not realize it was forcibly done against the will of numerous peoples, or who do not care, that it is important to hold the line openly and at times vociferously. The evidence is there for those scholars who care to look. It is my obligation to do so. The intentions of those who destroyed our traditions really don’t matter. The results speak for themselves.
For those interested in reading my article in full, it will be coming out in the next issue of Walking the Worlds.
As I’ve mentioned before in my newsletter and on my blog, I’ve just started PhD work in theology. I attend a Jesuit university (it was my first choice and I really love the program) and to my knowledge, I’m the first polytheist to be admitted to their theology program. I work with lovely people, most of whom are either clergy or in some way very active in their own religious communities, and my classes are really thought-provoking and actually quite relevant to the work I do within my own tradition. One of the things I intend to do as I move through the program is share my experiences and thoughts, those relevant to my position as a polytheist in a traditionally monotheistic discipline, here on my blog. So, this is really the first of what I suspect will become an ongoing if occasional thing.
I’ve been in coursework now since the end of August and I’ve begun to notice a few things about myself.
Having taken theology classes in the department even while doing my MA, I knew that it was surprising to some people to meet a polytheist who was also a theologian. I also knew that for every person who took it in stride, I’d meet those who dismissed my religion or were condescending or mocking (the latter two are definitely in the minority at my school). I was ready for that and for the most part, I get asked really good questions and then we have equally good theological discussions. It’s great. I really like the people with whom I work. What I wasn’t prepared for and what isn’t so great – and I want to make it clear that this does NOT in any way come from anyone in the department nor the department itself, it’s completely my own psyche—is that I’m starting to feel a certain insecurity and defensiveness about my legitimacy being a Heathen priest, compared to and when surrounded by Orthodox and Catholic priests and other devout but monotheistic clergy. I have also been feeling not only on edge (some of which may just be normal as a first-year PhD student), but somewhat ashamed, as though I’ve in some way failed my Gods –though there was no reason to feel so: I’ve never once hidden or denied my faith. It was really weird and it took me awhile to realize what was happening.
I started getting a push from Odin to be more visible as a polytheist. I thought, I don’t hide it at all, how much more visible should I be? Am I being given a new clothing taboo or something (I have certain religious taboos by virtue of my work as a vitki or shaman, mostly around the colors that I’m permitted to wear)? That didn’t feel right and I took it to divination last weekend. That’s when all of this got sorted and I realized how I was allowing myself to be affected. I was pushed, not just by Odin but by other Gods too (including Athena, Whom I’d consulted for a client) to remember who I was and that as a priest, my position is every bit as licit as those other clergy members with whom I work. Moreover, our traditions have ancient roots. I was urged to remember that we are rebuilding now specifically because our traditions were decimated by the spread of Christianity (and later Islam). I was urged to fight off this mental miasma, which is precisely what I was told it was, and keep in the forefront of my mind that they have very little they didn’t steal from us. Their religions are built on the remnants of temples they destroyed, on the graves of our polytheistic ancestors, from fragments of our mysteries. I am there representing not just myself and my own tradition but our collective polytheisms. I’m the kick in the teeth, by presence alone, that says you did not succeed and your way is not the only way. I carry the rubble of every sacred space destroyed by the spread of monotheism in my soul. I walk with a thousand upon thousand ancestors who remember their sacred ways. I am there to remind you that you did not win, you will never win, and one day we will outnumber you all. On that day, things will change. Polytheists invented theology and I am the first of what will become a steady flood ready to take it back. We are here and it’s our time to have a seat at this table.
I am very fortunate however, that this is a department in which being devout is not an issue. That is not generally the case in academia in general. In theology, we are not generally your “secular moderns.” Pretty much every single person that I’ve encountered is in some way connected to a particular religious tradition and/or active in their devotion and praxis. It’s always interesting to see what I’ve always assumed to be true being played out: two or three of us who are very devout, even if we come from dramatically different religious traditions, have more in common overall than a devout polytheist would with someone who was atheist or agnostic (though there are always individual exceptions). That opens up the ground for conversation and I think we learn from each other and that is good.
I thought long and hard about writing this and even longer about posting it. What decided me was that I know of several polytheists either in theology or religious studies programs or contemplating the same (and that we so often get pushed into the latter field rather than theology proper is a conversation in and of itself). I know several polytheists in other graduate programs, including at my university, and have encountered a few undergrads as well. The mental pressure of opening up previously monotheistic spaces is real and on the off chance that I can help prepare others and spare them some of the cognitive disconnect I experienced the last month, then I felt it important that I post. I am in a very, very supportive department. I’m completely open and out as a polytheist. If I reached out to my advisor or any of the professors about this, they’d be the first to offer support and the same with my student cohort. That is not going to be the case in every grad student’s life. It’s important to be prepared for these things. Pressure often comes from unexpected places and I would never, ever have considered this to be one of them.
My solution to Odin’s request that I be more visible as a polytheist is to simply speak more openly about it. Yesterday, a fellow student asked me what I did this past weekend for instance, and I told him I’d done a good deal of ritual work, that we have a moon God (Mani), venerated extensively in our house and with the beautiful harvest moon it was the perfect time for rituals to Him. Last week when I was questioned about a brooch I was wearing, I said honestly, “It’s a shrine piece. I wanted to feel closer to our moon God today so I decided to wear it to keep me in devotional headspace.” I’m owning my space without being obnoxious and creating space for important conversations to occur. I’m doing that by not eliding my own experience and devotional world when it comes up in conversation. Monotheistic students, as far as I know don’t have to think about this in a theology department. As a polytheist, I do. It’s no one’s fault but simply the status quo as it stands. I am grateful that my Gods trust me to do this and I am grateful that I recognized what was happening (it’s good to have a tradition that has the sacred art of divination!) before it had eaten too deeply into my confidence. For those of you in grad school, develop a good support network. You never know how the stress of the work you’re doing will affect you. Sic itur ad astra.
In one of my classes we’re reading the Dialogues of Epictetus. This has led to a lively discussion about what constitutes a human being. What does ‘care of the self’ mean in the equation that Epictetus sets up, particularly in book II of his Dialogues where he emphasizes cultivation of character, discernment, and self-control on the one hand and proper performance of one’s social roles and maintenance of natural hierarchies on the other? I really love his emphasis on fidelity to the Gods, to one’s spouse, to fulfilling one’s roles for the common good – fidelity in general, fidelity as a key aspect of a properly developed self – and on duty and self-control and that by doing these things we are helping to sustain the divine order, the order of the cosmos.
This led me to think (after weeks of reading Plato and Epictetus in this class) about how we as contemporary polytheists define the self (realizing that this may differ significantly between traditions).
For me, a clear development of the self is predicated on being in right relationship with the Holy Powers, and aligning one’s will with Them. It is predicated on allowing that sense of reverence and respect to inform every decision, every possible way that we chooseto move in our world. It is acknowledging that we have a choice and part of devotional living is deciding to make the proper one with respect to our Holy Powers and traditions (particularly prioritizing those things especially). Without that essential orientation, there is simply no fullness of being, self-awareness, or properly developed character. Without that, we are at best semi-beings. (This is, of course, within our control. We can choose to pursue devotion, choose to align our lives rightly, to be in right relationship with the Holy Powers, etc. We’re in no way helpless here. We may have to unlearn certain bad habits and poor priorities that our society has taught us, curb unruly or spiritually unhealthy impulses, or reprogram things we’ve learned in non-polytheistic birth religions, but we can do that. We’ve been gifted with reason, intellect, passion, and the ability to focus. We just have to want to do the work).
If we participate in maintaining divine order by the way that we choose to live our lives and by cultivating a devotional consciousness – which I very much believe we do – then a proper ‘self’ is one that rooted in an actualized awareness of one’s place within cosmological hierarchy and the rightness of one’s duties within that system. A fully developed self willingly participates in fulfilling its duties within that cosmological framework. Without that, there is no personhood.
That’s my position on the matter – quickly articulated while on break between classes. I would love to hear what you all have to say.
A (civil) discussion on twitter today got me thinking about our various traditions and one of the key things necessary in making them sustainable and inter-generational: namely, marrying other polytheists and raising your children as polytheists too — and I don’t think it matters which polytheism because that is a very particular lens through which to view the world and one’s relationships to the Powers and there are commonalities there in ways that there simply aren’t with monotheisms.
I’m always surprised at the push back I get on the idea that we should marry within our communities. Granted, now our communities are small but they will grow, with our cultivation. I should point out that early Christians had no trouble requiring their prospective spouses to convert…and while I don’t support proselytizing, I do support this. I’ve seen far too many people who find themselves in households where they have to hide, limit, or downplay their practices. I would at the very, very least have a marriage contract in place that stipulates to the religious upbringing of any and all children. Let me add that getting rid of an impious spouse who demands one hide one’s polytheism is, as a friend of mine would say, “addition by subtraction.” Christians have a term “unequally yoked” that I think applies here. It’s when the two partners are not on the same spiritual journey, are not of the same religion and thus cannot support each other in building a spiritually nourishing household effectively. It’s a terrible thing to be unequally yoked.
Even more push back comes at the thought of raising children in the faith. Why would you not do this? THIS even more than marrying other polytheists is so key, so fundamental to the future of our traditions that it just boggles my mind why someone would even consider doing otherwise. If you don’t love your Gods and you don’t want to see Their traditions grow, why are you here?
Of course, the argument always raised is ‘I don’t want to force my religion on my child’ but this is no argument at all. Firstly, it is a parent’s duty to provide spiritual education. That is part and parcel of raising a healthy child just as one would instill proper virtue and understanding. Secondly, there are plenty of ways to raise a child in one’s faith without being abusive about it. Why not – and I mean this in all seriousness, because this is where I think the real issues lie—deal with the damage and wounds from your own religious upbringing instead of denying both your children and your Gods the blessing of a tradition? It should be unthinkable to raise our children any other way. If we do, we’re cutting off our traditions at their knees. Each generation has to retread ground those before them already walked (and we do this anyway by our disrespect toward the elders in our communities, by ignoring or pissing on their work, and by attempting to write them out of their own traditions’ histories).
Standards are not oppressive. I’m going to say that again for those of you in the back: standards are not oppressive, at least not if you want to accomplish something worthwhile. Moreover, we can in fact choose whom we love and with whom we spend the rest of our lives. It’s important to make good choices here. It’s not enough to love someone in the moment. One must consider making a life with that person and having children (if one wants children), and what one is willing to compromise upon and what one isn’t. Hopefully commitment to the Gods and Their traditions form an absolute hard line, a sine qua non in that equation.
Someone complained today that this separates groups into “us” vs. “them” and yes, it does. This does not mean that “they” are bad, just other, different, outside the community of faith and practice, and as lovely as they might be, potential dead weight in a relationship founded first and foremost in shared piety and love. One’s relationship with the Gods is always personal and needs to be nourished regularly but as religious people we are not separate from a community, hopefully one that is coalescing into a tradition. One of the greatest challenges facing us today as polytheists is how to ensure that our traditions are sustainable and we can work hard and do all we want as individuals but eventually unless we’re raising our children in the faith, we’re never going to get past the place that we’re at now. Only through inter-generational transmission of the tradition and love for the Gods is any community truly sustainable.
I’ve seen people talk about personal sovereignty, free will and such being important and they are. We have the free will to make good decisions, decisions that further our traditions, decisions that honor our Gods. Why is it so damned hard to put something other than ourselves first?
I’m seeing a disturbing trend in certain polytheisms (for once, not Heathenry) of trying to close the door to any type of direct devotional experience or theophany. The idea that the Gods can call someone to Their worship, grant direct experience, communicate in various ways outside of divination is very threatening to some people. Well, tough titty said the kitty, it happens. All the time. It is the heart and soul of any licit tradition. You’d think these nay-sayers would learn from the mistakes Heathenry has made and not try to waltz merrily down the same rocky road.
I agree that there is a tremendous lack of discernment in certain dark corners of our communities (tumblr, lookin’ at you). I agree that too many people put their feelings, politics, sentimentalities, [insert obnoxious thing of choice here] before clean veneration of the Gods. I agree that many of those purporting to have fantastic devotional experiences are confused, lying, mentally ill, or what have you. Every community has this. But I part ways at the idea that such direct experience is antithetical to polytheism. The lack of discernment is the consequence of the attitudes of modernity and lack of good, intergenerational transmission of tradition, and lack of competent elders (or respect for elders).
Someone said to me in the course of these discussions: “I look at someone saying ‘the Gods called me to worship Them’ the same way I’d look at someone saying ‘I’m eating this ice cream because the vanilla ice cream called me to eat it.” All of which neglects or purposely ignores the key ontological difference between the two examples, namely that Gods have agency. They can and often do call us to veneration. We’re not always savvy or sensible about doing so, nor do we always respond to such inspiration as we should, but that doesn’t change that the Gods are quite willing to engage.
To rule that out is to betray the very tradition you’re trying to build. It’s spitting in the face of your ancestors who themselves had powerful devotional experiences – and how do we know this? Well, they had a powerful, intergenerational tradition that was rich, complex, and birthed some of the greatest thinkers in the Western world.
When you shit on a person for their experiences with the Gods, consider for a moment that you may in fact be shitting on those Gods too. There’s not really any coming back from that, especially not when it’s done because you want to be edgy or rule out liberal (or conservative) contamination into your tradition.
On fb scholar and Heathen Mathias Nordvig posted the following and graciously gave me permission to share it as well. It’s a very, very important point. We distract ourselves with trying to categorize and compartmentalize the Powers and that can lead us down very fruitless paths. What is important is Their holiness.
Dr. Edward Butler, in response to this (we’re conversing about it on fb) said rightly, “Any name which has been preserved is precious. We have no way of knowing what sort of cultus They may have had. Chances are, if a name was preserved at all, it’s because it was important to somebody.” So much was lost to Christian conquest, all the more reason to treasure what we have and to devote ourselves to veneration. Religion, in the polytheistic world, is about right relationship to the Holy, and the ongoing cultivation of those relationships. Through that cultivation and devotion we continually participate in the ongoing process of creation. We sustain the work the Gods have done and continue to do. We do our part.
(again, rambling…you’ve been warned)
So, the subject of ‘kenosis’ came up in the first paper I heard today. When I looked it up (because I’m toggling in this conference between Catholic and Orthodox perspectives and also, I’d heard of it solely in the context of a goal of devotional practice), initially I saw it defined as Christ’s rejection of his divine nature during the Incarnation. It’s more complex than that, but that initial definition did get me thinking. Why would this ‘putting aside’ of divine nature have to be ‘rejection?’ So, thinking of our theologies, I’m immediately reminded of Euripides’ play “The Bacchae,” in which the poet has Dionysos declare that (to educate Thebes) He will “put aside His divinity” taking human form. While this is a play, Dionysos is the God of theatre and it does reflect the practices and language and ideas and mysteries related to this particular God. Could one say that what is happening when Dionysos does this is a type of kenosis? (which the theologian just described as ‘self-emptying, taking the form of the servant’).
I wouldn’t describe any of this as a rejection of divine nature. Rejection would imply a permanent disavowal, wouldn’t it? ‘Putting aside’ implies that one can then put it back on (the root of the word ‘rejection’ implies a throwing back of something). Even within the Incarnation, was it a rejection? Was not God the father ever with the son even through the intense humanity and human suffering of the Incarnation? For our purposes did not Dionysos remain divine even when He was wearing human flesh?
Kenosis is more readily Christ’s emptying out of Himself to be open to God’s will. It’s…complicated. I do think ideally, we as devout people should seek to empty ourselves out (the meaning of κενοω) so that we can be filled with our Gods, so that we can be completely receptive to Them and Their will. The lecturer now speaking keeps talking about “self-emptying obedience” and I take issue with the way in which she’s using the latter term…devotion is more active, an active annihilation of all those things that would keep us from being fully open to the Gods. There’s nothing passive in it, save for the receptivity that allows us to eventually experience our Gods. And even within that level of receptivity, whatever obedience there is becomes full alignment, a partnership not an abrogation of personal will but a uniting of that will with our Gods…do Christians mean the same when they use this term?
Back to my initial point, I can totally see kenosis as a means and goal of devotional living (regardless of one’s tradition. I think ultimately we should empty ourselves of ourselves, of all our bullshit so that we can be the most useful tools and servants possible of our Gods. THAT is exactly what devotion entails), but I struggle to see it applied to the incarnated Christ. Returning to Dionysos, which is far more relevant to our praxis than Christ (with all respect to my Christian friends), when He put aside His divinity, was He emptying Himself out so that He could better align with HIS true will?
I want to parse that out…what does it mean that a polytheist could accurately say Dionysos is putting aside His divinity…here’s the Greek:
ὧν οὕνεκ᾽ εἶδος θνητὸν ἀλλάξας ἔχω
μορφήν τ᾽ ἐμὴν μετέβαλον εἰς ἀνδρὸς φύσιν.(Bacchae, line 54)
for which purpose, having set aside my form (lit: that which is seen)
I bear a mortal shape and I have changed mine into the nature (φύσιν) of a man. (my translation)
If we look at ‘nature’ in the Aristotelian sense, it is the motivating essence, the material cause for a thing. It is the essential substance of a thing. In the Heraclitan sense, it is a thing’s natural development. Is Dionysos here lowering Himself down to the human level and allowing things to thus play out according to human rules and decisions? Its opposite is νομός, or law and custom so is this a means of giving more freedom and loopholes for events to play out? Is there a freedom in incarnation not found in the immortal sphere (a horrifying thought)? I was discussing this with Edward Butler (wanted to be sure that I was correct, that this was as intriguing a passage as it always had seemed to me, because surprisingly little’s been made of it in classics) and he noted that, “eidos often means just the visual appearance of something; but what does a mortal look like, qua mortal? Then in the next line we have andros physin, which has the same ambiguity. Physis can mean just the outward appearance of something, but it can also mean something deeper, the “nature” of something. Euripides seems to be playing a bit with the idea that Dionysos is taking on more than just the look of a human.” So, I think something is going on here and I can’t help but wonder if it’s something more than just a poet taking theological and poetic liberties.
Perhaps it makes no sense to make this comparison – Christians do what they do with their theology and kenosis is a particularly Christian theological term—but the entire conversion reminded me so strongly of that passage about Dionysos I could not help but doing playing with it here.
And…I went back to the Greek to the word εἶδος. It is the word from which we get our word ‘icon’ and I believe also ‘idol.’ It is something that can be seen, a form which can be seen. So, Dionysos is transforming His appearance. The presence of the word φύσιν complicates things for me. It has certain specific meanings philosophically, Is it all simply a change in appearance not reality here (unlike the licit view of the incarnation in which the humanity assumed by Christ is reality … unless one is a Docetist lol). I could go round and round with this for hours but I need to stop myself. Argh.
EDIT: So, thus am I served for writing this, while taking notes during a lecture, and discussing it all withe a friend via email. I had my etymology wrong above. “icon” comes from “eikon” and ‘idol’ from εἴδωλον. We get our word “idea” from εἶδος. What i wrote above still stands though: Dionysos is transforming into the idea of a mortal man…close enough to appearance to still ask: what does that mean? what is a God’s idea of mortal man and how would that translate to other mortals?
(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.
I never thought much about this until recently – the Gods are Gods and I never found it necessary to interrogate the forms They seek to take much beyond that. Today, however, I was reading an article about how many able-bodied people don’t seethose with disabilities (or how they sometimes act in paternalistic ways toward them) and I had an epiphany: what a blessing that we have Gods Who chose to manifest in scarred or disabled bodies. What a powerful way of saying “you are seen, acknowledged, recognized, and valued” by our Holy Powers. What a powerful way of the Gods aligning Themselves with our experience.
I have actually written about this before. A couple of years ago there was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that one of Hephaestus’ epithets is “the Lame God.” Far from being a slur, this is noted as a point of power for Him. It is part of His identity, integral to His timai as a God of crafting and blacksmithing, transformation, and fire. It is where His ability to bring beauty into being comes from. (Y’all can read that piece here.)
As a Heathen, I venerate the Norse Gods, belonging specifically to Odin. Odin’s story, His mysteries are intensely embodied. He is a God of ordeal, subjecting Himself to physical pain for power. He is also missing an eye (having sacrificed it willingly for a draught from the Well of Mimir). One of His sons Hodr is blind. By some accounts, Heimdall sacrificed an ear for the same reasons Odin gave an eye. Tyr is missing His sword-hand. Weyland the Smith is physically lame. I’ll take this one step further: one of Odin’s heiti is Geldnir, or eunuch. For a God almost defined by His sexual exploits, Who is called All-Father, I find it fascinating that one of the ways in which He may also present Himself is as a eunuch. What is going on here?
To quote my former article (sorry, folks. I have a blistering headache today so best I can do):
“The qualities teased out in the ritual naming of Gods, in Their by-names, epithets, and cultic titles provide crucial information on the nature of a Deity’s mysteries. For us to disregard a title because it offends our sensitivities or makes us uncomfortable, or even because we haven’t taken the time to search its meaning in our own practices is not only short-sided but potentially hubristic as well. Many cultic titles were in use for generations. When Homer, for instance, refers to Hephaistos as lame, which he does multiple times, he’s employing a set formula to tell us something very important about this God. I’m not sure why people would want to discard these epithets so unthinkingly. They are worth both examination and meditation.”
It’s important not to condemn or avoid exploration of those epithets that challenge us, or make us question, or even more, make us uncomfortable. The last thing we want to do is delete those epithets from our devotional consciousness. They provide insights into our Gods, insights that may help us too.
As a disabled woman, I need never, ever feel that my disability in some way separates me from my Gods (and while I’ve never felt this way that I’m aware of, I know that this has been a very painful issue for some of my clients). By presenting Themselves in forms that are in some way differently abled, I believe our Gods are consciously including those of us whose bodies are different. Years and years ago, in 2000 if I recall correctly, I gave the required lecture on modern Paganisms and Polytheisms at the interfaith seminary where I taught. We were asked to include an experiential portion and so I included a powerful invocation and then call and response chant to the Goddess Sekhmet. Almost every woman in the audience was moved to tears and several told me later that they’d never even conceived of a Holy Power that was both powerful and female. Perhaps representation does matter: when we can see ourselves in our Gods, it is easier for us to build devotional relationships with Them, to feel as though They are accessible to us and our experiences. We need not twist the images of our Gods out of true in order to accommodate this and we shouldn’t do this anyway. Everything we need is already there in the way the Gods choose to engage with us.