Let me begin this blog entry by saying that I am not entirely comfortable nor happy to be writing about this, for a complex variety of reasons.
[Get a nice beverage and make sure you're seated comfortably, folks: this will be a rather long ramble, I suspect...]
The first reason is one that I was thinking about last night. As you’ll notice on the sidebar to your right on all of my blog pages, there is an alphabetical quasi-”word-cloud” there which notes the most frequently used tags in my entries. (And, yes, I’m an excessive tagger…even though I don’t need to, I use tags like they’re an index, and I’m an excessive indexer when it comes to making those, too!) I’ve often studied this and tried to gauge what it says about me and my preoccupations in this blog. Of course, “Antinous” is the largest and most frequently used tag–probably more than 19/20ths of the entries I’ve written have him mentioned at least once in them, which is only appropriate since this is a virtual webspace that first and foremost honors him and (hopefully) informs others about him in doing so. But, others are large, too, and I’ve often paid particular notice to which deity-names get a “large” presence there as well. And, that varies quite greatly; new ones get added and come to prominence, older ones eventually get smaller and smaller.
What preoccupied my attention last night was that in the third rank of size in that word-cloud, one can find “Christianity,” which is larger than most of the deities and spiritual beings there, with the exceptions of Antinous, Hadrian, Dionysos, and Hermes. “Christianity” is larger than “Jesus,” too! (And, while there are a billion things that could be said about that, both in relation to my own religion and the religions of others, I simply note it here as something upon which to chew stale popcorn kernels.) But, contrary to the common statement, size IS important, and while I’m totally not a size-queen in terms of a variety of things for which people commonly are (*ahem*), I am when it comes to literary output, and in particular with words. If I’m using “Christianity” more as a tag than, for example, Hathor or Persephone or Hekate or Osiris or Apollon or Polydeukion or Serapis or Sabazios or Cú Chulainn or Lugus (or any other deity that I regularly worship), then there is a problem, I think.
I’ve often heard over the years that there is too much emphasis in modern pagan discussion on debating or actively attacking Christianity, which is ultimately to our detriment because a lot of important time, space, and energy is wasted in that effort: we’re not going to convince most Christians that we’re a better religious option than they are, and we certainly don’t appreciate it when they constantly try the same thing on us. Our complaining about many of the things in Christianity that make things difficult for pagans, queer people, non-males, and a great variety of other types of human (not to mention the wide, diverse, beautiful, sacred, ancient, majority, and actively being destroyed non-human world on this planet) is not going to change that other religion’s viewpoints on these matters, nor will it reverse what the industrialized capitalist cultures that have been supported by Christianity are continuing to do to those various groups. So, what’s the point? And with this, I agree very much.
Thus, I think I’m writing the present post partly as a kind of “get it out of your system for a while” cathartic matter, and I do hope it succeeds in that effort.
[I do offer here, however, that for the first three centuries and beyond of Christianity's existence, it wrote quite a bit (slanderously most of the time) about pagan religions, practices, and deities, which is why we have some of the information we do on Antinous. This is both a good and a bad thing, of course, but I digress...I mention this because we're only really about 60 years into the widespread and public existence of modern paganisms and polytheisms, and despite many calls to stop talking about Christianity, and how ragging on it is a kind of juvenile position and demonstrates an insecure and immature spirituality--with which I somewhat agree--nonetheless if we're still talking about the dominant religion of the western world, in which we quite literally (and unfortunately) "live and move and have our being" (with apologies to T. Thorn Coyle) whether we like it or not, and which can thus cause us great harm in a political and a physical sense in many concrete ways--and in fact it is doing exactly that right at this very moment in the lives of many people--then we would do well to continue speaking about it, and it would be totally understandable to be preoccupied with it. If one never mentions the elephant in the room, especially if it is a hairy and unruly rabid mastodon that is also equipped with poisonous tusks and would for the most part rather see us trampled and our houses destroyed, then it would really be a good idea to talk about it, I think!]
But, a number of fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) things have arisen in the last few days that have made me pay an increasing amount of attention to the matter of Christianity. Some of it has been relatively benign and peaceful food for thought, as a result of some interesting questions on the Ekklesía Antínoou Yahoo!Group; but, some of that was also influenced in no small part by a post on The Wild Hunt the other day; and the post on The Wild Hunt today, and the other Patheos.com post (by a Catholic) upon which it is based, really set the present post in motion and made it rather unavoidable.
I’m practically a thousand words into this post, and I am only just now getting around to introducing the topic…like I said, long ride–make sure you hit the loo before resuming, dear friends.
Of the two books mentioned in The Wild Hunt’s post the other day, the book that interested me far more was the second one: Mark Townsend’s Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ. I can tell you right off that though I’m very interested in the subject matter, and what some of these various luminaries of modern paganism have to say on this matter, I’m also finding I’m already in major methodological and theological disagreement with the text because of its title, or rather its subtitle, and that is over the use of the word “Christ.” The term “Christ” only has theological valence within the (oddly-named) Christian tradition; no other religion views the figure of Jesus as being the “anointed” messiah, as originally described in the Jewish scriptures, and understood through the Greek language. (I always used to joke, with my Irish Catholic friend, who is both an historian and a theologian very conversant with New Testament Greek, that the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ could equally well be translated “The Troubles of the Greasy-Head,” and in fact would probably sound a lot more like that to ancient non-Christians!)
In one of the bits of this book that Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wild Hunt quoted in his entry on the book the other day, he quotes Maxine Sanders as saying the following, amongst other things: “Who am I to deny the Christ’s validity?” And, while I can see and to some extent agree with the sentiment here, I again don’t agree with the language, because speaking of Jesus as “the Christ,” and in particular using the definite article, is a Christian theological notion that is not at all appropriate to non-Christians, whether we see him as a valid teacher–or even as a valid deity–or not. Our adoption of these terms without any thought for them is an unwitting concession to the validity of their theologies.
But, what exactly do I mean by that? Am I saying that Christian theology isn’t valid? I’m saying that it may be very well and valid for them; it’s as good as most of them have been able to do (with the exception of the Gnostics, but they’re another matter!) under the circumstances, and thus it may carry many truths, beauties, and validities for them. However, to speak of it in this way for ourselves and to give it that kind of credence by our choices of words and our adoption of the terms they have created to prove their own exclusive possession of truth is not only inappropriate, it is actively damaging to our own theological strength as polytheists.
All that from the little word “the”–yes, dear friends, semantics are a HUGE deal, and we would do well to pay far more attention to them than we have often done.
I need to further unpack some of the above positions, however, and discuss how this might influence my views and actions within an interfaith context (particularly since some of the interfaith posts I’ve done over the last two years have been perennial favorites by hit-count). So, let me give you part of what I wrote in my Ekklesía Antínoou post yesterday, with a few slight revisions…
I, personally, certainly acknowledge the reality of the Jewish god (Iao Sabaoth), the Christian’s Jesus as being related to but neither synonymous with nor in some sort of Trinitarian relationship to that god, and of Allah as a separate and independent Arabic deity. However, I do not accept what some Jews, most Christians, and all Muslims say theologically about their various gods in a number of manners (e.g. the singular and true/only supreme deity, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, transcendent, etc.), nor am I required to do so since I am not a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Just because I’m tolerant of those religions, and am accepting of their members, doesn’t mean I have to agree with them nor do I have to affirm the reality or the veracity of their theological claims, whether generally or in a specific interfaith context; and, I can do this while still giving them the utmost respect they deserve as humans.
I am quite certain that no matter how nice Jews, Christians, or Muslims (or Hindus, or Sikhs, or various other religious practitioners) are to me generally or within an interfaith context, they do not in any way affirm the reality or the veracity of my gods, my religious experiences, or my theologies–nor should they, since they are not polytheists like I am. And, that’s fine with me. We can treat one another with respect as humans without having to say “We’re all equally right” or “Many paths to the one source” or what-have-you that is such a prevalent (and useless, I might add) message in a lot of liberal religious discussion, interfaith work, and so on.
[End of excerpts from said Ekklesía Antínoou Yahoo!Group post, fyi.]
So, here’s where things went from “this is an interesting opportunity to articulate my position on a matter that is important in a peaceful and uncomplicated manner” to “[there are not enough symbol marks on a keyboard to express how upset I am right now]” in relation to it.
Before I move into that part of the discussion, therefore, let me just quote a few lines of a song I’ve been listening to quite a lot for the last month, by the incomparably wonderful S. J. Tucker, called “Go Away Godboy”:
Go away godboy
your gospel doesn’t work on me
you’re stuck inside your dogma
and your karma’s getting messy
your holy head is up your ass
your message ringing clear…
[I highly recommend you all go and listen to the full song if you aren't familiar with it!]
There I was, with some of the above ideas floating relatively benignly in my brain, when I read today’s The Wild Hunt post, and then sought out the other post that prompted it. Crikey…where does one begin with this nonsense?
Let’s start first with the heading under which the ever-insightful Jason Pitzl-Waters of The Wild Hunt couched his discussion: this nonsensical (and might I add, inherently sectarian theological) notion that somehow, monotheism represents the pinnacle of a process of evolution of religions. One finds this exact idea in works by Huston Smith (like Why Religion Matters) and many others who come from a creedal monotheistic religious background, especially as they treat the subject of other world religions. The evolutionary view of religion insists that poor, dumbfounded, “primitive” humans began their religious life with lots of naïve superstitions, false notions, and quasi-magical practices; and once they became a little more advanced, one can understand their religion as a somewhat more conceptually defined animism. Next, they abandon animism (and animatism–i.e. a very material approach to animism, in which things don’t only “contain” spirits, they are embodied spirits) for a more transcendental and personal theological approach, which is polytheism: it has individual, identifiable deities with particular characteristics, but who do not usually have continuous incarnate form. (There are exceptions, of course, like animate statues, shrines, nymph-haunts, etc.) In human history, an “axial age” occurred in the 8th through 3rd centuries BCE, in which “philosophical” thought emerged, which removed itself even further from some of the conceptual underpinnings of polytheism, and laid the way for…yup, you guessed it, MONOTHEISM! Then, of course, once monotheism comes along, everything’s great, we have attained the pinnacle of what we’ve been meant to attain as humans, and that’s that–write off millennia of religious history and a huge majority of the global population throughout that time, because it’s all irrelevant in comparison to THE TRUTH.
Huston Smith’s book mentioned above takes a slightly different approach, and suggests there are four “religious types”: atheists, polytheists, monotheists, and mystics, and in the sequence given here, they improve upon and subsume the previous types. (I’ll talk more about mysticism shortly…) Sir James George Frazer has a somewhat simpler evolutionary concept: human society progresses in the ways it thinks about and understands the world from magic to religion to science. I don’t remotely agree with either of these ultimately evolutionary views of religion, but the latter one is interesting in its implications, and should be explored a bit further here.
The monotheist-privileging evolutionary view of religion essentially stops 2400-1400 years ago (depending on which sort of monotheist is discussed), and anything going in a different direction is assumed to be “backsliding” or “apostasy.” (Nonsense!) However, it ignores some further developments in the Christian situation in particular that continue the trend of reducing the divine world in scope and number, from immediate and tangible to more transcendent and less-populated. The reformation happened, and then the (so-called) enlightenment, which re-introduced a great deal of polytheist literature, theory, and influence generally speaking into the Christian intellectual climate of Europe. Not too long after this, deism began to proliferate, and it lead to some very useful things indeed, like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution with its First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. And, as time went on, and as science continued to expand, it lead to humanism and eventually atheism–let’s simply remove the question of all deities and things that are not immediately visible and tangible, and only deal with the material. (In a certain sense, this is a reversion to animatism without the anima!) The same people who are proponents of this monotheism-privileging evolutionary view of religion are often the most opposed to actual evolution and many other scientific advances where they contradict their religious viewpoints (which is almost everywhere!). I’m not looking at humanism or atheism as a “bad thing” in and of itself, but for the moment, I will note that many atheists use the same sort of evolutionary view of religion to argue for the redundancy of religion: we’ve outgrown it as humans and it no longer serves any useful purpose other than division and difficulty. It’s another matter entirely to discuss why that’s not an adequate notion…
In the field of religious studies, one tends to have a phenomenological approach to methodology in today’s world. What that means is that religious phenomena–texts, rituals, beliefs, regalia, sacred objects, experiences of divine beings and realities, and so forth–are simply taken for what they are, as “things” which can be studied and interpreted. This is far more preferable to the theological or sectarian approach to religious studies that has often taken place (and still does take place), which interprets religious phenomena from a particular religion’s own viewpoint on religion, which generally involves notions of “we’re right, and others aren’t” (whether they’re totally wrong or just flawed or incomplete in their knowledge varies based on the religion concerned). The evolutionary view of religion is inherently sectarian, therefore, and thus not appropriate to religious studies; yet, it still gets taught this way in many places and in many cases, including some I’ve seen and been a part of (not willingly nor without dissent) personally.
While this is a slight digression to my main points here, I promised to discuss this subject above, thus I want to address it briefly before moving on to the next issues.
Mysticism often gets a kind of “pass” in so many ways within religions, and it is often assumed that mysticism is more or less synonymous with monism, which is why a “more mystical approach” is so popular in interfaith contexts: because “we’re all talking about the same thing.” Mysticism is often praised as a kind of end-point of spiritual evolution as well: one should endeavor to be in contact with whatever one’s conception of divine reality or divine beings happens to be if one truly devotes oneself to one’s spiritual path and practice. In reality, mysticism is often the starting-point for religion (theologically and structurally), as it should be: some perception or other of divine realities or divine beings is the point of most religions. As a polytheist, that’s certainly my own viewpoint: everything I write about or speak about in relation to Antinous would be utterly useless and meaningless if it did not have a basis in my own experience and my attempts (which aren’t always successful) to understand those experiences. I’ve discussed in other places and on other occasions how I think this notion of one’s experiences of divine beings and realities, which bolsters one’s confidence in one’s spirituality and with which one attempts to have fidelity, is the best way to understand the term “faith.” (And, read Finnchuill’s post on this matter–it’s excellent! though he does not agree with some of my own views on this matter–though I’ll also point out that Sannion has also written on the matter of faith over the last few months.)
I find the monotheist definition of mysticism, however, has often overwhelmed the polytheist (and other) understandings of it, because it tends to favor the apophatic over the cataphatic–which is to say, the “wordless” and “imageless” experiences of mysticism are considered superior and preferable to the ones which can be described. This sort of definition of mysticism relies upon the characteristics of the monotheist deity as being utterly transcendent and “beyond human understanding”; and yet, the people who experience the transcendent monotheist deities always seem to know it’s their particular god…but that god is “like no other,” and thus how can one know that’s really their god at all? If one has never seen a Rubik’s Cube, one won’t know what it is or what it does, and wouldn’t know where to begin unless one had someone who knew about it there to explain it. Why are these unknowable monotheistic deities that are unlike all other gods (and all other things, including categories of being, thought, and perception!), then, so damn easy to “know” when they happen to come along in a person’s life? Sure, mystics within Christianity have often been subjected to severe persecution, and the least lucky of them get branded heretics (like Marguerite Porete), while others get to be doctors of the church (like St. John of the Cross, or Hildegard of Bingen–who recently became a saint, and whose mysticism is considerably less apophatic than many others). And saying that such experiences are “beyond words” and “cannot be told” seems like a major cop-out to me (as a polytheist, for starters, since my gods do have characteristics and can be clearly identified when they show up–in my own experiences of Antinous, sight and sound, but sometimes touch and smell are all deeply involved, as well as other sensations that seem to be harder to characterize). The most effective mystics, like St. John of the Cross, were able through poetic metaphor to describe their experiences of their transcendent gods, and thus in some manner to describe–even if it is by “negative theology”–their apophatic deities and experiences through cataphatic methods. If what they are experiencing is not their transcendent deity, but something else, then that suggests there may be some flaws in their thinking and theologies (and often, there is); if what they are experiencing, and are able to identify, is their transcendent deity, then that suggests that the deity isn’t transcendent at all. I’m reminded here of something someone I knew in Oxford (who was Catholic) once said in relation to mysticism: “warm glows aren’t proof of the existence of God, they’re proof of the existence of warm glows.” Indeed, indeed…but, then the question is, is the warm glow “something else” (i.e. another spiritual being), or is it actually the deity that the mystics often think it is?
Of course, we’re never going to know the full realities behind these things, whether we’re polytheists or monotheists, whether we employ cataphatic or apophatic manners to discuss them–that’s the nature of all metaphysical things, I think. Nonetheless, in my own experiences, I thus find the polytheist understandings of these experiences to be far more convincing, useful, and productive, both for me and for others, than monotheist understandings. This digression will have further relevance to other matters below…
But to return to the sparking-off matters for the present ramble, there’s the other Patheos.com post that The Wild Hunt referred to, which makes many egregious errors and is quite offensive on many fronts (which have been discussed in the comments to The Wild Hunt post on this matter, as well as in the other post itself). The one that I most object to at present, however, is something that Christianity has been quite good at doing from the very outset: cherry-picking evidence in other religions to bolster its own truth-claims. They did it with Judaism first; in fact, Christianity would not have been possible without Judaism…and yet, Judaism finds the very most basic premises of Christianity (the divinity of Jesus) to be entirely questionable and objectionable, and does not understand any of the parts of its own scriptures that are taken as “definitive proof” of Jesus’ divinity by Christians to mean anything of the kind. The other post referred to by The Wild Hunt does some of the same kind of thing with ancient polytheist religions. (And, not always correctly nor factually–the example of “pagan heroism” that the author gives in relation to Ireland was done by an Irish Christian against a possibly pagan Viking.)
Selective reading of other religions’ theological artifacts (particularly literary ones) to bolster the truth-claims of the religion doing such selective readings is, in a sense, a direct admission that one’s own religion can’t stand on its own two theological feet and its own inherent merits. Forget appeals to being a continuation of another tradition, or to have a venerable ancestry in pre-existing traditions (especially when the premises of the religion concerned also explicitly invalidate or demean those earlier religions), that just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Why does something that should be self-evidently superior to all other possibilities (like two major creedal monotheistic religions claim they are) need to look to anything outside of itself to support its own claims? Really, what’s going on in those cases–and certainly in the case of this other blog post–is that a complex set of mental gymnastics is being engaged with in order to theologically justify one religious adherent’s liking of things in other religions that aren’t considered valid: “fragments of truth” in other religions that are, by definition, “untrue” doesn’t make any sense in comparison to a religion that claims to have the whole and unadulterated truth. (Unfortunately, Islam’s insistence on this view of itself in its early centuries is what lost the remnants of the Library of Alexandria to posterity, because “what is true therein agrees with the Qu’ran, and is therefore no longer necessary; what is untrue therein is no longer desirable.”) Liking things in other religions is a very natural human tendency, and wanting to adopt them and incorporate them into one’s own religion is the basis of a great deal of syncretism. But, heavens forbid someone actually admit to liking something in another religion if one is of a particular religion that self-defines as the only one that is true, valid, or right!
I’ve said it a number of times: why are circular arguments only allowed in monotheist theological discussions? Circular arguments, and the appeals to authority that they very often rely upon or seek to support, are both textbook definitions of logical fallacies. Using any of these to try and argue for the correctness of one’s religion over all others, therefore, is an extremely weak and naïve move…and yet, it happens all the time. (And it happens in the blog post mentioned above, and in several of the comments on both The Wild Hunt’s post and the other.)
And, this is where an important further dimension of the question of mysticism enters into the picture once again. My own religious and spiritual experiences, which include a number of experiences involving Antinous (but a variety of other gods as well, including Iao Sabaoth), are things that, in my opinion, ultimately don’t amount to a lot for the rest of the world. Sure, I can relate these experiences, and in so doing, and in further discussing some of the ideas that might follow from these experiences, other people may be inspired, have questions answered, and gain insights into their own experiences of divine beings and realities (whether they are Antinous-related or not). However, I am in no way arrogant nor presumptuous enough to suggest that any of my own personal experiences are in any manner binding in their meanings or interpretations on anyone but myself–and this is despite the fact that some people have attempted to make my experiences binding on all people (including in this very blog). That’s not how polytheism works, and I suspect that’s not how most religions work. We might get assistance from others on some occasions for discerning what our own spiritual path and best actions in life might be, but rarely do we absolutely force others to follow whatever it is our experiences seem to indicate. We never presume that our theological notions that flow from our experiences are binding upon all other people, and that they have no choice whatsoever in this matter because we are the sole possessors of “The Truth.” And yet, the latter is the basis for the entire system of monotheistic theology, at least in its two most widespread and successful forms on the planet today.
Thus, while I’ve gone rather all over the place with the present post, and have gone on far longer than even I had expected in worst-case-scenario fashion that I would go, I find myself arriving at the following conclusion. I am a polytheist (and an animist) because I find that these viewpoints best describe my own experiences to me, and they are the framework in which I can best understand and use those experiences toward productive ends for myself and for many (though not all) others. Yes, I love my gods and I love that they have been a part of my life: that is the very basis for my experiences. But when understanding myself theologically, this is the position I find myself in, and I think it’s a good one. My viewpoint on the gods tends not to invalidate their possible existence in other religions, thus I am very happy to concede that Iao Sabaoth, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Allah, various angels and saints, and a number of other divine beings exist; I still worship and interact with a few of these from time to time, to varying degrees of success, and some of them have had transformative and powerful influences on my own spiritual development and experience over the years in the past, which I do not wish to ever forsake or invalidate. However, I’m under no obligation to think of these deities in the same manners as those who are members of religions who consider these deities to be the “only” deities in existence. Gentlidecht, as well as the practices of many other people that I respect a great deal as spiritual colleagues and co-religionists, do not have difficulties with the beings of these other religions, and some of the practices and ideas that arise from them; but, they’re still polytheists, at the end of the day. While monotheists’ own theologies within their religions are perfectly valid for themselves (unless they actively harm others, which they do far more often than all of us non-monotheists would prefer), I will not by any means grant them a validity outside of that relative validity; even the best-intentioned among them would do no more than that for me, and I’m fine with that. And–I fully realize the following will not be liked by many people, but nonetheless here we are–because my religious viewpoint allows me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the divine beings and experiences that other people in other religions have, I think it’s a great deal more preferable to have this viewpoint than it is to be a member of any religion that makes a business of invalidating any other theology and that denies me (and other polytheists and animists) the benefit of logic, or any show of good faith in our benevolent human intentions, suggests that our religious experiences are false and delusional, or that our revered divine beings are in any way lesser than their own.
And, no, not all members of the Christian or Muslim religions do act in those ways toward other religions, which is a good and wonderful thing; I wish their co-religionists would learn from their good example far more than they have up to this point in history.
The three gods of Christianity are three among millions and millions that have existed throughout human history and that have interacted with humans, and which continue to exist and to interact with humans; they are no worse than any other such deities, and they are certainly no better.
Okay…I hope this particular spirit is well exorcised for the moment, and I won’t have to return to it for a while.