Given all of the various discussions lately in some sections of the modern pagan and polytheist communities, one thing cannot be denied: many of us have come to the realization that we are doing very different things, and our overall aims within our religious practices and identities are vastly divergent. As polytheists, I maintain that we are inherently appreciative of diversity and affirming of pluralism. However, not wishing ill of others who think or act differently does not always translate into being able to work with others in a shared spiritual context–and the latter is the point that I think needs to be discussed, emphasized, and explored further, which I’ll attempt to do here.
For some of us, this realization of difference goes so far as to recognize that some of our beliefs are irreconcilably different, and no matter how much dialogue we have with each other, and no matter how civil and respectful we’re able to keep the conversation, there is really not much to be gained by immovable objects meeting irresistible forces and impassable barriers–and, make no mistake, none of the multiple sides in these matters has the monopoly on such objects, forces, and barriers!
While modern paganism has been called an “umbrella” more than a singular religion, or even groups of religions or religious movements, what is becoming clear to many of us is that the pagan umbrella’s ribs are straining, at best, at present. Many of us use the term “pagan,” for a variety of reasons, and have an attachment to it to a degree that we cannot imagine abandoning it–I’ll speak for myself that I’m one such person–even though we might have further more specific labels to add to it like “polytheist” and so forth. I don’t think one side or another, one group or another, or even one group of groups or identities or theologies, has “more right” to the term than any other…in other words, no one “owns” the term and can speak for everyone who uses it, nor force compliance on matters practical or creedal within the users of the term, nor should anyone attempt to do so.
But, at the same time, I don’t think we can go on for much longer in a useful fashion knowing how very different some of us are from many of the others, and often of the majority. Yet, I don’t think we should cut ourselves off from other varieties of pagan, or proscribe interactions, or anything of the sort, either.
And yet again…at a certain point, our interactions are no longer within the realm of intrafaith activities; they are instead becoming interfaith in almost every respect. When does that occur, and how?
…My original intention was to say “Hey, look, archetypal hero journeys here, archetypal hero journeys there! Everywhere an archetypal hero journey!” Much of my religious education focused on Jung and Campbell, in part because it’s helpful as a priestess in a diverse community to see patterns in belief systems so that you can effectively minister to those who worship outside your pantheon. If you go towards “thunder” and take a left instead of a right, you get to Thor instead of Zeus. A former student of mine follows a Norse Pantheon and having those metaphors available helped me be his priestess. But Zeus and Thor, in my reckoning, are quite different and distinct beings.
I think others extrapolated my commentary about heroes to mean that I think the gods are “only” archetypes or that it’s all archetypes – which kind of sounds threatening if your idea of divinity is that they are distinct beings. Neither way is more right than the other and it really is okay if your idea of the divine is archetypal, non-archetypal, or something else. Really!
One of the biggest mistakes that was made from where I’m standing is that while I’m a Hellenic Polytheist, I’m not of the Reconstructionist sort….
There are a variety of points here that I think are interesting, valid, and important to consider; and yet, from my perspective, there is an illustration here of a viewpoint and a way of looking at one’s practice that is quite different from my own, and it cannot meaningfully co-exist with my practice.
Part of it, I think, is the notion of priest/esshood that is being expressed here. On the one hand, I think it is good to aspire to be adaptable and to be able to “spiritually help” anyone out who might need it. (And with any luck, Anomalous Thracian might have more to say about that in the near future…) At the same time, I don’t think the role of a priest of any sort is to be a “universal adapter for deities.”
If someone wants to interact with the deities that I have relationships with, they can come and consult me; but for any deity at all that is possible, both within the various pantheons I work in as well as others, I think it is a bad idea to assume that an archetypal framework can in any way assist me with such deities or the humans with whom they might be interacting. Not all deities automatically “like” me, to my knowledge, and I would assume the ones that don’t have never yet said “hello” to me in any way I’ve been able to detect. I am free to make ovations toward any deity I might wish until I am given an answer otherwise by them, certainly, but in most cases, I either get “Good! Thanks!” or nothing, and I don’t take it hard if the answer is nothing. Some I continue to persist with when there is a “nothing” response for reasons that I feel are important or pressing, but generally speaking, if I don’t get a strong drive toward continuing with a particular deity, I am fine to let whatever I have done for them previously stand, and do no more.
Part of my polytheistic understanding, with the position that the gods are volitional and independent beings, is that they do have the ability to say “no” to us for whatever reason they might wish, nor do they owe us explanations when they do respond with “no” under most circumstances (unless there is a long-standing devotional relationship already present). While I generally have no reason to assume that any given deity will be ill-disposed toward me if I approach them, nonetheless I also don’t assume that they’re entirely grateful and desperate for any and all attention shown to them these days (no matter how much we might like to over-inflate our own importance in that regard given the overall number of polytheists in the general population today).
So, perhaps that’s where I’m having some difficulty with Sunweaver’s viewpoint–an archetypal framework on deities does not in any way help me understand deities that I’m not already familiar with, or pantheons I have not worked with before; but, a polytheistic understanding of deities as individuals with independent volition does help me understand deities I have not encountered previously. Understanding humans by general behavioral expectations, societal norms, or group-specific stereotypes is something we’ve been encouraged to NEVER EVER DO in our human interactions, and thus instead we are told that we should try and approach individual people as individuals. I think that’s a pretty good standard to follow, personally. I’m not sure how it is that such interpersonal mechanics would work differently with deities, since they are also persons…!
There is a good deal of cognitive dissonance on my part, therefore, when I encounter viewpoints like these that are so different than mine, and while I don’t have any problem understanding and respecting the choices others have made in these regards (because these viewpoints, these beliefs, are choices, as all beliefs are), I suspect that it would be almost impossible for me to work honestly or effectively in an environment where I was alongside people who thought in these other ways, at least on anything religious or spiritually related. Can we staff a booth selling baked goods for a particular cause together? Sure. Can we share a carpool to an event together? Absolutely. Can we have a nice cup of chai and orange scones and laugh about the latest The Big Bang Theory episode? Most definitely. Can we be friends? I see no reason why not. But, can we work together on religious matters? I don’t think so, for the same reason that I couldn’t work with people of various other religions in a ritual setting, unless I was a guest in their tradition (or they in mine) and was following their norms and procedures, knowing that mine and my understanding of theirs might be different, and potentially even “wrong” in their perspective. If they are all right with me doing that, that’s one thing; if they aren’t, then I couldn’t be there in the first place.
The people with whom we’ve done Communalia in the Ekklesía Antínoou tend to be on some continuum of practice and theology that I see as potentially adaptable with and analogous to our own in the Ekklesía Antínoou as polytheists. We have mutual agreements that we can come under each others’ roofs with full welcomes, and I am deathly serious about upholding those with every ounce of my strength and every ounce of my will. But, our roofs will not suddenly be refurbished, or even painted, by the guests under it when they are under it, nor will we go seeking to paint or refurbish their roofs either when we are their guests–it would be a violation of hospitality to do so. I am happy and comfortable making this agreement with groups that I know and with individuals that I love and trust; but, I am by no means of the opinion that it extends to everyone indiscriminately and is in effect at all times in all of my pagan or even polytheist interactions. It is a serious commitment that is made after much thought and reflection, and is not entered into lightly, as all alliances and oaths should be. And, some of those groups do believe and practice in ways vastly different from my own, and yet because I think they’re doing good work and am committed to supporting them because of my knowledge of their work, I have felt it appropriate to make a commitment to them via Communalia to publicly and divinely state such.
I am not a total relativist by any stretch of the imagination; but, I suppose in relation to Communalia, I’m a limited relativist, at least on a negotiated and contractual basis, with individuals, or with individual groups. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
There is also a further matter that has been brought up in various places in some of these debates, and to a certain extent in the comments on some of my own recent posts. While the effects of ritual might entail us “feeling good,” the purpose of ritual for polytheists is not for us to feel good or to become improved by the experience, it is for the gods. Though the gods are large, wise, and powerful, they are also not as physically present in this world as we are; doing ritual and bringing them into our daily practice and various other spiritual activities helps them to become more present in this world. Just as we are blessed with presence and physicality and agency in this world, we should use our strengths in those areas to benefit those who are not–namely, the gods; likewise, the gods might benefit us with their wisdom, guidance, strength, and empowerment on occasion, but not without contractual relationships, understandings, and very much a quid pro quo attitude, which is expressed in the Roman do ut des and in the Greek kharis religious human-divine interrelational schemata, as well as those of many other ancient and indigenous cultures. They are not divine vending machines for us to put in an exact, small amount of offering or devotion to in return for particular favors; favors, and favor generally, comes in a variety of ways, not always quantifiable by notions of “the gods did this for me” or “this god gave me such-and-such.” Rarely does such favor result from a fleeing and brief interaction; it is a thing built up with trust and devotion over time (not unlike many human friendships). Indeed, for the gods to have such an insistence on having established relationships before granting favors (particularly extraordinary ones) is not without its wisdom, because in my own personal experience, as well as what I’ve observed from a number of other humans, it’s often easiest to forget the needs of the gods in favor of our own, or to put the needs and desires of the gods off or to de-prioritize them. Why would anyone with limited resources simply give things away out of the goodness of their heart (and many deities have an overabundance of such goodness!) when they get nothing at all in return, or nothing useful? We can’t do it as human devotees, and oftentimes, I don’t think the gods are overly lavish with their charms either, which is not a detriment to them, only an observation on the specific ways they can be effective in the world, which often don’t translate well into physical terms.
This idea of combined divine omnibenevolence and divine superabundance of grace and blessings is a theological notion that I’m seeing a great deal of on the other sides…and sometimes it spills over into expectations of humans in religious contexts, that leaders should just give and give and give–and often to the community, not to the gods–and do so freely, with no expectation of remuneration or even a modicum of appreciation in many cases, and also no complaint on their part. That isn’t a sustainable situation…
There is a phrase from liberation theology that I think is also useful here, slightly paraphrased for a non-Christian context: religion is not a school of ethics, it’s a school of eschatological hope. Sure, sometimes the eschatological hope that is cultivated in religious contexts ends up being its own school of ethics with appropriate and important lessons imparted in the process of doing an engaged eschatology, but the main purpose of religion is not to teach people how to be better people. Indeed, one thing the atheists are 100% right about is that one doesn’t need religion to tell one how to be a better person. This rather Protestant notion of religion, that it is a place where we learn lessons, and that the point of it is to live a more moral life, is not really appropriate to any polytheistic, animistic, or indigenous religion that I’m aware of. One does the things one does religiously because that is the way things must be, and no more and no less, because one can (and should–and heavens forfend that there should be any “should”-ness in religion!) do nothing other. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all…
Recently, T. Thorn Coyle wrote about the secondary status of “belief” in her own life (and, I think by implication, in modern pagan religiosity), and I agree in almost every point with it; Thorn draws on some words of Joseph Campbell therein which have been especially influential in my own life as well. Some of Thorn’s own discussion of these matters, I think, parallels ways that I outlined some of my own thoughts in this direction in the comments to this recent post, which was itself a response to a post by Teo Bishop. Teo then further commented on Thorn’s recent post:
I read your words and think, “Yes. This is correct. This resonates.”
But then I step back and wonder why your article affects me so differently than the other posts and comments I’ve read recently, all of which are expressing a similar perspective. Perhaps it is that your experiences have inspired in you a broad, fluid, expansive understanding (or belief) about the universe. You have brushed up again[st] a mystery — The Mystery — and that experience keeps you open and flexible somehow.
There are those who, like you, begin with experience, but unlike you they become rigid and fixed in their thinking about the *meaning* of that experience. But for you, there seems to be no rigidity. You are not codifying the ineffable: you are dancing with it.
I think there are a few things going on in this response as well, though, which themselves have to do with–yep, you guessed it–belief. There is a preference in Teo’s words that privileges a monistic understanding (e.g. “The Mystery,” emphasis mine), and that I tend to find reflected in a lot of modern pagan thinking as constitutive of “openness” and which promotes relativism in the name of “not being judgmental” and so forth. These ideas, dear friends, are themselves beliefs! (And thus, they are also choices.) Anyone who does not have similarly phrased and similarly “open” thoughts on these types of issues is critiqued, and often even marginalized and shunned, which kind of defeats the ideal that is implied in such beliefs…about which one could say a great deal more.
To summarize some of this matter: I think some people who are non-polytheists are holding polytheists responsible, not for their own beliefs, but for the ways in which polytheists’ beliefs are not accommodating of non-polytheists’ beliefs. The implication is that polytheists cannot approve of and support and include people of the range of non-polytheist beliefs in their polytheist practices; and while that implication is correct, this is the equivalent of such a person going to a Roman Catholic bishop, saying “Your rituals and beliefs exclude me because I believe in XYZ fashion, so fix it, or else you’re not flexible.” Of all the things that Catholicism can be critiqued on, the fact that they don’t include non-Catholics’ beliefs in their religious understandings is so marginal as to be laughable. No, perhaps modern polytheists are not as large in numbers, old in lineage, or rich in wealth and power as Catholics, but just because that’s not the case with us doesn’t mean that the norm that “religions promote their own theological views in their own religious activities and spiritual works” doesn’t apply equally well to us, and anyone or everyone else.
(If you are a member of CUUPS, or are a Unitarian generally, then things may be different [though, frequently, they're not...!]…but, if you’re not a part of those groups, why would they be different? No religion has survived long by promoting or preferring another religion’s viewpoints!)
And, while I could also expand upon the use of the term “ineffable,” and how it may not always be appropriate for some of the realities that we experience as polytheists (even though every individual being in the universe has infinite dimensions, and is thus a kind of “small ineffable” no matter what–and I include humans in that!), nonetheless when we are not dealing with the ineffable (and, often, to do so for even short periods of time is not good for the nervous system or other physical aspects of our humanity, if it is even possible to do so), why not at least classify it, call it what it is, and thereby come to a better way of understanding it internally? Codification is not necessarily a bad thing…
To use a metaphor that is beloved of a lot of people, including many who espouse beliefs similar to those just discussed, let’s look at love, but of the romantic sort. Let’s say Person A starts hanging around with Person B, and finds that they get an excited jolt from them which occasionally makes them a bit moist in more parts of their body than they’re accustomed to…and they go, “Well, that’s lust.” So, they decide to follow their lust, and after being with the person for a while longer, they find genuine heart-flutters and so forth developing. They might say “This is limerence,” or “new-relationship energy,” or what-have-you. As they spend more time with them, they genuinely develop feelings of appreciation for their newfound partner, and they say “I really do like this person and enjoy being around them.” But then, when those feelings deepen and become more and more committed, and it is obvious to everyone in Person A’s life that they have fallen head-over-heels “in love” with Person B, Person A then suddenly says “Well, I don’t want to call it ‘love’ because that’s such a loaded word, and I don’t want to limit my experience by clichés and rigidity,” and then they do nothing to further their engagement with Person B because to do so might require them to call what they’re doing “love” or some other term that they might not entirely like, for whatever reason…
I think most people might conclude that Person A is self-deluded, as well as self-limiting (despite arguing the exact opposite!), and is not being in any way helpful to themself or to Person B by denying what it is that they happen to be feeling. It would be foolish of them to potentially lose that relationship with Person B that so clearly they enjoy and which enlivens them just because they don’t want to be saddled with the possibility that they, or anyone else, considers what they have with Person B to be “love.”
[And, note, nowhere in the above hypothetical situation have I said anything about "committed relationships" or "marriage" or the like--if that is what might float someone's boat, great; but, just the admission that what is occurring is love is what I'm focusing on, and what Person A is failing to do.]
A lot of devotional polytheists have relationships of love (and/or many other things) with their deities, and sometimes, those relationships necessitate the use of certain words to describe them, and then make use of certain further words and ideas and thoughts to describe the deities themselves. These may be idiosyncratic, and may be things that are uniquely filtered through a particular individual’s own perceptive lenses, cognitive schemata, and other factors that relate to their singular positionality as a human devotee of that/those god/s. If one is not making sweeping statements about the universally applicable and necessary “rightness” or “orthodoxy” or “requirement” of their own understandings, though, how in the world is that anything other than what all of us are doing all the time anyway with all of our thoughts and experiences?
And yet, devotional polytheists who have such specific views and use specific terms for them, which many modern pagans are insistent on calling “beliefs,” or their particular “interpretations of their experience” (which is another way to say “belief,” and one that I would fully endorse), get derided as being rigid, fixed, closed, and inflexible. Are we really, though? I don’t think so, personally…
[And part of that, no doubt, is due to the mutability of us as humans, and the gods as gods, and the fact that all relationships change, adapt, evolve, and develop in other ways. Being in a serious relationship means being able to commit to the other being through and despite the changes and deepenings and further dimensions of them that get revealed in time. That's about as far from being inflexible and rigid as one can be...!]
Or, to use an example from a different context, but one that is specifically religious: Shinto. After polytheism and modern paganism (21+ years) and Catholicism (10 years), Shinto is the religion that I have the most familiarity with and the longest continuous practice of, at just about five-and-a-half years (since late December of 2007). It is a religion consistently described and understood by the Japanese people as “not a religion,” because it is an indigenous religion, and thus it is inseparable from the culture in which it developed; Japanese people readily consider Buddhism and Christianity religions, but not Shinto. (While some of this may also have to do with feelings of enforced inferiority due to the self-understanding and widespread dominance of these other two religions, I think that only goes so far in explaining this phenomenon.) Shinto is remarkably relaxed in its approach to theology: it is difficult to define it as simply and purely animistic, polytheistic, or even potentially monistic…and, most Shinto priests and practitioners will insist that it doesn’t really matter what you think about it theologically or what you believe about it–the most important thing is to do it. It can’t even really be described as “experiential” necessarily, because the emphasis isn’t on how you came to have the rituals or the kami impact your own life, it’s that you did the rituals and did them correctly and fully (hopefully with a positive attitude and a sense of gratefulness), because (as many of us have been saying recently, as well as over time) it isn’t about humans feeling great, it’s about the kami, and about conforming human life to the way of the kami, which is exactly what “Shinto” and Kami-no-Michi means.
And yet, when you go to a Shinto ceremony, there is no futzing about in terms of making things accessible to people–it’s all in Old Japanese, or else it isn’t done (if you want translations, they exist, but large parts can’t be translated, and they certainly don’t supply you with them when you go to the rituals, you might study them later at home). It doesn’t matter if you find the chairs uncomfortable, or if you don’t like to bow for ten to twenty minutes at a time–that’s how Shinto is done. And, your interpretation of what goes on is NEVER the topic of conversation for very long, if it is even a topic of conversation at all. History is well understood and agreed upon where certain shrines, individual kami, practices and implements, and other matters are concerned, and isn’t up for debate. When a kannushi (priest) or guji (high priest) talks about the ceremonies involved on a given matsuri–and always after they are completed, not before and certainly not during–or the prevailing ki and directions and numbers and elements of a given time period or holiday, there is no “to me, this is…” or “this is what we think about it, but your thoughts might be different” or any other YMMV, relativism-suggesting caveats placed on the matters before, after, or during when they are mentioned. All of this simply is, and it has quite literally “always been that way” since it was never interrupted as a continuous religious practice in Japanese culture. Sure, Shinto has changed and been altered and refined and reformed over the years, and yet the basic elements go back to very ancient (and potentially even ice-age) roots, the shrines were often founded several millennia ago, and the basic look of the shrine, the priests, and the rituals themselves are around 1200 years old.
Those of you who don’t agree with the overall direction of my present remarks might say, “But, that’s them; we don’t have to be that way, and we shouldn’t be that way because we’re still a new religion.”
So, prolonged adolescence rather than moving to a point of maturity is the best way FOR EVERYONE in modern paganism or polytheism to proceed, because then we’ll all be on equally shaky footing? We’ve long been waiting for aspects of our various movements and identities under the pagan umbrella to solidify and mature, and some of us are tired of waiting and are doing what we can to be mature rather than to continue in disorganization and lack of integrity. We have recognized certain individuals as elders of various sorts for their work, knowledge, and achievements on behalf of our religions, and yet many of them are not stepping up and doing what elders have always done to maintain the integrity of traditions or to foster maturity in their younger charges.
And, no, I don’t think that considering some people not “peers” due to their younger age or lesser experience is a bad thing at all–in fact, it would be disrespectful to do otherwise in both directions, in my view. I suspect the reason why so many of the non-polytheists who are objecting to polytheism prefer views that are monistic because, then, that ultimately means that everyone is equal in every possible way, and thus an elder is no better than a beginner, an ancient and tested practice is no better than an on-the-spot innovation, and therefore assumed peerage with all is expected, enforced, and insisted upon, when in fact that is often the recipe for disaster in areas of activity where the use of particular knowledge or expertise is necessary (as all effective spiritual practice is). It leads to laziness in lack of study, and lack of investment in relationships and pursuit of experiences when it is assumed that one can just turn up and–if one is “in touch” enough with “The Divine” that is the source and destiny of us all–then one can have an “ineffable” experience of divine bliss just as easily and effectively as someone who is has been an elder of a given tradition for 40+ years.
The model of Shinto is a good one to consider, I think, because even though practice is far more important than experience and displaces the need for belief and theology to a large degree, nonetheless we can see that it manages to leave room for personal preferences in theology or belief so long as they do not become impediments to practice. There is profound freedom in theology in Shinto, and room for as much or as little belief as one might wish to bring to the matter; and yet, there is pretty much one and only one way to do ritual correctly, and one and only one way to discuss it in doing so…and, it never feels oppressive or didactic or dictatorial to me when I do Shinto (despite being extremely individualistic and opinionated!) because even though I have strong opinions on almost every subject, nonetheless the ideas conveyed are all entirely compatible with my own animist and polytheist (or, as Anomalous Thracian says, polytheanimist!) positions on most theological topics.
Returning to Sunweaver’s comments, the notion that “we’re all right” can’t really hold realistically in nuts-and-bolts actual spiritual practice–such thoughts would, if nothing else, undermine the attention and intention of a given ritual. One can say “other people are free to do as they wish” and one can be respectful towards them, and what they are doing may be right for them and their gods (as they understand them…if, in fact, they have gods in their theological schemata or list of interests and priorities at all), but it can never be right for oneself–and no one should be afraid to admit that or state it…
And yet, for fear of being labeled a “fundamentalist” or anything else of that sort, many non-polytheists have been laying into us with both barrels, insisting that our “belief’s” lack of accommodation for a full affirmation for and congratulation of them and their beliefs is wrong, untenable, and is ruining the community. While this may just be my own interpretation, and thus it serves my own position better than any other, these sorts of statements are what I’m hearing others make, and there is always an implied superiority in their statements of their viewpoints over ours.
So, to circle back (after more than 5000 words!) to my subject line: when does it become necessary to say that not only do we not agree with each other, but your religious umbrella no longer works with ours (no matter what we might call that umbrella)? And, this isn’t a polytheist/non-polytheist divide, nor a reconstructionist/non-reconstructionist divide: it’s a basic divide over the thought that everyone else’s religion must accommodate my own religious thoughts (or else it’s inflexible and rigid and therefore not preferable, even for the people doing it), or whether one does one’s own religious practices as best as one knows how, and in doing so hopefully serves one’s gods, one’s community, one’s inner nature, or the wider world and the earth upon which we all live (or, hopefully, more than one of those things).
I am happy to argue historical details on a variety of matters with anyone–those are things that, as far as I am concerned, are set in stone (sometimes literally!), although it is true that many are open to conjecture, and can be interpreted in various ways. What I will never do is tell someone that what religion they’re following is one they shouldn’t follow, or that their own beliefs should be modified or changed in order to accommodate my own understanding. Someone else might not get the details of what I understand and what I “believe” correct, and thus they should be corrected; and likewise, someone might interpret the construction of belief in a premodern culture in ways that are not actually viable, and on those things I think they should be corrected rather than assuming the beliefs they’ve chosen to discuss are in line with their own. But actually telling someone who is a Wiccan duotheist with a strong archetypalist streak “That’s wrong, and you shouldn’t do it?” NEVER.
As a matter of interpersonal communication, interrelationships, and courtesy, though, I am very willing to state categorically that I think the way that many people whose beliefs differ from those of polytheists have been needlessly insistent on both the superiority of their beliefs, and therefore an implied necessity of holding them, and an active campaign of trying to make us change our beliefs in order to accommodate them. One word for that sort of activity is “proselytism.” As much as many of them have hated when Christians do that same activity to them, I think that arguing with polytheists until we agree with them on their basic understandings of theology is not a good tactic for doing religion, making friends, or for indicating that the religious beliefs you’ve chosen to follow are better options to have taken.