Before I get into the meat of my post for today, I’d like to just take a minute and admit something to you all.
Other than some of my more jokey posts (and those should be relatively obvious), I tend to sit down and write the entries on this blog in a manner that truthfully conveys what I am thinking and feeling at a given time; while my emotions are bound to change, and my thoughts on a variety of issues tend to evolve and shift, nonetheless, each blog entry is a little snapshot in time of what I’m thinking and feeling on a given occasion. (So is every class I teach, every conversation I have, and so forth…and, I’d assume, the same is true of most of the people I deal with as well on a daily or less-often basis.) So, every post is therefore also an “admission” of some sort, an act of me admitting to thinking a certain way or feeling a certain thing…thus, me starting by saying “I want to admit something” is as good as saying “My post today is about,” really.
What I want to admit, though, is to a major fear that I have, and a fear that motivates me more than I’m entirely comfortable admitting (publicly or otherwise), thus I’m hoping to get some degree of control over the fear by admitting it out loud and in front of an audience, even if it’s a virtual audience.
The fear I’m dealing with may not seem to be one that is very applicable to me, and yet it is, far more so than I’m happy about. That fear is this (after four paragraphs of dancing around it, and yet another clause put in its way before it is mentinoed, too–!?!): I am in a constant state of fear and on occasion almost panic that I will run out of words, out of writing, out of new and useful things to say, or even pretty things to say.
Yeah, I know–crazy, huh? I, who routinely write 2,000-3,000 word blog posts on an almost daily basis being worried about running out of words? It is crazy…and, for all that, also entirely true.
It’s one of the things that kept me from starting up a blog like this in the first place. I had a small list of topics I’d like to cover at some stage that I started compiling back in early 2010 (which I still have…and I’ve not even exhausted all of them yet!–though I have made some irrelevant or redundant as a result of having written other things), and I honestly thought after I ran out of those on that list, that there would be no more and I’d be screwed, having a blog that was blank and silent for weeks or months on end, if not longer. Here it is, nearly three years on from beginning, and 1,300+ posts, plus five books written (many of them largely filled with things that started out here), and practically no end in sight…
And yet, for over two hours this afternoon, I pretty much was petrified with the thought of “What if it’s all dried up now?” What sort of devotion would I have to Antinous–or, really, any of the gods I worship (and all of the ones I don’t currently but may in the future…!?!)–if all the words left me? Of course, my devotions are more than just words, and in fact my daily devotions are almost entirely wordless (apart from the Ephesia Grammata and a little short mantra to Hanuman and Ram), but words and poetry in particular are the arena in which my devotions have most flowered, and are probably among the very best things that I can and have offered to the various gods over my life as a modern polytheist and pagan.
So, despite the rather immense output, and the likelihood that like most individuals with the long-term disease known as “being a writer,” the words will never dry up entirely, you might see how this basic thought is in the back of my mind at all times, and every time that I successfully make a stab at the silence and the blankness and fill it with words successfully (or not–because it does happen that either it doesn’t get filled, or what fills it is crap, let’s face it while we’re on the subject of admitting things!), that the next time will be the time when it all fails, when Thoth and Seshat and Hermes and Saraswati and Hanuman and Ogmios and all of the goddesses and gods associated with writing (whose names I am not listing further not out of forgetfulness or disrespect but simply because I need to get to other points relatively soon!) pack up their styluses and papyrus and go “Screw that jerk, we’re leaving!”
It will happen one day: I’ll suddenly trip in the papyrus swamp, and no grasping at reeds or stalks will produce a single thing, and I’ll just drift away and never be heard from again. That will likely be the day I die, I suspect…but, that doesn’t mean that such a day won’t come sooner rather than later, and (it’d be just my luck!) when I’m right in the middle of writing something big and important that I have not left sufficient notes on for whatever poor bastard has to go through my literary legacy after I die and see if there is anything useful left that can be published posthumously to help pay for the likely immense student loan bill that I’ll still owe at that point…
Yeah, you see: lots of other fears get swept up in this one, for all sorts of reasons. But, there is some strength and support to be gained in standing up and saying “Hey, here’s something I piss myself over that has nothing to do with other health issues!” (And, no, dear friends, I have not pissed myself, even a little, for almost twenty years, but thanks for asking!)
Okay…catharsis over; now, into the meat of things!
Over the last few days, I’ve been having a very nice and useful conversation in the comments on this blog post with Aine Llewellyn, whose Patheos.com Pagan Channel blog has had some interesting things in it of late (and always!) that I wish I could comment on individually, but Disqus is still giving me problems…But anyway, one of the things that we discussed is how many of the notions of what is necessary and/or desirable amongst the modern pagan priest/ess/hood is unrealistic, not very useful, and completely not based on historical precedent or tradition. There are still further useful points to be made there, so I look forward to the time when he will write more on that matter, and I’ll be able to read it and point interested readers here toward it.
But then, right on cue, Sam Webster wrote this blog entry at Patheos as well. And, as much as I like Sam and think he’s got some interesting points to make there, I think his blog post falls into some of the errors that Aine and myself were discussing in comments earlier.
Much of the difficulty, I think, comes from Sam’s background in a UU (but mostly Christian-influenced and defined) theological context, which he is perhaps adopting in this particular case without as much reflection or critical examination as might be useful. I find this somewhat ironic, considering he is vehemently against some forms of Christian influence in modern paganism. While my own formal theological and religious studies training (as well as my training in some basic ministry matters, and in spiritual direction) comes from a Jesuit university, and is thus Christian (and specifically Catholic) in nature as well, and a great deal of it was and remains “useful to think with” even when it isn’t directly applicable to pagan or polytheist matters, nonetheless I had no illusions about how the institutional structure and some of its expectations are–in fact–not applicable in many cases to modern paganism, not appealing in some others, and in still further others not even possible. I don’t think it is a deficiency of modern paganism and polytheism that some of these things aren’t in any way do-able at this point, and I think that efforts should be expended toward developing these things not because we “should” in order to fit in more with existing templates of ministerial training provided by (mostly) institutional creedal monotheist religions, but instead because it is right for our own circumstances.
There is a great deal more that could be said on this, including how the “all things to all people” view of ministry, priesthood, and so forth is a pervasive and not-entirely-helpful meme in these matters; but, I’d like to further grapple with one matter that was part of Sam’s discussion, which I think really misses the mark where modern pagan and polytheist practices are concerned: as you will have guessed by the subject line of the present post, prophecy.
Sam says on this subject and the term “prophecy”:
Once meaning “speaking-for” the Deity and ultimately derived from that authority, although not usually meaning channeling these days, it is the task of critique and persuasive correction of the people. It is the often unpleasant and rarely thanked job of telling people where they are wrong. It is easy to lead when everyone wants to follow you and they agree with you. But when they don’t, when in your judgement they are making some kind of error, it is the duty of the minister to get up and use persuasion to change the people’s hearts and minds, their words and deeds—even at the risk of losing your job, which may be supporting your family. This requires courage and conviction, and is best backed up by education and compassion.
While this is a good definition of “prophecy” and the people who practice prophecy, namely “prophets,” it is a definition that is pretty much tied to Jewish and Christian practice, where “the prophets” were such correcters and judges of public morality who cajoled their people into returning to the right and proper ways of worshipping their god, in defiance of external pressures to either convert, assimilate, or to worship deities other than the Jewish one. This is the reason that, as Jesus himself said at one point, prophets are rejected in their own countries, because it takes chutzpah and more to stand up amongst one’s own people and say “Hey, you’re doing this wrong!” until you are blue in the face and worse.
[We all know what happens to pagans and polytheists who tell people they're "doing it wrong": they get branded as fundamentalists and called every nasty name in the book, amongst other things. Sure, it needs to be said sometimes, but I don't think this is "prophecy" as best understood within a pagan or polytheist context.]
This model of prophecy based on the Hebrew Bible’s prophets and their examples pretty much sets up the prophet as, likewise, a potential martyr, as someone who will be reviled and rejected as much as they might be believed or honored (usually long after they’re dead), and thus it’s even more problematic to take this as a model for modern pagans.
There are at least three notions of prophecy apart from this one that I can think of which would be applicable to modern pagans and polytheists:
1) Someone who prophesies about the future, and who is right–if one isn’t right, one is a false prophet, and that’s pretty well looked down upon, both historically and in the modern world. So, in some senses, this definition of prophet could even be close to someone who is a diviner, a medium, a soothsayer, or an oracle, but one who does their actions more in the public spotlight and (hopefully!) for the public welfare, whether that involves asking people to reform their behavior or not (as in the biblical model).
2) Often in Greek and Roman practice, a propheta or prophetes was, very specifically, a priest in an Egyptian cultus of some sort, particularly those of Isis and Serapis. One of the functionaries of Antinous in Rome was a prophetes, which might mean that even Egyptian-style or Egyptian-based priests of Antinous himself would have been called “prophets” by the Greeks and Romans, even if “prophecy” as we think of it along the lines of the above isn’t or wasn’t involved at all.
3) The third meaning is one that is shared with some other religions as well (e.g. Islam), but which equally applies to figures like Alexander of Abonuteichos, and which has some similarities with both the biblical meaning as well as the first of the above definitions, and that’s essentially someone who is a religious reformer, often one who introduces a new cultus or a new deity to a given area. Alexander of Abonuteichos did it with Glykon, basing his new cultus on various extant ones, but still locating it and its rites and mysteries within contemporary and prevailing contexts and cultures within ancient polytheism; Islam’s prophet did it with Allah as a singular deity, and changed the religion and culture of the Arabic world vastly in doing so. Even Aleister Crowley, no matter what you think of him (and he’s a Sanctus here, remember!), was a prophet within Thelema, and thus to a certain extent he is likewise in a lot of modern paganism and polytheism that has been influenced by him, whether people like that or not. Reform is not a requirement in these prophetic movements, but it is often expected, especially if a new deity or divine epiphany comes forth to respond to a need or a difficulty within society or a given group of people.
So, depending on who one asks, either #2 or #3 could potentially apply to me: the first in relation to Antinous and his Egyptian cultic aspects; the second in relation to the Tetrad++ Group, in my role as “god-discoverer” for them and expounder of their myths. The Tetrad++ themselves have a word for this role, and it’s one that I’m not especially comfortable with myself in having it be applied to me, but it’s the one they’ve said repeatedly, and which is probably not useful to flee from any longer…and, it’s the word we’re discussing here.
I’m waiting for that penny to drop for a moment while all of you reading this contemplate it, as I get ready for a deluge of “Whothefuckdoyouthinkyouare?”s that would make the “You’re doing it wrong” backlash look like a day with light winds.
You’ll notice, thus, that no matter how much I’ve admitted in the matters above, and despite what I’ve just told you in a roundabout way, I’m not going to stick that title on my list of identifiers in my biography, even though it’s true and gods-given, because I don’t want to have to deal with the comments of people who might say that I’m “self-proclaimed” or what-have-you…People fulfilling this role, in three of the four instances mentioned above (with #2 being the exception) have always done so at the risk of life and limb, property and reputation, and a variety of other things which the greater public has a way of impacting. Trust me, no one takes this role or title on for self-aggrandizement; if they do, they soon find themselves amidst a bloodbath or worse (figurative or literal) that demonstrates such self-aggrandizement is useless at best and downright dangerous and even life-threatening at worst.
But, in this role, I know I’m not alone in modern pagan, polytheist, and related religious contexts. There are others out there who are discovering new gods, or are helping to bring forth new aspects or epithets or instantiations of already-existing gods, and who are creating liturgies and communities and myths and other things relevant to such an endeavor. It’s not an uncommon thing, or at least not as uncommon as some might prefer to believe; and, I think, it’s a sign that what we’re doing actually works and is working for the gods themselves on a divine level, no matter how chaotic and disorganized and disagreeable our human communities and movements and groups might happen to be. It does not, alas, change everything and make everything “okay,” even in some small sections of our various communities, and it might even cause more problems than it solves, and thus may be more trouble than it is worth in the eyes of some; and yet, those of us who have this role take it very seriously and try to execute it as best we can.
While the more Jewish/biblical form of prophecy certainly has a potential role to play in modern queer theology (as most forms of liberation theology ultimately do), and thus critique and reform of social norms in light of spiritual principles might be something which not only could occur (and does occur) in modern paganisms and polytheisms, a far more likely scenario is that the prophetic function will be something limited to a relatively small number of individuals (though, as said, more than one might have assumed), and will not be something that anyone or everyone involved in pagan and polytheist clergy can or even should be “expected” in any way to do. Deities rarely confer prophetic status on someone at that someone’s initiative; it’s usually something that just happens, often without regard for a person’s position, knowledge, training, or identity and politics in any way at all, which means it is both a great equalizer and as much an oddity or even an encumbrance and inconvenience as it is a privilege and an honor.
Thus, I don’t think it is very useful at all to be looking at Jewish and Christian models of prophecy and prophets and prophetic activities in modern pagan and polytheist (and related) religions. Both of those are more or less useless in terms of dealing with the realities of newer and more unique theophanies; and while the attention to social critique and custom is potentially useful, the tried and true methods of learning spiritual technologies, discernment, interpretation, and being steeped in a given polytheistic practice or cultus or culture are far more important and useful in a pagan or polytheist practice of prophecy, I think.
I would be intrigued to hear the thoughts of anyone and everyone who has read any of the above and finds it useful to comment upon, so I look forward to that in the near future!