Posted by: aediculaantinoi | December 8, 2012

Revisiting Genitive Theologies

The following set of reflections is brief and tentative, but I hope that it is of interest to some of you. And if not, no big deal–it will be just like a great many things written about in this blog that don’t have anything to do with tits, genitals, Justin Bieber, Justin Bieber’s tits and/or genitals, and so forth that seem to pass everyone’s notice by and never draw any comments, despite being potentially very important indeed.

For good or ill, much of my formal theological training in an academic context has been under the aegis of a particular creedal monotheistic religion; I count myself lucky that such an education came at the hands of the Jesuits rather than certain other groups, considering their overall tendency toward more liberal ideas generally, but nonetheless, that’s the situation. Luckily, my earliest formal theological excurses were not in that context, and instead had to do with mostly Asian (especially Buddhist and Taoist) mysticism, but the foundations laid there were supplemented and expanded upon mostly in the context of various Christian matters.

One thing which I did get quite a bit of, however, was what is sometimes called “praxis-based theologies,” and this would be a field and a framework that is quite relevant to many pagans and polytheists, I think. In the Christian context, what this refers to are the theological fields that arise from a liberal viewpoint and from the experiences of particular groups of people: feminist theologies, queer theologies, liberation theologies, political theologies, and so forth. These are both experiential in nature and are designated by the term “praxis,” which implies practice and practicality and doing, all of which are things that I think are relevant to and appropriate for the modern (and ancient!) polytheist or pagan, since these are religions of experience and practice much more so than they are religions of creed. (And, note, just because they are, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have “beliefs” of various sorts, or motivating ideals, it’s just that nailing those down and adhering to them is nowhere near as important as doing things or as participation in spiritual activities.)

Something further which these types of praxis theology emphasize is that they are not “genitive theologies”; in other words, they’re not “theologies of liberation” or “theologies of women/feminism” or “theologies of queerness,” in which theology is applied to these topics, they are instead theologies which arise out of the experience and the practice of these various different concerns. But, in a way, that is equally as genitive as phrasing it the other way, in certain senses…isn’t it?

Given this “non-genitive” approach, I’ve likewise often felt that the oft-repeated “god of _____” meme that gets used in polytheism, both by outsiders and scholars as well as by some actual pagans and polytheists (and quite wrongly, in many cases!) is an area in which a more non-genitive approach might be more useful, but in the sense of simply eliminating that sort of categorization rather than rephrasing it in a non-genitive fashion. It’s not a matter of saying that Zeus isn’t a “god of thunder” so much as he’s a “thunder god,” it’s simply realizing that any such phrase will never really encompass the divine reality and multifaceted personality that is Zeus. And, I’ve applied this kind of thinking to Antinous on many occasions: I’ve resisted anyone attempting to nail him down into a “god of” something, and have particularly objected to anyone who tries to suggest that he is the “god of gays” or “god of gayness.” I still stand by that position.

And yet, in terms of certain deities, looking at this entire question outside of the particular frameworks of certain iterations of praxis-based theology, I have to ask if genitive theologies are, in fact, both necessary, proper, and in fact are the most descriptive, useful, and appropriate in some cases. Let’s do two test cases for this, with one of the examples of a deity I just used, and then a further one I’ll introduce in a moment that is even more relevant to the present context and this specific issue.

If we can understand a “genitive theology” to be something in which a particular elemental force, phenomenon, or aspect of the cosmos has a deity or deities that are appropriate to it and are in some sense either created or necessitated by the existence of that aspect of the cosmos, then almost every deity that we know of and that is attested from the various premodern polytheistic cultures potentially fits into this framework quite easily. There most certainly is thunder, for example, and no one has to debate on whether or not it exists. In a particular cultural framework, a deity arises to account for the existence of thunder, or (perhaps more creatively and intriguingly) arises from the collective experience of a given culture of that phenomenon. In ancient Greece, that god was Zeus; in other cultures, however, that god might have been Thor, or Indra, or Shango. While each of these deities has many more aspects, connected or not to the phenomenon of thunder, nonetheless we can, in a certain manner, understand each of them to arise in a genitive fashion from that particular force. To do so would not be incorrect, therefore, even if it might be reductive and one-dimensional to see a deity as only a “god of thunder.”

Likewise, and more specific to my own experiences, we have the Tetrad as four deities who have arisen as a result of the very real and observable phenomenon of trans and gender-variant identities in the modern world. The specific experiences of trans and gender-variant individuals and communities in the modern context (which is, indeed, the ONLY context in which “trans-ness” as now understood and experienced can have taken place) has created the critical mass necessary to have deities emerge from those experiences which are quite literally born from and are therefore “generated by” those experiences. Thus, to deny that the Tetrad are “deities of trans-ness” would be to deny a great deal of their nature; but, that having been said, they’re not simply deities for trans or gender-variant people only, and their fuller identities and potential appeal extend far beyond that. In this, they’re not unlike trans and gender-variant people, who have many different skills, talents, and life experiences that can be of potential interest and utility to anyone and everyone. (Which is true of any matter of identity, be it gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, or anything else.)

I would still maintain, though, that Antinous is not a “god of gayness” (or, in a non-genitive manner, a “gay god”!), because he was not created from the existence or the experience of gayness (which has only existed in its current understanding for about 150 years), or even of the experience of male homoeroticism (which has been around forever, in certain senses). He might have that aspect for some people now, but I don’t think it’s the end-all and be-all of Antinous, and those who seem to think it is are missing out on a great deal of him. It would be the equivalent of a straight person having a gay friend, and only going to see their gay friend when they need advice on window treatments, when they are thinking of getting new clothes, or want to hear the latest trends in dance music, but otherwise not caring about them at all or seeing them as a three-dimensional and multifaceted being. Unfortunately, most of the people who treat Antinous in this way are not straight people wanting to benefit from the advice of a gay person, but instead gay people who have such an immature understanding of their sexual identity as to think that it is an end-all and be-all aspect of their (and everyone else’s) identity. That sort of view is all right for about forty seconds after one comes out, but beyond that, it’s simply annoying and unrealistic and fails to deal with the lived realities of the world.

So, those are my thoughts on these matters at present. What do you think?


  1. This is similar to, but more in-depth than, some of my own ponderings regarding solar, lunar, and stellar deities and their positions in the various pantheons of the Near and Middle East. I might ask – what about cases in which a particular elemental phenomenon, say, the ocean, has multiple associated deities in a given culture? Would it make sense to say that they arise from different aspects of the ocean, or from different experiences of the ocean by different members of the culture? Or is that unnecessary – the ocean is a big enough thing to generate a handful of gods and more? (I like the last answer, myself, but it tends to make archetypalists upset!)

    • Yes, I’d say I think you’ve got it exactly right. The ocean is HUGE, to say the least, and there are as many different aspects of it as there are gods for it, I think. The rough ocean is much different than the calm ocean; the food-producing ocean is much different than the ocean that drowns (even when it is calm); the ocean that hastens travel is very different from the endless ocean that makes sailors long for home, etc. So, I think you’re right about both possibilities for the ocean: different aspects of it give rise to different deities, but also different experiences of the ocean by different parts of a culture or community likewise give rise to further aspects.

      And, let’s make the archetypalists as upset as possible–if they’re upset, that just shows how inadequate their model and explanation of deities is to actually confronting the reality of deities. 😉

  2. I think that culturally, we have a big fetish for objectification and quickie labels in general. You’re the girl with big tits; you’re the professor; you’re the boss; you’re the gardener; you’re a whore; you’re the god of gays. We boil people and gods both down to the thing we most need or expect from them, and ignore everything else. Getting to know someone beyond that is effortful (though absolutely necessary for meaningful relationship).

    • Precisely–which often makes me wonder if people whose experiences of deities can be encompassed by “god of” statements, and that seem to be derived entirely from attested lore, are really experiencing deities at all, or have experienced them, rather than getting to know them.

      It would be like someone saying “I met Conan O’Brien the other day when I was at the airport, and had a nice chat with him while we were getting coffee at Starbucks.” Then, if one replied, “What’s he like?” the person says a whole bunch of stuff you can find off Wikipedia about Conan O’Brien, but nothing about “He’s sort of awkward in person, and laughed uncomfortably a lot more than I would have expected,” or “He’s really animated and much more physically active in person than one might expect if one had only seen him on television,” and so forth. (I’ve never met Conan, incidentally, so I don’t know if any of that is true, but just for the sake of discussion…you know…!)

      • Yes. I do think that it’s important to connect back to the lore when you can for the sake of knowing for sure who you’re dealing with – and sometimes it’s very heartening to find something you thought was your own little quirk attested in lore! And I also think this relates to why I like peer-corroborated gnosis: it’s like us talking about someone we both know. (There’s an explanation of why this metaphor is useful lurking in my head somewhere that won’t quite come out in writing just now, so I’m just going to trust that you can see where it was going.)

        If all the meaning you got from your god could be had from the Cliff’s Notes, that doesn’t really qualify as being in relationship.

  3. I read this at work, where our primitive internet didn’t allow me to comment. I think this is a great piece of theology, and that you are correct. The gods arising from an *experience* of something makes sense, especially if we are to account for the appearance of new deities. The relatively new theophany of Santa Muerte is one that particularly interests me because I have a devotion to her. While she may have begun as the Aztec Lady of the underworld, in the early 20th century she began to appear as a syncretism with the European Grim Reaper. She is a symbol of how the Mexican people see Death as a relief from the suffering of life and a force of pure equality. She is absolutely fair, since she comes to everyone, but she also has a playful side which we seen in the Day of the Dead festivities. This is why the Catholic Church in Mexico is so scared of her–she’s the new Goddess in town and the Church knows it, even if they can’t acknowledge this within their own theology.

  4. […] theologians and theological concepts I had not known about previously, all under the umbrella of “praxis theologies” (which really means “non-genitive theologies,” and not so much what it might seem to indicate, i.e. theologies based on practice or practices of […]

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