Posted by: aediculaantinoi | June 7, 2013

When Does Intrafaith Become Interfaith?

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?

Recently, in the comments at The Allergic Pagan’s blog, Sunweaver wrote:

…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.”

Oh, really?

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.


  1. 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…!

    Yes, precisely, so nicely put. It is a question of logic, really, of the logic appropriate to persons, as opposed to other sorts of entities.

    • Thanks! Glad you thought so.

      I have never understood how this gets missed so often. Even if the gods aren’t human (except when in the cases where they used to be, e.g. Antinous, etc.!), they’re still persons. Why is that such a difficult concept to understand for so many people? I don’t know…

  2. […] Co1ming in at number five, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus ponders the question when does intrafaith become interfaith? […]

  3. “[T]he purpose of ritual for polytheists is not for us to feel good or to become improved by the experience, it is for the gods.”

    I have heard this, or something very much like it, frequently expressed by polytheists during this extended debate; usually in response to the argument that equates cult heroes with fictional heroes on the basis of “I get the same results either way.”

    I get it, intellectually. It’s part of my own devotions to Dionysos, as I view my devotions as a relationship with a person, and not a spiritual exercise program. Still, it’s never sat quite right.

    Reading this post (and I know it’s not your main point, sorry if this is a bit of a digression), I figured out why.

    As it’s stated in these debates, it strikes me, on a personal, emotional level as an attitude toward relationships that is, at best, codependent. In this context, there’s an implication that expecting something back from the gods is somehow wrong, or at least proof that one is taking the wrong attitude towards things.

    So my question is this: Am I the only one that feels this way? If not, how have others dealt with it? I feel that I am getting something back from Dionysos. My relationship with him did start as a more quid pro quo, in that I originally approached him for help with a specific issue. The relationship has grown and deepened since, but I never got the impression that he thought I was doing wrong in my approach.

    On a related note…

    “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…”

    Doesn’t that only push the “Why?” back another step? Does this not simply shut down inquiry? We may not know why a tradition started, but don’t we know why we keep doing it? The gods may not explain why they want what they want, but at least they may tell us they want something. In this case, we do it because we want to please them, which, when you wonder why we want to please them, just brings it back ’round to what we get out of it…

    • In this case, we do it because we want to please them, which, when you wonder why we want to please them, just brings it back ’round to what we get out of it…

      But you wouldn’t, I think, say this about a person whom you loved. You would probably do things the way they want, even if they’d never know, and so you wouldn’t “get” anything out of it. You could say that you do it for the satisfaction of doing it that way, but this presupposes the other person’s desire and agency as the object of your own, and so it doesn’t just “push the ‘Why?’ back another step”.

      Now, part of the reason that you do it that way is surely because you and that person share elements of a common view of the world and how it ought to be. That certainly enters into it, because the other person, if they love you too, wouldn’t want you to do something utterly opposed to your own desire, for their sake. And this is something that sometimes gets lost in the discussion; the Gods recognize us, too, our personhood.

      • Well, I would say that about someone I loved, because it pleases me and makes me happy to do those things for them. And it does make me sad if they don’t notice (which is distinct from them not commenting or reciprocating), but it’s still good to do it, yeah? So I am getting something out of it, even if it’s never a quid pro quo.

    • Considering that you also commented on this other recent post of mine, I can’t see how you’re missing the point that I’m not against people getting things in return for their devotion, or for the gods granting people favors, or (though I didn’t mention it there) even for people to ask the gods for help on certain things. So, I don’t really see how you’re confused about this, or why you’re bringing it up here…

      As to the “why” questions you posed: if there are reasons why we do things, we’re often not aware of them, or can’t put them into words. Of all the things I want to spend time and exert energy finding answers to, I don’t put very high priority on the “why” of my own motivations for things, because the answer for a lot of those is “because I like it.” It may not be a satisfying answer to other people, but I’m not here to please other people in my motives, nor are they here to please me in my motives. It isn’t that I don’t ask this sort of “why” question from time to time, but I am very well aware that so many of my own choices come down to simple aesthetic preferences that are entirely my own, which I feel no need to justify to anyone.

      • I see I may not have been quite clear enough. I do understand the point you’re making, but I’m experiencing two reactions to the language. Intellectually and practically I get it. As I said, it’s not something I have a difficulty with in actual practice; my own devotional work is done for the sake of my relationship with Dionysos, and not because I want anything in particular from him.

        No, it’s the emotional reaction I’m having that makes me curious about whether or not others have struggled with something similar, and also whether or not (as a matter of the tactics of discourse) it might not be a good way to put it to folks who don’t already understand.

        I have had problems with codependency in human relationships, which makes me wary of “give-without-expecting-to-get” situations. It is clear that this isn’t what you’re really talking about (you do mention a reciprocation of gifting kind of thing). I’m just working on connecting my emotional response to the dialog with the in-person experience of relating to my god.

      • So, you’ve answered your own questions, then–it’s something you’re having difficulty with, and thus are wary of. It is a good thing to keep in mind, certainly, but it’s not a problem that I’ve seen in most of my polytheistic colleagues.

        If anything, my experience over the last two years has demonstrated to me that the gods I deal with would be happier if I asked them for more things and was not so independent. I tend not to ask for things because most of what I want and need can’t be supplied by them (e.g. a better job, health insurance, money, etc.), and thus if I ask and they reply “We’ll do what we can” and nothing happens, then I’m more likely to resent their lack of assistance; so, it is better from my perspective not to ask for such things, and to stick with topics or issues they’re more likely to have an influence over.

      • You know, my gods tell me the same thing, regarding asking for more of what I need. They seem to think I’m not focused enough on taking care of myself, and too focused on caring for others. Which, again, answers my own questions.

        I find comfort in knowing that my gods aren’t omni-anything. It helps me to not feel as if they don’t care if they can’t give me what I need in any given instance.

    • One of the things that led to my actual conversion experience was finding a system of ritual that I could perform without feeling like a useless idiot.

      One of the things that led to my understanding that I was not and could never be a reconstructionist-style priest was that if I perform that system of ritual to the level that is expected of that role, I start to feel dead inside, like all the sanctity of the world had been drained out and replaced with a grey hopelessness.

      I worry a lot that “the gods deserve this ritual performed in this way” comes from a position of particular status: expecting the default state of practice to have more resemblance to that of a minority of elites in many ancient cultures (including the ancient culture of interest to me) than the unknown and likely unknowable practices of the masses, defining dedication to the gods in the framework of ritual service and dismissing the significance of acting as Their hands in the world, that the contemplative/devotional job in a broader society is set forth as the only job worth doing as a religious practitioner.

      The Wiccish “everyone is a priest!” mentality has its toxic side effects.

      • I do agree–which is why, no matter how much of the rituals I perform draw upon ancient sources, all of them are ultimately modern in their application. A “real” Roman, Hellenic, or Kemetic recon would not be at all pleased with our ritual formats and such, despite the fact that we are using just as much of a reconstructionist methodology as anyone else.

        And, ironically, I’ve been told by all sorts of non-Hellenic, Kemetic, or Greek pagans and polytheists that our rituals “feel” Roman, or are “very” Greek, etc. So, I don’t know…we must be doing something sort of right, maybe? 😉

  4. > Am I the only one that feels this way? If not, how have others dealt with it?

    It’s theoretically problematic to deal with the gods transactionally… except when it’s not. The Orixa and Loa actively encourage it. There is *plenty* of evidence that Roman culture, and IIRC Greek culture handled things that way regularly. Yes, the stories tell us that hubris is inappropriate – but not that transactional approaches to the gods are hubristic.

    I discourage treating *relationships* that way, both in myself and in others… I don’t treat the Vanir as though most of our interaction is pay-for-service, but if I’m asking for something in particular, then of course I offer what I can in return.

    But more to the point, more to your point, I am actively pushed by the gods to ASK for things I need, to tell Them what I need, to LET Them take care of me. So no, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to expect our interactions with the gods to be two-way, to expect Them to take care of us, rather than to just offer what we offer and if They don’t feel like contributing to our lives, that’s fine, because They’re all power and authority and we’re just humans.

    I think there are people who need to be told to step away from their sense of entitlement, and for those people, teaching them how to offer without expecting a return is healthy.

    I think there are people who don’t take care of themselves and have to be all but forced to remember their own needs, and those people are actively *damaged* by a religious doctrine that says we must never expect the gods to care for us in return for our efforts. And I encounter a LOT more of these than the entitled folk.

    But I know there ARE plenty of the entitled folk, so I don’t wonder where that rule comes from.


    • It depends on our perspective of the world, though, doesn’t it?

      If I look at the world and I see the gods as *part* of it, then being in relationship with Them means much the same as it does being in any relationship.

      But if I see the gods as *responsible* for the world, especially if I see Them as the *creators* of the world, and the powers behind the forces that make the air and water move, the plants grow, etc….

      Then my relationship with Them is inevitable, and the point of my making offerings to Them isn’t about personally asking for specific things, but about the gratitude I feel for the fact that I *exist*, and am supported by the world I live in to eat, to live, etc. I’ve *already* been given everything I *have* by the Gods – as a group – and I’m offering to Them – as a group – to give thanks for that.

      And that’s fine… and giving offerings to specific gods in thanks for specific gifts also makes sense.

      But that’s still grounded in a sense of reciprocity, that I don’t give to the gods without expectation that They give back, but rather because They have *already* given.


  5. “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.”

    This is such an excellent point! Reducing gods to archetypes (healer, lover, warrior) really is a lot like reducing people to a set of labels (heterosexual, black, middle class – or even student, doctor, activist) and expecting that you’d therefore know anything real about them – or that they necessarily have anything in common with others who share the same labels.

    • Perhaps the problem is not so much in starting there, as in stopping there.

      • But, starting there isn’t really a very good thing, either.

        I don’t know much about you, and have only seen your name around a few places, but I think a very bad way to start interacting with you would be to assume that you’re a typical white heterosexual middle-class educated male, and thus you therefore must like cars, football, porn featuring femmy lesbians, beer, and The Big Bang Theory. Any one of those things might be true of you, but it would be better for me to actually ask you what you like and find out more about you than it would be for me to just assume all that is true of you, and then be disappointed that you don’t get my allusions to Sheldon and Leonard’s banter, or freak out because it turns out that you really don’t like beer at all and in fact actively hate it, etc. It tends to take very little “getting stuff wrong” with deities for people to completely abandon them and assume that the god therefore “hates” them or something, when in fact that might not be the case. People set themselves, and the gods, up for a great deal of disappointment when they start with assumptions about them that may not be accurate due to the generalizing archetypal schema they use to arrive at those assumptions, rather than just asking or finding out things about the gods in more direct and specific, personal ways.

      • Do these really only thread three deep?

        PSL, I’m making a distinction between approaching someone as a role and approaching someone as a stereotype. For example, I don’t know you personally, right now I’m approaching you as “that Pagan blogger whose work I respect.” There is an awareness that you are much more than just that, and I’m open to experiencing some of those aspects, should things go that way. But I have to start somewhere, yeah?

        Similarly, 18 years ago, I approached Dionysos as a Pagan approaching The God of Ecstasy for help with breaking out of my social anxiety shell. In working with him on that, I discovered much more about him, and the relationship grew and deepened, and now devotion to him is the main focus of my spiritual life.

        So, approaching a god as an archetype or a role doesn’t seem like it is inherently bad, just limited. And so long as the human doesn’t limit themselves to that artificially (as in your love-relationship example), it may not be the best place to start, but it’s hardly the worst.

      • Perhaps we have some differences in terminology here that might be at the root of our disagreement on this issue.

        As you’ve described me, I am a “Pagan blogger whose work I respect.” As you described Dionysos, he is “The God of Ecstasy.” I think these are two different types of things, neither of which are “archetypes.”

        In the first instance, yes, I am a pagan blogger, and that could mean (on an archetypal level) all sorts of things. The “I respect” part, though, adds a whole different matter–any statement of preference, liking, admiration, or respect means there’s an emotional element to it. One might see Geb, Gaia, Tellus Mater, and Tu Di Gong as “Earth Deities,” two of whom are “earth gods” and two of whom are “earth goddesses,” but one might also see Tellus Mater as “the earth goddess I like” or Gaia as “the earth goddess I’m interested in.” Likewise, I might see twelve doctors in my life–some male, some female, perhaps some even of other genders–but I might end up saying that “Dr. Robbins is the only doctor that I like.” This recognition means that the individual so selected or named has distinguished themselves from the crowd of bloggers, gods and goddesses, or doctors in these various examples, which automatically puts them in a more specific space than a strictly archetypal or role-based approach. Certainly, you’re not going to start liking Ronald Reagan as a pagan blogger, or Zeus as an earth god, or the garbage man as a doctor, so the role is important, but the archetypal dimension in any case becomes less important.

        And, in your second example, Dionysos as a “God of Ecstasy” is a role that he plays, and that very few other deities play–Shiva, Odin, and that’s almost about it, really, as far as deities that can be described with the phrase “God of Ecstasy,” both in their portrayals in their myths, their cultic attributes, the character of their devotees, and in their etymological implications. Again, I think “role” is a bit different than “archetype” strictly speaking, and focuses more on the skill-set and (though I hate to use such instrumental language, nonetheless there we are) “right tool for the right job” approach to matters. One doesn’t go to a carpenter if one needs a consultation on nutritional habits, or to the god of storms and lightning when one is having love troubles. (Especially if that god of storms and such is either Indra or Zeus, considering how often they philandered about the place!)

        So, I would agree that the role-based approach isn’t necessarily a bad place to start: right now, when I need prescription drugs, someone is “the pharmacist,” and eventually they might be the pharmacist I like or trust, etc.

        I don’t think the archetypalist approach is quite the same, though: “love god” or “ocean god” can turn up various results within each archetypal category, and some of them might be more suited to an individual than others. Neptune might be relatively close to Poseidon, but neither one of them is very close to Manannán Mac Lír in character, abilities, or associations. And yet, I do see some modern pagans pretty much equating them, and saying “I get along well with all the ocean gods,” without knowing a thing about some of them or the vast differences that exist between them. Not all roles are archetypes, although most archetypes assume a particular role being involved in some way…

      • I think you’re right about differences in terminology. I don’t think of an archetype as a limiter, just as an aspect. “The Dying and Reborn God” archetype is one thing Dionysos is, not the entirety of him, for example.

        Otherwise, we’re more in agreement than not, I think. Thanks for indulging my meandering.

      • Wait, you guys don’t actually know each other? I have GOT to fix that…

      • Not a guy…

      • Pardon. I meant it in the general sense of “folks”, not in the gendered sense.

  6. “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.”

    I see your point, but try and see it from the other side. Many non-polytheist pagans feel the same implied superiority coming from your viewpoint.

    • I’m probably missing a lot here, but why do we have to actively leave room in our beliefs for other beliefs we don’t actually share, as opposed to leaving room in our *behavior* for other *people*? I’m not obliged to *agree* with you, I’m obliged to treat you with respect. Those aren’t synonyms.


    • oops! Hit submit too soon.
      This is a great post and I really appreciate how patiently it spells out your experience of the issue.

      I would tend to agree that we’re all so different that the idea that we belong together under some common umbrella is beginning to be ludicrous. This portion of your post really brought that home for me:

      ” 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.”

      My experience of the divine is one of immanence, and I think that is a core foundational belief (I’m nervous to use this word now!) of many Pagans today. Am I safe to say that you do not share this experience? It makes our experience of divinity/ies so fundamentally different and it is really such a core understanding.

      So what is your plan for how to proceed? To stop engaging in discussion and conversation with people who you think are too far from your own religion because “there is really not much to be gained by immovable objects meeting irresistible forces and impassable barriers”? What about wonder? What about curiosity?

      Well, I’ll keep reading you, though I am a hopeless monist who designs ritual to effect needed psychological change =) Though I will respectfully stop commenting if that is what you wish.

      • No, my experiences of deities are very immanent and sense-related. But, that’s not all they are…

        If I am praying to one of my gods outside, and a sudden wind comes up while I do so, I think it’s the local elemental spirits and spirits of place joining in the prayer, or perhaps responding to the god’s presence and praises. But, most of my gods aren’t the wind itself, and I would never mistake it for being them.

        My gods are not transcendent, they’re just mostly non-corporeal and non-physical. They can have an impact on corporeality and materiality, but they tend not to unless they’re called upon. Certain land spirits and such are already in a given piece of nature and geography, and thus need not be called, only acknowledged; but the gods tend to be different in that regard.

        As to how to proceed: I have no idea. I don’t know if certain types of dialogue will be (or are) useful, as I’ve indicated in several recent posts, including this one. However, I would never tell anyone to stop talking with one another, or to stop reading particular blogs or stop commenting on them, etc. If you find it useful, you should do it; and if I find I have nothing useful to say in return, I usually don’t respond. (But, because I am appreciative of all comments, I usually try to acknowledge most of them, unless I truly do have nothing to say in response that would be useful to anyone, myself included.)

    • Oh also, is there a “Polytheist Grievances 101” (I’m trying to be funny, not glib) that you can point me to? I want to understand exactly what not to say, why not to say it, etc.

      • Not that I know of at present. You’d have to ask individual polytheists; though lately, you can just read some of our blogs, because we’ve been saying it pretty clearly in most cases.

        It is a good thing, in my opinion, that you’re becoming aware of how to conduct yourself in a polytheist space (like this blog and others), just as you would not do inappropriate or disrespectful things (I’d think!) in a temple to Durga (e.g. bring in shoes and pork), or any other specific religious space, and I truly do appreciate your efforts in that regard.

    • I do see it from the other side…and, I still think it’s very selfish, solipsistic, and entitled to assume that anything/everything exists at the whim of the non-polytheist, and everyone should do everything possible to accommodate them and their expectations.

      You don’t go to a kosher butcher shop and make a complaint that they don’t sell pork, artisan cheeses, Nike shoes and shirts, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. When non-polytheists come to polytheists and expect us to conform to their beliefs, or at least allow them to be on equal footing with us in our own spiritual work and contexts, it’s just as ridiculous as expecting the kosher butcher to be one’s one-stop shopping source for everything.

      • I have seen the same sense of entitlement on both sides of the supposed debate, including at least one “I think my gods deserve to be worshipped according to ancient standards by everyone on the planet.”

  7. […] some approaches to the gods are not appropriate, but that really shouldn’t be so shocking. As PSVL says, you wouldn’t expect a Roman Catholic bishop to welcome beliefs entirely outside of Roman […]

  8. Very well put. Having read this right after the “Interview with the Atheist Pagan” on Raise the Horns, I find myself nodding vigorously.

    • Thank you! Glad you found this useful!

      I have not read that one yet, but I think I’ll check it out…thanks for letting me know it exists!

  9. […] think some approaches to the gods are not appropriate, but that really shouldn’t be so shocking. As PSVL says, you wouldn’t expect a Roman Catholic bishop to welcome beliefs entirely outside of Roman […]

  10. 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 feel that way, too. It’s hard for me somehow to imagine not calling myself a “pagan” anymore, though I think I might have to become more circumspect about using the term in mixed company, so to speak. Frankly, though, I can hardly imagine giving it up on account of the “humanists”, a line of thought I can hardly help but think is going to prove quite ephemeral.

    • Indeed…I don’t I’ll give it up anytime soon, after more than twenty years of using it in self-description…and, as I am from the country, quite literally, it works for me in ways it might not for many urban pagans!

      As for humanist paganism being ephemeral: alas, I suspect it won’t be…or, at least, it won’t be any less ephemeral than most pagan groups or movements, which at this point have proven to not often persist for very long. It’s hard to get a second generation out of most newer groups these days, but we won’t really know how good or bad the situation with those will be until about 10-20 years down the road, I suspect (should I live that long).

  11. Frankly, I’m glad that some people have finally noticed that broad-community pagan discussions have never been intrafaith. Though it appears to be coming with a lot of anger directed at people who are breaking the nonexistent unity covenent. Different people with different backgrounds and religions having difference practices, different ethos, different belief systems, different frameworks of relationship is not a new thing even in modern paganism, and I really wish people would stop being so bloody shocked by it already. Drawing Down the Moon was first published in 197-freaking-9.

    I suspect it might be worthwhile to track down some stuff about why people have pursued pagan religions. I mean, the “Just because that old stuff has a set format doesn’t mean that we have to” comment will make a whole lot more sense from someone whose religious path has included escaping from a formulaic structure in which they found trapped and oppressed, for example, and such a person may never want a codified structure to deal with.

    For all that I’m perpetually frustrated with the permanent-adolescence attitude in reconstructionism (“cannot do anything lest further research demonstrate that it’s WRONG!”), I understand where it comes from. I just have less sympathy for it than I do for someone who doesn’t do formal ritual because it does not feed them (I went through several sets of practices looking for ritual formats that didn’t make me feel bad about myself, actually), or someone who was badly burned by dogmatic tradition and worried about ossification of religious structure as a result, or someone who has an ecstatic practice or a down-to-earth “I look after the interests of harvest powers in the garden; I look after the interests of mother powers with my children; I look after the interests of the ancestors in living life fully and with joy.”

    (I went to a formal seidh once and asked for my grandfather’s blessing; I was told there that the best way to do him honor was to live well and be happy and strong. Yes, I light him incense and pour water on his birthday, and tend my ancestor shrine with my own rituals, but that is far from the primary way in which I honor my ancestors. I keep coming back to this post lately. Because yeah.)

    • I always had high hopes for understanding paganism in intrafaith ways…until I found some more mainstream pagans saying that there is no such thing nor any use whatsoever for intrafaith in paganism (including some major pagan interfaith figures–and the latter is quite close to a direct quote from one of them), because there has been a very false and erroneous assumption that Wicca pretty much rules the day (and if it doesn’t, it should!) on some people’s parts.

      Neos Alexandria is an intrafaith group, to an extent, but it’s even somewhat interfaith, because there are a few non-pagans and non-polytheists on there, or there have been over the years at various points.

      Seeing the elements in previous religious experience that people are reacting against in their attempted engagements with paganism and polytheism is very instructive, certainly. I am personally a fan of saying what I’m not rather than saying what I am in some cases, because many “I am” statements can be potentially more inclusive than “I am not” ones…and no matter what people say about negative definitions being rather adolescent, at least they are movements toward definition rather than leaving things lie and not bothering with definitions lest one become too rigid, etc.

      • Why did you have such high hopes? Paganism, ancient or modern, has never been a single religion (except in the eyes of mostly exoteric Wiccan-derived folks who have either not delved deeply into the history of the movement or dismissed everything they found out about other religions when doing so).

        When I’m talking about intrafaith stuff, I’m talking about stuff related to actual specific religions: I’m talking about other Kemetics, I’m talking about other Feri witches, I might talk about Neos Alexandria depending on how broad the ‘Kemetic’ is in the moment in my head, but I probably won’t. I’m not talking about “pagans”, most of whom don’t share my religions in the first place, and many of whom have never heard of the ones I care about.

      • Part of the reason is because intrafaith is, essentially, a non-Christian way to say “ecumenical.” The latter tends to imply that difference is recognized and respected, but that the effort of coming together is more worthwhile than maintaining (even respectful) distance. I do think there is something that commonly draws people to practice pagan and polytheist religions, and that the attraction to the term might be as much as can be said about it…but, nonetheless, with the recognition that as humans drawn to these things and these ideas, that is at least one thing that we have in common, then recognizing our differences amidst that common and shared bond of interest might be a useful umbrella under which to share ideas, have dialogue, and perhaps learn from one another.

        I’ve seen, increasingly, over the last few years, that such was a naïve notion, and that if it goes any further than having a communal potluck, it isn’t going to work in most cases. This emerged in the “Pagan Intrafaith” panel at PantheaCon this last February, which was sponsored by Patheos. I was pretty much the only one there who said that I was interested in going to other people’s rituals and seeing how they do things, whereas almost everyone else said “I wouldn’t want to have sex with just anyone, and thus I wouldn’t want to go to ritual with just anyone either,” and various other statements of that sort. I value ritual as an activity very highly, and I would honestly rather do ritual with many people than I would like to talk with them–the talking will happen with or without ritual, but given that there are many polytheists out there who are close enough in my own positions on a variety of issues to know that we can work well in a ritual setting together, I don’t know why we don’t take advantage of the infrequent occasions of our meeting to do thirty minutes of ritual rather than add that thirty minutes to the additional five hours that we spend together talking and eating.

      • Hrm.

        I don’t want to do ritual with just anyone.

        But the people in a ritual space are not my first priority in evaluating it; the question of whether or not I can be a full participant in the ritual itself is.

        One of the reasons I have always been keenly aware of the lack of intrafaith-ness in pagan community is that, for the most part, public rituals are not constructed in a manner that I qualify as a full participant. I don’t attend those rituals – I am not as bad off as the person with a practice taboo that means her god has forbidden her from going to other people’s rituals because they are inappropriate, but I wind up keenly uncomfortable in a lot of public pagan spaces because I am assumed to share the same context as others, and I so often don’t.

        I do much better when the ritual is framed in terms that make clear something like, “This is the ritual group, this is our focus, these are the principles under which we are operating”, and I can then decide whether or not I align with that, or am willing to put on that cloak and aspect for the duration of the ritual.

        I will be very happy if I never run into another ritual where someone springs something on me that I would not participate in by choice, whether it’s a “let’s gather power for this political cause” or a “now we pray to the Moon Goddess” or whatever else.

        (My pet example of something that I don’t go to because I expect to be smacked with a process violation is that I don’t go to anything talking about “women’s mysteries” because I assume that it will be a) transphobic and b) focused on menstruation. Also because I’m not really a woman, but that’s actually tertiary as a reason.)

        I don’t have a lot of taboos and restrictions, but if I don’t know enough about a ritual to be able to judge whether I’m going to crash into one of them, I don’t go.

      • I don’t disagree with anything you’ve stated, and I share some of those same experiences and limitations.

        And, certainly, I’d be much better served if I were a lot more particular about what rituals I go to than I often have been; certainly, there are some people or groups who I will simply never even consider going to their rituals, for all sorts of reasons…

        At the same time, I don’t want to put a categorical impossibility on the matter, outside of either severe reservations on the utility or the compatibility of it on my part, explicit prohibitions on it from my gods’ perspectives, or other such compelling matters.

        I totally agree on the “women’s mysteries” matter–I do not go to anything that is binary gender-specific any longer (and had never been comfortable with going to them before that, either!), and that’s all for the best.

  12. It never occurred to me before this “debate” in the blogosphere that there were people who considered pagan discussions to be intrafaith rather than interfaith. I am grateful for the exposure to this different perspective,even as it boggles me.

    I will not go into a complex breakdown of my cultural, religious, philosophical, practice, and relationship based identities here. (Though I would enjoy swapping histories with a relative elder like you at some point.) However, as someone who is philosophically-UU-but-certainly-not-monist (I have not had coffee yet today…), I am thankful for greater critique into the awkward/forced/rude concept that all spaces must be in practice welcoming to all people. For spirit reasons, I have taboo against eating rabbit or deer. I will not wander into other’s homes and demand that they clear rabbit or deer from their deep freezers or refrain from eating them, and in return, I inform guests that I may not prepare it for them while they are guests in my home (though I would ask for exception for them to prepare such a meal in my home if their spirits demand it while I am hosting.) I do not expect space for Hestia in Catholic Mass when I attend, and I do not have interest or ability to offer sacraments to Catholic guests. We all have limits.

    Thank you for my favourite post on this debate so far.

    • Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

      You’ve exactly summarized and illustrated what I think is the largest difficulty in all of these discussions: the expectation that some modern pagans have in assuming that others must cater to their needs and make room for them in their beliefs and practices no matter what. It’s rude, and it’s also often not possible.

      I’d be happy to speak further with you on whatever you’d like whenever you wish to!

  13. I don’t even know where to begin on the larger question.

    Of COURSE two different Pagans talking are having an intrfaith conversation. Not only is “Pagan” a category, it’s not even as restrictive a category as “Abrahamic”, much less “Christian”. If a Southern Baptist and a Roman Catholic are in dialogue, they consider it an interfaith conversation, and they have more beliefs in common than any two Pagans are guaranteed to have.

    I think this is something much more clear to the average Reconstructionist than to the average Eclectic Pagan, however. I don’t know if various lines of Wicca consider other lines to be other denominations or what (never asked), but that’s the closest paralell to the various Christian denominations we have. It just gets more diverse from there.

    I would never want to discourage dialogue with other Pagans – or other people of any faith, honestly. But I think it’s very important to never expect we’ll share any given belief.

    Hell, I don’t even expect to share any *given* beliefs with fellow Heathens, because I know my denomination – Vanatru – is comparatively rare, and most Heathens I talk to are Asatru.


    • Strangely enough, I’ve seen more of the “NEVER TALK TO” advice from Wiccans of various trads than from recons of different traditions. The infighting over lineage and such within some Wiccan groups and which ones are “valid” and aren’t sort of makes some of these discussions we’ve been having seem rather civil and lightweight, to be honest.

      • I don’t know if that’s strange. I see it between the Afro-Diasporic trads too. It’s significantly to avoid confusion, because things sound very similar, but they aren’t actually the same. So it’s hard to explain to new folks what is different between them and why if they don’t first develop a solid grounding within their own line.

        I don’t think they make good blanket statements, however.


      • True that. I’ve seen it among Feri folk, as well. It always seemed to me that they were arguing more about identity-as-performance than about theology.

      • That is something that is also common to a variety of academic pursuits: queer studies, for example, which is often more about queerness as performativity than about, you know, actual people fucking or any such thing…that would be too simple. 😉

  14. So ok, I’ve gone about and read a bit more of the larger debate, and I think (I hope!) I understand the context of your post better now.🙂

    > 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.

    I think what you’re describing is cultural relativism – and what you’re exercising there is Hospitality.

    When I was in Religious Studies, one of the professors, Dr. Philip Riley, impressed upon me that the core of Interfaith (and, I think, Intrafaith/Ecumenicism, even) is NOT the search for “Common Ground”, it’s the value of Hospitality.

    When you visit others, you respect their ways, and they respect your restrictions. When they visit you, the reverse is true. We do not ask others to do what they CAN NOT do, but we do ask them to be respectful of what we MUST do. And I think when people approach it with that kind of mutual allowance in mind, we almost always find that we can avoid a direct conflict between the two – at the very least, by allowing each individual the space to be what they are.

    That’s also a grounding in Orthopraxy rather than Orthodoxy – that when it comes to interacting with others, what you believe is not as important as how you behave. You may not agree with each other in belief, but if you can behave with respect, those differences don’t matter very much, because you’re not required to agree, you’re just required to treat other well.

    Similarly, when it comes to forming a community, shared beliefs aren’t as community-building as shared practices. As long as the difference in beliefs doesn’t make the shared praxis somehow irrelevant for some members and not others, the internal experience can differ quite a bit without hindering anyone else’s practice or progress in the slightest.

    Now, as I think I already said in another reply, yes, our core values and beliefs absolutely influence how we behave, and sometimes that can create a conflict that seems to be over what those values are… but I think the underlying problem still gets back to the behavior, not the beliefs, and that the way to resolve it is to adjust the behavior itself… which only requires adjusting beliefs if those beliefs make respectful behavior somehow impossible.

    Given the beliefs people are currently arguing about, I can’t see how that’s the case, but maybe I’m still missing something.

    I know YOU get this already, P. I suspect my saying it again somewhere is unlikely to actually help anyone. But my fingers were just itching to write it out, and I knew you’d be the one most likely to understand what I’m saying here.

    Be Well,

    • This is really an excellent way to (re-)Frame all of this! Thanks so much for this, Ember! I do appreciate it!

      • I’m delighted to have said something useful!

        My frame of reference might be a bit different. Not only do I do interfaith/intrafaith work with the extended Pagan community (which, as you know, is easier in the SF Bay Area thanks to PantheaCon and other resources), but I also do interfaith work *outside* the Pagan community interacting with a variety of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians… well, you get the idea. Seriously, if we expected to find common ground in order to get along, we’d never get anything done at all!

        There IS one point of common ground, though, I believe, and we share it with Science as well:


        No matter what philosophy, mysticism, praxis, or method you embrace for exploring the world, *paying attention* is inevitably part of the work.


  15. I like your post. Becoming real, as Peter Pan says, is a bit of a tragedy.

  16. Thank you, all, for these words. I’ve been reading the entire extended whatever over the past weeks, and I really have not been able to put my own thoughts into any sort of coherent thing that could be shared. But I appreciate the open discussion with respect that has occurred here, very much, and I think that both people of faith and the Great Ones they believe in appreciate that.

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