It was very strange for me seeing within minutes of arriving at the Polytheist Leadership Conference a Jehovah’s Witness walking out of the main entrance of the hotel. I recognized her immediately. The vinyl name badge holder clipped to the collar of her modest dress and the gray leather bible with silver embossment, just like my mother’s, were unmistakable. In a sudden sense memory, I could smell the vinyl of the name badge that I had worn clipped to my lapel fifteen years ago.
My mother converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith shortly after I was born, and did her best to raise me in it. It is hard for me to say whether or not I really ever believed Jehovah’s Witness doctrine when I think back to my childhood. I do know that it caused me a lot of anxiety and fear. I was always a quiet, strange child, and in a community that valued high levels of conformity, I never really felt comfortable. My experience of religion throughout my youth was largely cold and loveless. Yet, that is what I knew, and so what I expected.
As a teenager, my allegiance to the Watchtower Society gradually waned. I began to tire of the constant admonitions to prayer, always with the caveat that only those prayers in accordance with God’s will would be answered. I never did understand what God’s will entailed, since it seemed so far removed from my life. By the time that I entered college, I was thoroughly disenchanted with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and religion in general.
Looking back, it would be easy to explain my departure from my mother’s faith in terms of my sexuality. However, that really is too simple. As a young teenager, I prayed over and over again to Jehovah, through his son Jesus, asking him to take my desires away. He did not see fit to do so, and I never understood why.
At sixteen, one of the elders who had taken a personal interest in me, and who had been meeting with me regularly for weekly Bible study sessions, confessed to me that the reason that he had taken so much interest in my growth in the faith was because his own son was gay, and had left the Watchtower Society. A great iron door slammed shut between us. I became ill, I asked him to leave.
I had decided earlier that when he came to visit that day, I would confess that I was gay, and that I knew the doctrines; I would not act on my desires, I would remain alone and devote myself to God’s work, but that I was afraid and needed help. I had several years to consider this decision: I realized the ramifications of what I was going through almost immediately. So, by sixteen, I had been rolling this idea around in my head for at least two years. Some, I suppose, would have seen this elder’s confession as a sign from God, as a confirmation of purpose, but rather than euphoria, I felt disgust. I felt as though a great black pit had opened up in front of me and that one step forward would plunge me forever into perdition. I felt as though I was being mocked.
It would be easy to look to this to explain my falling away from the Watchtower Society, but it would be incomplete. The Jehovah’s Witnesses do everything in their power to isolate themselves from the rest of society. They abstain from politics and keep away from public events. My peers and I were not allowed to join in after school activities or sports teams, because nothing could come before our love for God. Of course, in the modern era, that kind of isolation only works so well.
As I grew up, I encountered more and more people who believed differently than I did, who knew a completely different truth. What was even more confounding for me, though, was how obviously earnestly and intently they knew these other truths to be True. However, the Watchtower Society perpetually intones that only they have the Truth, and that all other faiths, beliefs, or anything that contradicts the Divine Word, are Satan’s lies. It became apparent to me that someone was being deceived, though I could not always discern who.
I began to wonder how any one person could know that their own personal beliefs were absolute and true over and above everyone else’s, over and above all of the other possibilities. I realized that I could not express this wonder to anyone in my congregation. I continued to go to the weekly meetings and sit in the bland and inhospitable Kingdom Hall, because it was what I knew, even though I was increasingly wary.
Not long in to my freshmen year of college, terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. I was in class at time, and once we heard what happened, the university was closed and evacuated. There was some fear that the local universities would be targeted, as well, due to their government funding and open ties to the Defense Department. Driving home, caught in traffic, I listened to radio reports of the events with deepening horror and sorrow. I did not know how to react, I did not understand.
I remember, shortly after, going to a meeting at the Kingdom Hall. The sermon must have been bland, I remember none of it. Afterward, though, everyone gathered together in the lobby to speak in hushed tones about the terrorist attack. Surely this was a sign of the times, surely this was the beginning of the end, surely Armageddon must be coming! I was unsettled. I turned to one of my peers, and tried to speak of the suffering and horror that those people must have experienced, only to hear him, with tears in his eyes, and a smile on his face, exclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. I was chilled.
I did not understand how these people, these people who were constantly reciting the virtues of love, could let their hearts be filled with so much joy in the face of so much atrocity. I saw so many smiles, so much self-righteous glee, and I knew that I could have nothing else to do with these people ever again. How could anyone rejoice amidst so much suffering? How could people who so constantly intone that God is Love ignore the real human cost of the horrors they anticipated? I would continue to struggle with these ideas for several years. Though I had left the Watchtower Society, I continued to see similar sentiments expressed across the American religious spectrum.
So, seeing this Jehovah’s Witness woman emerge from the hotel as almost my first experience of the Polytheist Leadership Conference made me wonder how I, at fifteen, would have reacted. What would I have thought if I, in my suit with my nametag clipped to my lapel and my copy of the New World Translation in my hand, had walked out of my hotel to attend a regional assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as this woman surely was, and come across a group of people animatedly talking about not God, but the Gods and their experiences of them?
It is too easy, I think, to forget that our religious beliefs have real world consequences. What we believe, and how, influences our actions, our approach to the world, and the world is a complicated place. At fifteen, I was already struggling with the idea of truth as a monolithic block, against which sin and delusion were projected. The world is full of things, full of experiences for which there is no simple explanation. Religion can both open us up to these mysteries and close us off from them.
I think that there is a kind of relationship to truth that we must always be careful of. Religion and truth go hand in hand. Over and over again, religious people refer to their faith as the Truth, implying that Truth and faith are both singular. What happens to our world when God and Truth become synonymous? How much room is left for love?
Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch provides us with a beautiful understanding of love, “Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real” (1959, p. 51). Individuals present us with difference, they open us up to new possibilities and ways of being. Love, the perception of individuals, the realization of their distinctiveness and unique being, should open us up to a profound understanding of Truth that can no longer be pinned to a single transcendental source. Murdoch, therefore asserts that, “Love… is the discovery of reality” (1959, p. 51).
I believe that it is necessary for us to cultivate a relationship to truth that encourages us to approach the experiences of others expansively and affirmatively. Love should move us to look beyond shallow, self-serving attempts to recontextualize and reduce the experiences of others into mere illusion, delusion, or derangement. Love, as the discovery of reality, transforms our understanding of truth into something much more dynamic and strange than we could ever have anticipated.
There is indeed a new world full of life, full of experience, full of being, and we only need to open ourselves up to it. If we are in love with difference, in love with the individual and unique, and if we allow love to reveal reality to us, then we must accept the multiform and various as innate features of the world. We must be willing to see the experiences of others as profoundly True in a way that we, perhaps, may never fully comprehend. If we really love others as they themselves are, then we realize just how necessary they are for us to understand the complexity and richness of the world. Through love, Truth shatters apart, and its single center opens up to reveal an endless array. Truth, in fact, becomes a process, and open ended procedure: the practice of love.
I see polytheism, then, as a framework for this complex, ongoing truth procedure. Polytheism encourages us to see the world as a place full of splendor, of incredible experiences, of wonderful surprises and variations. Polytheism encourages us to affirm the possibilities that surround us, to embrace life and explore its richness. Polytheism expands and opens Truth, and recognizes innately that it can derive from many simultaneous sources. As I see it, polytheism is the theological expression of love.
Understanding polytheism as being engaged with process means that it is constantly unfolding, expanding, and developing. While it binds tradition and history into itself, it is also powerfully oriented toward the future, toward the unknown and the possible. Guided by love, polytheism recognizes the necessity of individuals, and the irreducibility of individual experiences. Individuality and discrete experience become key features, absolutely necessary for our understanding of the world.
There is a tendency within singular understandings of Truth to simplify and apologize the complexity of the world in order to force it into alignment with some particular explanatory diagram. Polytheism seeks to avoid such procedures. The open-ended, forward-looking orientation of polytheism means that any explanatory diagram is at best provisional, and always open to adaptation and manipulation as more information becomes available.
I arrived at polytheism after a long struggle with the hypocrisy that I saw spread throughout the American spiritual and religious milieu. If we truly understand love as an important part of our spiritual and religious understandings, then I believe that it must manifest profound changes in our lives and communities. I honestly do not know how I would have reacted to the thought of polytheism as a real and lived expression of spirituality if I had encountered it at fifteen years of age. I know that now I see it as vital to an honest and loving understanding of the world.
My own experience, the work that I have done on myself, tells me that there is a great deal of work left to be done. I see polytheism as a powerful vehicle for change and progress. As we face increasing conflict globally, nationally, and even locally, I believe that it is absolutely necessary for us to examine how our relationships to Truth affect our approaches to the world around us, and whether or not that help us to come to a productive understanding of the experiences and needs of the manifold beings that we encounter. I firmly believe that polytheism helps us to understand our place in the complex lacework of relationships of life, community, and cosmos in a profound and far reaching way. I sincerely hope that love will open us up to the new world that is constantly unfolding around us.
Murdoch, I. (1959). The sublime and the good. Chicago Review. 13, 3, p. 42-53