One of the difficulties–perhaps not obvious to many, but nonetheless present–that remains to be negotiated within the larger Pagan movement is whether or not different people in that movement, from different groups, getting together constitute an “interfaith” gathering or an “intrafaith” gathering. What do Gardnerian Wiccans, Anderson Feri practitioners, a Dianic, and members of the Unnamed Path have in common with each other, really, that makes them more parts of a “similar-enough” religious movement such that they can be considered intrafaith rather than interfaith? While some might automatically assume that yes, indeed, these are all similar enough and would constitute a situation where intrafaith is the appropriate label, one could just as easily ask whether or not a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Sikh, and a Jain could all get together and suggest that because all of these religious traditions are “dharmic” in origin, that therefore their gathering is likewise an intrafaith gathering. This then brings forward the question of whether or not the label “Pagan,” whether capitalized or not, is actually a religious descriptor at all in any useful way, much less being something which can describe an entire range of religious traditions, many of which are asserting their Pagan identities while simultaneously denying any and all forms of theism.
In the Plutarchian definition of syncretism, which I’ve written about in this column in practical manners on previous occasions, the banding together of people for a common purpose is the definition of syncretism. The general Pagan community does seem to fit that description and definition, even over and above the syncretistic nature of a number of the traditions encompassed by it, including Wicca, Feri, and other groups which draw from a variety of sources, cultures, and elements in creating their individual paths. If we examine these issues along the lines of recognizing their distinctness and differences as being of greater import and significance than their similarities, then we must conclude that each one is its own individual religion, and thus the “Pagan” descriptor is an umbrella term that denotes that all underneath it is a situation of interfaith cooperation rather than intrafaith cooperation.
But, the state and boundaries of Paganism, and the definitions pertaining to it, is not the focus of the present piece, nor of this website in general. Leading into the present discussion, however, by looking at this parallel is important, because it asks some fundamental questions that are often elided or actively sidelined in discussions of modern polytheism. One of the issues that many–including some polytheists–very quickly critique a number of vocal polytheists about is that polytheism itself is not a religion, it is a theological descriptor and a characteristic of a religion. This is certainly true; and yet, with the existence of the modern Polytheist movement and many of the individuals, groups, and practices within it, there has been an active recognition and cultivation of the sense that polytheists and animists of various stripes can all understand and recognize one another’s viewpoints easily, can support and participate in one another’s efforts easily and without any underlying conflicts or any need to compromise one’s own convictions, and that we do have much to gain by maintaining close relationships and alliances with one another in this work. Indeed, it is even relatively common, it would seem by empirical observation, that different Deities, polytheist groups, and individual practitioners find themselves being “loaned out” to do particular work or services, or to learn certain skills, from other Deities, groups, pantheons, and individuals.
Given that such is the case, one must therefore ask: is the modern Polytheist movement a situation of interfaith cooperation, or is it a situation of intrafaith cooperation?
I suspect that depending on the individuals involved, the context in which it is asked, and very likely the time of day (and what day it is!), the answers will vary quite widely. I can easily see that the main four answers–yes it is interfaith (and thus no it isn’t intrafaith); yes it is intrafaith (and thus no it isn’t interfaith); it is both intrafaith and interfaith; and it is neither intrafaith or interfaith–may all have merit in their own ways, and could be potentially viable; I’m quite certain there may be others as well, but these four seem to be the most likely. Let us examine each possibility in turn.
The first potential answer suggested is that the Polytheist movement is an interfaith movement, but not an intrafaith movement. The reasons for stating this would be somewhat obvious: people are different, groups are different, Deities and cultures and pantheons are different, and therefore even some people worshipping the same Deities under the guiding principles and frameworks and practices of different groups will be working within different religions to do so. As someone who is a member of the Ekklesía Antínoou, I worship Antinous differently than a Hellenic reconstructionist would, a member of Nova Roma would, or a Kemetic Orthodox person would, and each of those are appropriate to our own given religious perspectives. Thus, even though we might all get together and worship Antinous on certain occasions, the person running the ritual will have a different manner of approaching him. Thus, even some events in which one particular Deity or group of Deities or pantheon (and the two can be different!) is being worshipped, there might be an interfaith effort in operation, which would only increase when wider forms of polytheistic practice are considered, and thus the wider Polytheist movement is most logically considered an interfaith movement.
The second potential answer would posit that the Polytheist movement is an intrafaith movement, but not an interfaith movement. This premise would base itself in the empirical reality that despite the diversity of practice and belief, cosmology and pantheon, culture and theology which might occur in any given group of polytheists, certain things can be assumed and generalized: reciprocity and offerings are important; individuality of Deities is recognized and valued; devotional acts are worthwhile and are a mainstay of practice; and respect for individuals–human and Divine, and for different varieties within the broad distinction of “Divine Beings”–is the bedrock of these positions. Given that there are these shared experiences and thus there are many shared assumptions which follow from them, it is very easy for a polytheist of one tradition to interact with polytheists of other traditions, and to even enter into ritual with them with little to no preparation or need for basic instructions to occur. Certainly, there may be particularities of practice in each case, certain customs which are kept, certain activities which are avoided, and so forth, but making these mistakes in ignorance, or in the failure on another’s part to indicate they are the stated preferences of the given Divine Beings in the specific contexts, tends not to be disastrous so long as basic ideas of respect and hospitality are maintained. This is the day-to-day experience of many polytheists amongst one another, and was the experience of most people who attended the Opening and Closing Rituals of Many Gods West, for example. That such an event and such rituals could take place at all would indicate that there is a more intrafaith understanding in play than an interfaith one.
Our third possibility emerges when we look at the previous two and realize that both, in their own ways, are valid, and yet neither can be favored entirely because it is such a multi-faceted question. Yes, a polytheist of one tradition can respectfully and effectively participate in another polytheist’s practices and rituals and traditions, and they can even share information and bounce ideas off one another in ways that can be potentially relevant in a more immediate fashion than those who might have vastly different theological positions. Thus, the intrafaith option seems to be quite relevant in daily practices and interactions. And yet, it would be a mistake to assume that just because we’re all polytheists and are affiliated with the Polytheist movement, that therefore Morpheus Ravenna, Rhyd Wildermuth, and Tess Dawson are all therefore members of the Ekklesía Antínoou as well–they’d certainly all be welcome, but that is not the same thing as being a member. I’m sure the same is true of the Coru Cathubodua and Natib Qadesh as well in relation to myself and each of the above-named individuals, even though we’ve all had different affiliations and associations with each of the groups, practices, activities, Deities, and individuals in question. Thus, to not recognize that there are a lot of important distinctions which necessitate recognition and celebration of difference, diversity, and individuality would be against the very grain of what it means to be a modern polytheist, and thus the Polytheist movement must be considered an interfaith movement as an equally important and essential part of the situation as whatever degree of common intrafaith similarities we might share.
The final option, that the Polytheist movement is neither interfaith nor intrafaith, is also entirely possible and valid in the sense that these terms were invented to more accurately nuance the more widely applied notions of “ecumenism” that were often spoken of in Christian circles several decades back. Ecumenism, in its strictest sense, means “worldwide,” but originates from notions conveying “household” and the management thereof. When Christians used it in late antiquity, they meant that councils of various churches (which were considered orthodox/non-heretical) in far-flung locations had come together and convened to determine particular issues. In later periods, the recognition that there were different and separate Christian churches then necessitated the use of the word “ecumenical” to mean inter-Christian denominational efforts and discussions. When other religions began to be involved in some of these, “ecumenism” had its meaning broadened, but eventually it gave way to “interfaith,” which in turn then had to be distinguished from intrafaith (a word that spellcheckers still don’t like or recognize!) as the discussions of issues which take place amongst differing factions within a given religious body. As a result, looking at it in this historical etymological fashion shows that these are terms that were invented for other religions to relate to other religions, as well as themselves, and even if we find that some of them can be applicable to our own situations as modern polytheists, they are not entirely appropriate either, any more than referring to different polytheist groups or organizations as “churches” is appropriate. As a result, these may be semantically null terms as far as a properly polytheistic context is concerned, and thus re-emphasis of terms like alliance, hospitality, intertribal or intercultural, fellowship, and other terms may be more appropriate to emphasize in the future where the Polytheist movement and its interrelatedness, interconnections, and so forth may occur.
In writing each of the above paragraphs, I was thoroughly convinced that each viewpoint was valid, useful, and true as I wrote and reasoned through the explanations. Thus, a fifth possibility might emerge out of that situation: if one and two are true, which likewise means that three is also true since it affirms both, then likewise four would also have to be true because one and two likewise have an element of negation in them. Taking that into account indicates that all of these terms may have some descriptive viability in a variety of cases, but ultimately they might be as inappropriate to application and usage in a polytheist context as the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” would be to describing the full range of political nuance and party affiliations in the U.K.
As the Polytheist movement becomes more and more prominent and admission of its independent existence becomes more current amongst those within it, discussions of these issues will need to take place on a more deliberate and widespread scale. Until then, the terms may have a limited amount of value in terms of their descriptive ability and easy recognition in wider religious contexts. But, likewise, the Plutarchian definition of “syncretism” can also equally apply to the current situation of the Polytheist movement: in certain respects, our common goals are more important to emphasize in this early period of identifying our constituency and organizing ourselves than the necessary departures from shared goals in certain matters will have to be where our very real differences are concerned. (That this has occurred under conditions of an external struggle, while non-ideal, also necessitates some of this banding together.) So long as this can continue to be done in ways that do not compromise individual and group practices–and so far, so good (for the most part)–then the Polytheist movement will not have the situation currently in operation in modern Paganism of the “leaking umbrella.” Those in the Polytheist movement, I don’t think, are suggesting that the leaking Pagan umbrella be thrown away entirely, they’re simply seeking to find a new umbrella that covers them and keeps the rain off more effectively; those who are still dry under the old umbrella, and who are the ones holding it as well as determining when and whether to open or close it, are free to do so.