On December 13, I posted an article in my personal blog in which I discussed the dangers of compromising one’s religious practice for the comfort of the majority.(1) In that article, I promised that I would discuss the theological implications of compromising on our polytheistic values, beliefs, and praxis. This column is the culmination of that promise.
More and more in the various communities at large, bubbling up every time there is a heated discussion or debate, every time a potentially “controversial” practice is mentioned, I’ve noticed a push to cull from our traditions those things that might make the mainstream — be it mainstream Paganism, mainstream Abrahamic religions, and/or the humanist contingents — uncomfortable. Yielding to that impulse is a slippery slope into moral cowardice, a tearing at the threads of our traditions in a way that threatens the integrity of the whole of our respective religions.
As polytheists, we must, above all, guard against the impulse for homogenization. The traditions that we are struggling to restore are precious things. They are containers of Mystery, of the manifold ways in which our Holy Powers may manifest and transform Their devotees and by extension the world at large. That is not something to be dismissed lightly. I would go so far as to posit that at the heart of this push toward unification is not only an unexamined monotheistic impulse, but a deep hostility toward Mystery and thus toward the Gods Themselves.
That is all too often at the heart of cries for homogenization: a desire to cull Mystery from the religion, a desire to excise that which is authentic and true leaving only pabulum accessible to the masses, regardless of their effort or devotion. What remains is then the human part of religion and nothing of the Gods.
I suppose if one’s “religion” is a purely social endeavor, then perhaps this is acceptable. To those of us involved in restoration however it is not. Polytheism is steeped in diversity of practice. It is not neat, homogenous, unthreatening. It is a riotous panoply of cultus and praxis. Often rooted in specific places, the regional variants that have the potential to develop now, as they did in the past, can be staggering. Acknowledging and embracing regional cultic practices, understanding that the Gods can and do request different things from different people means first and foremost A) acknowledging that the Gods exist and B) granting them pride of place in one’s hierarchy of priorities. That is all the more so when one’s cultic practices are outside of mainstream values. To those committed to this work, this seems so obvious and fundamental but the reality is, that in our current culture, it’s not.
Moreover, I’ll be honest, this is a tremendously difficult article for me to write, precisely because this is for me, in colloquial terms, a ‘no brainer.’ It begins and ends with the Gods and with doing what is honorable and right by Them. I have no comprehension whatsoever of the impulse to curb one’s devotion for the comfort of the mainstream (or for anyone’s comfort including my own for that matter). It’s been trained out of me by close to thirty years of devotional work. So much of my own theological musings never need to move beyond “that’s what the Gods want” because, by virtue of being a spirit-worker, I can ask directly and receive a comprehensible reply. When I’m not in the headspace to do that, i divine and if i can’t do that, i live with a diviner so I have the option of asking him to divine for me. I realize, however, that this isn’t the case with the majority of people. Not only that, but we live in a society that all but pathologizes devotion. We as a society prioritize the shallowest aspects of the social so it’s no wonder then that it’s almost ingrained in us to cull the authentic out of our spiritualities until what we have is a social clique in place of a religion. If we’re not careful, we do it without thinking. Like water flowing downhill, after all, our actions and habits tend to take the path of least resistance. Not only don’t we think about it, we’ve been trained by our society to avoid doing exactly that.
In many ways, this highlights what I believe to be one of the essential splits between devotional polytheists and large swaths of the Pagan and/or humanist “pagan” majorities (and to be honest, between the minority of Gods-oriented folk and the majority of those who are not within most religions down through history. This is not in any way a Polytheist or Pagan problem alone). It raises the question of whether or not our traditions and those of us practicing those traditions are Gods-driven or human-driven; and while I would argue that the dichotomy is in fact a false one, that serving the Gods first and foremost benefits, augments, and nourishes our humanity, I’m well aware that’s not a position that everyone comprehends or with which everyone agrees.
Ironically, a similar conversation is currently happening in an interfaith community with which I tangentially associate. The idea of a ‘hierarchy of religion’ cropped up unexpectedly to the dismay of many and the obliviousness of more in a recent series of discussions. I believe this concept, unconscious or not, of a hierarchy of religion is in part, at the heart of this push to mediocritize our traditions. The “hierarchy of religions’ is the unspoken idea that certain expressions of religion are “more evolved” than others. Given that Religious Studies, Anthropology, and many related disciplines evolved and really hit their stride during the Victorian period, the most evolved form of religion was viewed as a very WASP expression of Protestant Christianity (with all the racism, classicm, and white privilege one might expect with those origins). Now days in academia, there tends to be the expectation that if you are educated you’ll of course be agnostic (or even atheist) but if not that, then a non-devout Protestant is the next best thing. Religious expressions that don’t fit that model may be viewed as corrupt, perverted, dangerous, deluded, mentally ill, or, more likely, primitive and un-evolved. They tend to be dismissed as ‘what those un-evolved primitives over there are doing” and generally those “primitives” are quite a few shades darker than the self-congratulatory white man doing the dismissing.
If you think this is something that died with the Victorian period, or that’s relegated solely to academic frustrations, think again. I’ve seen every bit of this poison in Paganisms and even Polytheisms. This, sadly, is the cultural inheritance of “modernity” and I very much view this complex of attitudes as part and parcel of what we are all tasked with fighting as we struggle to restore our traditions in clean and sustainable ways. It’s part and parcel of those attitudes — so dismissive of the power and diversity of the sacred, and its expression—that would prevent the resacralization of our world.
I think that we must be especially wary of calls for the homogenization of our traditions, for the excising and culling (or control and othering) of the more experiential elements, and for the prioritization of our feelings. Alarm bells ought to go off in our minds, hearts, and spirits whenever anyone person or organization suggests “we shouldn’t do that, it might make us look weird.” or “”we’re so much more evolved than our ancestors. We shouldn’t do that anymore.” or “That might make people uncomfortable.” Let us instead be brave and bold in our commitment and devotion to our Gods. Let us instead choose to communicate and educate. Let us instead refuse to limit our spirituality to modern ideals, ideals and mores informed not by ancestral wisdom, but by disrespect, disregard, and contempt for direct experience of the sacred.
More than anything else, I think it’s incumbent on us to consider what it does to the Gods’ relationship with Their people when we choose to compromise in our devotion and in the expression of our traditions. I think it’s important to consider that the practices contained in our Mysteries foster relationship with our Gods in very specific and very important ways. These are all things that are or were obvious and fundamental in religions and cultures steeped in their ancestral, polytheistic, and often animistic traditions. They’re not so obvious in our culture, disconnected as it is from authentic experience. It’s the spiritual equivalent of an organic, homemade eight course gourmet meal vs. McDonalds.
When I initially decided to write this, I had planned to focus solely on the theological issues at hand, but these are fairly easily summed up: prioritize the Gods and don’t compromise on the tradition and that tradition will grow and nourish its followers. The real problem is the intersection of the social with the theological. In a world as fundamentally disconnected, imbalanced, and hostile to the Gods as the one in which we live, sometimes those issues need to be addressed first, before the theological ones fall into place. Sometimes we need to challenge our social assumptions, examine our commitments and reorganize our priorities before we’re ready to address our theology. It’s ongoing work, challenging work, but necessary work in the scope of this restorative process.