If Your Paganism is Anthropocentric, I Don’t Want Your Paganism
With articles such as this, it is even more clear to me why polytheists need to speak up within and without the Pagan Umbrella.
With respect to discerning John Beckett from John Halstead, I will use their last names.
‘John Beckett has recently written a post about his vision of the future of Polytheism- the future of the “polytheist revolution” -and the importance of “keeping the Gods at the front”. To me, this sounds disturbingly like the Christianity I left behind 15 years ago – with its rejection of this world or at least its relegation of the concerns of this world to a place of secondary importance. It sounds too much like the monotheistic condemnation of “idolatry” and the “gods of this world”.’
To start with, it is clear to me that Halstead does not understand, nor cares to understand the perspective of polytheism, or polytheists in general. The polytheist revolution is not world-denying; if anything, it embraces the world as it is, with warts and all. It sees this world, and all that it is, and is within it, as populated by Gods, our Ancestors, and spirits. I find it foolish that Halstead would find it too much like the monotheist condemnation of ‘idolatry’ when so many of us do exactly that, and worship Gods that are of this world, if not the Earth Itself.
“I would argue that if your religion doesn’t have a strong this-world component you’re doing it wrong.
“Our this-world concerns are enormous. They’re here, in front of us, right now. They demand our attention, they demand our time, they demand our effort. And they never end. If we are not mindful, if we are not -dare I say it- devout and pious, it is all too easy to let our this-world concerns becomes our gods and take Their place in our lives…
“When we don’t keep the Gods at the forefront of our practice, we put something else there. That something else may be helpful or it may be a distraction, but whatever it is weakens our relationships with the Gods…”
Quoting Halstead in response:
‘To me, this sounds disturbingly like the Christianity I left behind 15 years ago – with its rejection of this world or at least its relegation of concerns of this world to a place of secondary importance.’
Our polytheist religions have a this-world component. We’re not world-denying religions. There would not be talk of such things as regional cultus, and working with, revering, and worshiping the landvaettir were we doing so. There would be no talk of our duty to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to treat the Earth well, to care for our oceans, to consume less, and a million other things that we polytheists may factor in when it comes to how we live on this Earth, whether we have children, how to raise them if we do, how we die, and how our bodies are cared for after our death. Our Gods come first and foremost because we are polytheists. It’s not a polite suggestion to believe in the Gods and treat Them as real accordingly. It’s part and parcel of being a polytheist. If that is not at the forefront of being a polytheist, then the identification as a polytheist, and associated religions that identify with this word, become drained of meaning. Accordingly, our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir suffer when the Holy Powers are not first in our considerations.
I wrote on this idea of placing the Gods first a while back, here.
‘When someone puts the Gods first, does that mean the needs of one’s family are ignored? Absolutely not. What it means is that my family recognizes the Gods at the center of our lives. It is not an either/or thing, here. I do not love the Gods and ignore my family. In loving and serving my Gods, I love and serve my family as well. In separating one from the other is where error comes from. If the Gods are in (or are) the Air, the Water, the Fire, the Ice, etc., then it is impossible to escape Them and foolish, if not hubris, to ignore Them. Far better to partner with Them in good Gebo than to pretend we are somehow separate from Them.’
Again, from Halstead:
‘It sounds too much like the monotheistic condemnation of “idolatry” and the “gods of this world”. It was because of its embrace of the “gods of this world” that I became Pagan.’
Considering Halstead has continuously denied the agency and Being of Gods in his writing, I find this very hard to believe. Halstead has gone out of his way to deny that Gods possess Being, and are Beings unto Themselves. Rather than embracing Gods, Halstead has made much of his writing about rejecting Them. That rejection of the Gods, his embrace and normalizing of the term ‘Pagan’ in an atheist mindset is why I considered dropping Pagan as an identifier altogether. If such a term is so open and wide to interpretation that a barebones belief in or respect of Holy Powers are no longer a requirement for identification with groups of Pagan religious communities, what, precisely, are we supposed to be huddled under this umbrella for?
‘For me, more than anything else, the word “Pagan” denotes a this-worldly view of life. I had spent far too much of my early religious life looking for another world and missing the point of this one. I was guilty of what Albert Camus called the sin of “hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” I found in Paganism a religion that embraced this world – with both arms.’
The problem I find with the word ‘Pagan’ primarily denoting a this-worldly life is not that it denotes a this-worldly life, per se, but that it is empty of any kind of religious meaning in doing so. It is not about the Gods, Mysteries, our relationships with the Holy Powers, each other, or indeed the world itself. It is solidly stuck in a this-worldly view, which implies that this is the only life that matters, that this is it. Many polytheist religions carry afterlives with them in their cosmologies. For some, reincarnating may be part of that, in addition to there being final destinations depending on how life was lived, what your occupation was, what if any Mysteries you were initiated into, and how you died. The other possible implication of ‘Pagan’ meaning ‘this-worldly view of life’ is that our Ancestors and Dead do not get or have input, and Their agencies are ignored. This is a mighty big problem in most polytheist religions, as the Ancestors and Dead have a lot of input in our individual lives, and active interest in how our religions are restored and lived.
‘While many Pagans do believe in reincarnation, most do not view the cycle of life as something to be escaped from. And most of those who believe in a “Summerland” view it as the place where souls rest between incarnations, not as a “heaven” where one would want to stay. Ultimate, for most Pagans, this world is all there is. But where this would cause some to despair, the Pagan shouts with joy!’
What I have not seen featured in polytheist writings, nor in an polytheist circles I run in, is a worry about these afterlives. There may be active cultivation of relationships with certain Gods (I think of Dionysian Mysteries and the Eleusinian Mysteries here), or certain Gods may lay a claim on a worshiper or group of worshipers, but in my experience, we generally leave the concern of where we go to our Gods of Death. I would not eve say for ‘most Pagans, this world is all there is’, especially coming on the heels of Halstead saying ‘many Pagans do believe in reincarnation’ and talk of belief in a Summerland. Not only is this assumptive of ‘most Pagans’, it also denies that many, if not potentially most Pagans have belief in some kind of Otherworld (i.e. the aforementioned Summerland) and afterlives. It subtly denies polytheism in Paganism.
‘So when John Beckett talks about placing the gods before the concerns of this world, this is not just another form of Paganism – it is the antithesis of everything Paganism is to me. For me, it’s this world or bust!’
This gets to the crux of the piece: Halstead is positing that the polytheism, and likewise the polytheists he is critiquing, what he calls ‘other-worldly polytheism’ is outside of the Circles of Paganism that Beckett, he, and others have used in their writing at Patheos. In writing ‘it is the antithesis of everything Paganism is to me. For me, it’s this world or bust!’ Halstead not only falsely places us polytheists who believe the Gods should come first on the opposite side of caring for this world, he is also placing us firmly on the outside of Paganism.
‘John goes on to argue that, in the absence of a belief in the gods, we will lack the motivation to care for the Earth and to build a fair and just society when the going gets hard. I simply cannot agree. How does putting the gods between us and our concern for the earth and its inhabitants strengthen that concern?’
Halstead would be asking an important question here, were he not completely missing the point. In putting the Gods first, we necessarily place our concern for the Earth and Its inhabitants in a high priority. It strengthens our resolve when it is weak, it gives us zeal when it is easier to ignore the problems we face, and it provides an undercurrent of relationships to why we care so deeply for our world, our local and global ecology, and all the Holy Powers who share in that relationship with us. Our relationships with the Holy Powers strengthens that concern by denying our concerns merely for self-preservation, which is frequently short-sighted and self-serving, and pushing us, if not directly telling us that we need to care not only for ourselves, but future generations as well. It’s not pushing enlightened self-service; rather, polytheism asks us to live for our Ancestors and our descendants/others’ descendants. We are Ancestors in the making, Their latest iteration, and it is on us to be good Ancestors to those who come after us, even if we never have children.
As I said in What It Means to Place the Gods First:
‘Placing the Gods first means, though, that we accept the Gods as the center of our lives, as the forces with which we ally to bring good to our lives and the lives of those we touch. As my family understands and lives this, it means that family is second to the Gods because without a good relationship with the Gods, we do not have good relationships within our family…It means that our Ancestors are never gone, but walk with us in this life. That when we work with people, we understand the work to not just be work, but Gebo and the building up of maegen and hamingja between us. It means that the religion we live carries weight in our lives, and ripples out into how we relate to one another, and to all things.’
‘In my own experience, the reverse has been true: care for this world is inversely proportionally to the belief in the importance of another one. This has been true in my own life and in the lives of many others I have seen – like those who response to ecocide is “It’s all going to burn anyway.”‘
Again, this would be a worthy concern were I seeing any polytheist putting forth such a rash, irresponsible, wrong-headed repsonse like ‘It’s all going to burn anyway.’ This attitude is predominant in the monotheist eschatology in which the Final Battle purges the world, and God makes everything alright. The corollary to this attitude in the atheist sphere is a nihilism that denies the usefulness of action. I do not find either of these attitudes in polytheism. Rather, I find that polytheist stories embrace the idea of facing steep odds, and are the kind of tests that make heroes. I find that polytheist stories are stories of hope, such as Yggdrasil rising from the flames of Surt’s destruction after Ragnarök.
‘To me, it seems that a god-motivated concern for the earth – whether polytheist or monotheist – is more fragile than a concern that grows directly out of one’s relationship with the earth itself – for the same reason that stewardship models of environmentalism don’t go as deep as those that recognize our inherent interconnectedness.’
Again, Halstead seems to not understand that a Gods-motivated concern for the Earth is as much, if not more strong than a concern that grows directly our of one’s relationship with the Earth itself -because a polytheists our relationship with the land we live on is important, whether between the Gods and spirits of the local land, or of the Earth as a whole. A polytheist’s attitude towards the Earth grows out of our relationship with It. Stewardship models do not go deep enough, I grant, but even philosophies that recognize our inherent interconnectedness fail to go deep enough because they often remain philosophies, primarily of the mind, and are not lived. Our religions require us to live in relationship with the Holy Powers, the land we live on, and from that, the wider Earth included. In other words, recognizing we are interconnected is quite a different thing from living as interconnected beings.
‘What happens to our ecology when the gods are silent, as they sometimes are?’
We have free will, and it is well within our wheelhouse as living Beings to make our own choices. We are humans, animals, and part of this world. For us polytheists, we need not consult just the Gods. This is why I emphasized the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir together, as each provides us with ways to answer questions, find guidance, and move forward. If the Gods are silent we may need to consult the Ancestors or vaettir. If all are silent, perhaps it is time we made up our minds, and acted.
‘Or what happens when the will of the gods do not align with the needs of our planet?’
I have yet to find a situation where wills of the Gods do not align with the planet’s needs. Regardless, just because I know countless Gods exist does not mean that all are to be followed, nor that all have the world’s needs in mind. Treating the wills of the Gods as a singular is problematic because the Gods are many, and so too are Their wills.
‘John admits that “…we aren’t the primary concern of the Gods…” Well, if we are not, and if this planet is not, then I wonder what is their primary concern?’
We cannot be the primary concern of the Gods because not all Gods are concerned with us. The same goes for the planet. Again, treating the wills of the Gods as a singular is problematic because the Gods are many, and so too are Their wills. Their concerns no less so. Asking ‘What is Their primary concern?’ is fruitless. They don’t have a unified concern because the Gods are not One.
‘No doubt someone will tell me that the ways of the gods are mysterious or their ways are not our ways -but I’ve heard all that before, from my former religion. I’m left wondering, if the gods are not concerned with us, and with the other lifeforms on this earth, why we should worship them at all? The mere fact of their existence seems to be insufficient reason to justify placing them before everything else.’
If you need justification for worshiping Gods such as the Eldest Ancestor, the First Fire of the Universe that gave and gives light and heat out of the cold Void, or for worshiping the Gods that gave us life, form, and the ability to exist, if you need justification to be in good relationship, and give respect to the Gods, Ancestors and vaettir that allow us to live, gave rise to us, and live in relationship with us, then I have no idea how to convince you of that importance. If you utterly refuse to believe in, acknowledge the Holy Powers, and actively deny such Beings exist, and that such relationships are real and impactful, I have neither the idea nor the time to convince you otherwise. It is not merely Their existence, but that we exist that should be more than sufficient reason to place Them before all else, with an attitude of gratitude, if nothing else.
‘Of course, not all Polytheism is other-worldly. Not all polytheisms are equal.’
No polytheism I know of is strictly other-worldly. What Halstead is trying to say with ‘Not all polytheisms are equal’ is that there are some polytheisms that are better than others, polytheisms he is ‘happy to share the Pagan umbrella with – a this-worldly polytheism.’ Again, Halstead is placing those of us who put our Gods first, whom he calls ‘other-worldly polytheism’, on the outside of the Pagan umbrella.
‘Some forms of Polytheism find the gods in the manifest phenomena of this world – its rivers, its mountains, its flora, its other-than-human animals. For them, “We move through a world rife with gods and spirits, and a multitude of gods dwell within each of us…We rub up against the divine being with every turn in the sacred dance” (Alison Leigh Lily), from “Local spirits-of-place Gods, like the tiny endemic population of this-kind-of-poppy-with-the-spot-on-its-petals which has only ever been found on one mountain in one county in one land” to “Gods who are nothing but the endless omnipotent life force endlessly taking shape in all things” (Morpheus Ravenna).’
I have no experience with or understanding that there are polytheists who do not find many Gods manifest in the phenomena of this world. However, many of Them are found beyond it as well. Again, referring to the Gods as a whole is problematic. As the Gods are not all found in the manifest phenomena of this world, it denies Their multiplicity to exist from without the Earth. In denying the multiplicity of the Gods’ manifestations, those Gods’ existence is also denied, the same with Ancestors and vaettir whose existence comes from other places.
‘For some Polytheists, the suggestion that we should avoid placing this world before the gods is nonsensical, a non-sequitur, because for them there is no distinction between the gods and this world. That is a kind of Polytheism I am happy to share the Pagan umbrella with – a this-worldly polytheism. But if your gods aren’t going to help me save this world, then I don’t want your Polytheist revolution.’
The problem with referring to the Gods as though They are a unified whole, is that his point here is rather more panentheist than it is polytheist. There must be a distinction made between the Gods and the world, and the Gods who are the Gods of the Earth. Otherwise, the many Gods are being reduced to a singular whole, rather than the plural, individuated Beings the word ought to mean. In doing this, what was Many is reduced to a toothless, ineffectual One. This world’s ability to provide us with the means to live will not be made, cared for, or secured in a single way. We should not place such an expectation of sum-total unity upon the Gods, either.
If Halstead thinks that devotional polytheism is other-worldly polytheism, then he does not understand what he is attempting to critique, and needs to actually read what we write rather than read into our words what he wants to read. We are advocating for RADICAL acceptance of responsibility to leave this world better than we found it, to heal it where we can, and to teach the next generation better ways of living than we inherited.
We do this by following the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits’ examples, guidance, and direction.
I ask him this: What do you follow?