The fact of the matter is, that almost no one I disagree with will ever come into contact with me. So why am I raising these issues at all? Why write about holiness, the sacred, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc. for a larger polytheist audience?
I am a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, which means that I support anyone coming to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir into the Northern Tradition and Heathenry regardless of background, and that, on-the-whole, I’m more concerned with what happens to my little group of people and my little corner of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. My hamingja, and much of my personal concerns, are tied up with these people who are family to me. That doesn’t mean that the wider Northern Tradition, Heathen, and polytheist communities don’t mean anything to me, but they are lower on the list, and most of them are not in my innangarð.
Yet, everything I write about here has come up in some fashion, whether it has been in working with folks who come for work, divination, or questions, interacting with folks at conventions, students, etc. In some part I’m writing here so that there are polytheists out here saying “This is how I see it, and this is why this makes sense to me.” or “I disagree with this, and this is why.” I would rather there not be an illusion of conformity or acceptance of an idea when there is not, especially when it is something I have had to talk about time and again with non-Pagans and Pagans alike, i.e. not all Odin-worshipers are racist, not all Pagans believe x, y, or z, there are some concrete beliefs to being a polytheist, and so on.
When I get into more heated discussions with folks in the larger Pagan communities, I do this in no small part because I am a Northern Tradition Pagan and a Heathen, and feel that my views and that of my co-religionists need to be presented. This feeling is pronounced because I am a priest and shaman. This means as much as I am a boundary crosser and an ambassador, helping folks to connect with our Gods, their Ancestors, and the vaettir, it is also my duty to present my religions straightforward, and present defense of the religion if needed, being a boundary keeper.
The questions of “Can’t the Gods defend Themselves? Can’t They make Their displeasure known?” eventually do come up and need to be tackled.
Sure. Our Gods are not helpless by any stretch, but that puts the full responsibility of keeping our traditions on the Gods, and not, as it should be, on ourselves. It’s not about the Gods being able to defend this or that concept. It is about the duty being on us, as worshipers, spiritual specialists, and laypeople, to engage in our religion in a way that is respectful, and keep our religious boundaries, communities, terminology, and connected ideas healthy.
I work with the idea of a teacup frequently as a container of ideas, the tea being the meaning of things and the teacup the word itself as a container of meaning. The Gods I will liken to the kettle, water, and the leaves/herbs, the source of the tea itself. They are poured into the teapot of religion to brew and be held, a defined form that gives the ability to transfer this meaning a bit more safe from being burned, yet still keep warmth, which we pour into our cups. Some folks go right for the kettle and fill their cup right then and there. You still get tea, but eventually, if you’re going to drink tea without burning yourself, it goes into a cup or you wait for the kettle to cool so you can drink straight from it.
I don’t imagine I will ever agree with the idea, let alone the acceptance of atheist Paganism in the Pagan community, but really, that’s not my call to make. I’m not the Circle Police or the Pagan Police. As much as people deride folks like Galina Krasskova, Tess Dawson, Sannion, and myself as part of the Piety Posse, do you folks honestly think I have any pull with folks who do not believe in Gods or theistic Pagans who accept atheist Pagan theological views as just as valid as their own? I speak out because I feel the need to speak out, but I hold no illusions that my words hold any more sway than what others give them. I certainly can’t stop you, but I also do not have to accept your views. I hold the view of a polytheist, one in which the Gods are real, have agency and Being, and are not constructs/archetypes/etc. of human un/consciousness. There’s nothing in atheism for me to find in common ground, religiously speaking. We can meet at any number of other points, but I very-much doubt this is a place where we will find common ground, as the very grounding of our views is different in very powerful ways. Further, any attempt by an atheist to co-opt religious language out of its meanings will not further dialogue with me at all.
I find myself on the opposite side of folks like John Halstead and B.T. Newburg more and more in no small part because the aesthetics of the religious communities I have called home for the last 11 years are being sought out by atheist Pagans, but not the substance. The language which identifies me as a person within a set of religious communities and/or within a communal identity is being intentionally separated from the primary means by which that identifier is constructed: religious identity with concrete meaning in regards to belief in and worship of Gods.
My views are not simply matters of disagreement, but really, they are matters of course. The course of logic that constructs my religious identity flows from the creation story of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, flows from the cosmology, and flows from the Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen worldview, the worldview I live within. These things are essential to the construction of the identity I have as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen. When the meaning of words like sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and so on are affected, the meaning of my identifiers and associated communities are affected. It’s about more than just me, though: these are part and parcel of how any religious community defines itself. So not only am I personally invested to see that sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and other words with religious meaning stay invested with that meaning, and how that plays out in my own life, I am also invested in how these words stay invested with meaning within my religious community, and how these words come to define and structure things within the Northern Tradition and Heathen communities.
Here is where I stand: as a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, I have primary concern for the those within my innangarð, but that does not mean I ignore the things or people who are utgarð to my personal or more wider communities. While my hamingja is not tied with those outside of my innangarð, it would be a disservice to the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, and my personal communities within them, to not speak out on the things I have. It would be a disservice to fellow polytheists, too. I hold the traditions I am within, as does everyone who is within these traditions. Each person needs to decide for themselves whether it is incumbent on them to speak up, out, or to hold silence. For myself, given the roles of shaman and priest that I serve in my communities, as an ambassador, boundary-crosser, and boundary-keeper, I find myself being called to speak more often than I am to be silent.
An idea that I see occurring again and again in Pagan dialogue, and increasingly in polytheist dialogue, is the idea of ‘orthopraxy not orthodoxy’.
Before I go too much further, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, orthopraxy is:
“Rightness of action (as distinct from or in addition to rightness of thought); right-doing, practical righteousness; correct practice.”
While the the Oxford English Dictionary defines orthodoxy as:
Authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice
My main issue is that I see that orthopraxy stems from orthodoxy, not the other way around. Right action stems from right thought. One requires the other, as right thought without right action is impotent, but right action is unattainable without right thought. Right action and right thought are philosophical terms, and there are several interpretations from theological and philosophical schools as to their meaning. I understand right action as being aligned with right thought, that is, correct actions flow from correct thoughts. In the case of the Gods, respect for the Gods in ritual flows from respect from the Gods in thought. The reverse is also true. Making an offering to a God if you disrespect that God while doing so is itself a form of disrespect.
In theological terms, this means that within polytheism, an orthodox position is that the Gods are real and that They are due worship. Orthopraxy that flows from this position, then, would be to treat the Gods with respect, and to do things that are worshipful, such as pray or make offerings. In the Northern Tradition/Heathenry I would be required to make prayers and a certain offering, such as mugwort, to a Sacred Fire. This is personal orthopraxy which flows from the orthodoxy I have just described.
This is not to say that I want to impose my beliefs on the whole of polytheism, but that polytheism as a whole does actually hold orthodox beliefs from which orthopraxy arises even if those beliefs are incredibly loosely defined. In other words, orthodoxy’s details differ polytheist religion to polytheist religion, but two polytheisms in comparison will have orthodoxies which are similar in general, i.e. the Gods are real, the Gods are holy/sacred, the Gods are due offerings, etc.
Without the orthodoxy of the Gods being real, holy, and due offerings, the orthopraxy of offering to Them in or out of ritual makes not a lick of sense. Polytheists who have adopted the ‘orthopraxic not orthodoxic’ line in the extreme give up the understanding that there are things which polytheists need to believe in order to be polytheist. I’m not even getting into religious specifics here. There’s no need; a Kemetic orthodoxic understanding of the Gods would be different, at the least in detail if not in many overarching senses, than my own as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen.
But why am I emphasizing orthodoxy here? It would seem I am advocating a return to a cage, one I ostensibly flew out of when I left Catholicism. Such an idea, though, leaves orthodoxy, as well as orthopraxy, and much of religious thought that flows from them, in the realm of monotheism. I see no reason for this to be, especially when many polytheist religions have quite a lot to say about these things, and exploring these things, rather than being purely divisive, can actually bring our communities together from within. I do not expect a Kemetic follower to hold, much less entertain my religion’s orthodoxy any more than I would hold theirs, excepting cases where I am interacting with and worshiping Gods from their religion.
This openness to orthodoxy, though, does not mean that I accept others’ orthodoxy wholesale or even in part anymore than they need to accept mine. Disagreements over orthodoxy and orthopraxy are, to my mind, normal, and best navigated by dialogue both between people and, especially, between people and the Gods. Heck, my disagreement over orthopraxy or orthodoxy within my religion has little to no input on a Kemetic’s, for instance. It’s a different story if folks outside of our religions are saying to polytheists that we need to be orthopraxic, not orthodoxic, or vice versa. It’s one thing if we adopt these stances ourselves, and it’s a whole other when this is put on us. Granted, I’d rather not see polytheism swing the pendulum hard toward orthopraxy and away from orthodoxy, since I don’t see them as binaries. Rather, I see them more as complementary sides of the same coin.
Adopting orthodox positions does not mean that we’ll suddenly *poof* turn into fundamentalist Christians today, tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. It does not mean that we’ll suddenly adopt a theocracy from which there is no escape. It does not mean that pluralism will disappear, either. Plenty of historical examples exist as testaments to that. Most polytheist religions have the understanding that there are, in addition to being quite large Gods, cosmologically speaking, many of these Gods may be understood in a local way, that is, through a particular orthodoxy on the local level. I remember reading an article by Sannion quite a while ago referencing different Dionysian temples with different understandings of Him, different requirements for ritual purity (some very exacting if memory serves) and offerings which were well-received for one but not the other.
A firmer adoption of orthodoxy and orthopraxy does not mean we fall into one-true-wayism. We are a whole collection of religions, religious movements and the like between the Pagan, polytheist, and interconnected communities. I find such a thing, given the diversity of beliefs within the polytheist religions themselves, to be nearly impossible. Polytheism’s main stance precludes there being only one way of doing things. I imagine the same of most Pagan groups.
There are places where I do accept a stance that puts more weight toward orthopraxy. For instance, when I attend a ritual for the first time, I do things in an orthopraxic way, as I probably don’t have the information or the headspace for doing things in an orthodoxic way. When I went to the Backeion at Many Gods West, I was there worshiping and praising Dionysus, reciting the prayers and making my own when I felt the call to. What I did not do was fully adopt the Greek, Hellenic, or Thracian mindsets in regards to Him. How could I? I had not studied them much, had not been intitiated into the Dionysian Mysteries, and this had been the first ritual in a very long time where I had been in His Presence. There are just some rituals I will attend where I will be an outsider to the tradition or the religion. So long as doing so would not breach hospitality or taboo(s) on mine or the host’s parts, it’s really up to the Gods, the Ancestors, the spirits, the tradition(s), and the celebrants/ritualists whether or not it is taboo for me to attend the rite.
It seems to me much of the issue people take with the words orthodoxy and orthopraxy is in two parts: the first is an emotional reaction to the words themselves, and the second part is in the feeling that orthodoxy and orthopraxy impose themselves rather than are a natural outgrowth of religious understanding and expression. Words sacred and holy, those have emotional weight to them, and where sacred or holy may have positive ones, at least for those coming out of monotheist religions, orthodoxy can have some heavy negative weight to it. Even in everyday speech, orthodoxy has acquired heavy baggage of being out of touch, wrong-headed, stubborn in the face of scientific evidence, or someone whose outlook refuses to change.
With many Pagans converting from or descendants of converts from monotheist or atheist homes, it’s no wonder some have taken a heavy stance against orthodoxy. I hear the refrain “I left (insert church, group, etc.) here to get away from dogma” and “I left (name) so I could follow my own path” often enough that I think these ideas need addressing as well.
Regardless of where one goes, if one is part of a religion there are orthodoxies, or dogmas, that are part of it. If there are no orthodoxies or dogmas, there is no religion. If you left a monotheist religion to avoid orthodoxy, you may as well quit religion altogether. Non-theist religions have orthodoxy and dogma in their own measures; it is one of the defining characteristics of religion. Religion is the bone upon which the sinew-connections of religious communities are made, and the flesh of spirituality is given form by.
Even in following one’s own path, there are often unspoken orthodoxies and orthopraxies that play into how we frame and understand our place in things, and the experiences we go through. If one starts as a Catholic, and begins exploring outside of Catholicism, as I did, Catholicism is the initial benchmark against which all things are weighed until the benchmark outgrows its usefulness or is actively cast aside. This helps to shape what experiences we may integrate, discount, or accept outright. The coloring of our lenses by our worldview(s) shapes how we come to explore a new path. Even if we, somehow, started from a totally fresh slate and began spiritual exploration, the people we might look to for guidance, physically, online, and/or in a book, and their associated orthodoxies, orthopraxies, etc. would impact our own.
This brings us to a phrase that makes me grit my teeth every time I hear it: “I’m spiritual, but not religious”.
I get the intention of this, generally speaking, but as a phrase it is wrong. As I wrote earlier, “Religion is the bone upon which the sinew-connections of religious communities are made, and the flesh of spirituality is given form by.” Spirituality cannot be without religion of some kind, even if one doesn’t have a name for it or doesn’t care to put it into a given identity. Orthodoxy gives shape to orthopraxy as religion gives shape to spirituality. Spirituality requires religion. Orthopraxy requires orthodoxy.
This is not a one-time thing, though. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy exist in a continuous, reciprocal relationship. They feed one another, grow together. Without one the other falls apart. The orthodoxy of a given polytheist religion feeds the orthopraxy of that religion. The practices of polytheism reinforces the thought and worldview that go into why we do what we do in the first place. It goes on, hand in hand between ourselves and the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. If the reciprocity, the Gebo of this is kept well, this reciprocity goes on, hand-in-hand between ourselves, the Holy Powers, and the future generations of animists, polytheists, and Pagans. By passing this on in a healthy way we ensure our communities and their relationships with the Holy Powers flourish.
Here are sources I consulted in exploring this:
I sit with the Dead as They weep and wail
I sit with the Dead in silence
I sit with the Dead who died solemn and serene
I sit with the Dead by violence
I sit with the Dead before grave and ground
I sit with the Dead by monuments
I sit with the Dead alone and aloof
I sit with the Dead in alliance
Holiness and Sacredness are Rooted Words: A Reply to John Halstead’s I Hold These Things to be Sacred
For clarity and to keep things as orderly as I can, I will be responding line by line to John Halstead’s post on Patheos, I Hold These Things To Be Sacred: A Reply to Sarenth Odinsson.
I intentionally avoided using names in my piece, Holiness is Rootedness, because I wasn’t talking specifically about one atheist Pagan or another. My entire point is in the first paragraph.
“In order to have a sense of what is holy, one must have ideas and concepts related to holiness. In order for these ideas and concepts to be related to holiness, it must have roots in a religion, a theological framework, in which holiness as a concept is able to take root. If one’s religious framework has no Gods, there is nothing to consecrate. If there is no God or Goddess, no Holy Power to consecrate, then there is no holiness just as there is no profanity or things lacking in that consecration. “
If you have no theological framework then there is no theology to explain what is or is not holy. If you have no theological framework to discern what holiness is, its qualities and characteristics, then you have no concept of holiness to draw upon. Atheism’s main characteristics are that there are no Gods, and most of the atheist lines in regards to religious thought and phenomena directly state that there is no such thing as a God, Goddess, Supreme Being, etc. Most, though certainly not all forms of atheism, reject religious cosmology. I find it odd that pointing this out is cause to offend someone who identifies as an atheist, though my article was certainly not aimed solely at Mr. Halstead.
You can say all you like that you believe that things are sacred or holy, but those words carry absolutely no theological or philosophical weight when you say them because you don’t actually believe in the Beings nor the cosmologies that imbue them with that weight to begin with.
“So, you know that feeling theists get when atheists tell them their gods are imaginary? I think I’m feeling something similar. Something like, “How dare you!”
Here’s what Odinsson says:
“If one’s religious framework has no Gods, there is nothing to consecrate. If there is no God or Goddess, no Holy Power to consecrate, then there is no holiness …”
“An atheist framework is one in which there is no God or Goddess, and thus, no sacred. One may hold things reverently, that is, with deep respect, but without a religious framework that very concept that one may hold anything as holy has no basis. An atheist claiming to hold something as holy is a person claiming something to which one has no right …””
I was pointing out what I had thought was patently obvious. I find it odd that Halstead is having such an emotional response when he has flat-out stated he does not believe in Gods. It would follow that there is no existent concept of holiness, as there is no theology in which holiness may take any kind of root. Keep in mind when I write Holy Power or Holy Powers, I include the Ancestors and vaettir, or spirits, in this. I don’t think that animists lack a conception of the holy, as in order to be an animist there is some sort of cosmology present, and accordingly, a way to establish things like what is sacred/not sacred.
“Atheism cannot be invested in this understanding as it has no basis for holiness and the sacred, as atheism denies both on their face by its very outlook. Atheism denies that Gods exist, and in so doing, denies the cosmology They are rooted within. The notion of holiness within an atheist context, therefore, cannot exist.”
Now, I’ve never really gotten along with Odinsson. (I think he was the same person who once threatened to punch me if he saw me at Pantheacon.) But I don’t think it should be only atheist Pagans or non-theistic Pagans who are upset by what he is saying here. Odinsson is saying if you don’t believe in the gods, then nothing is sacred or holy to you. Implied in this is the statement there is nothing sacred or holy in the world except the gods.
Nothing sacred in the world but the gods?!
Wow! I would have a hard time imaging a less “pagan” statement than that.
I am not the person who threatened to punch Halstead if I saw him at Pantheacon. I’ve never been to Pantheacon, and given the extreme amount of travel I would have to do and time off I would have to take right before ConVocation here in Michigan, I have no interest in doing so.
Note here that Halstead actually does not refute my points here, or anywhere in this post. He quotes me, but misses the point entirely. There is no implication that there is nothing sacred or holy in the world except the Gods. It is not surprising to me that he misses this point, as Halstead has no conception of holiness himself, and I imagine is probably not familiar with Northern Tradition or Heathen cosmologies. To be quick, the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are holy. The Gods and Elements Themselves are among our Ancestors. Many of the Gods directly made vaettir, i.e. Odin and His Brothers formed the Dvergar from maggots burrowing into the flesh of Ymir. Many Gods are part of the vaettir of this and other Worlds, and vice versa. For instance, landvaettir may be seen as being part of Jörð’s Body/Being, Jörð being one of several Earth Goddesses within Heathenry. Some vaettir have ascended into being or have become seen as being Gods unto Themselves, and some Gods have descended into being or have been seen as being vaettir unto Themselves. There are methods within the Northern Tradition by which an area may be made to be sacred, or that sacredness may be inborn to a place, such as a grove, or a prepared ritual area, altar, and so on.
There is something deeply disturbing, I think, about a paganism which cannot find the holy or the sacred in the earth or in another person.
Certainly, but that is not my position here, nor was it. I view Jörð, the Earth Goddess, as a holy Being. Do I view all the Earth as sacred? No, as I do not find CAFOs sacred, nor do I find the floating garbage that chokes the oceans sacred. Those, I find profane. Wrong. Unholy.
Are all people sacred? No. All people are bound together in Wyrd, but that merely makes you part of reality, not an inherently sacred person. It doesn’t mean people are valueless either, but sacredness actually means something in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. Namely, that a thing, Being, place, etc. is dedicated to, belongs to, is consecrated by, or is devoted to the Holy Powers. This is why an altar is a sacred thing, a grove where rituals are performed, or a single tree representing Yggdrasil itself is regarded as sacred. These things are devoted and dedicated to the Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors and/or vaettir) of the Northern Tradition and/or Heathenry. They are sacred.
As for myself, I hold these things to be sacred and holy: all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships.
They are not just things that I hold “reverently” or with “deep respect”; they are holy and sacred.
He says he regards these things as sacred, but without any of these things being involved with, dedicated to, devoted to, or consecrated to Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir, what are these words worth? Without the necessary relationship inherent in a cosmology, in which one relates to all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships, and so on, saying something is sacred or holy are empty words. Claiming one holds something sacred or holy without any requisite theology to back these words up is intellectually sloppy or dishonest.
“Holiness is rootedness,” says Odinsson. My religion is rooted. It is rooted in these things: Life, Matter, Relationship.
How can Halstead claim his religion is rooted when the soil of the Holy Powers is denied?
Indeed, how can Halstead claim to be religious whatsoever when he denies any of the requisite things for which religion itself functions: namely, to provide a framework for and means by which people may establish relationships with, interact with, revere, understand, and worship the Holy Powers? All these things Halstead claims his religion is rooted in has no meaning without an actual theology in which the sacred matters, and so long as the sacred is, in actuality, absent from his worldview and thus, any religion he would lay claim to, all these words are empty.
You lie in a bed
Sick beyond sick
I wish I could see you
Let you know thank you
For giving life with your wife
To countless kids
We know you are dying
I wish I could end it for you
But these people would not understand
And you, in your love for God and Church, would refuse
So I stay here
Praying for an end to your suffering
I raise smoke not only for you
But for the family you will leave behind
You will leave gaping wounds
In your wife and children
Because you worked so hard
To be loving in life
You are so far gone from here
Will we bury you here, where I can visit?
Or will you be laid to rest
in rocky red, parched soil?
I don’t know how I will mourn for you
If there will be tears or just fond memories
Because it’s so long, so distant
Since I saw your smiling, wrinkled face
I don’t know how I will stand strong
For my father or my family
But I will do what I can
To honor you, if nothing else
I pray for your end
To suffering and transfusions
To pain and weariness
To restlessness and the wait
I love you, Grandpa
You will be remembered
You will have a place in my home
You will be remembered.
Working with the dead is rough
They brush your mind, with little thought to how raw they feel
Their lives spill out upon you without filters, the ones who share the most, open skies raining on your head
The Disir and the Väter can be the roughest
When They speak, They speak in power
It shakes you, the voices of ages, the ten thousand and more generations of Dead, Gods, vaettir, all speaking with a few voices
Those voices thunder through you
Voices whose names have passed from memory
The recent Dead whose names still hurt
The ten thousand ten thousands and more who stand behind us
The Dead are speaking, and we need to listen
No matter how rough They speak