You Cannot Eat Theory

I just read an amazing quote that sums up my feelings on so much: “You cannot eat theory.”

This goes for leftists, polytheists, environmentalists, for damned near anything. You cannot FUCKING eat theory. If your response to someone struggling is to say ‘read theory x’ or ‘read this book/book list’ you are lost.

A popular saying in polytheist circles, especially Heathen ones, is that ‘we are people of the library’. What this has increasingly come to mean to me is ‘I am going to make information as intentionally hard as possible to find and integrate into others’ lives.’ Folks who trot this line out often miss the point of what a library is: it is an open access point for information and education for all age levels, all experience levels, and all people. If we truly are a people of the library then where are the accessible resources for Heathens?

The predominant attitude in polytheist circles still tends to be that you should have your head buried in a mound of books at any given point in time as opposed to living the religion. Mercifully, community expectations in Heathenry and other polytheist religions are changing. It is a slow change, though. I have watched no small amount of people throw their hands up in frustration as so many resources are out of reach, whether by price point or education. I have invested no small amount of money myself in books, both written by academics and fellow polytheists. I am deeply grateful for open, free-at-access projects such as TheLongship.net for existing -and we deeply need more.

Reading theory is not going to impart or teach polytheist religion. Nor will it teach a living leftist philosophy, a living animist/polytheist worldview, or a living relationship with Jörð. It can intellectually bolster a person, but without the lived component those books and those theories are empty air and a waste of time. You cannot teach mutual aid merely by talking about it. You have to do it. You cannot teach polytheism merely by talking about it. You have to do it.

You cannot feed a person in body, mind, or soul merely with theory.

What this does not mean is that theory is useless. Armchair theories, inapplicable and without access? Those are. Pieces of cloth are not joined without the sewing, knitting, crocheting, nalbinding. There are many ways of joining cloth and what they all share in common is that each requires you to apply the theory of their craft. You do not need to understand all the ins and outs, all the history, or all the whys even, though these are fine and good things to know. What you need to know is if this stitch or bind will work for the cloth at hand, and then to do it.

I can go on at length about the beauty of regenerative agriculture or the wonderful things that can be done with permaculture -or I can show it to you in action. I can literally eat the results of the work I have done with my fellows at Crossing Hedgerows Sanctuary and Farm. So many people who talk a good game about solidarity and community cannot eat or share their results because there is nothing to eat and nothing to share. The food I have put into my mouth at potlucks was because of the hard work started and sustained by the Cavanaugh family. This was work that they allow me, and others they invite to Crossing Hedgerows, to do. Living reciprocity.

If our polytheist communities are going to live, let alone thrive, we have to take the steps necessary so that they are nourishing communities to be in. This means we do need to have standards of behavior, work, and study -especially for spiritual specialists and leaders- and that we also need our resources to be accessible for a range of education and experience levels. For this to happen there needs to be a serious reckoning with reciprocity in polytheist communities for this be done.

It should not be an expectation that community leaders, administrators, writers, spiritual specialists, supporters, and others who are integral to getting polytheist communities started and continuing to function should give away their labor without reciprocity. “You should write a book on it!” is a refrain I have seen more than a few times in regards to my own work and that of others. So, will the community support me so I can do that? Will the community give me and other writers, presenters, etc the resources so it is worth writing the books they want in the first place?

There is no doubt that there are efforts where resources being free at the point of access is needed. The community needs to support that necessary work being done. Whether it is a larger community pillar like a library, community garden, or smaller, such as one’s personal Kindred or other group, without community support each will fail and shut its doors. Likewise, if the needed resources to help folks learn and grow are exclusively kept behind paywalls then that harms the community in kind. Our communities, then, need to be places where our theories, values, ideas, and work are living, vibrant, and engaged with. They need to be lived spaces where reciprocity is not something we talk about, it must be something we do.

We cannot eat theory. What we can do is eat the results of that theory put into practice. What we sorely need in both leftist and polytheist communities are folks who are living examples of good Gebo with one another, who do the necessary work so that theories can be developed and put into action. The beauty of this course of action is that it is immediately accessible to everyone. Whether you are looking locally or online, see what you can do right now for the folks in your community. See in turn what your community can do for you. Talk with those in your community, and make concerted effort to making the bonds of reciprocity in your community better for everyone in them.

Defining Terms and Setting Boundaries

In reading a good deal of blog posts I am in agreement that part of the core problem of communication between different Pagan traditions and religions is that there is a sloppy use of words.  To help with this I first list the dictionary definition from the online Oxford English Dictionary as a starting point for discussion.  Then I will dig into the words and what they mean from my perspective if I have any perspective to add.  From there, I’ll go into where I see boundary lines in Paganism, and ask questions I find there.

Polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than one god.

This is pretty straightforward.  Each polytheist relates to the many Gods in a number of ways, some as son or daughter, some as servant, some as a worshiper, or a combination of these or something beyond this simple breakdown.

Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.

Atheism: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

Agnosticism: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

Henotheism: adherence to one particular god out of several, especially by a family, tribe, or other group.

This is a term I came across during my Religious Studies core courses, and it came up again in a Hinduism course.  It is a term rooted in polytheism in that it recognizes many Gods and worships only one.  Some bhakti worshipers are henotheists, and some Pagans devoted to one God are henotheist.  For instance, a Lokian may be a henotheist in that they believe in many Gods as Beings unto Themselves but only worship Loki.

Pantheism: a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.

Panentheism: the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.

Monism: a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in a particular sphere, such as that between matter and mind, or God and the world.  The doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

Monism started off as a philosophical term and used in philosophy by Christian von Wolff which purported there is a unity to all thing, lacking a mind/body divide.  Religiously speaking the term monism has been used to mean that there is no divide between ourselves and God/the Gods.  So a person who believes we ‘are all part of the body of God’ or ‘we are all part of the Goddess’ is a monist.

Humanism: a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Naturalistic: the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.

Rationalism: the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.

Archetype Psychoanalysis (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.

Pagan: a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.

Neopagan: a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or ritual practices from traditions outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe and North America.

Most of these definitions are fairly straightforward.  A polytheist is one who believes in and may worship one or more Gods.  A monotheist is one who believes there is a single God.  Henotheists believe in many Gods and worship just one of Them.

When I see these terms in this context it boggles my mind how archetypes are supposed to work in Paganism.  Archetypes are essential symbol sets we are supposed to have inherited from the Collective Unconscious.  While they may be full of meaning they are, boiled down, symbols, not Gods.  They are reflection of psyche rather than inputs from the Gods Themselves.  That said, I do not understand how one builds a religion around the notion of archetypes.  It is one thing to recognize something as archetypal, i.e. a fertility symbol being strewn out across many cultures and recognized by each culture as a fertility symbol.  It is quite another to boil a God, Goddess, or other Being down to an archetype, i.e. Odin is a Warrior, Loki is a Trickster.  While it may be true that Odin is a Warrior and Loki is a Trickster, that is not all they are.  Odin has up to 300 heiti.  How could one archetype possibly encompass all He is with so many heiti?  What does an archetypal Pagan cosmology look like?  How does it function?  What does it teach about the relationship one has with the world?  It would seem to me to be very hard to build a religion out of archetypalism, as it first stems from psychology and not religion, and its insights are geared toward the psychological rather than the religious.  That is not to say the two may not learn from one another, but describing deities, spirits, and people in merely archetypal terms belies the whole Being behind such categorizing.  It does not delve into the why of a God, or even into details, but what the God as a whole might represent to a person, i.e. Odin as a Warrior God or Dead-and-Risen God.  In viewing Gods through such archetypal lenses, while it may be useful to bridge a viewpoint or gain insight, it does disservice to the God or Goddess as a whole as it boils their Being down to this single facet.   It would be like someone boiling my whole identity down to a Psychology major or just my job title.

Where does atheism take its place in Paganism?  Do they hold religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions?  Well, considering all the followers of the major world religions, with the exception of Buddhists, believes in some sort of God, then the answer is yes in a basic sense.  But do atheists hold religious belief?  The hallmark of atheism is that, as the above definition shows, there is disbelief or lack of belief.  That is, that there is no belief in the Gods.  An affirmative belief from an atheist would then be “There are no Gods.”  What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.?  What kind of religious foundation can be placed here, in unbelief?  Again, I do not understand how one can be an atheist and a Pagan from these definitions and the understandings I have of Pagan and atheist.  If an atheist does not believe in the Gods, how does one have a cosmology?  If one does have a cosmology, how is it Pagan?  

Monism purports that there is no separation between the physical and spiritual.  One can take that to mean in the materialistic sense, that all things are part of the physical world, or in the more pro-spiritual sense, that physical reality and spiritual reality are on in the same.  Either way, the physical is it, all there is, encompassing all of reality.  How does this work within Pagan religion?  I do not see how a philosophy that would deny something as fundamental to Pagan religion as the Otherworld, the Summerlands, Helheim, etc. would effectively fit Paganism at all.  If the physical world is all there is, there is no Asgard, and Asgard’s usefulness from the view of cosmology is completely limited to symbolism or abstraction.  Accordingly, so is all that is told of the place to us from myth, legend, experience, etc.

I have many of the same questions for humanism, naturalism, and rationalism as I do for atheism as it relates to Paganism.  How do any of these engage Paganism within its own bounds rather than imposing its own philosophy on Paganism?  How does humanism, naturalism, or rationalism fit into any Pagan belief structures, many of which are deity-centric?  How does, as the Humanistic Paganism blog states “we carry on a long tradition going back to ancient times” if it actually denies the central tenets of many of those traditions?

I am a polytheist, and there is a great deal of unpacking that so simple a label now asks us to do.  Am I a ‘soft polytheist’?  Am I a ‘hard’ polytheist?  This seeming dichotomy is actually what I view as an improper use of language.  If you believe that everything is part of a single God in the end you are a monist,  pantheist, or a panentheist (depending on the particulars of your belief(s)), not a polytheist, no matter how many permutations of ‘God’ you feel and/or believe there are.

During the last few months I have read a great deal of posts and responses, and there is a pretty consistent question that comes up: why should we be so discerning or heavy handed in dissecting what Paganism means?  I won’t speak on anyone else’s behalf, but share my own answers.

First, the boundaries of my religion are sacred to me.  There are ways to properly believe and engage in my path.  There is such a thing as a blasphemy within polytheist Paganism, and every time I see the Gods called ‘nothing more than archetypes’ or the ancient traditions used as a medium for what I consider to be vacuous religion and/or spirituality, I see blasphemy being committed.  Can the Gods punish blasphemers?  Certainly, if They care to.  That said, as a member of the Pagan community it is also on me to say ‘this is not acceptable within my religion’.  If I am silent in the face of blasphemy I am giving it my tacit acceptance.

Second, the sloppy use or intentional misuse of language is often a way of erasure for minority paths in Paganism.  Statements such as ‘all Pagans believe’ are, like most blanket statements, incorrect.  Far too often have I heard this, whether from fellow Pagans, academics, or any number of well-meaning souls who are trying to speak on my behalf.  I may not agree with Atheistic Paganism, Humanistic Paganism, but I will not speak on their behalf.  The perspective I speak of is my own, from my own tradition and in my own voice. I recognize there will be polytheists who are just fine with Atheist Pagans, Humanist Pagans, and accept them as Pagan as they are.  Given my beliefs on the Gods I cannot do this.  I may not agree with you, and I will do my best to avoid characterizing you and your words wrong, but I will not speak for you.  

Third, I like my words to have concrete meaning.  Atheist Pagan, as with Humanist Pagan, leaves me with too many questions that are unanswered.  It, as a religious path from within Paganism, makes little sense to me, even on a baseline reading of the words without digging into the theology, or lack thereof.  If one does not believe in the Gods, and/or has a lack of belief in religion and/or spirituality it makes no sense to me to claim to be, in any way, shape, or form religious and/or to claim a religious title.  Archetypal Paganism leaves me with as many question, maybe more; are you worshiping images from the Collective Unconscious?  Are the Gods nothing more than thought/image symbols?  Is such a thing worthy of worship, or worth your time to worship?  If you are not worshiping, what is it one does with an archetype, religiously or spiritually speaking?

Fourth, I believe that having a better Pan-Pagan community means that we will run up against one another’s boundaries, and rather than pretend they are not there, I would rather acknowledge them.  You might hold the opinion that because I am opposed to including Humanist Pagans, Atheist Pagans and others in the Pagan community, that I am close-minded or a bigot.  Granted, you are entitled to your opinion.  This is not some decision I made overnight.  I’ve bandied this about back and forth for a significant amount of time both in my own head and with others.  I’ve thought on this a lot, prayed on it, and spent some time sussing out how I feel, and how best to talk about this subject.  You do not have to respect my opinion, or even my beliefs on this matter.  Acceptance, for me, does not change how I feel, or what my beliefs are in this.  I will respect your right to an opinion even if I cannot bring myself to respect the opinion itself.  In this, I am treating you no different than Christian friends or family, who feel much the same way toward me.

I know that, given the demographics, and overall feeling that is in the Pan-Pagan community the kind of boundary setting and exclusion I am speaking of will probably not happen.  There are too many people who accept Atheist Pagans, Humanistic Pagans, and so on as part of the community.  That is, after all, their right.  It is also mine as a polytheist Pagan to speak up and out against it, and against the marginalization of our voices in Pagan circles when and where it happens.  May the Gods be hailed, the Ancestors praised, and the spirits honored.