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Reflecting on Two Articles on a Post-Christian Future

January 2, 2019 5 comments

Manny Tejeda-Moreno wrote an article, “Editorial: Douthat’s post-Christian future, a response” for The Wild Hunt, responding to a New York Times op-ed “The Return of Paganism”, an article written by Ross Douthat.  Rather than dig through both articles, I found things within Tejeda-Moreno’s article I felt were worth responding to. Tejeda-Moreno’s response to Douthat highlights things that I felt were worth exploring, as I have seen Pagan and polytheist communities struggle through the fourteen years I have on-and-off called myself a Pagan and have been a polytheist.

It is pretty clear Ross Douthat is not a part of any modern Pagan religion, and he has been an op-ed writer for several years. I am not shocked Tejeda-Moreno is dissatisfied with the article. Over the course of his life Douthat has been a Pentecostal and a Catholic and was educated at Harvard. He is not only writing from outside our communities essentially about us, as Tejeda-Moreno clearly points out, he is doing so poorly informed.

His lamentations that there may be more witches than members of the United Church of Christ should be evidence enough that he is mourning or at least ill at ease in the post-Christian future he sees on the horizon. I find this notion at odds, though, with those exercising levers of power and in the majority. The most prominent and numerous members in US society are some flavor of monotheist, predominantly Christian. Those who are not Christians in positions of power, such as political or academic settings, are often agnostic or atheist. All tend to default to some variation of ‘hierarchy of religion’ in which one’s personal flavor (Christian, atheist, or agnostic) is the summit of the hierarchy. Pagan and polytheist religions are often derided for their belief in ‘demons/delusions’, ‘outmoded ideas’, ‘dead gods’, and the like, treated more as curiosities than anything worthy of regard either in academia or in interfaith settings.

I echo Tejeda-Moreno’s disappointment with Douthat’s assertion that Paganism is “some civic cult with supernatural experimentation driven by secret societies of literati weaving post-Christian intellectualism into society.” Modern Pagan religions are neither that organized nor that well-developed. Even if we were, intellectualism or rationalism is not the main philosophy of a good number of Pagans or polytheists.  We certainly do not have the numbers for civic cultus, nor the structures which would make it relevant so far as I can see.

In the first place, modern Pagan religions do not even internally agree on what Paganism itself is. The term is so nebulous as to be unwieldy, effectively ending in some vague sense of ‘not Christian’. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are polytheist, believing in and worshiping many Gods. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are atheist, believing that there are no Gods and worship nothing. Saying anything accurate when even basic and essential matters of theology are disagreed upon internal to specific religions within Paganism is almost impossible. For instance: Are Wiccans theist? If so, which Wiccans, if any, are theist and which, if any, are atheist?

Then there comes issues of who gets to decide who gets to be called Wiccan in the first place. Gatekeeping, who gets to do it, and who has the right to gatekeep specific Pagan religions are a series of ongoing issues in many Pagan and polytheist religions. Without these basic methods of organization decided, it matters little whether one says “Wiccans are theist” or “Wiccans are atheist” because the ground upon which the matter would rest shifts dependent on the practitioner and not the identifier itself.  The reason I go over words and their meanings so often in my posts is because of this ongoing problem.  There is a consistent need to reinforce what words mean because the language in Pagan communities is inconsistently applied and used.  I can get more to the core of what I am by using the word polytheist rather than Pagan because, where Pagan is a very mushy word, polytheist says what it is right on the tin.

I have a bone to pick with Tejeda-Moreno, and that is the same bone I have with everyone and anyone who uses the term ‘organized religion’ without including our own religions.  The term organized religion means what it says, “A structured system of faith or worship” though most associate it with monotheist religions.  Every single religion is organized or it is not a religion.  Were Tejeda-Moreno to have written something like “Christian religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” or “Monotheist religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” there would be less issue from me.  It’s still an over-generalization of centuries of history, but it would be more accurate than to just hand Christianity and other monotheist religions the phrase organized religion.

Further, setting up Paganism and organized religions as being against one another is nonsensical.  The “continued toleration of sexual abuse and misogyny exposes all the other moral failings” regardless of which religion it is in question, and Paganism is no more immune to this than Catholicism is.  Indeed, it is also true that “Individuals working to experience their authentic selves are deluged by moral pronouncements serving only to layer guilt and self-hatred” is equally applicable to the Pagan and polytheist communities.  Arguably, it is something that most faith communities engage in rather than the work of their religions’ callings.

The failure here is that Douthat fails to recognize that people should be free to believe in a religion that offers them meaning without ridicule.

I do not think that he fails to understand this so much as it is in his Catholic view that there are true and good religions and those that are not.  It’s also his mistake in assuming that we Pagans and polytheists only conceive as Gods belonging to Creation, and not able to be both immanent and transcendent, or one or the other.  His agreements with Steven Smith’s assessment of things rests on shaky ground as Smith commits pantheists and atheists to his view without even so much as bringing in contemporary Pagan or polytheist authors to his article while mischaracterizing those same religious movements.  In it, he ignores the lived religions of Pagans and polytheists and misses what immanent as well as transcendent Gods, Ancestors, and spirits do to the weltanschauung of the religions and people who believe in Them and worship Them.

Tejeda-Moreno continues:

He avoids a basic reality, as well: individuals are not turning away from organized religion. They are turning toward something that has meaning for them. It may be praxis, or it may be dogma; whatever the reason, they are invoking the fundamental human rights of thought, belief, and religion. Complaining about them as sinful distortions, or implying a divine force is preparing to act in retribution, is using fear in service of patriarchal oppression.

Again, I think Douthat isn’t avoiding a basic reality, but couching in terms familiar to himself and his religion.  Douthat’s point is made here in that regard, and it is a good one:

These descriptions are debatable, but suppose Smith is right. Is the combination of intellectual pantheism and a this-world-focused civil religion enough to declare the rebirth of paganism as a faith unto itself, rather than just a cultural tendency within a still-Christian order?

It seems to me that the answer is not quite, because this new religion would lack a clear cultic aspect, a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance. And that absence points to the essential weakness of a purely intellectualized pantheism: It invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.

Douthat goes on to say:

However, there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help, that do offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.

He’s not wrong in his assessment here.  One of the major appeals in Pagan and polytheist religions is that we have living relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that in some way invite us to share in co-creating with Them.  We are invited to appreciate the beauty of our Holy Powers, the Worlds we inhabit, and so much more. Our Holy Powers occupy many places simultaneously that we can appreciate on multiple levels, including that of devotion, aesthetic, beauty, joy, and more.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers at our altars and in our statues.  We build relationships with Them in places They hold in high regard.  We build relationships with Them in sacred places in nature or our cities.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers when we bear jewelry or tattoos of Their forms, symbols or Names.  We build relationships with Them when we lay down offerings at a tree, look out to the Sun’s or Moon’s rise, feel Them in the breeze.  We build relationships with Them in the grip of writing a poem, knitting a blanket, or making a piece of art.

Douthat goes on with ill-conceived generalized histrionics that are wrong, namely in regards to ancient Roman elites.  Polytheism, not pantheism was the norm.  He is also forming his argument on shaky foundations for what it would take to form a living pagan religion under his view:

To get a fully revived paganism in contemporary America, that’s what would have to happen again — the philosophers of pantheism and civil religion would need to build a religious bridge to the New Agers and neo-pagans, and together they would need to create a more fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order they discern.

His point here is wrong.  Pagans and polytheists do not need pantheists or outside civil religionists.  We have our own philosophers, and for those who wish to engage in civil religions there are ample examples to follow.  We need not partner with pantheists or civil religionists to create a fully realized cult of the immanent divine because we possess all the tools, ability, and functions to do so within our own religions.  We already have everything Douthat is pointing out here.

Likewise, Tejeda-Moreno is wrong.

Whether we are discussing Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan, individuals are not turning away from organized faiths; they are turning toward something more meaningful to them. Pagans are re-wilding their faith interactions to the immanent and the spiritual, and few things are more dangerous to what is “organized” than what is “wild”.

Individuals are turning away from monotheist religions, not organized ones.  They are turning towards something more meaningful to them, that is true, but it is not something that is not organized, only organized in a different fashion.  We are re-wilding our religions insofar as our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanently intertwined with the development of our religions.  What most who are coming into “Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan” are coming into is one where the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanent and transcendent, not bound by us, our morality, our politics, or our views.  The Gods are the Gods, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The Ancestors are the Ancestors, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The spirits are the spirits, Their own, and we do not control Them.

It is not us who are re-wilding our religions.  If our religions are wild it is because the Holy Powers are not in our control.  We talk with our Holy Powers, we seek Their guidance, and whether through divination, omens, inspiration, or other means They make Their desires and wills known.  This does not mean we have no bearing on our religion.  We do, because it is in relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that our religions are woven.  We can disagree with our Holy Powers, negotiate, ask, work with Them to different ends.  We can also agree with our Holy Powers, obey, negotiate, ask, do the work we are given.  We can have times where it is hard to know what They want, times where our lives are fallow, times where we are sure of what They want, and times where our lives are so full we are fit to burst.  These are lived relationships.

Ultimately, Mr. Douthat argues that the promises of Paganism are vacant. The rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect: “I don’t know how many of the witches who publicly hexed Brett Kavanaugh really expected it to work,” he writes. The same sentiment could be shared for those followers of the Christian god who prayed for hurricanes to turn away from the United States toward Mexico.

I think that this is fair on both sides.  So long as we are not living solid in our relationships with the Holy Powers, then I agree that “all the rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect”.  Without prayers bound in meaning, in relationship with our Holy Powers, they are merely words.  Perhaps the only effect they can carry is offense or disinterest. Without rituals made in relationship with our Holy Powers with clarity, discipline, and skill, it is so much empty action.  Without magic rooted in our worldviews crafted with discipline, and skill, again, it is empty action.

Rather than seeing, as Tejeda-Moreno does, that Douthat feels entitled to an explanation from Pagans and polytheists, I see that Douthat has fear of what we may bring to the table:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

I agree with Tejeda-Moreno that Douthat “avoids the obvious remedy to his dilemma” which, for monotheists is that they are not “living up to their origins, whether those be the promise of salvation, submission, or, even more simply, love.”  I also think it is more complex than Tejeda-Moreno’s conclusion.  The problem with monotheist religions and philosophies derived from them is they seek to eliminate all others.  Those who espouse arguments like the ‘evolution of religion’ or the ‘Kingdom of God’ wants its particular religion (or lack thereof) to get to the top so it can install its hegemony over all the others beneath it.  Paganism is not the boogeyman here, but neither is hypocrisy.

What is sitting in the background of monotheist religions is that when any attains power it then seeks to crush or convert any other religion.  Calls to the faithful to evangelize, to destroy the Pagans, to convert the masses of the world are still being made.  As Douthat says:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

What Douthat is afraid of is that we are going to be living in a post-Christian world and takes explicit comfort that a successor is not fully-formed to it yet.  After all, look at what the Christians did to the non-believers.  Why wouldn’t a Christian, having an understanding of the kinds of destruction such things brought, not be afraid of such things being brought down on them?  What Douthat and monotheists like him are afraid of is not just irrelevance, but that non-monotheist religions will make inroads, take up different power in different ways, and offer better futures than the one they’ve had the last two thousand or so years to build.  Their hegemony is slipping bit by bit, year by year.  They fear the loss of power.  They are afraid the futures we face without the hegemony of their religions and philosophies on our necks.  They are afraid of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

Sigyn Project: Day 19

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

May we remember

we need not drown in tears

We must stand against the tide

and face down our fears

 

May we know

we need not bow to grief

We must raise another up

and help to find relief

 

May we know

we need not die in vain

We must remember the sacrificed

and praise them by their names

Odin Project: Day 13

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Keep frith hale | in trust and honor

And hold fast to friends;

No tree grows | without water or sun

So too no love or tribe

 

Keep frith hale | with those well-loved

And speak without fear;

The poison-tongued | shows his fangs

Well before the strike

 

Keep frith hale | be wary with words

And cautious in action;

The good friend | gives ear for woe

And hands in calamity

To Mother in my Fear

September 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Mother, I am shaking

Fear has taken hold

Of failing, of losing

 

I am stretched to my limit

My mind cycles

Thought to worry to fear

 

I stand tall but

I feel so low

The pressing, pressing down

 

Holy Weaver of Wyrd

Mother of Gods!

Please, hear me!

 

It is said You hold the threads

As the Nornir gather them

Weaving, weaving, ever-weaving

 

It is said You are silent in Wyrd

So all I ask

Are words of comfort, a touch

 

From Your Holy Hands or Lips

To soothe my quaking soul

The greatest of blessings

 

Hail Frigga, Holy Mother!

Know that in the midst of my fear

I ever-hold love for You in my heart

 

The Salve is Action

August 9, 2012 1 comment

I look to the news and my heart breaks

Another slaughter, another tragedy

Everyday news

 

I look to the websites and my heart breaks

Another mountain strip-mined, another forest cut

Everyday news

 

I look to the feeds and my heart breaks

Another spill, another tragedy, another wrong

Another

Another

Another

 

My heart is full of sadness, and I look to my Gods

I ask Them for comfort, and the One Eye looks to me

 

What hope would I give you?  That, you must make.

Take that burn, that grief.

Act.

 

Do whatever is in you to do.

Words alone will not console, words alone will not heal this.

Act.

 

Do until you can do no more.

Speak where you can speak, until you have no more words.

Above all:

Act.

Hail to Jotunkind

July 19, 2012 2 comments

Hidden back is the fear

In the recess of our mind

The fear of ferocity and wildness

The fear of Jotunkind

 

We fear the ground we walk on

We fear the air we breathe

We fear the water that we drink

We fear the food we eat

 

Teach us to strip away our fear

Teach us to be aware

Teach us to live with Death and Life

Teach us to Live and Dare

 

Teach us to know the plants

Teach us to know the land

Teach us to know the food to eat

Teach us Your just demands

 

Teach us to live each moment

Teach us to fight and know

Teach us to be inspired

Teach us to be our hope

 

Help us come to know You

Help us to leave our fear

Help us to come to understand You

Help us to see You clear

 

Hail to the mighty Jotun

Of Fire and Storm and Ice

Hail to those from Whom Aesir

Call Lover, Husband, Wife

 

Hail to the Gods and Goddesses

From Whom we all descend

To our most primal Ancestors

Hail to Parent, and to Friend

 

Needed Maintenance

April 29, 2011 3 comments

Falling out of practice, out of doing the needed maintenance for myself has led to a lot of problems.  From not paying attention to my own needs, to not doing regular meditation, each part that fell away put something in its place.  Where I could once find stillness I found chaos; where I could once find happiness I found anger, resentment, boredom, or apathy.  There was a ritual the group I used to belong to did a long while ago, dedicated to the Goddess Astarte.  In it, we called upon Her to help us accept ourselves, empower us, and through us as a group, to bolster ourselves as people.  We wrote messages on hand mirrors, some in foreign or ancient languages, but many wrote in  English phrases each person wanted another to remember.  Thing like “you are a beautiful person” or “You are powerful and beautiful”.  Empowerment for each of us, tailored to each of us.  I stopped picking up the mirror, stopped looking, and other things fell by the wayside too.  It’s amazing how crystal clear it can all seem so much later; had I worked on my self-confidence, maybe I would have had enough inner fortitude to meet the challenges then that I face now.  Now, I look at the words, and I still feel that empowerment, and I also feel that drive.  That drive to feel like I’m ‘square’ with my Gods and Ancestors, like our relationship is in equivalent exchange.  That drive to feel that wholeness in myself.

When I get right down to it, I am largely square with my Gods.  Sure, I have work to do, but I do it.  I pray regularly, I am relearning to listen to their Voices, to get my feet back on this shamanic path in a way that, in the long term, is sustainable.  The drive really comes from me, and this sense that I need to do.  Sometimes this has pushed me into the situation that got me into this mess, whether it was horsing when I could have passed along a message, or “I’ll do it!” or “Can I help? ” every time I thought there might be a case for me to help or do something in.  Sometimes that came from pure motives, sometimes it didn’t.  Sometimes I did it because I genuinely wanted to help, and others because I wanted to feel important, special, or like I was worth something.  So I am being very careful when I respond to that drive to do.  I’m asking myself more questions like “Why do I want to do this?”, which tends to be the first one out.  I ask my Gods more questions; it has taken me getting knocked on my ass to realize asking more questions are not pestering Them, but including Them in the conversation and in my life.  I pray more often, let things fall into “I can let this go; I don’t need to control it”.  I’m not perfect by any stretch, but compared to where I’ve been in terms of asserting spiritual and other forms of control over my life, I’ve been a lot more lax in the last few weeks than I have been in the last few years.

Part of my spiritual maintenance is really learning how to let go of that control and be an instrument of the Gods when I need to be, and being myself at others.  I love writing, and I love writing about spirituality, philosophy, and similar topics.  I get joy from it.  I would probably be doing these posts even if I wasn’t required to…but something the posts force me to do, as required by the Society, is really dig into the meat of where I am sitting emotionally.  Where I am right now, is falling back into love with my spirituality, rather than it being a burden or something I do.  I am relearning how to embrace it with my whole Self, to put myself to it not just as “this is what I do” but “this is what I love”.  Yes, being a shaman is what I am, and it is something I have embraced, but I’ve always had this point where I put things at arms length in terms of embracing the work.  I think that is where the control comes in, where the horarium failed me.  I don’t need the control, I need the emotion.  The vulnerability.  To look my Gods in the eyes, or to kneel before Them and truly say “I put myself in Your hands and trust you”.  That scares me.  It scares me because it opens me up to possibilities I have not considered, plans I have not thought of, requests I may not want to fulfill but will, and journeys that will challenge me in ways I don’t want to face.

Some of those challenges are from Loki.  Since my fiancee and I broke up, I have been scared to approach Him.  I thought He would be furious at me for using the horsing with Him as I did, as some kind of patch-job to our relationship.  What really angers Him more, I am finding, is that the lording over other people, like “I’m doing x, y, and z, what are you doing?” or “I have had x years of practice; do you know what you’re doing?” and similar kinds of crap.  Yet He has been waiting for me to pull my head out of my ass, stop being afraid, and approach Him in that vulnerability I have always been scared of being in His Presence.  He, not Odin, will be the main God I will work with during my upcoming fast, and that scares me more than my Hanging on the Tree did.  I realize something though, in all this fear: I don’t really know Him.  Not really.  I mean, I horsed Him a lot, but did I actually develop a working relationship with Him?  No.  We had dialogue, we shared notes, we talked on occasion, but it was more like that cartoon from Looney Toons where the dog and coyote check in at the beginning.  It was more business-oriented, more doing oriented, than an actual working relationship.  So many times I could have simply talked to Him rather than open up my body to Him.  So many times I could have listened instead of done; something I am working to correct.

At the end of the day, I have to sit down with myself and ask myself “Do I trust Him enough not to permanently break me, and trust Him enough that any scars I get from working with Him I can see as being good lessons?  Am I willing to negotiate with Him as with Odin?  Am I willing to be vulnerable and truthful with Him?”  It shocked me a little bit to realize “Yes” despite the deeply painful lessons He put my ex through.  I am still scared…but it isn’t the same fear with the Gods as it used to be.  I’m facing old demons, this I already know…but I am also facing vulnerability before my Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and others.  This isn’t like “I bare myself before Them all the time”, but in the moments where we both need me to, in the moments where I was most afraid, such as in prayer, to be intimate about how I felt towards my Gods and/or ask for help as if I was bothering Them.  To trust that I am worth Their time and energy, to trust that I am worth the work They have put into helping me get where I am today.  To really realize not just in some bullshit mental exercise, but in practice, in feeling, Gebo with Them.  That allowing Them in, to truly let Them give back, is what I am finding myself doing now, bit-by-bit.  The fast will be good for me.  I know it.  I trust the Gods; I am putting myself into Their hands…and though I am afraid, I trust Them.  I keep remembering the Litany Against Fear from Dune.  It’s an apt, and powerful piece of writing for me.  Now that I think about it, I will print it out and put it on my door.  To me there is a wealth of difference of being afraid and experiencing fear.  The former can overwhelm, be that mindkiller, where the latter can challenge you to move beyond it, and experience something new, something profound.

Sometimes the fear is there for a reason, but to be consumed by it is something that has kept me at arms length from my Gods at times where I did not need to, from people where it hurt them the most, and from myself because I would not face myself.  My fear with my Gods hasn’t been an all-consuming panic, but a creeping worry, a moment of deep doubt that cuts off communication, that fear that “I am not good enough” that translated me into bullying my friends and hurting myself but shutting myself down and ignoring my own heart, and even inner goodness.  That imbalance allowed hubris, that imbalance of “I’m not good enough, I need someone to tell me I am!”, and “I need to be better than this; let me show people I am!”, of not being happy or content in my own skin has produced so many problems.  So much of this work has been about getting me grounded and back into my own head, and this fast is one more step in that journey of healing myself, and through that, of eventually healing others.

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