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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.

A Response to The Uncomfortable Mirror

April 2, 2016 47 comments

Since the posting of the article Confronting the New Right on Gods & Radicals, there has been quite a lot of writing going on in response to it.  When I first came across it, I was going to weigh in on it.  Then, I caught the flu my son had just gotten over, and in my usual fashion when I get sick, it took me down hard for a few days.  I watched from the sidelines as conversations unfolded, and I could not help but think: good.  We need to talk.  We need to weigh things and figure out where we stand on things.

Rather than seeing these recent developments as portents of doom for the polytheist communities, or for various folks in the Pagan communities, I see these as part of a larger unfolding within these communities.

“Paganism in general—and apparently Devotional and Reconstructionist Polytheism in particular—have been long overdue for a reckoning.”

When I read these words that invoke a reckoning, from Rhyd Wildermuth’s post on Patheos, The Uncomfortable Mirror, particularly from someone who identifies as a bard, that not only gives me pause, but I am urged to ask
“What is this bard calling for, and why this word?  What kind of reckoning is he calling for?”

The use of words is a powerful thing.  The word polytheism is a word that contains a worldview within it.  All the religions within the various polytheist communities take their basic understanding of who they are, what they are, and where their religion starts from this word.

The use of words is a powerful thing.  The use of words like devotion, for instance, is one that comes up quite a lot in discussion in Pagan and polytheist circles.  It has in Wildermuth’s piece, but how he uses it bothers me.  He uses both ‘relational’ and ‘devotional’ as words for identification within polytheism.  The reason why this use bothers me is that polytheism is devotional in nature.  Devotional means “Of or used in religious worship”.  Since polytheism is “The belief in or worship of more than one god” this division in language makes little sense, as worship requires devotional work, offerings, etc. in order to be of or used in religious worship. A religious regard for the Gods renders us in a relationship with the Gods.  There is no point to how Rhyd Wildermuth uses ‘devotional’ and ‘relational’, especially in quotes, because without these things as being part of polytheist religion and polytheism itself, you do not have belief or worship because there is no religious regard for the Gods, and thus, no relationship with or to Them, except perhaps as a rhetorical device.  Why one would try to divorce devotion and relationality from the Gods makes no sense to me, especially since this is the very ground of polytheism itself.

The problem with Wildermuth stating that his post, Confronting the New Right, was a resource supplement to Shane Burley’s article Fascism Against Time, is that nowhere in the original draft of the piece does Rhyd identify himself, the purpose of the article, or that it is to be an information page on the New Right.  As someone more predisposed towards Wildermuth’s left views, and having read the article in question, I found myself consistently simply not seeing what he insists is there in the original article in his latest write up on it, The Uncomfortable Mirror, in which he tries to give this clarification.  Had he been clear and upfront in his presentation this incredibly long post would never have been needed.  However, I made no connection between Confronting the New Right and Fascism Against Time.  It was not until I read this latest post by Wildermuth that I realized there was supposed to have been a connection!

Part of the issue, especially not being part of anarchist, Marxist, or far-left circles myself, is that the article itself provides little understanding of what the New Right itself is.  In this, it fails as a resource.  I need to know why the right alone, or conservatism alone, is being singled out for this.  Why is the right alone being taken to task on this, and what alternatives does the left offer?  What is actually wrong with being on the right, politically?

Stating that your piece draws no equivalency while people are actively telling you that they are seeing you draw them in this way is either tone-deaf or actively not listening to the critiques you are getting on this piece.  Repeating your disclaimer from the section in question is not actually helping.  We have eyes.  If folks are not getting it, even if you repeat it three times, the problem may not be with the reader, but with the article.  Even in the most charitable reading I gave it, I still was getting quite a bit of false equivocation between the polytheist groups Wildermuth mentioned, the New Right, and fascist ideology.  Not only is this unhelpful, but repeating yourself when folks are blatantly telling you that you’re not communicating effectively is not accepting criticism, nor responding effectively to it.  If this is what Wildermuth views as an acceptable response to criticism, it reads as doubling down on the rhetoric he has already employed, and pushing the Pagan and polytheist communities to this ‘reckoning’.

Here is one of the keys, though, where The Uncomfortable Mirror really makes me sit back.
Wildermuth freely admits that:
“Do I put my politics first? I don’t actually know what that means. Do I favor political ideology over what the gods say to me? Do I favor political action over spiritual activities? This is not a question I can answer, because in my world, they inform each other and are inextricably linked. My gods help me understand my relations to politics, and my politics helps me understand my relationship with my gods. There is no wall between them for me.”

So…wait.  If a fascist said this exact same line wouldn’t he be criticizing them for hijacking polytheism in favor of the New Right?  Why is Rhyd’s view of this suddenly preferential to a New Right view?  He glosses right over this point and heads into the next one, but this bears some serious looking at.

Just because I may have some sympathies with Wildermuth’s views does not mean he is above reproach here.  I believe polytheism needs to be open to all political viewpoints even if its individual communities are not.  Polytheism and polytheist communities are two different things.  He says that both Beckett and Krasskova admit “the possibility that political views might shape beliefs and practice.”  Meaning, this shapes their beliefs of polytheism and their practice of polytheism.  However, it does not change polytheism for polytheists as a whole.  Polytheism is, and remains, the worship or belief in many Gods whatever the ideology, politics, etc. of the individual polytheist and/or polytheist communities they are involved in.

Being unable to differentiate whether or not you are putting your politics before your Gods, or that your politics are so intertwined with your Gods that they are inseparable is something he takes Galina to task for in the very next paragraph, and calls her out directly for.  The problem with doing so, in my view, is that in the Confronting the New Right piece he blatantly says that “The New Right is difficult to define precisely, which has been one of their greatest strengths. But here are some core ideas that are common in most New Right thinkers”.  He’s going to take someone to task for having ideas that align with people he does not agree with.   He is critiquing a group of people for intertwining their politics with religion, while intertwining his politics with his religion.   That he can actually point to Krasskova’s views and say “Look, these are New Right!” means that she and others are being open about their politics.  It is also true that she is being open and forthright with where her religious views take her, including tribalism, hierarchy, eschewing to tradition, and caring for how these things unfold rather than her personal interests.

“Is there a leftist infiltration of Polytheism? And am I—and the writers of Gods&Radicals—leading it? Or did I, by gathering information about the New Right hold an uncomfortable mirror up to a tradition I am a part of? Have I violated sacred traditions, or merely revealed their political aspects?
While I and the writers of Gods&Radicals are quite open about our political views and how they relate to our practices and beliefs, it might be a good time for others to consider being more open about this, too.”

Rather than there being a leftist infiltration of polytheism, I see that this piece is a political litmus test that is being put on polytheism.  So yes, in this sense, he and the writers of Gods & Radicals are leading this.  He gathered information, poorly laid it out, and called a cracked surface a mirror.  He did not violate sacred traditions, but spent a lot of digital ink on why those he is aligned with are superior to the communities he points out in his piece, that the New Right is a threat to polytheist communities and is, itself infiltrating polytheist groups while not actually effectively talking about why the New Right is the threat he makes them out to be.

A good chunk of the issue I had with Wildermuth’s Confronting the New Right had to do with the poor definitions I found in it.  Not being inside left academia or thought, especially that of anarchism or Marxism, I found there were a lot of assumptions being made and nowhere near enough bread crumbs to find my way to where Wildermuth was making his assertions to begin with on the New Right.

The definition of fascism from OxfordDictionaries.com is: “An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.”  Authoritarian is defined as “Favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom”.  Nationalistic is defined as: “Having strong patriotic feelings, especially a belief in the superiority of one’s own country over others”.

One of many problems with Wildermuth’s piece is that what he is pointing out here has less to do with these definitions and more to do with the general use of the term, as pointed out in the same source: “(In general use) extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practices: this is yet another example of health fascism in action”.  He also does not provide context nor definition for what traditionalism is, nor tribalism, nor does he provide much else in terms of context or definition for the other terms.

The problem is not that Wildermuth is pointing out that the New Right is seeking inroads into Pagan religions, polytheist religions, and the like, but that he provides little-to-no-context within this post for it, nor does he provide any effective means of sussing out the working definitions he has here before diving into what the New Right stands for.  A large part of the dismay and anger has erupted directly from this in both articles, and the section titled ‘What is the New Right’s Influence on Paganism?’ in Confronting the New Right.

If the New Right is difficult to define, how much harder will it be for those who are not in leftist, Marxist, or other political groupings to understand where he is coming from?  Read from the outside looking in, much of what he has written in Confronting the New Right does not read like an effective guide, so much a document meant to damn certain ways of doing things while providing a few sentences to the notion of everyone being free to go their own way.

Wildermuth says in regards to the Red Scare and witch trials that, “In both cases, there was a political agency obscured by the hysteria and scapegoating. The Red Scare significantly reduced the influence of leftist critique in the United States at the same time that it strengthened the power of Capitalists and the State against workers.”

I wonder if he understand that by adopting a lot of these stances and putting political litmus tests like these on polytheism in the manner he has done, he is actually playing in the us vs. them politics of left vs. right, and is slowly eroding support, even from those on the left.  Even if he is actively resisting putting political litmus tests on polytheism, that folks cannot see that, and in fact are seeing the opposite is a problem.

Then I read this:
“Paganism in general—and apparently Devotional and Reconstructionist Polytheism in particular—have been long overdue for a reckoning.” [Emphasis mine.]

Whoa what?  Apparently to whom?  What kind of reckoning?
I first came across this point in detail when I read The Lettuce Man’s A Thought on the Recent Radical Brouhaha, and it’s gnawed at me since I read it.  It still does.  Were the right to use this rhetoric would there not be worry -with reason?  Why not so with the left?

By what right or direction does Wildermuth make this judgment call to bring polytheists to a reckoning, and who is he to make it?

This statement on dialogue is absolutely chilling, and it’s implications are of deep concern.  This is from someone who identifies as a bard, and bards, like skalds, wield words with spiritual impact and power.  A reckoning is “the action or process of calculating or estimating something” and “the avenging or punishing of past mistakes or misdeeds”.  The use of his words here most definitely point at the latter definition than the former.  So, in what way would Wildermuth avenge the ‘apparent’ lacks he sees within their communities?  Who or what he is avenging?  If not avenging, how will he, or anyone who takes him up in this regard, judge these communities, and mete out punishment?  How could he not expect resistance to this overstep?

Wildermuth goes on to say: “Tribalism, Sacred Kingship, Traditionalism, natural hierarchies (specifically, ‘warrior/priest/cultivator’), and anti-egalitarian notions are all crucial aspects of New Right ideology”.

Again, he does not define these things.  He does not give clear, useful definitions of what these mean to New Right ideology.  Rather, he asks the rhetorical question “What is really the difference between the Fascism of Augustus Sol Invictus, or New Right ideology of Stephen McNallen and Alain de Benoist, and the rest of polytheist belief?” and then launches into the aforementioned quote.  He links these ideas, and those of us who hold some or many of these ideas together, giving no context.  It’s a good rhetorical move, but it does not do anything to bring in trust from those of us sitting giving the side-eye to this whole thing.

For a long time I have identified as left in America because of my belief in and understanding of human rights, my view of the role of government, and how people should be left alone to live their lives with full rights and choice available to them regardless of ethnicity, skin color, creed, gender identity, sexuality, etc.  Increasingly, especially with works like this, I am wondering if there is a place for folks like me.  I am feeling alienated more and more by the political system, and then the activists for folks on both ends of the spectrum.  I am feeling more and more ‘cut loose’, as perhaps the best term for where I am right now, because of the things unfolding as they have been.

The left/right divide is increasingly becoming a point of contention without much of a point for me.  At this juncture, I am caring less and less where you are in the political divide, and caring more about “Are you effective at helping us overcome obstacles in our communities?”  This does not mean I’ll just open my arms up to fascists, racists, or the like, but, at least in American politics, I am only 30 and getting pretty quickly burnt out on this bullshit.  I have a limited amount of time in my life that I am not devoting to a job (now two), raising my family, or helping my tribal religious community, and other religious communities to which I am bound.  If I cannot see a political ideology actively contributing to my family, my tribe, or my larger communities I do not have a lot of time or energy left to engage it.

Going back to the quote, I want to dig into some other issues I had with it:
“Tribalism, Sacred Kingship, Traditionalism, natural hierarchies (specifically, ‘warrior/priest/cultivator’), and anti-egalitarian notions are all crucial aspects of New Right ideology”

Tribalism is “The state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes.”  A tribe is “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader”.  Sacred kingship is an active factor in many polytheist religions, including mine, and many of our Gods are, Themselves, sovereigns in Their own rights.  Traditionalism is “The upholding or maintenance of tradition, especially so as to resist change.”  I’ve already said my piece elsewhere in my writing (such as here and here) on why I find hierarchy useful and good to uphold, and not so with egalitarianism as an organizational tool while still believing in equal rights and protections for people.

Tribalism, sacred kingship, traditionalism, and hierarchy are all, in some way, part of the polytheist religion I am part of.
Why would I let these go at all?

Wildermuth asks this:

“There are some deeply difficult questions that we need to ask. Do the gods want us to return to ‘tribal’ societies, do the gods demand we war against Muslims and Atheists and Leftists, do the gods demand we institute strict hierarchies and authority-relationships between priests and the rest of us?”

First, these are all separate questions.  I think that for some of us returning to a tribal society is precisely what the Gods want us to do, while this is not what the Gods want for others.  Since I’m not the Gods I’m not going to guess Their minds on this, and I trust Their worshippers have the sense or ability to figure out Their views on this on their own, and make their own choice in response.

Placing this together with “do the gods demand we war against Muslims and Atheists and Leftists” is not a good rhetorical trick, since returning to a tribal society has nothing to do with warring on Muslims and Atheists and Leftists.  It does not follow that returning to a tribal society means we’ll be making war on Muslims, Atheists, Leftists, or our other neighbors.

For the last question “do the gods demand we institute strict hierarchies and authority-relationships between priests and the rest of us?” the answer, for at least some of us, is yes.

That ‘rest of us’ though, who the priests serve, is pretty key, and pretending that a priest of one religion serves everyone is foolish at best.  Catholics have strict hierarchies and authority-relationships between laity and the priests, and between the priests and those of the ecclesiastical authority.  They enter into these relationships with Catholics and sometimes other Christians.  They do not serve me specifically as a Catholic because I am not one.  They cannot institute that strict hierarchy on me.

I have no desire to institute the hierarchy of my religion on folks unwilling to take part in them.  If you do not want to have a strict hierarchy in your religion then don’t belong to one that has one.  If you do not believe there should be authority-relationships between priests and the communities they serve, well, I’m not sure what kind of priests you want, but good luck to you.  You’ll probably not be served by me, then, because if you’re coming to me as a priest of Odin asking for my help, say, in what to give Him an offering and then completely discount what I have to say, there’s not much incentive for me to keep helping you.

The very last bit Rhyd leaves us with though, bears some looking at:
“And did those gods happen to notice those are the same ideas of the New Right?”

If They did….do They give that big of a damn?  Perhaps it is about what ideas work rather than where they are politically aligned.  Maybe They prefer the New Right vs. the Left, or vice versa, and you need to consider your allegiances here.

“Perhaps some gods do want that, but that leads us to another question:
Do we want that?”

Well, that really depends on how we view things then, doesn’t it?  What matters the most, as polytheists, to us?  Our ideology and politics, or our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir?  At some point, we will have to decide which view is most important: our own, or that of our Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir.  I would say that if you do not want what the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir you are dedicated to want, then it is you that needs to adjust your thinking.

Are there people I disagree with religiously and/or politically that I still venerate?  Hell yes.  For instance, the Catholics in my family who hold onto Their religion beyond death and still keep up a relationship with me.  I have no interest in converting, but if saying the Psalms makes Them happy and is taken in the respect it is meant, as an act of offering and service to Them, then I will do so.  It is not about my personal comfort here, because my personal comfort here would probably be to offer Them water, mead, or some other form of food, and praise Them in the religious manner I am most comfortable with.  This gets into host and guest, Gebo and similar kinds of considerations, though.  Do I do what I am most aligned with personally, or what I ought to do as a good host in my religion in relation to my Ancestors?

How we answer these questions determines whether we are acting out of our own interests, or actually engaging with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir on Their terms and in respect with Them. It determines how we live our polytheist lives, how we pass on our ways to the next generation, and what place these things take in our lives individually and communally, in our lives and intergenerationally.   The answers to these questions determines the kinds of communities we will build and maintain so that future generations do not have to take on the struggles we did.  It determines what we leave to those that follow after us.

Holiness and Sacredness are Rooted Words: A Reply to John Halstead’s I Hold These Things to be Sacred

October 30, 2015 21 comments

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.

Sarenth Odinsson says that, because I don’t believe in gods, nothing is sacred or holy to me. 

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.

If Your Paganism is Anthropocentric, I Don’t Want Your Paganism

August 25, 2015 51 comments

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.

Beckett wrote a post about the future of polytheism and the importance of ‘keeping the Gods at the front’.  Halstead’s article is the response to this.

‘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.

Quoting Beckett:

“I would argue that if your religion doesn’t have a strong this-world component you’re doing it wrong.

“However…

“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.

Quoting myself:

‘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.’

Halstead continues:

‘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.

Halstead continues:

‘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.

Halstead continues:

‘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.

Halstead concludes:

‘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?

Offerings

June 23, 2014 2 comments

I wrote this post a few days ago, but I find it is still quite relevant.  

I am writing a small paper with a tight deadline, and I have racked my brain the last two days trying to think of how to start.  I know that once I start I can at least get somewhere well enough that I have ground under my feet.  I just can’t make it happen.  I’m frustrated and staring down the barrel at a deadline in a day, and I want to write this well.  So I do what people like me do when they hit a wall: I make an offering.

I am poor.  At this moment I have -$0.01 in my checking account.  When I buy things purely as offerings, even if they are cheap, that means a great deal to me, and from everything the Gods, Spiritkeepers, Ancestors, and vaettir have said and shown me, it does to Them too.  So I made coffee.  Coffee is one of the few things, with the taboos I am under, that I can enjoy.  My wonderful fiancee recently bought me two bags of coffee, one of is open.  It is medium roast Arabica , and tastes wonderful.  I brewed a cup and took the first half of it, put it into my coffee cup, and poured it out in offering to Them next to a bush.

I came back in, sat down, and started writing.  After a few minutes the words started flowing, and eventually, I had something written.

I don’t believe every relationship, or even every exchange is quite so quid pro quo, but sometimes when you need help and you ask, offering in good Gebo, the Holy Powers respond.

A Response to Sam Webster’s Ancestor Worship and Dealing With the Dead

October 11, 2013 3 comments

Sometimes reading through posts on peoples’ blogs, I get inspiration to write. Sometimes it is in addition to what they’ve written, and sometimes it is a rebuttal. Sometimes the post inspires me to write on some aspect of my own life, religion, etc. Sometimes it is not much more than an extended “Hell yeah!”

I read through Mr. Webster’s article. What I found did not so much challenge me as trouble me, as he says he is acting as a Pagan pastor. Particularly since Ancestor work, worship, and veneration are parts of the foundation of the Northern Tradition, I, accordingly, view the Ancestors as part and parcel of the life one leads.  As a shaman, priest, and Ancestor worker within this Tradition I find the attitudes Mr. Webster presents towards the Ancestors in the writing concerning.

Ancestor worship has become a popular topic in the Pagan community, but it is worth noting that it is not universal, or necessarily normative. It can also lead to some problems. . .

Not every Pagan will regularly worship Ancestors but I have yet to hear of any Pagan not at the least worshiping, venerating, and/or remembering their Ancestors, at the very least, on or around October 31st.  

Ancestor worship can be worship of one’s blood, spiritual, adopted, chosen, lineage, and/or inspirational Ancestors. He notes that there are Asian and African lineage-based Ancestor worshipers that know their lineage and where it comes from. I’m not sure what he is trying to make a point of here, excepting that perhaps they can trace their lineage back to where it originated, or some point in antiquity to where records fail or become irrelevant. The problem with painting with as broad a brush as Mr. Webster does, is that he already is showing inaccuracies and he has only started to stroke the canvas.  Mr. Webster notes that “This is a degree of specificity we have yet to achieve,” and yet, I can point to my own Elders, and a great many Wiccans can point to their own lineages. I view this knowledge as a good. I can point to who trained me and how, where this and that idea developed, and provide due reverence for them when they have passed on, while still improving upon the lessons they gave me, and passing on those lessons to the next generation. I find no issue with honoring ones Elders as part of the Ancestors provided those Elders are actually dead. 

In his next section he makes the point that not everyone works with the Dead.  He is absolutely wrong.  Every one of us will die, and we all know or will come to know someone who dies. Whether or not the religion itself acknowledges it, and engenders a positive relationship with the Dead, is an entirely different story. I know that I am picking on semantics here, but if you are going to be a pastor, and an effective communicator as one, the language you use to describe things matters. I’m not saying one must be perfect, but his connection of the Golden Dawn with what may be one of the very few exceptions to the rule of working with the Dead does not effectively make his case or tie it into the main theme he is writing about in this piece, especially in regards to Pagans as a whole. He notes that the Golden Dawn developed during ‘the great age of Spiritualism’ and made strides to divide itself against the practice of mediumship, favoring scrying, and that it actively discouraged contact with the Dead. This is because the main thought of those in the Golden Dawn at the time is that what they would “speak to would not be the blessed and intelligent soul, usually” and were “thought by those Victorians to be reincarnating or possibly passed on to their reward, and so not available for conversation”.

So the main way of viewing the Dead from the Golden Dawn’s perspective, according to Mr. Webster, is that ‘They are dead and we would not want to have conversation with them anyhow even if they were able to be contacted.”  

What he says next is both mystifying and boggling to me, as a priest who worships and works with Anpu, aka Anubis. He says that “I generally give no thought to ancestors or even lineage”. This, despite being “a priest of Hermes and Hekate”. It seems he serves a particular role, basically to help the Dead find Their way so They are not lost. He notes that to talk to them “would not occur to me.” It makes no sense to me that someone who works with the Dead would not seek out and cultivate a connection with their own Dead.

Perhaps that is just the work that Hermes and Hecate want him to do and no more. I do not worship either God or Goddess regularly nor have enough regular contact with Them to make a judgment. I am not a priest that works within that culture. Perhaps one who does would have a better understanding and be able to make one.

That all said, I deeply disagree with the next paragraph where he says “ those Dead whom folks are invoking and making offering to might better be considered the Honored Dead or Mighty Dead”. No.

If my Great-Grandpa Datema comes and talks to me it is probably just Great-Grandpa Datema. He is one of my notable Dead, both because I have a name for him, and he has a story that I know, told to me by my grandparents and by him, of how he immigrated to America as World War I was going on. He is one of the Väter (the German word for Fathers that I use rather than alfar, as that word, while sometimes denoting powerful male Ancestors in the lore, it also means elf) as he is one of the great roots that were laid down in my families when he came here to America. He isn’t especially powerful in terms of raw strength, but he has the wisdom from where he came from, and the lessons of how hard it can be to live between two places. By the time he died, Great-Grandpa had lost most of his ability to speak and write in Dutch, and by turns, also did not speak or write terribly great English, either. Yet his wisdom, support, and love for his children is a powerful force in its own right and so I honor him as one of my Väter. Perhaps this is a difference in culture, but I view all the Ancestors as worthy of my communication, as potential helpmeets rather than just calling on the Might Dead, Honored Dead, Heroes, etc. It may be that one of my less notable Dead, or Dead for whom I do not have a name, will have the key that opens up the path before me, or gives me what I need to face a challenge, rather than one of the Might, Honored, etc. Dead.

What he goes into next is his own work and view. Ancestors, to my mind, can imply biological connection but can also imply everything, such as adoption and lineage, that I noted above. I think he insults his own lineages and Ancestors when he calls those who empower or inspire him from the past just ‘the Past’. Especially since he takes refuge in what I see as something those Ancestors, and other Ancestors, are directly involved in. The fact that he has the gall to refer to his Ancestors as a set of resources, as just part of ‘the Past’, as he puts it, is…well, insulting.

His last concern (please note I don’t think he has laid out his concerns thus far effectively or with solid reasoning) is “that folks are performing practices such as seasonal rituals ‘because their ancestors did them’. Seriously? How is that in this day and age meaningful motivation?”

Granted, if I lived in a climate that was totally unlike my Ancestors’, i.e. I lived in Phoenix and celebrated a harvest during the dry season, I could see his point. The objection he has unravels pretty quick given where I live.  From what I have been told by those who have visited and lived in Germany, Michigan does tend to have very German-like weather and harvest patterns. So, a lot of Northern Tradition holidays would be fine being repeated in roughly the same times over here because they fit into the general scheme of our own weather and harvesting, minding that a lot of the celebration of holidays were based on local reckoning, such as moon phases, harvest times for local farmers, omens and the like.  It would not be impossible or even unwieldy to do many of the celebrations my Ancestors may have done in ancient Germany. Yes, we live in modern times, and I would not expect my military, or my militia to hang prisoners of war. My Ancestors were practical. If it worked, They used it. If it would no longer be acceptable to do something I am sure there would be other ways found, invented, or inspired to.

I find myself rankled at his use of ‘the Past’. The Ancestors are not just ‘the Past’, per se; They were, and are, in some sense, People. They lived. Practicing at least some of the things in the ways our Ancestors did them can give us understanding of how and why. It is like archaeologists who learn how to knap flint; the process of learning how is as important to understanding the questions of how and why, and related questions to them as well, such as “Why this style of arrowhead?”, “Why this method of holding the stone?”, or “Why this flaking style?”. It is as, if not more important than the answers received at the end result of making the arrowhead, knife, carving, etc. By not trying to make these connections, rather than degenerate our rituals, we degenerate our relationship with the Ancestors and become more lazy. The Ancestors’ ways of doing things were frequently challenging, labor intensive, or required a lot of input from many people to be effective. Sometimes spiritual value is lost when we are not asked, or demanded, to put effort in. There is spiritual value in doing things the old way, such as making a Sacred Fire by hand, having experienced this. Our focus for almost every ritual, in my view, should be on the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and doing right by Them. I believe that for us to have the power that Mr. Webster believes we should have for our rites, it is absolutely necessary for us to do the hard work, personally and communally, that They require whether or not our Ancestors did it this way or that traditionally/according to the lore.

In the end, I did not feel that Mr. Webster made any firm points. It felt rather like he was merely railing against the notion that the Ancestors deserve honor, regular communication, and proper respect. I am an animist and polytheist operating out of a reconstructionist-derived view, and as such, believe that the lore and archeology are jumping off points. The Ancestors’ ways may not all work for the times we are in now, but for those practices that we can translate into modern times, I feel very deeply that we should. There is much wisdom that the Ancestors, as well as the Gods, and spirits can teach us if we would just listen, and especially, do the work. Out of anything that rankles me it seems that this article rails against the work that is needed to effectively communicate with the Ancestors and to bring Their Wisdom into the modern times to be shared with all who would hear and do the Work. 

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