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Posts Tagged ‘understanding’

Open to Questions Year 3

July 25, 2017 4 comments

I am once again looking for topics to write on, so if you, or someone you know, wants me to dig into a topic let me know.

Ask questions!  They can be on anything related to the Northern Tradition, Heathenry, polytheism, animism, Gods, Ancestors, vaettir (spirits), shamanic work, priest work, spirit work, definitions, lore, etc.

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part -Critiques

February 4, 2016 8 comments

My post here is written in response to critiques I am reading of folks in the peak oil community, and are several responses in one to common points I have seen brought up on Facebook and Tumblr today in relation to this post.

One way or another the capitalist/industrial model is, by how it is deployed in the landscape and how capitalism is interwoven with mass industrialism, doomed to failure. Both are running up against hard limits on a finite planet. The simple fact is sooner or later peak oil will hit. Climate change is happening right now.  There is nothing on this planet that can replace what oil does for us. Not coal, not natural gas, not any of the systems of electricity production such as solar or wind, and certainly not nuclear. There is no infrastructure in place on a national scale ready to bear the weight of all the needs United States citizens have now, let alone need to keep that infrastructure operating far into the future. Neither system of economy or production has the ability to address the hard limits being placed on them, whether one looks at the limits to growth in an infinite-money paradigm as capitalism has right now, or the ‘technology can solve all our ills’ on the other.

I absolutely agree this needn’t be an all-or-nothing deal, but technologism, much like critiques of scientism, is part of the central critique of folks like JMG and myself. If capitalism fails, with the way it is interwoven into the technology industries, it will take many, if not most of the technology industries with it. Technologies by themselves cannot allow us to live on if we continue to use the technologies we have in the ways we are right now, especially as dependent as it is on the resources that are becoming increasingly scarce in order for them to be viable in the first place.

The idea of ‘seize the means of production’ sounds like so much pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, not because I think capitalism is invincible or that we could not actually seize them, but because I cannot see how seizing the means of production actually will help anything if all the feedstocks for, say, my diabetes medication, fall right along with the production of the meds themselves.  How many means of production can we realistically seize and kept running? I don’t see how ‘seizing the means of production’ will actually help anything, either as a narrative, nor do I see a practical application of this idea. Unless folks who want to seize the means of production can also seize provide upkeep for the means by which production is maintained and kept running in the first place, and can keep the people fed who do the maintaining and producing, and so on, there’s little point in my mind of engaging with the idea.

If we look at the ‘seizing the means of production’ from socialist countries or Marxist literature, this may be a good model to start with, but it runs into the same problems sooner or later. These are finite resources and we have no plans for what to do when they run low enough where the cost to produce goods and services exceeds the ability of the resource to provide energy and/or end product(s). Once a given thing, whether oil, natural gas, neodymium, etc., hits peak and begins decline nothing we do to extract, refine, or design more effectively will stop the decline of the availability of the resource. The hard limits problem must be dealt with, or anything proposed ignores the outcome of diminishing resources and at the end of the day is not realistic.

Technology is not a monolith. A stone arrow is a piece and product of technology as much as a smart phone is. Both requires certain resources, skills, and time to fashion. There are technologies which require significant investment of resources in order to make viable. If the neodymium mines which allow our hard drives to be built start running out of neodymium, 90% of which are located in China, how would we seize the means of production in order to keep our computers’ hard drives, and all the things that rely on good, working computer systems to function? This is my issue with these kinds of narratives. The baseline resources required to pull this idea off actually belong to someone else, and are only viable so long as production and refinement of these resources is able to maintained at a certain level.

As I said in Part One of this series:

“This really gets to the heart of the challenge of peak oil, though: if so much stuff is required to keep me alive, at what point does it become too expensive for me to live? Take this to mean me personally, or the capitalist/consumer culture at large, and the question of ‘at what point can we actually maintain this?’ becomes a question that is about life or death. If the apparatus by which I retain my ability to live starts to dry up, what do I do? My response to peak oil is not just a sentimental notion, then. It is about answering this question on a practical basis. If I can no longer get insulin or metformin, can I live? Well, in the short term the answer is no. However, as Archdruid John Michael Greer notes in his interviews on Legalize Freedom, overnight collapse of a civilization happens in Hollywood movies, while it takes 100-300 years for it to fully run its course historically. I and future generations have time to put things in place so that, while I may not have as long a life as a non-diabetic, the disease doesn’t kill me outright or over time through kidney failure or diabetic ketoacidosis. I can’t count on the cure for diabetes to be found, affordable, or resilient enough to survive the Long Descent. So, I won’t. ”

If anyone here read any of JMG’s books or watched his talks on this subject, I would think it would very quickly put to bed the notion that he thinks this is some kind of utopia. It won’t be. There will be suffering, whether it is because people refuse to come together and put what technology they can put theirs hand to into use, or because they refuse to understand and/or act until the hard limits of reality come knocking, or because communities do not do the hard work to prepare for peak oil and climate change now.

The Long Descent is not some fantasy I want to have happen. I’ve looked at what evidence is out there, what I understand lies before us, and accept that I may well die because the means of producing the metformin, insulin, and other medications that keep me alive will cease to be viable economically or technologically because of resource depletion.

I am not telling people to reject technology, nor do I believe others who I identify with the peak oil and permaculture crowd such as JMG are. I am saying we need to understand the limits to growth, especially within the paradigms technology operates, and what these things allow to occur without significant personal investment for other means of making and operating the technology we rely on. I do not understand JMG to be saying that we should simply accept out of hand the suffering that is coming.

What I do understand is that peak oil and climate change are real, occurring right now, and there are things we can still do to prepare for it, and things that are beyond our reach.

As I have written about this previously, I don’t think top-down approaches will allow us to survive climate change or peak oil. I do not put much stock in theories and ideas which do not have a practical application. Much of my issue with much of the Marxist, anarchist, and other ideas currently out in the public sphere right now, is that there is no one saying “This is how to practically apply these ideas”. I can look at JMG and those of his ilk and see the solutions in action. I can do them myself. More to the point, I am enacting the changes in my life and learning the skills that will allow my family and I have a good chance at surviving peak oil and climate change. It is entirely possible I haven’t run across places, books, and other resources where anarchist and Marxist ideas on how to address climate change and peak oil are being applied. There are overlaps between folks in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist, and other communities in the peak oil and permaculture communities, but I have yet to see this as centrally addressed in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist communities, as in the peak oil and permaculture communities.

One of the things that gets hurled around in some of the posts I have been reading is how privileged it is for folks to be talking about looking for alternatives to factory-produced medicines and the like, which require great amounts of resources. I’ve actually taken time to respond to the notion of my diabetes killing me because of the challenges of climate change and peak oil.  I have also noted on this blog and elsewhere, that I make an hourly rate just above minimum wage, and I qualify for Medicaid.  To me, looking for and engaging with alternatives to mass-produced medicines is as much part of the overall idea of surviving and thriving in a powered-down future as growing my own food is.

I’ll be honest: I’m getting tired, damned tired, of privilege being used as a club and thought-stopper when there are folks, like myself, with these diseases and issues who are working through the understanding of “Yes, I may well die from lack of access to medicines I need”.  There are folks like myself who, knowing this, recognize that climate change and peak oil need to be addressed, and that a powerful response to them is to build community ties, personal and communal skills while developing human-scale technology on the ground level to deal with these challenges as much as we can.

I recognize that I may not survive if, say trade or the medical industries that produce my medicines are hard-hit by peak oil or climate change.  That’s not the fault of green activists, permaculturists, transition town communities, or the like.  As I have said before, there’s not a lot any of us can really do about it.  Like it or not, the means of getting these medications will become harder and harder as peak oil and climate change continue.  This is not a call to ‘revert’ or go to a primitivist lifestyle, though that may be the answer for some, but to take what technologies we have right now, and do all we can to prepare for a future where these things are hard to access, if not cut off from us. This is not a zero-sum game, and it does us and our descendants no good if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore reality.

Capitalism, technology, and science are not monolithic, and are not untouchable.  We live in a world where the ability to pour massive amounts of money and resources into projects that do not further the survival of our species is being left behind.  We need to look at whether or not certain ways of using our resources are actually worth our time. This is not anti-science nor is it anti-technology, though in many ways it may be anti-capitalist. What it is, at the end of the day, is the use of discernment.

The process of coming to grips with peak oil and climate change, and how we live in this world becomes even more important to the animist and polytheist. Our world, and all of the things within it, carry the potentiality, if not the actuality, of being Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  The working with and/or caring for the Beings around us, treating them all as Beings, including what we usually think of as ‘resources’, is a dynamic shift in thought. Look at oil as the distilled essence of the lich of the Dead which comprise it, and your relationship to this object which permeates our lives takes on new meaning. Look at Fire Itself as the Eldest Ancestor, and your relationship with all things Fire, whether the fire that burns the coal, natural gas, etc. that heats one’s home or powers one’s electronics, or that enables us to travel by bus, takes on a new dynamic.

We never stopped relying on all these Beings. What we have done is find new ways for them to inhabit our lives, and use more of the bodies of the Dead and the Earth than we ever have before.  What Westerners especially have done is taken and demanded more from the landvaettir than They have hope of giving while maintaining Their own homes.

Technologies, for all the ills we have wrought with many of them, are not our enemy. Using our knowledge of and expertise in technologies is part of how we can address climate change and peak oil.

I think that this person’s concerns need to be addressed directly, as I have seen variations of this come up.  I do want them to know I’m not picking on them personally.

This kind of anarchic tribalism mentality growing in, let’s be real, mostly English-language-dominant radical & occult circles, is seriously troubling to me. Part of the problem is, as you said, lack of consideration for all the horrific suffering that medical technologies and research either keep just behind the door or completely shut out. Anti-establishment thinkers in North America, the UK, and the European-dominated Antipodes have lived with the unacknowledged benefits of vaccinations, advanced sanitation, and disability aids for so long that I honestly think we don’t comprehend anymore that our life spans of 80+ years borne out in relative ease are because. Of. Science. Not natural immunity. Influenza anyone??? Yes let’s develop this the “““natural”““ way by letting viral infections wipe out 1/3 of our national populations every 30 years or so, GREAT PLAN.

Medical technology and therapies have given rise to immense advances in healthcare, no doubt.  I don’t think, though, that there is a lack of consideration for suffering.  We simply don’t have answers.  If oil becomes cost-prohibitive, as it will in a peak oil future and Long Descent, then very basic questions come up in regards to developing and maintaining medical infrastructure. How will we transport medicine?  What will the containers the medicine comes in be?  What kinds of medicines will be able to survive in such a future?  There are a myriad of questions, and very few good answers come to mind.  Sure, we can hang to what infrastructure we have for awhile, and maybe it could last a generation or two.  If we’re careful, the infrastructure we have, or better yet, develop, could last even longer, but that would require we start doing that now.

Here’s the truth though: the only reason a vast majority of folks are alive is because of cheap, abundant fossil fuels, and a climate that allows regular food/medicine production, trade, and storage.  It isn’t a pleasant truth, but it is the truth.  Without the infrastructure, from roads to bridges, from trade networks to universities that do the research for a lot of the medical products in the first place, the only thing that keeps a lot of folks alive are the same fossil fuels that are polluting the environment and causing CO2 levels to rise.

Not everyone will get out of this alive.  Actually, a good number of us will die, or our descendants will because of the effects of peak oil and/or climate change.  No human gets out of life alive, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat The Long Descent as a Vale of Tears either, because it needn’t be that way.

By the way, when The Collapse happens, say goodbye to literally everyone in your little clan with a hereditary predisposition and / or environmental exposure to cancers that weren’t classed as surefire killers before.

This is so simplistic as to be ridiculous.  Not everyone with genetic predispositions develops a given disease or disorder.  Peak oil and climate change by themselves aren’t going to increase the cancer rates.

Corporate greed and pollution did its damage to your locale and your body’s cells long before you became politicized over it. You can’t undo that no matter how many animals / plants you “naturally” harvest & prepare yourself.

This is true of chemicals like lead, but this is not true of all cancers or diseases.  This is why most of the literature I have seen on the subject deals in probabilities rather than certainties. There are ways foods can reduce the impact of lead, noted by Michigan Radio here, and the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services here.  There are people seeking to reduce the impact of lead in communities hit by the Flint lead poisoning by getting good, fresh foods into the hands of Flint kids.  It isn’t a total fix, but it will at least help mitigate the damage.  This person is right, in that sometimes the impacts are out of our control, but once we understand these factors that are involved, that means that what remains is within our hands to work with.

That’s another blind spot, the idea that literally the day after you start back-to-nature living, you are magically (pun very much intended) cut off & protected from the ongoing damage caused by ill-used & unregulated technologies.

This actually isn’t a blind spot that I see in these circles except in all but the most naive. For example, when I talked about the plans I and my fellows had, the Strawbale Studio folks actively warned against the idea that living as they do would magically fix all the problems.  The idea that back-to-nature and living off the land can occur in our cities and towns is an idea that has taken root in permaculture, urban gardening, and natural building communities.  The tiny house movement has, in part, exploded because of the need for small, developed parts of land within cities.

If people abandon towns & cities en masse for the idyllic countryside, unmaintained lead pipes will poison waters & wreck ecosystems downstream for decades, if not centuries. The Pacific Garbage Patch will still be there, and oceanic fish will still build up particulate plastic in their bodies long after our grandchildren grow old. If we go off science & technology cold turkey, we will only be less equipped to deal with the fallout from the Industrial Age frenzy & late-capitalist lawless exploitation.

Because we are human we will never ‘go off of science and technology cold turkey’.  What is happening and will continue to happen as the Long Descent goes on, is that the technologies that require great amounts of energy to operate that are required for our complex societies to keep chugging along will get harder to come by, and thus, more expensive.  The sciences that requires great inputs of energy and material may keep on getting funding, but we thought that by now we’d be on Mars.  The NASA manned space program is pretty-much dead.  Maybe Space X, Boeing, and others will pick up the slack, but again, the EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) of these missions will come into question as time goes on.

There will be a point at which the cost-benefit analysis will tell us there’s only so much we can afford to put towards getting this resource, like oil, or that material, like copper, and still break even, let alone make surplus of the resource or material, or a profit off the sale of them.  There’s a reason folks are relearning and reskilling for a powered-down economy, and it is not because we don’t like our laptops, phones, and other modern conveniences.  It is because these things require energy and materials that are getting increasingly rare to build and maintain.

The lead pipes are already breaking down.  The ecosystems are being poisoned right now. We can only do so much to stop this, especially with the major infrastructure systems unable or refusing to address these issues head-on.  Lack of regulations are not the only problem.  Collusion and cooperation between private businesses and government agencies is as well.  The MI Department of Environmental Quality stepped aside when Graymont sought 10,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula for development of a limestone mine.  The MI DEQ failed, or intentionally did not stop the poisoning of Flint citizens.  Citizens are left with few means by which to stop such things when our representatives and state workers step aside, or intentionally stop doing their job for us, the people.  It actually makes sense, for those who can afford to, to get the hell away from all of this infrastructure which is falling apart inside folks’ communities and homes.

I think part of the reason this “run away into the woods” reaction is so strong in the previously mentioned demographics is that we’re so used to having that choice. And still having some power to curtail the consequence of that choice. Don’t like your 9-to-5 city life, dominated by glowing screens and pointless work for the benefit of companies you resent? Form an “intentional community” and keep out the technophiles & corporate shills. And coincidentally the lower class neighbors who can’t afford to build an eco-friendly straw-bale home 2 hours’ drive from town on 3-day weekends they don’t have.

This is the other part of a lot of permaculture, transition town, and similar efforts though: staying where you live, stick it out, and make something of your home.  For some, going to the country is their answer.  For some folks, and I include myself here, I won’t make it in a city.  I’ve never lived in one for longer than a few years in my life, I don’t much care to visit them, and I don’t feel right in them.  Some folks thrive in cities, and that’s why they live there.  I don’t think the back-to-land movement, permaculture, transition town, gardening, and other folks have an all-or-nothing mindset as a whole.  Some folks do, like myself, because we’re just not suited to city living.  Some folks are all about city living and couldn’t see themselves living in the country.  Neither of these approaches are bad in and of themselves.

I lived in Flint for a few years, and I really, really didn’t like it.  Flint itself was not a bad place to live.  I just did not get city living and felt really out of place.

The downside to city living is that unless the infrastructure is in place, food access, recycling and reuse, and energy production are big issues.  Add to this aging infrastructure that struggles just to have basic maintenance because of budget cuts, and the pressure gets even harder.  Cities and towns can compound the issues because of how close everything is, but then, transportation between people can be a lot easier because its a matter of walking, biking, or taking a bus, whereas living in the country or even suburbs in America requires a car and all the attendant costs.

There are downsides to country living, but I find myself feeling better out here, and this is where I would prefer to live.  I don’t deal well with the compact spaces, the alleys, all of the noise of a city.  The city spirits are nice enough to me when I visit, but after getting lost in Ann Arbor a few times and making plenty of offerings to Her just to find my damned car, it’s safe to say this isn’t the place for me.

But another part of it is, I think, the sheer density of despair that we’ve grown up with. At least, this is my experience, and my internal struggle regarding the current state of science & tech as commodities under global capitalism: this system has deeply entrenched itself in my country. You only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine, materials tech, and automated services if you can pay for them. Human life is a utility, and will be cut off without a second thought if you get too behind on your bills. And that’s if you were born into one of the categories of people the ruling party WANTS to survive. The rest are consigned to ghettos and the prison-industrial system.

I understand how you only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine very well, especially when I didn’t have insurance and had to buy, or ask my folks to buy, for my insulin out of pocket.  Holy fucking shit.  I need this medicine to live and it costs $260-$470 per vial, and that vial might last a month.  Survival being a function of what you can afford is baked into how we survive.  It isn’t a specific evil of capitalism, though how capitalism sharpens that knife on the bones of the poor is especially egregious and vile.

My culture has already imagined dozens of future-Earth settings for entertainment purposes where the capability to live comfortably and to improve one’s basic living is actually a universal right, in deed & not just in words. We have the means to achieve that before I breathe my last breath on this Earth. But I won’t see that world, or be able to give it to my successors, because an oligarchy of national figureheads and business leaders have decided they want to win this ridiculous numbers game that is capitalism, which has tied itself to all human activities in order to effect a stranglehold on humanizing endeavors.

This assumes a top-down structure that would be able to stay intact for future generations, though, and I’m not sure that is going to be the case, or could be even if everyone did get on board with universal healthcare.  What makes socialism work, just as much as capitalism and communism, and any other modern mass societal organizations that I am missing here, is the cheap abundant fuel to make all of the programs, companies, and so on able to work in the first place.  The assumption that we would have the means to provide such a future is in deep doubt where I am standing.  This is also why, while I am a huge fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, I doubt we will have such a future.

There’s a deep despair in my own mind and likely the minds of a lot of comrades who see tech companies colluding with fascist governing bodies to spy on political dissidents & community leaders, or to remotely slaughter brown & black civilians of other nations because they’re on the wrong side of a war over toxic fuel for outmoded machinery. It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them. Our media is bent on national distraction & playing all sides against each other, another abuse of communications science that’s become background knowledge taken as given by most Americans I know under the age of 50.

I want to touch on this part in particular: “It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them.”

We cannot beat them at their own game.  This is why I, and those in my family, alliances, clan, and tribe, are looking at going off-the-grid as soon as I can as much as I can.  They have less control over me the less control I give them.  This is why we need to reweave local industries with locally produced goods.  If we’re not beholden to giant corporations for the wool for our looms, then the power to produce them lies in our hands.  If we’re not beholden to conglomerates of companies for the foods we need to live, the power lies in our hands.  The more we empower our own the less power we give to them. Its full effects may not be seen within our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for.  A given community member may not see the full impact of a community garden on their community before they die, but that does not mean these roots are not worth planting.

We’re constantly reinforced in the belief that with technology comes commodification – if you can fly or drive an oil drill or fracking rig there, you can exploit anyplace to ruination for profit. We don’t get widespread coverage on, to give a recent example from the Paris climate talks, other countries in the Americas approaching 50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources. The rest of the world outside of the villains given top billing in the U.N. are actually taking their stewardship responsibilities seriously, are both curtailing and evolving their technological sectors to mitigate harms perpetrated mainly by the Big 8. One can’t help but foster the impression that if we could just… just kinda sorta blast ourselves back into the Stone Age, the absence of the U.S.’s corporate-funded political maneuvering alone would leave so much more room for positive change.

I think that fostering the impression that ‘if we could blast ourselves back to the Stone Age then the US’s corporate-funded maneuvering would leave room for positive change’ is another form of delusion.  Countries like Japan, Brazil, and China, a few among many, snow the reality of things as we do.  China’s markets are coming unraveled, and yet the nationalist spin machine can’t twist the message hard enough that progress and good things are yet to come, even as the industrial economy takes a huge beating.  Brazil’s energy production is, in no small part, made possible because of massive damming operations which destroy indigenous peoples’ ways of life, and threaten the Amazon Rainforest Itself.

The problem with the sentence here, “50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources”, is that it belies what is actually going on.  It isn’t 50% or more of their energy needs being met, it is 50% or more of their electricity needs being met.  The cars still require 7 gallons of oil per tire, the roads still require diesel to power the equipment and make the materials that makes and maintains roads, lighting, signage, and so on.  Actual costs of maintaining many ‘clean energy’ grids are actually quite environmentally destructive, and they’re stopgaps at best. When our usual methods of getting cheap abundant fossil fuels are moot, what then?  We’re largely no longer dependent on what was called conventional reserves, like the big oil fields that were in Pennsylvania and Texas and sustained us through our own production peak in the 1970s.  The Bakken shale oil fields started being tapped at high rates because they were positive in cost-benefit analysis when oil prices were high.  At $25 or so a barrel of crude oil, that evaporates.  There are only a handful of shale oil, tight oil, and other similar plays that even make sense to exploit, and the EROEI is relatively small compared to historical levels.  Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, and related fields of technology are not new.  They just were less expensive than other options for a little while.  The only way a lot of companies are making any money in the fracking business is leasing, and it’s a matter of time before this glut dies a horrible death in a bubble/bust not unlike the housing market.

We’re going to go to a time where less cheap, abundant energy and less convenient material goods are the norm. The questions that arise from this understanding, then, are:  When we will get there?  How will we get there?  Will it be voluntary?  What actions can I and my community take now to prepare?

Technology makes dissent & better world-building possible – Twitter and Tor relays are among the best tools of anti-establishment & radical organizers. The Internet is the only reason many of us know what goes on in other countries, what progress others are making with science & conscientiously deployed technologies, while we wax faux-nostalgic about “simpler” lives.

I cannot wax nostalgic about a time I’ve never known.  If anything, folks like me get accused of being romantics, Luddites, and similar things.  As I said before, technology is not a monolith, and I think we need to be more clear about what kinds of technology we are talking about.  Food-oriented technology such as those used in GMOs’ processes are different from other food technology and distinct from mechanical technology like combines, and permaculture techniques that use earth movers are using different technologies.  Natural builders using axes, chisels, snap lines, and rules for roundwood timber framing are using different technologies as well.

With the resignation of four top executives, Twitter may well be going away, and that needs to be watched since so much activism is done on its platform.  What kind of technologies will be called on to replace it, and if it will have the ability to do the work for activism Twitter did, will be a hard question needing answering.  Part of Twitter’s success has been that it is accessible by non-activists, who can spread the word through the media conglomerates attached to it.

Winamp Internet TV streaming is how I found out about peak oil in the first place, and I do a lot of research online. Computer technology is how I do a lot of communication, and I include my phone in that technology camp since my phone operates more like a computer with phone functionality than a straightforward phone.  I would mourn the loss of such technology, but I also understand that living with it less is becoming more and more a survival skill as cell phone companies cut back on maintenance, and State and local money is less inclined towards basic infrastructure.  It’s part of why I am working on retraining my handwriting skills, which, especially compared to my typing skills, are atrocious.

What enables utopian-monolithic understandings of ‘Technology’, especially ‘green future’, medical, computer and communications-based ones, are the myth of progress.  It’s a very nice image, but it is a poor map of a very beleaguered territory.

And as much as the nihilist in me would love to see the total collapse of bloated Western wealth machines & all their tech & infrastructure, I cannot in good conscience wish for, work magic towards, or participate in radical subcultures that turn away from the misery and death such a collapse would unleash primarily on people who were only captive to this system, not its architects.

I think that if a given person’s morality calls for this that is fine, but I hope that they, and the others who contribute to the ongoing conversation, understand that it no longer matters what our wishes are in this regard.  Sooner or later the fuel will cost more than we can put towards pumping it out of the ground.  Saudi Arabia is looking to sell off parts of its nationalized oil company, and it is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.  Saudi Arabia has been doing more and more offshore drilling.  That is incredibly expensive, environmentally dangerous, and should push people to take note.

Sooner or later the resources for production will cost more than we can put toward extracting it out of the ground.  Copper mines are a great example of this and Chris Martenson explores this idea pretty well in this video.  This is keenly seen in places like the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, which is 2.5 miles across and 0.75 deep.  It’s a strip mine, the largest copper mine in the United States, and the deepest in the world, producing 0.2% ore concentration.  This means that, per 500 pounds of ore, you only get a single pound of copper.  This is simply unsustainable.  No, really, go look at the environmental damage in the Wikipedia article that the damn thing does to its surroundings.  Think on what Martenson says in the video above: look at how much energy and how many resources we are pouring into getting such little amounts of copper in return.  How long can we continue to justify these expenses?

It no longer matters if you are working towards dismantling the system.  The system is falling apart.  What is of utmost importance, in my view, is working towards building up communities that will last during and beyond the Long Descent.  Rather than staying tied to such a system, I am trying to mitigate the damage it will do to my tribe, my clan, my family, and my allies.  I cannot hope to save everyone, and I can only do what is within my quite limited capability to do.  Whatever I can do, though, is worth it.

This Greek proverb is part of the vision I hold for the future:

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

We cannot do everything, but there is no reason for us not to do all that we can.

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.

Ethics and Animism in Polytheism Part 2

October 9, 2014 3 comments

So, I wrote this awhile back and completely blanked on posting it.  Part 1 is here.

If there are outward ways of acknowledging the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that are commonly accepted, it then follows that an absence of these can be an indicator of one’s devotion to Them.  In the case of a lack of offerings, a lack of hospitality may be seen.  If certain prayers, rituals, ritual actions, dietary observances, etc., are expected by one’s culture, Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, then to go without those would also be lacking in hospitality, possibly breaking ritual taboos, and/or hurting the spiritual power of the person, and/or their group(s).  Such an act may (and I imagine probably will) hurt one’s relationship with a God or Goddess, Ancestor(s), and/or spirits.

Even with the less human of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits I work with, starting here with baselines of “I do not know you, but I hope this offering is acceptable” at least showed I was making an effort to come to understand Them, even if They had me offer or do something (or in some cases nothing but open my ears) later on.  I do what I can to meet the Beings who interact with me on Their own terms; it is respectful and Gebo in my regard to do so.  In my experience, in turn, if They wish to have a relationship with me, They try as best as They can to use words, images, sounds, smells, concepts etc. as I can use and/or understand.  It is entirely possible with some Beings that They may have a learning curve in kind to us as much as we to Them.  Not all Gods are omniscient.  Indeed, most of the Gods I have worshiped or interacted with are not omniscient.  Sometimes They may well need you to talk to Them or interact with Them in some fashion for Them to know what is going on.

In the end we are navigating relationships, and to seek perfection here is counterproductive.  If apologies or amends need to be made along the way, if these Gods, Ancestors, and spirits mean so much to us, we should be willing to meet Them if They are reasonable, and negotiate if not.  We should also be willing to be flexible in our understanding of what is reasonable in kind; what may seem a hardship to us may have been expected on a regular basis by Them.  If we can develop good relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, then surely we can develop ways to deepen these relationships while giving Gebo and remembering to allow Gebo to come to us in kind.    Screwing up happens.  Being a responsible person means owning up to one’s mistakes, and where possible, rectifying them.

I would say that a lot, if not all of these things apply to the Gods as guidelines even when the Gods, some Ancestors, and spirits are less human-focused, human-centric, or just plain not like humans at all.  Respect, good offerings, hospitality, all of these are baseline in any relationship even if the attitudes and mores regarding what these things are change.  I find this especially true if you are going into a place that is definitely a God, Ancestor, or spirit’s place, such as a sacred grove, a graveyard, a mountain, or the like.  Hospitality is even more important when you are in another’s home or place.

The only way that I have found to get better at understanding what one should do in a relationship is to ask questions, and then to do it where one can, and bargain or accept one’s limitations and work at them, where one cannot.  Even as a godatheow I generally still have the option of asking my Father for options, of negotiating in respect when I believe I am being asked too much.  It is up to me to ask for these options, however, and I certainly don’t expect other people to be offered the same paths, options, or consequences (good or ill) as I am.  However, for the work of good relationship building and engagement with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits you do not need to be a spiritual specialist; you merely need to be open and dedicated to doing the work necessary to forge and keep these good relationships.

In the Northern Tradition the communities we are part of, allied to, and so on, share and build hamingja, group luck or power.  If everyone is living in good Gebo with the Gods, Ancestor, spirits, and one another, we are doing well.  If not, our hamingja suffers, and so will each person in turn for it.  This puts taking responsibility to a different level, in that you are not only responsible to yourself, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, but to those around you.  Even a solitary practitioner might have hamingja, since all but the most reclusive of hermits belong to a community of some kind.

This does not mean that ethical consideration for fellow humans stops at the question ‘who is in my in-crowd’, but those people do, generally speaking, carry more weight in one’s life.  Practically as well as in many other ways, our families carry a great deal of weight even if we physically leave where our families live.  The human communities we engage in, whether via friendship, association, fellowship, etc. all leave marks on our lives great and small.  When someone in our personal communities asks for help we are more apt to give it, and vice versa.  They are given more ethical consideration, in the end, because their impact and presence in our lives is much more immediate.

In much the same way, the Gods I have active engagement with are the Gods Whom I most care for in regards to my ethics.  Do I care about treating the Gods I come across in a ritual well?  Of course, and this links back to the earlier points about hospitality.  That hospitality is informed by the Gods, Ancestors, and spirit I worship and engage with on a daily basis.  For daily considerations and many, if not most of my life choices the Gods I am closest to and worship are the Gods Whose relationships matter most to me, my family, and my communities.  So, Their impact and Presence in my life has more pull on it.  The same with Ancestors and spirits.

I care about the Earth as a whole.  The landvaettir of any place I visit or pass through deserve respect, if not veneration and worship.  However, relating to the whole world is damned near impossible for me.  I have never been to a desert, for instance.  I can relate to it in a kind of detached way, see it as valuable, and believe they should be protected, that the deserts have landvaettir as well, but it is quite another thing to know the desert(s) and Their spirits.  I can imagine or be shown how beautiful the deserts can be…from a camera, but to go there and experience it is wholly different.  My ethical engagement, then, is limited with the desert and associated spirits as compared to my local landvaettir.

Polytheist ethics and ethical consideration extends to the communities we are part of, to the living, to the Dead, the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, communities, and the ecosystems in which one lives, among many other places.  These ethics also extend into the larger world, in places I may never visit.  I use less oil when and where I can because I acknowledge the Earth as a living Being.  As much as I can, I try to make my negative impact upon this world, through teaching, purchasing, and any way I can find, to be reduced.  No decision is made in isolation or without impact upon another.  Even if one is entirely reclusive, there are still the landvaettir and one’s local ecosystem to consider in one’s choices.  The local landvaettir may include the Dead who live in the soil the landvaettir are made of, the natives of the land we live on now.  It may be that the two are totally separate Beings and need separate consideration.  I can think of no place where we humans are not sitting, standing, and living on the bones of those who came before us.  In this recognition respect and actions that back up that respect go hand in hand.

These ethical considerations need not be jarringly huge, either.  I pray to the landvaettir and make offerings before I set up my tent at Michigan Paganfest, where I have helped tend the Sacred Fire the last three years.  I pay this respect to the landvaettir because it is not my land.

Then again, an ethical consideration may be jarringly huge in its impact, in the mindset that follows from it, and in the way one lives their life.  Even though our modern notions of property ownership may say otherwise, if I own land, even so it will not be my land.  It cannot be; the land is Its Own.  I may be allowed to live on it, my family, and generations after may be allowed to live on it, but the land is Its Own, and we humans may be part of It, or part of the landvaettir some day but we are not It Itself.  I may partner with the land, treat it well, till it, harvest from it, raise animals on it, bury my dead in it, and feel close to It, but I am not the land.  This does not mean I do not belong to the land, but that the land does not belong to me.  It was here before I was, and will be long after I am dead.  I can no more outright own It than I can own Jörð.

When we light the Sacred Fire there are prayers and offerings made  to Fire Itself, to the Gods of Fire, to the spirits of Fire, to the wood, to the landvaettir, Ancestors, and other spirits.  The Gods, Ancestors, and spirits all deserve our respect, especially the Fire Itself since the Sacred Fire is the heart of the festival for three days it is on.  We keep it day and night; to do otherwise is to extinguish the heart of the festival, and to insult the Fire, the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits we have asked to be with us in Its heat and light, to sit with us by it and to speak with us when They will.  To extinguish It on purpose before it is time is to break our word that we will do all we can to keep It lit throughout the weekend.  To throw litter in It is to treat the Sacred Fire as a garbage disposal, which is inhospitable to the communities the Fire represents, and inhospitable to the Fire Itself.  To speak disrespectfully of the Fire is an insult to It and the community whose Fire It keeps as we keep It.  To treat the heart of the festival, the spirit of Fire Itself, the particular Fire spirit that is the Fire with disrespect, is insulting to the Fire Itself, to each person connected to the Fire, to those who form the community that the Fire is the heart of, and to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and so on that have been called by and to the Sacred Fire.  As with people, Fire too can be worked with when insulted, and amends can be made, but it is far easier and more respectful to not have to rectify insults and problems in the first place.

I will continue these thoughts on Ethics and Animism in Polytheism in Part 3.

Question 13: Frigg, Freyja, and Earth Goddesses

July 20, 2014 1 comment

Thank you to Freki Ingela for this question:

Do you consider Frigg and Freyja to be one and the same great Earth Goddess (eg, Nerthus), or do you consider they are separate deities.

I consider Them to be separate Goddesses, and I do not consider either one a great Earth Goddess, either.  They have particular roles in Their families and tribe.  While etymologically we may be able to say They were one and the same at some point in the past, either They became two separate Goddesses or They were separate to begin with.

I really have no dog in this race.  While it would be interesting to know how the people that worshiped these Goddesses developed their language and understanding of these Goddesses, I worship Them as separate Goddesses.  I also consider Nerthus and Jörð separate Goddesses even though both are identified as Mother Earth Goddesses.

While I do believe syncretism has its place, unless I know for sure that a name is a heiti, or that this God or that Goddess actually is x  as well as y God/dess, I tend to treat the God, Goddess, Ancestor, or vaettir in question as a separate entity.  This approach is more cautious.  I would rather find out later that I have been giving a given God or Goddess more offerings than I thought I had than to find out I have been treating two Goddesses as one.

Monism and Polytheism

May 22, 2014 2 comments

I just finished reading Polytheistic Monism: A Guest Post by Christopher Scott Thompson. He argues that monism and polytheism are not at odds and compatible. After reading his article, I am not convinced. He states that:

“Monism is not the idea that “all the gods are really one God” but the idea that “all apparent phenomena are really one underlying thing” such as consciousness or energy or mind or what have you. The “one underlying thing” might or might not be seen as a divine Source, depending on what type of monism we’re talking about, but even if you do see the “one underlying thing” as being divine in some sense, that doesn’t prevent you from also believing in multiple gods in another sense. This is no more outlandish than believing that you are a single person while also realizing that every cell in your body is a separate living thing in its own right.”

The problem with the assertion that “all apparent phenomena are really one underlying thing” is that for anyone who believes in things such as multiple worlds, the Otherworld, the Creator Gods, and the like, then monism is not acceptable as an addendum. As he notes in the article, separating God from Creation makes them two separate entities and is not monism. This would make beliefs such as Norse/Germanic beliefs about multiple worlds and the Otherworld incompatible with monism.

“In other words, if you assume a creator God responsible for making the universe, you are already talking about two entities (God and the Creation), so a monotheist cannot possibly be a monist.”

What is polytheism? The belief in many Gods. On the surface the idea of monism and polytheism are compatible. If we believe that the Earth is a Goddess Herself, and the rest of Creation quite another thing or Being Itself, then to my understanding of his assertions, I am not a monist. If I believe that the Universe is a God or Goddess unto Itself containing all things within it, then I am a monist.

Mr. Thompson uses the idea of all cells within our bodies being distinct, yet part of the body. Yet my cells do not have consciousness as I do. If we are nothing but the cells within a body, as monism argues, then the Gods might be organs, veins, blood, muscles, brain matter, and so on. They are not distinct in this regard, but in tandem with one another. I am a distinct and separate person from my fiancee and my son, and only when seen in the abstract can we lose that individuality, whether a sociologist is compiling data on populations or an economist is looking at financial data. So too, the Gods are separate and distinct in polytheism and only lose that individuality and identity when viewed in the abstract.

This is not to say there is no underlying energy, or understanding of connection between all things in polytheism. Wyrd is the phenomena that links all things together. However, the phenomena of Wyrd does not negate the individuality, that is, Wyrd is not all things; rather, Wyrd links all things with one another. It also does not ‘flatten’ (lacking a better term) the Worlds or distinct phenomena into one way of being.

If monism is “a philosophical stance about the nature of the entire universe, not necessarily about the nature of deity” at some point it must be recognized when making a sweeping stance as monism does, it is, in fact, making a claim and taking a stance on the nature of the Gods. If “nothing exists except God” then to say something to the contrary, i.e. “the Gods are many”, is in direct conflict with this idea.

“polytheistic monism is not the same concept as Campbell’s monomyth and doesn’t need to flatten all differences into a homogenous oneness. The theological acceptance of some form of mystical unity does not have to translate into the assertion that all the gods are really just one God or that all the world’s religions are really the same.

I can believe that all apparent phenomena are really manifestations of a universal mind or consciousness on one level of understanding while simultaneously perceiving that separate phenomena are in fact separate on another level of understanding. This type of polyvalent thinking was common in the ancient world and remains common in living traditions with multiple gods.”

Yet, if I am understanding monism right, flattening differences into a homogenous oneness is precisely what monism does. The theological acceptance of some form of mystical unity also does not equal monism; it merely states that you believe all things are connected in some fashion, whether by a concept as Wyrd, or all of us being born from a Creator/Creatrix Being. Distinctiveness and individuality are not lost with such beliefs.

Monism’s stance is directly contrary to this: not only is there a unity, but there is nothing but that oneness, that unity. If one believes that all things are part of and manifested from one source it makes little sense to understand these things are anything like truly separate. If one’s perception is all that is separating one from perception and reality, then what lies between is either delusion or illusion. One can ask the question “what is ultimate reality?” in such a philosophy and if one takes this understanding far enough, circular logic as it is, there is no real answer because any answer one comes up with may well be delusion or illusion. If I cannot trust my perception, even after investigation, introspection, etc., there is little hope in trusting my perception to find any truth at all.

Looking at the idea of distinctiveness in a larger frame, for instance at the cosmology of the Northern Tradition, the monist would say that Yggdrasil contains all the Worlds within Its branches, and so, their philosophy holds. The seeming oneness contained within Yggdrasil would not hold when one understands that these Worlds are separate and distinct. It would be no different than to say the because Earth and Jupiter are part of the Sol system and are planets, then the differences between these planets are arbitrary. To go further, not only does monism need to account for all worlds, but also all possible worlds, since its claim is that there is no separation of reality. The multiverse theory breaks monism, or monism makes such little sense in accord with it that it denies comprehension.

As a polytheist I believe and perceive there is real separation between Odin and I, in the sense that we are distinct from one another while being connected by Wyrd and spiritual ties otherwise. The ties of Wyrd are often analogized as threads in a tapestry, woven by each thing. Monism takes out the colors from the tapestry altogether, in favor of a uniform tapestry. There are threads, but they are of a uniform color. Polytheism recognizes the distinctive threads, their colors, and that each contributes to the tapestry individually, as groups, and that the tapestry in incomplete without these threads woven as they are, as a whole. In the end, I cannot understand how one can take a monist and polytheist stance together, as the former philosophy denies the latter theology’s positions on the Gods and cosmologies we, together with Them, inhabit.

Redefining Words and Claiming Space

January 22, 2014 13 comments

After reading the polytheism section of this post, and more recently here, that John Halstead has written over and over again, I have to throw my hands up. Granted, I disagreed with him vehemently on a great many points before he worked on this post and wrote an addendum to it, but I still deeply disagree with him over what I view as one of the most egregious forms of twisting words.

When someone speaks up and misuses words they need to be checked. It is wrong to take words out of their historic, and current context, and to twist them so that the words mean what you believe. Polytheism does not equate or equal panentheism or pantheism, which is more or less what I see John Halstead trying to say with his supposed paradox that “The Gods are many…but one.”

Nowhere in his first piece does he quote polytheists, now living or dead. He notes in his addendum there are folks in the polytheist, reconstructionist, and other camps that directly disagree with him on this point, communities that use this word, and yet goes ahead and writes what he wishes as polytheism is supposed to relate to his Neo-Paganism. I absolutely do not recognize what he quotes as polytheism as such; I do not ‘use’ my Gods, nor are They psychological constructs.

Mr. Halstead quotes from Waldron in The Sign of the Witch From a neo-Pagan perspective polytheism is not the belief in a world of separate and distinct Gods but is rather an acceptance of the principle that reality and the divine is multiple, fragmented and diverse.” Okay, this may be a neo-Pagan perspective, but I do not find it polytheist at all. So far as I have seen, read, and understood to be true, polytheists treat and believe our Gods as complete in and of Themselves; They are not a fragment of some whole. Nor are They facets of a jewel. To use the metaphor, each God and Goddess is a jewel unto Themselves, and a great many facets or a single facet of Them may be seen, known, and worshiped by a person.

The question of “What the hell is Mr. Halstead getting at? What does John Halstead understand about Neo-Paganism, let alone anything regarding Paganism?” are some questions that have come to mind a few times as I have read his works, but never so much as here. How in the Nine Worlds is his idea of polytheism supposed to actually square with anything resembling polytheism such as it is lived by its adherents? How is it supposed to square with historical polytheism? All I see in his examples are panentheism, and monism. These are not polytheist. The quotes he has given are not polytheist. “The radical plurality of the self”? I have no idea what his point is here. Polytheist religion recognizes a plural Self, i.e. the Soul Matrix of the Northern Tradition. Polytheism has plurality built into it.

If Mr. Halstead’s point is solely psychological, i.e. ‘psychological polytheism’ then I believe has has missed his mark by not being more clear about what he is trying to define, and using improper words to try to define it. Religion helps shape a person and society’s psychology, its understanding of states of good or ill health, in the mental, physical, and spiritual realms. However, religion is not psychology itself. Nor should psychology, in my view, seek or be sought to supplant religion. If I have misunderstood his intent, I apologize. If I have misunderstood or misconstrued his meaning, I hope to have better definitions and descriptions written by him in the future without twisting words which I use as primary personal descriptors, such as polytheism. Were Mr. Halstead writing solely from his own view with at least something recognizable behind the words he wishes to redefine, and not using a word that people already use as a primary identifier, myself included, perhaps I would have less of an issue.

According to the theologian, William Hamilton, the gods of Neo-Pagan polytheism are not to be believed in, but are “to be used to give shape to an increasingly complex and variegated experience of life.” (quoted by Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon).

So his idea of polytheism is that They are to be used, to be a tool to help us shape, and therefore also understand the world around us. Yet we are not to believe in Them, even as They are supposed to be used to shape and understand the experiences of life? When I make a woodcarving I do not stop believing in the tools nor their effect on the wood any more than I stop believing or believe that the wood came to me as-is or was grown in the shape I bought it in. That wood had a life before it was cut and shaped. That wood was part of a tree, and that tree had roots in the ground, and that ground had an existence of its own well before I ever set foot upon the ground or happened upon that cut of wood from that tree. So too the tools and their components, which came from other places, and had to be fashioned into the shape they are now.

The Gods, then, are cast only into the form of the tool, rather than the ground. In the form of the woodcarving rather than the tree from which the wood came. I fully believe the Gods can be the ground, the tree, the tool, the toolmaker, the carver, the carved, and so on. In other words the Gods can be in and/or be each part of the process (the process itself may have God(s) and Goddesses over and/or involved in this, too), to say They are merely to be used as a tool denies Their actual involvement and reduces Them to an object to be manipulated. It takes away what is essential to a polytheist perspective of the Gods: personhood. Not that They are human or human-like, necessarily, but it denies Their Being and Self, as independent of us. It denies one of the basic understandings that polytheism, in any form I have practiced or been exposed to, teaches: the Gods are Beings Unto Themselves.

I do not use my Gods; I use a computer. I may ask a God or Goddess to lend Their power to a spell, or to intercede on my or someone else’s behalf, but intercessory prayer does not equal use. I do not use my Gods in ritual; rather, I pray to Them and ask for Their Presence. This point is perhaps the largest point of contention I have when anyone uses the word ‘use’ in regards to the Gods, or to Ancestors or spirits.

If I say “I use Bob on First Street when I have car trouble”, it does not diminish Bob’s personhood nor does it treat him as an end. I acknowledge his role in my life and that he is a person I trust. Saying “I use Brighid when I need healing” does not acknowledge the personhood of the Gods and instead makes the God’s identity and relationship one has with Them about their use.

It matters little if it is a Wiccan talking about ‘using’ Gods in ritual, or an atheist Pagan about ‘using’ Gods to understand the world, or themselves. If one is using this language, then they are talking about ‘using’ Beings, which I believe have agency, self-awareness, understanding, and sentience. They are talking about Beings I consider to be worthy of worship. They are talking about ‘using’ Beings from traditions which I believe to be holy and good. When the language of ‘use’ (as in using tools like an athame or wand, screwdriver or saw) is used in regards to the Gods it is disrespecting both the Gods and the traditions that hold Them as dear, holy, and worthy of worship.

One cannot utterly separate the Gods from the traditions or cultures which give/gave worship to Them. Understanding and knowledge of the Gods are informed by the traditions, cultures. The Gods inform the religions, cultures, and traditions in turn whether by mystic experience and/or simply by being the basis of the religion. This does not mean that you need to be a member of my particular Northern Tradition religion to worship the Norse/Germanic Gods, or to do it right. What it does mean is that one must acknowledge that to worship the Norse/Germanic Gods one needs to understand the culture and traditions out of which the Gods of this/these traditions come. It means that one must come to the religion with its background culture(s), tradition(s), etc. rather than trying to make it, and an understanding of and relationship with the Gods, come to you.

Taking the Gods out of these contexts renders the understanding of Them incomplete. When Ms. Krasskova or I, or another author say ‘take on an indigenous mindset’ part of this means is that one must meet the Gods on Their own terms rather than our preconceived notions, ideas, and beliefs of how our relationship should be. “Odin is the God of Wisdom” is an easy phrase to make, and while it may be true, is not the whole of all He is, and may or may not reflect my relationship with Him at all. I and other polytheists who worship Odin can come to independent understandings and relationships and so on with Him while believing Him as a God independent of our existence, and agree on basic clear concepts, on to deep details of theology. This does not necessarily make established tradition(s), culture(s), and so on, the do-all end-all of any relationship with a God, Goddess, Ancestor, spirit, etc. (although it may) but it will inform, shape, define, and further develop one’s understanding of these Beings, and the ways in which one relates to, worships, etc. Them. The traditions are the bones on which the meat of the relationship are built.

It is the reality experienced by men and women when Truth with a capital ‘T’ cannot be articulated according to a single grammar, a single logic or a single symbol system.” (David Miller, The New Polytheism).

If you cannot articulate truth, or even try to articulate Truth, then your logic and symbol system have failed. We can debate the nature of reality according to different belief systems, and the extent that different polytheist traditions agree or disagree with one another on these things. Yet, without a single grammar, logic, or symbol system, our understanding of the Gods falls apart. Without coming to understand our Gods on Their terms, as best as we can, we are leaving our understanding of Them woefully inadequate.

Without a single grammar, logic, and symbol system, understanding the Northern Tradition, and most polytheism, falls apart. You cannot understand the Northern Tradition through the Kemetic, nor Roman polytheism. To say otherwise is saying that one can understand and speak German fluently after having done so with Greek. Are there some universal truths? If there are, (and to avoid speaking for all polytheists I will say if), they are broad, such as: the Gods are Beings Unto Themselves; respect is given for the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits; hospitality to people, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits; offerings are given in respect to the wishes, traditions, customs, etc. to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. The appearance of respect, for instance, will differ between traditions, customs of certain groups within a given tradition, the Gods worshiped by a group, the relationship between the people and their Gods, Ancestors and spirits as a whole and individually, and many, many other factors I could not hope to account for. Yet, on a baseline, there are similar beliefs, even if the shape and effects of those beliefs differ tradition to tradition, group to group, and person to person.

Polytheism is not just a term or a description; it is an identifier that an entire religious community uses to understand itself. It is an identifier people use as means to express who and what they are to others. It has an accepted meaning, Trying to dilute the meaning of this word is an attempt to dilute the meaning and understanding with which this word is used as an identifier. To try to redefine polytheism as something it is not is an insult at the least, and if enough people start using it in the way Mr. Halstead would care to, actively will produce problems in communication.

In the second post linked above, Mr. Halstead seeks to “’re-god’ the archetypes”. I take great pains to say that this is not polytheism. It is fine that he seeks to do it, but it is not polytheism. I believe that he, seeking to put the numinous back into archetypes, rather than Gods into archetypes, is a fine goal for him to do. However, it is not polytheism as I understand it, practice it, believe in, or acknowledge. It is perfectly fine that he believes, understands, practices, acknowledges, etc. in a religious context different than I. What is not fine, and what I will not stand for, is his appropriation of the word polytheism, polytheist, etc. to suit his own ends. What he describes and espouses is nothing I recognize as such.

He rightly points out that his beliefs are a choice. So too, is identifying as a polytheist, and embracing the beliefs therein. As he points out in the post, these are his beliefs. I am not attacking his beliefs, or him, please let me make that perfectly clear.

The spectrum of religious belief does exist on a spectrum, but rather than a singular spectrum, I believe it extends from many, of which extreme psychologism to extreme transcendentalism is just one. Religious beliefs are also a series of continuum on which belief and disbelief are polar opposites. These are tools which can help us understand where we lie in relating to the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, ourselves, the world around us, etc. You can be a polytheist that disbelieves their own experiences in the extreme just as you can be a be an atheist Pagan and fully believe that your experiences of the Gods, such as They are, are real. The scale is only as useful as how accurate and accepted it is.

Mr. Halstead writes “The spectrum of belief regarding the nature of divinity ranges from extreme psychologism to extreme transcendentalism. I fall more toward one end of the spectrum. Others fall more toward the other end. But we are on the same spectrum. For example, whatever they believe about the ultimate nature of divinity, I would wager most people can acknowledge that the experience of divinity is to a certain extent paradoxical, in that divinity can at least seem to be both “in” us and “outside” of us, both a part of us and also other than us.

Well, yes, when we are placed on that spectrum of course polytheists are in a very different spectrum from him. In a great many places our various religious positions do not line up. We may be able to agree that ‘the experience of divinity is to a certain extent paradoxical’. In my case, the idea that the Gods can be cosmically as well as personally present is one place where I could say the experience of a God, such as Odin, is powerful and mind-boggling.

Recognizing that I may have attributes within me, or parts of me that resonate with Odin does not mean that Odin is in me. It means that these parts, attributes, etc. resonate with Him. Odin is Odin, Odin is within Himself. When He gave breath to Ask and Embla it was a gift, one which did not cease to be His breath or a gift, but much like my parents’ DNA, that gift of life and existence is part of me. I am, in the end, external to Him. For me, this in particular is not a paradox. It makes sense, since He is not I, and I am not Him. My parents gave me life, and their DNA is bound up in me, but I am not them, nor they I, and while there are parts of me that resonate with them and parts of my persona that match up very well with them, I am not them, and vice versa. Finding the nature of the Gods in ourselves is not a paradox. I can look to a great many things, fictional and non-fictional, in a variety of media, and ‘find myself’ or aspects of myself, things that resonate with me. So too may I see the Gods in the world around me even while recognizing that my personal experience of ‘if I see three pairs of crows it may mean Odin is present’ may either be inaccurate (i.e. it is just 3 pairs of crows, congrats) or simply a personal experience for/with me alone.

Devotional polytheists have contributions to the larger Pagan communities that we may make. Whether we can make these contributions depends largely on whether or not we are given space to speak in it from our own beliefs, experiences, and traditions. Our contributions will depend on whether or not our words and identifiers are respected. I do own the word polytheist the same way that I own the words cis-gender male. The same way that I own the word pansexual. These are identifiers. I do not make these on my own, since meaning is not made in a bubble. These words are accepted by the communities that employ them, and in larger society as meaning certain things. They are, in general, respected for what they are, even if not fully agreed upon. If Neo-Pagans like Mr. Halstead are going to try to include us, respect for us starts with respect for our identifying words, our beliefs, traditions, and experiences. We do not have to agree, that is not at issue here. At issue is basic respect.

Mr. Halstead says that using the words ‘polytheist’ and ‘polytheism’ in psychologized and naturalized senses has precedent. Yet, even he admits there is better precedent for how I use it: “there’s better precedent for using the word to mean a belief in gods as literal, independent, sentient beings”. So while he writes that he sympathizes, he will continue to misuse one of the primary words by which I identify myself. There are two definitions for sympathy, and I am not sure which one rankles me more in this context: “feelings of pity for someone else’s misfortune”, or “understanding between people; common feeling” (OED). What this tells me is that either he is unmotivated by his sympathy to change his behavior, or in the face of it, he is ignoring something that wrongs others so he can use words as he sees fit.

If someone is misusing a label or term, they are misusing a label or term. His belief that “that saying Margot Adler — or Doreen Valiente — is not a polytheist is a little like saying Paul was not a Christian.” No, actually, it is stating a truth. From what writings I have seen, and with my experience of having been on a small panel with Ms. Adler, neither one of these women are polytheists such as I use, understand, or acknowledge the term. The quotes given are monist, panentheistic and/or pantheistic. None of the quotes acknowledge the Gods as Beings Unto Themselves, nor even that They are differentiated from one another. Beliefs like “all the Gods are one God” and the like are not polytheist. There is no belief in many Gods to be had here. It is not polytheist. It does not make any of the contributions these women have made to Paganism and Neo-Paganism less, it simply means they are not polytheist. These women are Pagan (or Neo-Pagan if you will) but they are not polytheist. So no, this is nothing like saying Paul was not a Christian. It is saying Paul was not a Lutheran.

Whether or not trying to erase or silence polytheist voices was Mr. Halstead’s intent, it is no longer an issue for me; it is what he and like-minded people are actively engaged in doing that concerns me. If you wish to identify as a Neo-Pagan and the larger Pagan communities accepts this I will not stand against them; that is their decision. If the larger Pagan and Neo-Pagan communities accept atheist and humanist Pagans as Pagans and/or Neo-Pagans, that is their business and their right.

‘Polytheist’ and ‘polytheism’ are not just ‘something I found’ or just words that ‘capture’ what I believe. ‘Polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’ are words that identify who and what I am. It is an identifier of the communities and people I find common cause with. It is a religious identification. These words should be used with respect to and for the people, communities, and religions they represent.

In sharing his beliefs Mr. Halstead does not silence my beliefs or erase my community. His attempted co-opting of my words, most especially my primary identifiers, does. His insistence in using these identifiers as he has done and continues to, does attempt erasure and silence. Setting up his standards as norms for my community are further attempts at erasure and silence. His use of the words we primarily identify ourselves with in the larger Pagan community on an inter and intrafaith website decreases our ability to effectively define ourselves. Twisting the words ‘polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’ to mean something they do not dilutes their usefulness as words, silences our effective use of those words, and erases our identity along with it.

Update: My thanks to James Stovall for being a sounding board, and for the example with Bob in the middle of this piece.  He helped me think on the term ‘use’, and how it can be used in a sentence without the loss of personhood, and with respect to the person.

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