“What kind of person is able to say this—to celebrate differences? This is the question I struggle with. Who are those who can embrace polytheism, accepting a bit of chaos in their spiritual perspective without denying rational modes of thinking? Who are those who are able to suspend belief and disbelief at will and are equally comfortable with scientific discourse and magic ritual?” Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon (p. 36).
Polytheists have been called a lot of things, and appear to be miserably misunderstood.
Let’s start from where we’re all at now. By “we,” I mean everyone who’s claiming to be Pagan of one sort or another, for various reasons finding the term useful to define themselves and hoping to get along. It’s been called a “big tent” or “umbrella”– both are useful for sheltering people against rain for a little bit until actual shelter is reached or found.
We’re all…here, claiming a label otherwise used as a perjorative, an insult. We’re an ever-increasing group of people who’ve decided we’d like to transform Pagan into something meaningful. We’re not the only ones who’ve done this with an insult: the Queers (that includes this faggot here) have done it, too. Queer is a radical term, descriptive and proscriptive of all sorts of generally anti-hegemonic, anti-heterocentric and anti-capitalist sexual identities.
There’s quite a bit of intersection between Queers and Pagans, actually (Radical Faeries come to mind), not just in the shared act of transforming a nasty word into a brilliant identity. There’s a bunch of us queers who are also Pagans. For you non-Queers reading this, I’ll clear something up briefly–Queer does not mean gay or homosexual. Lots of gays like to think of themselves as being somehow “radical” by wanting gay marriage and equal rights, but there’s nothing radical or interesting in my mind about wanting to be bourgeois.
Actually, being just like everyone else turns out to be an insidious way of erasing individual experiences, attempts to “include everyone” by erasing difference. In the words of one of my favorite writers,
“We? I am not like you. You would have to change who you are in order to include me.”
A few Pagan writers, particularly the Humanist/Naturalist sorts, have often used the word “Radical” to describe anyone who recognizes non-mortal beings outside themselves. Calling us radical suggests we are doing something unusual, abnormal, or immoderate; that is, in order for radicals to exist, there must be a center or a moderation from which radicals rebel or aberr: by claiming that polytheists are radicals, the accusers claim a center.
Radical is a political term, typically wielded against certain peoples to show them as being “out there” or extreme. Western media and politicians are fond of the term “Radical Islamist” against certain Muslims as much, and large environmental groups often label certain activists as”Radical” Environmentalists. Another example– I’ve had my politics constantly described as “Radical” Leftism. In each aforementioned case, there’s the implication that certain beliefs (that is, radicalism) is abnormal and extremist. However, there’s also an oft-unnoticed connotation: in all three instances, Radicalism also implies a way of believing which leads to action.
Let me explain. Radical Islamist groups (often called Fundamentalists, as per the American designation) believe certain things about the world that others don’t. Under the general accord of Capitalist/Democratic Hegemony, one can believe whatever one wants, provided one doesn’t do much about it, but Radical Islamists, who hold beliefs contrary to the current order of the world, appear to make the horrible mistake of doing things in accordance to their beliefs. Radical Enviromentalists aren’t satisfied with changing lightbulbs and their choice of vehicles–they chain themselves to trees and torch SUV dealerships to enact their beliefs. And Radical Leftists don’t go to the ballot box like everyone else in hopes of liberating the world from Capitalism; instead, they shut down commerce, interrupt arms shipments, organize unauthorized strikes, and break windows. All three groups have something in common–they believe the world should change, and they do very physical things to act out their beliefs.
“Radical Polytheists” suffer from the same apparent delusion. Believing that entities have appeared to them from outside themselves, encountering divine beings and spirits, they choose to act in accordance to those beliefs. They worship them, build them shrines, talk to them, negotiate agreements, perform services for them, and have a really bad habit of not keeping silent about their activities.
Also, another thing those accused of Radicalism have in common is a tendency to radicalize others and challenge the “centre.” Environmental groups both distance themselves from the radicals and publicly disavow them in order to marginalize and contain their apparent threat to mainstream (and ineffective) environmentalist political groups. A similar thing happens with “leftists:” anyone who was involved at the beginning of the Occupy movement can recall with horror what happened when the Democratic and Progressive folk started showing up. Demands that the campsites be kept cleaner, that marches be more orderly, that we urge people to vote instead of protest, and even that we send “thank-you” notes to the police were perhaps deadlier to the movement than the beatings by those same police we were urged to thank. Suddenly, all the people who had shown up at the beginning because they believed something could happen were out-voted in public meetings, discredited, and marginalized (sometimes through the press).
You see, Radicals need to be marginalized because they inspire belief. Worse, they show people affective (not just effective) ways of accomplishing goals. They enact change in the world, for better or for worse, and others see their example and consider it. The do the impossible, thus changing what is thought to be possible.
Thus, by calling polytheists “radical,” certain Pagans make several political statements. By staking their position as a center against which we rebel, and then implying that we threaten that center, we become created extremists. We take our beliefs too seriously, do very physical things about our beliefs, and, worst of all, others might see our example and follow suit.
Aggression and Hypersensitivity
Another claim made about polytheists is that they are aggressive. To read many of the Humanist/Naturalist Pagan writers, one might thing polytheists just seem to show up in forums out of nowhere, making aggressive arguments for no apparent reason, and taking offense at the tiniest of slights.
There’s one profound problem with this claim. Asserting that someone is aggressive implies one is being aggressed-upon, victimized without provocation.
I could fill this essay with a litany of statements made by folks such as John Halstead that have been seen as offensive by polytheists. I would rather not, as I’ve spent the last few days reading almost every post in Humanistic Paganism, The Allergic Pagan, and many of the forums in which these debates have occurred. I don’t want to rehash these old arguments; rather, my intention is to explore why precisely they start in the first place.
The arguments follow an almost predictable pattern. A polytheist says or does something, a non-theist or skeptic writes about it on their site, and then suddenly there’s controversy. Or, an anti-polytheist rant gets printed on the Humanistic Paganism site (like one complaining about how polytheists ruin the gods for everyone), polytheists complain (mostly on their own sites first), and then Halstead and others express surprise that the polytheists were offended.
To be fair, these conversations have often ended with public apologies by Halstead in particular, as well as statements he intends to be more aware of polytheistic concerns in the future. But these recur constantly, and nothing seems actually to change.
Why, then, are these arguments so fierce? As I said, there seems to be no end to the apparent surprise that polytheists become offended by statements made by the Naturalist/Humanist Pagans, and sometimes a variation of this statement (directed to my request by John Halstead) occurs whenever a polytheist requests more civility:
“It’d be kinda nice if certain devotional polytheists would stop being so hypersensitive.”
Well, then, why are we (hyper)sensitive to these statements?
The Naturalist-Humanist Pagans, many of which wield Jung’s theories, make very bold claims about the nature of the divine–that is, they weave a grand narrative to explain the nature of their own beliefs, and by doing must actively confront (in the sense of “encounter,” not necessarily “assault”) those who believe otherwise.
Some of them have admitted to very intense experiences with possible gods and spirits, just as we have. These can be disruptive and sometimes threatening to the very order of one’s life, an experience I call Divine Trauma. Anyone experiencing Divine Trauma also must face not just their own spirituality, but the pressure of a society which is generally opposed to things such as gods, spirits, and faeries. More often than not, tales of such encounters become either the subject of voyeuristic television programmes or of psychological diagnosis.
But this does not appear to be the state of the entire world, nor even historically that of the Western/European world. Encounters with the divine in other places, societies, and times were often enough signs that the person might be a mystic, a potential shaman, a prophet, or whatever category each society had created for such folks. Provided such a category existed within the society, the experiences were not seen as signs of madness or illness (mental illness, we should remember, is a very new idea.)
In nominally Christian, post-Enlightenment, Capitalist/Materialist European societies, there is no longer a category for such people–or really much of a use. The Enlightenment began to tell a story about European society which re-narrated the past and the present into a sort of special exception. European thought had “progressed” from the “dark ages” so that we no longer have much use for “primitive” or “savage” categories, despite the increased interest at the very same time in such things. In fact, one of the most useful contributions Jung might have made is not his psychological theories of the Archetypes, but rather his extensive documentation of the continuation of religious experiences during the Enlightenment, particularly in his study, Alchemy and Psychology.
This story, though, is wrong; that is, it’s a narrative which is selective of the past (like all histories) and is both informed and constrained by an unacknowledged bias. This bias? That the apparent state of European secular culture is indeed secular and wholly different from European or other cultures. [For more on this, I highly suggest Dipesh Chakrabarty’s introduction to this problem–Provincializing Europe.]
And when a person whose story isn’t being told in dominant narratives recognises they are being left out of the discourse, or when their stories are being re-told in order to fit a narrative which discounts their experiences and differences, they tend to react, sometimes aggressively. Consider the women’s Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, Stonewall, the American Indian Movement (AIM), or the attacks on the mainstream gay HRC offices by trans and queer folks and you’ll get a sense of this aggression.
Along with apparent aggression, marginalized groups also get a bit hypersensitive (the word used to be “hysterical,” another psychological diagnosis, particularly applying to women who just wouldn’t stay calm in the face of oppressive circumstances). Recognizing that white straight (mostly male) folks are wielding their privileged voices and influence to build a society or a world which excludes everyone else makes certain people rather damn grumpy.
Now, let me be clear here. I’m not accusing John Halstead or B.T. Newberg of being white, straight, and male, nor dare I accuse folks like P. Sufenas Verius Lupus, Aine Llewellyn, Julian Betkowski, or myself of being queer or gender-variant. But on first glance, there does seem to be a remarkable amount of white straight middle class folks who self-identify as Humanist/Naturalist Pagans, and a remarkable amount of queer, lower-class and other subaltern folks amongst the polytheists. One really can’t extrapolate from this much more than a mere suspicion that one position may attract people with certain experiences that the other doesn’t.
There are certainly apparent parallels from other marginalizations, though. Trans* folk are accused of hypersensitivity when they request people use their chosen pronouns, and queers actively protest attempts to conform homosexuality into the dialogue of middle-class behavior. In both cases, the aggression and hypersensitivity function as a diagnosis of their refusal to remain calm in the face of attempts to moderate, mediate, or co-opt their experiences by people who claim a position of center or dominance. The soundness of their psychological being and the balance of their mental faculties becomes questioned in order to weaken their positions. They become hysterics and violent in the opinions of those they accuse.
The Plague of Peasants
Some of the folks who speak from the Humanist/Naturalist Pagan tendency are very, very nice people. One of them is amongst my top three favorite writers, and her deep experiences of rapture and care of Nature is so evident in her writing as to be very close to sorcery. Also, she’s much more fair-minded than most, but even she unfortunately perpetuates a rather elitist or paternalistic perception of the polytheist.
In a recent G+ thread initiated by her concerning the conceptions of polytheists regarding free will, she replied to experiences both John Beckett and I appeared to have shared this way:
I need to know that you at least considered the possibility that these were just urges coming from your own subconscious, that you went through a process of exploration, and that you don’t have any ego investment in being a special mouthpiece or pet favorite of a particular deity.
And, later in that same response, she says:
This is why I think I find “hard polytheism” so problematic when it’s paired with concepts like “god-slavery” and submission to the gods. If a person can’t even entertain the possibility that the gods might just be “all in their head,” what other possibilities are they leaving out of the discernment process?
This is very similar to a tactic that John Halstead and B.T. Newberg use, but with much less stated honesty. Halstead has repeatedly asked multiple people variants of the same question, “Would you still believe in your gods if you knew they were projections of your unconscious?”
Honest attempts to answer the question have resulted in him re-asking the question again, and on the surface, it appears to be an honest question and concern. But then why does it seem to always meet with rather considerable “hypersensitivity” and “aggression?”
I’m going to quote someone who has answered the question more succinctly than I think anyone else possibly could:
“And you know what? Yeah, I’m pretty sensitive about it being said or implied that I work with my deities because I’m too unenlightened to do otherwise.” –Literata
Within such statements and concerns raised by Halstead, Lily, and others is an apparent and unfortunate assumption that the polytheist hasn’t considered other possibilities.
I can only speak for myself here, but good gods did I ever consider every other potential before letting the real existence of the gods crash through my futile attempts to keep them at bey. Mental illness was my first consideration: fortunately, years as a social worker for the mentally-ill and a long conversation with a psychiatrist who worships Hecate helped dispel that fear. Fatigue, or stress, or trauma were all other options I considered, and then I settled on an uneasy peace of Jung’s theory of the Archetypes. But this didn’t last long, either, not as long as I’d hoped it would.
Who, really, wants to think that there are powers outside of themselves that won’t save their soul or grant them eternal life or wealth or even necessarily comfort yet still want to communicate with you? I mean, who wants to do that in this society, where the default state is disbelief in anything that doesn’t fit within the secularist and scientific post-christian age? How do you tell your friends? A potential lover? Your co-workers and roommates?
My experience of Divine Trauma was honestly fucking intense. When I finally made the choice to allow the one possibility which made the least scientific, psychological, modern sense, my entire world exploded into wonder, beauty, Otherness, and power. Not “power” in the Crowleyian sense (I dislike that man), but power in the sense akin to what the Jungian’s call “Self-Actualization,” a sobering state of acknowledgment not only of the Self but also its relation to the world.
And then the gods started talking more, through all of my senses (the first time you physically hear a voice is damn fucking terrifying; I drank a lot of hot cocoa after some of the more “traumatic/dramatic” experiences) and through other senses I’d never known I had use for. And to be clear, I’m a relative no-body, except that I’m a somebody who decided to listen. Still, making statements and posing questions which indicate that the speaker doubts whether or not I’ve attempted to discern what the hell is actually happening in those situations is irritating at the very least, and appallingly elitist in the estimation of many.
The “Enlightenment” that we appear to have missed is a bit unclear to me. One of those involved in these debates, who chided someone for being uncharitable in a conversation for judging John Halstead for his words rather than his intent, also believes that workers just need an attitude adjustment. In an essay on how he’s become more ethical on account of Humanist spirituality, The Humanist Reverend D.T. Strain states:
We have all come to expect that, when we are told “have a nice day” in most stores, the person saying it probably could care less and are simply doing what their boss wants them to do.
But the real tragedy in this is not for the customer who is hardly affected, but for the worker. With a different outlook, and some genuine feelings of caring for others, they would have a much brighter experience in their job. Their heart would be lifted of the extra stress and bitterness bottled up inside. The little things that the customer did that were annoying wouldn’t be as big of a deal if we had affection for them. So, my partners and I agreed, our aim is to do more than treat our customers like family – but to really try to cultivate deep within ourselves real feelings of familial love and concern for them.
This is the same discourse which has defanged many religions of their Radical potentialities. Mainstream Protestant Christianity, Western Buddhism, and now perhaps Paganism has been made weak and impotent by the idea that it’s what’s inside that counts, that internal transformation is enlightenment and is the very point of religious experience. Outward actions and expressions matter less than how one approaches suffering, grace, or the gods.
The assertions seem to be that polytheists are unenlightened. Silly us, doing things on behalf of our gods, at the behest and request of our gods, speaking to spirits and courting the fae as beings outside ourselves. We’re radicals, acting out our personal experiences in the world, acting on beliefs rather than exploring our Selves and changing our inner landscape.
Except–we also change our inner landscape.
We have to. The moment you start listening to the voices outside yourself, you begin to recognize all the voices within, too. Not all of our thoughts are our own, nor are they from the gods. I may pass an advertisement and experience an odd hunger for the item depicted there–I am not the sole agent of my mental landscape, before or after acknowledging the gods. And one of the first things I realised after acknowledging the gods as outside of myself was how much clutter and how many unexamined beliefs were inside my head. One must do this in order to hear the gods, because the external voice and the ocular visions are rare–discernment and self-evaluation becomes relentless.
I’m speaking only for myself here, except I’ve got a really damn good sense that other polytheists experience this same inner transformation (more an inner cleaning-binge)–two of the most “hypersensitive” and “aggressive” polytheists, Gallina and Sannion, write more about the difficulties involved with re-forging oneself than I’d ever feel comfortable doing. I find them inspiring, in line with Julian Betkowski’s gratitude post regarding the much-maligned (and often unfortunately impolitic) Gallina Krasskova: her assertions that all difficulties one encounters can be overcome by diligence rather than giving up have led me constantly to challenge my unexamined, self-defeating beliefs of my own weakness or ineptitude.
Historicity is gold to many polytheists, particularly the Reconstructionists. Many have left the umbrella of Paganism specifically because of their personal requirement that everything they do and believe be as close to the historical record as is humanly possible.
I find their rigor is admirable, for history is vital; however, history is also problematic. As I mentioned earlier, certain people’s experiences are never recorded in history and often willingly ignored or scrubbed by those who write history. This goes beyond the two armchair-historian adages which get quoted too often as actual historical doctrines, that of history being written by the victors and history being a pendulum.
The first gets close to a truth but ignores something important: many of the “victors” are actually merely the most powerful voices within a society. What is often forgotten when looking at conquered peoples is that they often continue to exist and practice their beliefs long after victory is declared against them (First Nations people are a great example of this, but one can go much, much further back to find this to be true). Also, sometimes the act of writing history is a declaration of war.
Without digressing too far into historiography, one example will suffice. In the late 1500’s, there was a major contention between two scientists who’d been studying the anatomy of the female body. Both fought vehemently and publicly with each other to prove the primacy of their discovery of a specific part of the human body that had been heretofore unknown except for their research. That specific part?
Besides the gross humor of two white, heterosexual European men arguing over which of them had first found the clitoris, something else is here. It’s not only absurd to imagine that women were unaware that there was a part of their genitalia from which pleasure was derived, but, also, that centuries of midwives and folk-doctors would have likewise been unaware of its existence. (For more on this, see Thomas Laquer’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud)
Their problem can be re-stated in a manner which makes sense not just to the arguments within Paganism, but also to much of the problem we’ve gotten ourselves into within our modern, hegemonic Capitalist order. Our histories have an odd habit of re-inscribing themselves back into the past in a way which discounts those who may have experienced the world we in the future are speaking of, and it is often difficult to see where our sciences end and actual historical experience begins.
Claims that historical worship of deities were mere projections of the unconscious or the psyche run into a particular problem, though: Jung’s theories are new. Though he in parts calls upon older philosophers and theorists, he is creating an altogether new theory to explain religious and spiritual experiences towards a universalizing end. It’s a brilliant project; however, it’s also a very modern one. New and modern does not mean something should be discounted; however, any who would use such theories ought to be aware that it is a new theory re-inscribing itself into the past, just like most histories, particularly grand narratives written by “the victors.”
The other historical fallacy a few people make is the notion that beliefs and trends swing from one extreme to another. Halstead has mentioned this several times of late, as if this were some sort of historical tool. It isn’t. It, like other grand narrative devices, discounts outliers and is part of the dualistic/polar description of the world and humanity that Naturalists are generally very keen to avoid. Furthermore, it’s become fundamental to the “radicalization” of polytheist belief, that polytheism is an extreme pole of Pagan thought, a mere swinging of a pendulum too far in one direction which must be countered by self-proclaimed moderates
The (false) Center Cannot Hold
In all of these accusations, a common theme emerges. It seems vital to many of the arguments by the Naturalist/Humanist Pagans that they be seen as a sort of center, as the moderate and enlightened voice amidst the fray of adolescent frustrations and immoderate tendencies.
An attempt was made awhile back to create an internet badge which would help allay many of the tensions in the debates. Its failure has been spectacular but unsurprising, given its slogan: “Pagan Enough.” Replace the word Pagan with Queer, Leftist, Christian, Buddhist, Green, or Environmentalist and you’ll see why the campaign falls flat. In fact, the only sorts of words which do seem to work this way are all ones of excess (Wealthy Enough, Chocolatey Enough, Deadly Enough), as if Paganism were some sort of excess which needs to be moderated.
It’s not for me to proclaim the reasons and justifications of the attitude of Humanist/Naturalist Pagans towards polytheism. I have my suspicions, but I cannot speak to the mechanisms of actual belief experienced by Halstead and others–besides, it seems to be their preferred method of discourse, and we need to change this if we’re all going to share this tent.
I can, however, speak to the effects of their dismissal of our experiences within the collective project of Paganism. By asserting that we are somehow radical, they marginalize us. By asserting our retorts are aggressive, they proclaim us to be given to violence, off-hinge, and uncivil. By declaring us hypersensitive, they further marginalize our complaints to that of someone unable to understand adult conversation or inherent intent, to someone also perhaps mentally unstable. By claiming our beliefs are ahistorical and possibly inspired and derived from a somewhat popular urban-fantasy book., they seek to de-legitimize our religious experiences as inauthenthic. And by repeating doubts and concerns about our processes of mental discernment, they suggest we are impetuous, unenlightened, illegitimate children who have not put any real thought into our beliefs.
Despite all of this, I think we should still be nice to them.
Crazier still, I suggest we continue to claim to be Pagans. And I, for one, actually think we should begin to embrace their claims.
In fact, being aggressive is a great way to change the world–sitting around and meditating still hasn’t ended Capitalism and the destruction of the earth.
Being hypersensitive is a very good trait to have, if you are trying to listen to the voices of those thought voiceless, be they forgotten gods, abused land-spirits, the homeless, the colonized, or the dispossessed.
Being ahistorical is a great thing, as we’d be in fantastic company, the conquered peoples, the sexually “deviant,” and pleasurable parts of the human body.
And since the Enlightenment brought us Capitalism, false notions of Progress and widespread abuse of the earth, and since “enlightenment” appears to now mean merely having a positive attitude rather than resisting oppression, I think unenlightened is precisely what I’d like to be.
We, who are constantly attempting to liberate ourselves from the things which have kept humanity in the modern age from confronting the Other, the gods and spirits and fae, the very real and sometimes traumatic (but ever so fucking worth it) experiences of divine beings outside the confines of our tragically small Selves, have something very important to offer.
We’ve made very difficult decisions, suspending disbelief to accept something profoundly Other. We’ve begun to learn to speak the languages of the gods and also the language of our selves. We know what Divine Trauma is like, we know how terrifying it can be to those who haven’t already had to remake their worlds. We know what it’s like to walk through a gate and not be able to return to a normal life any longer, not be able ever to be satisfied with Materialist explanations and disenchantments. We can offer our experiences to those who are afraid, perhaps terrified to give up modern and empty notions of “control.” We can show them that an Other world is possible, and we can build it with them.