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“I did not write a critique of radical polytheism, I wrote a defense of traditional polytheism. I do not know what the Gods are, and neither do you.”–A Wiccan Elder who should know better than this.
Firstly, I strongly suggest reading Julian Betkowski’s brilliant piece in Patheos which shows precisely why Polytheism resists the totalizing, flattening, universalizing tendency of most Western Monists. It’s a sort of rebuttal to the piece written by the person quoted at the beginning of this post, but stands alone brilliantly as a defense of pluralism as well as polytheism.
Radicalism and Its Discontents
I guess it’s been almost 8 months since I wrote that one essay with the really long title, the one that got lots of people really grumpy with me, and a bunch of other people all happy with me, and I think, maybe, it actually did a little good.
It’s gotten more unique views than any other thing I’ve written here, and still averages five views a week 8 months on. And because I don’t retroactively edit stuff, there’s a bit of a side effect that I find a bit unfortunate about it, which is that people reading it now find themselves re-opening old arguments with people which are not the same as they used to be. One of the people quoted in the essay is incredibly respectful now, and has even met with many gods-worshipers who had been on the other side of those arguments. Another? We politely avoid each other as best as possible on the internet, and that’s about all one could probably hope for. Maybe we’ll even have tea one day, as we’ll soon be living in the same city again.
I bring that essay up because of the quote at the top of this post. I’ve been feeling that, generally, we’re all past the ridiculous arguments about who’s a real polytheist, but there are still a few people who insist on claiming a specific distinction between what some people are doing with and for gods and what is normal and traditional.
“Radical” polytheism is a fascinating phrase, and I gotta admit that I sort of like it. The word “Radical” shows up repeatedly in my writing, though more often as “Radical Pagan” rather than “Radical Polytheist.” The earliest use of Radical Polytheism that I’ve been able to track is from 1966 in a book called Radical Theology and the Death of God (Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton), and the next published use is in an essay by Emma Restall-Orr from 2001, where she contrasts “practical” and “radical.” There may be more–my research skills are rusty.
That second use is, of course, a bit irksome, as it suggests that “radicals” aren’t practical; then again, “practical” often means settling for what’s at hand, as in the diminutive insult often leveled at idealistic dreamers who suggest we might be able to alleviate poverty, house the homeless, or distribute wealth better–that is, such things just aren’t “practical.” In such cases, I like being impractical.
Radical polytheism seems to indicate, for some writers, an aberration from how things are or how they should be. Pitting “traditionalists” (what’s more traditional than worshiping gods that were worshiped 2500 years ago?) against “radicals” claims a false-center and also a moving target. Any good historian will tell you that “traditional marriage” and “traditional families” are recent creations, but the use of the word traditional is a political trick which makes everything but what is posited as normal an aberration.
So, it’s frustrating to see someone attempt to create such a dichotomy, because it’s not only misleading, but it’s outright dishonest.
Still, as I argued in that one essay, we should claim it anyway. Radicalism ain’t all that bad. It changes the world, actually:
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.
My second essay for The Wild Hunt is up, and it’s already gotten some unsurprising criticism.
That being said, Liberalism is also what restrains Paganism because of its insistence on a flattening of differences and its sublimation of subversive identities. One can be whatever one wishes to be, provided that identity does not challenge the Capitalist, Disenchanted order. Beliefs and practices which refer to narratives in conflict with the Disenchanted order become marginalized quickly. One can be Muslim provided one not believe it too authentically, be Queer as long as one not act upon such desires in the public sphere. Here, I’d refer also to recent backlash against polytheistic beliefs within Paganism–one can believe in gods, provided one does not really act as if they exist.
Unsurprising, because I’m attacking the very core of what is most destructive in American Paganism–Liberal, Capitalist ethics re-inscribed into Pagan beliefs. The arguments of “Wiccanate privilege” months ago belie this problem a bit, as do the general reactions of middle-class, white elders to the demands of polytheists that the gods be taken…seriously.
Enjoy. : )