Part One of the presentation I gave at the Polytheist Leadership Conference this year: Introductory remarks, and the matter of Monotheism.Continue Reading...
Archives For Polytheism
“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.
I’m about to finish my first year studying Druidry through OBOD. One of the Gwersu (lessons) has a caveat in it, suggesting that so much stuff has been gone through, so many transformations and ritual workings, that it might be wise to consider a bit of a break, or at least a contemplation on what has changed.
While not every profound alteration of my soul and life has been related necessarily to my Druidry courses, looking back, I note that, uh, yeah. There’s been a lot. Unlike ADF, one can study with OBOD without being a polytheist; if anything, at least the Bardic grade is more aimed towards training the soul and mind with rituals and practices which make one more able to handle (that is, make sense of or even survive) interactions with the gods, a path one can take through the forests of the gods (though maybe not meet any in those woods) with guides who help you avoid getting lost but don’t actually interpret your experiences and interactions for you.
One of the more profound things for me, why I’m utterly glad I’ve been studying Druidry as opposed to, say, one of the many witch-traditions is its strong emphasis on both justice and peace. If one’s seeking power over the elements, spirits, gods, or people, OBOD’s a futile waste of money and time. From what I understand of ADF and AODA, they are similar–what you are taught is for something other than your own self-enlightenment.
This exists certainly in other traditions, and I do not bring this up necessarily as an indictment against any tradition or another, but rather to bring up something that I think needs to be considered in Paganism generally–the question of power.
Powers or Gifts?
I’ve noted two major differences within Pagan traditions regarding magic and working with the gods and spirits. One, evident in both Druidry and many of the gods-worshiping traditions, is that magic and power are gifts bestowed from the Other onto the worshiper in order to work on behalf of the Other. Gods might grant particular insights and tools (including divination, enchantment, visions, etc) to a person so that the recipient might become more useful in doing the gods’ work. Similar with animal and land spirits, ancestors, guides, guardians: each gift, blessing, or act of aid comes with a sense that something ought to be returned, not necessarily as an act of exchange but as a gift in return. When a human helps me out, I want to help them out in return when the time comes. People who give me gifts inspire me to give them gifts in return. Capitalism and certain strands of evolutionary psychology (both derived from the same Protestant view of the world) has unfortunately made it difficult for us to understand gift economies and mutual aid without thinking about obligation or strategy (if I give a person this, they’ll give me that), but we shouldn’t allow cynical readings of human relations to change the beneficent character of human relations in such cases.
There are times, of course, when I feel obligated to someone who has done something incredible for me, as if I am “in their debt.” I feel this way with the gods often, but I’ve noted that this isn’t always the most helpful way of approaching worship and offerings, in the same way that being over-extravagant with gratitude to someone can actually cheapen the thing they’ve done for you. But still, if it helps, one can look upon such relations as “indebtedness”, as it’s still pretty close to the notion of mutual aid of this first strand of thinking.
The other strand is that of “commanding” the powers of nature and the spirits. I’m inclined to call this Crowley-ism, but it’s older than him, though he’s an easy example to call forward of this tendency. By “commanding,” we should not merely think though of the ceremonial magician who binds spirits, but also of anyone who is looking at spirituality as a way of becoming powerful in their life, gaining control of things around them (spirits, elements, people) and, if they believe in the existence of gods at all, looking at them as “channels” for certain powers that they can wield towards their own will and desires.
I’m disinclined to call out any particular tradition, because none of them are monolithic. There are ceremonialists who approach the (other)world humbly, and probably Druids who crave power (though, really, Druidry’s a shit place to look for that sort of thing, and I’m glad of it). And I think each of these strands exists in each tradition to some degree, though I’ve noted some traditions take extra care to weave in a morality against such things, while others either remain ambivalent or rely on personal pressure to keep power-hungry people from rising too high within the teachings, which didn’t help The Golden Dawn in Crowley’s case.
And speaking of Crowley, there’s something awfully big I should mention here.
Sex Is Also About Power
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a sex scandal in Paganism currently. It isn’t the first, nor will it be the last. It’s awfully tragic and repulsive, and I’m far from comfortable with all the reactions about it. But I’m not going to address that matter specifically, because there’s a root problem that we may be forgetting in these debates.
You’ve no doubt heard about all the abuse within a certain massive, ancient european get-up with funny hats and a pope. And you’ve probably also heard maybe about a sports-team coach that made little boys bleed in the shower for years without getting turned in by fellow coaches. And, of course, there’s all the stories in other institutions, schools and churches (I dislike the man and his politics greatly, but Dan Savage’s Youth Pastor Watch will help catch you up if you need more stories of this sort of thing) of sexual abuse of children and subordinates.
What’s common to all of this? In every case, the offender is in a position of power over others, whether it be as a spiritual leader or physical superior (work, school, etc.), and has “authority,” either real or perceived.
That is, what makes every single one of these instances so horrifying to us and so damaging to the victim is the power the abuser has, not only over the victim (be it a child or a spiritual seeker) but also over others. Their perceived authority within each context is precisely what disarms the victim the ability to get redress for the wrongs done to them. In the case of a child, the adult is stronger and more physically powerful (even worse if it’s a parent or relative), in the case of a worker, the manager has the ability to take away the victim’s livelihood, and in the case of a spiritual leader, the victim’s spiritual enlightenment or standing in a tradition or community is at stake, not just their physical and sexual boundaries.
There are other power relationships that come into play beside those between victim and abuser. If the abuser is part of a institution that relies upon him or her heavily, then there’s more impetus for others who learn about the abuse to cover up the situation or ignore the crime. This occurs in families very often, as well as the aforementioned sports coach (whose colleagues knew about the abuse for years but didn’t want the team to suffer).
In religion, it is no different. In fact, the fate of an entire tradition can rely very heavily on just a few people at the top, and such power relations are made worse when the founders or leaders guard their secrets and influence jealously. Benevolent dictators certainly exist in many scenarios, but they are rare.
Against Self-Centered* Spirituality
I’ve friends who have told me horror stories of teachers who possessed amazing powers and skills and all but enslaved some of their followers. Thus far these stories are more common within “New Age” -inspired traditions than within Paganism, at least to my knowledge, but the stories that have been coming out from this latest scandal are showing that Paganism is far from immune.
There’s no denying, at least to my mind, that it is possible for someone to become very powerful by approaching the spirits and even gods from a position of will-to-power. I don’t know why this is so, though I’ve got a sense that, at least with some entities, humans are not any more easily understood to the otherworld as we are to each other. I don’t believe in anything approximating a omniscient Divine, which makes such questions as “why would the gods allow such a thing to happen” not even an issue at all. This, more than anything, has been one of the more difficult moral transitions for me to comprehend into polytheism, having had only monotheism’s everywhere-at-once god as a reference point. It’s much easier to understand such questions now with a better understanding of the myriad of gods and their power.
There’s also no denying that one can become just as powerful otherwise, particularly when one isn’t even wanting it. I’ve the worst trouble accepting gifts from friends, particularly money (even when I’m painfully aware I need it), and yet they’ve given it to me anyway, because it’s a gift. Just before I went on Pilgrimage last year, I was inundated with gifts from people: money, books, blessings, and very useful magical items, things I didn’t “deserve” (you don’t deserve gifts, otherwise they’re not gifts) but things dear people gave to me because they thought I’d need it, and my gratitude to them is still profound.
I’ve had the same thing happen from the gods and spirits and other gods-worshipers, insights, uncanny turns of fortune, synchronous events and strange and beautiful people, blessings, rituals, etc.., and in every case, I’ve had the sense that it wasn’t because I deserved it, but instead a sense that I’m supposed to use what was suddenly at hand, as if the gods said, “here–I think you’ll need this.”
Need it for what, though? That’s sort of the crux of all of this, and the question I hope more people might ask when approaching the matter of power, particularly spiritual power. If a god gives you something, it’s probably gonna be useful for something, like a mother arming her son for a war to defend her land. Maybe the gods don’t always even always know they’ve given it. In the case of Arianrhod and her child, she was tricked, and maybe Gwydion and Crowley have the same sorts of students.
As I see it, one can either use power for others or for oneself. Pushing for a gods-centric Paganism may be rather damn useful to help avoid these problems, particularly if it comes with a focus on justice and peace like Druidry, or a clear code of ethics that states all gifts given should be to benefit the gods and the earth, rather than the person to whom they’re given.
That’s one path, and maybe I’m an idealist. At the very least, though, I think Paganism should have a really, really intense look at power and spirituality. Too much power concentrated in a leader means ill (that’s not just my anarchism talking), and so does the pursuit of power. And in both cases, the devastation to communities and particularly the victims of the powerful can be staggering and faith-crushing.
*Edit: The original language I used here was “Self-Centric Spirituality. Please see my clarification here.
While working on the first chapter of my work on Pagan Anti-Capitalism, I encountered an interesting thing I’d forgotten about for awhile. As Capitalism is a Socially-Real system (that is, created and enforced by social interactions) and not a naturally-derived system (that is, it does not appear to mimic any other physical or social processes observed within nature, barring some clunky and agenda-ridden attempts to re-work biological evolutionary theory into social processes), it exists as Artifice (that is, “created.”)
In attempting to disambiguate both Nature/Natural (if you think it’s difficult to talk about the gods amongst Pagans, wait ’till Paganism has enough intellectual work to tackle inherited notions of Natural Law from the Enlightenment…), and to extricate Capitalism from Exchange (that is, Capitalism is a form of Exchange, not Exchange itself), I found myself confronted with that thing I’d forgotten about.
No other living thing systematically engages in Symbolic Exchange or Trade. I’ve read some attempts to compare human linguistic activity to the communications amongst other species and find them fascinating, but the realms of Meaning ascribed to those sounds (that is, the symbolic behind the signal) are particularly human and extend beyond linguistic activity into entire spheres of activity and transform the whole of human (or human-as-animal or human-as-part-of-nature) relations and behavior. Ideology, Theology, Philosophy and general ontological systems can radically change human activity.
Another thing which has gotten me thinking about this matter is John Halstead’s recent post on The Allergic Pagan where he explores the potential of a Devotional Practice with the World at its Center. Ignoring the unfortunate comparison of devotional polytheists to “evangelicals” (the original language said Pagan polytheists, but at another writer’s insistence, this was changed to become more directed in its aggression), there’s a lot worth considering here for Paganism in general, particularly concerning the affective nature of belief and the difficulty in crafting religious systems from within a specific social reality.
Belief is amongst the categories of symbol and meaning which affect the activities of humans. Belief in divine beings alters the actions of individuals and groups to be in accord with those systems of Meaning, just as belief in no such thing (a positive statement, as Atheism and Theism both make assertions about the existence of gods, rather than a Agnostic or apathetic stance) likewise compels behavior in accordance to that system of meaning.
A couple of questions come about from this. First of all, why did the majority of intellectual critiques of Capitalism insist on A-theism? Historically I suspect this derives more from whom was taken seriously as intellectuals during the 1800’s then from a necessary stance. Also, western society has secular pretenses to cover its deep racist and imperialist stance, and while there’ve been religious and indigenous critiques of Capitalism since its nascence, none would ever make it into a textbook anymore than folks like Vandana Shiva or Arundhati Roy get any press beyond certain media outlets. All of that is to say–Marxists and Anarchists are not and need not be inherently Atheist, despite the theological stance of some of their early intellectual proponents.
Secondly, the materialist/secular stance is incomplete as a critique of Capitalism. Both Hegelian and Marxist Materialism have become quite divorced from their original critiques and instead seem to infect quite a few modern intellectuals who attempt to use it as a continued critique of society without its context. Consider the “radical” feminism of Deep Green Resistance, which posits not an endless variation of gender but the end of gender altogether as a way of destroying what they see as the root of ecological damage–not Capitalism and Industrialisation, but Patriarchy. This is no more rooted in historical truth then some Pagan ideas of an early, peaceful Matriarchal society, and, worse, it posits that transgendered and queer folks are really playing into the Patriarchy by embracing gender fluidity.
The mess of logic here has less to do, I suspect, with the personal positions of the folks involved in such messy translations of radical theories into de-contextualized nightmares; rather, I think it derives from untethering concepts from their contexts. In some arguments about polytheism, such untethering has led to endless frustration in which words are said to “lose” their meaning. What is really being said in those (very valid) complaints, however, is that concepts are losing their context. When someone describes themself as polytheist and yet does not believe in the existence of gods, what has happened is not necessarily a willful appropriation of the term “polytheist” but rather a failure to understand that polytheist is the word used to describe a particular thing.
Any sound can be linked to any particular thing, of course. That being said, the purpose of that sound (its symbolic function) is to refer to (that is, to be a symbolic representation of) a specific thing, be it a physical object or an ideological category. I can just as easily refer to myself as a transperson, a person-of-color, or an Atheist, yet by doing so I’ve untethered those symbols from the things they represent. That is, in the Symbolic Realm (the Social-Real), I am an aggressor against Meaning, regardless of whether I intend to be, because I am none of those things.
This sort of thing spirals endlessly outward the further away we get from the context of any particular categorical critique. Consider Privilege. Starting as a critique of Whiteness and Maleness, it’s become divorced from its original referents and now means very little because it can apply to anything (I was recently told that I have a significant amount of privilege as someone who has been poor my entire life, because that poverty confers privilege). Worse, it makes actual criticisms of actual oppressive behavior lost in a mire of subjective arguments where the complaints cannot be heard because the words used refer to no-thing.
Belief and the Bourgeoisie
What fascinates me particularly about the untethering of Privilege from its context is that many of the complaints are quite valid, but fail to acknowledge a simpler category because it’s generally verboten in American discourse: Class. Much of the systematic oppression which Privilege is used to address fits squarely within the traditional description of Bourgeoisie, even within Pagan contexts. The discussions of Wiccanate Privilege, for instance, might have been better served by pointing out that the context in which many (white, middle class–that is, bourgeois) people organize gatherings for Pagans and speak on behalf of other Pagans is a place of assumption of normality, a defining characteristic of the Bourgeoisie. Many of the Naturalist vs. Polytheist debates likewise could be better described as such, as it is a uniquely bourgeois insistence that the secular modalities which sustain Capitalism (and their position of power) must be the truth by which all other truths are measured. Anything apparently anti-thetical to the continuation of the bourgeoisie, then, must be fought off, silenced or belittled, depending on the apparent threat.
Monotheism and its eventual secular facade (including Evolutionary Psychology, which despite its anti-Christian stance benefits from and utilizes many of the stances on Nature developed by Protestants) allowed for the creation of the Bourgeosie and continues to sustain their existence as a class, crowning them as the moderate center of society against which all else is aberration. Polytheistic beliefs and practices which predate the bourgeoisie by millenia were not seen as much of a threat during the age of enlightenment, as anyone who embraced them were part of the same category of people (subaltern peoples whose stories do not appear in the grand narrative of western society even as they lived through it all) who had no political voice except violence or revolt. Similar, as well, to the gender trans(gressive) or sexual deviant, even when they sometimes existed within the same class as the Bourgeoisie.
The fact that we’ve either collectively abandoned, forgotten, or ignored the existence of the Bourgeoisie in religious and gender debates significantly contributes to the difficulties in our discussions. Modern Environmentalism for instance, is awfully bourgeois, as it attempts to re-inscribe critiques of Capitalism into a Liberalism (Liberalism is essential to Capitalism) which does not affect the existence or status of the Bourgeoisie. In the same way, some Naturalists can be said to be doing the same thing, attempting to create a Paganism which does not challenge the conditions upon which their material existence is predicated.
This isn’t to say that Naturalism or Environmentalism should be abandoned or seen as false. Rather, I suspect both could benefit greatly from addressing this problem and find themselves transformed into something more radical. For Environmentalism, this should be obvious, as it began as a critique of Capitalism until it became defanged in order to meet the demands of the bourgeoisie (hybrid cars, changing lightbulbs but not actually changing economic behavior or dominance). For Naturalists, it’s a bit more murky, but I would think addressing the function of belief would be invaluable to help them become a sustainable position.
That is, if belief in an Other (whether that be an immanent or archetypal Other) does not change the actual conditions of existence but rather justifies a current existence, then it might be constrained by class considerations. Back to Marx–one of the more significant critiques of religion was that it helped justify the physical suffering and exploitation of the poor and served as a pain-reliever (opiate denoted anesthetic rather than stupefactant, again why the tethering of words matters) for them without addressing the underlying causes. Polytheism and Animism both present powerful criticisms to the foundation of Bourgeois existence by addressing its Protestant/Secular reality. I suspect it’d be possible for Naturalism to do the same, if it can abandon its bourgeois restraints. And if it does so, it could be quite a powerful thing and avoid the fate of other religious tendencies which have sacrificed their radical potentiality on the altar of Capitalism. And if Naturalism can avoid that fate, I suspect Polytheists and Naturalists would be able to work together as separate aspects of the same alignment, rather then the current position pitting Radical critiques against Re-inscription into bourgeois ideals.
But as a good friend points out, I’m kind of naive sometimes.