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Posts Tagged ‘justice’

I spoke this message to the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church this morning, as a guest speaker (though I am a sometimes congregant there as well). I hope you enjoy it – I didn’t speak this exactly as-is; I went off book about 3/4 of the way through, and it went very well. I hope I have more opportunities to give this kind of message – it’s not as common to give “sermons” in the pagan community!

I want to thank Rev. Beisner for inviting me here to speak with you today, and to thank all of you who are here to explore a bit with me about my experience in as an animist, pagan, polytheist, and druid.

I’ll admit to sitting for a long time, staring at an open document, as I thought about where to start – there’s so much that goes into my polytheist practice, I wasn’t sure how to crack it open in a valuable way to folks who might not have any experience with it as a living tradition. Eventually I settled on a bit of a challenging idea – that my polytheism provides me with the space to resist the toxic aspects of materialism that have come to define our western culture.

So let’s unpack that a bit –

First – polytheism is the religious regard for many real gods. I see the gods as real, distinct, individual beings who are worthy of our honor and respect, and with whom I can enter into relationships of reciprocal hospitality. This is a belief system that embraces plurality – truth has multiple sources, and no one god, one tradition, one system has a monopoly on truth. Polytheism is not a religion. There are many polytheist religions, and they have different thoughts about the gods and how best to relate to them. There are many ways to be a polytheist.

Reciprocal hospitality is the idea that there is such a thing as right relationship, and that it is our Job – with a capital j – as humans to maintain right relationship with each other, with the earth, and with the many gods and spirits with whom we share this existence. Our ancestors had a strong tradition of hospitality as the contract that should never be broken, and we strive to maintain that balance.

Materialism is the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. It takes science – itself a wonderful thing – and turns it from a good servant into a tyrannical master. Even among many monotheists, there’s a strong assumption that everything has a rational explanation that is grounded in science. If it can’t be measured and tested, if it isn’t falsifiable, then it can’t exist. When polytheists talk about their experiences of many gods, a materialist assumes they cannot be talking about encounters with actual spiritual beings.

Of course, that’s a challenging thing to say to a group of smart, educated people like yourselves – but I think it’s good to entertain challenging things now and again, so that we can step into each other’s shoes and begin to understand the many different ways that we relate to the astonishing world in which we live. As Aristotle is famous for saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

I came to polytheism through theology – perhaps an unusual path, but it’s served me well. I grew up in the mainstream, liberal Protestant churches, with a brief stint in Catholicism, and then an even briefer time where I tried on atheism as a worldview – but I found that I had too many very real experiences to truly find atheism a good fit, and about twelve or so years ago I started down the pagan path that would lead me to becoming a priest of the many gods.

Ultimately it was the problem of evil that cemented my understanding of the world as being inspirited, being full of beings with whom I can have relationships.

Now, I’m far from the first person raised in a monotheist culture to have struggled with the problem of evil. For those of you not familiar, the problem of evil is the struggle with how an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving god could allow evil to exist in the world. Many writers in many traditions have written about this – such that there’s an entire set of religious studies (called theodicies) that address the issue. For me, though, none of them satisfied my deep misgivings about the world and the terrible things that had happened not only to me but also to other people I loved and trusted.

It was Rev. Ian Corrigan – an ADF priest and archdruid emeritus – who first sparked the inquiry I had into polytheist theology as something that I can and should be interested in, with a discussion of how nature provides us with a model through which we can understand the divine. He says, in his essay “Approaching Polytheist Theology”:

Skeptics sometimes say that if there was a God it would look the same to everyone. The problem with that, of course, that they are only disbelieving in a monotheistic God. If there were only one god, it might look the same to everyone, but since the Divine doesn’t look the same to everyone, it makes sense to assume that there is not just one god. That’s the first lesson I draw from Nature as model of the Divine. In nature there is no unique or single thing. Nowhere in nature is there a category of things of which there is only one. Snowflakes are individually unique, but there is never only one snowflake. Things have variations that make each thing individual, but each thing is always part of a category.

To expand that into the problem of evil, when the gods are no longer all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving – when they are what author Terry Pratchett would call “Small Gods” – the problem of evil simply goes away. Because evil simply exists in the world as a result of all of the various persons – human and non, animate and inanimate, divine and mundane – having competing priorities. Sometimes bad things just happen and it’s nobody’s “fault”. This discovery left me seriously pondering my spirituality (which was, at the time, fairly pantheist – which is to say that god is in everything).

I was, as it were, hooked. So I kept reading.

With no mythic image of a being that is either the ruler or the sum of the cosmos, polytheistic philosophy is free to pursue real diversity, real tolerance. We assert that the Cosmos is intrinsically multiple in expression, whether as chemicals or as the stuff of spirit. The best attempts to depict Cosmic Wholeness might be mandalas – patterns made up of the dance of an often vast number of distinct persons and things. No single symbol, or being, can express the totality of Cosmos.

When we take up polytheism, we are plainly rejecting the claims of some religions that their God is the creator, owner and operator of the Cosmos. But we are also granting that the worship of every Spirit is valid and honorable. We are saying that every people, and even every person, may have their special spirits, their private ways and worship, and find acceptance. We reject the notion of the ‘jealous God’. In polytheism all the god/desses worship one another, and their worshippers are seldom restricted to a single deity or form of worship. It is always proper to honor the gods of one’s neighbors, and to expect them to honor one’s own. We affirm that different life-ways, different paths, lead to different places. The Gods, the practices, even the morality of the farmer is distinct from that of the artisan, the merchant or the warrior. So we teach ourselves not to measure the world against our own standards, and to remember that there are many ways.

Our western culture wants to tell us that there is only one right answer, and that all other answers are wrong. It sets up fundamental duologies, the idea that if you’re not with me, you’re my enemy, that the world exists in black and white, and that for every question there is either a scientific answer or no answer at all.

My very first pagan teacher said to me one time, as we sat around her kitchen table, that whenever anyone presented an idea to me and told me to pick between two things, that I should always find a third answer, and if possible a fourth and fifth, in order to begin to train my mind to the idea that the world exists in a beautiful rainbow of colors, and that very few things are ever only this or that.

Our world is complex, and our experiences of the divine even more so. I’ve heard it said that as many as 30% of the population will have an otherwise-unexplainable religious experience sometime in their lives. That’s a staggering number, and speaks to the ubiquitous nature of religious experience around the world. Polytheism gives us the space to say your religious experiences can be as true for you as mine are to me. If your experience of the world is that it is devoid of spirit, then that is your experience of the world, and I’m not here to tell you otherwise. If your lived life says that there is a supreme creator of some kind, I have no mandate to tell you you’re wrong.

But as much as your beliefs should arise out of your experiences of the world, and I will not judge you for believing in many gods or none, I will judge your actions.

Polytheism is a set of religions that center right practice.

To use Greek, we are orthopraxic rather than having an orthodoxy – what you do is what matters, not what you believe about it. In every ADF ritual, we honor the earth mother. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the earth mother as a deity, as the planet itself, as some sort of Gaia hypothesis, as our local watershed, or something else entirely – if you are willing to touch the earth and honor it (however that looks for you) then we are all on the same page enough to join together in practice.

What does that say to us about the culture in which we live?

It says that polytheism provides a structure for us to resist the ways in which our American mindset does not leave room for the world to be enchanted, for us to experience the divine and the natural in an expanded and pluralistic way. My polytheist practice informs my commitment to justice, to right action, to living in right relationship with the gods, with the folk in my community and around the world, and with the land.

After all – that is the oath I made at my ordination:

I pledge to love the land, to serve the folk, and to honor the gods. To this do I dedicate my hands, my heart, and my head.

My service as a priest of the many gods includes justice, it includes environmentalism. It says that the world is full of spirits, human and non-human, animal and plant, animate and inanimate, and that I can and should live in right-relationship to those spirits. That I can be hospitable to my community, that I can serve the gods by caring for my landbase and by doing the work of social justice in my city and country.

It is the religious regard for many real gods – but it is so much more. Walking this path has reframed my entire experience of the world and my engagement with it.

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