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Posts Tagged ‘Polytheism’

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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Something that’s come up as I’ve discussed my Lammas omen with various folks on ADF lists and elsewhere has been the phrase “The Gods don’t give us more than we can handle” (or some variation on that phrase).

While I understand the sentiment (and that it is usually well-intentioned and said in such a way that implies I should find it helpful) I just can’t get behind it, for a number of reasons.

First, it makes the Gods out to be assholes. It means the Gods are taking someone they deem to be strong, and giving them a whole pile of unpleasant, traumatic, nasty shit to deal with simply because they can supposedly handle it. Someone once told this to a friend of mine who had recently lost her child to a car accident, and her response was “So if I was a weaker person, my child would still be alive?” And that’s about how I look at it. (This is right up there with “The Gods will provide.” being told to someone who is unemployed. They might provide emotional support, but I’ve yet to see evidence of a check from God to help you pay the rent. You’re better off with Aflac.)

I can understand how, looking back after the fact, a person might come to the conclusion that bad things happened to them, but with their own will, and their own power, and aided by the power of the Gods they got through it and are now stronger. That’s GREAT. That’s the kind of success anyone wants to hear coming out of a terrible story. It’s just the kind of conclusion you need to come to yourself about a situation, and it’s really pretty useless to someone who is in the middle of a great deal of turmoil and strife.  (It’s like telling someone who has just had a horrible car accident and is in the hospital with multiple injuries “well, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” – totally unhelpful, and potentially really hurtful to a person who is looking for someone to be supportive.) If you can come out of a shitty situation and say “wow, that sucked, but I am totally a better person for it” then good for you! But let’s not assume that was the intent of the Gods in the first place.

I also do not, and will not, understand a relationship with Deity whereby I give and sacrifice and try to be as good at *ghosti as possible, only to have them turn around and dump a bunch of shit on my head in the name of a “blessing”. If that’s the kinds of blessings I’m in for, I’ll take my bags elsewhere, thanks.

I don’t “test” my friends and family’s love and devotion to me by putting them through “challenges” where I do mean things and see if they continue to care about me. That’s just cruel.

I know this path can be challenging. I know that self-change, that growth, that improvement sometimes comes with the painful process of casting off the old and growing the new in the self. That’s good, if sometimes painful. Initiations cause change, regardless of what kind of initiation or who is giving it. That’s a healthy process, and (tongue in cheek a bit) that’s why I have a therapist (whom I pay to help me navigate these things). But if my relationship with my Gods is what is causing all the terrible things that have happened to me, from which I now have an anxiety disorder and PTSD, on top of being bipolar? Pardon my saying so, but the Gods can go fuck right off.

Which gets back to that problem of evil. If the Gods aren’t “causing” bad things, or “allowing” bad things (and this is especially true if you have a monotheistic view with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God), why do bad things happen? Why do hurricanes happen, or car accidents or job losses or cancer or any of the other bad things? I gave up on the idea of an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God because a God who can see those things happening, but chooses to sit by and do nothing is kind of a jerk. If he can’t change those things, then he’s not “God” (in that sense).

So I’ve chosen to give up on the dichotomy of a Good God fighting against an Evil Devil. The Devil doesn’t cause hurricanes (hurricanes are heat engines that disperse tropical heat out to the poles. They’re fairly good at it, and generally have no personal ill will for the people they happen to impact). Nature is nature, and sometimes people are jerks. I don’t need an Ultimate Good God to be fighting the Ultimate Bad Devil for that to explain the world. If s/he is just another force that exists among many forces in the Universe, God doesn’t have to cause bad things to happen, or allow bad things to happen, or even be in charge of transforming the bad things that happen. The so called “problem of evil” goes away. A god can help influence things to your favor, but they aren’t all-powerful, all knowing beings (though they are certainly more powerful and more knowing than most humans). To quote Ian Corrigan:

In any event, the problem of evil only arises if you posit that there is an all powerful, all-good god, which clearly was not the case for pagans. The problem of evil only exists in omnipotent monotheism. It’s not a problem in paganism, it’s just there. “Evil” (something we don’t like) happens because 1) people are sometimes idiots, and 2) some stuff hurts, and there is no power that could make things different. Even the gods don’t control the way the world is. All beings together make the world the way it is, and they each act as individual agents.

Neither do I need to believe in what is called the just world fallacy – the idea that “you reap what you sow” or “you’ll get what’s coming to you” or “what comes around goes around”. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. It apparently gives some people comfort to think that, and I can certainly see how, but for me, it only makes me disgruntled and frustrated. It makes more sense for me to explain it via the existence of chaos, and that humans have free will and are free to be assholes to each other. Maybe there will be punishment for wrongdoing in the afterlife, maybe not. I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife (at least not in the traditional sense) at all anyway, so I’m not sure how much it matters.

What I do believe in is personal responsibility, and having a right relationship with the Gods I do worship (none of whom are omniscient, omnipotent, or unbeatable, and all of whom have fates and wills and likes and dislikes). No matter how you slice it, suffering is part of this world, and I believe it is our job to try to alleviate that suffering where we can – whether it’s the suffering of a fellow human, whose grief we can comfort – or the suffering of the Earth itself, who we can care for and honor and respect and worship through Druidry.

I’ve been through a lot in the (almost) 30 years that I’ve walked on this Earth, and I’ve experienced a fair amount of suffering (as well as a fair amount of privilege, as I am an American, and that puts me in a pretty good spot all things considered). But I don’t “give glory to the Gods” for the progress I’ve made on my mental health – I’m the one doing the work. I believe in being personally responsible for my success, and for my failure. I might ask for the support of the Gods, but ultimately I’m the one that has to do the heavy lifting. A god might help me with my transformative process, but ultimately I’m the one doing the transforming. To use a slightly stretched metaphor, the gods can tutor me all they want, but if I (as the student) don’t actually do the homework? I’ll still fail.

Maybe I’m just really cynical about the whole “but you’ll be so much better of a person when you’re through” stuff. Victimization doesn’t magically confer virtue. I’m not a better person for any of the stuff I’ve been through. If anything, I’m a weaker person for it, because now I have a host of psychological issues that I have to manage, on top of chronic pain. Being a victim of terrible things doesn’t magically make you a better person, or even a good person. Sometimes it makes you a pretty broken person. It certainly didn’t give me huge reserves of great magical power, or a supreme reliance on the Gods, or the ability to hear Them speak, or anything like that (though it did facilitate my leaving Christianity, but there are a lot less traumatic ways THAT could have happened). You can learn to cope with being differently wired, but anyone who tells me this is all a “blessing in disguise” can shove that blessing where the sun don’t shine.

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I’ve had a fairly thoughtful week.

For me, adjusting my brain to “think like a polytheist” has been quite the adventure. For someone born into an Indo-European culture, this kind of stuff would be second nature – much like the Protestant Work Ethic is second nature to most Americans (the idea that if you work hard, God will reward you, therefore success means you have pleased God and failure means you’re a lazy good-for-nothing and God is displeased with you/you don’t deserve success). This belief influences all kinds of things, from how we teach our children to how we relate to the poor, but there are two parts that specifically stuck out at me.

First, this kind of thinking is essentially binary – a trait common in Western monotheism. There’s “God’s way” (the specifics of which are hard to pin down) and the Wrong Way. If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy. If you’re successful, it’s Gods blessing, if you’re not, it’s a personal failing on your part. Very black and white. (It also fails to reward people for doing good, by giving all the credit for their goodness/skill to God, but that’s a different post).

Back when I was in college, my rhetoric professor was always challenging us to “spot the third option”. This was an especially fun game when reading the newspaper or any political speech, which relies on creating binaries to sustain the “I’m the good guy, the other guy is the bad guy” image. If you can spot a third option, you can usually spot a fourth and fifth, and the discussions that resulted from that exercise were always way more nuanced and thoughtful and productive than just everyone “taking sides”.

Polytheism is, at its heart, pluralistic to monotheism’s inherent duality. Corrigan (article here) derives this from Nature, where all things are varied, and which – if we use Nature as our expression/model for the Divine, suggests a plurality of divinity as well. There are certainly categories of things, but each thing is both totally individual and yet part of a greater ecosystem.

This all got me to thinking about a lot of things, from the nature of Gods to the problem of “evil” (which I think will have to be its own post).

Overall, though, it’s been an interesting process to realize just how accustomed to dualistic thinking I’ve become, even though I know it’s often fallacious. It’s a big tie in to the virtues, which seem fairly straightforward but are, in practice, highly nuanced as well. (Especially when you consider that each one can be applied differently in different cultures, making it all quite relative.) It’s certainly easier to think in terms of black and white, but I’m finding my model of the world is more sensible the more options it has. It’s also a lot more compassionate (though that may just be my reading of things), which is something I strive for.

The more I look for black and white thinking, the more of it I see as well, which can be a little frustrating if I don’t want to get into rhetorical arguments all the time.

The “problem of evil” is even a bigger issue for me, and reading that article made a lot of things clear up that had bothered me for awhile. It’s rather intensely personal stuff, so I’m not sure how to blog about it, but I’ll see if I can’t figure out a way to approach it in the next few days.

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