I Think I See What the Fuss is About

Recently, I was interviewed on the This Week in Heresy podcast. (You can listen here) The first few of comments to the interview are in, and they’re enlightening.

To sum up some of my points in the interview, I said that we can have a solid spiritual communtiy dispite differing theologies if we can communicate clearly and without judgment about our spiritual expereinces. Key to this is having defined terms with which to do this communicating. Polytheism means the worship of many gods, duotheism means the worship of two gods, and monism means the worship of a single divine entity, experienced (perhaps) one small part at a time. None of these are better or worse than the others (if the gods want to reveal themselves to me as many and to someone else as one, I’m not going to tell them to do otherwise), but they are different, and we can’t respect those differences or work with them without being able to name them and talk about them.

The first comment, however, is that the commenter sees no reason to distinguish between polytheism and monism. Which might indicate that I didn’t make my point clearly, so I try again. I describe my own experiences of the gods very generally, which description the commenter quotes back, says matches their own, and then says that they don’t see that having that experience means they aren’t a polytheist.

Which is odd, given that I described that expereince to explain what I meant when I said I am a poltheist. At any rate, I’m skipping details for the sake of brevity. If you really want to get into it, you can read the comment thread (but listen to the interview first).

Reflecting on it, what I think I’m seeing here, and in a good many other discussions of polytheism as distinct from other Pagan expereinces on line and off, is a confusion between the definitions of the terms and the emotional connotations of the terms.

People who use a very broad (including monism, duotheism, and so on) definition of polytheism seem to be less interested in the details and differences of various Pagan spiritual experiences and practices, and more in defining their positions as not monotheism. Monotheism is what they left behind or rejected upon becoming Pagan. Monotheism is the belief of Abrahamic sects; and so Polytheism is anything not those, which is to say, Pagan.

This ignores the fact that there are non-Abrahamic monotheisms, such as the Sikhs, but we’re talking about gut reactions here, not technical definitions.

What I’m seeing is that there is a fundamental dualism in practice, where defining Pagan as “not Abrahamic monotheism” is equated on an almost unconscious level with Pagan=Polytheist vs. Abrahamic=Monist. So when someone who’s using polytheism to distinguish a particualr variety of Pagan practice and experience tries to explain the difference, what’s being reacted to on an emotional level is not, “What you’re describing isn’t polytheism, it’s some other kind of Paganism,” but “You aren’t really Pagan.”

This leads to a reaction like, “I am too polytheist! You can’t invalidate my Paganism!” Which was, of course, never the intention.

Which, in turn, leads to a massive derail as we argue about just what “polytheism” means and whether or not someone making the distinction is a disruptive splitter.

I’m not sure what can be done to avoid triggering this gut reaction. Possibly, the problem will age out as folks who never identified as part of an Abrahamic faith (and thus are not invested in defining themselves as not-Abrahamic) become the majority in the community. For the moment, I’m just going to keep patiently explaining what I actually meant, and how that’s different from what someone may have felt I meant.


Mission Statement (Gently Used)

While reading the discussion prompted by Morpheus’s post on Theurgic Binding, I found this post by John Beckett.

In that post, Beckett says:

I want everyone to know Paganism exists, and I want them to know what it is and what it isn’t. I want those who feel the call to this path to be able to find it in minutes, not years. I want those who have started on this path to learn the difference between crap and not-crap.

I want those who are well down this path to know that deeper experiences are possible. I want those who have had those deeper experiences to know they’re not alone and they’re not delusional.

Beyond that, we’re debating the future of Pagan religion here and now. Our version of the Council of Nicaea is taking place every day on blogs, websites, and social media. I want to be a part of those discussions. I want my ideas heard, critiqued, and refined. That won’t happen if I don’t present them.

I think these are legitimate desires. And I think I have an obligation to make them a reality.

I think this is a brilliant mission statement, and I’m swiping it.

Quibbles about the differences between the historical Council of Nicaea and the discussions going on in modern Paganism today aside, he’s basically right. Modern Paganism has grown rapidly in the last 64 years. We’re big enough that we can no longer ignore our points of disagreement in favor of presenting a united front to those outside our community. This seems to be what’s driving the Pagan/Polytheist debate, as well.

I don’t expect this generation’s debates over what Paganism and/or Polytheism is or isn’t to end with a unified Pagan Church. Actually, I don’t expect the debates to end, and I rather hope that they go on for so long as people in this communtiy keep thinking new thoughts. Still, we are re-defining ourselves. We’re making serious, if small, forrays into theology. We may be facing a bit of a generation gap as well.

My hope is that the community will grow away from the idea of Paganism as having a common practice, into a shared space defined by mutual support and respect, that contains a hundred different ways of approaching the gods. I hope we find a way to be united by our common humanity and common pursuit of the spirit, without being alienated by our different methods and practices.

Modern Paganism is maturing, and I want to be a part of the process.


The Interview is Live

I’m interviewed by Rev. Gina Pond on her podcast, This Week in Heresy. We spent an hour talking about polytheism, theology, and the value of a shared human experience.

I think it came out rather well, for the most part. There are some odd pauses and I make far too many huffing sounds. Sorry about that, it’s what happens when my brain is moving faster than my mouth.

The direct link to the interview is here. Check out the rest of the episodes, it’s a good ‘cast. Gina talks to a diverse lot of people about the edges and margins of spiritual life, the places where people live and have their spiritual lives away from the mainstream of American religion.


The Other Half of the Story

My lover Ember and I have decided to go through Galina Krasskova’s Devotional Polytheist Meme questions together, over the next several months. We encourage our friends to follow along, and welcome links to other people’s answers in our comments, as well as your thoughts on our answers.

What offerings do you make in your tradition and why?

In ancient times, wine, olive or perfume oil, incense, grain, and food were popular offerings to make to the gods. So were livestock, massive public works, treasure, and (on rare occasions) spare human beings. As the livestock, public works, and treasure are currently beyond my means, and human sacrifice is looked down upon in polite society, I’ll stick to wine, oil, grain, and food. I live with scent-sensitive folks, so incense is also out.

But that’s not really the heart of the question, is it? As I’m reading it (and Galina can correct me if I’m reading it wrong), it’s about why and how particular things are offerings. If all you wanted was a list of things ancient folk sacrificed to their gods, you could read Wikipedia. Though you shouldn’t–you should comment here so that I may dispense wisdom.

Wisdom, or whatever. But I digress…

The answer to “why?” is deceptively simple. It’s all about hospitality; I am being a good host to the gods I’ve invited into my home, in hopes that when I’m in their domain (you know… Life), they’ll return the favor. The fancy sociological/anthropological term is “mutual obligation,” and it’s why some folks still respond to help or gifts with the phrase, “much obliged.”

I mean, they’re gods. We can’t force them to do anything, and it would be rude (at best) to try. It doesn’t go well for people who succeed in backing a god into a corner. Just ask Semele.

Semele was a princess of Thebes, mortal mother of Dionysos by Zeus. She talked Zeus into giving her anything she asked, and then asked to see him in his full, divine form. He was forced to do so, as he could not break his promise, and she was incinerated on the spot.

Sure, it worked out all right for her (eventually), but as much as I love my son, I don’t expect him to follow me into the underworld and carry me off to Olympus.

So we give them gifts, feed them and praise them. And, being (usually) honorable sorts, they return the favor. Usually. One of the things about polytheistic gods is that they aren’t all-knowing or all-powerful, so sometimes they can’t do right by us, as much as they might want to.

But the problem is–and having to admit this is why I’ve stalled so far with wit and mythology–I kind of suck at this part of the deal. Sometimes, my altars go neglected for days or weeks. Sometimes, I’m not good at fulfilling my promises.

Sometimes, I’m not the best host.

I’m better about it when operating in a group. When I’m hosting a devotional event, and I can see the reactions of other humans to the effort I’ve put forth, the desire to hear people oohing and aahing over the feast and the altar drive me to do it up right. Basically, I’m really good if I’m doing it for someone else who either really needs it or visibly appreciates it.

This makes things somewhat frustrating when I’m (trying to) do it for myself, or in hopes of some kind of delayed, perhaps only vaguely connected, response. I don’t do well with delayed gratification; my brain remembers the time the deals fall through much more clearly that the times things work well.

At any rate, I want to compose prayers and hymns of gratitude and praise. I want to give every power in my life lovely statues and little treasures for their altars. I want to pour out wine and whiskey and rum and drink to their health. It just kind of slips by, though, without some sign that they’re listening and appreciate what I’m doing for them. The altars don’t look any different until the dust gets really thick. I don’t hear rumbling in the bellies of my idols when the gods are hungry.

There is a school of thought that says we don’t do this for the rewards. We do this for them, whether or not we think we get anything tangible out of it, because that is how the relationship between gods and mortals works. I wish that kind of thinking was anything but despair-inducing for me. The thought, “Yes, I know it’s not all about me. But can’t it be just a little about me?” is very loud, some nights.

Which brings me back to the theme of my last post. Sometimes it feels as if this would all be so much easier with obvious, concrete signs from on high.

For whatever reason, the small magical moments like hearing that bit on the radio while writing the last post don’t stick. I can remember that they happened, but not how they felt. Like it happened to someone else. Memories of bad things, painful things, though are as clear and as visceral as if they were happening right now.

Did I mention I have flashbacks? No? Well, there you go, then. I have a vague sense that other people have flashbacks to good things more often than not, but I have no way to verify that.

When I stand in front of the altar, I don’t anticipate how good it will feel to be in contact with the god, or how affirming it is to do the ritual correctly. I flash back to how shameful it felt to do it wrong, how much it hurt the times I did it and felt nothing come back.

I don’t know. I haven’t figured this one out yet. I get that this is part of the work, but damn is that dark night dark.

Ember’s answer can be found at her blog, Embervoices.


S#!t May Have Been Real All Along

Last week, I read Morpheus Ravenna’s post, Theurgic Binding, or “S#!t Just Got Real”, and it got me thinking. It got a bunch of other people thinking, too.

In brief, Morpheus was talking about how she sees an injury that forced her off her feet for months as a way her goddess has corralled her into finishing a book about that goddess. From there, she went on to talk about how one should expect the gods to intervene in one’s life if one makes a habit of hanging around with them. I’m not doing it justice, of course. Go read it, if you haven’t yet. I’ll wait.

Here’s the thing: Every time I hear one of these stories, I have a flash of envy. I want things to be that solid, that real, that undeniable. For all that I feel I know when my mind is calm and my heart is light, there are so many other days when I feel alone. When I feel that I’m talking to dumb statues and wasting my time. At times like that, I think to myself, “a broken leg would suck, but it would be proof that you’re there.”

And, no, no one needs to break my leg to make me feel better. Thanks, though.

At other times, I have resented the gods, and been angry with them in ways that one just can’t be without believing that the target of one’s anger is actually there. I have been oracle and reader for others, I have had my mouth grabbed by a power and made to speak to someone else–but for myself, dull echoes. This isn’t strictly true, of course. I’ve talked to Dionysos through another person’s mediumship, and in my own meditations, and in that place where I’m halfway to sleep at end of day. But the feeling of reality fades, like a dream slipping from memory.

Reflecting on Morpheus’ post, it occurred to me that my broken leg might be more subtle.

I live with serious depression, kind of like bipolar without the manic phase, and a serious anxiety disorder. These days, I don’t get out of the house unless it’s to buy groceries or go to work, or to spend one night at my lover’s house. I don’t get out to other people’s parties or events much at all, and it’s been getting steadily worse over the last few years. So, thinking about how the gods might be using pain to shape me, I tried a polytheistic re-frame:

What if my depression and anxiety and house-bound-ness were getting worse because I wasn’t keeping up my end of the bargain? I do worship a god who strikes people mad, after all.

I don’t mean that in a punitive sense. More in a sense of becoming lost in the dark woods because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the direction in which my guide was pointing. There have been so many crises in my life over the past few years–deaths, unemployment, the end of a twenty-year relationship and the rebuilding of my life after, illness and lack of insurance–that I got knocked off the horse and haven’t managed to get back on and stay on.

I do know that I feel better when I’m doing prayers and libations regularly, and I haven’t been. It could be that I have the causality backwards, I suppose, and that the rituals and offerings are more frequent when I’m up because I’m up, but I want to try the re-frame and see if it helps.

See, I realized that I wanted the dramatic smack upside the head because I thought it would be easier to have the gods reach down and change me the hard way than it would be to do the work of meeting them halfway. I have been hurting and worn out, sometimes not having the energy or the will to bathe or get dressed for the day. And I’ve been feeling that I didn’t have the energy to pray, or to pour out wine for the God, or to even spend time sitting quietly before the altar.

I came to this realization three days ago. Over the last three nights, I’ve had strange dreams. The first two nights were full of anxiety dreams, allegories about feeling that I’ve let people down, that I’m taking up too much space, that I’m hurting people who depend on me. Some people’s nightmares are full of monsters, in mine, I’m the monster, if a rather banal one. But last night, the dreams were equally strange, but more upbeat. They were about growing a friendship by being active in the community, and returning to a tight-knit group who thought I’d been lost or left behind.

I’m choosing to see these dreams as evidence that I’ve made the right choice.

As I was writing this, I was listening to a music stream on the internet. During one song (The New Deal by Leggo Beast), there was an edited sample from a talk by Ian Mackenzie, a Canadian media activist:

I’ve been searching the Gods all my life and now I know them, the Gods inside of us. Or I feel I do…When you find the Gods inside yourself, you’ll find the God of War…You have to freeze him in his own private Hell, and make your positive Gods the Gods that take you over.

And by ‘the Gods that take you over’ I mean you have to find those passions that are so much more powerful than you, than anything you’ve been allowed to express in your life, and making those things the things you work on.

What was I just saying about wanting more direct signs?


Want to Hear Me Talk?

Soon, I’ll be on This Week in Heresy, a podcast by Gina Pond about spirituality and the fringes of the fringes.

I’m mostly talking about polytheism and the pros and cons of what happens when one values membership in the larger Pagan community.

When the show goes live, I’ll post a link.


Theology From Experience

It seems to me that if we are to develop a theology, Polytheist or Pagan, it seems we need to start with the experiences of those who encounter the gods. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel, we’ve inherited a thousand years and more of theological discourse from polytheist cultures around the world and throughout history.

Gratitude to the ancestors, who walked these ways before us, and made our path easier thereby.

Still, we need to constantly re-connect our theories to our experiences, lest the two part ways as cease to be relevant to one another. What we think about our relationships with the gods, and how we communicate these thoughts to otherse, is important, but not as important as living those relationships. To get lost in a fascination with our words would be like becoming so fixated on the variety and price of an apple that we miss how the thing actually tastes.

So. To experience.

I experience contact with gods and spirits as dreamlike, often vague, encounters with multiple, individual beings. Sometimes, there’s little more than a sense of presence. Rarely, this presence is strong enough to crowd out any other awareness, but usually it’s just one thing among many of which I am aware. When there is more than the sense of presence, I usually experinece voices and images in my imagination.

The voices I hear in my imagination are different, not only from my own, but from each other. Certain appearanes coincide with one voice, but not with others. Further, the things each entity says are consistent, and constitute the signs of a personality unique to each entity. When I use ritual, or othwise focus my meditations with specific images or ideas, I get one voice/appearance consistently. Change the foci, and I consistently get a different voice/appearance.

This is enough to start constructing a theology. But it’s just my experience, and any theology which is to be useful for anyone besides me has to account for the experiences of others, as well. Which is where we start having problems. You see, not everyone experiences them as I do.

Some people have more concrete experiences, in which the sense of presence is as solid as with any embodied person. For them, the voices and appearances are always vivid and distinct. Even when these folks have to learn how to tell one being from another, they don’t have to learn to see a distinction between different beings, as I did.

Others have more abstract experiences. Some never experience more than that sense of presence, others never experience distinct voices or appearances. Many never experience much of anything, no matter how they ritualize, meditate, or what have you.

There are even those whose experiences seem to them to be encounters (some more concrete, some more abstract) with a single divine being, regardless of context.

You see the beginning of the theological challenge?

We cannot create an all-encompassing theology without deciding that some people’s experiences of the gods (or of God or Goddess, as you will) are wrong, or at least flawed. We can’t say that the gods are many, full stop, without denying the validity of those who experience encounters with the divine as encounters with a singular being. Similarly, we can’t say that there is one divine spirit, viewed as many beings through cultural lenses, without denying experienes like my own.

Arguments on that level are more damaging than they are useful, as they tend to alienate people faster than they generate useful insights. Besides, we really can’t know whether or not any of these experiences reflect what the gods actually are when we aren’t looking at them. My experiences do not tell me what the gods look like to each other, only what they look like to me.

I am mortal, thus limited, and I accept that my experience of the world is partial and somewhat flawed. So, too, must be my experience of the gods; I’m simply not big enough to see all that they are, or wise enough to comprehend everything they do. I can, at best, say what Dionysos looks and sounds like to me when He visits me. I can’t say what He does or should look or sound like to anyone else.

This isn’t a call to abandon judgement or critical thought about spiritual expereince. At the very least, I have a responsibility to consider whether or not someone else’s experience is relevant to my own practice, and whether or not I’d advise a thrid party to consider it. All I’m saying is that I don’t get to tell the gods how they show themselves to anyone else, nor am I privy to their plans for others, so it would probably be a bad idea to get into the business of telling people that their experiences are wrong.

Which puts a bit of a limit on theology. We cannot regard theology to be like physics, a process of uncovering genreal rules by which reality works, whether we like it or not. Theology would be a common language amongst those with similar-enough experiences for discussing the relationships we have with the gods and spirits. Statements in my theology about the gods of folks who have very different experiences than my own are, at best, how their gods look from where I’m standing.

We do our own religions and movements a disservice when we set out to explain other people’s experiences of the gods to them. Any theology we would create on the basis of declaring ourselves Right and others Wrong with regard to experiences that defy objective verification is at best weak, at worst hegemonic.

This post is inspired by, but not a direct response to, Rhyd Wildermuth’s latest column for The Wild Hunt.


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