PaganSquare is a community blog space where Pagans can discuss topics relevant to the life and spiritual practice of all Pagans.
We Don't Need No Stinkin' Theories
(or The Fundamentals of Polytheism: Principle #1)
Today i was reading a good article by John Halstead summing up various perspectives in the recent heroes vs. superheroes community wide debate. Now I don't agree with much of Halstead's theories mind you, and completely disagree in every possible way with the very idea of "Jungian Neo-Paganism", but he's a thoughtful and engaged writer and I respect his willingness and ability to delve *critically* into an idea or controversy, which he did in this article. I was particularly taken with his idea that behind much of the polytheistic response here is resistance to the de-sacralizing of our traditions and that is absolutely correct. We are fighting to keep the Gods and the numinous, the Powers, and mystery in contemporary traditions of the sacred and it's an uphill battle.
As I was discussing this on Facebook, noting that as a result of this debate, I intended to write a series of articles on what I think are the fundamentals of polytheism, Teo Bishop asked me if I would be expanding on the 'nature of real-ness' of the Gods in my upcoming articles, if I would be positing a theory, what he (and I believe Halstead also) termed a theory of the ontological nature of the Gods.'.
The question really left me flabbergasted and I'm glad he asked it. I think it highlights a crucial, very crucial difference between polytheists and Neo-pagans. My theological approach is not based on theory. As a polytheist practicing my ancestral traditions, rooted in deeply engaged experience with the Gods and ancestors, I don't need theories. They're rendered irrelevant. Theorizing all too often precludes engagement. Let me step back a moment and explain what I mean.
I decided to write this series on the fundamentals of polytheism because I very much believe that there's a certain foundation lacking in our communities across the board (unless one is moving into the African Traditional Religions, where that foundation is alive, sound, and strong), one that were we living in indigenous polytheistic societies, societies that were never sundered by monotheism, societies rooted in an unbroken lineage grounded in veneration and respect for the Holy Powers and Their mysteries, we would have learned by absorption. We would have learned by growing up in a community where our parents did X, and our grandparents, and all our neighbors and our friends too. Right interaction with the Powers would have been modeled by virtue of its being worked into the very social fabric of our community. This would have been how the whole community viewed the world and the Gods and it would all have gotten reinforced every day. The reality of the Gods would have been taken as a given.
We lack that lens. We lack that structure. We lack even the capacity in many cases to conceive of what that would have been like and what it would have meant for us as people trying to engage spiritually. So since we live in a culture used to learning via the written word, and since that is part of my Work, I decided to write about all those fundamentals that once upon a time, would have been instilled in us from birth. Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote that "culture goes without saying because it comes without saying." Well, today unfortunately in the process of restoring and revitalizing our traditions, we have to parse and describe and teach that 'culture' and that is both a very complex and a very dangerous place in which to be. I think many of our controversies and problems come when post-modern attitudes come up against indigenous sensibilities with respect to the Holy.
So, when I"m asked about my ontological theory of the Gods, it gives me pause. Why, after all, would I need a theory? This is not an intellectual game. This of course brings me to the most foundational, fundamental, absolute baseline axiom of polytheism: the Gods are real. Moreover, the Gods are real and they exist outside of the limitations of the human mind. They have done so long before humanity was created and will likely continue long after we are gone. The Gods exist as real, independent, sentient beings. We did not create Them.
The corollary to that, of course is that it is right and proper to praise Them, but we'll get to that one perhaps in the next article. For now, I want to stick with foundational principle number one: the Gods are real. I'm not going to try to define 'real-ness.' I'm not going to create a dozen different theories to explain how They could be real or what that might mean or how that happened. All of that is irrelevant. I am going to begin with the accepted understanding that this is how things work, that this is an essential component of the fabric of existence. I am going to start from the very beginning with absolute acceptance of this principle: "The Gods are real" with all that entails.
Essentially, I think that as a polytheist, one should accept that the Gods exist and act accordingly. If one can do that, he or she is already a "leg up" in the game so to speak. This is, by the way, where honoring the ancestors is so helpful. Our dead have a vested interest in helping to sort our sorry asses out. They can help us get right with the Gods. That's a huge benefit in that it simplifies the process of engagement by helping us not get tangled up in our own post-modern arguments and hypotheses which in the end are just distractions and distortions of what engagement can be.
We're children of our age so to some degree, especially at first, it's inevitable that we will find our minds going off on these tangents. That's ok. Buddhist meditation practices call this the 'chattering monkey of the mind." just let it be. Let it chatter but give little import to its meanderings. Instead, accept foundational principle #1 and (this is important now): act as if. In other words, fake it till you make it. Consciously make the choice to act in accordance with this principle until you have enough experience that it is no longer in doubt. Choose to behave as though the Gods are real even if you're not sure, and allow that choice to guide your behavior.
We put far too much stock, in my opinion, in our theories and ideas and philosophies and while these things certainly have their place, it should not be at the exclusion of actual spirituality. I've seen all of these tactics being used to avoid engagement. It's a safe way, after all, to get the feeling of engagement without actually having to engage with any actual Powers. Theorizing doesn't mandate a change of behavior and praxis; accepting that the Gods are real does--which may be yet another reason why so many people avoid doing so. So as far as "realness" goes. My rule of thumb is this: if you're not capable of experiencing the Gods directly --and some aren't, for some, it is not their wiring or their wyrd---then do what most people will have to do: accept it as a given and get on with right action.
I actually think we have a lot of people quite willing to engage with ideas and theories but it's that active engagement with the Gods that's lacking. If you're not dealing with a real Presence, you're not actively engaging with the Gods. If you're dealing with ideas and theories and metaphors, you're not engaging with the Gods. There is nothing metaphorical about engagement.
More and more, i'm coming to view this as one of the essential defining lines: a polytheist in active engagement with his or her Gods doesn't need a theory. That engagement rests in the polytheist's rootedness in devotion and engagement with his or her ancestors. It's a thing of flesh and blood and experience. It's a very modern thing to need a theory for everything, more fetishizing, I think, of scientific empiricism. I do not need a "Theory" about my Gods. I need to get on with the process of offerings and veneration.
Teo also asked me (and I want to thank him for his willingness to discuss these ideas) if i'd consider this 'acceptance,' part of 'faith' or an 'act of faith.' This is also a very good question but for a number of reasons I have to respond in the negative. No. I wouldn't. To compartmentalize it in such a way is again to give heed to theorizing and that is such a terrible modern fixation. It's one of the games our egos and minds play to keep us from actually engaging with the Powers. It's just not all that relevant to the nuts and bolts of praxis. We don't need to know in order to do what's correct in the face of the Powers. It's not about faith, it's about choice. I'm not a woman of faith. I know the Gods exist just as I know I'm sitting on the sofa in my living room typing this, and it's a cool 68 degrees in here. I resist the need to qualify this because that qualification leads to theorization and really, that gets us farther and farther away from active engagement. It really is that simple: you want to engage, get yourself out of the way and *do* so. Don't think about doing it, or speculate on all the ways you could be doing it, or to whom the energy of the offerings might be going. Get down and bring it into the realm of the sensorium, of active, physical engagement.
As to the nature of the Gods, Their actual origins: do you think we'll ever know? of course not and therefore speculating is a waste of time better spent in devotion. Nor do i think we're necessarily entitled to know; nor is having that knowledge --which is a mystery and by its very nature unknowable--a necessary component for practice. To me, it's a distraction. My 'narrative' is based around the practices of my ancestors as I understand them through direct engagement with those ancestors and with the Gods too, but the ancestors are the ones who have helped root my praxis in human experience. They tied up loose ends inherent in embodiment and once you have deeper mystical awareness as I"ve often heard it called, you know. Narrative becomes irrelevant. You have the direct experience with the Gods and the ancestors and the quest for theories and narratives falls away into knowledge. After awhile you see too much of Their work in your life and you just know. I'd go so far as to say that if you have to ask "are the Gods real?" then you're not having that mystical engagement. You've not yet entered into mystery. All the theories in the world won't help you do so, in fact, they may well form a greater blockage. There's a point where it moves beyond theory into knowledge and from there hopefully into a deeper more centered, more holistically devotional praxis.
We are taught in our culture to parse everything into theories and it's just distraction from the work that needs to be done. Any level of deeper engagement isn't going to come through theorizing. it's going to come by laying ourselves down before our ancestors and Gods and opening ourselves up, in utter vulnerability, to the Powers. It's going to come when the narratives we hold so dearly to are blown apart by those Powers. Because you know what? The Gods are real and that comes with some obligations on our part, which hopefully will be the subject of my next post.
(Photo by Mary Ann Glass).