Pagan Paths

A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.

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On the Backs of the Gods, Part II

On the Backs of the Gods, Part II


In my continuing response to a recent and ongoing trend of discussions revolving around the aim of defining and exploring Pagan and/or Polytheistic theologies, I wanted to talk a little bit about what a theology is, what the theological process is, and what a theologian is. To begin...

 

On the Field of Theology:

Engaging theologically isn't for everyone, although anyone with religion -- and I'd reason a good number of people without religion -- has a theology. Just as not everyone is a psychologist, everyone "has psychology", and the same is true of theology. (Some have even ventured to argue that atheists have a theology as well, which is a hard thing to refute.) A theologian is a person who engages in the explorations and structures of a given theology, often by comparing and contrasting it with other extant theologies, or by traipsing through moral and cosmological theories and counter-theories and so forth. Non-theologians, be they of the lay or clerical persuasion, can sometimes be understandably unnerved by all of this theologizing.

Being unnerved is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact can be a very good thing, as it can highlight for a person where they "fall" on a given subject. Being unnerved can communicate where our boundaries are, where our fears or concerns are, and where we feel that we should take a theological stand. However, some may find it helpful to understand a little bit about the purpose of theology, and theological engagement. From Wikipedia (because it is accessible and for the most part pretty darn useful):

"Augustine of Hippo defined the Latinequivalent, theologia, as "reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity"; Richard Hooker defined "theology" in English as "the science of things divine". The term can, however, be used for a variety of different disciplines or forms of discourse. Theologians use various forms of analysis and argument (philosophical, ethnographic,historical, spiritual and others) to help understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of myriad religious topics. Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian:

  • understand more truly his or her own religious tradition
  • understand more truly another religious tradition, 
  • make comparisons among religious traditions, 
  • defend or justify a religious tradition,
  • facilitate reform of a particular tradition, 
  • assist in the propagation of a religious tradition, or
  • draw on the resources of a tradition to address some present situation or need, 
  • draw on the resources of a tradition to explore possible ways of interpreting the world, or
  • explore the nature of divinity without reference to any specific tradition.
  • challenge (ex. biblical criticism) or oppose (ex. irreligion) a religious tradition or the religious world-view."

While there are many avenues to being a theologian -- including clerical vocation, amateur scholarship, insight-based colloquial philosophy, etc  -- it is important to understand theology as an academic discipline, or at least an intellectual discipline, whether or not a given person is a professional academic. This means that to successfully and fairly utilize the toolset that is theological exploration, one should endeavor to have some sort of training or rigorous discipline to fall back on, to help guide the process. Take a look at Christian theology to see why this is important: historic theologians were well trained scholars, classicists, philosophers from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, whereas the late 20th and early 21st century has seen fit to birth a new breed of theology into the world: those with no academic background, who reject empirical process, and feel that qualitative reasoning is an infringement of their religious freedoms.

It is not my intention to throw stones at Christian theologians, but rather to point out what can and has happened when people who have rejected a disciplined approach to theology continue to engage with it, loudly. Armchair or amateur theological debate is completely valid and I think an important exercise in reaffirming the interconnectedness of as diverse a community as 21st century Paganism, so I am certainly not advocating for "only scholars" to have a foot on this field. However, this is a call for everyone to step up maturely and rationally, as theology is a rational field of study. 

I personally define theology as "the rational study of religious, spiritual, and cosmological traditions, beliefs and practices". I put great emphasis on these three categories: traditions, beliefs, and practices. A person can have a tradition absent both belief and practice, if they are born into a cultural tradition but do not engage with it beyond that identity. A person can have a belief without a tradition or a practice if they are not born into, recruited into, or initiated/invited into a tradition, and likewise never actually build a personal practice. A person can likewise have a practice that they do not believe in and do not anchor into a tradition. Some people can have all three of these, others get by with two of the three, and so forth. It is my belief that a healthy and optimum theological configuration has all three of these accounted for in some way. 

 

A Pagan Theology

A whole lot of attention and energy has been put into figuring out a definition of what the term "Pagan" means, and parallel to this toward the development of at least a loosely structured Pagan theology. Many voices more known and learned than mine have weighed in on this topic already, and so my piece here shall be brief, and personal. 

To be direct and uncharacteristically concise, I do not have a tremendous amount of personal investment in defining what "Paganism" is, theologically or otherwise. To me, Paganism is best left only loosely defined, as a movement primarily social and cultural. In what is quite possibly a very unpopular view, I do not believe Paganism is a religion, per se, but instead an umbrella term for affiliated groups which may or may not be religiously inclined themselves, with a common thread of spiritual inclinations perhaps shared between them. As my good friend and colleague P. Sufenas Virius Lupus pointed out recently, many of the popular attempts at defining Paganism do not account for the practices of theologically polytheistic religionists, or our pantheons as central to our identity and lives.

I do not think that Paganism should be -- or could be -- defined as primarily polytheistic, as evidenced by the many humanist, monistic, secular, and pantheist folks who identify as Pagan. This does not bother me, or challenge my conceptions of what Paganism is or is not. I have always viewed the greater modern Paganism movement as a grand table, or perhaps a set of tables, where folks from many faith backgrounds and practices could gather in relative safety, free of fear of persecution, judgment, ridicule or worse. Here they can share meals together, share drinks together, get naked and do ritual together or, conversely, put on way more clothes than everyone else and do other rituals together, and so on. At these tables an African Traditional priest and a Wiccan and a bard might all find some common ground to share with one another, even if they just end up talking about the weather. To me, this is what Paganism is, and it doesn't need any further defining than that.

(As an aside, there are some things I would like to see Paganism doing more of, such as supporting other Pagans, starting grass-roots local community programs, and generally engaging more with the world. I think we're moving in that direction and I am hopeful that it will continue. Journalists and writers like Jason Pitzl-Waters of Wild Hunt fame, and activist-teachers like T. Thorn Coyle (who was heavily involved in both fund-raising and on-site support during the Occupy movement of 2012) are making a lot of movements in this direction and I like what I am seeing there. I like seeing bridges being built, rather than burned, and I like seeing Pagans stepping up and sharing responsibility for their local communities, as well as throwing in with a more national or global solidarity. I think many of us are on the right track with that side of the work, of the movement.)

But I digress. While I am not terribly concerned with defining Paganism in any concrete way, I am a theologian, and I am very interested in seeing the ongoing development of theological structures and views. Which brings me to the next section…

 

"Polytheology" 

I am a hard polytheist. I am an animist. My personal practices combine these two as Afro-Thracian polytheanimism. I have my own theologies, cosmologies and systems of engagement which have been developed and refined based on rigorous study as a scholar, practical application and experiment as a spirit-worker, and community engagement as a priest. I have consulted my gods and the spirits who I share my life with to receive Their guidance in these developments. Sometimes They have been clear and other times They haven't really cared enough to give me more than I already had, leaving it in my hands, with the understanding that theological engagement is primarily for us, not Them.

If theology is to be defined in the most basic terms as "the reasoned and rational analysis and examination of the divine", then it is important to note that it is not for the divinities that we engage with this discipline. It is for us. Theology is not itself inherently devotional, it is rational and social, and it is appropriately "self-serving" (or perhaps better defined as "human-serving"). The gods do not rely on our breakthroughs or our "Eureka!" moments in theological discourse; They are that which we study, and in my experience They can find our attempts to better understand these matters, at best, as indicative of our reverent respect for Them, and our devotion to relation with Them.

Four times in the last week I have had conversations with non-polytheists about the nature of "what polytheism is". What continues to surprise me, over and over, is that many people really do not understand this. For example, recently I had a very pleasant conversation with a Gnostic monist who was asking about how some polytheists view the Christian god, the Jewish god, and the Muslim god, as three different gods. This question perplexed me because I didn't understand, as a polytheist, how somebody could not understand what we mean by that. (I fully understand why many monotheists view them as the same god, I just don't agree with this view.) My answer is simple: in polytheism as I understand, practice, teach and live it, there is no "one" god or "one" source or "one" grand singularity that connects all things. Poly means "many".

As to the specific question about those three deities, I explained that as I understand it, both the Jewish god and the Muslim god are derived theologically from earlier polytheist traditions, and that the figure called "god" in each of these monotheistic faiths was originally one of many, and may have actually been many combined into one. As I am not a scholar of Jewish theology or Muslim theology, I can't speak to it further than that. I am sure of the polytheistic origins and in truth I believe that most, if not all, human religions began as polytheistic and animist theologies. Monotheism came later, and in my view -- which is admittedly both biased and cynical -- is the result not of theology or divine communion but of political and social theory.

So, backing it up a bit: poly means "many". That means that as a polytheist I am not interested in "reductionism" as a theological model; I do not feel the need to reduce the number of deities or divine principles to a smaller or more manageable number. I do not need to break it all down to a binary dualism or to a single monistic track to explain things or make sense of things. I am a polytheist, and I do not believe that more gods equals less of anything.

Just as a polyamorous model of romantic or intimate engagement can look any number of ways in practice, polytheism has many formats to play out in, and these will likely change with the ebb-and-flow of ongoing real-life practice, devotional relationship, and religious communion. Polyamorous intimacy teaches that the scarcity model of love, affection, or adoration is false: love is not a finite resource, and loving multiple people or partners does not somehow reduce the amount of love that each individual "receives". Love is not an economic currency that is distributed to everyone at a loss. That does not mean that everyone should be practicing polyamorous relations (as serial monogamy might be a better emotional context for many people, and so on) but that the mainstream popular conceptions of love-as-limited (e.g. scarcity model) are built on erroneous assumptions. The same is true with polytheism.

A polytheist can either choose or be chosen for the worship of a single deity, and this is called henotheism. There is a great deal of historic precedent for this. There may come a time for me in my own practice where I am called by my gods to hunker down and dedicate a period of years to the sole worship of one god in my pantheon, to the exclusion of the others. If this came about and was confirmed -- through divination, through personal internal accounting, and so forth -- I would do it. In doing it, my love and devotion to my other gods would not change or diminish at all, it would only be the active pursuit of relation that would change, during that time.

Polytheism is about a configuration of religious ideas and practices which involve many gods, and these many gods are not an inconvenience to be sorted, sifted, sussed or simplified, nor do They need to be rendered as "perfect": They are perfect in their imperfections. And rationally I reject the very idea of "perfect" in its popular understood meaning. My gods have shown me the beauty in the ugliest sore, the joy in the deepest sorrow, and the celebration that is death: I do not need to use my theology to shade or color Them in a more palatable fashion. I choose to use my theology to understand them in Their complexities, to immerse myself in Their paradoxes, and to lose myself in Them that I might see myself as They do. There is no Godhead or "chief principle" or "great unifying force" or "infinite roll of duct tape that binds all things together" in my theology. There are gods; not one, or two, or three… there are many of Them.

 

To Be Continued... Stay tuned for On the Backs of the Gods, Part III.

Previously...

On the Backs of the Gods, Part I

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A temple priest, shaman, and spirit-worker in the Thracian tradition, Anomalous Thracian lives in a van in the Northeast United States, with a crazed raven from Africa. He teaches foundational spiritual principles and results-oriented mysticism, with a focus on anchoring ancient nomadic wisdoms and values in contemporary reality. A Thracian mystic reconstructionist, he leads an initiatory tradition and facilitates rituals, traditional rites of passage, various methods of divination and temple functions appropriate to the needs of the community. In all of his doings, he attempts to honor the ancestors, the gods, and his living relations in this world and the rest of them, while focusing also on further understanding and addressing contemporary issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

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