Excellent article on Alaska Native languages and their threatened extinction. The author makes a brilliant plea for concerted revitalization and he's right: it's not a race issue, it's a human issue. Read this: http://juneauempire.com/art/2012-04-26/alaska-native-languages-it-all-comes-down-choices#.T5oT3smF9rZ
I have talked and written about reclaiming our indigeny extensively over the past couple of years. It’s crucial toward the reclamation of our ancestral traditions because restoring those traditions is not just a matter of returning to the worship of specific Gods or doing specific rituals but of rooting ourselves in the understanding, the Weltanschauung, the way of looking at the world, and moreover the way of interacting with the world integral to many if not all indigenous ways. In this article, I’m going to step back for a moment and discuss the concept of indigeny, what it is, what it means, and why it is such an important touchstone. Of course, I’m probably going to ramble a bit and maybe wander off on a tangent or two so prepare yourselves.
The world was not always predominantly monotheist. In fact, monotheism is a very new and very young interloper in the world of religious identity. There was a time, not too long ago when not only was Christianity not the dominant religion in our corner of the globe, but the dominant religious fabric of society – pretty much *all* societies---was defined by honoring the ancestors, maintaining their traditions, and making proper offerings to the Gods and Goddesses of one’s people, region, land, family, and personal devotional life.(1) The dominant way of looking at the world was one deeply rooted in this diversity of religious thought. It was, in other words, polytheistic.
I find (and here’s one of those tangents I was warning you about) that when people ask my religion, which happens occasionally since I work at a seminary, and I respond that I am polytheistic, there is often a moment of cognitive disconnect in the questioner. It’s as if the word does not compute. Inevitably, upwards of ninety percent of the time, their response, after thinking about it dumbly for a few minutes is to ask “but you believe in Jesus, right?” I believe in all Gods and I tell people so, I just worship a select few of which Jesus is not One. In fact, from my perspective one would argue whether or not Jesus is a God or elevated ancestor, not that it makes much difference in the long run. This of course often causes more confusion. Why is polytheism so difficult to comprehend for the average monotheist? I believe the answer to that question lies in the fact that it is an open-ended system, one rooted in tradition but welcoming of diversity of thought and approach…an attitude dramatically and diametrically opposed to that of monotheism. Basically, we’re using spiritual muscles the average monotheist doesn’t have, and we’re doing it without nice, pat little answers like the promise of salvation to help us. It’s not that they can’t connect the dots. The average monotheist, to put it bluntly, doesn’t even see all of the dots. They’re blinded by their own religious filter, one rooted not in the ways of the ancestors, but in the doctrine of discovery, in conquest, colonialism, and brutal destruction in the name of one divine power. But as I said, I digress.
Indigeny is what came before all that.
The words ‘indigenous,’ ‘indigeny,’ or, to use the proper academic term ‘indigeneity’ all stem from a Latin word indigena, ae: native, born in (a particular area).(2) This in turn hearkens back to an earlier Greek root which means ‘to be or to become.’ It does not, as I have heard many a bigot disparage, bear any etymological relationship to ‘indigent,’ which comes from another Latin root (indigeo, indigere, indigui,) meaning ‘to be in need.’ Thus when I speak about our indigenous traditions, I am speaking about our ancestral, native traditions. I am speaking about what our ancestors did long before the subjugation of Christianity. I am speaking about our religious traditions that evolved out of our relationships with our own native land and Gods and people. I am speaking about that cultural and religious sensibility that determined how we viewed every aspect of our world and which our ancestors took with them wherever they went, even if that meant relocating to a new land. Everybody has that, or had at some point in their lineage’s history. Everybody.
When I talk about Heathenry, or Hellenismos, or Celtic Polytheism, or Kemetic Religion, or any other Polytheistic faith, essentially I am talking about those beliefs and practices, traditions, and ways of engaging with the world that existed in a specific place before monotheism tried to wipe them out. They evolved within a specific cultural language. I’m talking about what our various ancestors did before they were forced to convert. These are our traditions, our birthright. For this reason, I do not believe and will adamantly argue with anyone who claims that these contemporary polytheistic religions are “New Age.” They are not new age. They are not, in fact, new. They are restorations, informed by modernity of course, but hearkening back –granted, more than a little imperfectly in some cases---to the traditions of our ancestors. Were it not for the aberration of monotheism and the endless conquest to wipe us out of existence, our traditions would not be in need of restoration.
Of course authentic, and – a word I use quite a bit because it seems to fittingly descriptive of what’s necessary to do this process well – engaged reconstruction is a difficult thing. It involves the long, hard, slow, and incredibly challenging process of breaking and chipping away at the filter of monotheistic conquest with which we’ve *all* been raised.(4) That’s not just difficult, it can be terrifying. After all, we have no direct experience of anything else. If we remove that filter what will replace it?
The difficulties go beyond even that, however. The best way that I know of to begin that process of reclamation, to begin rooting oneself in one’s indigenous traditions, to begin challenging and removing the post-conquest filter is to connect to and maintain a relationship with one’s ancestors. This is the ultimate power of ancestor veneration. It provides a means of self-definition when that unhealthy filter falls. Our ancestors lived the very traditions we’re trying to reconstruct after all; who better to inspire and guide us in reconstructing them?
In connecting with our honored dead, however, one is brought face to face with certain issues. For those of us coming from European ancestry, two specific issues tend to arise and they are painful ones. Firstly, when one talks about reclaiming one’s indigenous traditions it begs the oh so salient question of why? What happened to our indigenous traditions? Where did they go? Why don’t we have them now? One of the first stumbling blocks one faces in connecting to the ancestors and reclaiming one’s indigenous mindset is facing the fact that our ancestral traditions were destroyed by the long term religious genocide that was the spread of Christianity across Europe.
Lest you think my use of the term ‘genocide’ egregious, allow me to point out that the man who actually coined the term in 1944, Raphael Lemkin, specifically noted that genocide need not mean the immediate destruction of a people or a nation. Instead, it included a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves [even if all individuals within the dissolved group physically survive].”(5) Lemkin specifically notes calculated destruction of a given people’s religious practices as indicative of genocide. Under this rubric, the United States government’s forcible removal of Native American children from their families and their subsequent incarceration in government run schools wherein they were forcibly Christianized in an attempt to destroy Native cultures could be classed as genocide.(6) So too could the Christianization of Europe.(7)
This leads me to the second horror one must eventually face. First we have to face and deal with what was done to us and our traditions; then we have to look at what that turned us into. First our own traditions were destroyed and then, in some mad form of cultural Stockholm syndrome, we became the destroyer. We turned around, perfected the techniques of conquest and came across the ocean to do unto others what had been done, five hundred years before to us. As difficult as this may be to look at, it’s essential that we do so. If our ancestors could undergo these things and perpetrate them, the least we can do is look at them cleanly and squarely. It is the first and perhaps the most necessary step toward reclamation: to be able to look at our own history good and bad squarely in its proverbial face and without flinching.
Does this mean we shouldn’t honor our recent ancestors, ancestors who likely were monotheist? Of course not. None of us are perfect. If your ancestors were, for the most part, good people, honor them; that doesn’t mean you have to perpetuate their mistakes. It doesn’t actually mean they have to perpetuate their mistakes either. After all, that is the beauty of wyrd: even after death, through the channel of ancestor veneration we are able to empower our ancestors to continue working in the world and many, upon being reunited with their kin, more than realize their mistakes. The destruction of our indigenous ways did not occur overnight or without resistance; neither will their restoration.
I have said it before and I shall say it again: it’s going to take both sides of the equation living and dead to right this wrong. It’s going to take both sides working in tandem to restore our broken, damaged, lost traditions. It can be done though. In this, I have utter faith. Christianity sprang out of nowhere. It came from the death of one man and the machinations of his followers vying for power. In a very short period of time it came to dominate the globe. Our traditions do not spring from nothing. They do not depend on any one person. They grow from roots sunk deep into the consciousness of our ancestors. It only takes connecting to those ancestors to give them the chance to live again. This is our sacred obligation if we’re going to call ourselves polytheists. The key to restoration isn’t found in faulty lore. It’s not found in donning the garb of peoples past. It’s not found in super-imposing modern prejudices over ancient beliefs. It’s found in the long, hard work of connecting to the dead and learning to see through their eyes, learning to engage with the Holy Powers with their sense of piety. It’s found in our indigeny and reclaiming it.
Come join authors Theodore Richards ("Cosmosophia," and "The Crucifixion") and Galina Krasskova ("Essays in Modern Heathenry," and "When the Lion Roars") on May 12, 2012 in downtown New York City for a party, reading, and book signing celebrating our newest book releases.
click on the link above for more information. This promises to be a fun and informal affair and all are welcome. Come and meet us in person.
It has been an incredibly productive but incredibly exhausting week and once again I find that I’ve been left with very little time to write; so, this particular post is probably going to be shorter than my norm. Add to that the fact that this is covering ground that I’ve only recently really teased out as something that might be worthy of addressing and well, basically I’m throwing the ideas out there in the hopes that some of you, my readers, will take them up for discussion. I’d like to see where we can all go with this. The topic of this week’s post is happiness, specifically whether the purpose of spiritual life and religion is personal happiness.
When I was teaching recently, a colleague and I found ourselves on opposing sides in the question of the role of religion in one’s life; namely, should religion make one ‘happy?’ We were discussing spirituality and spiritual life and he made a comment about it all making one ‘feel good.’ I murmured, “that presupposes that the purpose of religion is to make one feel “good.” To which he responded that he did in fact believe that was its point. Durkheim I think would be proud.(1) I however, realized that the gulf separating me from some of my monotheistic colleagues (and make no mistake, I respect my colleagues. They’re compassionate people doing good work) was wider –and in a most unexpected place—than I’d ever before realized.
I suppose it all comes down to how one defines happiness. In dictionary terms, happiness is usually defined as feeling pleasure, contentment, or satisfaction.(2) These are all good things, positive things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of them. I simply question whether the search for “happiness” as it’s defined here, is something around which one should base either one’s religion or one’s life.
We Americans are obsessed with “happiness.” It isn’t just the “love, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” enshrined in our nation’s constitution either. We as a people believe we are entitled to it. We are addicted to the idea of happiness at its most shallow and we over eat, over shop, choose random sexual partners badly, and religion hop (changing faiths the moment one becomes challenging) at the drop of a hat. We also over-medicate. I’ve read horror stories of children as young as four and five being given heavy mood altering drugs because they’re not “happy”—and in every case I have encountered, the child was expressing a normal range of human emotion. There was no bio-chemical imbalance, at least not until the medical regiment was begun. In one case, it was a twelve year old girl who was mourning the death of her grandfather. Apparently, having the appropriate response to a loved one’s death was too much for her parents and she was put on Paxil because, as the article stated, she wasn’t “happy.”(3) Yet, I think, we have a very shallow definition of happiness and as a result we’re raising a generation of young people with the emotional resiliency of soap bubbles.
I think my biggest issue here comes from the fact that seeking out a religion, solely because it makes one happy (and I’m not saying it shouldn’t make one happy, but that ought not to be the only goal of faith) has far more to do with one’s ego and inherent self-centered self-absorption than with any devotion to the Gods. That’s what I think religion and spirituality ought to be about: devotion to the Gods and ancestors, wherever that leads (and I think it will lead different places for each of us).
The way that we’ve been taught by our culture to approach happiness – as a fleeting emotional sense of pleasure to which we are entitled (unless of course, you’re a minority in which case you know better -- minorities in this country know damned well that there’s no entitlement, that bad things happen, sometimes horrific things, and you pick yourself up and go on because that’s what living and surviving means. The blind entitlement is largely absent) is not one that encourages authenticity or the development of personal virtues. It’s all about the individual and what makes him or her feel good and damn the consequences. It’s tremendously self-centered and because it takes nothing into account –including the long term good of the individual in question--but an immediate and fleeting emotional state, it’s neither sustainable nor fulfilling.(4) It’s a mirage at which we grasp fruitlessly.
It’s always seemed to me that those things which are self-centered and egotistical in the extreme, which emphasize our separateness, are antithetical to authentic, engaged spiritual life. To my mind, it’s a symptom of the cultural disconnect that is part and parcel a consequence of our separation from our indigenous traditions and mind-set. I very much believe that we in the West have been taught to want the wrong things. We’ve been taught to seek fulfillment in the shallow waters of our cultural disconnection and its attendant commercialism (trying oh so hard to fill the gap left by authentic tradition). Mother Theresa, on speaking about poverty, wrote that “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty -- it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”(5) I believe she was absolutely right, but because we are so cut off not only from our indigenous spiritualities but even from the authentic engagement with Christianity (how many Christian leaders do you know who actually do what Christ commanded?) that we do not recognize it. Instead, we buy a bigger car, or a new purse, or trade up for a younger, prettier mate in the hope that these things will fill that gaping internal hole. (6) And we religion shop.
The moment our spirituality or our Gods becomes challenging, starts to demand that we engage with ourselves, with Them, with the world at large many of us flee to a different religion that will give the illusion of happiness without the reality of responsibility. I think our ancestors would have approached the idea of happiness quite differently. Not only would the culturally ingrained sense of entitlement be absent, but our very definition of personal happiness would necessarily change. I think that to any polytheistic tradition rooted in the ways of its ancestors, happiness is not just fleeting, inconsequential moments of pleasure but the deep satisfaction of knowing one’s place in one’s community and in the grand scheme of life. This in turn stems from nurturing one’s connection to the ancestors and the Gods and taking up the maintenance of one’s traditions. There is a pleasure that comes from doing one’s duty, honoring one’s Holy Powers, walking rightly in one’s world. Happiness becomes then less an emotional state of being, fleeting, transitory and insubstantial and more a choice of conduct and lifestyle. It becomes the natural result of ordering one’s world rightly around those sacred connections. This happiness sustains. It sustains and restore when everything else in the world might be shattered.
That’s what we’re missing today. To the indigenous mindset religion is the maintenance of ancestral traditions, the nourishing of sacred threads and obligations, the engagement of the individual within the greater network of tribe, community, culture. Though there may be problems, there’s not the inter-generational disconnection that is accepted as a matter of course as a symptom of modernity. Happiness is a by-product of that engagement. It’s a symptom of maintaining right relationship with everything and everyone in your world. It is a feeling of pleasure and contentment but its source is far different from what we’ve been taught to expect. Should religion lead to that, yes, I think so. Is it something to seek out as a primary goal of religion, no. I don’t believe so. I don’t believe we’re meant to be that self absorbed.
I’m sure that when I am less tired and have more time to actually sit and write I shall go back and rework this, fleshing it out and meditating longer on this conundrum. For now, this is what I have, the breath of an idea, the shadow of an issue. What do you all think? I’m not asking if one’s religion makes one happy; I’m asking if that is the reason one ought to follow a given religion. Personally, I would hope my own motivations are better than that.
1. Emile Durkheim was a sociologist who wrote a very important book called “The elementary forms of religious life,” which discusses religion as a manifestation of social interaction and anxieties.
2. Encarta Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, entry on happiness.
3. I wish I’d kept the article. I read this a few years ago in Time magazine. If anyone has the correct citation, please contact me privately.
4. Witness the level of personal debt in the average American as he or she strives to ‘keep up with the Joneses.”
5.“A Simple Path,” by Mother Theresa, Ballantine Books, 1995.
6. I in no way support Christianity. I believe that we should be seeking out and restoring our indigenous ways, but I find it ironic that as much as we are cut off from our ancestral traditions, we’re also cut off from any authentic Christ-centered expression of Christianity.
And now, for no other reason than that I like them, I give you some lemurs.
My colleague Elizabeth Vongvisith has written an excellent article on hard polytheism that I highly encourage folks to check out. You can find it here:
My newest book, 'Essays in Modern Heathenry,' is now available for purchase. This book is, as the title suggests, a collection of academic articles discussing the nature and development of praxis within the contemporary community. It's something I've been sitting on since 2007.
Right now, the book is available at http://www.asphodelpress.com/specialty.html but you may also find it at http://www.lulu.com/. In a couple of weeks it should be available on amazon too (it takes their online catalog awhile to update).
I will be holding a book release party in NYC on May 12 in the evening. If you're in the area, feel free to contact me for more information or check out my events page.
(It’s been a long week, Ladies and Gentlemen, and I’m afraid you’ll find this particular article a bit more acerbic than usual. C’est la vie. Y’all have been warned.)
Last year, when I was still active in a particular online interfaith forum that shall here remain nameless, I read a blog by another Heathen complaining vociferously about Heathens and Pagans who view humility as a positive virtue. Adept, as so many within my religion are, at utterly missing the point of anything spiritual, the author concentrated his diatribe on the fact that humility comes from the Latin word humus – soil.(1) From this, he extrapolated that by cultivating humility as a spiritual virtue, we were announcing to the world that we were less than dirt. Brilliant exegesis there, I know. The thing is, that particular author was right, at least in his etymology. Humility does come from humus, which does in fact mean soil, earth, and the quality of being grounded. Beyond that, however, I could not disagree more about its value.
Yes, humility is related to earth but firstly, I fail to see how that is a negative. On a purely practical level, the earth is the source of all nourishment. It supports and sustains us. Without healthy soil, we don’t eat. Without healthy, well-tended soil, everyone suffers. Wealth comes from the earth – minerals, fossil fuels, and gemstones; it holds the history of our species as well as all those that came before us, and the earth holds the bones of our dead. It is intimately connected with the intergenerational awareness of our sacred obligations and the ongoing, rooted expression of our traditions. Far from being something to devalue, the blessings of earth are crucial.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, humility is the “quality of being modest or respectful.”(2) Period. No other explanation is given. Other dictionaries expand upon this definition, and note the word’s relation to its sister word ‘humble,’ but always, the qualities of modesty, courtesy, and respect dominate the definition. Humility has nothing to do with self-abasement. Instead, it has everything to do with the cultivation of the type of awareness and spirit that renders us best able to take up and maintain the ancient contracts with our Gods, our ancestors, the elemental powers, and each other. It is that quality that allows us the grace of knowing our place in the cosmic scheme of things, not because we are nothing, but because every living thing has its place within the ever weaving tapestry of wyrd. It is important to know that place so that we do not abuse the many blessings that we’ve been given and so that we are able to fulfill the calling of our wyrd well. Humility is the quality that teaches both respect and self-respect. It teaches right relationship. It is that quality that allows us to bend our heads before the Gods without shame, because it is right and proper to do so.
Our ancestors were not stupid. I think sometimes we forget this. In many respects, they were far more engaged (by necessity) with their world and each other than we, in our computerized age, are today. Over and over, however, both academically and within the various religious communities in which I move, I have encountered the subtle, sometimes unconscious attitude that ancient, pre-modern, (and the unspoken corollary here is pre-Christian) is somehow primitive, that we, blessed as we are by the dubious gifts of industrialization and the “enlightenment” are somehow so much more advanced than those that preceded us. Our almost fetishization of modernity is one of the biggest blockages toward truly rooting ourselves in the animistic, polytheistic and experiential sensibilities of our pre-monotheistic ancestors. It’s not that air conditioning and running water and electricity or computers or a thousand other innovations are bad (I happen to like my air conditioning very much, thank you); rather it’s that we, as a people have allowed our culture to make us numb and dumb, disconnected, and self-absorbed in the extreme. Far from being more advanced than our ancestors, I suspect that in comparison to them, we’re spiritual idiots. We, having suffered through two thousand years of monotheistic dominance, are riding the spiritual short bus. Huzzah.
Why, you might ask? Well, we are patterned to approach our world and our relationships, most of all our relationship with the Gods by our birth religions. Even if one was raised in a non-religious household, for the Americans reading this, we were raised in a “secular” culture that is adamantly informed by the values and outlook of Christianity, specifically a very Protestant Christianity. That Christian coloring has created a filter through which we view everything, most especially anything spiritual or religious.(3) Our lens, compared to that of our polytheistic ancestors, is skewed. Our cultural values are skewed. One of the most daunting tasks facing us as we attempt to reclaim our ancestral –our indigenous---traditions, is tearing down the monotheistic filter, rooted as it is in a modernity defined by colonialism, conquest, domination, and utter lack of respect for diversity of life, and instead rebuilding anew a filter rooted in the interconnectedness and respect that to our ancestral traditions was crucial toward living a healthy, mature, sustainable existence.
I do not believe it is possible to over-estimate the impact of what some of us term the monotheistic filter. For this reason alone, I would find it a terrible travesty if we relegated the very building blocks of connected spirituality (building blocks like grace, humility, prayer, etc.) to Christianity alone. I would rather like to think that perhaps a recognition of the value of humility was one of the many things that our ancestors brought with them into the dark night of Christian conversion.
Certainly there are plenty of examples from our polytheistic forebears of humility in action. The fervent praise poetry of Sumerian priestess Enhenduanna is redolent with it; so are ancient Greek and Roman accounts of their behavior in sacred places and before the Gods and particularly before the ancestors.(5) Roman writer Tacitus, describing the religious practices of some of the Germanic tribes his own people had encountered (albeit it for political effect) notes their humility and piety in the face of immanent Powers.(4) To those Heathens who argue that one should never go down on one’s knees for the Gods, let it be noted that not only did our Germanic ancestors –according to what few sources we have left --do so, they would likely have considered it impious and ill-omened to have done anything else. Tangentially, as an expression of spiritual modesty, many polytheists across cultures covered their heads when in sacred places, or when praying, and were acutely aware of the concepts of miasma and ritual infraction. Proper behavior before the Gods was important, and cultivating an awareness that encouraged such things was equally important; not only for spiritual reasons, but because it enhanced and enriched the luck of the individual and the community in which he or she lived. Moreover, in our contemporary world, it’s not just Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that value humility, but so too do Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The recognition that humility is essential to spiritual growth and connection has never really been lost. In many traditions, humility is so closely linked to respect, particularly respect for the sacred, that the two are nearly indistinguishable.
What does all of this mean? Well, instead of embracing our right to these spiritual treasures, reclaiming them and using them to further the restoration of our traditions, we have an appalling tendency to eschew them in favor of obsession with lore, braggadocio, egotism, and tremendous pride…as if these things had anything to do with anyone or anything other than our own need for self-aggrandizement. In this respect, we are our biggest obstacles to connecting with the Gods and ancestors. We’ve doggedly cultivated a religious culture of arrogance, conceit, occasional crudity, and utter lack of devotion. What passes for devotion all too often has very little to do with the Holy Powers Themselves, or the ancestors, or our obligations to Them. We play at religion because humility, respect, and devotion, have become the hall marks of that which is “other” within our community.
Let me be very clear: within a huge swath of Heathenry, devotion to the Gods has been ‘othered.’. Parts of Heathenry have become in many cases a social club, an elevated LARP, with the Gods thrown in as a very remote afterthought.(6) Part of the problem is, perhaps, humility and the lack of anything in our ‘secular’ world that might teach us to cultivate it. After all, none of us come to Heathenry or any other polytheism blank slates and, if anything, we grew up in a culture that teaches us to view such virtues as humility with a certain contempt. For this and a thousand other reasons, many come into the religion with only their egos to guide them (egos that helped them survive monotheistic upbringings and the struggles of conversion) combined with very poor experiences within their birth religions and, steeped in a national culture that all but deifies rugged individualism, become caught up in the bell jar environment of a very small faith struggling to restore itself with few guidelines and even less inter-generational support. Mistakes happen. So, on occasion, does hubris.
The curative to this is careful cultivation of precisely those virtues we eschew, virtues intended to help us in achieving right relationship with the Gods, ancestors, elemental powers, and each other. It’s that simple. The cultivation of humility is an essential starting point toward developing any type of connected, engaged, spirituality. We don’t have an unbroken line of practice within Heathenry. The spread of Christianity across Europe devastated our indigenous religious practices. What we have are fragments, mostly recorded after the fact by people inimical to our beliefs. Yet, with humility and respect, and a fervent, burning desire to connect we can reach across the chasm of centuries, we can bridge the destruction of generations. We can connect in a multitude of ways both mystical and practical to our ancestors and Holy Powers. Our ancestors lived the very traditions that we’re struggling so hard to reconstruct. Who better to guide us in that restoration?
All of this, as in any other aspect of spiritual progress, begins with right relationship: how does one behave with the Gods, with the ancestors, with the land, with one’s family members, with one’s co-religionists, with one’s community, with outsiders? How does one behave with the world at large? How does one behave when no one else is looking? What kind of a human being are you and what kind of human being are you striving to become? What place will you hold in the unfolding web of wyrd and how well or poorly will you hold it? Humility allows us to begin the long, slow search toward answering these questions. It teaches us to both value and acquire a proper perspective on ourselves within the greater multi-verse. In Genesis, the very first book of the Christian and Jewish bible, “God” places mankind over all creation. Humanity is removed from nature, placed above it, allowed use of it (without stated consequence). A simple look at our world today shows clearly where such an attitude of entitlement can lead. Such an attitude is alien to polytheism which places humanity within the flow of nature. It also acknowledges that the Gods are greater than we, something that I believe is a very difficult thing for contemporary polytheists to comprehend (perhaps because it is a belief shared with monotheisms or perhaps because of the unhealthy influence of the new age movements and their attendant self help/psychoanalytic therapies?) and owed our honor and respect. What humility teaches us is that we are capable of that reverence. We are capable of right relationship. We are capable of respect and there is great dignity in cultivating such a thing.
That’s not something to be dismissed at all. That is foundational as earth is foundational. Does humility come from a word meaning soil? Yes, it does. It is the soil upon which the foundations of our spiritual houses will be built. We could do far worse than strive to make those foundations strong.
Here endeth my rant.
I just received word that Asphodel Press has put out its first Hela devotional. This particular book has been in the works (as far as I know) for several years now and I am delighted that it's finally available. I had the privilege of reading a couple of the prayers and two of the articles for their respective authors a couple of years ago and if that's any indication by which to go, this devotional promises to be both powerful and beautiful. (I'm waiting for my copies to arrive in the mail!). Check it out, it's called "Wholly: A Devotional for Hella.":
(yes, I dislike the title, but this isn't my book so it wasn't my call. don't let it dissuade you from considering a purchase).
At my instigation, my colleague Sannion wrote a very thought provoking article on belief vs. faith. I've been wanting to tackle this myself for some time, but haven't had the time to compose my thoughts. I'm delighted to see this, by Sannion and encourage y'all to check it out:
While the dictionary definition of grace speaks of elegance and refinement, beauty of form, and the state of having favor and high regard, when a theologian speaks of grace, he or she is speaking of something far different: a way of being in relationship with the Gods that informs and impacts the way one relates to everything in one's world. Many traditions believe that grace must be given, that it is a very particular gift of the Holy Powers, others believe it is absolutely fundamental to achieving any type of spiritual growth. In the latter, grace is something toward which the devotee works tirelessly; it is earned, developed and honed like any other practical skill, not bestowed from upon high. As a polytheistic theologian, I think my own definition of spiritual grace falls somewhere between these latter two points. I believe that sometimes it is given by the Gods, for no apparent reason that we may discern, but more often it is the thing that we must work toward, striving ever to cultivate, knowing that as we grow in grace, we grow as human beings and as spiritual beings too. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that the Holy Powers kindle the fire which is then left to us to tend and maintain. Either way, I believe that some measure of grace is fundamental toward the development of a strong, enduring, healthy spiritual character.
I have never heard another Pagan or Heathen speak of 'grace.' It's as though we have sacrificed and relegated such spiritual ideas to Christianity, as though they have no merit or applicability to polytheistic spirituality at all. When most of us think of grace, I'm pretty sure that it's the Christian, probably specifically the Calvinist Christian concept of grace that comes to mind: grace is given by God to his elect. period. end of story. No wonder so many of us want nothing to do with the entire concept! One of the great victories of monotheism was the way in which it captured and corrupted the very words by which we name, define, and engage with spirituality; 'grace' being viewed as a purely Christian concept when in fact it is nothing of the sort being a perfect example.(1) But monotheism did not spring fully formed out of the aether. It did not create anything. It and the religions that fell --to their detriment--under its aegis, could only steal, appropriate, poison, and rework existing concepts, like grace; which means that such concepts were alive and well in the pre-Christian world.
Of course the polytheistic conception of grace is far different from that of, say, Christianity. For one thing, we are not obsessed with the need for salvation. The living world, a world of which we are part, a world crafted carefully by our Gods, perhaps the living embodiment of one of the Gods, is not something from which we need to be saved; and while there is the concept of spiritual error and ritual misconduct within most polytheisms, there is not the brutally oppressive idea of 'sin' particularly not 'original sin' from which mankind has no hope of escape (save through salvation). Polytheism is a most life-affirming way of looking at the world. Spirituality begins here and now, indisputably entwined with our engagement with the world as much as with our engagement with the Holy Powers and ancestors. It is one cohesive tapestry. There is not any dichotomy that privileges one over the other. There is no need to restrict grace to an elect few, investing it with a moral value that breeds sorrow, jealousy, envy, and even at times hostility in those who are not so apparently 'elect.' There is enough grace to go around for everyone. Ours is not a theology of want. It is a theology of richness.
I see this conundrum cropping up in contemporary polytheistic communities quite a bit. Within the modern body of religious communities, more and more people are coming forward who have deeply insightful devotional lives, deeply connected spiritualities. Some of them are spiritworkers and shamans, mystics, and god-spouses, some simply are very intuitively connected devotees of various Holy Powers. All of them to some degree or another risk finding themselves marginalized by the mainstream communities for, you guessed it, the grace inherent in their spiritual lives. This is very sad but I also think it does those doing the marginalizing a tremendous disservice. It renders engaged spirituality with its attendant richly nuanced devotional life the purview of a select few, instead of something inherent in spiritual living which is, to varying degrees, open to everyone if they but choose to pursue it.(2)
There's that difficult word again: choice. I talked about that a little bit in last week's post. Before I tie all these threads together, I want to segue for a moment to touch on some of the comments and attitudes that I have heard in various denominations --Heathen and Pagan both--to their mystics and spiritworkers. I've heard bitter envy: "the Gods can't be talking to X. I'm right here, They know where i am, and They're not talking to me like that." I've heard anger: "These people are just trying to be special. They're trying to say they're better than anyone else." I've heard confusion, "I don't have that kind of relationship with the Gods. Why is it so easy for X. I try and try but I'm just not getting the same results." and i've heard a thousand other variations on this theme. Not only is it sad, but all of the above clearly demonstrates a very Christian approach to the idea of grace and spirituality. This is not surprising given that even if we were raised without any religion whatsoever -- and few of us were--we still live in an American culture deeply influenced by a specifically Protestant Christianity. Our secularism is, in fact, a watered down Protestantism. (3) What does that mean in this context? Well, it means that we have all been patterned to think of spiritual connection, to think of "grace" and other spiritual gifts as something given only to the elect. The corollary to that is that those who claim such "gifts" may then be thought to be 'putting on airs' and trying to be 'better than everyone else.' This is yet another cultural wound that we can lay at the feet of monotheism.
In reality, having a deep devotional life with all the blessings that flow from that does not in any way imply that one is heir to a greater moral standing or worth than anyone else. It's not a competition. It's not a question of moral worth. It is not a race to show who is holier. We do not have to compete for the Gods' favor. We do not have to compete for "salvation." Nor are shamans and spiritworkers necessarily the best examples of "grace" in action. Those who have become shamans or spiritworkers have inborn talents, yes, that enable them to be utilized in certain ways…just like a musical prodigy or math prodigy has certain talents. That is not grace. That is an accident of genetics or a consequence of wyrd. Take your pick. Those who have fulfilling mystical lives, deeply engaged and passionately fervent spiritual awareness …that is grace and it comes from being willing to seek such things out. it comes from personal choice and a willingness to put the cultivation of such relationships at the center of one's priorities. Perhaps understanding that this is a good thing, something one ought to consider doing is the real grace of the matter.
I do believe that there is some element of divine favor inherent in grace but there's also a certain reciprocity: this gift is extended to all of us--perhaps to manifest in different ways, but we are each unique and it is to be expected that we will each explore and utilize this gift differently in our lives based on that uniqueness of our talents, wyrd, and experiences---but we must choose to bring it to flower. It doesn't just happen. Not everyone can be a spiritworker. Not everyone will have the same type of experiences as they strive to engage with the Powers. It's not going to be the same for everyone. In this, some of what the naysayers are saying is true: while not a matter of worth, there is a certain spiritual elitism at play here but I maintain that what the naysayers fail or refuse to see is the work inherent in exploring those spiritual potentials, and the struggles inherent in cultivating grace. It takes daily mindfulness and care and an awful lot of hard work. The place to look for grace in action is not in the shamans but in the quiet, every-day lives of those who seek with all their hearts, minds, and spirits to be in right relationship with the Gods and ancestors, who look at the world around them and understand that it is alive and aware and try their best to honor that in all that they do. The place to look for grace is in the quietest recesses of the heart where joy and connection blossom-- joy that we can know the Gods even in some small infinitesimal way; joy that we can get known so deeply by Them as well; most of all joy that we have the opportunity to celebrate Them.
So what is grace? how can we acquire it? what does it mean to the polytheistic mind? I don't have any answers, not definitive ones at any rate. I'd like to see my colleagues across various polytheisms discussing the matter though. I can tell you what I think it is, at least in part: spiritual elegance. I don't mean in the performance of rituals or what one says. I have had the privilege of knowing someone who I would elevate to the rank of saint if Heathenry had such things. What I learned from her about grace is simple: it's the desire to connect, the desire that cannot be extinguished to seek out the road one is meant to walk, the work one is meant to be doing, the way one is meant to be …with the Gods first and foremost, with the ancestors but also with the world at large. It is a desire to connect that refuses any compromise. It starts with humility and courage. It is the proverbial pearl beyond price. Do i think that grace is divine favor? Yes, i do, in part. But I don't think what matters is having it. Instead, what matters is what we do with it.
1. I first became aware of the shocking ways in which monotheistic conquest changed the shape of religious language in my study of classical languages. Take, for example the word "anathema." To us, patterned as we are by two thousand years of Christian dominance, that word has negative overtones, and is usually used in reference to something unholy or blasphemous. In the ancient world, its meaning was not only far different but also quite positive: it was an offering left before an image of the Gods. This one example really brought the linguistic consequences of monotheistic dominance home for me. If you control the meaning of language, you control not only how people think but what they allow themselves to even consider as possible. That is huge.
2. Of course this begs of the question of why one should pursue it. I would say because it's the right thing to do but a more self-serving answer might be that it transforms everything. It transforms the entire way one is in the world for the better.
3. Compare, for example, American secularism to French secularism, the latter of which is adamantly non-religious. For those of you who would like to explore the idea of various and differing secularisms, I highly recommend 'Love the Sin" by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobson. I recommend this book quite often when this topic comes up because i believe it is an invaluable book for anyone seeking to understand (or even recognize) the ways in which American culture is adamantly NOT secular. These two scholars have also written a second book, simply titled 'Secularisms" which I also recommend to those interested in joining this conversation.