I tried to make Twitter relevant to me again last autumn. True to form, my effort garnered a lot of attention on Facebook, where my tweets have been cross-posted for so long that I forgot that was even a thing, yet barely a peep from the Twitterati. Maybe that’s because I’m not one of the cool kids, or maybe it’s because the cool kids really don’t use Twitter any longer. I can’t say for sure.

The effort, a series of tweets asking questions around the hashtag #trypolytheism, got a lot of unexpected reactions.

From among my Christian friends, there was some bristling, which was not entirely surprising. Polytheism doesn’t have much in the way of sacred branding, and it can be disconcerting to hear a message that different from expectations. That I was surprised by the particular individuals is simply a reminder that one does can be devout without being public about that fact.

The atheists — anti-theists, specifically — were a bit puzzled, because largely those folks think monotheism is the only alternative and don’t quite know how to react. I had at least one brief exchange about monoatheism and polyatheism, which I found amusing.

The Quakers mostly found it amusing. Quakers don’t tell others what to believe, even within the tradition; revelation is personal and continual. I don’t actually know which of the Quakers I know are Christ-centered and which are not, since belief is not something which is often broached in conversation.

Among comments from Pagans, though, I found a thread of accusation. “Why are you proselytizing?” one friend asked me.

I wasn’t, in fact; I was branding. Proselytizing is the hard sell, in my mind. Seems there’s been so much of that tactic that people get edgy when someone even talks about their religion. Raising awareness that there are possibilities beyond the monotheist experience is an important ministry; that’s not the same as trying to obtain a conversion. My religion does not include evangelism as a tenet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it in an effort to get people thinking.

I ended up stopping the experiment simply because I ran out of interesting things to say.

Well, I still think it was a catchy hashtag.

Monodeism and polydeism

Deism presumes that the clockwork of the universe was set in motion by a demiurge, who at some point later vacated the premises. Apparently, polydeism is a thing, which is pretty amazing. The notion that a succession of gods have come along, messed around with what passed for the natural order at the time, and then wandered off makes more sense to me than monodeism does, but I still find it kinda depressing. In fact, it depresses me more to think that the universe has been a passing fancy to multiple gods than if it had been just that one time. Is it that boring here?

Accepting the possibility of polydeism also opens new doors. Could it be that some gods just stop by, but others choose to stick around? That’s not an option under monodeism, because it presumes just one deity. There’s nothing in polytheist belief that suggests that all the many gods have much in common with one another, and it stands to reason that some might move in for the long haul once they are born here or happen upon the place. What I’m not sure about is if that would still count as polydeism at all. I think of my ninth-grade social studies teacher’s definition of [mono]deism: “God made the universe, then split.” If it was actually multiple gods, and they split on whether or not to split, does that dilute the -deism part of the word? It certainly doesn’t satisfy people who use deism simply as a way to pay lip service to divine powers while still completely ignoring them, which may have something to do with why it’s not super fashionable to be a polydeist.

There’s a deranged part of my mind that thinks about what this concept means to theological debates within the Pagan and polytheist spheres: were they separate and distinct gods who abandoned the universe, or facets of a single being? On the other hand, maybe these former resident gods were archetypes. Could the universe now be devoid of archetypes? Did those gods all hang out together and bolt when the party was over, or was it a revolving door of holy powers? Revisiting the monist “all gods are one” mindset, could there be a succession of different faces to the same god[s] passing through, giving the polydeist the mistaken impression that there’s been a bunch when it was only a few, or one, deadbeat deity?

Moreover, what if deism is just one more idea which isn’t entirely correct or incorrect? Could it be that some gods have left for parts unknown, but others remain? Perhaps deistic abandonment is inevitable, but still unfolding. How do I know if my gods are going to leave, or when? The very thought could drive some devotees into a bitter form of agnosticism, I’d venture. If we can’t have faith in gods, does the word have any meaning?

If nothing else, a cycle of deism helps me imagine that non-believers such as atheists aren’t precisely wrong, but (like many of the rest of us) simply drawing conclusions based upon only that very small portion of the evidence which is known to human beings. I remain confident that not everything is even knowable to we jelly-brained types, and try mightily not to assume I have a better handle on the big picture than anybody else. I fail in that, regularly, but that’s the fun of being human in the first place. We are a self-centered, arrogant bunch of primates, after all. If some or all of the gods have moved on to better things, I certainly can’t blame them from tiring of our antics.

For me, there is something reassuring about knowing that there’s a lot we don’t know.

Why I need gods

There are plenty of people who turn their attention inward for their religious practice, or to the energy of the Earth or universe.  Not me; I need gods.

godsI have tried life without gods.  I’ve been the sort of Wiccan who honors archetypal forces.  I’ve communed with nature and its spirits directly, without any sort of worship.  I’ve meditated on my strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve taken responsibility through the use of magic and by acting in accordance.

For me, life without gods is life without hope.  It’s life without purpose.  Life without gods is no life at all.

What I cannot and will not claim is that worshiping gods leads to a life free of pain.  I screw up plenty, and bad things definitely happen.  I know of no god that offers me a mortal existence that is free of peaks and valleys.  My prayers are sometimes answered in ways I see as beneficial, but not always.  The purpose of giving offerings is not to obtain divine favor, and anyone who thinks otherwise is sure to be disappointed.

Gods — external, independent, immortal, inscrutable gods — provide for me a scaffold upon which I can build my life.  I’m not looking for some reward after my death for being a good worshiper; for me the gods are shining lighthouses by which I try to navigate life’s voyage.  It’s not enough to simply head towards one of those beacons, because I know I can’t actually reach them.  Maybe it’s better to describe them as the stars a helmsman uses to set a ship’s course.  They are fixed points, and so long as I keep some in front, some behind, and certain ones to each side I know I am headed in the same direction.

The periods of my life without gods — when I considered myself some amorphous sort of Pagan who didn’t actually worship — have been when I drifted without purpose.  Drifting isn’t necessarily a bad thing:  when the current is sending you in the direction you wish to go and the skies are clear, what could be better?  Without a destination or even a direction in mind, I have found that my drifting brings me through times good and bad, yet drains me all the while like someone on a raft in the sea is drained.

I respect those who don’t feel the need for the support of gods.  Yes, I get irritated by language that suggests that those paths are either superior to or in fact actually supplant my own, but when they do their thing and it works for them, who am I to judge?  I’ve tried that way, and I know I’d rather have those lighthouses, those stars above me.

Miasma can be likened to those stormy times when navigation is impossible.  Clouds blot out the sky.  No shore is close enough for a lighthouse to be visible.  I can but batten down and hold on.  Sucky things happen whether or not I worship gods.  The difference for me is that when the clouds part, I can again look to those stars and get my bearings.  When the way to the gods is restored, I can rebuild and retool.  I can resume my prior course, or set a new one as I choose.  I know I am not alone, even though I’m not expecting the stars above to hold a conversation with me.

There are many other things I need to thrive as a human being:  food, water, air, community, love, and shelter come to mind.  All of these dim when I do not have in my life gods as well.  Joy is more fleeting and pain brings more uncertainty and fear when no gods are present.  My ability to set goals and strive to be better is clarified and focused when I have the gods to steer by.

It is for this reason that I need gods.  Any questions?

Let’s Disenchant the World! Part 1

This is a long read, but a calm and careful look at a part of the atheist-vs-polytheist debates which are again running rampant.

And back to our regularly scheduled beatings. Because if if you believe in the Gods as discrete, individual beings, you’re a shithead who needs to top focusing on such stupid ideas. That’s right, it’s Halstead time again! This time we’ll be looking at his article: The Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism This is the third in […]

And, not or

The title of this post is how Anomalous Thracian describes the relationship of the terms “Pagan” and “polytheist” in his life, a concept he reminded me of when I interviewed him about his latest project.  E is unusual insofar as e adopted the polytheist label first, while most of us who consider ourselves both used Pagan before or concurrently with polytheist.  (In this context, I’m using “polytheist” to describe those folks who do not experience their gods as being facets of the One; we have been called “hard” and “devotional” and “immersive” and “traditional” polytheists, but no one term really encapsulates the mindset and also disincludes all others, so expect other adjectives to be proposed as the conversation continues.)  AT recognizes that not all Pagans are polytheist as e understands the term, and that not all polytheists think Pagan is meaningful to describe their path, but they aren’t mutually exclusive.

While I’ve been tentative about the language lest I inadvertently offend, I”m very much in tune with calling myself a polytheist and a Pagan.  The concept of deity is simply beyond human understanding, and any cosmology we construct is going to fall short.  The concepts of “separate” and “individual” may be utterly meaningless to the gods, or their individualness may be so far beyond my own that it would make my brain melt.  How separate (or not!) the gods are from me and each other is far less important than having a cosmology in place so I can relate to them.  I relate to the gods as individuals, but I’ve given up any hope of knowing if that’s the “one true way” or not.  In fact, a good amount of my experience contradicts that worldview, but I’m not about to be confused by the facts once my mind is made up!

Considering how Pagans react to one of our own choosing a different path, I want to be quite clear that I didn’t turn my back on the last 26 years of my faith journey this past Sunday morning.  I also didn’t accept Jesus as my lord and savior, nor did I make a bargain with any particular god that I am going to worship no other before em.  In fact, what happened the other day technically wasn’t something that I did at all.  Rather, it was done when I was in another room.

During its monthly Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, the members of the Society of Friends in my town decided t290px-Quaker_star-T.svghat yes, I was clear to become a Friend, or Quaker, and that they in fact welcomed such a thing.  The decision was recorded as a minute, which will be published in the local Quaker newsletter (which I have edited since the beginning of the year).  The reading of the minute is the only ceremony involved, and I missed it not because it was secret, but because I had committed to teaching First Day School to the kiddies this morning.

Of course, there are likely questions about this.  Because I don’t have frequent readers, and thus no frequently asked questions, I’m going to guess what they might be:

  • Did you just convert to Christianity?  Well, no.  Quakerism was definitely founded by a Christian named George Fox, who preached about the direct connection with deity.  Most Friends are Christ-centered, but they include nontheist, humanist, and even Quaker Pagans among their number.
  • Do they know you’re a Pagan?  I haven’t hidden that fact, but Quakers don’t exactly wear their beliefs on their sleeves, either; for one thing, it would probably not be appropriate to the spirit of plain dress.  I made it a point to mention that fact when I was meeting with a clearness committee about becoming a member.  That led to questions about how I might relate to Friends who were uncomfortable with my Paganness, but I wasn’t asked about those beliefs, nor was it suggested that I should renounce them.  One elder in my meeting (mine!  that’s exciting to write!) said that I don’t have to speak in that language, but I do need to be able to hear it.  Another Quaker I met at a Pagan event called it “listening in tongues.”
  • How does this relate to your Pagan practices, anyway?  Considering that Hellenismos is a religion of spoken prayers, offerings, and outward ritual which I perform daily in solitude, while Quakerism is a path of silent worship in groups, the two dovetail surprisingly well in my life.  I was led to each in times of emotional turmoil.  While I cannot always be sure what voice I am hearing in meeting for worship, I am able to more easily listen to my gods there then when I am pouring libations and reciting prayers as offerings.  In fact, both are orthopraxic, focusing more on the practice than on the belief, and each requires discernment to tell what’s a sign (or message, in Quaker parlance), and what just an interesting coincidence or one’s own desires (the rush to interpret such as a message by a Quaker can be called “notional thinking”) be presumed to be more important than they really are.
  • Didn’t you get a sign from Ares to follow Hellenismos?  And now you’ve gone and joined one of the historic peace churches?  That did happen, yes.  Ares looks over my shoulder as I write, because he’s my gatekeeper god and reminds me of my faith.  Having never been to war, and not seeing any benefit to the enterprise, I can relate to the fact that no small number of the offerings my ancestors made to him were likely to turn war away from their shores, because they wanted peace.  I believe in peace, and there is a long tradition of asking Ares for peace.  I don’t see a conflict here.
  • But are you sure this isn’t just the first step down the slippery slope of betrayal of the Pagan community?  On one hand, I haven’t a clue.  I trust my gods.  I listen to them.  Jesus appeared to me exactly once during my years as a Christian, to tell me that he was cool with me giving him up so long as I didn’t give up the gods.  Ares showed up to tell me that I had done just that, and to pull it together.  This is my path, and I’m going to follow it towards wisdom, betterment of myself, and to serve them the best I can.  On the other hand, ordinary Pagans probably come and go all the time without eliciting feelings of betrayal.  I’m not Star Foster or Teo Bishop, I haven’t made waves, so I doubt anyone would feel personally wounded if I did leave Paganism . . . except for those gods I’ve sworn oaths to, of course.
  • Aren’t oaths a problem for Quakers?  My short answer to this is, “These aren’t the oaths you’re looking for.”  The Quaker opposition is to swearing to tell the truth as in a court of law, because it creates a double standard of truth.  I agree, so far as that narrow understanding of oath is concerned, but oaths signify much deeper commitments than truth-telling, and to reject them entirely is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

So I’ve gone and added another religion to my identity.  I do so with humble respect for the long tradition into which I have been accepted, and with profound thanks to the gods who led me to attend a meeting in the first place.  It may take me a lifetime to express in words what I know to be true:  that this decision allows me to better serve gods and mortals alike.

What role does mystery play in your tradition?

If I’m not mistaken, the idea of mysteries comes from Hellenic tradition, so there’s that.  Some percentage of Hellenic Pagans have embraced mysteries ever since, right up until the present day.  The question is about my tradition, and that’s the answer.  I haven’t personally been initiated into any Hellenic mysteries, but there is something itching at the edge of my brain which may change that fact at some point.

This post is part of a series of devotional questions for polytheists which were developed by Galina Krasskova.

Have you ever found it difficult to uphold your end of a bargain with the divinities?

I had a friend once who used as his motto, “No promises made, no promises broken.”  That may be the only way one could honestly answer “no” to this question.

The bargains I have more trouble holding up are the open-ended ones.  Sometimes I will get clear direction to give up or modify a behavior, without it being tied to any specific bargain on my part.  Not knowing the higher purpose of what’s being asked is tricky, but that’s what I generally have to deal with when I don’t initiate the bargain myself.  That’s one of the reasons I never felt particularly led to give anything up for Lent when I was Catholic; the church at that time did a really bad job of explaining why I sh9uld, no one in my family modeled the behavior, and I was never motivated enough to find out why the priests thought it was useful.

When it’s my idea, though, I know what I’m offering, and I know what I’m asking for.  A little concrete thought goes a long way for a practical guy like me.  So I make bargains with Ares to avoid conflict, or to gird myself if it’s inevitable, and I deal with Hermes to protect myself and my home from thieves.  I have a clear goal in mind, and a clear idea of what I want to offer in return — which is subject to negotiation, of course.

Folks who are more sensitive to their gods’ words likely have more productive conversations, and doubtless find bargains initiated by those deities to be less trying.  I don’t hear my gods well, so I make do with what I have.

This post is part of a series of devotional questions for polytheists which were developed by Galina Krasskova.