Avoiding Reactionary Theology

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So, a little known fact: one time, I did a tech start-up, and got A-Level funding.

When I first started out, I was very, very concerned with making sure that the product I was developing was completely unique and unlike any other product on the market. If an idea was “too much like World of Warcraft” or “Too much like Zynga” I threw it out, even if it seemed like the best fit for what I was trying to build.

When you have to make ten thousand elevator pitches, you start to revise your idea. People asked me, rightly so, “If this game is so drastically different from every other game that players are familiar with, what makes you think people will want to play it?”

Games, as it turns out, especially successful games, tend to share a conceptual language. Put another way, things that look like other things are easier to understand. People rush over to a new “Match-3” game because it is novel. They play that new game more than once because they understand the concept behind it, having seen it elsewhere. They keep playing if and only if the game developers have put enough of their own creativity into the game that it remains engaging.

It is this which matters: ease of use, engagement, and, to a degree, novelty.

There’s usually very little advantage in being first in whatever it is, because “first” rarely sticks. New ideas very rarely see massive, immediate, long-term adoption. Case in point: iPad is not the first tablet computer. AppleWatch is not the first SmartWatch. The company that put these products out had enough wisdom and discernment to watch what competitors were doing. They made notes about what was working, what wasn’t working, and decided to use that information in designing their variant on the product. What distinguishes them from Samsung, for example, is that they made the product uniquely theirs (without throwing out the useful ideas had by others before them) through creative branding, and by considering utility and user experience. Samsung makes an excellent, sturdy, economical product with all the bells and whistles. In fact, arguably, what Samsung puts out is a more powerful product. What they lack, however, is creativity and style. Samsung, nevertheless, is an excellent example of a successful company; one whose success comes entirely from incrementally improving on other people’s ideas… and then sort of making like they invented the stuff themselves.

Bottom line: it is fine to borrow design ideas, and ideal to use creativity to make those ideas suit your own style. It is important to examine ideas and see how they have played out for the people who went before you.

So, how does this relate to Theology?

For modern Polytheism, theology is a place where we are going to have to innovate.

So much emphasis, in recent years, has fallen on deed over creed, and some have suggested that we need to start doing some careful thinking about Theology.  I couldn’t agree more. Such thinking, I believe, is foundational to making good decisions about our relationships with gods.

We are not going to be able to create and innovate all of the useful ideas we need ex hilo (as many start-ups try to do), and I am fairly certain that just copying the ideas of others and incrementally improving on them (like Samsung), is not the answer either.

Let’s get this much clear: you may hate Apple, but you can’t argue that all of their ideas are bad ones. You can’t say that they don’t do a good job at running a business, and if you say that you have nothing to learn from them, as a smaller start-up, if you think you can succeed by avoiding every idea they have ever implemented, you aren’t going to make it. You have to admit, if you are starting a tech company, that Apple, even if you are not making the same sorts of tech products they are, has succeeded at things you want to accomplish. They have created compelling products, seen market adoption, and made money in the process. If you think that you can sell your product or idea by avoiding the language with which big companies have permeated the market, you are ham-stringing yourself. Go ahead. Just try to describe a tech product without using words like “personal computer” or “tablet device” or “smart phone.” Try describing a new tech product without using those comparisons. You will sound like a lunatic, and no one will fund you. 

In the same way, not everything that Monotheistic religions do is bad and/or non-applicable. They are the major players in the religion market. Polytheisms may have done the same stuff earlier, but that isn’t helpful to think about right now. We can’t live on our past successes, and we can have no reasonable expectation that we can point to an ancient book that no one has read and use that to frame the conversation with anyone other than scholars of the ancient cultures whose religions we now follow. Monotheisms have succeeded in the endeavor of establishing a rich and diverse community for the purpose of honoring their pantheon (and yeah, we can call it that, even if you want to argue that it contains only one deity). We want to similarly succeed, and it is useful to examine what sorts of pro-social, pro-community theological ideas they might have in their bag of tricks. 

Talk about the past all you want. Most people aren’t Monotheists because someone is holding a gun to their head. These religions must be doing something right, and it is high time we talked about what.

If you are a Polytheist, you probably feel overwhelmed by “Big Players” in the religion market. If you are a Pagan of any kind, you probably have some substantial emotional baggage about religions you no longer subscribe to. This is not helped by the fact that minority religions, like Start-Up CEOs, are called on to make ten thousand elevator pitches — when we want a holiday off of work, when we are explaining to the Masons or similar organizations why we should be admitted, when asking for ritual space at the local UU Church, when applying for Non-Proffit Church status, or, sadly, when explaining to a court why a person of our religion(s) should be allowed to retain custody of their own biological children. However, since we know this to be the reality we live in, let us make sure that the language we choose to describe our beliefs does not wander too far from what people in our society know and understand.

If what we want is to succeed, what we need to do is to take advantage of the ideas which have proven successful, and which will suit our purposes, regardless of who else might happen to use them. We shouldn’t judge ideas because of where they come from. We should judge them by where they lead to. 

So, what’s next?

In my opinion, Theology answers questions. The first step, I think, is actually to figure out what questions we hear ourselves and other Polytheists asking. Some will be broad, some will be narrow. From there, we should look at who else answered the questions that we are now asking, and determine the method by which they arrived at those answers.

I will toss you one bit of advice from the oldest of the three major Abrahamic faiths.

Judaism has long believed that a single answer does not satisfy a theological question. The answer to a theological question is the dialogue between the various possible answers. That dialogue should not end. Different answers will work for different people and different times. Put one on the back-burner if you need to, but never throw it out. Let the contradiction sit, and be comfortable sitting with that contradiction. Also: don’t abandon your community because you have unique ideas, and don’t drive people out of your community just because their ideas aren’t the same as everyone else’s. 

Never has a Monotheistic idea seemed more appropriate for a Polytheistic path.


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