Pretty recently, a great buzz was (and still is) in the air regarding polytheistic theology. The first step, I argued, was to start asking questions. In hours, someone had already started doing that. Yay!
In terms of questions, I have a nearly infinite number. Some are really important to me, others are not. Still others are so-so. In order to sort the wheat from the chaff, to get figure our which questions are most essential, to me in particular. While I tend to like to keep my personal theological beliefs under my hat, I feel like I’ve had some interesting ideas about process, owing to the various philosophy courses I took during my graduate work.
In case you missed it, I want to re-state: I do not actually believe that my beliefs are more valid than anyone else’s. In fact, I don’t even think that a theological question is ever satisfied by a single answer, but rather, by the dialogue between various viewpoints. As such, what I’m doing here is not laying out a theology, since no one can do that by themselves. Instead, I’m identifying my own ideas so that I can participate in a theological discussion.
A bit of philosophy: Animating Ideas and Essential Questions
An Essential Question …
1. Is one that recurs throughout a person’s life.
2. Comes up whenever we try to make decisions with regard to the subject matter (in this case, religion)
So, not, for example, “Is this person or tradition, in particular, legitimate?” Not, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” The former isn’t a question that should come up throughout your life. The latter, while it may keep *me* awake at night, isn’t something that frames the religious decision-making process, for most people.
An Animating Idea …
1. Is an idea big enough to inspire devotion
2. Is thematic in size and scope. It’s one of those things at the center of a brain-web, off of which many other (ancillary) ideas are hung.
3. In theology, is an idea to which many questions and doctrines resonate back to.
In Christianity, Animating Ideas include Salvation (and its ugly shadow, Damnation) and Becoming Christlike. They are ideas which, no matter what the question or the answer might be in Christianity, will frame the dialogue. In Judaism, Animating Ideas include Obligation and Tradition. They are words that come up in all discussions of right and wrong in that faith. Tradition is obviously very big in British Traditional Wicca. Bam, there it is, right there in the name.
These animating ideas inform what the essential question are in the faith.
For example, unique essential questions in Christianity (as opposed to the ones everyone asks) might include, “What would Jesus do?” and “How will this impact my chances of Salvation?” They are questions that frame the life-long dialogue that a Christian has with him or herself about good and evil, right action or wrong action. They are questions that different sects of Christianity answer differently. Catholics, for example, believe that Salvation comes through good works, certain protestant sects believe in Salvation through faith alone, and the Puritans believed that Salvation was pre-ordained. In Judaism, unique essential questions tend to sound more like, “What am I obligated to do?” or, “Has this custom taken on the force of law?” Again, different sects of Judaism have different answers, but each sect asks the question at some point. When explaining their individual sects, they reference these common Jewish questions: the Orthodox view themselves as obligated in all of the laws of the Talmud and all long-standing community customs, Karaites believe that they are only obligated in the Torah and not the Oral Law, Reform and Conservative answers are hard for me to sum up, but are different from both of the afore-mentioned groups. All are Jews. Likewise, questions asked in BTW center around what is traditional and what is not, what is an acceptable deviation from tradition, and what is not.
The animating ideas and essential questions, I might argue, shape a religion even more than its specific doctrines. Also, it should go without saying that animating ideas are very important. Some are helpful in generating dialogue, others, less so.
Are all Animating Ideas fruitful?
In Hellenismos, the animating ideas, I believe, presently, are Hubris (and the luminary which casts that ugly shadow, Humility), Tradition and the Will of the Gods. These things have pretty much framed every Hellenic theological discussion I have ever participated in.
I have some serious problems, I am going to say, at the outset, with the way that the discussion, thus far, has been framed.
If we use Hubris as an animating idea to frame our essential questions, this is what the discussion sounds like:
Sue: I think X might be true.
Dan: DON’T THINK THAT! THE GODS WILL SMITE YOU HUBRIShubrisHUBRIShubris.
Timmy: Did you ever wonder why bad things happen to good people?
Dan: IT IS BECAUSE THEY QUESTIONED THE GODS. STOP ASKING QUESTIONS OR THEY WILL GET YOU, TOO!
Jane: How do we know to what degree the gods are a part of the physical world?
Dan: THEY ARE ALL-POWERFUL AND YOUR QUESTIONS ANGER THEM! WHO ARE YOU TO QUESTION THEIR WILL????? [Cue ominous music and a distant thunder-crack]
In other words, this animating idea basically ends all fruitful discussion. If we want a deep, well-thought-out theology, we are going to need to put Hubris and The Will of The Gods on the back burner for a little bit, while we hammer out other questions, such as where the Hellenic Gods fit into the modern world. Dan will be a little upset at being unable to shut down all productive discussion for a while, but as long as we affirm that, yes, these are still values, but they need to be de-emphasized while we engage in meaningful discussion, Dan will get over it.
If this follower of Lugh is any indication, Greek Polytheists are not alone in having this dialogue, even if Hellenismos did pioneer Hubris-Shaming.
What about Tradition? Where does that lead? We have to be grounded in our primary source texts, but Neo-Classicism (oh gosh, I felt you guys glare directly at me through my computer screen) has not been around long enough to claim, “this is the way it has always been.” A statement, I might add, that is never, ever true, no matter who is saying it, or when, or where. Ancient Greek polytheism is not the same religion as the modern American veneration of Hellenic gods, no matter how much we might want to believe it is. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all honor the same deity. Each new iteration of that deity’s veneration came with a new group of people claiming to be the same as the old group of people, and trying to replace all of the followers of that deity who came before. That was the basic mistake that the Muslims and the Christians made. The Doctrine of Supercessionism (in response to the question, ‘if we have the Torah among our holy books, why don’t we follow those laws?’ BlahBlahBlah New Covenant/New Chosen People) lead to much strife and suffering, and the Christians back-pedaled on it with many flushed cheeks and much embarrassment, so let’s not do that.
Especially in light of the Hellenic Polytheistic revival in Greece, it feels rude to not acknowledge that we will never be authentically Greek any more than Christians or Muslims will ever be authentically Jewish. Yet, as we acknowledge that we can never truly be Greek, it sets us free to honor those gods in a way that makes sense for our region and language.
Tradition will be important in the near future, I suspect, and along with it, questions of who we are as a tradition, and how we differ from those for whom Hellenismos is an ethnic tradition, and how to call ourselves. Maybe, like Islam, we’ll find some core idea or tenant after which to name our movement. Maybe, like Christianity, Gardnerian Wicca or Buddhism, some important thinker will emerge and we’ll call our tradition, once it coagulates, after that person.
Yet, however unready it may feel, it brings up too many hot button issues and juicy questions for it to NOT be an animating idea. Off of Tradition hang ideas like Identity and Relationship to Others Who Follow the Same Gods. Very rich, and an incredibly fruitful thing to explore.
Lastly, the Will of the Gods.
I could be wrong, but I get the sense like this, as an Animating Idea, is just going to lead to hella crazy places. Like, seriously, we can never know. Case in point: my husband is a physical being with whom I share a house and native tongue, and I still have no idea what makes him tick. But somehow, a deity, who lives on a different plane of existence, speaks Greek, is anthropomorphic in what feels like a semi-metaphorical way, whose consciousness is vastly different from mine in ways I’m only beginning to understand — him? Yeah, him? I know what he’s all about. Me making assertions about his will TOTALLY not explode in my face.
Well, it probably won’t, because Hermes is a good sport like that. But truly. Good luck to the rest of you.
More than that, other than, “What is the will of the gods?” What kinds of questions does it bring up? What discussion is there to be had? It feel hazy and vague.
If a being is important to you, you will, by extension, care about what they want. I don’t think, however, that is is an idea we can actually hang anything on. It isn’t sturdy enough. Perhaps it’s a sub-idea of an Animating Idea I haven’t articulated yet.
My Burning Questions
I think maybe what I need to do is start working backwards and maybe hashing out implicit Animating Ideas lurking behind the questions that plague me. Here are some tough ones:
1. How can we know if a being is a god? If there are no criteria, why do gods matter?
2. Do the gods want worship?
3. Are the gods, in aggregate, more powerful than humanity, in aggregate?
4. If the gods both want worship and are powerful enough to punish those who stand in their way, why aren’t more Greek politicians dying of plague? How did the religion fall? How were humans able to overthrow and suppress their worship? Is it that the gods lack power, or that they just didn’t care?
5. If we worship gods only because we fear their power, does that mean that it is might which makes right?
6. If we worship gods because of their wisdom, then why should the gods ever fear being questioned?
7. If wisdom is the prime characteristic of a deity, how do we re-contextualize myths about deities solving problems through a thoughtless or hysterical application of force?
8. Is it possible for gods to choose iniquitous actions? Under what circumstances might they do so?
9. Is worship possibly a part of the “checks and balances” system of the universe? Is it like voting?
10. What is an ideal power dynamic between a community I might join and the deities that the community is in partnership with?
Let me aggregate those into broader, perhaps closer to essential questions:
1. Can spiritual power come to a being without wisdom?
2. Can iniquity come from a place other than spiritual ignorance?
3. Can power over another sentient being ever occur without checks and balances? In perpetuity? Is that ever a good thing?
4. What is the purpose of worship?
5. How can we know who is wise, and by extension, if the gods are wise?
If I look behind these questions, I see that the Animating Ideas of my personal religion are:
- How the world really works
The Preconceived Notions That Underly My Questions
Really, if I am honest with myself, my questions are more about the universe and how it works with respect to gods and their followers. The questions are laced with implicit assumptions. Articulating the implicit assumptions behind questions can really help a person to understand where their own blind spots may be, so that seems like a reasonable next step. Again, if you are skimming, please understand that these are implicit assumptions I have identified in my own thinking, not, I repeat, not things I am asserting are true about the universe.
Identifying one’s baseless preconceived notions can help detangle thinking on various issues. We all have hot-button issues, we all have nerves that can be struck, and we all have sacred cows, intellectually speaking. What we have to ask is, are any of them really sensible? Are they helpful, or should they be discarded? What would fall apart if we lost them?
The universe has higher laws, above the authority of gods. The Universe works in some way that the gods can’t change on a whim.
In other words, a deity can’t just do whatever he or she wants; their actions have consequences. Most probably, this stems from my observations that gods do not always get what they want. I mean, I suppose you could posit that Zeus really wanted an initiative like this one, done in his name. Or that a deity will punish a random-ass American follower for not obeying their will, but gives zero shits about people from the Greek Orthodox Church and government who are oppressing their followers in the homeland and destroying sacred sites. The universe limits their influence in some way. Either they don’t see, don’t care, or can’t do anything about it. It is impossible for me to believe that the Greek gods don’t care about what is going on in Greece.
Is it helpful? Well, maybe. If it’s actually true, it means that gods and mortals can work together to make this whole religion bag work better for everyone. I can’t know, obviously, but the quest to make religion work better for e and the people around me, and for deities, seems noble…?
What I lose if this turned out to not be true? If it isn’t true, I guess things are out of my hands. I can’t improve anything. But yet, since I can’t know, here is the gamble: If I try to makes things better in a world where that is impossible, I have still benefitted from demonstrating my good will towards deities and humans. If I assume it is hopeless and do not try, and it turns out that I could have made things better, a great deal is lost.
Mortals choose, and that choice impacts the gods.
To me, this seems beyond obvious. Trends indicate: when humans make the decision that a deity or pantheon is full of suck, that deity or pantheon falls into disfavor, and ceases to be a deity in any meaningful sense. Forget Christianity rampaging through the planet and converting by the sword. I want to talk about the Minoans for a second. If you read between the symbolic lines in Greek mythology, they are remonstrating against an earlier religion that practiced human sacrifice. Humans said, “Fuck those gods.” They myth’ed them into mortals, or told stories of their tragic demise. Many of those gods are effectively dead, lost to the world. That… that is basically what happens to a pantheon that treats humanity like a play-thing.
A correlative of these ideas is that religion isn’t an accurate description of the true workings of the universe. It does not, cannot ever, describe the metaphysical universe as it actually is. There isn’t a right religion and a wrong religion, just powerful spirits that humans either go to for help or do not go to for help. It assumes that all gods are equally real, all belief are equally valid. How else would we have the right to chose? Only if one religion was, all things being equal, no more or less correct than any other.
There is never any guilt, using this way of thinking, for leaving one religion or joining another, except with respect to the human relationships that you might betray in the process.
Is it helpful? In that this belief will never support a situation where a priest says, “You must do this, you have no choice, the gods will be angry,” yes. If we assume that mortals always have a choice, then if they are being abused by a clergy-person, or what appears to be a deity, they can still walk out. And they’ll be fine. People change religions. It’s a thing. The reasons that they chose are deeply personal. It is not the place of clergy to question a person who leaves a faith. That’s just fucking cultish, in a bad way. Fighting unhealthy power dynamics and fear in religion which can lead to abuses? 100% for this.
What I lose if this turned out to not be true? Everything that I believe is good and true in the universe is dead. What does that mean? I need to be hyper vigilant about carefully listening to actual evidence that I may be wrong about this. If someone makes an argument against it, I have a duty, to myself, to listen carefully to what the other person is saying, and to engage them in rational debate. I also need to think deeply about why this idea is so important to me, and think about who I need to be or what underlying principles hold true if this assumption proves false.
Power is relevant only in that is a predictor of deific wisdom.
Seriously, who knows where I got this idea? It is a bias probably created by the experience of the deities I happen to particularly like manifesting physically. Hermes is cute and pretty and good and awesome. CLEARLY he is also wise. Because, really, could I like him so much if he wasn’t? He happens also to have a great deal of influence over mundane stuff. Surely, this is an outward sign of how spectacular he is at being a deity, and being awesome. Because I am so SMRT.
If I back the fuck up for a second, I can recognize that people, deities and human alike, wind up with power even though they are spectacular douchbags. I mean, certain deities exist because they essentially represent the metaphysical essence of douchebaggery. Even if they have been “redeemed” (or white washed) in modern times, it doesn’t change the fact that they were hydrolically-charged power-douches in ancient times, and had influence despite, or perhaps because of the fact that their hat was an ass. Is it possible that they only had a bad reputation because they represented forces of the universe which, while incredibly important to sustaining life on Earth, were things humans wished did not exist? Yes.
This opens up a whole other discussion about humans choosing to believe in evil deities, maybe even because they needed a deific force to be angry at, or to embody their fears. But that’s probably far afield from the topic of deific wisdom and my thinking on the subject.
Is it helpful? Actually, if I am honest with myself? No. The corollary to this idea is that any being with power can be assumed to have wisdom. That seems like a dangerous assumption. Wisdom should probably be judged separately.
What I lose if this turned out to not be true? Laziness. I’d actually have to carefully think though everything an entity said to determine whether or not they were wise, rather than being able to rely on them being wise based on the fact that they have power.
Humans generally only bother with gods because they want something that the gods have to offer.
Whether it is to benefit from their wisdom, be saved from damnation, attain enlightenment, or to borrow their power, every adherent of a religion, my thinking appears to indicate, humans want stuff from the gods. I catch myself fretting about this. I fret about this A LOT. I say things to deities like, “So and so worships you to take care of stuff like this! What are you doing?” As if to say, “If you don’t keep an eye on the value of the product that you are offering, you will be out-competed by deities offering more for the same price, or the same for less.”
Many would call that Hubris. But seriously, if you don’t concern yourself with another’s well-being, can you be said to love them? And seriously, are we going to sit here and pretend that these gods were never abandoned by their followers in the past? Or that they enjoyed that? Yes, Christianization did happen, in part, by force. But what is in a person’s heart can’t be driven away by the sword. Many Jews died for their refusal to convert to Christianity. Enough of them were willing to die for their faith that the Christians either had to give up at some point, or commit genocide. That level of commitment to one’s ethnic tradition is not something out of the reach of our gods.
Were the Jews willing to die because they thought they’d get something? Well, probably not. Jewish tradition is notoriously ambiguous about an afterlife. Maybe there’s reincarnation, they say. Maybe there is Heaven. Or, it is quite possible that when you die, there’s nothing. Being dead might just be an absence of you in the universe. But they were pretty clear on the fact that, if you really believe in something, really, truly believe, it is worth giving up your life for.
Is it helpful? Yes and No. If I were clergy, I imagine that this might be a helpful idea. When I am looking at people who want to have a relationship with a deity, it is probably because they want something. Does my deity offer that? If that person has an expectation that my deity offers that and later discovers, experientially, that my deity does not, will they flame out of my trad and badmouth both me and my deity? Signs point to, “yes.” I am also favorably impressed by the notion that, in order to grow and be a vibrant community offering all of the services that a community should, people need to find the trad and the particular community appealing. You have a better chance at growth when your organization fills the needs of the people who show up at your door. If I were a a lay person, this might be treacherous territory. Should I really approach divinity asking what it can give me? Well, certainly, I have to think about how it will impact my spiritual growth, and who it will cause me to become as a person. For me, the spiritual trajectory of my soul is paramount. More than getting blessings or avoiding curses, I need to consider who I am becoming, and whether the person I am becoming conforms to what I value. But I can imagine the train going off the rails for people who had a different definition of “benefit” than I do.
What I lose if this turned out to not be true? A sense of direction. If this isn’t true, why do people worship or refuse to worship gods? I literally have no idea.
It might be really good to aggregate the questions I hear being asked elsewhere, and to think about what sorts of themes emerge, and what kind of underlying assumptions might be just beneath the Animating Ideas and Essential Questions in the Pagan community.