Recently, a Facebook friend suggested, in a discussion of strange Polytheist ideas, the possibility that we might be re-treading, or being impacted by, Puritan theology. It made sense. Religion is an appendage of culture, and United States culture has been deeply influenced by Puritans who came to this continent and colonized it.
I decided to read some Puritan writings to see if it was true. Were some of the popular ideas in the Polytheist community related to Puritan thinking? Indeed, yes.
Here, I have a brief overview of some Puritan theological ideas that have gotten a lot of traction in the Pan-Polytheist movement, and have impacted a small number of vocal Polytheist writers and thinkers, almost certainly without anyone intending for this to be the case.
Election, or “Being Chosen.”
“God did not choose us because we were worthy, but by choosing us He makes us worthy.” — A Puritan Golden Treasury, Thomas, I.D.E. (c. 1620 – 1686)
I once saw a Polytheist write: “We do not need to be qualified to be chosen. The gods will make those whom they choose qualified.” I’m nearly certain that it wasn’t an intentional paraphrase.
What does it mean? The Puritan emphasis was not on striving to connect with the divine. It was on trying to determine whether or not one was chosen.
Election is the first link of the golden chain of salvation, calling is the second. He who has the second link of the chain is sure of the first. As by the stream we are led to the fountain, so by calling we ascend to election. Calling is an earnest and pledge of glory. “God has chosen you to salvation, through sanctification” (II Thess. 2:13). “A Body of Divinity” pg. 224
The process was not one of refining one’s spirituality or behavior, but of constantly examining oneself for signs that one might be ordained as one of those who would escape punishment and attain reward. Without being elected, or chosen, no amount of piety or good deeds could profit a person.
This, too, we see reflected in the Polytheist dialogue. I saw one very adamant woman insist, in every thread she was on that, “as with all deities, Hekate must choose you.” IE, there is no sense in praying to or venerating a deity unless one is elected and called. The first link in that chain has not yet been formed, and there is no sense in even trying to forge a second link if one does not have the first.
Suffice to say, this isn’t how ancient Polytheisms worked. If you suspected that a deity might be in some way applicable to your existence, either because of where you lived, or beause of your ancestors, or because you needed their help, you venerated that deity. Sick people did not avoid the temple of Asklepios because he hadn’t chosen them. No such concept applied.
In Polytheist circles, it leads to certain people who believe that they have been “chosen” thinking that they are better than those who have not been. It also leads to a type of theological bullying where “clergy” who are mystically inclined decide that other people have been “chosen” by their deity in particular, whether they want that or not.
I’ve actually been personally told to “stop fighting” the supposed calling of a deity I already worked with extensively, and that the fact that I did not hear, or feel, or percieve that additional calling was just more evidence that I was fighting them. An alternative interpretation was that said individual wanted me to doubt myself, and wanted to play savior and priest so that I’d be more in their orbit.
Sanctification Through Suffering
It is hard to prescribe a just measure of humiliation. It is the same in the new birth as in the natural. Some give birth with more pangs, and some with fewer. But would you like to know when you are bruised enough? When your spirit is so troubled that you are willing to let go those lusts which brought in the greatest income of pleasure and delight. When not only is sin discarded but you are disgusted with it, then you have been bruised enough. The medicine is strong enough when it has purged out the disease. The soul is bruised enough when the love of sin is purged out.
— “The Godly Man’s Picture” pg. 227
The idea that suffering, by itself, is spiritual purification, and that it exists for the purpose of refining the soul, is a Puritan idea. Essentially, God was believed to help people attain greater holiness by crushing their will and/or ability to resist him.
If that sounds overstated, consider this: The aim of Puritan child-rearing was to break the spirit of children.
Train them up in exact obedience to yourselves, and break them of their own wills. To that end, suffer them not carry themselves unreverently or contemptuously towards you; but to keep their distance. For too much familiarity breedeth contempt, and imboldeneth disobedience.
— Baxter, “Christian Economics”, Practical Works, Vol.1, p.450
For beating, and keeping down of this stubbornness parents must provide carefully for two things: first that children’s wills and wilfulness be restrained and repressed, and that, in time; lest sooner than they imagine, the tender sprigs grow to that stiffness, that they would rather break than bow. Children should not know, if it could be kept from them, that they have a will in their own, but in their parents’ keeping: neither should these words be heard from them, save by way of consent, “I will” or “I will not.”
— John Robinson, Works, Vol.1, p.247.
The will, Puritans reasoned, was purely sinful. The less of it, the better. Moreover, there was a parallel between the home and the church. As Christ was to the church, the head of the household was to his wife and children. Being too affectionate with your children, or suffering their love for you, was considered a bad thing, because it degraded their respect, and therefore emboldened them to sin.
So, very likely, Puritans thought of the horrors of life as parallel to the beating of children. They conceived of right practice as being rightly painful.
The temple had a fire burning on the altar; take heed of strange fire. But keep the fire of zeal and devotion flaming upon the altar of your heart; do temple work and offer up the sacrifice of a broken heart. When the heart is a consecrated place, a holy of holies, then God will walk there.
— Sermon, The Spiritual Watch, Thomas Watson
If you hear a Polytheist going on about how a deity has had to break their will, or how one has to “give in” to the gods to bring about a cessation of suffering, they are expressing a Puritan theological concept, adapted to Polytheism.
If you have ever heard someone bragging about how the gods have harmed them, and that this is a sign of Their Love, and wondered what the hell was wrong with them, you now know.
You might also hear people re-framing a nearly identical concept as “Shaman Sickness.” In the traditional variants of this concept, the person is ill because of spiritual imbalance, undergoes a spiritual process, and the illness ceases. It is not the continual pummeling of a human which brings them to their knees and forces them into holy submission. Don’t confuse the two concepts. They are not the same thing.
Modern psychological research has determined that beatings do not, in fact, improve behavior. What they do, actually, is increase rates of anxiety and depression, and reinforce negative self-concept. Trauma doesn’t make adults better people. Breaking someone’s will doesn’t make them a better person.
This one isn’t specifically Puritan, but I’m including it, since it seems to come up a lot.
If you have ever heard a Polytheist claim that it was possible to approach a deity with an earnest heart and be connected to a demon impersonating that deity, that is a Christian notion.
Particularly, if a person holds the belief that anyone claiming to worship their deity or deities is instead worshipping an evil or non-divine entity because said person does not agree with their beliefs of practices, this resonates to a lot of the Evangelical, Catholic, and yes, Puritan theology.
The anxiety of reaching “the wrong Poseidon” or whoever, flies in the face of every myth where the Theoi have rained fury and terror upon anyone claiming divinity when they did not have it.
The idea that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity would control all of future history makes some degree of sense in a monotheistic world view. The idea that everything, from our “vocation” or profession, to the final fate of our eternal soul, is decided by God in advance, is a Puritan idea.
The idea that our gods decide everything is problematic to the development of moral philosophy. An interesting article discussing the ideas of Charles Hartshorne summed up what I want to say next very succinctly:
Hartshorne pointed out that if God is omnipotent, then God has “all” or “100%” of the power. If this is so, then human beings and all other beings have “zero” power. But if we have zero power, then do we even exist? It is hard to imagine what “existence” means if it is a quality attributed to beings with zero power to affect the world. In fact, if God has 100% of the power, then no being other than the divine being can be said to exist.
If beings other than God have some power, then God does not have all the power. From this it follows that everything that happens in the world—whether it be the life or death of a child or the beginning or ending of a war—should not be attributed to God or to Goddess. If beings other than God or Goddess have some of the power, then many of the events that happen in the world must be attributed to the choices and failures to make choices of beings other than God.
Again, it’s a theological concept which allows us to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility. And in my opinion, it’s one that is better avoided by thinking people who want to change the world for the better.