Know Your Meme: Puritan Theology

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. Moreover, being too affectioinate 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.

Demonology

demon_communion

This one isn’t speifically 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 insteads 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.

Predestination

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 succintly:

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.

 

 

18 comments

  1. celestinenox

    Some people have difficulty letting go of the religion they came from; I know I’ve had some difficulty in figuring out what “worship” means in a Pagan and/or Polytheist context. I am personally uncomfortable with the idea of deities as best friends, or entities with which one can just hang out and watch Netflix. There is definitely a large part of me that wants to worship these entities, but I definitely do not want to do so within the Christian notions of submission and breaking of the will. It’s… a difficult balance and I’m trying to break myself of the old notions. It’s hard, though.

    • Thenea

      Moreover, there are a lot of valid ancient aproaches.

      I have no idea what all the Romans were doing back in the day, but the ancient Greeks were very comfortable with informal religion, going so far as to invite Zeus to their drinking parties (which often included the popular entertainments of the day, not *too* disimilar to inviting the gods over for Netflix and beer). Egyptians, by concept, as near as I understand, didn’t so much have household worship, as such, prefering to keep their sacraments inside of temples.

      If your practice isn’t recon, or if you are working with a group of deities from several different pantheons, it can be super hard to know where to start. And Christian influences aren’t always bad. Catholicism has a lot of interesting stuff going on, as does the Episcopal denomination. I mostly mention Puritan influences because that religion didn’t make it.

      • Smarmy

        I don’t remember exactly where I read this, so keep in mind that I may be wrong on some points here, but there is actually evidence that ancient Egyptian commoners *did* have household altars to some extent, as well as visiting hekaus for religious charms and magicks and things of that nature. It’s just that since only the gentry and priesthood were literate, we only have written records of how they performed religion; basically, we only know how the very few of the very few performed priestly duties. The religious practices of the common people, outside of participation in festivals, is more or less left to speculation unfortunately :///

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  3. Jamie Legaspi

    I’ve heard this information several times, being a Filipino-American who’s close to the Irish pantheon and currently getting in touch with her ancestral Tagalog pantheon, but I just like reading it because THIS NEEDS TO BE SAID AT LEAST EIGHT MILLION TIMES, MOTHERFUCKER.

    Like many people raised in Western society, I keep accidentally thinking of Deity in the Catholic way, where “gods are more powerful than humans and they can do whatever they want, so don’t ask them too many questions or tell them you don’t like something.”

    The Filipino anito are starting to emphasize that they’re NOT gods, at least not how Christianity thinks of them. They accept literal descriptions like “Haik is a sea-god” because it’s true (he is a powerful sea-spirit who was invoked by fishers and sailors for safe journeys and good hauls) and it’s a lot easier than saying “Haik is an anito of the sea, which is currently the native Tagalog word for “deity” if you don’t want to use the Spanish “Dios.” But in precolonial times, ‘anito’ was the term they used for prayers/sacrifices TO the gods. It was also used to describe ancestors and nature-spirits, and sometimes they even used it for any spirit at all, whether god, ancestor-spirit, or demon (BTW ASIAN DEMONS ARE NOT AT ALL LIKE WESTERN DEMONS, BUT MORE LIKE EUROPEAN FAIRIES. MANY ASIAN DEMONS ARE OKAY AND EVEN PRETTY NICE IF YOU DON’T PISS THEM OFF. HI JAPAN, Y’ALL KNOW WHAT’S UP). This is confusing since modern people are used to thinking of gods/ancestors/spirits as separate things that must never, ever cross streams.”

    So the functional use of “god/deity” is okay with the anito, but it’s the power dynamic of “a god is more powerful than humans and Must Be Obeyed” that they hate.

    They especially hate the idea of “gods make you suffer because they love you” or “breaking someone’s will is the ULTIMATE way to devotion.” I mean, the conquistadors broke the Filipinos’ wills to make them Catholic (what with the mass murder of pagan villages and pillaging/rape of those they didn’t kill), so why the fuck would the anito want to do the same thing?

    Sure, the Tagalog pantheon has a variety of evil gods who represent illness and sin, but nature isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and neither are people since we’re part of it. The Filipinos had a view of cosmic balance, so the kind deities who ruled the nice afterlife had evil counterparts who ruled the bad one. Good deities could still be personifications of “bad” things like typhoons and tsunamis (but they calmed down for about half the year, so they’re not ALWAYS raging), and our Satan analogue DID have a bottom line that even he wasn’t willing to cross (namely widespread destruction and death, LOL THE IRONY FOR THE CONQUISTADORS). After all, without people, there is no heaven OR hell and therefore no balance.

    Intellectually I understand the view of cosmic balance, but emotionally I’m still decolonizing from the idea of “be good, or Deity will Smite You.”

    • Thenea

      I really enjoyed reading this comment, thank you. What you discuss — the process of recognizing how foreign influences might be impacting your theology, and the hard work of studying self, family and wider culture in order to reclaim an ancestral tradition is something which needs to be talked about CONSTANTLY in Recon circles. And it isn’t.

      Instead we have, “Monotheisms are all evil.” Like, yeah, no, what they mean is that a lot of toxic ideas which they now reject came from Christianity. These aren’t Monotheist ideas, they are Christian ideas. We should not paint Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism with the same brush, because it will not help us heal the actual dysfunction, which goes far beyond the number of deities one worships, and has a lot to do with what one even thinks a deity is, or how a religion needs to work.

      Also, although there are many messed up things in Christianity, there are also good things that we need to think about. Maybe, over the course of the last thousand plus years, they had a few good ideas and it might be to our advantage to use them. But in order to find the good, we need to start digging it all out and sorting it. People love simple answers, but there aren’t any, in this case.

      Greece was among the first of the European countries to lose its ancestral religion and it shows. People from the Supreme Council of Hellenes are constantly saying things like, “WE NEED HELLENISMOS TO FIX THIS MODERN DECADANCE!” Like step one for them was to be even churchier than the church. Like the Protestant Reformation, only with Greek Deities instead of Jesus. They aren’t reclaiming their ancestral tradition so much as they are REACTING AGAINST the Greek Orthodox Church.

      Their culture has been under the thumb of the Greek Orthodox Church for a very, very, very long time. It’s like standing in a room with a strong smell. You go nose-blind to it. And their culture has been shaped by that religion so long that removing it just leaves a very specificly shaped empty hole, and so whatever religion replaces it will ideologically resemble it, unless measures are taken to work out, from first principles, what a better answer might look like.

      This conversation, though, needs to be CENTRAL to the discussion of reconstructionism.

      In Greece, too, demons weren’t considered evil. In fact, friendship between those spirits and the gods, according to some thinkers, was what allowed the gods to manifest, work benificence for their followers, and work their will in the world. And that was where the original word came from — from the Greek word Daimon/Daemon. The Catholic Church used it to refer to evil things in particular, and that meaning was transmitted to protestant faiths as well.

      Each household had a daemon, called the Agathos Daemon, literally, “the good spirit.” There were bad ones, too, of course. So yeah, like Fairies.

      • aflowingroad

        “Also, although there are many messed up things in Christianity, there are also good things that we need to think about. Maybe, over the course of the last thousand plus years, they had a few good ideas and it might be to our advantage to use them. But in order to find the good, we need to start digging it all out and sorting it.”

        Thank you for that. I can understand why people run away screaming (been there, done that, and it took me close to a decade before I was willing to let go of that animosity and go back to examine it more fully) but I do think it’s worth taking the time to understand it better, and think about the good parts as well as the bad.

      • Jamie Legaspi

        Of course there are good things about Christianity. I live in America, so most of my friends are some form of Abrahamic faith (lots of Christians/Catholics, duh, but also a fair amount of Muslim friends thanks to being Asian).

        I’m not focusing on “the good side” of Christianity right now because the good stuff is already EVERYWHERE. Throw a stick and you’ve got Christians talking about love, acceptance, and caring for the needy.

        And in the Philippines, there’s this incredibly strong indoctrination going on about how “Catholicism is love and acceptance.” A lot of islanders are only taught our history from Spain’s arrival, and some think that the conquistadors HELPED US. No talk about mass-murder of pagan villages, no talk about how they melted down all our masterwork gold heirlooms and shipped them off to Europe for money (five hundred years later, we’re finding culturally-priceless and ridiculously expensive artifacts in the middle of nowhere, like golden belts and solid gold statues, which people clearly hid from the Spanish to protect), no talk about how they shipped PEOPLE off to Europe and put them in people-zoos because of our “weird” and “exotic” tattooing traditions, no (in-depth) talk about our tattooing culture that’s either a cousin or even a PROTOTYPE of Polynesian tattooing traditions (depending on which anthropology theory you follow), and DEFINITELY no talk about how we had an actual civilization with writing and laws. Nope, we were just running around half-naked with lots of tattoos until Spain just waltzed up, civilized us, and converted us to Christianity through *mumble-mumble.*

        And whenever decolonizing Filipinos (especially Fil-Americans) actually TELL most islanders about all this stuff, they get really defensive and talk about how “oh, but you’re American and you don’t UNDERSTAAAAND.” Bruh, what is there to understand? Our ancestors converted to Christianity because they didn’t want to die. Their only options for five hundred years were “be fair-skinned and Catholic so you can have steady food and shelter (and most importantly, NOT GET KILLED BY OUR NEW SPANISH OVERLORDS),” or “be a poor, dark-skinned indio who does hard labor if they even get a shot at work, especially if they have too many tattoos they can’t cover up. Which is why you get so defensive when people talk about the ACTUAL history of Spanish colonization, because it hurts a lot.” (And Filipino tattoos are meant to be displayed VERY PROMINENTLY. In Western culture, the Rock and Jason Momoa’s traditional tattoos are considered “huge and intimidating” because they cover half an arm each, but in the precolonial Philippines, they’d probably be “the nice guys living next door” compared to “the kings/chiefs with BOTH arms tattooed. And maybe even their legs, because they’re rich and they can afford to limp around avoiding heavy work for a week.”)

        So yeah, when people talk about “BUT THERE ARE GOOD PARTS OF CHRISTIANITY, TOOOOOOO,” I just have that knee-jerk reaction of “SPANISH PROPAGANDA, MOTHERFUCKER,” and I’ll probably be angry for at least a couple more years.

      • aflowingroad

        As far as the history of Euro-Christian colonialism, and the church’s quest for power at any cost, I completely agree with you that the church was as much to blame for the horrible treatment of other cultures as the political leaders were. Unfortunately, we’ve used the same word (christianity) to talk about two different things. 🙂 I meant the religious practice and cosmology; not even the “love your neighbor” stuff, but things like rituals, and beliefs about the soul and the nature of the universe.

        You’re right that christians are always saying good things about their own religion, but I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about us; all the pagans and polytheists I’ve ever met have hated christianity so much that any conversation about the religion has been 100% negative, always. The comment I replied to was honestly the first time I’ve seen a polytheist be open to looking at the religion objectively.

        I would like to clarify, I’m not saying that everyone should learn about the christian religion. You certainly don’t need to. You have good reason to be angry, and I think it’s totally valid to not care about the positives of christianity after all the harm that was done. And it’s also good to talk about the ugly parts of history, since a lot of people don’t know.

        But for most people, the animosity is only based on “I didn’t fit in when I was growing up b/c I disagreed with the theology” and becoming mortal enemies over that. That’s basically prejudice against a religion we never bothered to understand beyond a very shallow level. And again, by religion I mean praxis and cosmology, not the actions of the church. I think the ambiguity is my fault for commenting on something outside the context of the original comment. Sorry about that!

    • Jamie Legaspi

      It’s not that I don’t CARE about the positives of Christianity, it’s that you can ask 90% of everyone else in America to talk about it instead. I don’t want to waste my energy on “don’t worry, I know NOT ALL CHRISTIANS are bad” when an actual Christian can do it with more enthusiasm.

      And ouch, definitely did not realize you were referring to Christianity’s hard practice/belief system. My bad.

      [“But for most people, the animosity is only based on “I didn’t fit in when I was growing up b/c I disagreed with the theology” and becoming mortal enemies over that.”]

      Oh boy, THOSE people. :/ For me it’s more along the lines of “atheists who say EVERY SINGLE RELIGION ON EARRRRRRTH is intolerant and violent when they are clearly only referring to Abrahamic religions, and then they’re suspiciously quiet when I talk about how Christianity at least ATTEMPTED to exterminate the tolerant and accepting religions like the one of my ancestors,” but the “pagans who went to Sunday school when they were twelve and think they know everything there is about Christianity” are probably annoying as hell, too.

      Like, bruh, I read the Bible as a part of my World Religion class and it was AMAZING. It’s just as weird and freaky as every other religion’s mythology, but somehow Westerners find it okay to use non-Christian mythology as story fodder because “lol, it’s cool and interesting, it’s not like that many people here BELIEVE IN IT” and then we get mad when Neon Genesis Evangelion uses Christian symbolism IN THE EXACT SAME WAY because “hey, it’s not like there’s a lot of Christians in Japan.”

      • aflowingroad

        No worries. 🙂
        And yeah, it would be nice if people remembered that Abrahamic religions are not representative of religions in general. The whole idea of “one true religion” that needs to be spread is an aberration, really. Other cultures fought over territory and resources, but religious expansionism was not the norm. The general attitude towards religion would probably be very different if the tolerant ones had been allowed to thrive.

  4. Smarmy

    If you’ll allow me to get on my lil anarchist soapbox for a minute: I think that some of these “might makes right” and glorification of forced submission to a higher authority type mindsets have roots in our larger culture, as well as in religious ideas bleeding over from Christianity. In the secular world, the ideas that it’s the Natural Order of Things for billionaires to buy politicians to lobby for their interests against the common good (i.e. keeping clean energy out of widespread use to preserve the fossil fuel industries) and squander or hoard ludicrous amounts of wealth while the global south suffers in extreme poverty and starvation; the idea that it’s every individual’s responsibility to respect legal authority sometimes for seemingly no other reason than that they are above you in a hierarchy; and so on…these are ideas I sometimes think are eerily reflected in piety-police polytheist rhetoric. We live in a society where, ultimately, we can be imprisoned or even killed (assuming you’re part of a demographic easy enough to demonize to the general public, ofc) for disobeying, and the majority of our peers will cheer on the badged footsoldiers of the state for doing so. People claim to be anti-violence, until that violence is done on the part of the state, and then it’s okay or “necessary” because they have the “rightful authority” to do so. This is assumed to be not only “natural”, but ultimately in the interest of the greater good of the world, because people believe in authority’s right to coerce and control over human beings’ rights to make their own decisions about their lives. It’s not surprising that, with no real model for healthy and consensual acts of power exchange between individuals (because no matter how somebody feels about it, you can’t really say that consent is given if the power imbalance is built into our world on an institutional level. It’s not like we have the option to NOT sign the social contract of civilization), we often make the same assumptions and endorse the same narratives about authority and submission when we turn to our spiritual lives.

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