Monday, August 22, 2016

Polytheism's Possible Futures: for Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith recently posted an article to Patheos on the future of Polytheism.  I agree with many of his statements.  He is absolutely right when he says that Polytheism must engage with the local land and Powers; ditto when he says Polytheism needs to be something more than multiple altar statues and different holidays. We both agree the Polytheist Revival is in its infancy. (While many of us have been practicing Polytheism for decades, we have only recently put the P-label on practices we previously called "Pagan" or "Heathen.") We are in the process of defining ourselves and what it means to honor the Old Gods in a modern world. The actions we take now may reverberate across generations, but they may also come to naught like so many religious movements.  Toward our success he offers thoughts on how we can make our practices, our community and our Gods relevant in an ever-changing modern world.

And here is where our approaches differ. I am not sure we disagree: I don't know enough of Smith's theological or cosmological views to speak on those topics.  But there is a very definite difference of emphasis.  To quote Smith:
[W]e must be willing to assess our Gods, our practices, and our ideas based on what they mean, in real terms, in the present moment and we should prioritize making our ideas relevant and meaningful in the modern day by providing answers for human and present needs with consideration for their future impact. 
Smith is advocating a Polytheism focused in the here-and-now, one which seeks to make lasting changes in the real world. His focus is on the community and how the Gods can help meet our needs. As he puts it "We should be ... working to make our beliefs, ethics, and ideas as applicable (sic) to people in their everyday lives and [discussing] how they help in addressing the big questions in society." He seeks to make the Gods relevant by making them useful.

I question Smith's emphasis on the here-and-now and on judging Gods by its standards and needs.  The Kirghiz have preserved the history of their people in the Manas saga, a poem which is several dozen times longer than the Iliad and which is still being written: stories of the Kirghiz meeting Russian invaders with machine guns are juxtaposed with tales of the earliest ancestors. Compare and contrast this with hopelessly dated "modern" takes on religion like the Jesus Freaks. The Gods and Ancestors don't need fashion consultants and PR firms redefining Their message for a new era: the new era needs to redefine itself in accordance with Their message.

Smith's idea of giving seekers "the means to live authentically and polytheistically on their own as autonomous individuals" and giving them "the means to find their own answers, develop polytheistic practice in a way that is authentic for them, and build community that is self-sustaining" sounds nice. But not all Gods were served in such a free-form way nor do most active Polytheistic communities function in that fashion.  The relationship between guru and chela in India, for example, involves a great deal of submission to authority and unquestioning obedience. And we've all seen firsthand what happened when American Neopaganism tried to create a "Big Tent" that covered every possible belief -- an amorphous mush of self-proclaimed Grand High Poobahs where a seeker's uninformed opinion received the same respect as a scholar's hard-earned knowledge and where little useful work was ever accomplished. While I appreciate his fear of fundamentalism and terrorism, I submit it is possible to develop a liturgy and a coherent theology, and even to exclude people from same, without gassing undesirables or flying airplanes into buildings.

Overall, I think Smith is sincere in his beliefs. Alas, when it comes to the Gods I'm not entirely clear on what those beliefs are and I'm not sure he is either. And at some point we're going to have to answer a question which Smith avoids throughout this essay: what do we mean by the word "Gods?"Are They archetypes hard-wired into our consciousness? Are They cultural myths which preserve ancient wisdom?  Or are the Gods the wellsprings of being and weavers of this Universe and all that is in it?  Smith might want to first address the many real injustices and problems that plague the world today.  But if we are going to have a new religion which is focused on multiple Gods, we might spare a minute to ponder that conundrum. Because I submit that it is a very important issue indeed.

If your Gods are archetypes, myths or symbols -- if they are grounded in human consciousness and the human experience -- then obviously the community's needs take precedence over Theirs. Symbols only have meaning if there is somebody to interpret them: myths can be retold and retooled to suit whatever purpose the author desires. There's no reason to worry about offending Them any more than you fear Santa leaving coal in your stocking.   You can use Them like clip art for whatever ad campaign you choose: you can make Them crusaders for any cause you like.

But what if They have existence outside your head and agency to do things outside your control? What if the God you are honoring is the same one honored on Olympos or in the forests of Germania -- and what if His feelings about your pet cause differ from yours?  That would make things much more ... complicated.  Smith seems uncertain on this question. He appears to believe that expecting deities to serve humans is "highly unrealistic" but offers no thoughts on whether humans should be expected to serve deities.  He asks "What should [Polytheists] have to say about consumerism, the commodification of natural resources, gender fluidity, racism and bigotry, or the state of human life in much of the world and the communities we live in?" but is silent on what Polytheism has to say about the Gods.  And in a religious discussion this is a rather glaring and problematic oversight.