My Polytheism

As part of a project to present many different views of polytheism, as shown on the My Polytheism website, my contribution is here.

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My Polytheism is about variety. At its heart, it’s based on a belief that no one is “in charge”, at least not in any over-arching sense. There are many powers in the world, many of which are greater than human powers. As we make our way through the world, we encounter many of these (if we are paying attention) – Gods, Goddesses, spirits, genii loci. Some are specific to places and times. Some have greater power to exist over long periods of time and great expanses of space. Human perception of them is limited. Human understanding of them is incomplete. But, if we are lucky, we are able to have some kind of communication with them.

I understand these powers to be distinct beings, therefore I embrace the term polytheist. Trying to think of them as part of some unified being seems intuitively wrong to me. Sometimes they seem to look almost human and communicate in a human way, but that may be either their effort to be relatable, or my own mind’s attempt to comprehend what I am experiencing. Sometimes they have existence that is clearly not like that of humanity.

In creating my own framework for a modern polytheism, I look to ancient Rome for inspiration, but I do not aim to slavishly recreate Roman practice.

I love that the Roman religious world was multicultural, eclectic, and pragmatic. Gods and Goddesses from various traditions were incorporated into the Roman religious landscape without any perceived contradiction. I love that at least one major strain of Roman devotion has a tradition of not using animal sacrifice (the Numa tradition).

I am fascinated by the way that Roman religion worked in multiple layers.

  • There was a home-based religion, based around the hearth and the lararium.
  • There were public temples and shrines, as well as festivals, often sponsored by wealthy individuals or groups. These could be for the benefit of a neighborhood, a full city, or on the roadside for travelers. I would love to see some of this in our modern age.
  • There was a state-sponsored religious cult*, dedicated to certain Gods, and eventually to deified Emperors. I don’t have much interest in a revival of this (and I don’t even understand how that would work in our current society).
  • At the same time, many people belonged to mystery cults* – initiatory organizations usually devoted to particular Gods and Goddesses and offering a more personal revelatory and/or ecstatic experience. These organizations had their own rules and practices.

None of these methods of devotion were contradictory. People could pick and choose their devotion (although for political reasons, there were expectations or even compulsions for the actions of public figures around the public festivals and state religious rites).

*When I use the word “cult”, it refers to a devotional tradition and it does not carry the negative connotation that it often does in modern usage.

At the same time, the Romans were deeply conservative, in the sense that they revered any practice or tradition that was seen as ancient. There was a strong cultural drive to maintain rituals, both in the broad and specific senses of the word. They were very picky about the specifics of how rituals were performed, often stopping and starting again from the beginning if something unexpected happened. They had the tendency to continue traditions long past the time when anyone had the faintest idea of their purpose or origin.

This kind of unexamined adherence to the past is not my way. In fact, if it were, I would likely still be a Catholic, perhaps even a priest of that Christian religion where I was raised. The truth is, for my family and for nearly everyone in this country, there is no unbroken line of polytheists. Any such traditions are revived (with varying degrees of guesswork involved) or created anew.

Because I believe in the reality of the Gods, Goddesses and various other spirits, I believe these new traditions can be valid and guided by divine inspiration. But going from divine inspiration to concrete ritual, texts, and institutions will always be colored by the current cultural landscape and individual personality of those involved.

And that brings me to my involvement with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. The Brotherhood is a neopagan order for men who love men (gay, bi, trans, queer). Being neopagan, it isn’t explicitly polytheist, but my experience of the Gods of the Brotherhood is polytheistic. As part of the emergent tradition, there are eight Gods that we work with (an example of my work with them here), and I understand them as distinct deities. Not everyone in the Brotherhood does. But the training that I have gained through the Brotherhood has been formative for me, and it has effected my practices beyond the Brotherhood Gods.

The Brotherhood traditions are influenced by Western Ceremonial Magic tradition, and my sense of ritual and ecstasy, of mental preparedness for spiritual experience is formed by this. Going back to the framework of Roman religion, this is an initiatory group, with a special spiritual focus for the enrichment of its members. I include it in the broader scope of my religious life, and lately, it has been in a central place.

Finally, I want to say that my polytheism is ecstatic (or it aspires to be). I think the experience of Gods, Goddesses, and various other spirits is what makes it all meaningful. My polytheism doesn’t give commandments, it offers experiences. It may be that sense of wonder when walking in the woods on a gorgeous day or looking out over the ocean and trying to comprehend its vastness. It can be much more specific – a God talking to you, appearing in some form, giving you messages. It can be the feeling of a Goddess giving you a message that you must write down and pass along.

To me, much of the purpose of devotion is to honor and grow closer to the deities and spirits, to welcome them into our lives and value who they are, as far as we can understand it. It may even be just to express our awe and appreciation, and it may be to ask for guidance, focus our minds and hearts, or provide us peace. As long as we understand that these relationships do not work like vending machines, but rather that we are cultivating relationship, we can see the value in our practices.

Where is the Spirituality? (or Why I Stay Away From Certain Controversies)

This is supposed to be a blog about my spiritual journey, and it occurs to me that not much of what I have written just lately is quite what most people think of as spiritual. A lot of it has been social justice, cultural trends, environmentalism. These are bound up with my spiritual self, certainly, but much of what I have been writing is not specifically about Pagan spirituality.

I have started writing a number of posts on theological topics that are hot within the Pagan blogosphere just lately. There has been a good deal of argument between atheist Pagans and devotional polytheists. There’s an ongoing spat between radical left political pagans (particularly those of anarchist and Marxist leanings) and those who are more concerned with piety than politics (and seem to be eternally offended by the political types).

I even started a rant, of sorts, against Pagan and polytheist use of the term “blasphemy”. In a world where people are literally killed for things like blasphemy and apostasy, I have no interest in my community adopting these poisonous concepts.

I never completed any of these posts. It just hardly seems worth it to defend one side or another in these disputes. One of the basic ideas of the Pagan “umbrella” or “tent” is that there is no orthodoxy, i.e. required belief, to fit into the Pagan community. There is no single unifier that defines Pagan identity.

I am still a fan of the Big Tent version of Paganism (as explained by John Beckett here). It explains how I see that we come together as a community, even as we are dramatically disparate. I have always knownknown that the paths that I follow make me a minority even within the relatively tiny community of Paganism. I am not a Wiccan. I am not a Druid. I am an initiate into an order that has a very small number of initiates. Even the Reconstructionist traditions that inspire some of my personal practice don’t have the critical mass for a local group. But I still see a value, or at least I want to see a value, in being a part of a larger Pagan community.

There are many arguments around definitional issues for specific terms and who gets to use them. In terms of the atheist vs. polytheist argument, trying to adopt both of those terms does seem like a logical contradiction, but that doesn’t mean that people of both identities can’t be called Pagans. Some traditions do have specific definitions and processes that allow people to use particular titles. These should always be understood in context, though. If your organization defines what it means to be a Priestess in your tradition, that doesn’t mean that somehow you own the word and anyone else who calls themselves a Priestess is a fraud. They’re just not a Priestess of your tradition.

And I am not about to set myself up as the arbiter of who can be called a Pagan and who cannot. I can tell you what particular titles mean within certain traditions I know, and whether you fit the qualifications (as defined by the current organizations or by traditions and text). That doesn’t mean I can claim any right to own these terms or their specific definition, and it doesn’t mean I need to rage each time I disagree with the way someone uses a term. The world is a vast and varied place. It is not my job to police every claim someone makes, particularly on the internet, which is a special home for baseless claims.

So here is my spiritual goal for today:

I will work to learn my own path.
I will work to embody the spiritual virtues that will improve the world. I will deepen my relationship to my deities, my community, and those spirits who are in relationship with me.
I will continue to seek further understanding.
I will make room for those who believe and practice differently than me, but stand firm in my assertion that my perspective has a place in the larger conversation.

Riots in Milwaukee – My Native City’s Racist Heritage

I grew up in Milwaukee, on the north side, although not in the Sherman Park neighborhood where this week’s rioting happened. I haven’t lived in Milwaukee for over two decades, but I still have many connections with the city, including family and many high school friends in the area.

I am a little too young for any memory of the late 1960’s race riots, which seemed to have had an indelible mark on my parents and many adults I knew. I grew up with the idea that outward signs of racism against black people were not socially acceptable. “The N word” was not to be used, ever – not at home and certainly never in public. I attended the aggressively desegregated Milwaukee Public Schools, and I count myself very lucky in this. I went to a magnet high school located in an almost entirely African American neighborhood. The school population was slightly over half African American students. It was a wonderful place to go to school, and I will always appreciate that education for many reasons. The true diversity of the student body was a definite asset, and the ability to make friends with people from different backgrounds was a great benefit. Also, I was lucky enough to be in a choir with singers who had grown up with the marvelous tradition of choral singing in African American churches, and the rich musical culture that came with that.

 

But in spite of the effort in the schools, segregation ran deep in Milwaukee, and racist attitudes were common. It wasn’t until I was in high school when I began to understand some of the racial dynamics of Milwaukee real estate. Many north side neighborhoods experienced dramatic “white flight” episodes, when a few black families move into a neighborhood and racial panic-selling ensued. The plummeting property values then motivated other sellers less concerned about race, but were sensitive to a perceived impending financial disaster. The racial makeup of a neighborhood could change dramatically within a few years.

My neighborhood had a real estate agent who practiced what I now know as “steering”. I didn’t understand the dynamic at the time. It wasn’t until I thought back on it years later after getting my own salesperson’s license. If a house in our subdivision went up for sale, she simply did not show it to African American buyers. Eventually, sellers began to realize that her method often resulted in a lower sales price, and she lost her dominance.

I am sad to hear that Milwaukee is just as residentially segregated as ever – one of the most segregated cities in the country, in fact. And I am sad to hear that the program to keep the schools desegregated has been entirely reversed. The schools are more of a reflection of the neighborhoods, and therefore segregation and disparities are the rule.

 

In addition to these dynamics, I remember a certain narrative often repeated. The story went that unemployed people would come to Wisconsin to take advantage of our generous welfare benefits. There was a certain hand-wringing that we were attracting the lazy and the parasitic to Milwaukee because we were too generous. Like Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” story, it was charged with an unspoken racism. These people were presumably African Americans coming from southern states to take advantage of the system.

In truth, industrial jobs held by workers of all races were being lost throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Low-skilled workers were finding it harder to find employment, and that was undoubtedly at the root of the larger dependence on government aid programs. Milwaukee is a “Rust Belt” city. Iconic factories were closing and downsizing. Even those that stayed around began to depend more heavily on automation and employed fewer people. There was no need for this bogeyman of the welfare immigrant. There were more than enough people right under our noses that needed help.

 

But it seemed that a spirit of generosity was far from plentiful. And things only have gotten worse for those who are in greatest need. Government aid programs, youth employment programs, public education – all these safety nets have been cut. Milwaukee area was hit hard in the housing crash. Job opportunities in the suburbs are often inaccessible with the area’s patchy public transportation system, so are unavailable to those in the poorest areas of the city.

Poverty, hopelessness, and violence often go hand-in-hand in many of the largely African American neighborhoods of Milwaukee. I wish I could say it was surprising that violence would flare up like it did this weekend. The truth is, it isn’t. Sherman Park seems to have had a recent history of racial tension centering on the gas station that was burned down. When the police shoot someone in the neighborhood, the residents’ anger and grief, primed by a string of recent national incidents, will come out and be directed at police and institutions like that gas station. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that all this will result in violence.

 

I think tonight, things are quiet in Sherman Park. Aggressive policing may calm things down temporarily, but the underlying issues are still there. The segregation, economic inequality, hopelessness, and anger are still there. And I’m afraid my native city doesn’t even seem to be moving in the right direction away from these. My heart breaks for those who live in fear and hopelessness. My heart hopes that my native city can turn this around, recognize and help their neighbors and find some real change.

 

Here is some more reading on these recent incidents and reflections on the larger picture:

Reggie Jackson in the Milwaukee Independent – a voice from the neighborhood

Syreeta McFadden in the Guardian

A sad history of the re-segregation of Milwaukee schools

New Name, Same Blog

Hello, Friends and Readers!

I just wanted to put a quick note here about the change in the title of the blog. I have been contemplating a “rebrand” for a while. After three and a half years of blogging, my focus and perspective have changed. I originally started with the title “Looking for Wisdom, Ancient and Modern” with the subtitle “A Seeker’s Journey”. Last year, I decided “Seeker” was no longer quite the right word. I am still a seeker in many senses, but I have been around Paganism in general and my chosen traditions in particular for a number of years, so at least in those contexts, I am a little less inexperienced than that title may suggest.

Now, I decided to change the main title to something more concrete as a theme for my blog. I have always said this is about my Pagan “path”, and I decided to give the metaphor a context. Of course, I am still looking for wisdom (as we all should be, right?)

I hope you continue to enjoy my writing here, and as always, feedback and respectful discussion is welcome.