Syncretic Electric: Why I Am a Polytheist

Georges Seurat, Model from the Back, 1886

Georges Seurat, Model from the Back, 1886

I took a break from writing for Patheos because I felt that I needed to reexamine my motivations and reconsider whether or not I really feel that I belong here. It has been over a month since my words last appeared here, and I have needed this time to reflect. I have found that my motivations remain the same, and yet I am ambivalent as to whether there is much purpose in my staying here. I really must thank both Rhyd Wildermuth and Christine Kraemer for taking the time to help me work through my concerns.

When I first came to Patheos, I viewed it as an opportunity to engage in interfaith dialogue and community building. I firmly believe that if Modern Paganism is to thrive and grow as we progress into the 21st century, that we need to both foster a strong community and develop a rhetoric of interfaith communication uniquely suited to the needs of Pagan religions. However, over the last several months, I have been incredibly disheartened by the a great deal of the conversations that I have seen here.

This latest nonsense regarding interfaith work and Polytheism is a perfect example of what I find so frustrating. One simply cannot deny the good work that has been done by interfaith representatives of the Pagan community. However, I find it absolutely bizarre that any critique is being met with such defensiveness and anger. Surely any interfaith worker should know better than to turn on members of their own faith community, the faith community that they themselves claim to represent, and attempt to silence them. Paganism should not be a popularity contest, and far too often I see people treating it as one. That is honestly one of the most depressing things I have seen happen in the Pagan community.

Nearly all of my writing for Patheos has been caught up in tracing the connections between Modern Paganism and the larger culture. The vast majority of that writing has been focused on the constructive elements, those ideas and artifacts that we collectively used to assemble our faiths. But there is more, of course. If I have demonstrated that Paganism is embedded in and a product of our larger Western culture, then it should be obvious that for all of the good things we have gleaned from it, there must also be some bad.

I find it absolutely distressing to see people, who have come so far in rejecting the problems and flaws of our larger culture, to then turn around and re-inscribe them back into Paganism. If we rebel against the religious and spiritual hegemony of Christianity and the Abrahamic faiths, then how absolutely perverse is it for us to then attempt to reestablish that very power dynamic within Paganism? If we rebel against the patriarchy, how self-serving and shallow is it for us to then simply invert the relationship but maintain the power structure when we come to Paganism?

I am tired of seeing complex conversations parodied and reduced to quips and straw man versions for the sake of inflating one’s own importance. I am tired of seeing people tear each other down, just to build themselves up. It should not be necessary for us to attack someone else’s beliefs in order to justify our own. If we are truly interested in building a community, in carving out a place for ourselves in the wider religious milieu, we need to be willing to, at the very least, tolerate each other’s differences.

We are not all the same, and any interfaith work that tries to normalize all of Paganism into some blandly Neo-Wiccan nonsense cleansed of all uniqueness and passion is doomed to failure. Further more, such attempts are flatly insulting to the Pagan groups that such endeavors claim to represent. As one of the very few hubs of Pagan discussion on the internet, we writers for Patheos really need to be mindful of how we are representing Paganism and Pagan thought, not only to each other, but also to outsiders. If I were new to Paganism and stumbled across some of the arguments that have been going on recently, I would turn tail and run. Hell, I am not at all new to Paganism and these arguments still made me anxious. I do not want to be part of a community that comports itself in this fashion.

That is why I am a Polytheist, and I mean Polytheist in the full richness of that word. I believe that we are living in a world full of many Gods, a world full to overflowing with Many Profound Beings. I believe that Polytheism allows us to approach the religious and spiritual experiences of others in a respectful and accepting way. I believe that Polytheism provides us with the tools for understanding each other’s religions and spiritualities, and not viewing them as a direct threat to our own. I believe that Polytheism offers us a way to embrace plurality and difference.

Of course, anyone who is familiar with my writing will know that I am not advocating a spiritual free-for-all. While I think that Polytheism provides us with wonderful opportunities to mutual connection and understanding, I still believe that it is predicated on both a strong sense of discernment and spiritual maturity, both of which are, I believe, frighteningly rare in Modern Paganism. Regardless, however, even if we disagree, it should not be necessary for us to apologize ourselves into some idealized Pan-Pagan version for the sake of community dialogue.

However, I am not fond of the discussions of Wiccan privilege. I think that Wicca and Wiccanate Privilege are McGuffins. It appears to me that these discussions of privilege tend to neglect the fact that if it was not for Wicca and the work that many Wiccans have done, Paganism would not exist in its present form. And, arguably, Polytheism would not have had the opportunity to develop as it has. As I understand it, the issue is not Wicca at all, but representation within the Pagan community. Wicca remains the largest single Pagan denomination in the United States, and so it is perfectly understandable that Wiccans tend to dominate interfaith events. There are just more Wiccans out there. Further, Wicca has done a great deal of work raising its public profile and getting itself noticed by mainstream culture, many other Pagan faiths simply have not had the time or luxury to do so. It does us absolutely no good to turn on Wicca, when Wiccans have done so much work not only for themselves but for the greater Pagan community.

We absolutely are diverse, and we need to come to terms with that diversity. Paganism still suffers from many of the problems of the larger culture in which it is embedded. Simply deciding that we are Pagan is not enough; we need to be engaged in an ongoing process of self reflection and self cultivation if we are truly going to transcend the culture that we have attempted to remove ourselves from. It does us no good to stand stock still in the doorway to Paganism. It baffles me to see people come to Paganism, willfully decide to embrace all the pain and hardships that being a member of a minority faith entails, and yet stop short before they are able to really, truly, reap the benefits. Our work is not over just because we converted to Paganism. In fact, I reckon that it has only just begun.

Indeed, I have repeatedly called for Pagans of all denominations to spend time working on themselves. I believe that spiritual maturity is absolutely vital for the Pagan community. We must spend time getting to know ourselves, our strengths, our weakness, our flaws and our virtues. We must be willing to confront ourselves and push ourselves past our insecurities. If we are going to work together as a community, then we can only do so from a place of personal strength, self knowledge, and acceptance. As much as this is a work that we must ultimately do alone, we also need to be willing to commit to it as a community. We must remember that a community is built of individuals, and we each bring to it our own unique talents and limitations. If we want a particular kind of community, then we must work to make ourselves a particular kind of people.

Syncretic Electric is published on alternate Fridays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

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About Julian Betkowski

Julian Betkowski is an artist currently living in Washington State and has been a practicing Pagan for the last ten years. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, with the intention of setting up a private counseling practice to serve the Pagan and Queer communities.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I agree with much of what you’ve said here…

    While I do think you’re on to something with the “McGuffin-esque” nature of Wiccanate privilege and that entire discussion, at the same time, I wonder if you’ve seen the exact wording that some on the Wiccan and Wiccanate side of things have said to some of us who aren’t in that particular orbit. I don’t know what to call it other than “something that looks an awful lot like expressions of other privileges while being blind to them in a Pagan context,” but that’s not quite as handy or quick or as precise as “Wiccanate Privilege.” But, anyway…

    Some of what you’ve said here (and in your most recent post on your own blog) will have some further examples attached to it next month, I suspect…and I’ll have to leave you in suspense until then! ;)

    • Julian Betkowski

      I’m curious! Tell me!

      I think that we need to be very careful with how we employ the idea of privilege. For example, a tour of tumblr will yield a comprehensive list of absolute trivial and inane ‘privileges’; I want to make sure that we are employing these critiques correctly. I do not want to see the rhetorical power of a set of critiques originally developed to combat racial and gender inequalities (which our culture is still far from resolving) diluted by endless inane variations.

      • Christine Kraemer

        > I do not want to see the rhetorical power of a set of critiques originally developed to combat racial and gender inequalities (which our culture is still far from resolving) diluted

        Wish I could +1 this a dozen times. The issues we’ve been discussing about representation and access in our community are important, but they’re not the life-and-death issues that conversations around race, class, and gender inequality are often dealing with.

        • Julian Betkowski

          Exactly. Polytheists do not suffer marginalization at the hands of Wiccans in the same way that racial minorities suffer marginalization at the hands of the caucasian majority. It’s honestly kind of a grotesque comparison to make.

    • yewtree

      Mud-slinging has happened from both sides of that particular fence, PSVL. And if you happen to be sitting ON the fence, I can tell you it is rather uncomfortable.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        That’s not what I’m speaking about here at all. Yes, I understand that people on several different sides of this issue have responded in ways that are not always clear-headed or seemly, but this is another matter entirely.
        I’m talking about a very specific instance here, in which someone stated to me that if “you people” (i.e. polytheists) want to be “taken seriously” by the “establishment” (of Wicca), we needed to justify our existence and our validity to be taken seriously by them, with the implication that they could deign to not take us seriously or dismiss us just because they are the establishment.
        It would really be nice if people didn’t assume broad-brushing, or bad motives, on the part of anyone/everyone who speaks about this issue, don’t you think?

        • yewtree

          It wasn’t entirely clear that you were talking about a specific instance. I am of course appalled by the behaviour and attitude of the person who said that to you. Bleurgh.

  • yewtree

    Very happy to see this post. As a polytheist Wiccan myself, I was baffled by the hostility to Wiccans that I encountered among some polytheists. Yes, there are too many books, websites, etc that assume all Paganism is Wicca-like, but many Wiccans are just as fed up with these books as you are, because they present a distorted or watered-down version of Wicca.

    In terms of self-development and community, I think that a community just has to have been around for a certain length of time, and to have met regularly face-to-face, before it settles down and starts behaving more harmoniously (both as a group and as individuals). It’s a version of that old “forming, storming, norming, performing” thing. I have seen this happen with communities both online and offline.

    • Julian Betkowski

      Part of what concerns me with this conversation is that I fear we are conflating the words and actions of a few individuals with the beliefs and opinions of a whole community. There are people who have behaved poorly, but it seems odd to me that we are then attacking an entire community based on the actions of a few.

      • yewtree

        Indeed. That is why I said *some* polytheists. What I did in that situation was work hard to explain myself and build bridges. I did not just walk away.

        • Julian Betkowski

          Unfortunately, it’s happening on both sides. A Wiccan says something people don’t like, and suddenly all of Wicca is to blame. People don’t like a few key Polytheists, and suddenly all Polytheists are irrational and dangerous. We really need to stop that kind of behavior.

          If we really value diversity, then we will stop trying to reduce other people’s beliefs down into easy to digest sound bites and actually listen to what we each have to say.

          • yewtree

            If we really value diversity, then we will stop trying to reduce other people’s beliefs down into easy to digest sound bites and actually listen to what we each have to say.

            Absolutely – I couldn’t agree more.

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