I’ve got at least one more travel-related post to write, plus a review of a book I read on the trip. But I need to pause for a moment and discuss a question that’s come up several times from several sources over the past few weeks.
Am I doing Paganism right? Am I doing polytheism right? More precisely, how can I be sure I’m doing it right?
This isn’t a common Pagan question. Pagans tend to assume whatever they’re doing is right – “do as thou wilt is the whole of the law” doesn’t just apply to Thelemites. To be fair, practitioners of most religions do this too – Pagans are just more honest about it than those who like to argue “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” without ever examining the source or interpretations of what their God supposedly said.
In any case, wondering if you’re doing it right is a more humble and more mature approach. It’s a realization that we’re dealing with questions of greatest importance. It’s a realization there is much we can learn from our spiritual ancestors. It’s a realization that even the wisest and most spiritual among us can benefit from consulting with our coreligionists. We are responsible for our own spiritual journeys and we must make our own decisions, but we need not rely solely on our own counsel.
Not everyone is meant to be a devotional polytheist and we have no mandate to “win the world for the Gods.” If a particular God or Goddess or even all the Gods and Goddesses choose not to speak to a particularly person there’s nothing we can do about it. But I’ve seen some folks reply to confused seekers with comments along the lines of “obviously this isn’t for you – why don’t you become a Qabbalist or a Buddhist or something.” These responses are unkind (at the very least) and they’re unhelpful both to seekers and to our movement. If someone feels the call to polytheism and asks for our assistance, we owe them an an answer that is both honest and helpful.
What are you looking for?
If you wonder if you’re doing it right, the first question to ask yourself is what kind of confirmation you’re looking for. What would convince you you’re doing it right – or that you need to make some changes? What level of proof do you require? There’s nothing wrong with wanting rock-solid assurance, but you’re not likely to get it.
There is no such thing as religious certainty. There is certainty in mathematics. There is certainty in the physical sciences. There is even a type of certainty in the behavioral sciences, though finding it is usually more complicated than we like to think. But religious experiences and especially religious beliefs are inherently and unavoidably uncertain. No matter how confident you are, you might be wrong.
We humans like certainty – why else would anyone over the age of six ever eat at McDonald’s? We’d really like to have certainty about our religious beliefs and practices – so much that some people pretend they have it even when they don’t. If you simply must have religious certainty, you can buy into the spurious claims of conservative Christianity or conservative Islam. Or you can approach things from the other side and become an atheist.
My Christian friends seem to understand this – either that, or they’re just too polite to challenge me on it. But I have several atheist readers who complain every time I criticize atheism. So let me be very clear: if your free and responsible search for truth and meaning has led you to conclude there are no Gods, or if the level of evidence you require for belief is so high it can never be satisfied, then I’m happy you’ve found atheism. I’ll see you at the trash pickup, or the soup kitchen, or the storytelling festival. I don’t agree with your conclusions, but I have no need to convert you to polytheism. Now, if you shout “religion poisons everything” or insist my Gods are delusions, we’re going to have issues.
If certainty is impossible, how will you know when you’re doing it right?
Do your beliefs provide you with a useful model of the universe and help you find your place in it? Does your tradition help you wrestle with the Big Questions of Life? Does it help you figure out how to live here and now? Does it challenge you to examine your assumptions and your values, and then to live up to them? Do your practices encourage you to honor the past, build for the future, and live in the present? Do they promote connections with and respect for other people, other species, and other ecosystems?
If you can answer “yes” to these questions then you’re doing it right. Confirmation doesn’t come in a flash of divine light, it comes in the slow steady change that consistent spiritual practice brings.
Note that I said nothing about how you connect to the Gods or what They will communicate to you. Some techniques have shown to be more helpful than others (don’t reinvent the religious wheel!), but there is no polytheistic orthodoxy.
Religious practice in a multicultural society (and we live in the most diverse society in the history of humanity) carries the risk of feeling like you’re doing it wrong, because there’s always someone out there doing it differently – and there are always some of them who will be happy to tell you just how wrong you are. Spiritual growth requires taking that risk. It requires saying “this isn’t what the mainstream teaches, and I can’t be sure, but it makes sense, and it feels right, so I’m going to follow it.”
Now, if your religion tells you the world would be fine if other people would quit screwing it up, you’re doing it wrong. If it tells you society is great just like it is, you’re doing it wrong. If it tells you it’s all about you, you’re doing it wrong.
Experience and Practice
The reality of polytheism is rooted in experience – the experience of many Gods. If our culture had a heritage of polytheism, we’d grow up learning who our Gods are, how to interact with Them, and how to know when They speak to us. We don’t have that heritage – we’re trying to rebuild it for future generations. We’re trying to learn to hear the Gods.
How do we learn to hear the Gods? Read. Study. Pray. Meditate. Worship. And above all, listen. There are times the Gods speak to us and we don’t recognize Them because we’re expecting Zeus to speak in thunderbolts. Those thunderbolt experiences can be amazing, but they’re not the only way They communicate with us. Sometimes They speak in soft voices: in signs, in feelings, in dreams and waking visions, and in stray thoughts that might be your own… except you know they’re not.
And that’s a good thing, because big, dramatic, ecstatic experiences are like a drug. Used occasionally they can be helpful. Get addicted to them and your life will change dramatically. Historically, while shamans, mystics, and prophets have done good and necessary work, their lives have been difficult, unpleasant, and frequently, short. Many of them would say it was a fair trade, but be careful what you wish for.
Besides, while ecstasy is good, a religion that constantly searches for ecstasy is just as misguided as a religion that constantly prepares for what comes after death. Both minimize the beauty, wonder and joy of this life and this world.
And if you do these things and the Gods don’t speak to you? Then read, study, pray, meditate, worship and listen anyway. You’ll be more informed, more relaxed, more confident, more committed and more reverent – those are all good things, whether or not you hear directly from Them. And you never know when a deity will decide you’re needed to help with Their work.
Wondering “am I doing it right?” is a good thing. It’s a sign you’re taking your religion seriously. Make sure you understand what kind of confirmation you’re looking for and whether you’re likely to get it. Keep practicing. Then stop and reflect every so often – see how far you’ve come. You may be surprised just how right you’ve been doing it all along.