Walking With The Gods – An Interview

What is polytheism?  Over the past year or so there have been many ideas put forward attempting to answer this question – I’ve contributed my own thoughts to the debate.  Rather than trying to define polytheism, Dr. W. D. Wilkerson interviewed 120 polytheists – Walking With The Gods is the result of those interviews.   This book says “here are some practicing polytheists – what they do, what they think, and what they believe.”  We can see the commonalities and the differences and we can see if our own beliefs and practices are mostly like them, somewhat like them, or not very like them.  This is a book that needed to be written.

Walking With The Gods runs 390 pages.  It is available as a printed book for $18.65 from Lulu or as an e-book for $5.99 from Smashwords.  It’s available now.  25% of royalties will be contributed to the Maetreum of Cybele’s legal defense fund.

John:  What motivated you to write this book as an ethnography instead of as an exposition of polytheism as you understand it?

W. D. Wilkerson:  I’m unhappy with the way that polytheistic religions (and their adherents) are seen by the mainstream world, and wanted to give contemporary devotional polytheists a chance to represent themselves and bust some stereotypes. It’s an ethnography because I’m not a theologian; I’m an academically-trained ethnographer. I always conceived of this work as being primarily a collection of personal experience narratives.

W. D. Wilkerson

Who is your intended audience for Walking With The Gods?  How do you hope they’ll use the book?

My audience falls into three tiers:  the devotional polytheists who participated in my study; those who are interested in religious studies, theology, mythology and folklore, emergent religions, Paganism, etc.; and other ethnographers who are interested in developing collaborative and reciprocal ethnographic research methods that honor the respondents and give something of value back to the communities being studied.

I hope that everyone who reads this book comes away with something of value. I especially hope that devotional polytheists living in isolated circumstances with little understanding of how to connect with their Holy Powers, ancestors, and land might get ideas on how to proceed and find virtual communities to belong to. I hope that religious studies folk learn to question the assumptions that underpin their perspective and to not assume intellectual and moral superiority over polytheistic peoples on the basis that monotheism, or increasingly atheism, is better because it is “more reasonable.”

I’ve heard Pagan religious scholars say some of their colleagues denigrate their work, saying it lacks objectivity and calling it “by insiders for insiders.”  How do you answer that charge?  Is it even possible to study religions objectively? 

Nobody worth their salt will tell you that absolute objectivity is a realizable goal in academic scholarship. I call “shenanigans” upon that ludicrous and self-serving charge, for it is premised on these false assumptions:  that Paganism has nothing of value to offer the disciplines of religious studies and theology and that those who study Paganism are somehow separating themselves from the main business of religious studies because of their chosen subject.

In this context, telling a scholar that their work is “for insiders, by insiders” is a silencing tactic. The goal of stating such things is to convince the scholar that they are somehow outside the realm of academic propriety, thus compelling them to either abandon their research for something more respectable and acceptable, or abandon the realm of scholarly discourse altogether and take their “crazy-town” interests and ideas with them when they leave.  I want Pagan religious studies or theology scholars who have been told this to please recognize that it has nothing to do with the worth of your work and everything to do with their desire of your professors or disciplinary colleagues to maintain the near-Eastern monotheist hegemony and the privileges thereof.

My distaste for this particular situation is part of what prompted me to start my own imprint for alternative scholarship and to self-publish. I’m also seeking submissions of manuscripts dealing with Pagan religious studies, if anyone is interested. The Call for Submissions is on my website, connaissancesankofamedia.com.

Several of your respondents criticized “monism” when it appeared they were actually arguing against soft polytheism or perhaps panentheism.  Do you see a conflict between a view of the Gods as individual, distinct Holy Powers and the view that ultimately, everything is connected and all – Gods, humans, other animals, plants, rocks, etc. – is One? 

Traditional polytheist religions didn’t (and still don’t) have any trouble reconciling all of those ideas into coherent yet distinctly devotional polytheist religions. The fact is, this “there can be only one” mentality that has crept in and taken over on all sides of the discussion is in actuality the result of our living in a monotheist culture. We have seen from living in a monotheist culture that under monotheism, there can be only One—only one Deity, only one correct religion preferred by that Deity, only one group of people who are better at that type of worship, only one answer to every problem, only one correct theory to unify all things… and anyone or anything else is wrong. The insistence that there can be “only one right way” to define the Divine or to define and practice polytheism  proceeds directly from that monotheist “There can be only One” mentality.  And boy howdy, have we seen some Pagan bloggers go after each other’s heads like MacLeod and the Kurgan. A truly polytheist perspective wouldn’t demand this friction, because it would have probably already found a way to incorporate all points of view into a beautiful, intricate, and coherent system. Several of my respondents are already doing precisely this.

You criticize – rightly, I think – Nongbri for his suggestion that “religion is a modern concept developed by Western monotheists.”  But to what extent is he on the right track, because the Western concept of religion (particularly the Protestant view that makes belief the central issue) is so different from the practices of our pre-Christian ancestors? 

There is no extent to which I think Nongbri is on the right track. What he does is acknowledge the cultural bias affecting Western scholarship about religion, and then validate the rightness of that bias in discriminating against pre-Christian or non-Abrahamic religions by saying, “we invented religion, so that other stuff can’t possibly be religion because we didn’t invent it and it doesn’t look anything like what we have here.” I call “shenanigans” upon any notion that ethnocentric modern Westerners laboring under the monotheist perspective have the right to say what a religion is or is not solely based on their own cultural biases, and then also get to conveniently ignore the hideously oppressive ethnocentrism inherent in their position. Or that they have the right to survey the vast panoply of pre-Abrahamic religious and spiritual expression and claim that they “invented religion.” It’s as insulting as it is absurd. If Nongbri had tried to do this in virtually any other field of the humanities, he’d have been ripped apart for the way that his myopia and ethnocentrism serve to re-inscribe cultural oppression and erasure. In this sense, Before Religion is the most pro-neocolonialist work I have ever read, and that includes the missionary pamphlets stuffed into my hand yesterday by the Pentecostal Holiness Church women manning the grocery store entrance when I drove my mom to get groceries.

The difference between pre-Christian (or pre-near-Eastern monotheist) religions and Western religion in the form of Christianity isn’t that one is a religion and the other isn’t, but that one is orthodoxic and preoccupied with belief, and the other is orthopraxic, and concerned with practice. That one’s religion privileges practice over belief does not make it less of a religion.

offerings to Sulis Minerva – Bath

In the book, you argue that polytheism is so different from the “Near Eastern Monotheism” that dominates the West that only polytheists can truly understand it.  What would you suggest to monotheists or non-theists who genuinely want to understand it, even if they have no desire to become polytheists themselves?

If you truly want to understand something with which you have had no previous experience, you must be willing to sacrifice your preconceived notions, assumptions, and understandings. Some preconceptions to get rid of include:

1. Ask which Divinities your polytheist associate worships rather than which Divinities they believe in. Belief is largely irrelevant. Polytheist religion is predicated on religious ritual and devotional practice.

2. While it’s certainly true that religion generates psychological phenomenon, it is unfair to say that religious experience is purely a mental phenomenon. Just because measurable brainwave activities and psychological things are happening doesn’t mean that direct contact and interaction with the Divine is not also simultaneously taking place.

3. Don’t assume you actually understand what polytheism is about. Your understanding is predicated upon two thousand years of monotheist cultural philosophy. Ask questions and allow yourself to be corrected.

4. It is totally fine if you don’t “get it,” but don’t assume that the reason you don’t “get it” is because you are more intellectually evolved and clever, or your viewpoint is better because your theology or philosophy is more advanced and superior.

I’ve seen others suggest that contemporary devotional polytheism is inspired by – or at least, informed by – evangelical Christianity’s emphasis on “a personal relationship with Jesus.”  To what extent do you think the presence of that concept in the mainstream society makes devotional polytheism easier to understand by those who are approaching it?  To what extent do you think it encourages unhelpful assumptions about the Gods (i.e. – that They’re most concerned with us and our well being)?

Given what happened with Christmas and Easter, one could also suggest that the Christian focus on a “personal relationship with Jesus” was stolen from the practice of pre-Christian polytheist holy people whose lives were absolutely devoted to the veneration and service of a single deity. Unfortunately, both “suggestions” rely on a fundamental mischaracterization of the devotional relationship between a person and their Matron/Patron deity, and an accompanying misunderstanding of what motivates Christians vs. what motivates polytheists.

Unlike Christianity, which is predicated upon the necessity of Jesus as sin-forgiver and soul-cleanser without whom one may not stand upright and pure before their God Jehovah, polytheists are by and large looking for religious experience and spiritual connectedness to the Deities, the past, the land on which they live, and “All That Is.” Free will and reciprocity are cornerstones of this relationship; there is no prima facie owing of debt or needing to be cleansed of sin, or demand for obedience (or else!) beneath the relationships most devotional polytheists have with their Deities.

The Christian idea that the Holy Powers have nothing better to do than caretake humanity and cleanse our iniquity shortchanges us and Them. It shortchanges Them because it assumes that They don’t have other realms of activity to be concerned with, and that humans are the single most important species on the planet. It shortchanges us because it presupposes that the human condition is filthy, and humanity is incapable of spiritual self-sufficiency, spiritual evolution, or independent action in our own best interests. Devotional polytheists rightly bristle at this comparison.

What’s the most common misunderstanding you see about polytheism from people who call themselves polytheists (whether they were part of your research or just people you encounter on the internet or at gatherings)?  Where are too many polytheists getting it wrong, or if not “wrong” then less than it could be?

The most common misunderstandings about polytheism from both hard and soft polytheists that I’ve seen are:  the assumption that polytheism is predicated upon belief rather than practice, that polytheists are somehow ridiculous and backward compared with monotheist and non-theist people, and that there is no appropriate way to syncretize a monist view with devotional polytheist view and have it be a valid religious practice because “ only One” of those views could be right, and the assumption that variances in religious practice are irrelevant because everyone deep down believes exactly the same things anyhow.

I’m not sure it is appropriate for me to discuss which polytheists are getting it “wrong” because I think that polytheism as a contemporary religious practice is constantly evolving. That means experimenting with new approaches, even those that I might consider to be “wrong.” My personal opinion is that the Divinities are experimenting with techniques, practices, and materials to see what is going to serve Their efforts to connect with the material world and the people living in it most effectively.  One particular Deity might well want different things from different devotional polytheists. Yet if those polytheists are opinionated bloggers, they might well be at each other’s throats in the blogosphere or worse and never stop to consider that their practices are so very different because their Deity is engaged in an experimental and developmental process of helping build a strong new polytheist religious practice that will yield powerful connections. What they are getting wrong here is to be preoccupied with what everyone they disagree with is doing rather than focusing on making their own practice stronger.

Temple of Zeus – Athens

Did your own practices change as a result of all the interviews?  Anything you started doing, or stopped doing?  What about your concepts of the Gods and the Universe – how did this project affect your thinking about Them?

My practices evolved during the project, this is true. But my spiritual life was really on its own other trajectory. What this project did was sharpen my understanding of what polytheism means to me, and help really grasp the meaning of devotional practice. I’d been doing it, but couldn’t elucidate exactly why I did except that I liked it and it made me feel connected to Beings who I love. Now, I can, and I am able to build on that deepened understanding.

Do you have an “elevator speech” on polytheism – a way to describe your polytheism to monotheists and non-theists that is both faithful to your experiences and brief enough to speak to those who can’t or won’t take the time for a more in-depth explanation?

Polytheism is the reification and veneration of multiple Divine Beings. It is a religious practice which is based on personal experiences of those Beings as achieved through the ritual and devotional engagement with Them.  Mythology is symbolically meaningful and it informs my practice to a degree but in no way do I regard it as holy writ in the way the monotheists do their scriptures. In fact, belief is irrelevant to because my personal experiences and positive results guide the religious practice.

What does devotional polytheism need most right now to grow, both in spiritual depth and in raw numbers?  Works of polytheistic theology?  Physical temples?  Organized priesthoods?  More public events?  Something else?

We need to prioritize honoring and then setting aside our differences in order to reclaim political and social solidarity with Paganism as a whole – what’s happening with the Maetreum of Cybele could happen to any of us in this monotheist culture we live in.

Rather than a unified polytheist theology that links us all, I’d like to see the different devotional polytheist religions deepen their own unique theological and ritual approaches. I’d like to see them spend as much time connecting more strongly to contemporary society as they do reconstructing ancient traditions so that these religions become powerfully vital and relevant to contemporary, multi-cultural people.

It’s also vital to increase opportunities for ritual and clerical training so that the religions can really have rock-solid ritual and devotional practices. I also think that devotional polytheist-oriented gatherings would be ideal places to host opportunities for ritual and clerical training.  However, it is also vital for religious groups to foster home-based religious practice. Most ancient polytheists and many contemporary polytheistic religions were primarily home and family based, with civic sponsorship and cultii more or less being an outgrowth of that. Affording opportunities for people to learn how to build effective but also do-able religious practice at home without the presence of any grand clergy is key to the growth and development of devotional polytheism.

While more polytheist theology might help Pagans gain a foothold in religious studies and theology departments, it would be more helpful to the devotional polytheist community as a whole for the different religions to strengthen their own theological approaches / ritual practices and to build infrastructure. Dedicated real estate to house the religious activity is key, as is increasing opportunities for ritual and clerical training. More of us need to engage with public “interfaith” dialogues, and demand that non-monotheist perspectives be represented and respected in such discussions.

You had 120 respondents but you only had room for 23 in the book.  Is there another project waiting to be pulled out of the rest of those responses?

This ethnographic survey was entirely self-funded and self-implemented. It took three years and a lot of personal sacrifices to bring the book into being. I would like to publish another volume of interviews, certainly, and will do so as soon as I have made enough in sales to fund the next phase. If I can clear $10,000 in sales and donations, I will launch a Kickstarter campaign to match those funds so that I can get another volume produced.

What research would you like to see follow this book?

On an academic level, I have begun to plan an article comparing Semitic orthopraxy to contemporary Western polytheist orthopraxy. I think that once the case for orthopraxy gets made in religious studies, it will be easier for Pagan scholars to get into the curriculum.

Personally, I might eventually like to do an ethnographic survey of people whose religious practice focuses on ancestors and/or land spirits. I’m also keen to trace the figure of Maman Brigitte across the Caribbean. She is a mysterious question mark and I’d like for all of us to know more about Her.

What’s your next project?

Connaissance Sankofa Media is now accepting submissions for Words of Flame, An Anthology of Devotional Fiction. This collection of short fiction goes beyond the reinvention and reuse of folklore and myth, because the authors are Pagans whose work is inspired by their own devotional relationships with the Deities and spirits about whom they write. For contributor information and publishing guidelines, contact us or send an email to wdwilkerson@connaissancesankofamedia.com.

As I mentioned before, I’m also interested in publishing independent Pagan studies research.

At the moment, my personal work is pretty secular. I’m working on an urban fantasy mystery novel, a coloring book based on the cryptids of North America, and a walking tour app for my hometown.

Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

It is my hope that this work sparks debate in the wider community and bolsters the work of Pagans in religious studies and theology departments. I also hope it inspires readers to grow a deeper spiritual understanding of their own path and practice.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Nice article, thank you.

  • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

    I hear statements like this a lot: “the assumption that polytheism is predicated upon belief rather than practice.” I wonder why it can’t be both. I do a daily devotional to my gods and various other rites during the month and year, but I have never experienced a sensation of being close to any of the beings to whom I devote myself. Many have asked why I do it, then, and the answer is simple: the religious experiences of others when working with these or other beings convinces me that they exist and are worthy of devotion.

    In other words: my practice is predicated on my trust in others and their experiences rather than the experiences that I have had myself. I think this is a little different from what most people mean when they use words like the ones I quoted above and, frankly, I feel like I can’t be the only person operating within this sort of framework. And, perhaps this degree of separation between my belief and their practice doesn’t, in the end, actually matter all that much; my polytheism is still predicated on practice, just not my own.

    Regardless, this was an excellent interview! I have, but have unfortunately not read, the actual anthology yet, but it’s on my Kindle so it’ll get gotten to!

    • Wendi Wilkerson

      David,

      I remember our wonderful interview nearly three years ago, and wanted to follow up on your comment. This issue is expanded upon quite deeply in the introduction and “Polytheism, Practice, Perspective” chapters of the book and in many of the interviews.
      It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that in some cases, belief is a part of polytheist religions. In fact, some of the polytheists in my study like yourself acknowledge that belief of some sort does have a role to play in their practice, but it doesn’t really play the same sort of role as it does in Christianity. My finding is that even when it is present, belief still isn’t the foundational force that it necessarily is in the near-Eastern monotheist ones, particularly Christianity. Please note that I mean “predicated” quite pointedly: Even for those who acknowledge that belief of some sort is part of their practice, their religion is not founded upon the need to “believe” in the Gods, but rather the “understanding” that ritual religious practice is satisfying in and of itself, and that devotional or ritual interaction with the Holy Powers leads to a powerful sense of reciprocal connection with Them, our human communities, and the World As It Is. The Deities’ existence is still usually taken as a given.

      • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

        “Even for those who acknowledge that belief of some sort is part of their practice, their religion is not founded upon the need to “believe” in the Gods, but rather the “understanding” that ritual religious practice is satisfying in and of itself…”

        This is the tidbit that I was missing from my understanding, thank you.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/starandsnake/ Brandy Williams

    “In this context, telling a scholar that their work is “for insiders, by insiders” is a silencing tactic.” As the director of Seattle Pagan Scholars I can attest that many Pagan scholars have been told exactly that, their work was not publishable. Academics have similarly told me that they cannot admit to being Pagan because they risk loss of credibility. Fortunately that is changing, and Dr. Wilkerson’s work is timely and welcome. Thank you for an informative and lively interview!

    • Wendi Wilkerson

      Brandy,
      Except for a handful of pagan-oriented scholarly publications, it is very difficult to get our work acknowledged, much less published. I will be blogging about this very topic in the upcoming weeks, on my grab-bag of a tumblr blog, That Thing You Wanted To Know? and also at the imprint’s
      website, http://www.connaissancesankofamedia.com. If you check out the “Call for Submissions,” you’ll see a brief notice about the “Independent Thought” book series that we will be launching. It’s a platform for Pagan studies, and the publishing agreements are open enough that author retains control of their work and can submit it for publication elsewhere after the licensing contract has ended, so there is no need to “jailbreak” your research to submit it elsewhere later on. My thinking is that if we can get our stuff into print and available for other pagan scholars, they can build upon our independently published work to start foraging into the more traditional and conventional established scholarly outlets.

      My sense is that there is a lot of ideological and theoretical “connective tissue” that needs to be generated before we can really get ourselves read and respected in any discipline other than sociology, folklore, or anthropology. This is doubly true of Religious Studies and Theology. I feel
      like we really need to come together and build some strategy in this area, but the groups to which I currently belong don’t seem quite as focused toward that end. Contact me via the website if you’re interested in talking more about this, or if anyone in your group is.

  • http://www.celestinetarot.com/ Celestine Angel

    I just want to say that I think it’s very awesome that so much of the proceeds are going to the Maetreum of Cybele.

  • http://www.rendingtheveil.com Christopher

    I think it’s hard for outsiders to really understand the pull of conservatism (I don’t mean political conservatism here…cosmological conservatism?) in the discipline of anthropology. Anthropology, as a science of culture, tacitly agrees to use a somewhat stereotypical, middle class, Western view of the world as a baseline. It tries to ground itself in an everyday that its very own research shows is culturally based.

    But anthropologists aren’t biased jerks for doing this — they’re just aware of who’s paying the bills. Maybe that’s not the “pure science” we dream of, but if bias is inevitable, it might as well pay the bills.

    Anthropology, and science as a whole, is a Western construct. That doesn’t make it wrong, or useless, but it makes it resistant to change, inherently conservative in a cosmological sense. It’s okay to talk about the “other” talking to gods. It’s also okay to talk to gods. But (and this is a Western bias) it’s not okay to talk about talking to gods. It’s considered “poor form.”

    Just like few academics will admit too being Christian Scientists, or charismatic Christians, there’s a class taboo that Pagan-focused research runs smack into.

    • Wendi Wilkerson

      My professional experience in academia as well as the three years of ethnographic and scholarly research that went into the book brings me to disagree with some of your conclusions. I address these matters more fully in the Introduction to Walking With The Gods, but here are some of the highlights:

      First of all, much good work had been done about polytheistic cultures in anthropology, social sciences, and folklore, which have been much more willing to embrace Pagan studies alongside conventional work on the religions of indigenous people around the world. Sabina Mogliocco and Margo Adler, for example, have done excellent and well-respected work on Paganism in those disciplines. On the other hand, history, classics, theology, and religious studies are notoriously adverse to including polytheistic religiosity and contemporary Pagan studies into the curriculum. For example, Ronald Hutton has had to fight like hell to get any respect for his work on indigenous British pre-Christian religions in his own discipline of History. In the social sciences, you are also very likely to see ethnographers who are willing to respectfully discuss things like people “talking to Gods,” via shamanic journeying and spirit possession for example. It is increasingly considered “poor form” to include paternalism, neocolonialism, ethnocentrism, and condescension
      in your writing on these cultures and phenomena. The upshot is, you
      can discuss polytheism anthropologically, but you best not actually
      reify the divinities such religions venerate OR seriously consider the
      theological questions that such religiosity raises.

      Secondly, the fact that the entire American academy is based on the ethnocentric cultural logic of the colonial, monotheist, West does in fact create substantial problems for seriously studying and respecting polytheist cultures. Jordan Paper, John Michael Greer, and Vine Deloria, Jr. discuss this repeatedly in their work, and the issue is pretty well covered in my introductory chapter. It almost seems that your defense of the academy’s “conservatism” seriously minimizes the damage that Western ethnocentrism does to the study of non-monotheist religions and the cultures that have them. The academy’s quasi-hostile unwillingness
      to change in order to better study non-monotheist religions in a respectful and meaningful way, and to acknowledge the theological questions that those religions raise about Western assumptions regarding religion, faith, nature, and Deity, along with their aggressive attempts to silence work that challenges the status quo is, frankly, WRONG. It is, in fact, a violation of the scholarly spirit which drives the academic endeavor. I’m not saying that the academy is evil, of that Western culture is evil. I’m saying that it isn’t okay to justify denigrating research that destabilizes Western cultural assumptions about religion simply because the scholars in question aren’t applying the ethnocentric Western “conservatism” to their work.

      Finally, your statement about “who pays the bills” is rather inappropriate, but it’s an excellent example of the “silencing” tactics I mentioned earlier. “Who pays the bills” isn’t properly the academy’s concern; creating knowledge and generating scholarship that pushes the boundaries
      of what we know IS the academy’s concern, and until the business-service model set in that was the primary reason for the academy’s existence. That idea really has no proper place in the discussion of why Western ethnocentrism in the guise of “conservatism” is a problem for the study of polytheist religions.

      • http://www.rendingtheveil.com Christopher

        I was describing the “silencing tactics,” their causes, and their effects. So, please, don’t haul off on me as someone who you think either benefitted from or defends the academy. I did neither.

        I was being descriptive of the culture that causes what you experienced. If I was not clear, I apologize.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    Excellent.


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