Pagans and polytheists often like to say we practice religions of virtues, not religions of rules. Rather than trying to figure out which rule should govern our behavior in a complicated situation, we decide which virtues are most applicable and how we can best embody them.
One of the most helpful virtues is persistence: the practice of sticking with something even when it gets hard and even when it takes a long time. Persistence is in short supply in our world: investors dump stocks because quarterly returns are good but below projections, marriages end in a few years or even a few months because things get difficult (or because someone “better” comes along), and there’s the annual cycle of New Year’s Resolutions abandoned before Imbolc.
A famous movie director who I’d rather not name once said “80% of life is just showing up.” I prefer to say “half of life is just showing up… and the other half is sticking with something long enough for it to bear fruit.” I’ve done that throughout my life – not all the time, but most of the time. To be honest, sometimes I didn’t have a viable choice. Other times, my wife would say I was just being stubborn. But whatever the details, persistence is a virtue that has served me well throughout my life.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in the unusual position of being attacked from both the right and the left. The right doesn’t like my insistence that folkishness is a dangerous half truth and that there is no place for bigotry in Paganism. The left doesn’t like my insistence that devotion comes before politics. I’m not the only one in this odd juxtaposition, but I’m only going to speak for myself in this post.
In this difficult situation, I’m not looking for rules to follow. And although I’m not fond of conflict and I usually try to find mutual accommodation, I’m not in the mood to compromise. In this situation, I’m going to embody the virtue of persistence and keep doing what I’ve been called to do.
I’m going to keep putting the Gods first. I grovel before no being and I maintain my sovereignty even before the Gods. But the Gods are older, stronger, and wiser than we are – they have a perspective that we do not. In my devotion to Them, and in my efforts to embody Their values and virtues, I participate in something far larger than myself. In my worship of and communion with Them, I have found both meaning and wisdom.
The Gods I worship do not need to be reminded that They’re Gods. Humans, however, frequently need to remind ourselves that we are not Gods, and that there is something bigger than us that is not us.
This is the core of my practice and the core of my life. The Gods are first.
I’m going to keep honoring my ancestors and the spirits of the place where I live and work. If it weren’t for my ancestors, I quite literally wouldn’t be here. I owe them my honor and devotion. Further, I have long been called to explore the beliefs and practices of my ancient ancestors. They provide both context and inspiration for my own religion.
I’ve lived in my current house for 14 years. For the first few years, the spirits of this place ignored me. But over time, as I tried to live in a commitment to Nature and as I reached out to them, we came to a polite understanding (there’s that persistence thing again). I do my best to listen to them and to respond to their concerns, as I do with all my neighbors. By honoring them, I continually remind myself that while my name may be on the deed in the courthouse, I do not own this land and it is not mine to do with as I please. Other beings live here – both seen and unseen – and their needs and concerns are as valid as mine.
I’m going to keep building my local community. I love my Pagan and polytheist friends around the world – they inspire and support me. But my deepest work is here in Texas, in back yards and living rooms and meeting houses. The internet is where I talk about polytheism – here is where I do polytheism. Here is where I’ve had ecstatic experiences of the Gods, and where I’ve helped others to have their own first-hand experiences. Here’s where I can talk to people face to face, whether I’m teaching or being taught or just complaining about the weather.
Over the past year, Denton CUUPS has had an influx of new people at various stages of personal spiritual development. It’s been wonderful watching them learn and grow, take on larger and larger parts in public rituals, and open themselves to the presence of the Gods in private rituals. I take no credit for their growth – that’s almost entirely between them and the Gods who speak to them. But if I – and many others – didn’t maintain and promote this group, they wouldn’t have these opportunities.
I’m going to seek alliances where ever I can find them, in this world and in the Otherworld. Being a Pagan in Texas is not the impossible task some people (most of whom don’t live here) think it is. But there are a lot fewer of us here than in some parts of the country – we can’t be too picky about who we gather with, or we’d have no community at all. The members of Denton CUUPS have beliefs and practices that vary widely and at times wildly. We still come together to celebrate the seasons and to love and support each other on our way through life.
There is no creedal test to dance the Maypole. There’s no political test, either. I have no tolerance for racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or any other form of bigotry. But beyond that, if someone thinks the values of the Gods can be better implemented with libertarianism than with socialism, they have a place in any circle I lead.
We need allies in this world – we need allies in the Otherworld too. The Gods are not vending machines and the spirits are not servants. Where we have common interests, I want to work with them in honor and in reciprocity.
I’m going to keep supporting everyone’s right to believe and practice as they see fit. One of my religious identities is Unitarian Universalism – how could I do anything else? While we live in the most religiously diverse society in the history of humanity, there are still individuals and groups who want to establish their religion as the only acceptable choice… and they’re not all fundamentalist Christians or radical Muslims. They are wrong and I will continue to oppose them – religious freedom means freedom for all.
At the same time, I will continue to promote clarity in our religious discussions. Deep down, our many religions and religious traditions are not all the same. They have different foundational assumptions, different histories, different stories, different goals, and different methods. I understand that some Pagans and even some polytheists aren’t interested in the fine points of theology and philosophy – they’re still important and valued members of our communities. But they don’t get to sidetrack the conversation just because it doesn’t continually affirm their own beliefs and practices.
I’m going to keep writing about what I do and what I think, and I’m going to keep encouraging others to take up this path. My particular form of ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, public polytheism is not the only form of polytheism or even the ideal form of polytheism. But it is a form of polytheism that has proven to be deeply meaningful and helpful to me and to others who practice it. So I’m going to keep talking about it. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, Pagans don’t proselytize but we damn well better publicize.
This form of polytheism is not a private matter to be kept to myself. It’s not an occult tradition restricted to a chosen few. It is centered on the worship of Gods who have been hidden for long enough and who want be known. Promoting a religion centered on Them by preaching on street corners would be obnoxious (and also ineffective). Promoting it on a Pagan blog on a multifaith religious website is not only appropriate, it’s a sacred obligation.
We can never be completely certain about religious matters, but some things are more likely than others and some are more helpful than others. It’s important to get our religions as close to “right” as possible. If you think I’ve got something wrong, or if you think you’ve got a better way, I want to hear from you. Let’s talk about sources, theories, practices, and results. Good, honest religion is a never-ending experiment.
But if your religion is centered on politics, we are not doing the same thing. If your religion is centered on yourself and aspects of yourself, we are not doing the same thing. If your religion doesn’t include the religious regard for many real Gods, we are not doing the same thing.
And that’s OK. We don’t have to all do the same thing, and who knows: you might be closer to “right” than I am. I will support your right to believe and practice as you see fit, and I will work with you where ever and whenever our interests coincide. But I am not going to be distracted from the work my Gods have called me to do so I can be less challenging to people who aren’t even on the same path I’m following.
I’m human. I don’t like criticism, and I’m frustrated by criticism that ignores both the context of what I’ve written and the audience for whom I’ve written it. But I learned very early in my blogging career that all I can control is what I write – I can’t control how others read it and react to it. So while I’m disappointed at the various attacks – particularly the recent attacks from the left, some of whom I thought were my friends and allies – they’ve served to re-center my focus on why I write.
So call it dedication. Call it devotion. Call it stubbornness. I’m calling it the persistence of a polytheist. Call it what you will. I’m going to keep doing what I’m called to do.