[A note to readers: Eilidh Nic Sidheag wrote this in a comment below: “I can’t answer for John [Beckett], but for me, “putting the gods first” is a bit like “putting self-care first”. It doesn’t mean I think I’m more important than anything else, it means that if I don’t look after myself, I won’t be able to do any of the other important stuff. If I don’t honour the gods, I also won’t be able to do the other important stuff, because my wellbeing is bound up with the expression of my spirituality.” I think this is probably what John Beckett meant in his post and, in that case, I completely misunderstood and I apologize for propagating the misunderstanding. This makes sense and I completely support it. I should have reached out to John to clarify before blasting off a blog post about what I *thought* he meant and creating another tempest in a teapot. Some of his language tripped my Xtian-baggage alarms — but that’s on me, not on him.]
John Beckett has recently written a post about his vision of the future of the future of Polytheism — the future of the “polytheist revolution” — and the importance of “keeping the Gods at the front”. And it has become more clear to me than ever why I am opposed to the growth of a certain kind of Polytheism — other-worldly Polytheism — within the Pagan Umbrella.
“I would argue that if your religion doesn’t have a strong this-world component you’re doing it wrong.
“Our this-world concerns are enormous. They’re here, in front of us, right now. They demand our attention, they demand our time, they demand our effort. And they never end. If we are not mindful, if we are not – dare I say it – devout and pious, it is all too easy to let our this-world concerns become our gods and take Their place in our lives. …
“When we don’t keep the Gods at the forefront of our practice, we put something else there. That something else may be helpful or it may be a distraction, but whatever it is weakens our relationships with the Gods …”
To me, this sounds disturbingly like the Christianity I left behind 15 years ago — with its rejection of this world or at least its relegation of the concerns of this world to a place of secondary importance. It sounds too much like the monotheistic condemnation of “idolatry” and the “gods of this world”.
It was because of its embrace of the “gods of this world” that I became Pagan. For me, more than anything else, the word “Pagan” denotes a this-worldly view of life. I had spent far too much of my early religious life looking for another world and missing the point of this one. I was guilty of what Albert Camus called the sin of “hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” I found in Paganism a religion that embraced this world — with both arms. While many Pagans do believe in reincarnation, most do not view the cycle of life as something to be escaped from. And most of those who believe in a “Summerland” view it as the place where souls rest between incarnations, not as a “heaven” where one would want to stay. Ultimately, for most Pagans, this world is all there is. But where this would cause some to despair, the Pagan shouts with joy!
Not in Utopia, — subterranean fields, –
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, — the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
So when John Beckett talks about placing the gods before the concerns of this world, this is not just another form of Paganism — it is the antithesis of everything Paganism is to me. For me, it’s this world or bust!
John goes on to argue that, in the absence of a belief in the gods, we will lack the motivation to care for the Earth and to build a fair and just society when the going gets hard. I simply cannot agree. How does putting the gods between us and our concern for the earth and its inhabitants strengthen that concern? In my own experience, the reverse has been true: care for this world is inversely proportionally to the belief in the importance of another one. This has been true in my own life and in the lives of many others I have seen — like those whose response to ecocide is “It’s all going to burn anyway.”
To me, it seems that a god-motivated concern for the earth — whether polytheist or monotheist — is more fragile than a concern that grows directly out of one’s relationship with the earth itself — for the same reason that stewardship models of environmentalism don’t go as deep as those that recognize our inherent interconnectedness. What happens to our ecology when the gods are silent, as they sometimes are? Or what happens when the will of the gods do not align with the needs of our planet? John admits that “… we aren’t the primary concern of the Gods …” Well, if we we are not, and if this planet is not, then I wonder what is their primary concern? No doubt someone will tell me that the ways of the gods are mysterious or their ways are not our ways — but I’ve heard all that before, from my former religion. I’m left wondering, if the gods are not concerned with us and with the other lifeforms on this earth, why we should worship them at all? The mere fact of their existence seems to be insufficient reason to justify placing them before everything else.
Of course, not all Polytheism is other-worldly. Not all polytheisms are equal. Some forms of Polytheism find the gods in the manifest phenomena of this world — its rivers, its mountains, its flora, its other-than-human animals. For them, “We move through a world rife with gods and spirits, and a multitude of gods dwell within each of us … We rub up against divine being with every turn in the sacred dance” (Alison Leigh Lily), from “Local spirits-of-place Gods, like the tiny endemic population of this-kind-of-poppy-with-the-spot-on-its-petals which has only ever been found on one mountain in one county in one land” to “Gods who are nothing but the endless omnipotent life force endlessly taking shape in all things” (Morpheus Ravenna). For some Polytheists, the suggestion that we should avoid placing this world before the gods is nonsensical, a non-sequitur, because for them there is no distinction between the gods and this world. That is a kind of Polytheism I am happy to share the Pagan umbrella with — a this-worldly polytheism. But if your gods aren’t going to help me save this world, then I don’t want your Polytheist revolution.