Polytheism, Politics, Discomfort, and Growth

Polytheism, Politics, Discomfort, and Growth August 18, 2015

Recently Rhyd Wildermuth, my co-conspirator behind the recent Many Gods West event, a conference for polytheists, posted about his experience of the conference. (I also have done so.) His piece provoked strong feelings – as most of his pieces do. In the comments of the piece and on his Facebook page, it is clear to me that people take issue with several things. Firstly, people take issue with Rhyd’s admission that some people thought Many Gods West (MGW) was an anti-capitalist gathering. Secondly, many people don’t seem to know how to respond to content that they neither fully agree with nor fully disagree with. Thirdly, there is an assumption that we must entirely agree and/or adopt an all or nothing attitude toward various issues. I’m going to address all three points.

Many Gods, Many Peoples, Many Expressions of Justice

Officially, on behalf of MGW as an entity, I would like to state that the gathering was not a formal anti-capitalist gathering. The only requirement for presenters was that they be polytheists. The conference was for “many gods, many peoples”.

Polytheism literally means many gods. That’s it. There is no political litmus test to pass in order to present at or attend MGW – nor to be a polytheist.

That said, I completely agree with Rhyd and the anonymous commenters that there was a not-so-subtle undercurrent of anti-capitalism at MGW. Part of that is because both Rhyd and myself espouse that ideology in various ways, but not necessarily in the same ways or to the same degrees. As con-conspirators of the event, our way of being in the world was reflected in the event.

But that many of the presentations had threads of anti-capitalism and political sentiment were a surprise to us. Only one of the talks when proposed to us had anything explicitly anti-capitalist written out in its abstract.

I see this undercurrent among polytheists as an organic and grassroots expression of the communities we served and represented. There is very clearly a movement among polytheists to address how we bring our beliefs and practices to bear in the world we live in.

However, let it be clear that while resisting dominant paradigms – be they religious, political, or economic – not everyone had the same ideas! Anti-capitalism, economic and racial justice, political resistance, ecological healing, ancestral restitution, and polytheist restoration are clearly topics that our wider communities are working out for themselves and they are expressing themselves in myriad ways.

I am sure there are plenty of polytheists out there who don’t have strong feelings about economics and would rather have their gatherings without explicit anti-capitalist talk. I think those people were present at MGW and they still had a great time.

Photo by Genta Mochizawa/Unsplash.com
Photo by Genta Mochizawa/Unsplash.com

Relational Polytheism

I wrote last about how my polytheism, like my feminism, will be intersectional, or it will be useless. My religious relationality is not just with the gods; it is also with my communities, my family, my friends. To be slightly hierarchical about it – my intersectionality goes vertical and horizontal.

I cannot in good conscience worship the gods I do without maintaining a preferential option for the oppressed, disenfranchised, and otherwise Othered. While I hesitate to speak for the gods, I’ll say with much confidence that Kali doesn’t care for the security and comforts I cling to out of an “I got mine” attitude. She asks for more from me and for others.

But my gods’ agendas and how I express my practices in the world are my responsibility. Your gods and practices might be calling (or not calling) you to different actions. There is also no “perfect” expression of these ideas and actions.

For example, I’m on board with Rhyd’s movement in the world. But I don’t always agree. His ideas are not always fully fleshed out – and I don’t need them to be! He doesn’t have children or dependents, and the actions he takes in the world are different than the ones I make. I do have children, so I can say “hey, have you thought of this particular thing that affects me?” And he, from the fringes, can inspire me to push farther than I thought was possible.

Discomfort from the Edges

This leads me to the second point I want to make. Those who lead from the fringes will not have all the answers nor speak for everyone. Prophets speak the difficult words we usually don’t want to hear. Our job is not to agree or disagree. If we wholly shout amen at every word then we are nothing but the choir to the preacher’s monologue.

What is needed is personal discernment, and that often requires sitting in the discomfort of holding a variety of ideas and levels of agreement or disagreement. And waiting. Discernment can take a long time. Years even. Ideas develop over time for individuals and for communities.

My ideas slowly percolate and I have to sometimes pick up an idea that makes me uncomfortable, try it on, and see what happens. Usually I learn something. Sometimes I change my mind. Often what I get is nuance or a new perspective. I always find that the all or nothing attitude is usually a set up for disaster and failure.

Your All is Not My All

Lastly, I want to address the idea that to be effective in working toward any kind of justice one must be “all or nothing.” To be fully committed to economic or environmental or any sort of social justice movement does not require adopting an all or nothing way of life. Let’s look at  breastfeeding for an intersectional example. If you’re not a parent, hang with me. Women who have had children, I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

It turns out how you feed your infant is a Big Deal. Especially on the internet. If you are not 100% breastfeeding on demand then some people are going to jump down your throat and tell you you are failing, that you didn’t try hard enough. If you are, plenty of people will also tell you you’re gross and boobs are for fun only. If an ounce of formula ever passes your infant’s lips, plenty of people will jump down your throat and try to convince you that your child will grow up ugly, diseased, and stupid.

My experience with my first child (because circumstances were different with the first than they were with the other two) was that by breastfeeding 70-90% of the time (and that meant formula for the other 10-30%) I was able to sustain a happy and healthy long term nursing relationship. If I had tried to be 100% I would have ended up entirely not nursing, or being miserable and bitter the whole time.

My “not 100%” breastfeeding experience later led to my being able to do so with the other children. Again, if I had not “failed” at the “lesser” efforts I would most certainly not have succeeded at the later ones.

There are many deep and disturbing social, environmental, and health issues involved with infant formula. But there are also a host of hurdles to breastfeeding, including lack of support and economic issues, such as not having access to pumps or time and space to pump, that contribute to the lack of breast feeding options.

As a feminist I know that not all women are able to or have the resources to exclusively breastfeed. Many want to and cannot. Some don’t even know it’s an option or a possibility. Some don’t want to. I look at anti-capitalism efforts in much the same way.

Bringing it back to wider politics, not all of us want a different socio-economic model. Many of us don’t know that other options are even a possibility. Some would like to change the world but don’t know how to work toward an alternate future. A lot of us have varying degrees of knowledge, support, and resources and so we approach our politics and practices one piece at a time. But each of those efforts allows us to make yet more efforts as we gain strength, wisdom, knowledge, and support for the next set of steps.

The Value of Prophets and Communities

We need people rallying on the fringes, reminding us of promises we’ve made, heralding coming crises, and encouraging us to press more deeply than we think we can. We need these people to provoke us toward new thinking and push us out of our comfort zones. People on the fringes are part of our beloved communities.

We also need communities in which to work out how to support one another, hold ourselves accountable, and prepare for our futures.

We need discernment, as individuals and communities. We need gathering spaces, like MGW, where we can listen to new ideas and discuss amongst ourselves, support one another, and celebrate together.

I need people to push and prod me, so that I can stretch further. This is beloved community.

Crystal Blanton won’t stop talking about black lives. Sometimes I can’t handle the grief and rage of that reality – yet I keep reading and feeling and growing. Rhyd Wildermuth won’t stop talking about the social and environmental and spiritual damage caused by capitalism. My husband is self-employed, we own a house and a car, have children, and interact with capitalism daily. I sit in my discomfort and try to figure out how to best move forward in my world. John Beckett won’t stop talking about the polytheist restoration, something I’m not entirely in agreement with, but I keep reading because he is my community, this matters to him, and I can’t hone my ideas in an echo chamber.

While one does not have to be “political” to be a polytheist, one’s politics are woven into your life and your actions in the world. Do not be afraid of others’ politics. Do not be afraid of engaging with the ideas. You don’t have to take those ideas on. You don’t have to be a polytheist the way others do it.

But don’t ignore politics or the prophets either.

This is beloved community. These prophets are my community. This is how I grow. This is how we grow.

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  • Just brilliant!

  • Thanks for this. So many good things in here.

  • Gwion

    You know Niki, What you’ve written is a great example of polytheistic thought versus monotheistic thought. I find that most polytheists tend to hold a “both/and” perspective versus the more common “either/or” perspective that dominates our overculture. Ryhd can inspire me and piss me off in the same sentence. Crystal Blanton and I have had many conversations that have dramatically changed my perception of a multitude of topics. Practically every presentation I attended at MGW carried qualities of affinity and repulsion;areas I was totally on board with and others that made me squirm. I actually yearn for that. It’s how I learn and stretch.

    • Our gathering shouldn’t be an echo chamber; I did not want everyone presenting at MGW to be someone with whose ideas I completely agreed.

      Thanks for seeing the both/and in there.

    • Yes, and; not either, or. Exactly.

    • “Rhyd can inspire me and piss me off in the same sentence.”

      That’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said about me. 😉

  • I am currently sighing happily as I finish reading this post. Good post. Good thoughts. Things to ponder, and to love, and to think about.

  • Heathen Chinese

    “While one does not have to be ‘political’ to be a polytheist,
    one’s politics are woven into your life and your actions in the world.”

    Word. And since almost everyone’s relationship with their local land spirits (and the land spirits of the land where their food came from, etc.) is either shaped or threatened or mediated or in some way affected by capitalism…

  • Niki, I am intrigued by your not being in total agreement with Beckett’s restoration of the way of the gods, as you say. I’d love to know more about that, about how this idea sounds from your end, if you’d care to discuss it a little here, or perhaps blog about it sometime. 🙂

    • It’s fodder for a blog post coming, hopefully, soon. This piece was hard won, written on a day when the kids didn’t give me a moment’s peace. So we’ll see when my response to Beckett can get written!

      • I have had those days, I hear ya! I shall look forward to reading it when it appears. 🙂

  • Thank you. Yes, nuances. Lived realities are complicated. The breastfeeding/formula analogy made a lot of sense. I don’t think it’s possible to be totally apolitical or on the other hand to totally leave capitalism at this time (even if you live in the park and panhandle you are still enmeshed in it). But I was so happy to see so many people making the connections at MGW, and so many talks that fit together with others like pieces of a mosaic. Capitalism always makes war on animist ways and is at odds with Polytheist relationality. It seems to me, even if one stridently wanted to say the religious and the political are totally separate categories and never shall the twain meet, the very climatic conditions prevailing at Olympia that weekend proclaimed loudly Otherwise.

  • yewtree

    I found bits of Rhyd’s article uncomfortable, and other bits inspiring. That is the nature of writing. Plus Rhyd is cuddly and scary in equal measure and he writes like a poet or a prophet. And he is so obviously coming from a place of radical compassion.

    I don’t agree with everything John Beckett writes either, but I read his articles because they are well-written and based on solid grounded thinking. Plus he comes across as a really nice guy.

    My latest blogpost is a thinking-out-loud thing and quite a few people have offered some really cogent criticisms of it which have allowed me to refine my thinking.

    So yeah, totally with you on the BOTH/AND thing.

    And this is a great piece of writing.

  • An Elder Apprentice

    I shared this post with my daughter, a new mother of a lovely 10 week old girl. She so appreciated your comments on breast feeding as she found them so supportive and affirming of her experiences, difficulties, and delights. Niki, thank you.

    • That my post on polytheism and politics could help a new breastfeeding mother makes me ridiculously happy. I wish her every joy with her new babe. Nursing a new born is tough and tiring work – having a new born PERIOD is tough and tiring work!

      • An Elder Apprentice

        Being a first time grandfather is an interesting and somewhat humbling role – one of learning how to truly support my daughter, the father, and the baby’s joys and struggle while realizing that I am not them. These lessons are not easy and seem related to so much of what you spoke of in your essay.

  • Matthew Hunt

    Good to know as a long time free market capitalist, libertarian & polytheist that I could have attended Many Gods West and not been driven off with pitchforks and torches. Although I wonder if I might have been given the cold shoulder? It remains to be seen next year if I can make it out there.

    • You would not have. Again, we were all there to talk about and venerate gods. No one had to declare their politics! I’m sure you would have brought important insight to the discussions. Even I did not agree with everything I heard, but all of it made me think – and that is important.

      • Matthew Hunt

        Like I said its good to know! O would love to get together with everyone over wine and beer and have some lively chats!

  • •”how to respond to content that one neither fully agrees with nor fully disagrees with”
    Retreat and think upon it before response. Listen to a debate about the content and see if that gives you a better feel for response.

    •Intersectional R Us–hard not to be. I had the hardest time coming up with a college major, because everything was so darned interesting, and how could I ever choose? A year or two later, and I would have been a standard linguistics student, because the right prof had been hired in my sophomore year. It’s hard, as a human, to be a part of a single community, as we each fit into so many different categories, even if it’s just the physical/physiological and mental ones.

    So how does the health care system handle a person who seems outwardly to be physically female, with a male and a female partner, who is bi-racial or more, and has been abused in a medical situation? But e is not what e seems–the genes say otherwise. Intersection much?

    •the old breastfeeding fanaticism & political correctness issue of the late 20th C.
    Gah. Newborns’ mothers need all the support they can get–some women can’t breastfeed because of their physical issues: condemning them for not doing so or not “trying harder” is cruel, mean, and destructive–and her situation and her choices are hers, not yours. Yes, breast milk is best nutrtion and bonding for an infant, but not every mother can: don’t get on her case for things she can’t control. What are you going to do if a new mother simply cannot get the milk to flow, or the infant to suckle–let the child die rather than allow formula?

    When my son was less than a full day old, I had four different “experts” on nursing give me four different instruction sets on how to nurse. One said that I had to get the whole areola in his mouth. Well, that’s fine, if it’s alread puckered, but otherwise, the damn thing was nearly as big as the baby’s head–and considerably more than his mouth could handle! I basically looked at all the advice, evaluated it, and did it my own way, after experiementation showed me what worked.

    I tell new moms, or those in their last month, to listen but ignore if necessary any advice that runs counter to their experience. I also give a blessing to random pregnant women I encounter, to counteract a lot of the nonsense or horror stories they’re told, as wella as the unwanted touching and advice given.

    I like the “your all is not my all”–more people need to recognize and accept that.