Our Dysfunctional Relationship With Authority

Our Dysfunctional Relationship With Authority March 6, 2016

I’d like to speak to my fellow devotional polytheists – those of us who have a religious regard for many real Gods. This isn’t private communication – if you’re a soft polytheist, an archetypicalist, or a non-theist, you’re welcome to keep reading. But I’m not talking to you.

We are in a position of great opportunity and great responsibility. Polytheism is returning for the first time in over a thousand years. Yes, polytheism and animism have never gone out of practice in some parts of the world, and yes, there have been occasional folks singing hymns to Pan and pouring offerings to Zeus since at least the Renaissance. But we are the first generation in the West for whom polytheism as a religious path is a serious option. If we feel the call of the Gods, we have communities and gatherings and books to help us find our way.

What we don’t have are fully formed religions. Most of us don’t yet have well developed theologies to help us understand the nature of the Gods. We don’t have established spiritual practices to help us connect to the Gods. We don’t have liturgies that help us worship together to honor the Gods and strengthen our communities.

Oh, we have some of these things – you can find examples of all of them on this blog, among many other places. Some traditions – most notably Hellenism – have a decent amount of history from which to draw. But none of this carries the weight of centuries of unbroken tradition. We are trying to restore polytheist religions in a culture where monotheism infuses every aspect of life, even as it’s in decline.

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Establishing these traditions is the obligation and the opportunity of our generation of polytheists. But too often we are distracted from this great work by our dysfunctional relationship with authority.

Far too often, a polytheist priest, scholar, or philosopher will write a book, or a blog post, or just a Facebook post elaborating on some point or other of concern to polytheists and to polytheist religions. And rather than contemplating the ideas presented, other polytheists immediately jump in with the tired old adolescent whine of “you can’t tell me what to do!”

I get that most of us grew up in a Christian environment where we were told exactly what we had to do and believe, we were threatened with eternal damnation if we wavered from it, and we’re sick of it. I get that different Gods call different people to worship Them in different ways. I get that there are valid  philosophical and practical reasons to avoid the establishment of orthodoxy.

At the same time, if we truly have a religious regard for the Gods, then one of our top priorities has to be understanding, honoring, and relating to the Gods in the best possible ways we can. That means no matter how comfortable we are with our beliefs and practices, we have an obligation to constantly re-examine them and revise them when something better presents itself.

If somebody says “you’re doing it wrong” then I have an obligation to consider their argument. Maybe they’re familiar with history or archaeology I haven’t seen. Maybe they’ve had an experience of UPG or a flash of mundane insight that has shown them something I’ve missed. Maybe they tried what I’m doing and it just didn’t work. If I can learn from them, if I can refine my beliefs and practices, if I can do a better job of understanding, honoring, and relating to the Gods, then why wouldn’t I listen to them?

I’m under no obligation to accept what anyone else says without reflection – and neither are you. If I examine their argument and I find it unconvincing, I’ll dismiss it. If I find it harmful I’ll rebut it. If I say something you think is wrong, I hope you’ll call me on it – I want my polytheism to be as robust as it can be. But rationally pointing out “I think this assumption is unfounded and that conclusion is unjustified” is a lot different from screaming “how dare you speak definitively about polytheism!”

There are a lot of strong personalities in the Polytheist Movement. Some of them can be brash and demonstrative, but I don’t know any of them who want to be “in charge” – they’re all too busy worshipping their Gods and doing Their work in this world. I don’t know any of them who expect – or who would want – other polytheists to mindlessly adopt their positions on theology, worship, or any other matter.

Now, there are some polytheist leaders whose opinions I trust more than others. Some have demonstrated years of dedicated devotion and strong scholarship. I pay close attention to anything they say. Others seem to have higher priorities than understanding, honoring, and relating to the Gods. They’re still polytheists, but their opinions do not carry as much weight with me. Even then I examine their arguments to see if I can learn anything from them.

GCG 2015 83There is one legitimate source of authority – the rightness of our positions. Do our beliefs – our ideas about the way the world works – reflect reality as we experience it? Do our practices bring us into closer relationships with the Gods, ancestors, spirits, our fellow humans, and the rest of Nature? Does our philosophy help us live authentic, meaningful lives?

When we dismiss the work of our priests and scholars because we assume they’re claiming authority for themselves and when we argue about personalities rather than about concepts, we needlessly delay the restoration of polytheism and we deprive ourselves of ideas and practices that can deepen our own understanding of and relationships with the Gods.

No one involved is trying to establish a totalitarian hierarchy over all polytheistic traditions or practices. What we are trying to establish are theologies, liturgies, practices, alliances, and other elements of good, stable, polytheist religion. None of these can be established in a vacuum. They require thought, trial, review, and collaboration with other polytheists. The concept of peer review is as valid in religion as it is in academia, even if our process is less structured. If we dismiss others’ ideas because we think someone’s trying to tell us what to think, we diminish the effectiveness of our religious movement.

Ultimately, you have responsibility for your own polytheism. But that doesn’t mean you have to figure it all out yourself. As I say frequently, trying to reinvent the wheel is unnecessary and a waste of time. Instead, pick up the metaphorical wheels already invented and see what kind of useful vehicles you can build with them.

Why would you not listen to other knowledgeable, experienced polytheists? Why would you not consider what they have to say, and if it makes sense, incorporate it into your practice? Is your ego so fragile you can’t stand the possibility you might be wrong about something? Are you afraid you might be challenged to take on something you find frightening or distasteful?

Honest, mature religion of any flavor understands that there’s something bigger than the individual. There are values, principles, causes, families, communities, and Gods who are more important than our comfort and convenience. If we are to serve them, if we are to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, we need to listen to our co-religionists, especially those who have shown themselves to be devoted and knowledgeable. Not to mindlessly obey them, but to thoughtfully consider the products of their education and experience.

It’s time for polytheism and polytheists to grow up. Our dysfunctional relationship with authority has to change.

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