Resetting the Conversation on Purity

Resetting the Conversation on Purity August 25, 2016

The beginning of the Act of Reconsecration for Denton UU included the following line: “our temple was profaned – made impure and unfitting for worship.” And in the introduction to the invocation of blessings, there was this: “the temple is clean, pure, and protected.” If purity is important to UUs, surely it’s important to polytheists.

I wrote the first draft of the Act of Reconsecration after I wrote about purity being overrated but well before the miasma kerfuffle. These words flowed naturally from my Paganism and polytheism, and from my core values. I think this demonstrates a certain intuitiveness about purity that’s worth exploring in a little more depth.

There are theological and magical concerns around the issue of purity that I am not going to address. Those concerns are valid, but they are tradition-specific and I’m attempting to address this issue at a foundational polytheism level. If you want to argue that your tradition’s view on purity is the most helpful or most correct, then make your case – but that’s not what I’m doing here.

The Intuitive Desire For Purity

Practical considerations aside (like no space for religious education classes, which was a major factor in our temporary move to First Christian Church) why did Denton UU not simply continue meeting in our sanctuary? It was usable. But we didn’t want to walk into our sacred space every week and be reminded of the attack on our building. The smell of smoke was a health issue for some of our members, but it was a spiritual issue for all of us. Something wasn’t right in the building – its literal impurity pointed toward a spiritual impurity. The building needed to be fixed and fixed right before moving back.
Imbolc 2016 01
CUUPS continued to use the building –  we had no good alternative. But before we allowed our practical needs to overrule our spiritual needs, we performed our own ritual to cleanse, bless, and ward the building. We addressed our spiritual need for purity even though our physical needs would take longer to meet.

The Evolutionary Roots of Purity

Our intuitive desire for purity has very old roots. Pick up an apple and the first thing we do is check it for firmness and for holes. If it’s soft, it may be rotten on the inside. If there’s a hole in the skin, there may be a worm in it. Now consider it’s likely that our most ancient ancestors first got meat by scavenging, not by hunting. Our intuitive concerns about purity have origins in some very this-world concerns.

When we began settling into fixed locations, we learned to keep rats out of our food stores. Not just because the rats would eat our food, but because they would leave droppings in it and otherwise transmit diseases. It was about that time we decided that cats were nice to keep around. We also learned to dig latrines downhill and downstream from water sources, for the same reason. Remember that the germ theory of disease wasn’t proposed until 1546 and wasn’t widely accepted until Pasteur’s work in the mid-1800s. Our intuitive desire for purity helped preserve our health.

The Politics of Purity

According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, there are six foundations of human moral reasoning: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity or purity. The Wikipedia page does a good job of summarizing the theory, which I find to be helpful but not entirely complete (I think there’s something more behind those six foundations).

What’s interesting is that Haidt has clearly shown there’s a difference in the way that people with different political leanings value and prioritize the six foundations. Relevant to this discussion, conservatives value purity far more than liberals. That’s not surprising. If you want to conserve society, to keep things the way they are (or return them to the way they were), it’s critical to avoid introducing new and potentially dangerous elements into the common culture.

It is no surprise that most (but not all) of the loudest voices emphasizing the need for purity are on the politically conservative side of the polytheist movement.

That doesn’t mean they’re wrong – it means they value purity more than politically liberal polytheists value it. I would hate to see the polytheist movement split along political lines –  though I hear voices in the back of my head saying “that happened a long time ago” – but if that’s the only way we can all practice deeply and authentically, then it may be necessary.

But I hope it’s not.

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Impure Conversations

I’ve heard both sides of the “Many Gods West miasma warning” story from those most closely involved. Those conversations were private and I will not share them, except to say the two perspectives were very, very different. Who was right, who was wrong, and to what degree is a matter for the principals to work out, not for the rest of us to debate.

What’s relevant to our on-going discussions on purity is that there were two messages in the miasma warning and in the conversation that followed:

1) Purity is important and miasma is real.

2) Many Gods West is impure and therefore a spiritual danger.

Those who issued the warning and those who promoted it genuinely believed both points were true. Fair enough. But those of us who attended MGW – myself included – didn’t experience spiritual pollution. We had a good time, we participated in some good rituals, and we had some excellent conversations. The joking that went on throughout the weekend was not a mockery of miasma. Rather, it was a humorous dismissal of a warning that first hand experience showed was unnecessary.

In the conversations that followed, concerns around matters of spiritual purity have been mixed with feelings about the personalities expressing them. Rather than debating concepts, we’ve had a series of ad hominem dismissals: “Polytheist X is a fascist, therefore their thoughts on purity are wrong.” “Polytheist Y is a Marxist, therefore their thoughts on purity are wrong.” It’s to the point that people who are completely unaware of the context of this argument are picking up on the tension and acrimony and are either running away or falling back on the old Pagan retort of “you can’t tell me what to do.”

We have been unable to separate debate on polytheist concepts from our feelings about individual polytheists. Our discussion of the role of purity in polytheism has been derailed by impurities in our conversation. If I was a hipster I’d revel in the irony.

But I’m not.

Resetting the Conversation

Can we reset the conversation on purity?

Can we recognize that our instinctive desires for physical purity point toward a need for spiritual purity? Can we understand that spiritual impurity is like having dirty hands – it’s a reflection of what you’ve been doing, not of who and what you are? And that like having dirty hands, it’s easily remedied?

Can we accept that purity is more important in some polytheist traditions and to some individual polytheists than others? Can we also accept that we can no more ignore spiritual purity than we can refuse to shower and put on clean clothes before going to dinner with family and friends?

Can we separate the religious and spiritual issues around purity from the personalities who have dominated the conversation?

Can we?

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