As the broader Western Polytheist communities have grown in recent years, there has been quite a lot of vigorous debate about the nature of polytheism, who “counts” as a polytheist, who has the authority to speak about polytheism, etc. This debate is healthy and a very good sign in my opinion – it shows that we all care enough about the ongoing development of our religions and our religious communities that we are willing to wrestle with definitions, beliefs and practices. My concern with the debates as they have been developing is that some participants seem to be trying to exclude others based on ideology that may or may not have anything to do with any one person’s specific polytheist religion. My concern as well is that we are so busy arguing over whose polytheism is *wrong* and what polytheism shouldn’t be, that we are not talking nearly enough about what our own individual polytheisms *are* or *could be*. Polytheism is an umbrella of religions, traditions, and personal beliefs and practice that share one specific thing in common: a belief in more than one god, and religious worship, rituals or structures stemming from that belief. Which gods are worshipped will depend on the tradition; what form the religious practices may take will vary as well. Additionally, lots and lots of specific aspects of theology, philosophy, politics, ethics, codes of conduct, expectations around types and methods of engagement, and many many other things will also vary by tradition and by person within any given tradition. I have mostly stayed out of these public discussions as I am generally more interested in developing and practicing my own traditions and supporting my immediate community, and find I cannot keep up with the controversies in a timely enough manner to be able to participate in the arguments. But I did want to speak to what polytheism is and is not *for me*.
My polytheism gives me the opportunity to participate in a nuanced, relational, complex and interconnected world. My gods, spirits and blessed powers are complex individual beings who exist in relation to me, one another, and everything in existence. Not because of me, but in relation to me, as I exist in relation to them, you, and all things. Some of the gods whom I worship help gather and maintain the formless potential; some have a variety of roles in shaping and spinning that potential into something manifest; some help weave and direct those threads, some cut or edit those threads. Not all threads are human lives; in fact, the majority of those threads aren’t. These threads include the individual and collective lives of other living beings (trees, fish, bacteria, fungi, birds, all things). These threads include the movement of non-living beings (rivers, storms, earthquakes, rocks, soil, cliff erosion, planetary movement, stars and comets and asteroids and light and gravity and radio waves and all manner of things with and without consciousness as we may understand it). These threads include how any and all of these things interact with and are impacted by one another, and how any and all of these things interact with the passage of time. To my understanding of such things, the Gods help shape, create, influence, facilitate, and otherwise play some role in the creation, weaving, maintenance, and destruction of all of these threads. We living humans are a very tiny part of a large, layered and interconnected web of all those things that have ever been, are in process of becoming, and might ever be. I am humbled and gladdened and delighted and sometimes terrified and awed by the magnificence and scope of it all. It is more than I can hold in my head. Luckily, it is not at all my job to try and hold any of that in my head – I did not create this world, and it is not my job to influence anything more than the extraordinarily tiny corner I occupy as a living human.
I love my Blessed Powers, I love having the honor and opportunity to be in intentional relationship with them, to catch glimpses of their spheres of influence and work, and sometimes to get to participate in very very tiny ways with what these larger plans may be. For, in my understanding, each of us has the influence we have, and when I can find my way into right relationship (with my gods, my community, my environment, my ancestors, and the great Web that connects all of us), I trust my Blessed ones to help me and guide me to contribute in a positive way to these larger plans. Receiving help and guidance does not absolve me in any way of my responsibility to take care of myself, my family, my community; this does not take away my ability nor my responsibility to choose my actions wisely and carefully. But this does mean that I don’t choose the “freedom” of pretending my choices only impact me alone. If I am to act in the world, I do so to the best of my ability with the guidance of my Blessed Powers. Because I trust them to see things I don’t see, to understand and know things that I could not know nor understand.
Does this make me “subservient”, unequal, operating as a mindless slave to cruel and uncaring power-mad Beings that don’t actually care about me nor about humanity as a whole? Not at all. Why would my Powers want someone without worth nor merit to be in relationship with them? What would they possibly get from such a dynamic? What would I get from interacting in such a dynamic? But does this make the gods and I “equals”? I believe we all run into trouble when trying to overlay human concepts of how humans can or should interact with one another from a “power” perspective on top of divine relationships. I don’t know how to translate the concept of “equality” into my relationship with the Gods. Am I “equal” to the consciousness that drives a thunderstorm? Am I “equal” to the spark of inspiration that pulls shape from formlessness? If I understand Gods as being giant invisible humans with human-style motivations, intelligence and reasoning, then perhaps the idea of us being equals in some shape or another makes sense. But that is not how I understand my Powers, nor how I relate to them.
I think the Gods and other large non-human, noncorporeal beings can and do have individual relationships with individual humans. But when I think about how many humans are on this planet currently, how many of us have ever been here going back to the first homo Sapien, and how many are still to come (and that’s just the humans, and doesn’t include any other living and nonliving beings that have ever been, are here currently, nor will be eventually), I am reminded that my understanding of the Blessed Powers includes a concept of them being very large and very old. I am reminded that the Gods as I understand them helped us to develop as a species when we first differentiated from other primates. I remember that my understanding of these Powers is that they play a role in shaping and interconnecting and managing all that is, some from the beginning of time as we know it and others possibly until the end as it might eventually come to pass. I remember that, compared to them, we are very tiny in scope, size and perspective, and we exist very briefly in comparison to them.
This does not mean we don’t have worth; this does not mean we don’t matter. We do matter; we matter to ourselves and to one another. We are important to our contemporary communities, we are important to the ancestors who came before us and believed in their future descendants enough to try and do right by us, and we will be important to those descendants who will come after us. We have impact; we certainly as a species have had a tremendous impact on other plants and animals, we have shaped the landscape and the climate of this entire planet in incredibly powerful and dramatic ways over the past several thousand years. We certainly matter, and we certainly have had impact, positive, negative, and otherwise. We matter individually and we matter collectively, now and over time. I, for one, am grateful to have personal relationships with deities that can hold that bigger perspective and help direct me towards some version of a greater good, both for me individually now in this moment and for how I might contribute positively to that larger interconnected picture over time.
Where do human concepts of power and power dynamics come into this perception? I think these conversations become very important when it comes specifically to the human end of things. How are we talking to one another? How are we managing our communities? Who is considered an authority or an elder, and why? And what if any respect do we give to those folks? Under whose say-so? Who, if anyone, acts as mediator or gatekeeper for our connection to the Blessed Powers, and how does that mediation happen? I for one am glad to be in community with folks who have been doing some of my traditions longer than me. I love having elders (though these relationships can and do get complicated for all sorts of reasons usually relating to human failings). I am glad I don’t have to be the expert in everything, and that I can receive the benefit of other people’s skills, elevations, education, and experience. And I am very grateful and humbled by those who trust me to help them by using the skills, elevations and experiences I’ve managed to get along the way. And any time there are other humans in the equation, I will always do my best to keep my eyes open and watch for who I lean on and why and how, and whether or not they deserve the power and control I am mindfully and consensually giving them. And I will do my best to stay mindful of who leans on me, and strive to do right by folks who trust me in that way.
My understanding of the word “religion” includes several things. It includes the shape of the bonds, oaths and connections that exist between humans and numinous beings (including Gods, ancestors, and others). It also includes how those relationships are enacted and maintained, both individually and in community; the rules that shape and inform the enactment of those relationships. In the religion in which I was raised (conservative NY Ashkenazi Judaism), our oaths and relationship with the main God of that religion includes quite a lot of rules that govern how we relate to other humans, from the well-known rules such as “thou shalt not kill” to rules not as widely understood outside of our religion such as “tikkun olam” (basically, a requirement to help heal and improve the world around us through kindness, justice, charity, and other intentional actions). These rules are part of the oaths we have with the Jewish God. These rules are Jewish rules, and are not necessarily expected to be followed by non-Jews (though of course, many religions have similar rules, and many societies have laws or community standards that may match those and other rules). Under the specific rules and oaths that bind the Jewish People to our God, we are commanded to take care of one another, to modify our behavior in a variety of ways, to enact a whole host of requirements both spiritual and mundane, all as part of enacting the reciprocal relationship we have with the God of the Jews. Again, these rules are Jewish rules, and are not expected to be performed by non-Jews.
Individual Polytheist religions may have their own sets of rules that govern their individual religions. Particularly for re-created, reconstructed, and actively emerging Polytheist religions (which is much though not all of what is being practiced here in the Western world), some participants may be in active dialogue with their individual Powers to bring forth such rules. One individual group or practitioner may find that part of their emerging religion includes requirements or suggestions from their gods to engage in social justice work, environmental protection activities, or other types of activities that the Blessed Powers themselves have asked or insisted that their devotees do in service to those Powers. Other traditions may have different rules and requirements. As with my above example from Judaism, individual sets of rules and requirements from any one religious tradition will only apply to folks who are participating in those specific religious traditions, and are not universal nor universalize-able. These may be tradition specific rules but are not in any way universal “polytheist” rules. We run ourselves into trouble when we try and push the rules of our individual traditions on other people’s traditions (whether we are trying to insist that all religions should include politics and activism, or we are trying to insist that none require such things). Polytheism as an umbrella concept does not include mandatory human-based community service, politics, nor activism. Polytheism as an umbrella concept also does not forbid nor preclude its inclusion. Because not all polytheisms are the same polytheism, and if we are going to attempt to support one another as an interfaith umbrella, we must operate from a baseline of respect.
Where do standards of community inclusion land in this vision? I personally refuse to invite white supremacist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic polytheist groups into the communities where I am doing my work. People and groups who actively speak, act, or uphold certain beliefs that are toxic and harmful to me and other members of my community are not welcome to come to my groups, to participate in my classes, nor join my organizations. This does not mean that these individuals or groups are not polytheist. But it does mean that, for human reasons relating to respect and safety, I will not break bread with such folks. This is not about whether or not their beliefs or traditions are truly polytheist; this is about their human politics. Perhaps other polytheists don’t like nor respect parts of how I live my polytheist traditions, and they can choose not to break bread nor do polytheist interfaith religious organizing and advocacy work with me. As folks building interconnected community, we get to decide who we want to stand with, who we want to support, who we will allow to join our groups and attend our meetings. We get to set and enforce rules that will govern interactions and shape social mores within the communities in which we have influence, and I hope our communities will do so more consistently. Community standards are important and good, and some of us may have specific individual or tradition-wide rules developed in partnership with the other humans in the group or even with our Blessed Powers that require or forbid certain ways of interacting with others. For myself, my Gods insist on certain standards of hospitality. I do my best to follow those standards, both as a guest and as a host. So there are certain groups I will not attend, because the requirements I have around being a good guest are not possible for me to enact in those spaces. There are folks I will not have in my groups because part of my religious requirements as a host includes doing my best to keep my guests safe and treated with respect. But again, those are all rules governing groups, and may be in some cases religious requirements of specific traditions. These are not necessarily about how humans relate to the gods directly, nor are they universal to all polytheist traditions (though individual traditions or denominations or kindreds or groves or groups may choose to stand in closer alignment with other individual groups whose politics or rules are more similar to their own; that makes good sense and makes for stronger allies in many cases). Likewise, individual groups may choose to speak out against the politics of other groups because the politics or the rules are problematic; this does not make either group more or less authentically “polytheist”; these are human-realm issues and no less important for being human-based.
I am glad that folks are wrestling with their polytheisms. I am glad folks are asking themselves and one another hard questions about the development of polytheist community standards, who will be included under which umbrella etc. I think the wrestling is the sign of healthy communities, made up of folks who love their gods and their traditions enough to fight passionately about them. I do wish folks would get more clear about which parts are individual tradition-based versus polytheism-wide issues. I do wish we would stop with the personal attacks. And I am looking forward to the conversations returning to how we can best worship our gods, serve our communities, and live our polytheist traditions.