Design Principle: The Gods Are Real

((For the moment, I’m going to be presenting design principles (as discussed here) behind the New Polytheism in no particular order.))

As I’ve said before (See: Pagan Opinions), we have to put our feet down about things. We need to have opinions and stick to them.  Just to make one thing absolutely clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone reading this needs to adopt the same opinions as everyone else, just that people need to gather with those of a similar mind and then conduct rituals with them. We need not continue our tradition of absolute theological relativism, where every ritual performed is expected to be accommodating to any and all theological outlook.

Ritual presenters especially need to decide on a few things before they begin. Isn’t this obvious? If one presenter wants to do a ritual to propitiate Cthulhu as an avatar of that person’s own psyche, and another wants to mourn the death of Lugh, I have two questions:

1) Why are they even planning a ritual together anyway? (something that I’ll address when I talk about “Rituals with Purpose”)

2) How could a compromise between these two goals result in anything other than contradictory, ineffective ritual?

Yet this is the situation we find ourselves in all too often.

Sure, some people see it as inclusive. “Everyone is welcome to bring their own point of view to the ritual,” one might say, “we don’t want to seem dogmatic.”

But let’s ask ourselves: Why does everyone need to be included? Don’t get me wrong: I’m not for physically keeping people out of rituals. But, why does a ritual need to bend itself into a pretzel trying to accommodate each participant’s theology? Why not, instead, don’t we expect participants to try to be challenged by the theology presented in the ritual if it is not their own? It’s not like they aren’t free to leave. This is one way that we can work toward evolving helpful boundaries around our religious communities–“We’re the folks who invoke the ancient deity Lugh. Those folks over there are the Jungian Lovecraftians. We don’t fight or anything, it’s just that they do what they do and we do what we do. We even have interfaith dialogue, given that we are of separate and distinct faiths.

I once attended a ritual where the presenter instructed those gathered to participate in a chant that involved the word “Goddess.” The presenter then asserted that each individual was welcome to substitute any meaningful word in place of “Goddess”–that is, they could instead say “energy” or “God” or “Anubis!” and that then we would all sing the chant together. This, to me, is the antithesis of good ritual. This does not bring people together, it only gives the illusion of togetherness: At that ritual, we were all individuals engaged in our own individualized rituals while we happened to be standing together. Everyone ritualizing together must be engaged in the same ritual!

Theology dictates practice. If you are presenting a ritual, that ritual must reveal and reaffirm a common theology held by the presenters and by the community for which they are holding the ritual. Yes, this means that some people are going to be left out–and they are welcome to go hold their own rituals!

In the New Polytheism, I am asserting that the best design for a land-based, regionally-aware religious ritual is one that is explicitly polytheist. I believe that polytheism* is the more place-oriented approach. ((This belief of mine is largely grounded in the history of traditional monotheisms, which evolved out of land-based, polytheist religious milieus only when individuals were quickly moved from their land bases but maintained a link to their Gods, creating “mobile Gods,” henotheism (Yahwism), and eventually monotheism.)) According to my design, polytheism is animism within the human sphere: Zeus is Sky God made King. Polytheism allows for similar rituals to be held on more occasions for different Gods, and it allows for smaller groups who worship various Gods to easily (and without knee-capping their own theology!) come together for larger rituals in more public contexts. Polytheism is highly flexible and can even allow for a lot of the inclusiveness that some seem to desire, though in a new way.

So: My advice is to conduct your rituals from an explicitly polytheistic perspective. Even if not everyone in the group sees things this way all the time, choosing to conduct rituals in this way is adaptive, allows for the easy inclusion of land-based practices (land spirit veneration, for example), and is easily mutable. Just keep in mind: The Gods are Real (and many). And, do so from an opinionated place; otherwise, you’re not holding any ritual at all.

(*: Here I’m not talking about “soft polytheism,” which is simply another word for emanational monotheism.)


About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

5 Responses to Design Principle: The Gods Are Real

  1. Ali says:

    First, let me say – yes! What you talk about here is what I’ve come to understand and talk about as a kind of religious integrity. A religious tradition, like a work of art, must have a certain coherence of composition (in this case, of belief and practice) in order to be effectively meaningful; in other words, it must be integrated. Even if that integrity is complex and subtle, it still has to exist, and this is what renders a particular tradition not only meaningful, but challenging and fulfilling as well.

    You wrote: “Theology dictates practice.

    A corollary to this, I think, is the idea that practice articulates theology. Developing and communicating a comprehensive (if not exhaustive) theology can allow practitioners to craft meaningful and powerful ritual, and this has been the approach that many religious traditions have taken over the past few millennia. But just as true, I think, is the idea that a passion for crafting moving and powerful ritual, a devotion to creating practices that “hang together” aesthetically and are psychologically satisfying, will itself actually lead us towards a coherent and integrated theology.

    For some people, the analytical thought and philosophical pondering of theology seem too abstract and difficult to navigate; but they may find that their intuition and aesthetic sense lead them towards rituals that articulate and illustrate those more abstract ideas in powerful ways. In my experience, learning to listen to that intuitive sense of “what makes good ritual” with seriousness and attention almost inevitably forces a person towards a more integrated and coherent theological view. We can feel the sloppiness and pussyfooting in rituals that do not work with a consistent set of symbols, or that invoke generic and watered-down clichés that lose their meaning in their attempts to be overly-inclusive. And we can feel when a story or ritual act digs deep, invokes powerful juxtapositions and plays with intensely particular and specific symbols or images. If we desire powerful, meaningful ritual, we discover that in our pursuit to create these practices we are in the very process of articulating and exploring our unique traditions, their insights and their challenges.

    I suspect this might be a more helpful track to try with many Pagans and polytheists out there, in part because there is already so much resistance to articulating theology (even only a personal theology). Immediately people start backpedaling and trying to assure everyone that they’re not being intolerant or narrow-minded, and they spend so much energy with caveats they rarely get around to saying much of anything at all. But if we emphasize the pursuit of excellence in ritual, powerful and spiritually fulfilling, then I think (or I hope) that the theologies may begin to fall into place of their own accord. Then folks more adept at analytical thought (and less worried about coming across as offensive ;)) can step up and begin to look at what the patterns of our rituals are telling us about what we believe.

    • cartweel says:

      Hey Ali, I hope you’re enjoying Ireland!

      Yes, I think you are absolutely correct that, in as much as theology dictates practice, “practice articulates theology” (which is actually an excellent way of putting it, IMO). At the moment I was only talking about the one way, not the other, but it is good that you have pointed out their simultaneity. However, I must say that I am tempted to believe that, in this case, theology might pre-empt practice since without theological beliefs very few groups will be able to form that could then produce ritual.

  2. Pingback: To Witness Beauty: Thoughts on Ritual « Pagan Godspell

  3. Dver says:

    Yes! It is amazing how something so simple – that people coming together for religious ritual should share basic theological tenets, or at least agree to them for the sake of that ritual – seems so elusive in the pagan communities. I think many times it comes down to the fact that certain people don’t really believe in *anything*, so it’s easier for them to smoosh it all together or make crucial elements interchangeable, because if nothing is real, it doesn’t really matter.

    I agree absolutely that not every ritual (or religion, or god) needs to be accessible to everyone. Water things down enough to please everyone, and you please no one, and end up with a meaningless ritual. There’s nothing wrong with saying “here’s how we do it, and if that doesn’t work for you, you’re welcome to find a group that’s doing something closer to your heart.” There’s room for so many different approaches.

    Anyway, just found your blog and enjoying it so far. 🙂

  4. Yes again. Nihil Obstat

    I personally hold on to a certain “model agnosticism” about where the lines fall between personal and collective mind and how the Gods fit in to that, but aside from that, I don’t see any use in soft polytheism. The Gods I know are not all the same.

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