The New Polytheism

Any person involved in a religious community is, by their very involvement, shaping that community in some way. Theologians, priests, and other specialists (as well as lay people!) can of course write or do activism in such a way that dramatically reshapes their religion–Luther is an obvious example of this.

Additionally, I might make the cautious assertion that the founders of new religions (Jesus, Muhammad, Oyasama, Raël, etc.) are “designing” practices and beliefs to be disseminated among believer/practitioners in such a way as to bring about certain results. (Maybe. It’s just as possible that the Elohim did show up to Raël and tell him how to conduct himself as their messenger… I’m not a Raelian, so I’m tempted not to believe this…)

What are these “results” that I’m talking about? Well, I’m not sure. All I’m trying to say is that folks have to have a point when they begin leading a new movement: Some would say that Jesus’ point was to bring about a new era of peace (and some would disagree, obviously); others might say that Aleister Crowley’s point (the thing he wanted to get across to people) was a new sacralization of the individual, the bringing of the “New Aeon” (and some would disagree).

All of us being individuals speeding around in the no-man’s land of the cultic milieu (breeding ground of the heterodox and the heretical), we are constantly in the process of creating Religion; that is, of creating (however oxymoronical this may sound) new traditions. I would say that our situations resemble those of Muhammad and John Calvin: We freely empower ourselves either to stick with the old and riff on it, building something new on traditional foundations, or to totally reinvent everything. Muhammad or Jesus or Oyasama built on tradition (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17); but, they also produced new customs, new liturgical concepts, new theology.

“Johnny,” you might be thinking, “All of those traditions you’ve named have founders, they’re creedal, and that is nothing like our situation!” …I get that point, but I disagree. If we belong to any organization (ADF, Temple of Set, Covenant of the Goddess, Temple of Witchcraft, a local coven, whatever!) that organization had a founder or group of founders, and those founders held beliefs–beliefs that spurred them to form the organization–that, through participation, we are at least tacitly agreeing with.

What I’m trying to say is that we are all the founders of new religions as long as we participate in our beliefs/practices with others. Don’t forget that religion is a fundamentally social enterprise. SO, If we are to produce new traditions, to design new customs, we must agree upon basic design principles. I don’t mean ALL of us (not all pagans all at once, for example) but each of us must agree in small, local groups, the groups in which we plan to conduct ourselves religiously.

For those of us trying to create locally significant, land-attuned, polytheistic religious traditions based upon (at least in part) on European traditions, I am trying to develop an appropriate set of design principles, a project I’m calling the “New Polytheism”. I am inspired in large part by theories in architecture, linguistics, and anthropology, particularly the structuralist theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Christopher Alexander‘s use of “pattern language”.

I was just talking about religious leaders having a point to their teachings, something that their design is meant to answer. What is my point, then? My hope is that, if any group of people chooses to adopt or be inspired by the design principles I will be describing, they will be able to create better rituals, deeper theologies, healthier communities, and (you guessed it) save the world. My principles are for predicated upon grokking bodies and, by realizing that humanity is a part of the body of the Earth, upon grokking the Earth. If that’s not your bag–That’s FINE! I challenge you to look deeply at your evolving traditions and ask yourself where it is all heading, what is at stake.

My design is anarchic, feminist, and (hopefully) relevant. I am envisioning this New Polytheism as a way for those of us who might feel disconnected from the traditions of our ancestors and from our places of residence to take up the land and our bodies and create something vital, something tremendous. It will concentrate not on specific beliefs–leaving those to be imagined by those implementing the principle according to their particular situation, in the same way that Christopher Alexander’s architectural design patterns aren’t meant to be dictatorial in every situation but facilitating to specific situations–but on the creation of embodied and catalyzing private, domestic, and public ritual.

So what are some of these principles, O Johnny, You Writer of Endless Preambles and Prefaces?

How about we agree to never use the word “energy” in ritual, since the word is meaningless in 99% of contexts? How about instead of instructing participants to quote “raise energy!”, instead we make sure that our rituals are engaging in a dynamic, not forced, way? Let’s invest in specialization and get dancers in our rituals, singers, and speakers who aren’t reading off of 3×5 cards, who can DELIVER!

How about we agree to agree that ritual activities will be suited to the number of people present? How about, when we invoke deities, we actually call them down from heaven instead of pretending to have done so? And, if we can’t get that to work, maybe we should explore other avenues of ritual engagement that don’t involve “aspecting,” such as the veneration of relics and images. Let’s invest in poetry and hymnody and cultic art.

Let’s get behind the idea that not everyone is a priest, because not everyone has the time for (or is even suited for) the investment of time and effort that putting on rituals involves. We must allow for spectators! When did religion begin to require so much training on the part of every lay-person? (Answer, at least one answer that matters in my situation: Wicca’s introduction to the US, after Gardner decided to take what were essentially highly specialized Anglo-Catholic ritual techniques and then Buckland brought those techniques to the untrained populous…)

And on and on and on…

I’m hoping that the New Polytheism will spread like wildfire. Will it? Probably not, I realize. But THIS designer thinks that it’s time for us all to examine at least the possibility of looking at our approach to religion as a long-term project, something requiring planning and editing and revision. I hope that by approaching our rituals as works of art as well as community gatherings, we will be able to move toward more meaningful practice.


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.

3 Responses to The New Polytheism

  1. Pingback: Design Principle: The Gods Are Real | The Great Tininess

  2. Ali says:

    So I jumped the gun in responding to your other post because it showed up first in my feed-reader. It sounds like much of what I said in that comment you already echoed in this post. 🙂 Awesome. I’m eager to see where this goes!

  3. Robin says:

    Fascinating, and I find myself agreeing with near every word. Though I’m not sure the “New Polytheism” will spread rapidly, as I requires effort and that is something that a great many people flee from.

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