Creative Endarkenment: Pausing to Get Acquainted with Darkness

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

–Robert Frost

Lately, thanks in part to my colleague Yvonne’s excellent writing around embodied spirituality, I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment, endarkenment, and creativity, and how intertwined all these concepts are. I’ve even (finally) invented a phrase for how I ground my own work in the world: creative endarkenment. After all, creativity roots itself in the dark, no matter how small or large the idea…but before anyone can explore that truth, we have to get comfortable with the idea of darkness.

I belong squarely in Generation X, which means when I was in college many of us gathered and marched and
shouted and sang songs by the Indigo Girls in order to Take Back the Night. We petitioned and argued to install emergency phones and more lighting around the darkest spaces on campus. Back then, we thought if we lit up the shadows, rape culture would suffer a serious blow. And I remember wondering at the time if I was strange, in that darkness felt so much safer to me than being pinned and spotlit by the newly installed lights. Their glare made me so obviously single and alone as I walked back to my room through the Minnesota dark.

Maybe we were safer from some kinds of violence, I don’t know. But I do know we blamed the wrong thing. Darkness was never the root cause. Social media has proved convincingly that rape culture is all too happy to go public with acts of abusive power and violence.

And yet it isn’t any surprise we feared and blamed the dark. We grow up in a culture that assigns so many negative qualities to “darkness”—labels so many bad things “dark” and blames “darkness” for them: ignorance, fear, anger, violence, to name only the first few that spring to mind. And this has inevitable repercussions in a society that labels and separates people as “white” “black” and “brown.”

Now we wheel past the spring equinox into the season of light. We rake off our garden beds, poke seeds, pile on mulch and remember darkness can be kind, can be nurturing, and is certainly crucial. As Molly Meade (Remer) writes, “In darkness, things germinate and grow. The dark is a calm, holding, safe, welcoming place—we come from darkness and that is where we return.”
Light pushes always out against the dark…and yet any light source is eternally nestled within that deep embrace, no matter how bright it shines. We can feel this truth as threatening, if we are scared of the dark, of what lives in the shadows.

On the other hand, wisuper moon by Katrin Talbot 2015thout darkness, we are left with the glare of brutal interrogation and too rigid certainty. There remains no mystery to seek. It is impossible to imagine a fluid dreaming without darkness. And what would we be without dreams? What would it mean if our shapes could never shift?

Of course, dreams are not only happy cuddly things. The phrase “the dark night of the soul” resonates in the bone because it feels true. Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night” knows that just as there is room for light within the embrace of darkness, there is room for much else too. Our deep depressions, our sorrows, our angers, can take us to places that are psychically quite dark. As Carl Jung knew (and as our therapists tell us on a regular basis and we pay them for it), it is at times necessary to rest in the presence of such discomfort. To stop pushing the dark away long enough to listen to what lives there.

Fortunately, there are people to help us on the path. I had the pleasure and good fortune to interview Danica Swanson recently for a class assignment. You can find the entire interview posted at her blog, but today these words are in my mind:

Sacred endarkenment, to me, is a concept and a way of being that provides a necessary counterbalance to our culture’s over-emphasis on enlightenment, transcendence, “rising above,” and so on.  …  Despite popular belief, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean evil or negativity – in fact, dark places can be sources of great richness, alchemy, and incubation…

I was raised in a New Age family, and had experienced first-hand the failures of empathy and errors in perception that could result from a heavy emphasis on “positive thinking” and other forms of saccharine sweetness in spiritual work.  In a way, you could say my New Age upbringing primed me for a darker, more chthonic path.  Dogma can be just as oppressive when it’s presented as “love and light” as it can be when it shows up in less culturally sanctioned ways.

 

Swanson gets it right: too much positivity results in “failures of empathy” and “errors in perception” and that my friends gets us into a mess. Welcoming the dark with all its unknowns and locating the tender spots is necessary for any fruitful germination, including our own. In our fearful, angry moment of history  I can’t help thinking that it’s as good a time as any for us to face our own personal and cultural shadows, to begin to sit with our histories of violence, oppression, guilt, fear, resentment. To learn stillness.

That’s a big ask. And more than I can take on this morning. A good place to start might be just getting a little more comfortable sitting together, here in the dark.  Over the next few days and weeks, I want to explore the idea of endarkenment, to think about how and why we might want to wander out once in a while past the fire’s light and peer into the shadows. I hope you’ll join me.

fire in fall

 

 

 

 

With Our Thoughts We Make The World

Paganisms are counter-cultural, like most religions. They present a critique of the status quo, and some alternative visions of how the world might be if it was re-enchanted; and they offer a variety of methods for bringing about the desired change. There are several overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, visions available from the Pagan dream factory. Some are benign, involving ways to cope with climate change, and promotion of social and environmental justice. Others are retrogressive, wanting to take us back to a (somewhat mythical) earlier era.

Religious and spiritual ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They are intimately connected with politics. What you believe about how your religious group should be organised, and how ideas and information are verified and validated, and who gets to have authority and why, inevitably spill over into your ideas about how society as a whole should be organised. Ideas about culture and society are what is known as metapolitics:

A way of expressing and enacting political goals through cultural, spiritual, and societal change, rather than overt politics.

If you think about it, most religions are a form of metapolitics: their goal is exactly to transform society and individuals (which is the purpose of politics) through cultural and spiritual means. (Christianity’s goal is and has always been to transform society, for example.)  Pagan religions are no different: we also desire the transformation of society, but our visions of a transformed society are rather different from theirs.

The key thing about metapolitical processes and shifts is that they prepare the ground for political change. If you consider the changes wrought by feminism, LGBT liberation, and the civil rights movement, it takes about fifty years of preparation and social change before any legal rights are gained. Take feminism for example: the first attempt to bring a bill before the UK Parliament to give women the right to vote was greeted with derision and laughter. It took fifty years to win the vote for women. It has taken forty years from the decriminalisation of homosexuality to get same-sex marriage in the UK. And there has been a massive shift in attitudes towards women and LGBT people that prepared the ground for those political changes. Retrograde steps (such as placing limits on immigration, threatening to deport Muslims, etc) also require metapolitical changes, such as an increase in xenophobia, in order to create the political momentum to successfully bring in legislation.

In an article I wrote about a decade ago, News from Nowhere, I noted the links between science fiction and Pagan thought. Both offer alternative visions of society, both utopian and dystopian; and both include egalitarian and hierarchical possible futures or alternatives. In that essay, I glossed over some of the more right-wing science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein, who has also had a significant influence on the Pagan revival, and focused more on left-wing writers and their visions. But science fiction and fantasy, by presenting plausible visions of different societies, are important drivers of social change, and they present alternative societies that might appeal to all parts of the political spectrum. Fantasy in particular enables the leap of imagination required to re-enchant the world. As John Halstead writes:

A work of fiction may open a person up to having a very real experience to which they were not open before.

The Arcadian or Pastoral State, Thomas Cole, 1834. Public Domain

The Arcadian or Pastoral State, Thomas Cole (1834). Public Domain.

This painting by Thomas Cole, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, was painted as part of a series called The Course of Empire. It was part of a cultural or metapolitical conversation about how society should be organised, and how it was likely to evolve. Cole was influenced by Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s PilgrimageThe series of paintings reflected popular American views of the day, when many regarded pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, as they feared that empire would inevitably lead to  overconsumption and decay.

The metapolitics of Pagan traditions

Recently, an excellent analysis of the spread of the ideas of the New Right and how far they may overlap with some of the ideas of Pagan traditions appeared on Gods & Radicals. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend reading it. I agree with the analysis presented by the article: we must guard against retrogressive ideas becoming unexamined norms within Pagan traditions. It is worth mentioning (as the article itself notes) that just because someone’s ideas overlap with those of the New Right, doesn’t mean they are necessarily an adherent of the crypto-fascist ideas of that movement. But it does suggest that it would be a good idea to carefully examine where their ideas might lead if carried to their logical conclusion, precisely because these ideas prepare the ground for political and social change.

With that in mind, let’s examine some of the ideas that are popular in some corners of Pagan & polytheist communities.

Sacred kingship

Apparently some people are rather fascinated by sacral kingship and aristocracy. I think I can safely say that such notions are not very popular in England, where we still experience the inequalities of the class system, the monarchy that sits on top of the pinnacle like the visible part of a pimple, and where a study of our history reveals the disastrous instability introduced by the vagaries of succession in a hereditary monarchy (I am referring to the war of Stephen and Maud, the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War, the “Glorious Revolution”, and so on). That’s why you don’t get Wiccans in the UK adopting titles like Lord this and Lady that. And people with pretensions to be a reincarnated Dark Age king are not taken particularly seriously by most people either.

The idea of the sacral king was popularised in the early 20th century by Margaret Murray, who wrote that William Rufus (famously killed by an arrow in the New Forest) may have been England’s last sacral king, and that his death was a sacrifice. Apparently there are people who are regarded as monarchs in their particular spiritual tradition. I’m fine with that, as long as we get to revive the tradition of sacral kingship in its full form: where the sacred monarch gets sacrificed after their year in office. I somehow think the whole idea would suddenly be a lot less popular if it was revived in its full form.

But really, honestly, the whole notion of kingship just doesn’t work. This should be completely obvious to anyone who has studied the history of monarchy wherever it has been tried. The only time monarchy worked was when the king was elected (and nowadays we call that office a president). The only way that an absolute ruler can maintain their authority is through fear, as Machiavelli pointed out.

Messages from deities

So you received a message from a deity. Great. That’s nice for you. But how do I know whether it was really a message from a deity, or just another aspect of your psyche trying to shore up your fragile ego? I would evaluate a purported revelation from a deity the way I would evaluate a purported message from anyone else, by asking questions:

  • is it consistent with what I know of reality?
  • is it consistent with what I know of that person/deity?
  • is it consistent with my ethics?

If the answer to any of these is no, then either I won’t believe that the message came from the deity, or I won’t believe that the message was intended for me.

“A deity told me to do it” is never a sufficient justification for any action. If a deity tells a group of people to slaughter another group of people, we rightly regard that deity as deeply immoral (or alternatively, we deny that the commandment came from that deity). All communications from deities have to be evaluated against common standards of ethical behaviour.

That’s not to say that no-one ever receives valid and interesting messages from deities: of course they do. It just means that we need to be aware that messages from deities might just be our own ego talking, rather than a genuine divine communication.

Folkish tendencies

Another disturbing tendency that has been rearing its head of late is the view that you can only work within your own culture, worshipping the gods of your ancestors. This ‘folkish’ view is being used to exclude people of colour from traditions based on European culture. It takes a monolithic and essentialist view of culture, regarding cultural themes as being predetermined by genetics. For those of us who are of mixed descent (which is most people these days, especially in North America), this approach literally makes no sense. I’m an English person with some Cornish ancestry, and as I grew up in Hampshire, probably Saxon ancestry too – maybe even some Norman. Should my Paganism consist of Cornish practices, Saxon practices, or Norse practices according to this view?

This folkish/genetic essentialism uses the concept of cultural appropriation to justify its racist discourse, which is ironic as they are appropriating the real struggles of indigenous peoples to defend their culture and life-ways against the depredations of colonialism. But resisting cultural appropriation is about resisting power; it is not about keeping culture ‘pure’. Cultures and traditions are not monolithic and unchanging silos: they are discourses. You can’t just lift a practice from one culture to another in a superficial way without radically changing its meaning; but this does not mean that no-one can ever do anything inspired by another culture.

The problem with folkish views is that they assume that races and cultures are monolithic, unchanging, never influence each other, and that people from different ethnicities never intermarry. It constructs different cultures as different races, so it is certainly racialised, which in my book is basically racist.

What are your goals?

You may have noticed that the Harry Potter books are a political fable. (This becomes particularly apparent with the appearance of Dolores Umbridge, who is an extended satire upon the activities of OFSTED in the British education system.) As with any good fable, the ideas are generally applicable. The adherents of Voldemort (the Death Eaters and their hangers-on) are ruled by fear. No dissent is allowed, and their group is strongly hierarchical. The witches and wizards who are allied with Dumbledore, on the other hand, are much more egalitarian. Diversity of views and discussion of tactics are welcomed. Both sides live their values, because it is by embodying their values that they create the society they want to live in.

If you desire to create a society where conflict is the norm and the weakest go to the wall, then your interim goals and methods need to be consistent with that goal. And creating hierarchical structures where outsiders are scapegoated and disagreement cannot be tolerated, will take you a long way towards that goal. Fetishising power-over and symbols of power-over will also lead you towards that goal.

If your goal is to create a sustainable, egalitarian, peaceful society, then your interim goals and methods need to be consistent with that goal. As A J Muste wrote, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way”. The structures we need to create in order to realise this goal should be democratic, egalitarian, and non-hierarchical, and there should be room for differences of opinion and for diversity.

If you are creating a new religious movement that is characterised by fear of difference, distrust of outsiders, the crushing of dissent, the insistence on only one right way to do things, then you will sow the seeds of perpetual conflict and division.

That’s why I am happy that John Halstead and others are part of Paganism: because I welcome a diversity of views, and I want my ideas to be challenged and tested. The only way that theories are strengthened is if they are tested against other theories.

That’s why I am delighted by the ideas of Rhyd Wildermuth about worlding the gods, because the way we world the gods into the earth reflects the sort of society we want to create:

The gods exist as independent beings from us regardless of our belief in them. But it’s we who actually world them into the earth, and how we world them is dependent upon what we do, who we are, and the sort of world we create around us.

I want the Pagan movement to be diverse and inclusive, because a diverse and inclusive movement is stronger, more interesting, and more viable. I want to create a world where it is safe to be me. A theocracy run by people who want power over others might be fine for the people at the top (as long as they succeeded in staying at the top) but it wouldn’t be very pleasant for anyone else.

That is why the only viable vision of a sustainable and just future is one where social and environmental justice prevails. One where the rapacious greed and over-consumption promoted by capitalism has been replaced by a more sustainable and equal distribution of wealth.  One that values the gods as the consciousnesses of the natural world, not as beings who desire to lord it over humanity. One that doesn’t appropriate other cultures’ practices, but doesn’t treat cultures as monolithic silos either.

As the Buddha once said, with our thoughts we make the world. We are all co-creating the future of the Pagan movement now. Let us be careful to lay the foundations of a world that those who come after us can be happy and fulfilled in.

 

Mystical Polytheism

An ethic of hospitality

In ritual, we express our deepest yearnings towards what we hold to be of greatest worth. Some rituals can be shared with people who see the world differently; other rituals can’t be shared. That’s OK. In Wicca, it’s possible for a polytheist and an atheist and a duotheist and an animist to circle together, if we share the same values and a similar practice. I wouldn’t circle with someone who was a racist or a homophobe or a transphobe – but I am fine with people with different theological perspectives, as long as they respect my theological perspective. We might even refine our working hypotheses of how it all works by engaging in dialogue. But one of the guidelines of interfaith dialogue is deep listening and being open to the other person’s perspective. This means not grandstanding, not defining polytheism or Paganism so narrowly that a whole bunch of people get defined outside of it, and not telling the other side that they are deluded or stupid.

If you express disdain and condescension towards people who believe the gods are real beings with agency, you’re probably not going to get invited to my circle any time soon. Conversely, if you’re one of those people who believe that atheists or archetypalists can’t be Pagans, you’re also not likely to get invited. If you can be respectful towards people who hold different views, you are much more likely to get invited. Of course, you might not be interested, and that’s fine too. As long as you can respect my relational mystical polytheist Wicca, I will respect whatever your view is. This is the sacred ethic of hospitality: if I invite you into my space, I have certain obligations as the host, and you have obligations as a guest. The ethic of hospitality is one of mutually respectful behaviour.

But you know, if you go round calling people literalists, fundamentalists, flatlanders, one-dimensional thinkers, and all the rest of it – they’re probably going to get upset. People don’t like being told they are doing it wrong. I much prefer Jason Mankey’s approach of celebrating diversity of practice:

I love the god Pan, but I do so in my own way. Upon my first meeting with a fellow Panhead I couldn’t help but notice that this particular devotee did it completely differently than I did. And you know what? I was completely cool with that, because I realized that there were of course many ways to honor and worship Pan. … I’ve been pretty public with my own thoughts about the nature of deity, but I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I don’t care if people agree with me or not. I don’t think there are right or wrong answers that apply to all of Pagandom. Certainly within specific traditions there are shared bits of theology and belief, but why anyone thinks a Devotional Polytheist and an Eclectic Wiccan have to come to some sort of consensus on deity is beyond me. Can’t we all just nod politely at one another and accept each other’s reality?

Jason is welcome in my circle any day of the week – he clearly grasps the ethic of hospitality.

Who’s in my tribe?

Some people are trying to say who can call themselves a polytheist, or a Wiccan, or some other label (and I agree that it makes it difficult to communicate if we radically change the meaning of a particular label; but the fact is, polytheist just means belief in many gods, and Wicca started life as just a euphemism for witchcraft).

There are people who are theoretically entitled to be in my circle as duly initiated Gardnerian Wiccans who absolutely would not be welcome in my circle – yet they are entitled to call themselves Gardnerian Wiccans, as duly initiated people. Their philosophy, theology, and values are completely different from mine, and they don’t behave respectfully. So I just have to decide whether I want them in my circle or not on the basis of trust, not on what they call themselves. You can tell people not to call themselves something (whether it’s polytheist or Wiccan or whatever) until you’re blue in the face, but they’re not going to stop.

Nevertheless,  identity and membership are two different things. You can identify as something, but if members of that community don’t recognise you as being that thing, then it’s hard to sustain that identity. It’s a reciprocal process (rather like hospitality).

By Albert Bierstadt - forum.netfotograf.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3379450

Looking Down Yosemite Valley (1865), Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama – by Albert Bierstadtforum.netfotograf.com, Public Domain.

We can learn from different perspectives

The reason why I welcome  different perspectives on deities, and reality in general, is that I think our perspective is limited by our finite and localised nature in space-time. If we have an encounter with a deity, they are often kind enough to appear in a form that we can recognise, such as a vision of a humanoid form (I say humanoid so as not to exclude Ganesh, Pan, and other theriomorphic deities). As Erin Lund Johnson said in a discussion,

“In my animistic understanding, engagement and relationship with, and experience of them, they are every bit as corporal as I am, and not in any anthropomorphic sense. The anthropomorphic I might encounter in meditation, sure, but not outside of it.”

I agree with her – I don’t think for a moment that this humanoid form is necessarily their only form. Someone once described deities as “possibly anthropomorphic interfaces of vast cosmic forces” – a description that sums it up pretty well for me.

This is why I think we need to approach the gods with a certain humility, and with an awareness that their nature is a mystery:

“As a mystic, I experience the gods as real beings with agency. As an anthropologist, I think approaching gods as archetypes has advantages, particularly in pushing us to consider how we project aspects of our needs, cognition, personality, and culture on to the Divine. I don’t see these as mutually exclusive views, but rather as two different approaches to understanding my experience of the Divine. I choose to hold beliefs lightly, because our minds are limited and our capacity for projection substantial. However, I also choose to honor my experience of the Divine as real entities… I just don’t think my experience is the sum total of what they are, or that the way that I make sense of that experience is helpful for everyone else. I suppose this is what makes OBOD work for me. I’m far more interested in open conversations with the gods and with other humans, the combination of experience, wonder, and exploration of what *could* be, than I am wedded to the idea that I will ever know exactly what *is.* Though my practice includes (though is not limited to, nor gives primacy to) relational polytheism, I avoid strictly polytheist community because I do not personally find it helpful to limit my ideas, including skepticism. I left Christianity primarily because the emphasis on orthodoxy limited my capacity to honor the diversity of my experience and ability to learn from diverse viewpoints. I have no desire to enter what felt like a self-imposed prison again.”

Kimberly Kirnerwww.wilddruid.com (conversation on Facebook, quoted with permission)

Whilst deities are not merely archetypes, they do include archetypal qualities (I am not merely an archetype, but I include archetypal qualities – I am a fairly typical geek, for example; I’d quite like to be a femme fatale, but sadly I failed the exam).

People’s beliefs and hypotheses do wax and wane; after all, we live in a highly rationalist and materialist culture – it is hard to maintain a faith in conscious cosmic forces in the face of all that. There is room for honest doubt, and apophatic theology, and mystical approaches, and in my rituals, there’s room for archetypalists, too. (Your mileage may vary.)

To me, polytheism means belief in many gods, and doesn’t include anything about defining what gods are or how we relate to them. Devotional polytheism means serving or being devoted to them and believing they have agency and are entities. Relational polytheism is forming relationships with them and believing they have agency and are entities. If people want to define a specific tradition within polytheism as having even more requirements, good for them. But I don’t think you can define simple polytheism beyond meaning belief in many gods. Some people view polytheism as a container for polytheist traditions such as Heathenry, Kemeticism etc. But as a polytheist Wiccan, I don’t fit within that definition – because Wicca includes people with other theological viewpoints (and the same is true for Druidry).  Why don’t I join an explicitly polytheist tradition? Because they are all focused on one pantheon and culture and I’m not. I’m English, so I’m a mixture of Saxon, Celt, and possibly even Norman – and anyway my spirituality is linked to the land on which I live, not my ethnicity. And I don’t mind sharing Wicca with people of other theological viewpoints – as long as I’m free to behave polytheistically in my own circle.

Storm in the Mountains (1870) by Albert Bierstadt - arthistory.about.com, Public Domain.

Storm in the Mountains (1870) by Albert Bierstadt – arthistory.about.com, Public Domain.

What is real?

The nature of reality can be viewed from many different perspectives: on the quantum level, everything is quarks and leptons and bosons and strangeness and charm. At the level of chemistry, it’s all about the chemical interactions; on the cellular biology level, cells join and divide and exchange chemical signals. On a psychological level, no-one would deny that love and hate and other emotions are real, and only the most reductionist person would insist that they are merely biochemical signals. Then there are interpersonal relationships, social movements, discourses, historical trends, and other macro-level processes, all the way up to the movement of galaxies and the expansion of the universe. From the perspective of the universe, our little lives are pretty insignificant; from my personal perspective, my life is very significant to me.

I would say that something is “real” if it has a real effect on existence. In this view, ideas are real because they affect people’s lives. However, ideas are not things, and they are not people. That’s why the “gods have agency” part of contemporary polytheism is important, because gods are not just ideas or archetypes, but beings with will and agency. On the whole, though, that is a matter of faith, although there are plenty of people experiencing the gods as beings with will and agency.

Most Pagans view the deities as immanent in the world, rather than existing only on some other plane of reality. If they are both immanent and many, then they must be the consciousnesses of natural phenomena:

In my daily interactions I engage with Brighid as sun, fire, and hearth. Also as inspiration and light, and swan and the greening of the earth. I engage with Boann as cow, river, and the Milky Way. I engage with Lugh as lightening. So, it makes no sense to me to engage in debates about whether the sun is real, for example. Maybe existentially we could debate that, I suppose, but that would not alter my engagement with or experience of the sun in its physical and spiritual aspects, or take away from them. But the corporeality, that physical body of the sun, is generally taken as evident by most, even where our spiritual relationship with it will differ depending on tradition, worldview, regionality, and/or personal inclination, as these are all distinct spiritual ecologies with some degree of possibility for overlaps among them.

—  Erin Lund Johnson (conversation on Facebook, quoted with permission)

I have always thought that the deities of Nature are the emergent consciousness of complex phenomena, such as sacred places, mountains, trees, storms, forests, and so on. If this is the case, then any anthropomorphic appearance they choose to adopt is only one aspect or facet of their vast and complex nature. And we cannot say with any certainty that we know them fully, or that we know exactly what they are. We can only say that we do experience them as distinct beings with agency, and that when we experience the presence of a deity, we know that we are blessed by their presence.

When I feel the presence of a deity, I feel their unique personality and energy. Some are reassuring and comforting; others feel more remote and challenging; but all are beings of majesty and power.

By Albert Bierstadt - Princeton University Art Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42981599

Mount Adams, Washington (1875), by Albert BierstadtPrinceton University Art Museum, Public Domain.

Authority in Religious Traditions

There are different kinds of power, as famously identified by Starhawk (and probably others before her): power-over, power-from-within, and power-with-others. Authority comes in at least two flavours: being an authority on a topic (that’s why writers of books are called authors) and having authority over others. All of these are conferred by others to a greater or lesser extent (even power-from-within occurs when the pressure from inside is greater than or equal to the pressure from outside).

John Beckett writes that some people have a problem with authority. This is true, but sometimes it’s for very good reasons. We all mistake authority-on-a-topic for authority-over-others. Many bloggers have the experience of getting the comment “You can’t tell me what to do” when the authorial tone of their post was intended to be authority-on-a-topic and not telling others what to do. This is frustrating (but sometimes people get the authorial tone of their posts wrong, including me). But there are those who quite blatantly want to have power and authority over others, and use their powers of manipulation and persuasion and their apparent deep knowledge of a topic to gain power over others. They use the confusion over what is legitimate power and authority to create a mini-kingdom for themselves. These are the people and power-structures we should be resisting.

As Rhyd Wildermuth writes in a recent post, Gods & Authority:

Enclosure can happen for meaning, too.  In fact, that’s always been the trick of Authority; convince people they have no other access to meaning except through their prescribed doctrines, just as Capital convinces us we have no access to exchange except through property and the market or the State convinces us we’ll die without it.

This is a situation that we want to avoid at all costs in the Pagan, polytheist, Heathen, Druid, and Wiccan communities. As soon as one person or group claims sole access to meaning, then they have enclosed meaning, and are in pursuit of power and authority over others.

The Buddha made a very sensible disclaimer about his teachings – that if they make sense to you, follow them, and if they don’t make sense to you, don’t follow them. Maybe we should all add that as a disclaimer at the end of our posts.

If someone says a thing that makes sense to you, then you would be well-advised to follow it. If it  doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it – but do think about why it doesn’t make sense to you. Is it because you have an issue that is  getting in the way, or is it because you have genuine solid objections to it?

Power and authority in groups

I have observed a number of different religious groups with different ways of dealing with power.

The Quakers make their structure as flat as possible, with elders and various committees. Sometimes the elders have too much power, but this is presumably balanced by the committees, and by the strong Quaker discernment processes. They also strongly recommend that people attend their classes on being a Quaker – so presumably those would also teach you about how to complain if somebody “forcefully eldered” you. I think we can learn a lot from how the Quakers do things. They also have regional Yearly Meetings in which all the Quaker meetings come together to discuss things, again using Quaker process. The disadvantage of this system is that the power is not out in the open where people can see it.

In Wicca, there is no formal power structure beyond the immediate coven. Covens have autonomy, and this is an important principle to most Wiccans. (Some groups have high priestesses who are referred to as Lord and Lady – but this is a North American innovation and is not done in Wicca in Britain, where we have quite enough aristocracy already, thank you. As far as I can tell, in most groups it is an honorary title only.) The system of coven autonomy has its pros and cons – it means that there can be very dodgy behaviour in a coven, and they can get away with it – but it does prevent hierarchy forming above and beyond that.

OBOD Druid groves generally have leaders, but different people are encouraged to lead rituals. They also have sub-groups for the different grades (bard, ovate, druid) and these could develop some odd power dynamics, but I haven’t observed any groups beyond the bardic grade, so I couldn’t say for sure. There is also the rather odd idea of the chosen chief of the order (who chose him? I didn’t vote for him…) but this seems largely ceremonial, as far as I can tell. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)

In Unitarianism, they have ministers and committees. In fact they have a lot of committees for such a small group. They also have an annual General Assembly (similar to the Quaker Yearly Meetings). The power of the minister and the committee generally balance each other. (Sometimes one has too much power, sometimes the other.) Congregations have autonomy, and there are also the important principles of the freedom of the pulpit (the freedom to state your truth in the pulpit) and the freedom of the pew (the freedom to believe your truth and disagree with what is said from the pulpit).

Authority (use of power legitimated by the structure) in the Quakers, Unitarians, and OBOD is fairly well-distributed in a system of checks and balances between the national body and the local regions and congregations. Wicca doesn’t have a national body, but we do get together to  discuss things and we have a shared body of practices, as well as freedom to be creative. None of these systems are perfect, but they’re pretty good. There’s always someone with a big ego trying to gain power, but most of the time they are balanced by the structures that exist to regulate power and authority.

Freedom of belief, freedom of conscience

All of the above groups have freedom of belief: you can be an atheist, a pantheist, a duotheist, a monotheist, a polytheist, and so on. In practice there are not that many polytheists in the Unitarians and Quakers in Britain, but there are some, and both groups include atheists. What is important in all these groups is your values, including a willingness to play nicely with others. They do share a worldview, an ethos. As Caelesti writes in this excellent blogpost, Belief vs. Worldview:

Lived Values Follow Worldview – hopefully after developing a worldview, or during the process of developing one, values and ethics come to be a lived part of one’s life. This has been primarily what I have been focusing on this past year with my Self-Care Virtues project – the virtues are based on Celtic and Norse polytheistic worldviews, and there are also influences from my UU values.

It is also worth noting that these groups are mostly stable. Of course there are arguments about what  it means to be a Unitarian or a Quaker or a Wiccan (and probably a Druid too, but I don’t know) but as every group has a variety of different preferences within it, I expect these arguments will never be definitely settled by a schism. Instead, there are affinity groups of Unitarian Pagans, Unitarian Christians, Quaker Pagans, Christian Quakers, and so on and so forth. And in terms of values, these groups generally have more agreement with each other than disagreement.

The Triumph of Civilisation by Jacques Réattau. [CC BY SA 3.0]

The Triumph of Civilisation by Jacques Réattau. Photo by Grizzli, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2398513

The emergent polytheist movement

I am largely observing the emergent polytheist movement from the outside and over the internet, so what follows is a somewhat partial perspective – but I have observed (and others have too) that there are some rather disturbing tendencies developing, which could in a couple of generations adversely affect the setup of polytheist communities.

Personally, I feel excluded by the polytheist movement. I have had too many polytheists tell me that I can’t be a proper polytheist because I’m a Wiccan (and it seems Jason Mankey has had the same experience). I feel excluded by all the people saying that there is only one way to be a proper polytheist, and that is to be a devotional polytheist. I feel excluded by the editorial policy of Polytheist.com, which is that they choose who they want on the site, and do not accept applications from prospective bloggers (contrast this with Gods & Radicals, whose editorial policy is basically “send in an article”, or Patheos Pagan, whose policy is also that people can apply to join, though that probably needs to be formally stated somewhere). I feel excluded by the increasingly narrow definition of what a polytheist is. Polytheism means ‘many gods’. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you also believe that they are emanations of the divine source, or the underlying energy or whatever. That’s still polytheism.

This one of several reasons why I wrote my post on relational polytheism – the idea that we are in relationship with the gods, that we are co-creators with them of unfolding reality. It is possible to be a polytheist and a Wiccan – because I am one, and so are many others. My polytheism is different to Jason’s – but that is just fine.

If membership of polytheist groups and communities becomes based on a test of belief, then there will be persecutions of “bad polytheists” a few generations down the line. What matters is your values. Do you treat others with respect for their autonomy and freedom? Are you inclusive and welcoming of people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people, and people of colour? Do you care about the environment? Are you prepared to play nicely with other people who believe differently than you? Then you’re in my community. If not, take a hike.

As Rhyd Wildermuth says, how we world the gods says much more about us than it does about them. If we are authoritarian, the way we world the gods is as authoritarian figures. If we are egalitarian and peace-loving, we world them as egalitarian and peace-loving. He writes:

The gods exist as independent beings from us regardless of our belief in them. But it’s we who actually world them into the earth, and how we world them is dependent upon what we do, who we are, and the sort of world we create around us.

This is what’s going on with Heathens and Gaelic Reconstructionists who insist there must be a racial component to worship of gods. They are the sorts of people who believe in race, and therefore world their gods into the earth racially. The same can be said of people in those same traditions who insist there is no racial component; they don’t believe in race, and therefore don’t world the racism into the gods.

The true offering we give to the gods, which is precisely the same offering we give to any other living being, is this act of worlding. When I make offerings to Arianrhod, she’s not drinking that mead. Instead, by offering her mead or flowers, I am worlding her into the earth through the act of offering those things, but this is only a personal act.

So if someone claims that you don’t choose a god, a god chooses you, and that once the god has chosen you, you must do their bidding – then they are probably an authoritarian trying to world the gods as authoritarian. If they claim to be the chosen mouthpiece of the god, and try to tell you that they know better than you do who your personal deity is (or deities are), then they are trying to gain power over you. If someone claims that they are practising the One True Way for everyone, and you’re Doing It Wrong, then they are trying to gain power over you. The fact that there are many deities and many religious and spiritual paths suggests that there is no One True Way, in any case. If they tell you not to talk to certain people or types of people, that’s a power-grab. I wrote some warning signs of unethical groups for the Gardnerian Wicca website that are probably applicable more generally.

It is perhaps inevitable that some people will seek power and control. That means we have to create the structures, the checks and balances, that will prevent them from gaining too much power. As Syren Nagakyrie writes in this excellent post, A Conversation on Power and Authority in Polytheism:

At the top, that power turns it’s gaze to control. To determining religious experience, to deciding canon, and who is worthy of their religion and who is not. Again, look at the world religions. Look at the history. This is not conjecture or conspiracy. This what we see happen again and again and again.

We have an opportunity to do differently, to try. Yes it means hard conversations. It means it will take time. But if this is not the work, then what is? If this is not an act of devotion, of dedication, then what is? I am led to believe that this is why some particular powerful deities, and the Dead, are making Themselves so known right now.

Draw the circle wide

As Caelesti pointed out in her post, people’s beliefs shift and change over time. We live in a culture and a time where it’s hard to be a polytheist. Some days people are atheists with polytheist leanings, some days they are full-blown polytheists, some days they are agnostic. It’s okay to have doubts; they are a healthy part of spirituality and religion. If you didn’t have doubts, how would you test ideas to see if they really came from the gods, or were just the product of your ego? If you exclude everyone who is a bit agnostic, and don’t allow them room to practice, then you might be missing out on good people, and you won’t be giving them an opportunity to experience the presence of the gods (and how they interpret that experience should be up to them). As Elizabeth I said, “I would not make windows into men’s souls”.

Belief and faith originally meant trust, not assent to a creedal proposition – and I really hope that they will come to mean that again.  I hope that polytheist communities will not have a creedal test of membership, but develop a common set of practices and values that will attract people who want to live those values and practice those values and world the gods in a way that will make the world a better place for everyone, not just a privileged few.