While I have several other questions to address in this series that have been given to me by others, this particular one occurred to me, and I am going to give it a bit of an airing here because I think we need to be transparent in our own thinking, use our discernment, and always be critically reflexive in our own viewpoints.
Something we are somewhat used to hearing about in polytheism, and likewise in some of the wider pagan movements as well, that our religions are religions of practice rather than belief, and that orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy. As much as I’d like to say that is true, it often doesn’t seem that it is; and unfortunately, for polytheists, more generalized pagans have characterized polytheists as in some sense “inferior” or “lesser” to them because we focus too much on “belief” in multiple Deities, which therefore makes us more belief-based and thus more like the dominant hegemonic monotheistic religions, including Christianity.
While I’d dispute this characterization for a number of reasons–amongst them that our “polytheistic beliefs” arise from our experience of the reality of a plurality of individual identifiable Deities rather than the assumption (the “faith,” even) that many more monistically-inclined pagans have had that their experiences of “oneness” essentially mean that the appearance of multiple Deities is really only an illusion. This sounds a lot more like monistic mysticism within monotheistic religions, or monistic interpretations of Hinduism and Buddhism…and therefore, because those are all “alternative” viewpoints as far as mainstream Christianity is concerned, they are thus “okay.” They are especially approved as such because this monistic trend has an inbuilt apophatic jargon that saves one from having to be precise or overly intellectual in one’s reporting of one’s experiences, which for various reasons makes it more appealing than having to do the hard work of noticing details, discerning differences, and doing the necessary research and reflection to understand one’s experiences in a more thorough manner. It’s much easier to say “I’ve had an experience of Oneness that is beyond words or description” than it is to say “I had a very peaceful feeling in which my worries and anxieties momentarily receded into the background that was full of light and reassuring voices that sounded like some of my Ancestors, all in the presence of a large female-feeling powerful being that I think might have been the Deity ____,” and so forth. This preference for monism’s apophatic simplicity (which then makes interfaith work easier since people can then agree they’re all worshipping different forms of The One Universal Consciousness, etc….and which then makes paganism look more “respectable” in the eyes of these other dominant religions) sounds like a rather pale and simplified clone of the distillation of several threads from various of those other religions than it does any indigenous forms of ancient European, Near Eastern, or North African polytheism, at least in my view…but let’s leave those matters aside for the moment.
But what I want to get to in all of this is the larger question of how the debate between religions of practice and religions of belief–the practical and the creedal, in other words–may in fact, in its own way, simply replicate another thing from Christianity: namely, the age-old debate started by Saul of Tarsus and continued through to the Protestant reformers, and all the way down to the present day in evangelical circles, being the debate over “faith” vs. “works.” While Saul of Tarsus went for the idea that Christians are justified by faith alone, and not works of the law (i.e. Jewish ritual and practical adherence, including ethical requirements). Even though Saul of Tarsus’ works are a part of the Christian scriptural canon in all current forms of Christianity, these words were granted new life, as it were, when Luther and various other Protestant reformers began to question and condemn the ritualism of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. In more recent times, this is why someone who has been “born again” and has “accepted Jesus” as one’s “personal Lord and Savior” need do or say little more than that (in front of witnesses, probably), and then they can preach all they like about certain things but do others and live however they want, including in ways that are considered “sinful” if anyone else does them, which leads to so much hypocrisy for which various Christians and their denominations have been (rightly, I think!) criticized.
What this then does in the pagan and polytheist context is make those who talk a big game about the Deities, or the importance of their religious beliefs and ideas and symbols as cultural commitments and as reconnecting with one’s Ancestors and their traditions and so forth, but who do not do ritual when the time comes, or try to reduce such rituals down to as simple and often wordy matters where little actual ritual actions or symbols occur, and so on and so forth, look like the Protestants in the above debate, whereas those who actually practice their religion assiduously, who build and keep often ornate and complex shrines, and so forth are the Catholics. As is often the case, the people who form the ranks of the former often do come from Protestant backgrounds and don’t understand how ritual works or why it is necessary, and in the latter case, many do come from Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, or other backgrounds in which such things are held in high regard and one is immersed in various forms of “ritualism” from a young age. The Protestants (and especially later denominations, like those that were formed in the nineteenth century, e.g. the Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) have tended to shun ritualism because it is too much like ancient paganism, in their view. In fairness, a lot of the ritualism in Catholicism, and much of the symbolism, is directly drawn from or was influenced by ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other cultures, and in some senses continues those things–the Romans had pontiffs, and now there is only one of them (i.e. the Pope)/. So, in a way, they are kind of “right” about this…!?!
And, added into both the Catholic and Orthodox positions are a panoply of saints, angels, and other beings who are also revered in various manners, often with specific feast-dates and unique practices, saintly attributes, complex hagiographies that are more myth than history, and so on. It really looks like these particular forms of Christianity are schools for fostering polytheism, in many respects! And while there is the theological distinction between dulia and latria in their theologies which distinguishes the sorts of reverence given to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit versus saints and angels, in most respects this is simply a classification that is linguistic in its reality rather than something which can be distinguished on a practical or anthropological level.
The things which the more “Protestant” forms of polytheism are derided for, or are critiqued for not accepting, like the real existence of Deities, practices of devotion, and so forth are also things that actual Protestants are known to have trouble with (though “existence of Deities” is more a problem of “existence of saints and other holy beings as an important part of one’s practice” in actual Protestant Christianity), and for which Protestant Christians are critiqued by Catholics. Kneeling in prayer for hours in a chapel and saying the rosary constantly while doing so is praised as dedicated and disciplined piety in Catholicism, whereas in Protestantism it would be derided as idolatry. Devotions that modern polytheists might engage with on a regular basis are likewise criticized as unnecessary and unimportant for the Protestant-inclined polytheists (and some pagans), it seems.
Out of this discussion (which may be an obvious matter and one I had simply missed previously in my attention to other things, granted!), thus, a further question arises: what should we do about this? One of the things we try and do as polytheists is to eliminate those things that are from Christian (and other religious) traditions that are understood as structural necessities, requirements, or qualifications for something to be a “real religion” when these are not relevant to polytheism. We’ve understood that “The Lore” is not a polytheist equivalent for “The Bible,” and may not even qualify as “scripture” in the same way such things do for Christians, and that Snorri’s Edda and even Homer’s works–as only two examples among many–do not, did not, and should not have such positions of authority and awe within our practices. I think that is good and right. We’ve understood that “religion” to be legitimate, it does not require a succinct, or even a rambling and complex, creedal statement to be valid, which is also an excellent observation and one we’ve done well thus far in not replicating. We do not require our Deities to have particular superlative divine characteristics like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and so forth–though some of them can and/or do!–which are not requirements to consider certain divine beings as Deities, and likewise this is an important and crucial thing that needs to be emphasized.
So, now that we realize we are replicating a particular age-old argument within Christianity that first began as a struggle between a parent religious culture (Judaism) and its offspring (Christianity) in the epistles of Saul of Tarsus and has become a bone of contention between later denominations of Christianity, should we thus jettison the practice vs. belief debate because it is essentially the same–down to the factional positions within it often having the same historical origins in the lives of modern polytheists as the main positions in the major denominations of Christianity have–as the faith vs. works debate?
I’m honestly not sure, because I think aspects of it are useful to consider, and may have relevance beyond a Christian context. Think about the difference between the ancient Vedic religion, which was fully polytheistic, which gave rise to Hinduism, and the changes that it underwent during the Axial Age as a result of some of the writings in the Upanishads. The ritualism and ritual focus of the Vedic period was diminished in importance after the Upanishads were written; the importance of priestly status through the Brahmin caste was likewise diminished through these same means. The focus away from the Deities almost (but not quite!) entirely in both Buddhism and Jainism, and the elimination of the importance of caste in both religions, seems to emerge in a quasi-Protestant fashion, thus. While I’m highly skeptical of presenting templates of the history of religions drawn from Christianity as if they are universal and then imposing them on other religions, at the same time, sometimes it kind of makes sense, at least with several of the current major world religions. Some might thus argue that this is why those religions are “successful” and other religions (like ancient polytheisms) fell apart and were superseded, but I would never suggest that, and in fact I find that idea preposterous; and yet, perhaps the ways in which these other religions have engaged in enforced hegemony is the underlying value that they all share, and thus such systems adopt those type of models rather naturally, for whatever reason.
But, these are tough questions, and there are no clear or easy answers to them…but I think it’s worth thinking about, and I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the matter. Should this debate be left in the dust like so much other irrelevant material from Christianity, or should it be taken as a serious matter…even if for no other reason than that most of our ranks have emerged from a Christian background and we must deal with that at the current time with our current population, because ignoring it will only make it worse? I am eager to hear other’s thoughts on this!