Tag Archives: multiculturalism

Do the Gods really call us? My thoughts on a recent controversy

This question was recently raised in a post by John Beckett (and elsewhere), wherein he argues that the Gods call and choose whomever they will, regardless of ancestry or cultural affiliation. Although (as always) his post is well expressed and well-meaning, the notion that Gods generally call or choose individual people for worship is a mistaken one. The general argumentation, from my observation, is usually reduced to these three points: 1) The Gods are individual powers able to do whatever they will, and thus some people can’t prevent them from choosing others 2) The Gods are interested in and care for people and therefore they will reveal their will and inspire people to their service directly by approaching them 3) Excluding certain Gods from certain people is unreasonable because their worship spread historically and dangerous because we don’t “own” the Gods.

Before comments to each of the foregoing, the context must first be understood. It is not difficult to see through the premise upon which these points are founded. The prevailing modern worldview is a globalized middle-class one, shaped heavily by capitalism and colonialism, and overwhelmingly Western (most especially Protestant and Anglo-American) in character, in which individualism and all manner of choice is glorified, if not sanctified. We are all affected by it in various degrees, even in polytheism. These matters can be examined at great length, but for the present purpose, it is enough to bear them in mind. Some polytheists embrace this situation of the modern worldview and others oppose it. It is best, however, to find a middle way whenever possible, selecting the good from each side while avoiding the bad. If the aim is to develop a more harmonious world, it’s high time we find methods to connect various peoples and cultures, yet without force or intimidation, because there will always be relativism, at least in a free world not dominated by an imperial and global power.

The first point above seems to carry anthropomorphism too far, in such a way that the argument defeats itself. The Gods can do anything, is it not so, and who can say otherwise? Well, if they can do anything, they can also choose to do the opposite- how would it be ascertained either way? The problem here is that this logic mischaracterizes the question entirely: we are not dealing with a matter of ability but suitability. The question of “Can a God eat ice-cream?” is rather foolish for this reason as is any other that addresses divine choice and individuality- this is not our concern at all. Insofar as it concerns the relations between Gods and mortals, our knowledge is limited (and rightfully so) to what is suitable from tradition. Religion in the traditional sense of “religio” is about correct practice and clear thinking (as passed down), as opposed to the “superstitio” of malpractice and fear. By rephrasing the question then into one of “Would a God …?”, it becomes proper and reasonable. So if it were asked “Would a God choose an individual to worship them?”, the answer would be no, because the Gods need not do so while they (still) watch over their respective peoples and cultures where they at first arose as well as their own divine families and tribes. The Gods would not choose individuals except for very, very few people who have extraordinary gifts such as those we see in myths and such as whom we find absolutely nobody today.

The thinking associated with the second point is unfortunately derived either from helplessness or hubris, sometimes both. There can be a great deal of loneliness, unfulfillment and misery in the world and some rely on the Gods to help them be better. While this is not at all to be scorned as something silly, it is not a suitable relationship. A God does and should not substitute for a family, a friend, a companion or even (I must add reluctantly) a therapist, nor should (directly or indirectly) be expected or believed to act in such an intimate capacity. Zeus is called father and Demeter is called mother only metaphorically for the Greeks, and literally only in the sense of mythical ancestry. Then comes hubris, disguised as piety, sometimes knowingly and other times unknowingly. Let’s ask the question “Would a God really stoop to approach and call someone in particular, merely to be offered worship?”. This is a rhetorical question that I’m afraid does not deserve answering. And it is a notion that originated with malpractice and monotheism. It is we who must be approach the Gods and call offerings for their service! Even the most senior priests and priest-kings, if really pious, would not dare to state that they were specifically approached by a major God (it is different for ancestors) and called to action. It is not only grossly unsuitable, but also unfair in the sense that it can attribute to the Gods something they never intended or never sanctioned as right. This is why human sacrifice and imperial conquests, as two important examples, were carried out, undoubtedly coming from ambitious individuals who thought too highly of themselves and at the same time wished to disguise their hubris as piety. There were others like Akhenaten, Buddha, Socrates, the constructed Biblical figures and Mohammed who had a very grand image of themselves that led them to hunger after followers, and their individual innovations are directly responsible for monotheism and imperialism, i.e. the decline of polytheism.

As for the third point, I have already briefly made two sub-points concerning the relation between Gods and their respective peoples. I have said, boldly and consciously, that Gods “first arose” in certain areas, and that Gods share mythic ancestry with their respective peoples. The latter is known and accepted, but the former has rarely been addressed, to the detriment of this argument. How did the Gods first arise is a question that may well be raised by an outsider or indeed an insider, and for which we ought to be prepared. The answer is usually a mythological one, with genealogies, but we can’t overlook these were compiled later and don’t account for the changes in religious thinking and socio-cultural practices that have always been part and parcel of “religion”. A previous post of mine proposed four classifications that account for the historical developments in polytheism, after its own rise from animism. I did then justify my logic to avoid misunderstanding.* In the monotheistic and globalized (both terms are necessary) world we have been living in, the diversity and distinctions in polytheism can become difficult to understand. There’s a tendency either to simplify this multiplicity like some neopagans do, or to throw it all open for everyone to partake of. Both are imperfect and lead to mistakes- the first recasts the Gods in a new shape as if they were clay, and the second commodifies them (as globalization always does) as if they were dishes offered on a menu. This is preceded by the problematic notion of divine universality, where it is believed that the Gods can exist anywhere, but it overlooks that people choose to do so (i.e. take cultic images & practices along with them), rather than the Gods themselves, and this “spreading” is mostly happens under some form of colonization and imperialism**. The Gods, since we all know they originated in particular areas, are inseparable from the peoples and cultures that they influenced and who placed “mantles” upon them***. Simplifying the Gods undermines them and opening them to all peoples cheapens them. There is a reason why certain Gods share mythic ancestry with some people and not with others. Why can’t this diversity, that already exists, be embraced? Why do we need to get into disagreements about exclusion at all, when every single people and culture has its own Gods? I blame this confused and toxic discourse on the inequality created by European empires, which is causing European polytheism to be over-represented (thus attractive) and causing “Whites” to feel guilty about their recent ancestors at the expense of their ancient ones. I respect John Beckett greatly for explaining the importance of closed traditions and how membership differs from worship, but why not address the heart of the matter also even if it is uncomfortable? A better world is one in which peoples exist free with self-determination and live harmoniously and equally among themselves, not one in which the powerful invite the weak to partake of their empire and constantly apologize while hypocritically maintaining their power. Let me adjust a well-known saying for this purpose: Teach people how to fish in their own lakes and stop giving them fish from your own or (worse) giving them fish from their own.

In conclusion, I hope in all sincerity the world can become better, stronger, more harmonious and happier with the blessings that polytheism has to offer, and which differ from the wrong path the world is in now. We will disagree how this is done, but,  since it is such a momentous topic, let us be conscious not only of what we say but why we are saying it as well as the consequences it will have for all peoples present and future, not merely for our immediate audience. I am beginning to fear that this age we live in is ironically the best for the rediscovery of polytheism (what with all the archaeology and scholarship that is being produced) but perhaps the worst for the proper revival of it.
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* This is what I say: “I hope it will be understood that this is not an attempt to account for the development of Gods in material terms. Gods are real, but the earliest conceptions of them (before a tradition is made) depended on the nature of the experiences and lifestyle of those who first established the connection, as dictated by the natural environment and culture. The Gods, theoretically speaking, are not fully known to us. Animism is probably the closest we can reach because the natural and supernatural are equivalent, leaving little room for uncertainty as far as divine presence and experience is concerned. But polytheism later added new ideas and practices (mirroring changes in society) that can be compared to a mantle or cloak which covers the God, giving that God a more particular appearance or function for the convenience of distinct cultic practices and purposes, but simultaneously (because the God is covered) making that God somewhat less accessible to our conceptual understanding (hence the development of monotheism and later atheism).”

**It is tiresome to hear the examples of Isis being in Italy and Apollo being in Britain over and over, with its deliberate or dismissive short-sightedness. It’s unfortunate also that the argumentation should go so far as to say “Perhaps the most majestic temple to a Greek God is in Tennessee” which is insensitive and offensive both to Greeks and Native Americans alike. Should it not occur to us that these spread with conquest, during the Roman Empire, when armies moved constantly and colonies were established? Is it any wonder Roman imperialism commodified Isis and Apollo just like it commodified people (gladiators, workers, soldiers, subjects, etc)? If cosmopolitan diversity is good in itself, it should never be the result of a bad system; the reason why I prefer regional diversity is because it results from internal freedom, not hegemony disguised as inclusion!

***Applying the notion of suitability above: “Would a God care more for his or her own people or others, especially if other peoples have their own Gods?” This is another rhetorical question that doesn’t require an explained answer.

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My thoughts concerning a recent controversy among pagans online

An author on Patheos by the name of Cyndi Brannen posted some reflections lately on the white supremacy she perceives in American paganism and witchcraft. A response against her conclusions was later posted by Kenaz Filan, author of a website entitled “Europa’s Children”.  This sort of contention between pagan thinkers leaning to the Right or the Left has been going on in many forms, and for far too long. Being someone who usually seeks a middle and mixed way, I find myself almost always isolated and alone when I try to participate. My aim in remaining neutral is not to be a provocative individualist (far from it because I am more on the side of collectivism, albeit in smaller rather than groups), much less an indecisive shifty person who follows the crowd, nor indeed a self-appointed judge who utters the final word. If all pagans can agree, in opposition to monotheism, that there is no one single Truth, the conclusion must be that there are Truths, and these exist on several sides. This is what I seek, however difficult it may be to attain. In spite of sporadic faults, I am attracted to the idea of reconciliation and confederation in cases of unnecessary disagreement among pagans, but this is beyond my power to convey as a relative newcomer or indeed a single voice. I remember an anecdote from the English Civil War, in which Prince Rupert (on the King’s side) at the head of some troops saw a man going about his business in an isolated area. So, the Prince asked “You, fellow, are you for King or Parliament?”. The man’s reply was as reasonable as it could be in itself, but it was immediately misinterpreted in times of war: “I am for both King and Parliament, sir”. This caused the poor man’s death, because the Prince shot him immediately. What happened then is being repeated, albeit differently: The division between Left and Right is becoming quite akin to a cultural and ideological civil war, in which middle voices are put aside as traitors or fools. And when the battle has to do with identity, the heat will only increase by mutual opposition.  

Below are excerpts from the two posts abovementioned, and I have consciously put them in the form of a dialogue to illustrate (a rather mild example of) the disengagement and disagreement that pervades pagan discourses online:

Brannen: White advantage is everywhere in modern witchcraft, from pop culture to the common Wheel of the Year. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it is problematic when all this whiteness blinds us to the problems it causes for those who are from marginalized groups. However, there are ways those of us who want a more diverse witchcraft can be true allies. Diversity strengthens us personally and witchcraft as a whole…Look at your bookshelf and the thought leaders you follow on social media. I did just that. So much whiteness. This launched me on a quest to better understand the problems this causes and ways I can possibly help give space to those who aren’t white. I’m not putting myself on the cross here. My interest in dismantling whiteness in witchcraft is selfish.

Filan: Brennan offers some ways in which White Witches can fight this system.  Some of her pointers are quite good.  I am all for treating other cultures with respect: I encourage everyone to honor their Ancestors and to work toward uplifting their Folk.  It’s always good to sit back and listen. Looking for a Little Brown Holy Person to fill your spiritual emptiness rarely ends well.  Neither do we disagree on the importance of developing one’s own identity and figuring out one’s personal truth.

Brannen: Check your privilege. Basically, asking ourselves if we are coming from a place of dominance over the individual or group with whom we are interacting. Also, if we believe that we are inherently better than another group or individual. In addition, having an attitude that we are the “chosen ones” can also be a sign of privilege. In other words, be humble.

Filan: To all this chest-thumping and rending of garments there is only one proper response.  So I helpfully reassured Brennan, and her readers, that “It’s Okay to be White.”  And because I am an inveterate shitposter I appended those five problematic words with fourteen that are even more controversial.  The results, which we will explore in our next entry, are both predictable and amusing.

 

I had examined the problem of group identity, white supremacy and indigenism before on this site (see, among others, here and here). Looking through the two opposing posts, it appears there is an original problem with definitions and premises (leading to problematic conclusions) further reinforced by a lack of direct discussion. Aristotle has a wise quote that I love to bear in mind in such circumstances: “How many a dispute could have been deflated into a single paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms”. In pursuance of his advice, I will attempt to define the following terms:

Racism

What everyone agrees it is: the belief in the superiority of one race above another together with the resulting practice, directly or indirectly, of favoring that race above others.

What some mistakenly believe it to be: A) the belief in the priority of serving and preserving one’s ethnic people, as in Europe  B) the belief in favor of endogamy within one’s ethnic or close groups (N.B. “White” is not an ethnic group-see below)

What we should further agree on as to what it is: A) the belief in the existence of a collective heritage, ethnos or culture belonging to a whole race of people (as in the white race).  B) the belief in the priority of serving and preserving one’s ethnic people in spite of past & continuing colonialism, as in the New World

 White supremacy

What it is: A) The belief in the superiority of the white race above others B) The belief that the whites should maintain the status quo and cultural ascendancy in areas they colonized

What it is not: The belief of Europeans in Europe against immigration and multiculturalism within their own soil

Whiteness

What it is: the collective mentality of Western Civilization and Eurocentrism in relation to other cultures, especially in the New World

What it is not: every person of white complexion (unless that person subscribes to the above)

Privilege

This has an obvious definition but once again I would distinguish native privilege from colonial privilege

 

My conclusion in one paragraph, in the style of Aristotle:

Both authors don’t fully understand each other’s position, nor even the groups they are attempting to speak on behalf of. It is necessary to separate Old World European systems and cultures from those of the New World. Although Old World Europeans have yet to remove their influence from former colonies completely, New World Europeans are still using (and cannot escape from) colonizing systems. Part of the latter system is the concept of “whiteness”, and it has also crept into Europe through American socio-political influence as well as natively through the expanding project of the European Union. Paganism should be helping us in either case, since the knowledge we have of indigenous practices is sufficient, if not vast, to heal past wounds and reform identities. Colonial systems should be opposed and dismantled as much as possible, but there is an effective & persuasive way to achieve this (tone is always a good beginning); unfair institutions and bad ideas must not be mixed with the people who happened to grow up following them, otherwise this will lead the people to hold onto such institutions and ideas all the more strongly*. The New World is not European, but it is inhabited by Europeans who must be gradually brought to the realization that they have separate origins in distinct parts of Europe that they must reconnect with and allow others with different origins to do the same. Identities based on continents (European/African/Asian) make very little sense in general and certainly no sense at all in paganism; they only lead to confusion and misunderstanding. It is therefore not OK to be “White”, but it is OK to be Greek, Irish, German, etc. And yet it is OK to “Black” (in a collective sense) until whiteness is dismantled (because Whiteness created Blackness). After many centuries of domination, the dangerous idea of a collective Western/European/White culture must end and give way to native and indigenous systems.

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*In colloquial terms, “don’t throw away the baby with the dirty bathwater” 

 

 

Polemical topics for Polytheists (part 10): Multiculturalism

First view: Multiculturalism is good and consistent with polytheism, because there was plenty of cultural exchange in ancient times

Second view: Multiculturalism is bad and harmful to polytheism, because it is associated with expansive empires that pretend to be inclusive.

Balanced view: We can’t overlook that multiculturalism is both a result of good cultural exchange and harmful imperialism, but this old conflict may need to be understood in a new manner.

At a time when multiculturalism (also called diversity) is praised so often as an essential component of the modern world, or strongly opposed as such, it may be problematic to find a common ground between the two sides. But in the spirit of the previous piece about politics, I will attempt to do so here. The ancients, whose polytheisms we follow, were living through new experiences in what could be called an experiment of the human condition. Their world was growing, their knowledge of foreign things was increasing, but why? Expansive trade was practiced since the Bronze Age among complex urbanized societies, also called civilizations, and this useful activity brought mutual benefits—as did the stories, news and food exchanged during the trade. On the other hand, along with this expansive trade, there was expansive empire: If trade has to do with money, surely it is not difficult to see how money is inherently connected to power, land and resources, i.e. empire. Ancient civilizations gradually grew from regional to imperial, and this was accepted as common and even desirable at that time, because it was associated with survival as well as glory. Yet, after so many centuries, are we still living in this paradoxical manner? The answer is yes. The multiculturalism promoted today can be seen from the global trade that is being carried out, connecting all large urban centers throughout the world. But this is not a complete perspective: What is often overlooked about multiculturalism is that its current form is a product of imperial Westernization and Christianity. At first there was the Catholic Church which promoted a united “Christendom” (the word “Catholic” means “universal”, by the way), but after the rise of Protestantism, Anglo-America now leads the movement. It is no secret that America today, like the Catholic Church and Great Britain formerly, is an expansive empire that seeks domination. It is often wrongly presumed by many that multiculturalism creates an equal field for all to flourish; this is a simplistic mistake because it is not possible for all cultures to be represented fairly in one place at the same time. The emphasis is on the words “in one place at the same time”: Cultures need to be distinct and dominant at their place of origin*. After a certain point, following Anglo-American culture, however tolerant it may pretend to be, is succumbing to cultural imperialism and living in subjugation. One of the eternal advantages of polytheism is that it allows for exchange, but at the same time, requires us to respect foreign cultures as distinct without interference. If each foreign culture has its own God, can we assault their cultural distinction without assaulting their God? I think not. Can all cultures (and by extension Gods) live equally in the same place at the same time? I think not. We are a cooperative species, but also one that engages in conflicts, and our Gods are no different from us in that respect. My reconciliation of cultural exchange and cultural imperialism is already hinted, but for a larger consideration, I would refer my kind readers to part 6 of this series, entitled (significantly) “indigenism”.
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*While this is a convenient rule for the Old World, a discussion of the New World is more complex because dominant cultures there had been replaced through colonization. I have already attempted a discussion in part 6 previously.