The title of this post is how Anomalous Thracian describes the relationship of the terms “Pagan” and “polytheist” in his life, a concept he reminded me of when I interviewed him about his latest project. E is unusual insofar as e adopted the polytheist label first, while most of us who consider ourselves both used Pagan before or concurrently with polytheist. (In this context, I’m using “polytheist” to describe those folks who do not experience their gods as being facets of the One; we have been called “hard” and “devotional” and “immersive” and “traditional” polytheists, but no one term really encapsulates the mindset and also disincludes all others, so expect other adjectives to be proposed as the conversation continues.) AT recognizes that not all Pagans are polytheist as e understands the term, and that not all polytheists think Pagan is meaningful to describe their path, but they aren’t mutually exclusive.
While I’ve been tentative about the language lest I inadvertently offend, I”m very much in tune with calling myself a polytheist and a Pagan. The concept of deity is simply beyond human understanding, and any cosmology we construct is going to fall short. The concepts of “separate” and “individual” may be utterly meaningless to the gods, or their individualness may be so far beyond my own that it would make my brain melt. How separate (or not!) the gods are from me and each other is far less important than having a cosmology in place so I can relate to them. I relate to the gods as individuals, but I’ve given up any hope of knowing if that’s the “one true way” or not. In fact, a good amount of my experience contradicts that worldview, but I’m not about to be confused by the facts once my mind is made up!
Considering how Pagans react to one of our own choosing a different path, I want to be quite clear that I didn’t turn my back on the last 26 years of my faith journey this past Sunday morning. I also didn’t accept Jesus as my lord and savior, nor did I make a bargain with any particular god that I am going to worship no other before em. In fact, what happened the other day technically wasn’t something that I did at all. Rather, it was done when I was in another room.
During its monthly Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, the members of the Society of Friends in my town decided that yes, I was clear to become a Friend, or Quaker, and that they in fact welcomed such a thing. The decision was recorded as a minute, which will be published in the local Quaker newsletter (which I have edited since the beginning of the year). The reading of the minute is the only ceremony involved, and I missed it not because it was secret, but because I had committed to teaching First Day School to the kiddies this morning.
Of course, there are likely questions about this. Because I don’t have frequent readers, and thus no frequently asked questions, I’m going to guess what they might be:
- Did you just convert to Christianity? Well, no. Quakerism was definitely founded by a Christian named George Fox, who preached about the direct connection with deity. Most Friends are Christ-centered, but they include nontheist, humanist, and even Quaker Pagans among their number.
- Do they know you’re a Pagan? I haven’t hidden that fact, but Quakers don’t exactly wear their beliefs on their sleeves, either; for one thing, it would probably not be appropriate to the spirit of plain dress. I made it a point to mention that fact when I was meeting with a clearness committee about becoming a member. That led to questions about how I might relate to Friends who were uncomfortable with my Paganness, but I wasn’t asked about those beliefs, nor was it suggested that I should renounce them. One elder in my meeting (mine! that’s exciting to write!) said that I don’t have to speak in that language, but I do need to be able to hear it. Another Quaker I met at a Pagan event called it “listening in tongues.”
- How does this relate to your Pagan practices, anyway? Considering that Hellenismos is a religion of spoken prayers, offerings, and outward ritual which I perform daily in solitude, while Quakerism is a path of silent worship in groups, the two dovetail surprisingly well in my life. I was led to each in times of emotional turmoil. While I cannot always be sure what voice I am hearing in meeting for worship, I am able to more easily listen to my gods there then when I am pouring libations and reciting prayers as offerings. In fact, both are orthopraxic, focusing more on the practice than on the belief, and each requires discernment to tell what’s a sign (or message, in Quaker parlance), and what just an interesting coincidence or one’s own desires (the rush to interpret such as a message by a Quaker can be called “notional thinking”) be presumed to be more important than they really are.
- Didn’t you get a sign from Ares to follow Hellenismos? And now you’ve gone and joined one of the historic peace churches? That did happen, yes. Ares looks over my shoulder as I write, because he’s my gatekeeper god and reminds me of my faith. Having never been to war, and not seeing any benefit to the enterprise, I can relate to the fact that no small number of the offerings my ancestors made to him were likely to turn war away from their shores, because they wanted peace. I believe in peace, and there is a long tradition of asking Ares for peace. I don’t see a conflict here.
- But are you sure this isn’t just the first step down the slippery slope of betrayal of the Pagan community? On one hand, I haven’t a clue. I trust my gods. I listen to them. Jesus appeared to me exactly once during my years as a Christian, to tell me that he was cool with me giving him up so long as I didn’t give up the gods. Ares showed up to tell me that I had done just that, and to pull it together. This is my path, and I’m going to follow it towards wisdom, betterment of myself, and to serve them the best I can. On the other hand, ordinary Pagans probably come and go all the time without eliciting feelings of betrayal. I’m not Star Foster or Teo Bishop, I haven’t made waves, so I doubt anyone would feel personally wounded if I did leave Paganism . . . except for those gods I’ve sworn oaths to, of course.
- Aren’t oaths a problem for Quakers? My short answer to this is, “These aren’t the oaths you’re looking for.” The Quaker opposition is to swearing to tell the truth as in a court of law, because it creates a double standard of truth. I agree, so far as that narrow understanding of oath is concerned, but oaths signify much deeper commitments than truth-telling, and to reject them entirely is to throw the baby out with the bath water.
So I’ve gone and added another religion to my identity. I do so with humble respect for the long tradition into which I have been accepted, and with profound thanks to the gods who led me to attend a meeting in the first place. It may take me a lifetime to express in words what I know to be true: that this decision allows me to better serve gods and mortals alike.