Castles in the Air

John Halstead has published a characteristically provocative piece in which he calls out John Beckett about the advisedness of the so-called “polytheist revolution”. Please go read them both; this post won’t make a lot of sense without them.

I agree with Halstead completely on this matter, but for somewhat different reasons.

The first is cultivation of an appropriate sense of scale. Pagans generally and polytheists particularly are a handful of people on a multi-billion-person planet, and their so-called revolution is, therefore, mostly in their minds rather than in fact. I think it would behoove all of us to stop talking about world transformation as if it’s a thing we can actually do–it isn’t–and start focusing on culture-building and personal practices so that given generations, we may actually be able to make a dent in the mainstream culture. Beckett’s post seems to tip towards delusions of grandeur; let’s face it, we’re not going to see temples of myriad gods in our cities in this century, at least. Especially when no twenty Pagans seem to be able to get along well enough to support such an enterprise. In my opinion, that’s a pipe dream.

What we can do is be leaders and catalysts. To work in the trenches of public policy, work to change the nature of human economy, work to build community and kindness and resacralize the human experience of living.

Meanwhile, this century is all the marbles, when it comes to the reality of whether or not humans are going to continue to survive on sweet Planet Earth.

So let’s not kid ourselves, okay?

Beckett warns that “this-world concerns” could end up trumping the concerns of his gods. “When we don’t keep the Gods at the forefront of our practice, we put something else there,” he says…as if that is a bad thing.

There’s something larger than gods, John. Gods are ideas. I know you don’t believe that, but it is true nonetheless. Gods are human preoccupations, and there are much larger forces at play here than them.

Those who imagine gods cannot countenance the possibility that the gods can be extinguished. They predicate their existence on gods being eternal, fundamental, and beyond the vagaries of material influence.

But that’s not the reality here on Planet Earth. Here, it is entirely possible for humans to become extinct, and if/when they do, their gods will die with them, as will their art, their music, their language, their culture, their technology…everything that we thinks distinguishes us.

Beckett magnanimously pens, “There is room in our many ethnic and regional traditions for people for whom the Gods are secondary to community, Nature, or their own better selves.” But those, he says, are not the true leaders. “(T)he future of polytheism,” he says,”will be built by those who keep the Gods at the front of their practice.”

This is why the so-called “polytheist revolution” is a danger, Not because there is fundamentally a problem with believing in the imaginary, but because those who believe in the imaginary are also prone to believe in the fictitious concept of the eternal, and that that which cannot thrive eternally is therefore less important.

The whole ball of wax is in play right now. Between radical climate change, resource depletion, water and soil issues, crashing biodiversity and soaring population, we are up against it.

NOW.

And telling ourselves stories about inevitable destinies and eternal powers that can survive all that may be SOMA to some, but it’s not a formula for helping to pull us out of this mess.

The Earth is it. This material world is the alpha, the omega, the only home we will ever know, and the armature which supports the species that invented gods.

Believe in your gods, but get your priorities straight. THIS world, THIS biosphere, THIS human species and their survival are what will determine whether or not your gods survive.

THAT is the front-and-center. And if you are going to encourage your followers and sympathizers to be more focused on an idea than on this very real, very fragile world we live in today, you’ve lost me. You’ve lost my respect. Because you can spin your prayer wheels and make your offerings and burn your incense and invoke your gods and say your prayers and whatever else, and if you’re not doing real-world heavy-lifting to keep Spaceship Earth able to sustain human life, well, friend, you’re just wanking, frankly. You’re self-stimulating in a manner that feels like it’s doing something, but it isn’t.

We don’t have time for that, John. None of us has time for that. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

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12 thoughts on “Castles in the Air

  1. No, it may not. But you’re assuming all Heathens believe that an actual wolf will eat the sun. You’re confusing polytheist with literal fundamentalist. And you insist we all believe our Gods are eternal. Ragnarok is one piece of evidence we don’t. Also, as Celt, I do NOT believe my Gods are eternal, beyond Anu/Danu, who is the earth. Earth will survive; the question is can we as humans continue surviving on Her. My Gods can die, as sure as anyone else. They help motivate me to do good things for the planet, They help keep my feet to the fire when I grow tired, They remind me continuously that we are all interconnected and must work together to help the planet sustain all the creatures currently living on it. Putting my Gods first us nut the problem, since the single most important deity is Earth.

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    • Well, in your particular case, I see no problem, then. But when Beckett states that the gods must be front and center as a rule, that would apply to those for whom the Earth is not necessarily a god, or that important of one. It’s the rule I have a problem with, not necessarily all implementations of it.

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  2. This, btw, is intended to be my last blog post for some time on the ongoing Halstead/Beckett dialogue. The Pagan tent IS a big tent, and there are lots of people closer to my way of viewing things in it than those huddled ‘way over around the Deity pole. I’m growing less and less confident that it is possible to find common ground with some of those folks, as even when they are as genial as Beckett appears to be, it just doesn’t happen. Better, perhaps, just to focus on those more in line with my own thinking, and let the chips fall where they may.

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  3. What’s truly at risk is not humanity per se, in my opinion, but rather our high-tech global industrial civilization. What emerges from a collapse scenario? I imagine various theisms, including polytheism, will thrive on a post-apocalyptic Earth. I imagine humanism and naturalism are at much greater risk.

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  4. Is survival the only thing that matters? One of the most important and painful things I’ve learned from Hekate is that everything I see right now, everyone I care about, even the very planet I live on and its gods, will someday die. We do what we can to try to live long and happy lives, but at some point you have to come face to face with your own mortality and decide – what kind of life do I want to have, knowing that it WILL end?

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    • Absolutely. But survival of the individual is a very different thing than survival of the *species*. Our eradication of ourselves–while pulling down a giant chunk of the biological diversity of the planet–is not something just to nod wisely at. We have choices in the matter, and we need to make them. In my opinion, it is the ultimate form of narcissism to decide that the demise of our species is okay, so long as we can have a fun ride personally.

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      • The demise of our species is inevitable. As someone who believes the eternal is a fictitious concept, I’m sure you understand. When I said everything will someday die, I really did mean everything. I brought up the choices we have to make as individuals because I think the choices we have to make as a species are similar. Life is finite and precious, and while it’s important to take steps to sustain it, it makes no sense to devote all our energies to simply prolonging it if that means sacrificing everything that makes it worth prolonging. Survival matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters.

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      • Air conditioning, meat-centric diets, and zipping around the planet on airplanes might be examples of things that might have to be sacrificed for most people in the interest of sustainability. I don’t know that for a fact, just throwing it out there for a thought experiment. Would such sacrifices render our existence less than worthwhile? I don’t think so.

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