Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Finding A Good Messenger

I recently received a few good heartfelt questions from a reader. Ms. A writes:

“I have no problem with the idea of having priests or shamans who are experts on certain deities for laypeople to go to for these sorts of things. The problem is I don't actually know any that I trust enough to give me this sort of information. Oh sure, I've met tons of people who claim to be priestesses or shamans, but in the modern pagan community, pretty much anybody can say that. I've been involved with the modern pagan community for over ten years, and I've lost count of how many 'priests' or 'high priestesses' or 'shamans' I've met at festivals, meetups, and so on. It often doesn't take long to find out many of these people are charlatans or narcissists and really are the last people I'd want to go to for spiritual advice.
And this was long before blogging became a big deal. I'm talking about just "in real life", here. After years of this, I get online, and there are all these blogs of people claiming to be priests and shamans and spirtworkers and so forth. Of course, given my previous experience, I'm immediately skeptical. Having a blog online where you can get even more attention seems like just the thing these types of people I've met IRL would love to do.
So how does a layperson sort that out ? How do I know which people calling themselves clergy are the real deal, and worthy of trusting with something so important as my relationship with my gods, and which are the untrustworthy ones?
(And I want to make clear here that I'm not saying that YOU are one of these charlatans. I actually only know you from this blog, which means that I pretty much don't know you at all, so you may be the real deal. I really don't know. That's the problem.)
My second problem is that the primary deity I worship is actually a quite popular one. In some ways that's nice, because there's tons of information on Him, and I have no shortage of people I can find online who are dedicated to Him. But what do I do when they conflict? If the deities are objective reality, they shouldn't conflict. I'm a biology professor, so I know how objective science works. The reason that the theory of evolution is accepted as fact is because all the evidence consistently points to it being true.
But what if one priest says deity X likes this, and another says actually deity X likes something completely opposite? How do I know which to believe? The name of my deity is actually used by some groups that are neo-Nazis and white supremacists, something I find completely abhorrent. But how do I know that they don't have the right idea, and my deity really does agree with all that, and those of us who are against all that are the ones who have it wrong?
The Christians already have a problem with this. Some say their deity is loving and compassionate, others say their deity wants wars and genocide. I'm afraid as modern paganism grows, we're just going to have more and more of this problem. Atheists sometimes use this as evidence that the Christian god isn't real, because if He was, He would be consistent. And to be honest, I can see where they're coming from.
I hope you understand what I mean here, because I really would like to have clergy I could trust. But then again I think of things like the Catholic Church's sex abuse problem. If a religion that organized can't manage to weed out untrustworthy priests, I don't see how modern paganism/polytheism is going to.”
Please let me know if I’m condensing this accurately: you’re feeling skeptical; you want to know of the priests, shamans and so on, who is the real deal; you see having a blog as a possibility for attention/self-inflation; what about conflict amidst priests; and what about problems regarding consistency with deities and their messages. This is a great deal of territory to cover in one post; I know I won't cover everything here, but I'll give it a go.

Skepticism is a healthy thing in that it can give us some space in which to view events and occurrences. However, skepticism can become a lens through which one views everything, even to the extent of casting doubt on what is known. For instance, a person can be skeptical to a fault: just because his feet have never touched the roundness that is a spherical earth, and just because he has never personally seen earth from outer space, the hardened skeptic might refuse to acknowledge the reality of the earth being spherical. That the earth is a sphere is an observable phenomenon, but for him to experience this he has to take the word of specialists in the field, be taught and learn to observe the phenomenon himself, or both.  The trick is in learning to navigate skepticism so it is helpful, but suspending it lightly so it will not become a hindrance. That’s a tricky tightrope walk, and it’s something we all somehow have to learn how to do in an era, in places, and in cultures that promote a skepticism about the deities that actually prevents us from seeing them, from seeing life-as-it-is, and from observing as life simply unfolds. This is a process of discernment.

As for a blog being a place for attention and/or self-inflation, that is always a possibility, however I would rank it typically a remote one. I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen ever:  it does happen. It is just that there are far, far more blogs that this does not happen to. Most blogs often find themselves in cricket-quiet cobwebbed corners of the internet, read more by friends, families, and coworkers on an occasional basis. For instance, even though you’re seeing my blog now and reading it (and I thank you!), this doesn’t mean that I have wide circulation. Also, just because a blog may have a number of “blog followers” also does not guarantee that it is being read frequently. But, this is superfluous, I think, to the matters you would like me to more fully address: figuring out when a priest or a shaman is actually doing his/her job well.

One of the issues you raise is that of inconsistencies regarding the deities, as in when you mention how the messages from the Christian deity/ies get garbled and appears incongruent. These inconsistencies stem not from the deities themselves, but from a faulty receiver.* Two radios can pick up on the same radio signal with the same message, but if one radio is a bad receiver all the listener will hear on the other end is a broken message and static. There isn’t a question as to whether or not the announcer is inconsistent: the announcer is simply giving the message, and the announcer can give the same message in a multitude of different ways from adding jingles, different allegories or illustrations, and different verbal expressions or emotions, and so on, in hopes of delivering a message the listener will understand well…but it is the same message at heart. If the radio doesn’t pick up that message well, or has difficulty in sending that through the speakers so the listener can hear it, there could be a problem with the radio.

There can also be problems with the person who listens to the radio: if a person is in the same room, she can hear a message on the radio clearly, but if she is in a different room or doing something loud like running a vacuum cleaner, she won’t hear the radio well or the message that the radio is playing. Maybe she was too involved in other activities to actually sit and listen fully to the message, or maybe she listened to the message with her own thoughts getting in the way or biasing the message one way or another. Our own thoughts often get in the way of listening. How often have we asked someone how his day is, then mentally focused more on what we wanted to say about our own day? Bias gets in the way when we tweak a message this way or that in accordance to what we may prefer to hear. All of us do these things, which is why practicing discernment and praying for guidance are practices of tremendously good use…for everyone.

In this illustration above, the radio announcer and radio signal is a deity, the announcement is the deity’s message, the radio is a priest, shaman, oracle, diviner, and so on (a messenger), and the person listening to the radio is a layperson.

There are two matters interwoven in this issue. How does a layperson know if the messenger is picking up the best, most accurate transmission from a deity and transmitting that message well? And how does the layperson know if she has received the message well from the messenger? Let’s look at the second matter, that of a layperson receiving a message, first and then come back around to the other matter of finding a good messenger.

For the layperson receiving the message transmitted by the messenger, the layperson must ask herself: Does she know the deities to be living and extant as individual beings beyond the confines of a mind, and as such acknowledge the deities as a part of objective observable reality? And if so, does she fully realize that the deities can communicate and do communicate with people?  These questions sometimes appear on the surface to have quick answers but they actually require time, honesty, contemplation, and prayer. Sometimes the questions even require a good deal of personal development and a soul-deep change.  Without this effort, it is difficult for a person to accept the possibility that any messenger anywhere could deliver any message from any deity ever—and that mindset will never allow her to see the wide selection of functioning “radios” all around her. It would be like our skeptic above who could not accept the reality of a spherical earth.  Working with discernment can help a layperson with these questions and begin to redevelop what we have lost since our removal away from our ancient polytheistic ways. Coming into this state is preparation to finding a good radio, being in the same room as the radio with the radio on and tuned in, the vacuum cleaner turned off, and the mind ready to listen clearly.  This is an ongoing process that ebbs and flows in life, and it isn’t just the messenger who has to do the homework—a layperson has responsibilities to the deities and to their messengers, too. When one goes through this part of the work, it helps pave the way for finding a good messenger.

Once the layperson has overcome her own hurdles to listening to a divine message from a messenger, it is useful to find a good messenger. To begin this journey, prayer is useful. One can petition the deities for guidance on the matter, that they will send a good messenger and/or bring oneself into contact with a good messenger, and ask for the deities to help oneself to know when this has happened.  When a person is looking, there are a few things to keep in mind.  A priest, shaman, messenger, has to be “clean”** and live in a good relationship with the primary deities that s/he works with and for. Some outward signs to look for or inquire about include the maintenance of taboos, guidelines, or restrictions. Most priests, shamans, and messengers observe some kind of taboos, restrictions, and guidelines that they must maintain anywhere from eating or not eating certain foods, wearing certain colors or clothing, personal grooming issues such as hair cutting, having a daily regimen of devotional observances, and so on. (However, these are only outward signs of what is going on with the priest or shaman inwardly: it should be cautioned that just picking up a few taboos, prayers, or clothing restrictions does not make a person a messenger of the gods, so in one’s search for a messenger, dig a little deeper. And on the other hand, if any one of my readers claims “Yeah but Ms. Tess says I can be a priest if I just have a few taboos and stuff, so I now have a taboo on picking belly button lint and I quit eating artichokes on Tuesdays!” I will rain upon them a scathing glare. Feeeeeel it buuuurn.)

Any messenger will be able to give concrete examples of how the deities have been present in their lives and the lives of others. Sometimes if a person is sensitive, and a clear conduit herself, and practicing discernment, she may feel something different about their presences from the presences of other people, feel different when in their presences, or sense an extra presence(s) near them. Sometimes weird things happen around them: sometimes electrical problems; sometimes erratic or calming behaviors in wildlife, little children, and the elderly; sometimes different bodily sensations such as heat, cold, comfort, or discomfort; sometimes animals or insects appearing; coincidences; sometimes constantly running into or hearing about the person; sometimes dreaming about the person; sometimes a particular song keeps playing; and so on. Look for the little things. If there’s something you see as unusual which crops up around the person, pay attention to it and take it into consideration, even if it seems really small and really insignificant. You can also ask about the person in question or if the person keeps a blog, read up on their recent works.

It's helpful to keep in mind that some messengers can cross-train with many different deities across more than one pantheon, but many tend to have deities and/or pantheons from whom they will hear better. Many messengers can pick up messages from almost any deity at any time particularly if that deity must make herself known, but messengers typically cannot pick up on messages from every deity all of the time, and most will have particular deities with whom they are more competent and compatible.

When a messenger is the  “real deal,” things occur—anything from the spectacular to the everyday miracles: look for these signs, and have (or ask the deities for) the openness to see the signs for what they are. But don’t expect a messenger to constantly agree or validate feelings: this is not their job. Their job is in communicating what the deities want a person to hear, communicating to the deities what a person wants to tell the deities, or both. And that process doesn’t often involve a bobble-head yes.

When I speak of everyday miracles, say for instance Cass has problems at work—his boss wants him to do something that Cass finds unethical and Cass has to figure out whether or not to go along with it or start looking for another job. Cass has told no one, and not even his coworkers are aware of what’s going on. In the meantime, Cass had the opportunity to pose his question to an oracle (a messenger): “Should I go along with what my boss wants or not?” He receives what to him at the time is a cryptic response—the deity, through the oracle, says: “You will know what to do about this matter when you see the rainbow.” Cass thinks “Yeah, great. That was so not helpful.” Yet one day the next week, it pours down rain and Cass has to take a detour because his usual route home is flooded. On the detour, the skies clear and he looks up to see a rainbow. When he sees the rainbow, he also observes a large billboard, an athletic shoe ad with a dramatic close up of a foot in a shoe and the slogan “Do the right thing.” Cass decides at that moment that “the right thing” means finding another job…and…he also realizes that he knew what to do about the matter when he saw the rainbow, just like the oracle said. Sometimes it is all about the miraculous hurled thunderbolts and disembodied voices, but more often it’s about the everyday miracles. In this way, too, our guinea pig Cass realized that the oracle, the messenger, was a good one. Sometimes these seeming-riddles resolve themselves swiftly, as it did for Cass, but sometimes they can take years to puzzle out—that’s part of the lesson, and part of the journey.

This finding of good priests, shamans, spiritworkers, diviners, and messengers is also a process that ebbs and flows with life, so it may help to remember that we’re speaking of dynamic (not static) forces at work. The deities, the messengers, and the laypeople—all of these beings are in a state of flux and change, ebb and flow and interrelatedness, so once a person reaches a conclusion, she should consider that this may not be the same conclusion or decision she will have for the rest of her life. For instance, a layperson decides to go with Priest Q, and this works for a long period of time but Priest Q goes through a rocky point where he cannot serve the way he had or he needs a sabbatical, or a different deity calls him, or he is going through some private difficulties which have his attention, or he is ill, or he is not the clear channel he once was—these matters can change. He can be just as efficient or more so tomorrow or a year from now than he was last week, or he could wane in efficiency. Or the listener herself is having a rough time with things going on in her life which make it difficult for her to accept and listen to a message. Thus the process  beings again or modifies as needs present themselves. As always one should pray for guidance, and one can ask for the messenger to pray for oneself as well.

What thoughts would you, dear reader, like to share with Ms. A about these matters...?

*The trump to this matter is trickster gods and/or gods of chaos. If one of these beings is communicating, then what looks as an inconsistency is perhaps part of the message. So we have to keep this as a possibility like a juggler keeps a ball in the air.

**What is “clean” to Dionysos may not be clean to Apollo. Clean can but doesn’t necessarily mean a state of physical cleanliness. The kind of “clean” I speak of here has more to do with the messenger being a clean channel for a deity—like a straw that is open and has no blockages. Especially if you are receiving a message through oracle work, sometimes this means that the spiritworker doing the oracle work cannot interpret or add anything  to what appears on the surface to be a riddle.

Image Notes: Picture of a radio by Sindre Skrede, released into Public Domain. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Praxis and "You're Doing it Wrong"

2 + 2 = 7 Right?
Of course not. 2 + 2 = 4

If a person were to ask me if two plus two equals seven, I would tell her that no, it does not: two plus two equals four. If a person were to ask me if certain practices in honoring certain deities were correct, I would try to answer as best I could—and sometimes that means with a “no.” The question of praxis, religious practice and performing duties towards the deities, has come up time and again. Many folks become quite heated at the suggestion that sometimes religious practices in honor of the deities can be done inaccurately. But let's take a moment to breathe, to unpack this subject, and to take a look at it.

There are some matters which are observable realities, such as human beings breathing oxygen. Deities are one of these observable realities. The deities do not exist only in the mind of those who would worship them. To think that they only exist in the mind, and especially to carry this opinion without fully realizing it, can lead to overly-relativistic thinking. (An “anyone’s reality is right because it is his reality and others should respect his reality as fully real” perspective.) It doesn’t matter if one believes the world is truly flat when observation can demonstrate that it is not. If when one believes that one is hearing the deities speak, but one is hearing useful advice that one would give oneself anyway, the chances are high that the deities may not be saying all of what one is hearing. This is where divination or speaking with an elder, a shaman, and/or a priest can be of aid, especially if this action is coupled with practicing discernment.

As the deities are objective reality, it follows that they have desires, designs, and preferences that are observable. Conscious beings have an external existence unrelated to our own minds and have their own preferences. For example: like everyone else, I have images in my head of my friends and my detractors. These images in my mind are a reflection of my own opinions and experiences of them. As such, the conversations I may create and have with these images are going to be different from engaging with the real conscious beings. For example, without objective observation and without realizing that my friend is a conscious living being that is not the same as the image I have of her in my head, I run the risk of thinking she really likes something when she really doesn’t, and that situation potentially leads to a birthday gift disaster in which I would give her something she hates. The same can happen with any conscious beings of any order in varied degrees from animals (including pets), to humans, to deities.

This is the same matter with praxis. Sometimes a deity likes some things and sometimes a deity doesn’t. If a deity doesn’t like something and a person does it anyway, then yes, the person is “doing it wrong.”  For those who would insist that I should apologize here: I cannot apologize for this any more than I could apologize for pointing out that two plus two does not equal seven. 

It's ok if someone makes a mistake in praxis because the person usually has the chance to correct the action and to learn from the experience.  Any number of things can happen if a person does something amiss. Sometimes a deity is kind and will forgive, sometimes a deity will ignore, sometimes a deity will guide the person (or try to depending on how open the person is to guidance), sometimes a person can get cosmically swatted (often in the form of “bad luck” abounding), and so on. It depends on the deity, and it depends on what the person did. Doing something poorly distances a person from a deity, but in that very moment of distance a person has the greatest chance of growth and of coming into a closer relationship with a deity when the person corrects his or her actions. However, consistently and willfully doing something wrong can lead to a permanent lack of communication or even a rift in relations with a deity.

In the case of a student learning math, a helpful teacher aids the student in realizing that two plus two equals four, not seven, not twenty-two, not four hundred twelve, and so on. A helpful teacher does not degrade or embarrass the student for misunderstandings, honest mistakes, or a lack of knowledge. I think that it is important for a few of us polytheists to realize that since our traditions are so broken and in the process of reestablishment, we must assume that the lack of knowledge is profound everywhere and therefore there is no base of common knowledge. When either teacher or student engages in emotions of anger or victimization about the matter of praxis-gone-awry, it can signal to the one who feels this way that a moment of introspection may be useful, especially in regards to into what opinions, prior memories and hurts, old habits and patterns, and subconscious subroutines of the mind are playing out.

However, a good teacher might also admonish a student if necessary if the student has demonstrated knowledge as to what the answer to the problem is but insists that in his reality two plus two equals four hundred twelve. Just because “two plus two equals four hundred and twelve” is the student’s perception of reality does not mean that the teacher has to indulge the student’s perception if it is way off the mark, and indeed doing so could be detrimental. A person can be respected even if his faulty perception of reality is not indulged. 

Image Notes: 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ham and Cholent, A Parable

Once upon a time in a small town that boasted four stoplights and a two-story brick meeting hall/church, two neighbors lived. Christina had lived in the town most of her life, but Judy had moved in only a few years ago. The town had tried to make Judy feel welcome and had Christian drop off pre-printed pamphlets inviting Judy to town hall meetings and suppers. Christina would stick these in between the screen door and the front door while Judy was at work, but Christina never seemed to catch Judy at home. It was always the wrong time. By the time Christina would see Judy’s car was in the driveway, Christina would be skillet-deep in making dinner, or fingers covered in glue on a scrapbook project, or she was sweaty from an evening jog.

Every second Tuesday of the month would roll around, and Christina would go to the town hall meetings and suppers, and she would hope to see Judy. One such evening, over the customary ham dinner and all the trimmings made to 100-year-old recipes handed down from the town’s founding couple, Christina’s friend urged her to make the extra effort to go invite Judy face-to-face. Christina thought this was a good idea.

The next month rolled around and again, each time Christina thought about knocking on Judy’s door, something would come up. The second Tuesday rolled around too fast and Christina resolved knock on Judy’s door that evening. She watched for Judy’s car to pull into the driveway and she waited for Judy to go in the house before she walked next door. Her hesitant finger jabbed the white button and the doorbell sounded throughout the bungalow. Judy came to the door, still dressed in her khaki business suit, but in her stocking feet.

“I know this is really short notice but there’s a meeting and dinner at the town hall tonight…I’d love it if you came.”

“Oh. I just got off work.”

“I put a flier at the door last week.”

“That was you? I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t know if it was something everyone got or if you wanted me to come along or what. I’m sorry. I just got off of work and it was a rough day.” Judy hesitated for a moment. Her feet ached from being on them all day and her head was starting to ache too.

“Yeah, that was me!” Christina smiled warmly. “So you’re coming, right?”

Judy really didn’t want to go and had wished that instead of assuming she’d go along, that Christina had instead asked, “How are you today?” and followed up with “I can understand tough days at work. If you’re not feeling up to it tonight, you are welcome to come to the next one.” But Christina was extending an overture of friendship and Judy did want to take her up on her offer. Together they walked, despite Judy’s protesting feet and stiff business clothes, a block over to the meeting hall.

Everyone shook Judy’s hand and greeted her, some complementing her on the flower garden she tended in her front yard. The all made small talk, introducing themselves, hobbies, jobs, asking each other about relatives, who’s in the hospital, how are the kids, did that couple ever take that vacation to Arizona yet? Much of the conversation was such that Judy couldn’t join in, but she expected that and was patient. The business meeting lasted all of fifteen minutes as they intermittently discussed the timers on their stoplights. Afterwards, they gathered around a table laden with their traditional ham dinner and all the trimmings.

Judy sighed inwardly. She couldn’t touch the dinner. There was so much conversation going on around her that she hadn’t been able to warn them ahead of time that she was Jewish and kept kosher laws—and that ham was specifically off the menu. They begged her to take a bite, but they never paused in conversation. All Judy could get in was “I’m sorry, I’m just not hungry,” Though her stomach growled loudly. The time could not pass fast enough. Eventually everyone said good night. Christina walked with Judy home and asked her why she didn’t eat. Judy had only time enough to explain that she was Jewish and that she didn’t eat pork. Christina assured Judy that they’d try to do something different next time and she urged Judy to come to another meeting.

The next month passed again. A few days before the meeting, Christina talked to the ladies who cooked and told them that Judy couldn’t eat pork; she asked the ladies to cook up something different. The ladies protested, “But this is how we’ve always done it. Everybody eats this. It’s good food! She’s turning up her nose at our town founders’ recipes. How rude! Besides, why is she so special that we have to make something different just for her?” But Christina calmed them down, and told them that she would cook. She had just the right thing. Judy couldn’t eat pork, so Christina had clipped this marvelous beef stroganoff recipe she found in a magazine.

Christina had told Judy just to meet her over at the hall, for she would be helping with the cooking. The meeting again took about fifteen minutes and covered the town’s fundraising raffle. They gathered around the table, and Judy planned on declining dinner again, but hoped that her presence would help support the goodwill they wanted to share. They passed the dishes—the ham, the buttery potatoes, and Christina’s stroganoff. Christina noticed that Judy didn’t take a bite of the stroganoff, either. The cooking ladies stared at Judy, special little snowflake Judy, through their slitted eyes.

On the way back home, after an awkward silence, Christina said, “You didn’t eat anything.”

“Yes. I abide by kosher laws. I’m not as strict as some people about it, but there are some things that I can eat, and some things that I can’t eat together at the same meal.”

“I thought you just didn’t eat pork.”

“No, there’s more to it than that.”

“You didn’t eat the stroganoff.”

“It has milk and meat together in it. I can’t eat dairy and meat together at the same meal.”

Christina said: “It sounds complicated. You should have explained more about your food issues.”

Judy said, “You were providing hospitality. You could have spent five minutes and looked up ‘Jewish’ and ‘food’ online, or you could have posted a question on Facebook.”
Each one of them fell silent for a moment as they realized that they both could have made a better effort.

Christina said, “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight.”

Judy said, “Me either. I know you put a lot of effort into that meal; thank you. How about I show up next time and I bring a dish I can eat and share, like potluck.”

Christina brightened, “Yes, that’s a great idea!”

So the next meeting rolled around and Judy arrived with her snap-tight crockpot in hand filled with hot, fragrant cholent, and balanced on top of the lid was a fresh loaf of bread. So it wasn’t Shabbat, but Judy couldn’t resist the siren song of challah dipped in the spiced stew. She was excited to share with her neighbors at the meeting. But tragedy struck. At the dinner, when Christina went to serve herself some cholent, she used the same serving utensil that she had used on ham. Now, even Judy couldn’t eat her own meal, and no one else bothered. Christina loved it though, and asked for the recipe. Judy uncomfortably realized that mixing and matching dinners was not going to work.

On the way home, Judy asked Christina what the problem was with the other neighbors, for they had avoided her and her cooking.

“Oh. Them.” Christina said. “They, uh. Well. They were annoyed that you didn’t eat anything that they cooked. They thought that you were being snobby.”


“Hey, relax. It’s just their problem. Don’t take it personally. The ham dinner has been traditional for a long time here—the recipes were even handed down from the town’s founders. Just give them time.”

Judy didn’t want to give them time. They hadn’t bothered to understand her concerns and they didn’t respect her religion. But there was another problem too, she was “new” and they were just doing things the same as they had done from the beginning. Being “new” she realized that they expected her to conform to their ways, and not to bring her own ways, regardless of her own religious convictions—and why shouldn’t they? This was their meeting; she was the stranger. She didn’t want to be so much trouble, so she didn’t go to the next meeting. The problem was that when next meeting rolled around, they thought she was snubbing them completely. They thought they had been open, welcoming, and inclusive by extending their invitation to Judy; it was Judy they saw as slapping away a kindhearted hand.

Then followed four more awkward weeks of conversations that would end abruptly around her, accompanied with curious stares and occasional glares. Judy figured she should nip this nonsense, and her best way to do so was to help educate Christina, since sometimes they would listen to her. Judy invited Christina to an evening dinner at the synagogue.

Christina, delighted, took her up on the invitation, “Great! Besides, how different can it be from regular church?”

Judy sighed. “Regular church? What do you mean?” Although Judy kind of knew what Christina meant and didn’t hold much hope for the rest of the conversation.

“Christianity came from Judaism, so how different can they be? I’m sure there’s lots in common.”

Judy rubbed her temples. “Uh, there are plenty of differences too. And sometimes what looks like the same on the surface really isn’t when you consider the deeper meaning, practices, and symbolism involved.”
Christina just nodded her head; but she determined otherwise.

It’s easier to accept things that seem the same rather than accept the differences. It’s easier to forge a “common ground” by molding differences into one common template instead of forging that common ground on a commonly held respect for difference.

At the synagogue dinner, Christina made an effort to create a common ground from things she thought they had in common. She pointed out that the star of David comprises of two triangles, and the triangle was a symbol of the Trinity, so it was amazing that Christianity was a part of Judaism. Judy furrowed her brow and tried to explain that the Magen David, the Shield of David, didn’t have anything to do with the Christian Trinity. Judy insisted that it did, or that it at least could, and wasn’t it great that they could come together on common ground? Judy furrowed her brow again. Christina thought to herself, “I’m really trying here. Why won’t she meet me in the middle?”

Christina helped herself to the roasted chicken at the dinner and silently mulled on the idea that it would be so much better if it were smothered in thick creamy gravy. She thought about asking for the chicken recipe, too, for she wanted to try it at home and douse it in her gravy. It occurred, though for her to ask Judy: “Why do you avoid mixing milk and meat?”
“We have rules against it.”

“But why? It seems a bit backward. I mean, if it was because of milk and meat food storage problems, we don’t have those problems nowadays.” What Christina wanted to say was that “It seems superstitious and unenlightened,” but she knew that wasn’t the best way to frame the matter. After all, she wanted to help her new friend move into the twenty-first century.

Judy however, in the word “backward” could hear the unspoken words “superstitious and unenlightened.” There was no twenty-second sound bite she could possibly put together to describe the nuances and symbolism of these holy, deep-seated practices. She could only simply say, “It is our way and I ask you that even if you do not understand it, please try to respect it. I can answer some questions, but I don’t know if you’re up for a weekend Kosher 101 workshop—and even if you did, you still would not know everything there is to know about our religious food practices. If you really want to know, it would require years of patient and willing study to understand the matter.”

Christina shrugged, and thought that maybe the cooking ladies were right: Judy was being elitist by not sharing information instantly and breaking it down into little absorbable pieces. Maybe Judy just didn’t realize how superstitious and backwards it was, so she hadn’t answered the question because she didn’t want to think about it then look bad. Or, Judy wasn’t even trying to help her understand. She had thought Judy was her friend…

Judy thought to herself, “I’m doing all I can to help her understand, but there’s some work there that she’s going to have to do herself before she will understand. I’m only one person. I haven’t time to give free lectures on the entirety of Judaism, or even on something as intense and complex as kosher laws to an entire town who already refuses to listen to an explanation. Or worse, to neighbors who force my explanations into a common symbolism that doesn’t exist instead of respecting them on their own. They’re not listening clearly anyway. I thought Christina was my friend…”

And the tale continues…

This is a story, only a story, and as such, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” It is, however, meant to illustrate some of the difficulties polytheists have when entering into some interfaith situations with Pagans, but I put the tale in the context of Christians and Jews because this is a familiar context to many, and it gives Pagans and polytheists the opportunity to consider these similar issues in another context before applying them to interfaith matters between Pagans and polytheists. It is a way to step back and look at the situation in a different manner; an opportunity to step away from trenches and into to conversation. The tale is a metaphor that has to do with respect and interfaith effort in action. Food taboos, Judaism, or Christianity are mere vehicles, symbols, which carry metaphor and provide the activities in which we can examine respect and interfaith efforts. However, the kosher laws, Christianity, and Judaism are not the crux of the metaphor. (Remember, metaphor means something is like something else. "The snow glistened like sugar" does not mean that the snow is sugar. If you don't believe me, please feel free to test this theory. Well, technically, since this phrase uses "like" or "as", it is actually a simile more so than a metaphor, but they belong in the same family of techniques of comparison.) The tale provides a hypothetical scenario in which we can place ourselves and examine our thoughts regarding our actions, emotions, and patterns around respect and interfaith effort in an environment which has nothing to do with Pagans and polytheists--and in this way, I hope to allow space for a Pagan or a polytheist consider these matters. Instead of a Christian, a Jew, and kosher laws, I could have used a squirrel and a frog, and tree taboos.

In the tale, Christina thinks she’s going out of her way to be helpful and solicitous to Judy, but her efforts are not as good as she thinks because she doesn’t realize just how different Judy’s ways are. Judy has a difficult time explaining to Christina these differences because she knows how vast the divide that separates them, and she also has a hunch that Christina doesn’t realize it. Judy struggles to navigate her religious practices in different situations, and she’s met with the cooking ladies’ misinterpretation and hostility. All Judy’s trying to do is to honor her God(s) and her religion in a situation that is every bit as awkward to Judy as it is to Christina and the people at the meeting. Consider for a moment that this is what happens when a polytheist goes to a Pagan gathering that tells her that she is welcome: only this time, it isn’t just food differences but experiences, traditions, lore, rites, and even more.

Christina dipped a utensil that had been used to serve pork in the cholent. Should Judy have told her not to do that? Probably, but there are so many do’s and don’t’s that she takes for granted and navigates, that it didn’t occur to her to say something. Should Christina have bothered to look up a little bit more about kosher laws? Probably, but she took it for granted that she already knew what she needed to know, and that Judy would inform her if she was remiss. In this instance, there was a lack of information flowing, and neither Judy nor Christina realized just how deep was Christina’s lack of knowledge or efforts to fill that lack of knowledge. Christina may not have even known what questions to ask Judy about the matter…but it’s Christina’s responsibility to try to ask questions, even as Judy tries to tackle the matters as they present themselves. At the end of the day, Judy’s not a mind reader and cannot answer unasked questions.

When Christina is confronted with kosher laws at the synagogue, she thinks that these ways are “backwards”--she doesn’t respect them, and therefore views the matter as insignificant despite it being of major importance. Notice again how Christina tried to make the Star of David into something that reflected her own ideology. This is similar (not the same, but similar) to what a polytheist faces when bringing non-polytheists to their religious gatherings: sometimes our ways are viewed as backwards, or are reenvisioned in the eye of the non-polytheist to reflect a symbolism not present in the polytheist’s situation, and then used as a “common ground.” That reenvisioning can take a variety of different forms--symbolic approach, or it’s hammered instead into a failed attempt at armchair psychology, or armchair psychology used in place of religion.

I’ve heard eye-witness accounts of non-polytheist visitors unknowingly disrespecting a polytheist rite out of these sorts of misunderstandings. (Example: A visitor doesn’t bow towards the deities’ images at a rite and furthermore takes it upon herself to explain at the rite how misguided and backwards were the people who genuflected. Yes, this really happened. This is the same—and even worse--as dipping a pork-covered utensil into a Jewish kosher dish. There may have been no malicious intent, but harm is done anyway.)

Christina, a fictional character, is not a bad person. Her greatest folly lies in her lack of knowledge…and in her failure to realize how big that lack of knowledge is. Her second misstep is in trying to make things the same in order to accept them: things do not have to be the same for them to be respected. One doesn’t have to understand something for it to be, and for it to be important. Lastly, she pushes the responsibility for her lack of knowledge onto another person. Recall that this is metaphor and fiction here: not all Pagans are Christinas.

Judy, a fictional character, is also not a monster. Her greatest problem is in thinking that there is a standard basis of knowledge that people already have. Her challenges lay in the townspeople misunderstanding and misinterpreting her actions, and in being only one person without the time or the resources to educate a village about her religion. She can do what she can do, but at the end of the day, it will never be enough and her efforts will still be confronted with misinterpretation and a veil of preconceived notions. Recall again that this is metaphor and fiction here: not all polytheists are Judys.

My point is this, dear reader, if you are still with me in this long post: interfaith efforts are difficult when the gulf between us is overlooked, misunderstood, or even reenvisioned as similarity. Interfaith efforts between Pagans and polytheists are also problematic when both sides fail to realize that they are not part of the same movement, ideology, or religion, and when either side assumes a common basis of knowledge. If either side forgets or ignores these matters, and speaks as if Pagans and polytheists belonged in the same familial category, then Pagans and polytheists view interactions between the groups through a lens of perceived similarity. Feelings of betrayal can arise when those similarities prove absent. Misinterpretations and miscommunications abound after that, and no real interfaith communication can arise in that environment.

Image Notes:
Still Life with Ham by Ferenc Ujhazy, 1870. Painting in Public Domain.