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: 


  1. Two things come to mind with this.
    First is- who gets to dictate whether the gods will like or dislike something. Tastes can change, and I'm sure the gods may have had some change in preference of the past couple thousand years. While its true we've got some basic staples to fall back on (at least, most traditions do), I think that it's safe to say that gods may have expanded their food repertoires since ancient times. Since discernment can be fickle, divinations can fail, gods can be fickle, and people can have conflicting experiences- I'm not really sure how anyone can really dictate what is right or wrong (in a modern context, historical references are another story) in offering to a deity, or possibly doing things for a deity.
    Second, I think there is a bit of a mismatch comparing this to math. Math is one of those things where it is very very very black and white. You either arrive at the correct answer, or not. This is more like writing or art- it's a bit of a subjective thing. And much like with writing and art, it's shades of color and grey, and not really easily broken down into right or wrong, at least from where I stand.
    I do believe that there are some things that can be labeled as right and wrong- for instance, we can say "that is not historically attested". But I don't know that we can necessarily break down modern practices into right and wrong, nor do I necessarily think it benefits our group to be overly critical of modern adaptation to our religions.

    1. There are really two issues here that you're conflating: what the gods like, and how to tell what the gods like. What the gods like (or at the very least, what a god wants from a specific person, since it might vary to some degree), is indeed a black and white situation, They either want something or not. Figuring that out, however, is a gray area simply because none of us are infallible diviners or discerners. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And if a particular preference is attested among a wide array of experienced devotees, we can probably safely say it is a new tradition, even if it wasn't represented in ancient practice.

    2. I was not saying that what a god is asking can't be black or white, so I'm not sure where you're getting that I'm saying that is the case? I'm saying that there is no one person who can 100% ascertain whether someone got the request right or wrong and that I wouldn't trust anyone to be so in tune to be able to judge whether someone else is "doing it right".

      I agree that we should obviously try to get it right- if you're not going to put effort into what you do, then you can't expect to get very far. However, the OP here, nor you, nor anyone can really tell if someone's actions towards the gods is "right" or not.

      I'm sure that many people in this area of the polytheist/pagan community might look at some of my practices and think that I have done no research, or am doing what suits me instead of the gods (blasphemy). But again, this is where it gets tricky- because for all anyone else knows, the gods did ask me to offer them a bag of Doritos. And that is what I am getting at- a practitioner may get the actual message from the gods correct. Maybe the gods are telling me that even though in the past, 2+2 was 4, in this instance, 2+2 is actually 7. And who is anyone else to say otherwise.

      So again, yes, the gods may have a black and white "I want X". And that there can be grey to ascertain what X is. But at the end of the day, no one else can dictate whether X was right or wrong with any amount of certainty, unless it's from a historical perspective. And that we can't base everything off of history because things change. We can pool our experiences together to get some possible commonalities, but there will still be things that happen that aren't common.

      And that, again, religion isn't math. It's not objective like math is.

    3. Hello, Von. In answer to your first question, the gods get to dictate whether or not they like something. Yes, tastes can and do change, or can be the same with new additions such as the inclusion of things that weren’t present in ancient times.

      Discernment is part talent, part skill, much like learning to be a concert pianist. I’ve recently wrote a post about discernment, if you’re interested.
      Divination succeeds if it is practiced by a person who has developed good discernment skills, and even better when performed by someone who has a connection with and practices daily devotion to the particular deity you’re interested in communicating with.

      Also, it is useful to keep in mind that it is not humans deciding what is a good offering to a deity, but the deity--when these actions (such as communication, prayer, devotion, and divination) are performed well. Can any concert pianist hit the wrong note? Of course. But as with any skill, the likelihood of that happening is reduced with practice, skill, and experience.

      The deities are an objective observable reality, just as oxygen and our need for it is an observable reality. This isn’t a matter of art versus science or vice versa, since there is much art in science and much science in art. Ask them and they will show you, and ask them to help you to see it clearly. They will do this if you will allow them to.

      There is no “grey area,” or “black and white” for that matter—for these are matters of taste to the deities, and they let people know what they will accept and/or like (sometimes what they accept and what they prefer may not be the same thing). The deities like something, kind of like something, prefer something else similar, or do not like something, and sometimes there is some negotiating that can go on. The problem arises when a person’s listening and communication with the deities is problematic.

      To this end, a person must practice discernment and devotion on a daily basis. If one cannot do this (and indeed many do not have the time, skills, and/or desire to do this), it is useful to seek an opinion from one who practices better communication skills with the deities, and better discernment. Even if one practices daily, sometimes one can seek a second opinion: this is useful, too.

    4. Von-- powdered sugar, wasabi peas, and bone white china with hand-painted blue periwinkles.

      I was baking something for a deity once, and I got the distinct impression that the deity in question did not like powdered sugar; when I asked another person if they knew anything of the matter, they confirmed for me that there had been an incident with powdered sugar, and that the deity did not like powdered sugar.

      Once I was shopping for a deity with friends who are very attuned to the deities. As one of my friends saw the bag of wasabi peas in my basket, she told me that she had almost picked some up for the same deity but wasn’t sure whether or not he would like them. Wasabi peas are not a traditional ancient offering to the deity in question. We had both received the same message—without any interference or collaboration—that the deity wanted wasabi peas. (So yes, your mention of a bag of Doritos has merit—this can happen.)

      In another instance, a deity told me something I profoundly did not want to hear, and I communicated something to the extent of “Why can’t we meet under better circumstances; why must it be bad news? For once, could you ‘give me a sign’ perhaps involving seeing fine bone china with handpainted blue periwinkles on tv?” That evening, I was watching a station known to be a gruff “man’s man’s” station (whatever stereotypes that involves), which played a coffee commercial featuring…fine bone china with handpainted blue periwinkles. I have never seen that commercial before or since, on any station.

      Mathematics is an observable phenomenon that ebbs and flows, and has patterns. Mathematics is a way of describing the universe. The deities comprise and make up the universe, and if math can describe in some limited fashion the ebb and flow universal forces, it is describing part of the deities’ very behaviors.

      These things happen: they are wondrous indeed, and are ever-present every-day miracles.

  2. I generally agree with what you're saying here, at least in theory, but in practice I run into some problems. Perhaps you can help me out.

    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.


    1. Hello, Amanda. My response to your good and earnest questions could not fit in a response box, so I made it into a post: