Tuesday, February 19, 2008
When I first joined AODA over a year ago and began its self-guided home study course for the First Degree, I was thrilled to find a community that seemed so in touch with all those things I had valued in my own spiritual life up until that point, while at the same time providing both the wise instruction and varied experience of its older members to help me pursue both familiar and new work even further. The clincher, though, was its accepting embrace of monotheistic and pan(en)theistic, as well as polytheistic, approaches to the concept of Spirit. Unlike the impression of strict, almost angry insistence on polytheism that I sensed from ADF and the Celtic Reconstructionists, AODA--and in particular, its Archdruid--seemed to take a truly tolerant attitude towards practitioners who found meaning and value in Christian ideas and beliefs. More than this, I found several members of the AODA who actively and effectively worked to blend their Catholic heritage with their Druidic work. The thought of kindred souls who had delved as deeply into the Christian Mysteries as I hoped to and had found a path, through Christianity, that joined so wonderfully with the Druidic emphasis on nature, sacred experience and creative work was quite encouraging!
Recently, however, I read Greer's book, A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism, and much to my dismay and continued frustration, found it to be full of the very same misconceptions about Christianity and monotheism that I had turned me off to other Pagan communities. This book proved to be not so much an inquiry into polytheism and its role in the spiritual life, as an opportunity for yet another disillusioned polytheist to present his argument for why monotheism was a monolithic, homogeneous religious movement that, throughout its entire history, had supposedly embodied the worst of Medieval ignorance, fear and superstition, compounded by Victorian-Era sexual prudery and repressive social etiquette. This view of monotheism was presented without regard to the complex, multifaceted and often spiritually fruitful reality of the actual living faith of both historical and modern believers. When Greer does discuss polytheism directly, it is only to point out how its most important aspects (personal experiences of the sacred, the use of mythology as meaning-making, the role of giving and mutual love between mankind and deity, etc.) apparently are nowhere to be found in monotheism.
Ever since reading this book, I have been reeling between indignation and the overwhelming urge to go page by page and correct his vast number of misunderstandings and misrepresentations. The latter, of course, is always my response when someone makes sweeping claims about a tradition or social group that I myself have experienced firsthand and know personally to be more subtle and complicated than they suppose. It helps to mitigate this urge when I remind myself that much of his "enlightened" polytheistic theology I had come to understand on my own, long before discovering modern Druidry, through the contemplation and struggle to incorporate specifically Christian myths and doctrines into my own spiritual life. It also helps to remember that I have already addressed some of these misunderstandings in my series, Modern Myths about Christianity, the title of which is not meant to be ironic, but to point out how the "evils of monotheism" tale is as much a particular mythical construct (with, as usual, occasional seeds of truth) as the myth of Progress or the fundamentalist obsession with the mythology of monotheistic hegemony.
My indignation, meanwhile, is really just a self-defense response to the painful shock that someone so obviously well-studied in certain aspects of Paganism and magic, someone I had come to trust as fair and sincere in his purported tolerance for all approaches to Divinity, could so blatantly fail to give as much unbiased study to traditions he does not agree with as he gives to those with which he does. What in polytheism he calls paradox and mystery, within monotheism suddenly become illogical impositions of dogma. While the modern Pagan movement is, he rightly claims, a response to certain dissatisfying aspects of modern Judeo-Christian culture, the historical development of monotheism itself is portrayed as an insidious plot by the powerful to repress a spiritual tradition that had, until then, left no spiritual need unfulfilled. There is no chance, according to Greer, that the Christian habit of theological contemplation was a genuine response to a real need for more unifying, if more challenging, approaches to the numinous in its varied manifestations; there is no chance that the mythology of Judeo-Christian culture can be as satisfying, inspiring or metaphorical as the mythology of ancient paganism; and it would be absolutely ridiculous, apparently, to claim that Christians, Jews and Muslims have honest-to-goodness real experiences of a meaningfully personal, "ground of being" God, however paradoxical or "illogical" such an experience might seem, and furthermore that these experiences, not merely coldly reasoned doctrine, have led monotheists to an understanding of deity that is, in its essence, markedly different from the polytheist's definition.
Throughout his discussion of monotheism, Greer conveniently ignores two vitally important aspects of monotheism (at least the monotheism in which I was raised): mystery, and humility. He returns again and again to the objection that monotheists are inevitably caught in the trap of self-exception through claims that they know definitively "what God really is" while all other religious traditions, including other monotheist traditions, are wrong. All self-excepting monotheists can't be right, he points out, and so none of them are. He ignores the possibility that some monotheists, myself included, are equally unsure about their own idea of God and are quite willing to admit the possibility that they haven't got a clue, which is one reason they are so eager to seek out and listen to other viewpoints from other traditions--not out of some misguided political correctness, but because of an honest curiosity to explore the mystery of the spiritual life with sincere humility. When faced with the possibility of liberal, tolerant monotheists willing to give polytheistic and atheistic spiritual traditions, as well as other monotheistic traditions, an equal place at the discussion table, he dismisses them with accusations of "creative" pussyfooting and backpedalling.
Such reasoning frustrates me, not only because similarly tolerant, liberal views within the Pagan community are treated as natural, serious and laudable, but because dismissing tolerant monotheists marginalizes such individuals and ensures that monotheistic traditions will be increasingly defined solely by literal-minded, intolerant fundamentalists--not only hanging Pagans out to dry, but depriving less-than-extremist Jews, Christians and Muslims of any sanctuary or recourse within their own traditions. I have always tried to be a living example of how Christianity, in particular, can live up to its values of love, self-giving, and moral integrity for the sake of the well-being and growth of others and a commitment to the Divine. To see myself and my views dismissed as merely "creative" dissembling, as if I were a struggling child receiving a patronizing pat on the head--as if, furthermore, the impetus to creativity and new ideas in response to complicated and often contradictory moral obligations is a sign of a wishy-washy intellect unwilling to default to the easy and "obvious" solutions of polytheism, rather than an indication of meaningful growth to overcome very real conflicts that polytheism seems, at best, only to reframe in deified terms--well.... as I said, quite frankly, it hurts. It hurts to see oneself marginalized not only by Christians in the name of literal-minded dogma, but by Pagans in the name of the very tolerance they aren't deigning, in this case, to demonstrate.
It also leaves me wondering just how much I can trust the Archdruid and other elders of my Order to provide the kind of welcome and guidance I had until now always utterly believed of them. I have recently completed and "passed" my First Degree examination and have been accepted and initiated as a Druid Apprentice in the AODA. It is, perhaps, both ironic and appropriate that I now find myself honestly wondering about the kind of leadership within the Order itself, and how I might step into that role in the future, for better or worse. I have not, of course, completely given up on nor rejected Greer as a invaluable teacher with much wisdom, insight and experience to share (I have just started his newest book, The Druid Magic Handbook: Ritual Magic Rooted in the Living Earth, which has already proved to be interesting and encouraging, even if it is in no way uniquely polytheistic!). Instead, I find that I have discovered an area--the possibility of a fruitful and tolerant monotheism--into which his expertise, experience and, therefore, authority simply do not reach. In some ways, indeed, I am extremely grateful for the realization that I may yet have something new and unique to offer to the Druid community. I only worry (though, happily, not very much) that I may not be given a fair hearing when that time comes...