Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Disillusioned Apprentice

One reason I have been largely silent in this blog over the course of this month is I have been, admittedly, undergoing a kind of disillusionment regarding the Archdruid of AODA, John Michael Greer. Of course, any time you feel that pull, that telling tug, to join a particular community, you want to believe the leaders and respected elders of that community are kindred spirits, reasonable and accepting, patient with new members and yet knowledgeable enough to engage those who want to continue their development and growth.

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...


  1. phew... for a moment I thought you were about to reveal some horrible dirt on JMG. Having dealt with some extremely clay-footed spiritual teachers in the past, I was braced for something a little more shocking.

    I don't mean to trivialize your concern, though - for an organization that welcomes all views of divinity this is an important issue, because it can be so divisive. "One god" vs. "many gods" isn't just a disagreement about number - it's two fundamentally different concepts of the nature of the universe and the meaning of divinity.

    I would actually be interested in hearing you refute or correct some of the errors you see in AWFOG - I think it would be educational.

  2. Nettle, Rest assured, I wouldn't even know where to start looking for dirt on anyone. ;) But I agree that "one god" versus "many gods" is not just a disagreement about number, which I think is why I found JMG's book so very frustrating--he treated it as exactly that.

    ... Well, I've just spent about forty minutes typing up a really long explanation of the above statement, before deciding to just go ahead and turn it into another post, so that'll be forthcoming soon. There are many, many smaller things that I could object to, some of which I've already mentioned (for instance, his double-standard in approaching different mythologies as paradoxical/metaphorical; his treatment of monotheism as a homogeneous system of doctrine rather than a cultural construct that responds to and develops throughout history; his insistence that monotheists couldn't possibly have the kinds of experiences they claim to have, etc.), but it seems like most of those would be clarified if I talked more about the confusion that is caused by treating the monotheist's idea of "God/god" as the same as the polytheist's idea, just different in number. So I'll get to that in a day or two.

    Thank you, though, for giving me the excuse to just plunge right in--I've been struggling to deal with the overwhelming number of objections I had to JMG's book without knowing how to summarize or organize them. But now I think I've hit upon a key distinction that helped cause all the confusion. In any case, strangely enough, I did come away from the book with a clearer understanding of what polytheists believe about deity, if only because I saw time after time how it could be misapplied to monotheistic belief (and why the shift to monotheism in some cultures could have been either freeing or disorienting, or both, depending on the unique needs of the individuals and communities).

  3. Hey, Ali,
    I've just reread this comment, and I'm afraid it's going to sound all condescending and stupid. It's not coming from that kind of a place at all--just, well, I'm a few years older than you are, and this painful place I see you standing in looks familiar to me. I think there comes a point where, for a lot of us at least, we look around and realize that there aren't any wisdom figures we can simply gaze up at any more. Some humans are doing a better job than others at certain things--integrity, knowledge, compassion, scholarship, or whatever--but the day comes when you just kind of realize that, well, you're the equal of your elders, and that makes you an elder, too.

    My sense is that that day may have been coming for a while, but that's it's pretty well arrived. It sounds pompous to "recognize you as an elder"--at least to my own ears. But I remember the first time Peter and I were recognized as that, and it actually meant a lot to us. So, that's the place where the following comment comes from:

    I'm sorry for your painful disillusionment, something I've witnessed again and again in the spiritual communities I've been part of. I'm hoping, though, that you won't take the common route of the disillusioned, and decamp in search of another spiritual movement which will hopefully prove more "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 expectations are reasonable. And the disillusionment, when you find yourself barking your shins up against the hidden assumptions and lack of nuance among the group's elders are reasonable, too. But one thing I think you and I are in agreement on, based on our comments exchanges, is that humans' spiritual vision is growing and deepening over time, and that there is a dialog between monotheistic and polytheistic religions that has been of service to both since at least late Classical times and the rise of Christianity.

    And I think the dialog the two of us, among others, have engaged in, is still more evidence of that growth and deepening.

    The idea that the spiritual understandings of polytheism and monotheism are each limited in certain ways, most spectacularly in that no one has yet managed to find a way to describe in mere human language the Mystery that is Spirit in all its forms, is an idea that is controversial among monotheists and polytheists, Christians and Pagans. Those of us who can see glimmerings of a uniting vision are rare and sometimes unpopular--or, at any rate, our ideas are. I remember this summer, hearing Michael York (another Pagan scholar on the subject of polytheistic thea/ology) dismiss panentheism as a kind of backdoor way for monotheistic religion to leech away some of the juiciness of polytheism. I was taken aback, of course! He seemed to find the act of bridging the apparent split between those two world views as illegitimate... and yet, that bridge is where I live!

    But I also had the pleasure of sitting in Quaker Pagan worship sharing with Mr. York, and he said that he was pleased and impressed with the depth of the spiritual experience we had together that day. It seems to me that there was more in the world of Spirit that Michael could experience than there was in the ideas he could voice and accept.

    And isn't that the way with all of us? There's only a small percentage of what experience, in the world of Spirit, which we can put into words. Our words, however certain they sound as they are spoken, never really reflect all that we know, in the deeper ways, about Spirit. John Michael Greer and Michael York are both, as we are, struggling to find ways to express in human language ideas that are too large to fit into human minds in any form. It's an awkward process, full of oversimplifications, blind spots, and foolish mistakes.

    The key, I think, is to realize that you were never actually Greer's apprentice at all. Oh, in terms of the workings of an organization, there are always leaders, and Greer may be a wonderful one. (I'm not really up on Druid politics, I admit.) But the best of human leaders can do no more than head the human, institutional side of any organization. In any spiritual community that is rightly ordered, Spirit itself is the real guide. And as soon as we are grounded enough in our traditions to do so, we need to move on from our apprenticeships to human guides, and--well, fire them. Which doesn't mean we don't take counsel with one another.

    What it means is accepting that you are an elder, yourself, now. An elder: someone whose "weight" in the organization may grow over time, but who has both the right and the duty to engage in dialog, as an equal, with the other elders of your tradition.

    Dialog involves listening as well as speaking, and working to discern where the other may be better prepared or wiser than we are ourselves. But it means that, if you can take this step fully, you will never again engage with Greer's writings, or mine, or anyone else's, except as an equal.

    In other words... *slightly evil grin* it may be time to start work on that book of your own, to set right the places where Greer is in error--not because he needs to be corrected, but because this is how humans grow in our ability to express spiritual truths: through dialog.

    Welcome to the Secret Association of Grown Ups, friend. (I know I often feel as if I'm out of place here... but, well, what ya gonna do?)

  4. Maybe it's not so much that Christianity is monolithic as it is that monotheism is. One Deity.

    Polytheism accepts that there is more than one Deity, and probably many Deities.

    Becasue Christianity is all around us, most of us Neo-Pagan polytheists (including me) contrast Neo-Paganism with Christianity, its monotheism, its docteines, its history. And maybe miss some, or a lot, of the positives that are certainly possible within a Christian spirituality.

    Here's one way that I look at it--As a Neo-Pagan polytheist, I can in principle, work affrimatively with the Christian Deity (and other sanctified Christian figures)in Neo-Pagan fashion. I acknowledge that devout Christians may not find this reverent or proper, but the tenets of Neo-Paganism allow me to do it, if that is my intention.

    I cannot be a monotheistic Christian, because I am a polytheistic Neo-Pagan. My transformative spiritual experiences have been with other Deities.

  5. Pitch,

    Your response is exactly where I run into problems with many polytheist objections to Christianity and monotheism in general. There is absolutely no reason why the focus on "One Deity" automatically results in socio-religious institutions, forms of worship or personal experiences that are monolithic (i.e. "characterized by massiveness, total uniformity, rigidity, invulnerability, etc.") in nature, and to claim so is simply untrue, and even borders on willful ignorance. The forms of modern Christianity in the U.S. alone (not to mention the many forms of monotheism in many different cultures throughout history) are extremely diverse, and within each community individuals have diverse and varied spiritual experiences. That they choose to identify and believe in these experiences as having a common reference or source--i.e. one God--does not somehow magically change the fact that the manifestations of and reactions to these beliefs and experiences are just as diverse as that of any polytheistic religion.

    This is not just an accidental fact of culture, either, but is acknowledged in the doctrine of some (though, again, not all, because monotheism is diverse) Christian denominations. For instance, growing up Catholic, I was taught that to affirm belief in "one, holy, catholic church" meant that, yes, the church was "one" in being a unifying, world community that transcended mere political, racial or gender identity and embraced everyone, but that it was also "catholic" in the lower-case "c" sense: "broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all." That is to say, the Catholic Church acknowledged and encouraged internal diversity as healthy and natural, and more than that, holy, and sought unity within that diversity, rather than the homogeneous conformity it is so often accused of. Now, of course, more liberal Catholic communities (such as the one I grew up in) emphasized this idea more than the more conservative communities (another example of internal diversity), and since my childhood the Church in general has sadly taken a turn for the conservative and anti-catholic, but there are still many Christian and monotheistic communities that hold to those ideals of diversity, or at least don't actively deny diversity as vehemently as fundamentalist Christians (and polytheists like yourself) do. To claim otherwise--to say that "all monotheists believe this or do that"--is just factually wrong. (And it's a mistaken view that fundamentalist Christians and certain polytheists actually seem to hold in common.)

    Which is why I was so disappointed in JMG's book. Because even the most basic research into the history and development of monotheism would show many of his "all monotheists believe this" statements to be false or at least not applicable to everyone; and early chapters in the book even seem to indicate that he indeed did such research and should know better--and yet, he still chose to ignore these facts and present monotheism as much less diverse and more totalitarian than it really is.

    Using monotheism and Christianity as a point of contrast for exploring polytheism is all very well, but it falls flat if the former are not portrayed accurately or fairly. In that case, you might as well be making comparisons in a factual vacuum, which doesn't help to provide much insight at all.

  6. Cat,

    Sorry I don't have a longer response for you (answering Pitch's comment wore me out ;), but I wanted to let you know that your words really do mean a lot to me. I guess one reason I was so disappointed was that my natural anti-authoritarian streak had admired JMG precisely because he never came across as someone who insisted that one way was better than another, and that we were all equals. Reading A World Full of Gods changed that perception completely, in that it was so vehemently anti-monotheistic. Suddenly I was seeing a leader-by-example transformed into a leader-because-I-said-so. Seeing someone who spoke so often of tolerance write as if he were simply "wiser" than those misguided monotheists (which turned his supposed tolerance into mere lip-service with an ulterior motive) was what really bothered me.

    I'm probably being too harsh with him, anyway, and I realize that. It's just that much of his complaints about monotheism remind me of arguments I had with my boyfriend in college--and my personal reaction is to wonder why a grown man who prides himself on tolerance and wide-ranging knowledge shouldn't know better than a cynical nineteen-year-old. (Even that cynical nineteen-year-old has grown into a thoughtful and more tolerant twenty-five-year-old who still loves to debate theology with me, but at least doesn't still act as though he knows everything. ;)

    Maybe I will write that book, after all.... :)

  7. Yes! Write the book!

    I have a theory of human development, based on the years that I spent working as a therapist, that says that each of us has within us all the younger selves we used to be. So the snotty, know-it-all nineteen year old is never very far away from us, and most of us will spend a lifetime trying to talk some sense into that thick head of ours!

    We'll slip up from time to time, and let the nineteen year old run the show. All of us have these blind spots where we demonstrate just how thoroughly we have clay feet of our own. My guess is that Greer's clay toes don't extend any further up towards the knees than anyone elses... but accepting yourself in the role of apprentice may make it feel pretty damn difficult to challenge him on his errors.

    The secret is that you really are his equal--maybe not in some areas of knowledge, but in basic human insight, and the ability to intuit the nature of Spirit. Of course, you know that... but knowing it, and feeling sure of it are different things. When you can really feel and own that equality, you write the book yourself, the one you wish Greer could have written. And maybe you convince him, and maybe you don't, but in the dialectic, all your readers will grow and so will Druidry in all its forms.

    I know that my favorite readers, over at Quaker Pagan Reflections, are the ones who challenge me on blind spots I never knew I had. (Though I also bet that my inner nineteen year old gets the better of me sometimes, without my even noticing, and I fail to notice a blind spot that's been carefully pointed out by someone very wise. Dammit!)

    FWIW, I get more from reading your blog than I did from reading _The Gods are Many_. That's not to say TGAM isn't a good book--just, the questions raised and discussed in his book don't "speak to my condition" the way much of your writing does. But it's more support for the idea that exploring your ideas in writing is something that has value for at least some of us out here, already.

    So, yes! As soon as you have the impulse to write the book, pick up the pen (or settle down at the keyboard) and begin.

    Or maybe even begin with an article to a Druid publication on this topic? Just a thought--I'm _not_ a Druid, so I may not be making sense on that one. (Though I do notice that Druids, as a group, seem currently to be the most interested of all Pagan groups in exploring both spiritual experience and spiritual ideas in a grounded and open-minded way.)