Column: Manifesting An Other World

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[The following is an expanded excerpt from a presentation I will be giving at the Polytheist Leadership Conference in Fishkill, New York on July 11, 2014]

I’m staring at a pile of shiny, polished rocks on a counter by the register.  Some are smooth river-stones painted in iridescent colors, others are polished common gems, none particularly capturing my interest more than the small handwritten sign in front of them:

“Take a crystal, leave a crystal.”

Just a few minutes before, I’d stared at the wall above the urinal in the bathroom of this cafe, standing longer than was needed for the task at hand, reading and re-reading the poem displayed on the poster. The words admonished against despair, against giving in to the crushing weight of monotonous conformity, urging the reader to look for the presence and gifts and delight of the gods.

Perhaps it might seem strange to some that I wasn’t seeing this all in a Wiccan shop or Occult store. Perhaps where I found these things may seem even more strange: an Anarchist café in Seattle.

But this shouldn’t sound strange at all. Paganism and its beliefs mirror the struggle of Anarchists, and the indigenous activists who host ancestor prayers at that same cafe, and the queer trans* folk who hold meetings and organize protests against corporate pride events or the killing of a man who didn’t have correct fare on the light rail. The beliefs of Pagans, at least on the surface, might seem aligned to the so-called “eco-terrorists” who sabotage the industrial machinery which rapes the land and poisons our air and water, slaughtering thousands and thousands of species upon the earth in which we and the spirits dwell.

They are fighting against hegemonic control of existence, the limiting of human life itself; against the structures which displace people from the earth, disconnecting them from the strength and influence of spirits and ancestors, and turn humans into consumers and producers and subjects of hegemonic control of the powerful. And particularly, they are all fighting against the crushing oppression wrought upon the world by Capitalism.

We should be too, if our beliefs are more than mere opinion.

The Matter of Belief

One of the civic myths of late-capitalist Western democracies is that their citizenry is free to believe as they choose. Enshrined into many of the constitutions of European and European-derived democracies are laws guaranteeing the free-practice and free-conscience of each individual, and such laws are further re-iterated in supranational documents such as the UN Charter of Human Rights.

There have been relatively few government-sponsored mass-arrests of Heathens or Jainists in any European country, so on the surface, the guarantee of such rights seems to be true. While the recent experiences of some Pagans in isolated areas might certainly speak to a limited and merely localized persecution of gods-worshipers, it is incredibly difficult to make a legitimate case that America or any Western European country systematically persecutes those of minority religions.

As such, though, I’d argue that precisely the opposite is the case; that one is hardly free to believe what one wants in any of the Western democracies, and, worse, there is specifically a prohibition against certain sorts of beliefs. And most of all, that prohibition is precisely one of the most important bases of Western democracy.

The problem here, I think, is that we fail to understand the very physical nature of belief.

Belief is generally seen, in common parlance, to be an internal category, descriptive of an interiority invisible to any, except the person who experiences such certainties. As such, we tend to regard belief in the same category as “opinion,” a description of an inclination towards particular ontological positions but otherwise indefinable except through verbal communication.

I believe in multiple gods, and when I say “I believe in multiple gods,” I have thus communicated to you my interior state and theological position.  But you, the hearer, must judge whether I have expressed something very deeply held, or merely a philosophical stance towards the subject. The ambiguity inherent in such a statement increases if you have no actual relationship with me. Conversely, if you also profess a similar belief, you may wish to parse out further precisely what I mean by “multiple” or “gods” (that is, am I a Polytheist with monist tendencies, or do I mean “literal” gods or more archetypal or psychological expression of deity?)

Expanding this difficulty out of the personal, though, one can see how such statements of belief might become even more ambiguous on the level of social groups, cultures, or entire nations. When we consider statements of statistical fact regarding the religious affiliations of entire nations, like “there are 828 million Hindus in India,” we accept such statements generally as equivalent to “828 million people in India profess to a belief in multiple gods.” But still, we know very little about what such belief actually means beyond the professions of faith and the self-identifications. We might be well-versed in the structures of the Hindu religions and thus have a greater sense of what is meant by “828 million Hindus,” but this still resides fully in the realm of interiority.

Hindu cave temple at Ellora (CC: Pratheeps)

Hindu cave temple at Ellora [Photo Credit: Pratheeps/CC]

It isn’t until one then looks at the actual activities of self-professed Hindus in India that one begins to get a sense of what  they actually believe.  A brief observation of the physical surroundings of these folks who profess belief in the existence of many gods shows particular structures built to honor the object of their belief. That is, India is littered with temples and shrines, physical evidence of an internal belief.

The same can be said of Christians, or of any other religious group which professes belief in divine beings who can be experienced, communicated with, oblated to, or interceded with through structures. That is, the landscape itself attests to the interior experiences of individual and group belief, revealing physical activity of the believers which results in the construction of very physical things.

It isn’t just the physical structures, however, which can be used to discern the content and depth of the belief professed by any individual.  The physical activities of those whom believe in gods and spirits can also be observed. Christians who wake up early once a week to attend church services are engaging in actual religious activity on account of their beliefs, just as the Muslim who prays to the east five times daily does so on account of her belief in Allah and the prophet Mohammed.

Such activity can be observed not just by others who believe similar things, but even among those who profess no actual belief in gods or spirits.  An anthropologist observing the activities of the people he studies can thusly attest to a whole range of activities (often categorized as specifically religious), which are signs of the meaning of interior experiences. That is, it’s precisely all these physical activities which tell the observer what is meant by those statements of belief, and we can then begin to formulate an understanding of their faith.

More so, it’s precisely those human activities which point to the existence of the gods and spirits with who humans encounter and worship. As the post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty says in Provincializing Europe:

“…gods and spirits are not dependent upon human beliefs for their own existence; what brings them to present are our practices.”

Faith Without Works…

I’ve taken a very long way around to get to a point which was made several thousand years ago by one of the minor writers of the Christian’s scriptures. That statement, and the meaning behind it, later became crucial to a split within the Catholic Church 1600 years later during the Protestant Reformation: “Faith without works is dead.”

We can interpret this statement in a more modern and Pagan standpoint by briefly mentioning many of the recent conflicts which led to several gods-worshipers being named “The Piety Posse” on account of their insistence that one should do things for the gods that one believes in. It’s surprising no-one reoriented the debate to the question of the physicality of belief. That is, if Belief means something, it results in physical activities stemming from those beliefs. Or, again, if you believe in gods and do not physically do things which belie such beliefs, your profession of faith is suspect.

Rather than re-invigorate that debate (or really, any others), we should expand upon that conflict to apply it to the rest of Pagan-aligned belief first, and then to that of Belief itself.  As it is impossible to understand the interiority of any subject (which ultimately makes them an unknowable “Other”) without the physical manifestations of their beliefs, the polytheist “challenge” to mainstream Paganism is precisely that gods, if they actually exist, result in actually-existing actions on the part of those who experience and believe in them as actually-existing.

This stance, called “radical” by some, is similar to the same challenge posed by indigenous and anti-colonial resistance movements, queer political actions, and leftist challenges to mainstream political parties.  Each pose the same critique to the dominant hegemonic political order, that it is not merely enough to have an opinion that another world is possible, but rather one must physically manifest such beliefs into the world.

From this viewpoint, then, we can begin to re-examine precisely what is meant by “freedom of belief” in Western Capitalist democracies.  One is certainly “free” (by which one really means “not restricted from”) believing in anything one chooses, but any belief which affects the world around the believer falls into a completely different category. That is, if that belief isn’t mere opinion, than there are, indeed, a whole host of prohibitions against that belief.

One is free to hold any opinion one wishes. However, if that stance rises to the level of actual “belief,” and the person espousing such a belief then begins to do things which show that he or she actually believes such a thing, they quickly fall into the political category of “radical” or “fundamentalist,” and there are laws against acting out such beliefs.  We can see such restrictions quite clearly in Europe, where advanced Capitalist democracies such as France and Denmark have outlawed such physical manifestations of belief in schools or passed laws against Kosher and Halal butchery. In America, we can see similar attempts to ban minority expressions of belief while simultaneously affirming the dominant religion’s right to physically follow through with their beliefs.

"The Blasphemer," by William Blake

“The Blasphemer,” by William Blake [Public Domain Photo]

But there’s a trick here, a sort of thaumaturgic glamer in the justifications for such things. One may speak of cultural wars, or the danger of certain foreign beliefs and yet, without any intentional self-deception, assert that one is free to believe whatever one wants, seeing no contradiction between the repression of the beliefs of others and this supposed freedom.

It would be facile merely to claim that the West is hypocritical.  Hypocrisy requires a degree of self-awareness, a purposeful decision to act in a way contradictory to the manner one demands others act. It would not be merely facile to argue this–we’d be utterly wrong.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts the problem succinctly in an oft-quoted anecdote:

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends:

“Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.”

After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink:

“Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the west, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing unavailable is red ink.”

And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants – the only thing missing is the “red ink”: we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.

This unfreedom can be explained precisely as our inability to manifest belief into the physical world while simultaneously existing under the ubiquitous delusion that we are relentlessly free to believe whatever we desire.  In fact, that unfreedom might be adequately restated as a sort of ban on belief-which-matters, or belief which might physically challenge the power of hegemonic Capitalism.

Witches, Priests, Bards, and Rogues

An Anarchist, or any anti-Capitalist for that matter, believes that Capitalism and the structures which support it must be abolished. They are certainly free to have an opinion on that matter, but they are forbidden by all manner of laws from actually doing anything about it, thus ensuring that such an opinion lingers in the suspended opinion-stance and is never manifested in the world.

Fortunately, Anarchists don’t care much for the laws which prevent them, as it makes little sense to truly believe that a system is destroying the planet and causing human misery, and not try to do something about it.

But here, then, is where most Pagans appear to part ways with others who share many of their beliefs, and I’m not fully certain why this is.  One of the many definitions of Paganism in currency lately is a “collection of earth-based spiritualities,” but the amount of Pagans still using petroleum suggests that perhaps Paganism merely holds a generally-favorable opinion of Nature, rather than believing it should continue to be around for awhile.

It isn’t enough merely to think things should change.  And though my words function as a criticism of modern Paganism, I hope I’ve also shown how we’ve gotten ourselves into this restrained position.  It’s us, but it’s also not just us. We are free to think what we want, but we are also quite unfree to act upon our deeply-held beliefs, forcing them to languish as mere opinion.

But the hegemonic power of Capitalism seems to be weakening again, and the fierce calls to awaken to belief-which-means-something are beginning to threaten the uneasy (and unholy) peace many of us have made with the powerful. Peter Grey’s recent essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” (and his cunning and cutting screed against belief-as-mere-opinion, Apocalyptic Witchcraft), is hardly the only such call within Paganism, and one might actually read the sudden apparent surge in new “polytheists” as a sign of the weakening of hegemonic control.

That is, it is almost as if the gods and spirits themselves are bursting through the walls we put up against belief, demanding that we do something.

The question is, though, will we Pagans see the allies all around, human and non-human, all pushing towards a new assault against the systems which oppress others and ourselves? Or will it be enough merely to “like” the earth and the old ways, with all the meaning and affect of a Facebook status update?  Will we let our hopes, dreams, and desires languish in the dark, repressed interiors worlds, or might we have the courage to make manifest and make true our beliefs, regardless the threatened cost?