Thursday, June 6, 2013

Pagans Don't Need No Stinking Anti-Intellectualism

"My theological approach is not based on theory .... 
I am going to begin with the accepted understanding that this is how things work .... 
a polytheist in active engagement with his or her Gods doesn't need a theory ... 
As to the nature of the Gods, Their actual origins: do you think we'll ever know? of course not and therefore speculating is a waste of time better spent in devotion." 


"Theology" is a Greek word meaning, literally, a rational account (logos) concerning the Gods (theoi). According to Galina Krasskova's recent article, We Don't Need No Stinkin' Theories, such lofty knowledge is beyond the abilities of mere mortals. But, wait, if that were really the case, then how could Krasskova have come to possess that particular bit of (negative) knowledge, which she claims to know with absolute certainty?

There are at least five major problems with Krasskova's anti-intellectual posturing. The first, as already pointed out, is that her position is inescapably self-contradicting. That is, at the risk of repeating myself, she is making a claim about the nature of the Gods while at the same time making the claim that it is impossible to understand the nature of the Gods. Put yet another way: she claims that the nature of the Gods is unknowable, but how does she know that?

The second problem is that when such anti-intellectualism emanates from someone who is the author of multiple books, who possesses a Masters degree in Religious Studies, and who is pursuing a Ph. D. in Classics, it simply cannot be taken seriously.

The third problem is that while it is all well and good for Krasskova to claim that her notions concerning the Gods are based on the solid foundation of her own experiences and her own religious practice, it is highly problematic for her to assume that the same is not the case for those she disagrees with.

The fourth problem is that the claim that humans are incapable of understanding the nature of the Gods is blasphemous. Reason is one of the greatest gifts that the Gods have bestowed upon humanity, and to what more noble and appropriate purpose could we apply this divine gift, than the investigation of the nature of the Gods and the Cosmos? If one chooses not to exercise one's own reasoning powers, that is a personal choice. And if one finds that one's own portion of reason is not worth cultivating, that is a pity. But to besmirch human reason itself is to denigrate the Gods themselves. And by claiming, at least implicitly, to have thoroughly plumbed reason's utmost depths and to have soared to its ultimate heights, and to have found it wanting, is one of the most breathtaking examples of hubris imaginable.

Finally, there is one more problem: reasoning about theological matters is a very useful thing, and we are much worse off if we do not engage in this activity. For example, lets look at the interesting proposal by Christine Hoff Kraemer (found in her book Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theology) that there are nine areas of theological common ground shared by many modern day Pagans (in some cases my wording is slightly different from hers):
  1. Pantheism
  2. Polytheism
  3. Reverence toward nature and the body.
  4. Looking to pre-Christian religions and to contemporary religions that have resisted Christianization.
  5. The importance of ritual practice.
  6. Trust in personal experience as a source of divine knowledge.
  7. Acknowledgement of the principles of magick.
  8. Virtue Ethics and non-harming.
  9. Pluralism.
One question can and should immediately be posed about these these nine "attitudes", as Kraemer terms them: if we examine them closely and thoroughly, and in the process compare them to one another, do we find that they constitute a harmonious, even orderly, whole? Or are they merely a random assemblage of disconnected, or even contradictory, impressions? If these ideas can be shown to fit together naturally, then this would reveal an impressive underlying logical coherence to modern Paganism. However, if these ideas are not mutually agreeable then this would suggest that modern Paganism is just a jumble of slapped-together notions, and that those who hold these ideas together inside their minds must make up for what they lack in intellectual curiosity with a very high tolerance for cognitive dissonance.

Fortunately, if one avails oneself of the writings of ancient Pagan philosophers, especially the Platonists and the Stoics, and most especially that masterpiece of Pagan Cosmology, Plato's Timaeus, one finds that all nine of these attitudes held by "modern" Pagans have solid foundations in the noble tradition of ancient Pagan philosophy, and that as a result, this theological common ground is both intellectually pleasing and spiritually sound.

By definition, any genuine theology must be rational. The word logos, after all, is the Greek word for "reason". A great benefit of such a genuine theology (based on reason and therefore internally consistent) is that when it is subjected to scrutiny it can only be improved and made stronger. On the other hand, a theology that is not based upon reason tends to come apart at the seams as soon as one starts to ask questions about it. Therefore a rational theology is not only far more pleasing to the mind, it is also the only kind of theology that is comfortable with a state of human society in which we are free to discuss, question, and openly debate religious matters. In any free society, rational theology will be able to flourish, and irrational, incoherent theologies will in the most optimistic case fall into discredit, or at least will be limited to those (unfortunately numerous) who choose ignorance over understanding.

In brief conclusion: Pagan theology can, and must, have it all. We must have ecstatic union with the divine as well as serene contemplation of the divine. We must sing and dance the praises of the Gods, and we must also discuss and dispute the nature of the Gods. Pagan religiosity does not pit the heart against the mind, for it is truly said that "there is no part of me that is not of the Gods."


See also:

9 comments:

denis said...

Hi Apuleus!
Having read the article and the comments to it,
I conclude that the article has only one problem,
that is the use of the pronoun we where it should really be I. I.e. "We lack that lens. We lack that structure. We lack even the capacity" should really be "I lack that lens. I lack that structure. I lack even the capacity", because this is what Galina really means. And the title, of course, should be amended in the same fashion.

In fact, I believe that your own article could also be slightly altered: instead of "we must sing and dance" and "we must discuss and dispute",
you could simply have written "we sing, dance, etc.". But I'm just nitpicking ;) .

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Denis! I really don't like saying "must", and your point is well taken.

Editor B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Editor B said...

And here I was worried that I'd been too critical.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this is a major theological fault line within modern Paganism. I grew weary of inter-Pagan flame wars long ago, but I appreciate a concise rebuttal from a spiritual viewpoint similar to mine. 100% spot on, in my opinion.

I still trust the word of Proclus, that I'm a 'proper' polytheist. :)

Aetius

Anonymous said...

I'm kidding, of course. I know that words like 'monotheist', and 'polytheist', were simply invented as tools of Christian hegemony. The ancients of the classical Greco-Roman world accepted many different understandings of godhood.

Aetius

Apuleius Platonicus said...

All kidding aside (;)), the urge to impose modern and/or Christian terminology and concepts on Paganism does indeed constitute a major theological fault line in modern Paganism. And, sadly, far too few Pagans are on the right side of that line.

Michael Hubbard said...

This is spot on, and it's unfortunate that it even has to be said that developing our own reasoning faculties is necessary.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Michael, yes I agree that it is a shame that this has to be said. The irony is that I mostly agree with Krasskova's "position" vis-a-vis the central importance of polytheism to Paganism. But I also happen to think that polytheistic theology is infinitely more rational than monotheistic theology is, and, moreover, that all attempts to impose any kind of monotheism on Paganism are incapable of standing up to rational inquiry. I am not really at all familiar with Krasskova, except that I know she is a big deal with some people. I have no clue why she chose this particular message as her inaugural post on a projected series on polytheistic theology, but in my opinion it was a very poor choice.