Thursday, April 18, 2019

Book Review: Ascendant: Modern Essays on Polytheism and Theology

Ascendant: Modern Essays on Polytheism and Theology
Edited by Michael Hardy
With Contributions by Edward P. Butler, Patrick Dunn, John Michael Greer, Brandon Hensley, Wayne Keysor, and Gwendolyn Reece

In my clergy training, I have recently been studying the notion of pagan theology, or Polytheology, as Michael Hardy prefers to call it. My readings have taken me from pre-axial paganism to post-axial philosophy, to monotheism, and beyond. I must say, this is one of the better resources I have happened upon in my meandering research.

This work unpacks a lot of the ideas that have been running around in my head since I first began questioning the idea that the cosmos was ruled by one all-knowing, all-seeing creator God. When I came to the understanding that deity, the divine, was not a singularity, my mind filled with questions like: how did our world and subsequently humanity come to be here? why does the world work the way it does (especially after that second college physics course!)? where do we go when we leave his world? --This book answered none of those questions. And yet, I found it to be comforting in the similarity of the authors' wondering.

A few of my favorite ponderings:

In his essay, "Approaching Theology Through the Divine Individual," author Brandon Hensley discusses the notions of hard and soft polytheism, a few generally accepted beliefs (yes, beliefs) held by polytheists, and the manner of our relationships to the divine entities. He states, "By not treating our own gods as more than just a sum of our personal experiences with them, we rid ourselves of the responsibility in treating other gods in their own context" (Hardy, 2019, p. 29). His overarching point is that it is impossible to know the gods out of context not only of their myths but also of their peers. Meeting our deities in a vacuum and diminishing them to our limited experience of them serves only to keep them small and us from growing. How can we truly understand anyone without understanding the context of them in other relationships and scenarios? I find this a valid point worth pondering in my own life.

John Michael Greer, as usual, blew my mind in his work on Neoplatonism in its original context prior to the Christian overtones, and I am seriously contemplating a deeper dive into this work.

Patrick Dunn writes that "every god's blessing can turn to a curse if we turn it that way through our hubris" (Hardy, 2019, p. 85). His notion that, in an orthopraxic religious path, we make offerings to turn ourselves toward the gods and avoid evil because it turns us away from the gods provides an excellent reference for a virtue-based practice. When we behave poorly, do we not turn away from any light that would shine upon our misdeeds? Our own actions ARE truly the center of our practice.

The highlight of the book, however, is the series of essays by Wayne Keysor, a fellow ADF-member with a masters degree in philosophy and religious studies, in which he systematically calls out the habits of we neopagans whose practices center primarily on our relationships to specific deities, our occasional inability to retain our own power in those relationships, and the ultimate quest we are already on: to continually seek the mystery in the divine. I came to some conclusions, but more importantly, I found some better questions through reading this work. I won't spoil it for you.

I highly recommend this book, whether you have dabbled in the exploration of a pagan theology or not. The introspection and contemplation of the way the world works is well worth the read!

Hardy, M. Ed. (2019). Ascendant: Modern essays on polytheism and theology. Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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