Friday, 3 April 2015

Organised Religion – a Perspective

Expulsion of heretics (c. 1415 illustration), British Library
Organised religion is a double edged sword. On the one hand organising religion allows religious beliefs to be preserved and propagated – this gives that religion accessibility, strength and potentially longevity. It also enhances the social aspect of religion, acting as a means by which a religious community can come together. On the other hand, organised religion can and does give rise to some serious problems. The main problem, as I see it, is that it is prone to encouraging individuals to believe that they somehow have a monopoly on divine truth. Flowing on from this, members of religious organisations may be prone to developing less flexible attitudes to their own religion, and then impose these onto other would be members of this religion and even non-members (who might be thought of destined to go to hell, or some other undesirable future state for not believing in the spiritual authority of the organisation). It can even go so far that some organisations believe they can represent their deity’s approval, and feel entitled to excommunicate members over trivial theological differences. In this case the believer’s ability to communicate with the divine is superficially abrogated in favour of the believer’s relationship with the leaders of an organisation, some of whom may be corrupt, stupid, fanatical and/or unkind. 

When it comes to Roman polytheism there is no person, or even groups of persons, who can simultaneously cast you out of their organisation and deny divine goodwill towards you. No human organisation can speak for the Gods. The Gods favour who they will – it is not for men to decide.  Even Pagan priests or priestesses cannot speak for the Gods. In any case, in Roman polytheism we are all, if we maintain a shrine and make offerings at it, priests and priestesses of the deities we honour. By this means we may come to understand the Gods we revere with a greater degree of insight, but only hubris could induce us into thinking we, of our own volition, can speak for them – the only possible exception being when efficacious divination occurs, or omens are perceived, but even in this case we merely interpret signs from the Gods.

Pagan veneration during the age of Christendom
Venus (c. 1406), Bibliothèque nationale de France
Of course, the rise of Christianity did not mean the Gods were no longer venerated. Paganism did not need an organised structure in order to survive. I suspect that the truth is that Roman polytheism is not just being revived or reconstructed now after 1500 years of supposed non-existence. The Gods have likely been worshipped throughout the entire age of Christendom. Why else do we know so much about them? Why else the incalculable number of paintings, sculptures and other objets d'art depicting and honouring them? I strongly suspect that many homes throughout European history have included a closeted shrine to the Gods and even when people dared not to do this the Gods were honoured in a myriad of other ways. The rise of the cult of courtly love from the 11th century onwards is perhaps the most obvious manner in which the worship of Venus (aka amor) was maintained, even when Christianity was apparently most powerful. The popular medieval story of Tannhäuser brilliantly exposes this. The story goes that, for a period, Tannhäuser lives a life of pleasure in the realm of Venus, called Venusberg, but subsequently seeks penance for this and so he makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution. The Pope decrees that God’s forgiveness for the sin of venerating Venus is as unlikely as flowers springing from his wooden staff. Thereafter, Tannhäuser returns to Venusberg after which his discarded staff breaks into flower, and thereby the power of Venus revealed. Another popular medieval story hints at how widespread the veiled veneration of Venus was – Tristan and Isolde famously seek refuge, and for a brief period live a life of exquisite pleasure, in an ancient cave, which is really a temple to Venus:
“The cavern had been hewn into the wild mountain in heathen times … They used to hide inside it when, desiring to make love, they needed privacy. Wherever such a cavern was found it was barred by a door of bronze, and bore an inscription to love …‘The Cave of Lovers.’
The name was well suited to the thing … the grotto was round, broad, high, and perpendicular … on the keystone there was a crown … encrusted with precious stones … the pavement was of smooth, rich, shining marble … At the centre there was a bed … and engraved along its sides with letters, announcing that the bed was dedicated to the Goddess of love [Gottfried Von Strassburg, Tristan and Isolde].”
Then there is the famous love between Lancelot and Guinevere – their romanticised adultery challenging the Christian ideal of sexlessness and, where this was not possible, monogamous life-long marriage. All of this, this hugely popular phenomenon which came to profoundly influence contemporary Western attitudes to love, was inspired by the man who inspired my own attraction to Roman polytheism – Ovid, one of the most influential writers of all time:
“Me Venus artificem tenero praefecit Amori / Venus appointed me to [teach the ways of] love [Ovid, The Art of Love].”
The relative lack of religious organisation in contemporary Roman polytheism is both a weakness and a strength – the most obvious strength being that no man or organisation can claim its ownership and thereby potentially defile it with human arrogance and intolerance.
“This is particularly relevant when thinking for example about the agony of the major monotheistic religions … often resulting in a blind and violent fanaticism which highlights their inability to accept … plurality …
… polytheism [is a spiritual perspective which] results from a multifaceted perception of reality, Nature, the Universe.
It is important to note that polytheism is based on the idea of ‘different’ and ‘multiple’ [].”
The plurality inherent in the polytheistic world view means that accepting just one organisation’s view of reality as the only legitimate vision becomes incongruous.
“There’s one word that goes straight to the core of polytheism and that’s diversity! Not just of deities, but also of beliefs, ritual and devotional practices, symbols, festive calendars and even ethical principles. It comes with having many Gods with different functions or areas of interest, which means They will have Their own agendas … there’s a greater degree of tolerance that comes naturally to a religion that does not claim the monopoly of the divine to one God and accepts diversity as a basic element [].”
All this is not to say that Roman polytheists should avoid organising themselves into an established communities – what a hypocrite I would be if I advocated that! Clearly religious organisation has benefits, the main one perhaps being that it is an affirmation of the very existence of a particular religious path, which then makes it more visible and available to others who are attracted to it. Nova Roma, though imperfect, was a gateway to Roman polytheism for me, the people of the Cultus Deorum have inspired and educated me countless times.  I have nothing but respect for the movement that calls itself Roman Revivalist PaganismI am thankful for the existence of all these organisations  long may they continue. I merely point out that religious organisations are man made and so vulnerable to all that goes with that.


The Spiritual Authority of the Guru

I have flirted with Buddhism a great deal over the course of my adult life but somehow never managed to find a lineage that fits. Theravada Buddhism didn’t work for me because I found the precepts too hard to keep and the meditation too hard to do. Vajrayana Buddhism hasn’t been working for me either. The fundamental problem seems to be that, while each lineage I explore seems at first interesting and mind expanding, just as I am about to commit I hold back because I don’t (want to) have faith in the head of the organisation, ie, the guru, also known as the lama, teacher, master, mentor, etc. This spiritual mentor and disciple relationship is a key feature of many Mahayana Buddhist (and Hindu) lineages and within it the disciple is meant to venerate the guru as the living embodiment of spiritual truth. The thing is though, I don’t want to suspend my own critical faculties to those of the spiritual mentor. I don’t want to trust anybody that much, because I just don’t see why I should, no matter how much I respect him. When I see Buddhists groveling (ritually prostrating) on the ground before their guru I am sickened. To me it looks like a revolting display of servility, an internal abrogation of one’s status as a free man or woman.* The rationale I have been given for these demeaning displays is that they help to erode the spiritual stain of pride. Pride is considered a spiritual impediment in many other organised religions too – this is a convenient position to take in instances where religion is being used as a tool to subjugate local populations, and let’s be honest, isn’t that how organised religions have too often gained popularity in the past (by royal patronage)? Well I choose not to be subjugated. I choose to live as a free-woman, and not to grovel before another like a slave.

There is a famous story, which I love, about Rollo, a Viking of the 9th and 10th centuries. The story goes like this:
“Rollo refused to kiss the foot of [the Frankish King] Charles when he received from him the duchy of Normandy. ‘He who receives such a gift’, said the bishops to him, ‘ought to kiss the foot of the king’. ‘Never’ replied he, ‘will I bend the knee to any one, or kiss anybody’s foot’. Nevertheless, impelled by the entreaties of the Franks, he ordered one of his warriors to perform the act in his stead. This man seized the foot of the king and lifted it to his lips, kissing it without bending and so causing the king to tumble over backwards. At that there was a loud burst of laughter [K. L. Jolly, Tradition and Diversity: Christianity in a World Context to 1500 (1997)].”
This is a demonstration of how many Pagans thought (at least in Europe) – not just their kings, such as Rollo, but those bound to them by oath, such as the warrior in this story who kisses the foot but subverts the demand for servility as he does so. Clearly he valued his freedom – he took pride in it. Similarly, in the world of ancient Rome freedom was sacred, she was worshipped as a Goddess, Libertas, and had a temple on the Aventine, while her statue stood in the Roman Forum. 

Relatedly, the Roman word for piety was not a word connoted with submission to the will of a monotheistic God, or a spiritual master / guru, or with the abandonment of the spiritual defilement, or "sin", of pride, rather, traditional Roman pietas implies strength of character and courage, and an unswerving sense of duty, devotion and loyalty to family and Gods: J Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (1998). Pietas is about acknowledging the responsibility one has towards others, especially towards family, but also towards the Gods (to whom we owe so much), that is an inherent aspect of the state of being free – and that is my idea of piety. And this is how I want to live: with dignity, self-discipline, rationality, open-mindedness, industriousness, pietas and freedom, which includes unrelenting freedom of thought. I will not willingly surrender my free spirit of enquiry to anyone, guru or otherwise. As Hypatia says to a bishop in the 2009 movie Agorayou don't question what you believe, or cannot. I must.

*Here I am not referring to the polite bows that people of some cultures, such as in Sri Lanka and Japan, show each other as a sign of courtesy and respect, rather I refer to the ostentatious practice of using one's whole body to grovel on the floor before the guru.

Facts in this post were checked against

Postscript (2016): my position on the spiritual authority of the guru has softened somewhat since writing this appendix, which was fuelled by my recent (at that time) disenchantment with Vajrayana Buddhism. Shortly after it was written I started regularly attending SGI (Nichiren Buddhist) meetings. In this tradition they do not speak of the guru but of the somewhat analogous "spiritual mentor". Spiritual mentors are considered spiritual guides and sources of inspiration rather than spiritual overlords. There is a strong emphasis on the equality of all people and the value of using reason (i.e., retaining an inquisitive mind) in Nichiren Buddhism, which allows me to find their understanding of the spiritual mentor more palatable. I stand by my rejection of any state of mind that equates to spiritual slavery.

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.


  1. A very useful and well written post about a critical topic.
    Pax et Fortuna