About Todd

Todd Covert has been a practicing Polytheist since 1993. He has served as executive director of the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles and is the founder of the Fellowship of Druidism for the Latter Age.

Thoughts on a Ritual Calendar

If we make a commitment to ritual, it follows that we ought to commit to occasions for ritual.  Can we craft a ritual calendar for an American secular polytheism that provides occasions to celebrate the culture and its most venerable icons that draws on holidays which have strong associations in the hearts and minds of most Americans?

This is a possible calendar for ritual celebrations (with a possible focus for veneration for each):

New Year’s Day (Pan-cultural)

Martin Luther King Holiday (The People – minorities and the oppressed)

Presidents Day (The Ancestors)

Earth Day (The Land)

May Day (The Ancestors – international labor movement)

Memorial Day (The Ancestors – fallen warriors)

Summer Solstice (The Land)

Independence Day (Pan-cultural)

Labor Day (The People)

Indigenous Peoples’ Day (The People)

Hallowe’en (The Ancestors)

Veterans Day (The People – living warriors)

Thanksgiving (The Land)

Winter Solstice (The Land)

It can certainly be argued that Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving are religious festivals at their root, but they have long since passed into secular observance in the United States.  Hallowe’en keeps alive the traditions both of foolery and ancestor remembrance while Thanksgiving celebrates the bounty of the Land at the end of the traditional harvest season.

I would advocate for the secular New Year holiday and Independence Day to function as “hinge points” in the cultural seasonal cycle with the two Solstices marking the astronomical cycle that carries on independent of human culture.


Putting this all to work – A ritual

On June 20 of this year, I undertook something of a “first draft” of what a Romantic Polytheist ritual might look like.  The occasion was the public ritual celebrating the Summer Solstice of the local grove of the Neo-Druid fellowship I founded in 2006, FoDLA, in association with the Los Angeles Chapter of the Spiritual Naturalist Society.

The ritual was held in a public park in Encino, California, with about a half dozen attendees.  The general outline of the ritual was derived from the customary liturgy of the Mother Grove of FoDLA.

The order of service was as follows:

Chimes to signal beginning – Prayer for union of the attendees in purpose

Hymn to invoke poetic inspiration and kindling of altar fire

Prayer to Great Spirit (as Gitche Manitou) – Offering sage and water for cleansing and protection

Prayer to the Ancestors – Both of blood and spirit, heroes of immortal memory including the Founders of our democracy – Toast of cider

Prayer to Sovereignty – The Land as our partner and home, source of prosperity – Offering grain back to the Earth, pledging to be united with the Land

Opportunity for personal prayers and offerings

Singing of “Chant for the Seasons

Poetic Offering:  Wordsworth, “Ode (Intimations of Immortality)” (excerpt)

Sharing of the Sun’s blessings (traditional American foodstuffs):  Apple cider, cornbread, tree nuts and berries, rum.

Recessional hymn:  “This Land is your Land”

Chimes to close


Intentions in RP ritual

Richard Rorty’s explication of his concept of Romantic Polytheism as a new, secular-minded, American religion lays out the notion of the Democratic consensus as the ultimate good towards which the practice focuses.  How might that play out in an actual ceremony that brings individuals together for a worship service that doesn’t require belief in a supernatural God?

Drawing on Indo-European polytheist traditions (to the extent we know them), along with Shinto, the Japanese animist tradition that survives on a level of customary observances among people who self-describe as atheists, there are some reasonable stages to a putative Romantic Polytheist ritual.

–Assembling and preparing the participants.

One necessary step is gathering attendees and shifting their attention from the mundane to the spiritual.  Part of this is changing their perceptions of themselves.  Shinto (along with other traditions) places great importance on purification before communing with the spirits.  While this might seem close to an unwelcome introduction of the concept of “sin,” a useful metaphor from the tradition is “cleaning the dust off a mirror.”  Washing–or at least aspersing–with spring water and offering the remainder as a gift to the Land seems a good first step.

Focusing attention further with the clearcut signal of a bell or gong can be helpful.  This could even be couched in the context of reference to the ringing of the Liberty Bell (if only it weren’t cracked!).  Everyone’s focus goes to one action (the ringing), which signals the start of the ritual activity and can perhaps even serve to announce that all are gathered as free people and equals.

The nature of the space used can have an influence on this dimension of the ceremony:  In keeping with the overriding concern with an egalitarian sensibility, gathering in a circle around a central focus (a firepit or an altar) might be ideal.  But space limitations might preclude this.  A simple tool would be a “unity candle”–metaphorically, the “light of Reason” and practically, a strong visual focus point.

–Establishing the occasion

Rorty expounded on the notion of the poet as priest and the employment of literature in ritual.  Suitable poems or excerpts from literature suitable to the occasion can be shared.

However, more is necessary to lift the ceremony beyond the merely literary and into the spiritual.  The sine qua non of religion on a certain view is establishing a connection with the numinous.  Inviting meditation on or contemplation of a suitable “higher power” is important from this perspective.  Metaphoric beings (a la Romantic verse) can be held up for this purpose:  Liberty, Reason, Nature.  (Indeed, I would personally argue for this particular trinity, embodied as Columbia, The Founders, and The Great Spirit or Manitou, as being a quintessential set of American Gods for this purpose.)

The use of homiletics–oration to provide context for the occasion–should not be overlooked.  This can be by a ritual leader or attendees could be invited to share their thoughts (subject to light moderation, perhaps).

–Sharing hospitality

In both the ancient Indo-European and Shinto traditions, the main purpose of the ritual is typically the offering of a meal to the non-corporeal guest(s) of honor.  A selection of food and/or drink is often set forth and then becomes the basis for shared hospitality.  In some traditions, a portion is burned or poured out as the offering to the gods, ancestors, or spirits.  Certainly appropriate food and or drink could be offering to the land and the wildlife in an outdoor setting (or set out after the conclusion of the ritual).  In lieu of making a symbolic burnt offering of food or libation of drink, incense could be lit from an altar candle, if one has been used, which has the advantage of being consumed by the transformative fire and also providing a pleasant fragrance to all attendees.

In Shinto ritual, distinctly Japanese offerings are usually brought forward:  sake, rice, and such.  For an American ceremony of this sort, perhaps a similar custom can be established, with offerings like maize (or cornbread), cranberries, blueberries, walnuts, maple syrup, and cider.

As a last expression of unity, a song probably ought to be sung by the attendees.  This could be something well known, secular, and American (“This Land is Your Land” comes to mind).

One last action (apart from making appropriate thanks) would be to mirror the beginning with the ending, using the same musical signal to end as was used to begin.


Some Objects of Veneration?

The premise of “romantic polytheism” qua religion is to take democratic consensus as a highest good.  It seems to me that this misses something important about the religious enterprise, namely the function of connection with an Other (the “wholly Other,” if one follows Rudolf Otto).  Put another way:  It may be that a representation of democracy (if not an outright embodiment of it) is needed as an object of religious activity, particularly if undertaken by a group.

In considering America as the ground of the religion, some possible “deities” seem viable:

  • Liberty – We are used to seeing Lady Liberty not only in her incarnation as the “Statue of Liberty,” but also on American coinage and other civil uses.  Prior to the early 20th century, Americans were accustomed to the image of Columbia as the embodiment of the United States and specifically of its role as a new democratic nation in counterposition to Britain’s monarchy.  The iconography of Columbia draws on deeper traditions of democracy, e.g., the inclusion of the Phrygian cap from the Classical Hellenic world.
  • The “Great Spirit” (or “Manitou”) – If “Liberty” or “Columbia” can represent the nation created by Europeans in North America, what of the Land itself?  And the people who inhabited it?  Although the “Great Spirit” associated in popular culture with the spirituality of the “American Indian” is a mix of oversimplification, stereotype, and Christian proselytization, there is–especially among the Algonquian cultures–an animistic tradition of seeing all things in the world as partaking of a shared spirit, often identified as “Manitou” or related terms.  There is a helpful resonance with the Deist views of many of the American “Founding Fathers,” which saw “God” as more or less identical with Nature.  More than that, though, offering respect to the indigenous cultures–and acknowledging the appropriation of their lands, often by genocidal means–seems essential to any systematic veneration of the American enterprise.
  • The Founding Fathers – There is a deep tradition in Indo-European mythology and religion of emphasizing the way in which heroic ancestors achieve immortality through memory and the telling of their exploits by subsequent generations.  In addition to individuals offering due respect to the personal ancestors who preceded them, an honest and informed custom of acknowledging and celebrating the actual deeds and ideals of those who set in motion the tradition of American democracy seems critical.  The “Founders” have been appropriated in a haze of pseudo-history by political factions eager to apply the imprimatur of the sagacious, if imperfect, individuals who forged the nation and it is important to reclaim their words and deeds for what they were, not what we wish them to be.
  • “Uncle Sam” – The embodiment of the United States as a nation (rather than of its underlying ideals), Uncle Sam has been around since the early 19th century.  He has become highly emmeshed in commercialism and militarism over time and risks dragging a spiritual enterprise into a caricature if not employed judiciously as object of veneration.

This small “pantheon” seems reasonable to approach as the objects of various ritual activities and none require a supernaturalist understanding to embrace.  All are able to be approached as the Romantic poets approached Nature and all its aspects and this comports well with the “Poet as Priest” aspect of Romantic Polytheism.

Poet as Priest

“The substitution of poetry for religion as a source of ideals, a movement that began with the Romantics, seems to me usefully described as a return to polytheism. ”

-Richard Rorty, “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism”

The civil religion philosopher Richard Rorty characterizes as “romantic polytheism” starts from a premise of toleration for diverse personal religious explorations, but not-too-subtly wishes for a move away from the paternalistic and authoritarian institutions of traditional monotheism.  (He sees a substituting of science as less than adequate, it should be noted.)  He espouses “hope for a religion of literature, in which the works of the secular imagination replace Scripture as the principal source of inspiration and hope of each new generation.”  And further: “We should cheerfully admit that canons are temporary, and touchstones replaceable.”

“Once you become polytheistic,” Rorty says, “you will turn away not only from priests but from such priest-substitutes as metaphysicians and physicists–from anyone who purports to tell you how things really are.”  If there is need of such a figure as a priest, however, he nominates the poet, “[f]or poets are to a secularized polytheism what the priests of a universal church are to monotheism.”

Can poet prove priest and poetry, canon?  Rorty clearly sees Walt Whitman as something like a paradigmatic figure in his preoccupation with “futurity” and “his sense of glorious democratic vistas stretching on indefinitely.”  In such visions, Whitman “tells us that nonhuman nature culminates in a community of free men, in their collaboration in building a society.”

Nietzsche’s attempt to “see science through the optic of art, and art through that of life,” like Arnold’s and Mill’s substitution of poetry for religion, is an attempt to make more room for individuality than can be provided either by orthodox monotheism, or by the Enlightenment’s attempt to put science in the place of religion as a source of Truth. So the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as “symbolic,” and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims.

-Rorty, op.cit.

 “Truth” is a much misunderstood and often maligned word these days.  For some, it only refers to the empirically verifiable.  For others, it points to transcendent verities that both include and transcend “mere” physical reality.  There is, of course, no reason that the word cannot contain both senses within it, as required.  The “polytheism” of Romantic Polytheism encompasses a notion of personal Truth that does not intrude on social consensus and collaboration.  (As Rorty characterizes it, this is a polytheism of many “goods.”)  This is–in an important sense–the Romantic inner quest for the Self, tempered in the forge of an awesome Nature.  I would argue that there is here an implicit call for personal authenticity as much as personal responsibility (to the social collective).

In the older Irish societies, the poet (Irish, fili) served the ruler personally and the tribe more generally as holder of tradition, but also as arbiter of traditional codes of justice and virtue.  The poet was understood to have genuinely visionary gifts and could wield the greatest weapon available against misuse of authority: satire.  The ruler was holder of the highest aspirations and virtues of the People and was expected to embody fir flatha, the King’s truth.  The intrusion of selfishness or greed into the society on the part of its fit representative was occasion for debilitation, both of the King and of the Land.  This could be brought about by the power of the poet’s words (holding Power to Truth, if you will).  For some, the poet stood in for the Land in a sacred marriage with the King, who stood in for the People, and the poet’s words reinforced the highest virtues of the society and provided a necessary corrective against degeneracy into egoism.

Down through long years of colonial oppression, the Irish poet and the bardic schools and courts that sustained the poetic tradition carried forward a narrative of the society and its values, not only in poems praising worthies of the past, but also in the aisling, the visionary poem of the embodiment of the Nation in the figure of a woman.

It should be noted–more than just in passing–that the poet’s work in ancient Ireland was embedded in a world filled with ritual.  Religion was not separate from other cultural institutions:  It was inextricably part of the fabric of daily life.  The poet’s work and its importance was supported by ritual.  Much the same can be said, of course, of the work of the tragedians of ancient Greece, which was composed for performance in civic festivals at which attendance was compulsory.

Whitman’s work encapsulated much of the nature of a people building a democratic and egalitarian society.  Like the Romantic poets of Europe, he drew on an ensouled Nature as embodiment of the Divine and cast it as partner to the uniquely American proletarian characters of his verses in constructing a Self and a future.  Rorty clearly prizes Whitman’s regard for the future.  Rorty does also, though, recognize the value of the “pantheism” of Wordsworth.  If Whitman is the poet-priest of the dawning fraternity of urban America, Wordsworth offers the divinity of solitude and communion with numinous Nature, often paired with deities from the Classical past.

As political philosopher Jason Boffetti has noted in his insightful analysis of Rorty’s gesture toward a “new public religious faith,” it is a bit “fuzzy” (a word Rorty uses himself, to be sure) as regards doctrine, but more “concrete” in terms of inspiration.  Literature, especially poetry (and I would add, drama), are understood to work on the soul of the individual and to point to, in the words of Paul Tillich, “a symbol of ultimate concern,” towards which all individuals can aspire and collaborate.

As a doctrine, perhaps, then:  Abstracting just slightly from a parochial concern with American democratic institutions, following the inspiration of the poets of the Romantic Era who freshly minted the forms of old Gods to serve the modern Soul–and the poets of the bardic past of Ireland–a project of “perfecting our Union,” not only among ourselves as “We, the People,” but between ourselves and the natural world embodied in our Land.  Sacralizing our Union and our Land, not because they have been supernaturally ordained or blessed, but because they are precious to us as individuals and as society, ought to be the first doctrine and thus the object for personal reflection and virtuous actions, as well as for social collaboration.

So what do I think…?

At first glance, “Romantic Polytheism” as a name seems a bit  remote from the essence of Richard Rorty’s “religion of democracy.”  Indeed, it is a bit difficult to tease a “religious faith” out of his essay–which appears on the surface to be as much a manifesto as anything else.  A list of five theses appears, but these are as much couched in terms of attitudes one ought not to take as regards religion as prescriptions for a way forward.

For my part, I encountered Rorty’s notion of “pragmatism as Romantic polytheism” not from my background in philosophy (which is limited to a B.A. from a major U.S. institution with emphases in Continental philosophy and aesthetics), but as a practicing Neopagan polytheist.  Let it be said that my polytheism is much of the nature of that found in the archetypal psychology of James Hillman:  It is devoid of appeal to the existence of the supernatural.  The Athenian gods and goddesses of Shelley’s circle–those freshly revivified figures of metaphor and allegory dancing through Romantic verse–are close to my own conception and experience of the Divine.  All these mythic figures (for me most particularly those of Irish myth) populate a personal unfolding of the Wholly Other.

Rorty confesses to have felt the pull of the numinous throughout his life, even as he was practicing philosophy against the background of a public atheism.  That he ultimately undertook the project that is the subject of this consideration resonated deeply with me.

Rorty is still, however, in this essay, the clear anti-supernaturalist.  He suggests strongly that–though even the God of Mediterranean monotheism has a seat at the table in this polytheism of many personal higher powers–the future belongs less to the dramatis personae of Mount Olympus than to various “forms of human life.”

It is here that I find Rorty hedging away from an unflinching embrace of religion, even of a genuinely modern sort, wedded securely to a secular democratic culture.  And so, in the end (and after Rorty’s passing), there is little of “religion” there–certainly little to guide the individual on his or her path toward Romantic self-perfection beyond a simple “Go with God”…whatever God or gods may be there to guide you.

To be sure Rorty advocates for poetry as the ground of the religious enterprise in the modern democracy and for the poet as priest.  This was another point of contact with my own experiences and sensibilities.  At the same time, he offers traditional churches as acceptable…if they are sufficiently committed to social justice.  The academy can also serve, he says.  And democracy itself can be a church.

Of all of this, it seems to me that the notion of poetry as religion and religion as poetry (which Rorty ascribes approvingly to liberal theologian Paul Tillich) is the most fertile ground.  I find Rorty’s references to Coleridge and Wordsworth important, perhaps more so than the central place given to Whitman.  For Rorty, it seems, the political content of the poet’s work is critical to its fitness to serve as scripture.

I would expand on that and embrace a much more catholic sense of poetry as ground of polytheist religion.  Romantic Era poetry did much to particularize the numinous character of the natural world and often to embody it in deific characters.  At the same time, the expansive individualism on offer in the genre is at the center of this enterprise–the private person encountering the Divine on his or her own terms and space.

I would want to push Rorty’s enterprise forward in several ways:

–Recognize the long history of poetry and drama as sacred activities and explore the possibilities of consciously crafting religious activity (including ritual) as art, as appeal to the passions and the aesthetic sensibility.  Key here is a religion that permits an practical encounter with the ineffable without mandating assertions of supernatural agency.  This is perhaps the “pragmatist” dimension of the work.

–Explore the ways in which individuals can be encouraged to explore personal spirituality unabashedly without recourse to asserting its universality–in other words, to understand that my “God” (or gods) is not anyone else’s, except where relationships of mutually agreeable faith practice develop without coercion.  This is the “Romantic” essence of the work.

–Work to provide a safe ground for the exercise of social cooperation that enshrines diversity of theological (or anti-theological) perspectives as private concerns and promotes social and environmental justice as the highest moral aims.  In the democratic society, there are no distinctions among the many goods sought by individuals on their paths to self-improvement as long as they are capable of working harmoniously in social enterprises.  This is the “Polytheism” of the work.

This is a sketch at a beginning with more to follow…

What is Romantic Polytheism?

When confronting a personal longing for the spiritual and the numinous, how does an individual committed to the values of public secularism balance inner longing with social responsibility?  Can a society find a home for ethical considerations and social justice outside of the mainstream monotheist religions?  American philosopher Richard Rorty, a pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey, explored these concerns in a 1997 essay entitled “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism.”

Known for his outspoken public atheism, Rorty struggled throughout his life with a longing for the spiritual and found academic philosophy to be lacking as a vehicle for this component of life.  With this essay, he announced a radical shift in his own worldview–there was, on his view, the possibility to follow a path suggested by earlier writers like James and Friedrich Nietzsche that fully embraced the Romanticist project of unfettered inner moral and aesthetic exploration and development alongside a public toleration and cooperation among varying religious practices and attitudes:  atheist, monotheist, polytheist, and so on.

In this context, Rorty argues for a modern polytheism, one that is Romantic in its embrace of “a paradigmatic project of individual self-development.”  The pursuit of inner moral and spiritual growth, governed by personal passions and aesthetic sensibilities, is bounded by responsibility to work on the social level for the communal good and to practice toleration for the spiritual practices of others.  In Rorty’s words, “[H]uman perfection becomes a private concern, and our responsibility to others becomes a matter of permitting them as much space to pursue these private concerns–to worship their own gods, so to speak–as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to all.”  This balance of private and public moral spheres, where “faith” is private and social justice is the paramount public good forms the core of what political philosopher Jason Boffetti called “a new public religious faith.”

To be sure, by “polytheism” Rorty does not make reference to a plurality of supernatural beings.  As he puts it, “A romantic utilitarian will probably drop the idea of diverse immortal persons, such as the Olympian deities.”  Critically, though, “[S]he will retain the idea that there are diverse, conflicting, but equally valuable forms of human life.”  Rorty seconds Nietzsche’s extolling the polytheism of the pre-Socratic Greeks for revealing “a plurality of norms: one god was not considered a denial of another god, nor blasphemy against him.”

For Nietzsche, the quintessence of Romanticism lay revealed in Classical polytheism, where  “the free-spiriting and many-spiriting of man attained its first preliminary form–the strength to create for ourselves our own new eyes.”

“You are a polytheist” in a secular age, in Rorty’s definition, “if you think that there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs…To be a polytheist in this sense you do not have to believe that there are nonhuman persons with power to intervene in human affairs. All you need do is to abandon the idea that we should try to find a way of making everything hang together, which will tell all human beings what to do with their lives, and tell all of them the same thing.”  For some individuals, there may be many gods (and for some, one or none); Rorty sees perhaps the most productive modern polytheism to be that which recognizes many goods.

Rorty follows in the tradition of Dewey and Walt Whitman in arguing for a religion of democracy, where the communal pursuit of social goods served in the stead of subordination to a transcendent parent figure who decreed values and norms.  For Rorty, poetry and literature supplant Scripture and if a priest is needed–and perhaps not–the poet can serve.

Finally, he sketches what he calls “five theses of pragmatist philosophy of religion”–the core of “Romantic Polytheism”:

First, “beliefs are habits of action…rather than all parts of a single attempt to represent a single world…and that frees us from the responsibility to unify all our beliefs into a single worldview.”

Second, “the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as ‘symbolic,’ and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims.”

Third, “pragmatism does permit us to make another distinction…between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation…Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals–from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs–may be another such paradigm.”

Fourth, “[I]t is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it. The only possible objection to it can be that it intrudes an individual project into a social and cooperative project.”

Fifth, “[t]he pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalists is not that fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus about how to maximize happiness.”

Can Rorty’s vision of a modern polytheism in which personal spiritual development works conjointly with a non-supernaturalistic public embrace of moral values carried in the aesthetic sphere–that is to say, by the poetic and the artistic–bear fruit?  Can this philosophical speculation yield a functional “public religious faith” as Boffetti suggests?