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


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.

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…