What is the purpose of religion? Of religious community? What is the end game? What are we all aiming for? Every faith has to find these answers at some point.
Last Friday I had dinner with some Heathen friends. We talked about Theodish Heathenry, about martial arts, and about British Traditional Witchcraft. Each of these are organizations with defined hierarchies. There are people obviously in charge, people at some mid-point, and people who are new. Everyone has their place in the hierarchy, and pretty much everyone starts at the bottom and works their way up. And in every organization there are people who approach with misguided intention. When do I become a Thane? When do I get my black belt? How long until I get my third degree?
For a lot of people the end game of their faith is based solely in status or personal development. The kindred, dojo, or coven merely exist to aid them in their quest for knowledge, status, or power. The community is a means to an end, a tool, rather than the end result itself. While this view may exist more strongly in some people, I think this attitude is pervasive in our culture.
Part of the reason this attitude exists is due to adult conversion. In an organic setting a child learns the faith as they grow and as they are interested and able, so that when they enter their religious community as an adult they are already a native thinker in that particular religious culture. With adult converts, it can take a decade to reach that point. Moving from one mode of thinking to another is a slow, evolutionary process that can’t be forced or rushed. We begin as children, learning child-simple lessons, and the stronger meat we crave is often only attainable after a significant period of time. You cannot read a 101 book and then jump into an advanced book and expect to be a native thinker in a new faith. It is unreasonable. So we have developed multi-year training programs in our various faiths. Benchmarks help to organize and create incentive in this long, slow process for adults who aren’t used to going back to square one.
Years of study are required in Theodism, martial arts, and British Traditional Witchcraft for good reason. As adult converts our path is necessarily slow. Embodying our traditions take a significant amount of time. It took me 10 years before I could no longer natively think like an Evangelical Christian. Sure, that upbringing and culture still influences me, but I find it puzzling now. My mind thinks differently about religion, and the first thing my heart grasps onto is not monotheistic concepts but polytheistic worldviews. This took a decade. Not easy work.
So these years of study, this slow entry into a new religious life, if entered into with simply status or power as a goal is such a huge waste of time. Self-improvement is important, but it isn’t everything. If you spend a decade trying to achieve a position of status and power, you have failed in your faith. I don’t care how many ancient languages you have learned, how powerful a wizard you have become, or how much knowledge you can rattle off. If you spent a decade using community as a tool, rather than as the primary focus of your faith, you have wasted a decade and missed out on so much.
Study and self-improvement is important. Religious nerdery is important, particularly in revived polytheistic religions. But blessed are the pie-makers. Blessed are those who create community, who focus on community and hospitality. Blessed are those who do the dishes and chop the wood. Blessed are those who will never be a high priest, a lord, an author, or an expert of any kind. Blessed are those who show up with pie. Nerds are good, but we need more pie-makers. We need to make sure the pie-makers know they are important, welcome, and vital.
I’ve been thinking about what I have jokingly referred to as “Vatican II polytheism.” Ancient languages are beautiful and important and vital, but they are not for everyone, and they can be intimidating to newcomers. Often I have found myself taking a good hard look at Khaire! and thinking how much simpler and effective it would be to say Good cheer! Maybe the Greek sounds cooler and more authentic, but which one communicates more effectively? Which one is more likely to reach the listeners heart?
A lot of the early study in Theodism, British Traditional Witchcraft, and most martial arts, is about testing the ego and revealing the heart. A person of good heart wants to help, and is as happy to wash dishes as lead ritual. A person of good heart is happy to engage in community even when the work they are doing isn’t sexy but repetitive and boring. A person of good heart doesn’t give up just because they didn’t get a merit badge, a degree, a belt, or some shiny title when they thought they were supposed to. A person of good heart is invested in the community.
Just so, the community should be invested in people of good heart. They should strive to give these people something sincere and meaningful. They should let them know that regardless of whether they are writing liturgy or baking pies they are a valuable part of the community and treat them as such. And while everyone deserves a second chance, if someone reveals themselves to not be of good heart then they need to go. Your community is precious and should be protected from predators. Your community is the end goal, and should be cared for diligently. The people in leadership positions should be those who care about the community, have its best interests at heart, and are not focused on status.
In British Traditional Witchcraft one end goal is to become sufficiently advanced to be able to return to your coven in your next life. It’s a romantic theology borne of the imaginings of the “Burning Times,” and drawing on Greek mystery traditions. The whole point is maintaining community, even after death, and yet Witchcraft and Wicca at large tend to use the community as a tool, rather than cultivate it as the goal.
So here is an exercise: think about your religious community in terms of the next decade. Who are your nerds? Who are your pie-makers? Who are your leaders? How do you serve both nerds and pie-makers? That new guy nervously fiddling with his cup of coffee trying to take it all in: how do you support his journey of conversion over the next decade? That woman who embodies the virtues and invests in the community but will never be a religious nerd: how do you make her faith richer while acknowledging that she just wants to be a pie-maker? And if the community is the end goal, how do you provide for that community over the next decade? How do you strengthen ties, build bonds, and provide safe space for worship, growth, and fellowship? How do you begin looking at your community in terms of good hearts growing deeper bonds rather than increasing numbers achieving more badges?
I have been a religious nerd ever since my momma let me pick out my own Bible in my early teens. I still have that Scofield KJV Study Bible with maps and indexes. For the past 15 years I have been a polytheist nerd. Now that I am finally in a place where I think natively as a polytheist, and I have realized I am not interested in status or degrees, all I want to be is a pie-maker. I want to bring food, give hugs, do dishes, worship in my native tongue, not spend a fortune in time and money studying ancient texts, and love everybody. I am a pie-maker, and looking for a community who will support me and accept my gifts as a pie-maker.
There is nothing wrong with hierarchy or tribalism, as long as you are of good heart and you make space to honor the pie-makers and religious nerds alike. Blessed are the pie-makers, for they help create community.