Praying to a God, Religious Identity, and Boundaries

Today, I finished reading Olympiodorus’ Gorgias commentary. One of the most striking things about the footnotes and the conversation in general is his attempt to sanitize Hellenic theology and Platonism in a way that is palatable to students on whom he relies for his livelihood in a culture that was now hostile to pagan teachers. While scholars have discussed this at length — an interesting piece I read recently was “Pliable Platonism” by Michael Griffin — what got my brain churning wasn’t anything to do with antiquity, but my experience as a polytheist in America, specifically in yoga classes.

In 2012, when I took my current job, I decided to start doing yoga, by which I don’t mean the full eight limbs, but asana and pranayama. From a practical perspective, my library job means that I was suddenly sitting a lot looking at a computer screen; from a social standpoint, being alone in a room of people was the exact level of “I need to get out of my apartment” I needed; and from a religious standpoint, yoga is saturated with references to South Asian Gods and their cultus. One of the things I learned after listening to teachers hedge through their opening talks — usually between 2-5 minutes in length to set the tone and theme for the class — was the significant effort they made to accommodate Christian students so the references to Gods’ myths and the chants (om namaḥ shivaya is literally a prayer to Shiva) were seen as nonthreatening. (Hindu texts were referred to generically as “spiritual wisdom of yoga.”) I kept going to the teachers who did this less often — including one teacher whom I loved because she integrated kirtan into her classes, and I love kirtan — because it made me deeply uncomfortable that this hedging speech was happening, and I didn’t feel empowered to speak up.

Which brings me to another point: Outside of certain religions that claim exclusivism, most people are perfectly willing to pray occasionally to a God without it meaning anything for their religious self-identification.

I am not suddenly practicing Hinduism by reciting a mantra for Shiva or doing occasional kirtan. If I were to visit a Shintō shrine that I stumbled across, it would not make me a practitioner of that religion, either. Neither would impromptu prayer to a specific Kemetic God for a personal issue or striking up regular prayer afterward make me a Kemetic polytheist. Praying to a divine being does not automatically initiate a person into a wider framework of worship. Study, instruction, and formal (sometimes initiatory, depending on the protocol) commitment does.

What would be wrong is ignoring those religious elements in yoga entirely. Yoga arose from South Asian religious traditions, so doing a mantra without acknowledging the God(s) and/or theological position(s) it honors is not okay. Similarly — and to be clear, this is me speaking as a non-scholar Neopagan who grew up praying to Goddesses in the Missouri backwoods with my mom — I wonder if it’s possible to engage with Platonism while ignoring its context, either, no matter how much people try to sanitize it. That question haunted me when I read Olympiodorus, and I think it’s an important one that is still relevant to how Plato is used in academia today.

This isn’t to say that the Christian privilege doesn’t make doing the right thing hard. We are talking about a dominant religious group with a segment that thinks it is under attack because of the phrase “happy holidays,” so I can imagine how avoiding the sanitization of mantras, myths, and sacred texts referenced in a yoga class could be dangerous for a teacher. Still, unless one is teaching in an area where physical safety is at risk, it’s important.

“Around the World in 80 Faiths” is a reality show about a British vicar’s discomfort with other religions. At a stop in Asia, he sees several Buddhist women (maybe high school girls or college-aged women; I saw this a long time ago, so please don’t trust me on the deep details) who were praying to Saraswati at a shrine for success on their exams. He challenged them that Buddhists should not go to non-Buddhist houses of worship to pray. They treated him with confusion and disdain, as he was a British man with a camera crew telling them how to practice their religion. Here, he was trying to influence them with his own rigid way of thinking. And many modern Neopagans are the same way, with rigid boundaries drawn up around pantheons and practices as if hearth cultus determines the sum total of all of the Gods one could ever worship. Paradoxically, we have both very rigid boundaries and are in desperate need of boundaries.

And I think that is where I leave this. Stay safe and warm, and if you celebrate the Anthesteria, tonight is a great night to pray to your ancestors.

11 thoughts on “Praying to a God, Religious Identity, and Boundaries

  1. It’s possible that polytheists’ reactions to polytheists praying to deities outside their cultus is a reaction to eclectic Pagans who will pray to any deity, rather than taking on a Christian exclusivism.

    I don’t think we should underestimate how hard it is to be practicing a tradition like yoga or Tai chi that is based on polytheism and the concept of energy (prana, chi) in a secular and Christian-based culture. I am constantly frustrated by the refusal of local teachers of Tai chi to actually talk about chi. I’m not sure if this is for fear of offending Christians, or for fear of offending sceptical atheists. The only time that this happened was when we went to the actual main centre and there was an actual Chinese guy who told us how chi is supposed to move internally while doing Tai chi and I could feel it. This has made me decide (once the pandemic is over) to try to find a class where it is not taboo to discuss chi. I think it significantly distorts what Tai chi is about and dilutes its effectiveness. I totally agree with you that it’s really annoying! But I suppose they’re worried that all the students would leave if they started talking about it. On the other hand, people like you and me would be more likely to stay. Tricky dilemma.

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    1. The stigma around these elements is definitely a factor, and I think that points to the fact that there’s a power dynamic when one is living off of fees from students that makes it hard to risk one’s livelihood. There is also likely a reaction based on not wanting to attract Western New Age practitioners and, in the case of yoga and tai chi, wanting to highlight the benefits of the practice to the embodied self in a way that doesn’t sound dogmatic even though all philosophical systems have dogmas and dogma isn’t intrinsically bad. However, at least in yoga spaces, the discussions around appropriation and proper conduct have broadened to encompass Christian (and culturally Christian atheist) discomfort with the religious elements in yoga. I think Anusha Wijeyakumar (@shantiwithin on Instagram and at https://shantiwithin.com) is a good person to follow for this content, as she is very vocal about yoga and Hinduism.

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      1. All good points!

        On the “power dynamic when one is living off of fees from students that makes it hard to risk one’s livelihood,” it seems to me that this is one of the most important reasons why philosophers in the tradition of Socrates don’t charge for their teachings.

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      2. Yes indeed! I’m reminded of that section at the end of Apuleius’ GOLDEN ASS in which the character praises having a small, ordinary job that frees him to devote time, money, and energy to Isis, and I think that approach (of having a job that empowers one to have a life) is transferrable here, too.

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  2. Thank you for all of these thought-provoking reflections. There’s a lot here that I could remark on, but for the moment, just a couple of thoughts around Olympiodorus and the “haunting question” he raises…

    At a philosophical level, as we’re talking about myths and symbols, I think it’s crucial to distinguish between:
    (1) statements of the form “symbol X indicates Y”, or even (in some contexts) “myth X means Y”, and
    (2) statements of the form “X just means Y”, “X really indicates Y,” etc.,
    where the adverbs in (2) are expressing an exclusionary sense of “only”, ruling out or at least marginalizing all other interpretations.

    Filling this in with an example, if Olympiodorus (or whoever else) asserts that a mythic narrative indicates something about the human soul in sense (2), this will quite likely write the Gods out of the picture in a very problematic way. Whereas making a very similar assertion in sense (1) might be incomplete but not problematic in the same way, since for the (Procline) Platonist, the Gods ground (and so, causally account for) both the myth itself, and the analogous quality of the soul. So, option (1) would say something true but incomplete, insofar as it describes a partial truth without explaining it, while option (2) would be flat out false.

    It’s been a while since I’ve really spent an extended time with Olympiodorus, and unfortunately, I don’t have ready access to the Greek text of the Alcibiades commentary, nor to the Gorgias commentary in either Greek or English. So I’m not prepared to speak with confidence to what Olympiodorus himself is actually doing. But reflecting on what you’ve written here, and especially upon the really troubling (to a fellow polytheist) account that Griffin gives in the article you linked, I’m wondering how much of the trouble is there in Olympiodorus himself, and how much of it is being read into his text by modern scholars and translators.

    From the perspective of both the more “liberal” sort of Christian, and of the “tolerant” atheist—who from my perspective are not really different in any relevant way—it would be such an “enlightened” attitude, if Olympiodorus were to be writing the Gods out of the picture as fully and completely as Griffin makes him out to do. So a translator or interpreter who was coming from that perspective might very easily read her own prejudices back into the text, in much the way that so many translators of Plato whitewash his robust polytheism. That translator or interpreter might not even notice what she was doing, in her surprise and delight to “find” such an intelligent thinker of the past “already” getting to the “right/proper/ultimate/final” view of things. Or she might think she was being especially “charitable,” by allowing Olympiodorus the “right” or “best” answer.

    I’m not sure how much of this is happening in the case at hand, but it strikes me that it would not be that hard for a translator to turn certain expressions of type (1) into expressions of type (2). It’s also possible, since we’re dealing with lecture notes written by presumably Christian students, for the same shift from (1) into (2) to have happened back in the 6th century, at the hands of those scribes.

    Of course, it’s also possible that Olympiodorus was just a sell-out, plain and simple, who wrote the Gods out of his teaching and his practice of philosophy. And even option (1) might be selling out to a certain degree. But I wonder…

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    1. I think your bit about how this text was taken down from a student’s lecture notes is really important. Often, when I was reading, I was wondering how much the notetaker and/or editor(s) censored some of the content of Olympiodorus’ lectures. I don’t think it’s right to call Olympiodorus a sell-out — it’s impossible for a person to be wholly good under bad circumstances. He was living at a time when intellectuals were being purged from society. The effect of Hypatia’s death would have thrown a terroristic shadow over everything, especially given how gruesome it was, and I can’t imagine it not impacting how he taught the dialogues. I wonder if his perspective was more that he didn’t want the tradition to die out and that his compromises were the only way to see the cultural continuity continue. In that case, the atheists and Christians who (as you point out) want to use that are just taking advantage of someone in a desperate situation.

      The one place where I do see substantial evidence of (2) in the translation is a part at 47.2 (and also somewhere else because what I’m reading doesn’t seem to be 100% of what I remember) where Olympiodorus is explaining to students that everyone really believes the same thing beyond the common notions and that the Gods’ names/identities are just symbols that could be seen as part of the same being if the students preferred:

      47.2 Let that suffice for these matters. And note that philosophers think there is a single starting-point of all things and a single transcendent cause that is first of all, ‘from which all things spring’, to which they attach no name. For what name could be assigned to it? That is surely why someone says in his hymn:
      ‘How shall I praise you, you who exceed in all things?’
      ‘What account will celebrate you who are not even graspable by intellect?’
      So they say that there is a single starting-point for all things, but that this does not produce the things in our world in an unmediated way. For it would be disorderly, if we were produced by the first cause itself. For an effect seeks to liken itself to its cause as far as it can; and in so far as one cause is greater than another cause, so too the former’s effect is greater than the latter’s. In just the same way one who is more knowledgeable produces pupils of greater renown. Necessarily then other greater Powers [than us] were produced by the first [cause], and then likewise we were produced by these. For we are the dregs of the universe, since we were necessary if the world were not to be incomplete. So there exist other greater Powers, which the poets also call a golden chain, on account of their close connection with one another.
      Now the first Power is intellective, and then [there is] the life-generating Power and the healing Power and so on, which out of a desire to signify [they] speak of symbolically. Do not be disturbed by names, hearing talk of a Power of Cronus or a Power of Zeus or suchlike, but concentrate on the objects themselves, for we signify something different when we use these names. If you wish, think that these Powers do not have individual essences and are not distinct from one another, but place them within the first cause and say that there are within it both intellectual and vital Powers.
      47.3. When we say Cronus, do not be disturbed at the name, but consider what I mean: for Cronus is koros-nous, that is pure intel- lect. That is the reason we also call pure and virginal females ‘maidens’ (korai). So by this name we signify the Power of intellect. For this reason the poets too say that he swallowed his own children and vomited them back up, since intellect turns back on itself and is itself both seeker and sought. So he is said to have swallowed his own children and vomited them back up for this reason, namely because [intellect] not only seeks and conceives, but also brings forth and benefits. For this reason too they call him ‘curved-wit’, because the curved shape inclines towards itself. And further since there is nothing without order or innovative in intellect, for this reason they describe him as an old man and slow to change. That’s of course why the astrologers say those who ‘have Cronus on side’ are wise and possess intelligence.
      47.4. So that is what is signified by these things. Further, they speak of life by using the name Zen as well as Zeus, because it is through himself that Zeus gives life. And further they say that the sun, Helios, proceeded on four horses and they describe him as young, signifying by this his four turnings and his prime, and they say that Selene, the moon, proceeded on two bulls. On two because of her waxing and waning, and on bulls, because just as they work the earth, so too the moon governs the cosmic order around the earth. And further they say that Helios is male and Selene female, since it belongs to the male to give and to the female to receive. So since the sun gives the light and the moon receives it, for this reason they give him a male name and her a female. These are poetic names, so do not be disturbed.

      To your point, there are many things written above that I look at and think “oh, yeah, this is consistent with how it is described by others and it is not inherently selling out to the pitchforked proselytizing masses,” such as the dregs bit that seems consistent with the Timaeus. But the end of 47.2 does cross a line, and the allegorization of Kronos in this passage has a heavy weight when compared to how Proclus discusses the God in the Platonic Theology‘s Book 5 (around Chapter 25).

      But when thinking about Christianity and its sweep through the places it Christianized, its conversion tactics did employ a lot of brute force, destruction, and massacres, but the more insidious bits are how Christian hegemony forces even the unconverted living in Christian-dominant places to adapt our thinking and behavior. It’s death by a thousand cuts and the slow roll down. Olympiodorus does mention that philosophers have agalmata, so I don’t think that he wrote the Gods out of his personal practice.

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      1. Thank you for the extended quotation; this was very helpful. I totally concur with your reaction to it: quite a lot that’s incomplete but consistent, and real trouble with the end of 47.2.

        Ultimately, your last paragraph, which is spot on, makes the key point here. To put it in the terms that Plato gives us in the Gorgias itself, “brute force, destruction, and massacres” are horrific, but in the end, they affect only our possessions (i.e., our bodies), while the insidious changes to our thought and behavior affect our very selves (i.e., our souls).

        If my initial reaction, and especially the term “sell-out”, was a bit harsh, it’s partly because of how much sympathy I have for Olympiodorus’ complicated position, as I recall various points in my own life, some in the last few weeks, when I’ve faced pressure to compromise in the ways that I talk about the Gods (albeit only with the threat of social or professional sanction, not literal death and dismemberment). Sometimes I’ve done okay. Sometimes I haven’t.

        I also wonder about the contrast between Olympiodorus and Simplicius, who is writing here, in his commentary on Epictetus’ Handbook, specifically about the role of the philosopher in the city. For what it’s worth, scholars are not sure whether this was written before or after Simplicius, Damascius, and the others of the Athenian school went into their own exile:

        In worthless states, however, he will abstain from public affairs, because he doesn’t like badly-governed citizens, and isn’t liked by them either, and he can’t serve the rulers of such people while keeping ‘that trustworthy and respectful person [i.e., himself] around.’ Hence, since he declines to give advice about matters that are beyond cure, he will emigrate to another, better state if he can… If he can’t, he will crouch under a little wall… [referring to the same passage in the Republic that Olympiodorus will later cite]

        In such states, where many are jealous of anyone who wants to live in accordance with nature, it is also fine to present yourself as moderate or as enjoying the smaller share (especially in honour, but also in the other external things), so that their jealousy is moderated to the extent possible (although I am not unaware that even moderation often attracts bitter jealousy). It is also fine to keep far away from offending people in power and from tasteless frankness in these circumstances, so that if something difficult happens, it’s not the reasonable person who caused the irritation of a wild beast at rest, but rather the irrational and insane element of the beast itself. It is clear that one must make it gentle, but without being abject or betraying one’s own freedom or attaching oneself to flatterers either in word or in deed. For anyone who experiences any of these conditions has lost his ethical disposition and been expelled from the Olympic contest.

        You must realise, however, that the more worthless states are, as a whole, harmful to souls, and especially suppress divine illumination, dishonour finer pursuits, and extinguish examples of the good life. Hence they form an impediment quite generally, both to the origination of well-being in the souls and to its stability in them.
        (Simplicius, in Epict. 65–66 Dübner, trans. Brittain & Brennan, vol. 1, pp. 119–120)

        When we really find ourselves on the ground, how diferent is this from the choices that Ammonius and Olympiodorus made? I honestly don’t know. And could I do any better? I honestly can’t say that with any confidence, either.

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      2. Thank you for posting that long section! I have this on my TBR and it’s goin to be a treat to read Simplicius, I think!

        It is really difficult to avoid compromises. I didn’t disclose my religion at work before I had gone through our “you can stay here and library now” promotion cycle (which took 5 years; it’s a bit like tenure but with different requirements). Growing up Neopagan is sometimes a privilege in that being clear about that history leads to people asking fewer questions than they ask of people who are adult converts, as most people are expected to stay within or adjacent to the religion(s) they were raised in.

        However, fear of social and professional sanction can be very powerful. I haven’t pushed back against people calling for the desacralization of the library profession, for example, because I don’t know that we have enough common ground for me to explain that some religions have library-related Gods and that it’s more inclusive to push for workers’ rights and an end to unhealthy puritanical self-sacrifice expectations. The language is so Christian-centric and everyone involved’s background is culturally Christian, it seems, so the effort required has me just wanting to crawl under my duvet. Conversation-wise, I have had a lot of practice staying truthful and synthesizing ideas to present my views in a way that doesn’t sound confrontational or contrarian, and I try to rely on that when I judge it necessary, but it does take a lot of energy.

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  3. Thanks for this – it was really insightful and kind of solidified some of my feelings around being a Heathen who occasionally prays to Hindu Gods in a similar context of Yoga & kirtan practice.

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    1. You’re welcome! One of the surprising things that I have gotten out of reading the Late Antique Platonists is a lot of socioreligious stuff that has me thinking more critically about the environment we live in now, not just a better understanding of Platonism itself. I’m happy that these reflections were useful 😁

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