Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

How to Destroy Universalism

How to Destroy Universalism
Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak / Unsplash
Pagan Apologetics That Really Works

If you prefer the audio of this article, click here.

The Imperium Press chat on Telegram is one of the few public forums that hosts both Christians and pagans in about equal number and does not descend into bitter invective day after day. We pagans love our Christian brothers in there and vice versa. Occasionally though, a Christian from elsewhere will get wind that the Imperium chat is the place to go to debate pagans. They’ll wander in and kindle the smoldering debate into a general conflagration. Sometimes I myself even get to participate (I’m in a weird time zone so often I miss it).

It happened again this week, and it’s been happening more and more recently. This time, I didn’t miss it. The result was that the folkish turn that we’ve been developing here in this Substack—and that several pagans in the Telegram chat have taken up—has proven essentially unanswerable by universalists. It is so effective against them it’s almost unfair. In this article I want to go over two things: a) how our approach works, and b) why other approaches have failed in the past. Let’s look at (b) first.

The main approach pagans take when they seriously debate Christians is classical polytheism—the theology of Plato, Aristotle, and other pagans of Hellenistic and Roman imperial times. It has never really worked against Christians. People like Celsus and Julian the Apostate are to be commended for taking a stand for their gods. But while you can find folkish statements here and there in their work, as a coherent system of thought, it does not and cannot defend folkishness, but rather forms a foundation for its opposite. And so, sharp Christians who know their theology find it easy to funnel the debate into the question of whether the Neoplatonic One, or the Form of the Good, is really Yahweh or some more abstract monotheistic deity of whom Odin and Shiva and Zeus are mere emanations. This approach is totally inadequate, and has cemented Christian hegemony over apologetics.

But why can’t classical theology defend folkishness? The short answer is because it does not know what religion fundamentally is. And this is the kernel of why our approach works—nor do our universalist opponents.

All universalism is based on affirming truth. This is why Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”1 And the essential feature of truth is its universality. A proposition like “the earth revolves around the sun”, cannot be true “for you” but not “for me”. It is either true for everyone, or for no one. Truth is either objective or it is nothing. Analytic philosophy has a name for this: agent neutrality. The truth value of a proposition is agent-neutral—the identity of the agent who utters it, or to whom it is uttered, has no impact on the validity of the statement.2

No folkishness can be founded on truth, or more precisely, on metaphysics,3 which is the view that reality can be exhausted by propositions. This does not mean that folkish pagans can’t have objectively true beliefs. It just means that for folkishness to make sense, it must be that truth is not “at the bottom”. Truth must itself rest on something prior.

In order to defend our religions against universalism, we must reconcile agent-neutral (universalist) truth with agent-relative (folkish) religion. The temptation here is to make religion something that comments upon or elucidates the unitary truth of reality. In essence, this is the approach of classical polytheism, the idea that metaphysics (truth, propositions) is the foundation, and religion is how you connect with, pay homage to, and participate in this foundation, which is then called “the divine”. It makes religion into a kind of self-help, and myth into a kind of morality play that illustrates what cannot otherwise be expressed. This is the source of the controversial “allegorical” school of pagan hermeneutics. Many paths up the same mountain, and each people should follow its own path.

This classical polytheist approach has one great strength—it considers religions as fundamentally moral in nature, which they are. But it fails to carve out any legitimacy for polytheism, because it subordinates religion to metaphysics, which is unitary, universal, and agent-neutral. Metaphysics concerns knowledge, and on this account, so does morality, in that religions are really allegorical readings of metaphysics. Morality is just another kind of knowledge, albeit a poetical one.

It is not valid to argue that different peoples should have different morals, customs, or religions,4 if we can’t get around thinking of morality and “should” in terms of knowledge. If a moral statement, like “men should be brave and courageous”, fundamentally traffics in truth-value, then it is universal. If morality is a kind of knowledge, then morality is universal. If the Germanic gods are there to teach moral lessons, then they teach universal truths, and can and should be believed in by anyone and everyone, just as heliocentrism can and should be believed in by anyone and everyone. This leaves us with extremely flimsy reasoning whereby we should worship Thor and not Shiva or Olorun, and others should not worship our gods. This reasoning convinces no one, and cedes frame entirely to monotheism, which can state quite straightforwardly and intuitively that because truth is universal, and morality is universal, so should religion be universal too. This is why classical polytheism failed historically, and why it continues to fail today.

Now, let us move on to (a), how our approach—let us call it the folkish turn—succeeds where others have failed.

The folkish turn rips out the foundation of universalism so completely that it is hard even to characterize it. We have spent dozens of articles here fleshing it out.5 But for the purposes of apologetics, one key difference is that although religion is fundamentally moral in nature, morality is not a kind of knowledge. And not being knowledge, religion is non-universal.

When you say something like “men should be brave”, you are uttering a proposition. But unlike the proposition “the earth revolves around the sun”, there’s something special about the moral proposition—there’s a “should” involved. This “should” conceals a whole grammatical substructure that we otherwise miss. The “should” is really an abstracted command, and a command is a very different kind of utterance.

A command is inherently agent-relative. For the command “do as you’re told”, who utters it, and to whom it is uttered, make all the difference. If my father says it to me, all is well. If I say it to my father, I’m liable to get the belt. Unlike propositions, commands traffic not in truth-value, but in aptness. They are very much valid “for me” but not “for you”. They are inherently particularist. They are inherently folkish. This is why liberals don’t like anything to do with command or authority. This is why Jesus told parables instead of giving orders.

Classical polytheism is right in seeing the connection between morality and religion. The basic “stuff” of morality is the command, and so too with religion. Although belief certainly is part of religion, at bottom religion is not a set of beliefs, but a set of commands. Pagans are saying as much, although in a somewhat distorted and unconscious way, when they say that religion is orthopraxic—it is primarily something you do, and belief is secondary. This is why cult and ritual is the cornerstone of pagan religions. It is also why historical pagan state cults were not so much concerned with personal belief as they were with practice. You were free to believe whatever nonsense you wanted, so long as you made the public obeisances at the prytaneum or the Vestal hearth. Belief is not the point of religion, action is. In fact, when we say that religion is fundamentally moral, the term “morality” is not strong enough. The command is really the embodiment of tradition.

Tradition (aptness, orthopraxy) cannot be reduced to metaphysics (truth, orthodoxy). There is an inherent gap between the metaphysical “is” and the traditional “ought”—the famous is-ought gap. This alone would carve out a space for polytheism, and call for a kind of truce between universalism and folkishness. But the folkish turn goes further than this. Folkishness states that the proposition in fact depends on the command—metaphysics depends on tradition. The is-ought gap cannot be bridged by going from metaphysics to tradition. Rather, it can only be bridged by going from tradition to metaphysics. It’s not that folkishness can simply defend itself from universalism, it goes on the attack—universalism depends on folkishness.

The only way you can have propositions (thus, truth) is to have concepts. And the only resource from which to pull concepts is tradition. Concepts don’t exist independent of a folk. We don’t pull them out of nowhere either from experience or from some abstract realm. They are tools, handed to us by long usage, and are specially fitted to one folk or another. The Russian does not have “blue”, he has “goluboy” and “siniy”, which are metaphysically distinct for him as green and blue are for us. It is by our (traditional) concepts that we derive the (metaphysical) world. As folkish pagans, we understand that these are not merely conventional, but apt, fitted to one folk by way of its biology, by its biological imperatives, which are not different from the commands that its tradition hands down through the ages. Your tradition (commands) are not built out of metaphysics (propositions), but your metaphysics are built out of tradition. This is as true at the linguistic level as it is at the level of reality.

Commands depend on authority, and since commands are the basic stuff of reality, it turns out that your every experience is a concretization of authority. When you make the simplest claim—unless true by definition like 2 + 2 = 4—you are leaning on authority at every turn. When you look out into the world and see blue, a tree, a marriage, or justice, you are looking at what authority has commanded you to take as blue, a tree, a marriage, or justice. It is authority all the way down. Tradition being embodied authority, there is no foundation that universalism or metaphysics can stand on to question the tradition of our folk.

This cuts universalism off at the knees and forestalls all empty logic-chopping of classical Christian apologetics. But it gets worse for universalists. Since authority is what’s at the bottom even of metaphysics and epistemology, their theology is invalidated. Anyone who arrogates to themselves the right to question the gods, our forefathers, or our customs, sets themselves up on Hlidskjalf itself. And woe betide them when Gangleri returns. By claiming the right to decide the ultimate authority, they have made themselves the ultimate authority. They are just liberals who haven’t got the memo yet.

There is much more to say about this, but this is only a basic overview. By making command—the most objective thing imaginable—the basis of truth, pagans affirm objective truth while practicing folkish religion. Indeed, to practice any other kind is to undermine the very foundation of truth. The folkish turn snatches presuppositionalism away from the universalists. Classical polytheism is totally inadequate to maintain polytheism because it accepts Christian framing but tries to reach non-Christian conclusions. The folkish turn revitalizes pagan apologetics by showing that this framing—indeed even discourse itself—rather depends on folkishness.

John 14:6.2

Generally. There are exceptions for things like indexical or demonstrative expressions, but let us put that aside for now.3

By “metaphysics” here I don’t mean “another realm” or “the divine” or any loose conception of the term. I intend the philosophical meaning of “that which concerns the most fundamental reality”.4

Or for that matter, that men and women should have different rights and duties.5

To find more, see the Guide to the IP Substack. All the points laid out here are in summary form and have been elaborated elsewhere.

Support the author here