July 18, 2012KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsWriting

Constantly Protean: or, On Polytheism

The upside to getting published is getting read. The downside to getting published is getting misread. I recently found an interesting statement about my work (and myself) from a critic-blogger who is starting a series entitled “Twenty Contemporary Writers of Faith.” The focus was on writers “with an understanding of orthodox Christianity.” In a post the prior week, I was announced as the lead-off writer to be profiled in this series. Our critic-blogger must have read some more of my work and not liked what he saw; this week the series kicked off with a different poet. The following introductory statement was made regarding my work and my “faith commitments.”


“I was going to begin this series with Amit Majmudar, who writes from outside the       Christian tradition but whose work, to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, is “Christ-haunted.” Instead I’ve decided to begin with the Catholic poet William Baer. I may get back to Majmudar (and other writers whose faith commitments are a bit nebulous) in a twenty-first post.”


Now, please keep in mind that I never respond to statements of taste (unjust and sometimes evil things have been published online and in print about my work—I suffer in silence!). I only correct misrepresentations of me or my work. And in this characterization—which is not, actually, negative—there are two counterfactuals. One is the contention that I write “outside” the Christian tradition; the other is that my “faith commitments” are “nebulous.”

Well, all right, maybe nebulous, to an outsider—but clearing that up is why I write this. I fear this may become a representative misreading of me and my work (I’ve seen the confusion in two prior reviews of my poetry), so I would like to settle this religious-affiliation thing once and for all.

The confusion must arise because one moment I’ll write a vision of Christ (like the title poem of my first collection, published in a major Catholic journal) and simultaneously publish Sufi Muslim poems and parables (like Azazil, a novella serialized over three issues in The Kenyon Review itself). Add to that the Hindu mythological epic, in mixed prose and verse: My 780-page Ramayana, which two years ago landed me the big-name NYC literary agent, is going to be released as soon as the next couple of novels come out.—So why am I all over the place, religiously speaking? What, exactly, are my “faith commitments”?

The plural commitments there is key. I am a polytheist. My polytheism originates in Vedantic Hinduism, but it doesn’t limit itself to the Hindu pantheon. I am actually an extremist in my polytheism, which means I carry my polytheism to the point of including other Gods, even the ones that declare themselves (or are declared) the one and only. I believe polytheism requires you to pluralize yourself, to recognize the plurality of Gods and peoples and cultivate selves to embrace them. I speak other religions like languages. I have done some of my best prose writing as a Muslim (I’m thinking of Azazil) and some of my best poetry writing as a Christian (overtly Christian journals, like Image and First Things, were among the first places to publish my work, and in generous amounts).

In this, my religion ends up in practice a lot like what’s called secular humanism. The major difference is that my polytheism is not universally tolerant of various faiths; it is universally in love with them. I communicate using their symbols, learn from their scriptures, and, yes, even create art inside—not outside!—their traditions. And by doing this, I demonstrate, I embody and enact their unity. That is the gift that Hinduism has given me. It has fixed my nature as protean. It has given me the best of all worlds.