The Bane of Casual Irreverence
Last night in one of my classes, two students were giving a joint presentation on what they called “the figure known as Asherah, Anat, Ishtar, and Aphrodite.” Obviously right away, a polytheist is going to have trouble with the compression of these Deities into one cross-cultural, trans-national figure. It’s dismissive and disrespectful but that is actually not what bothered me, or at least not what bothered me the most. (Given the class parameters, and the academic articles we’ve been reading in kind, I didn’t expect anything else). What irked me, like a lash across the back, was the casual disrespect with which these women discussed these Goddesses, all powerful, mighty, fierce Beings.
Each time one of the women presenting talked about the anger and fury of Ishtar, for instance, she would describe it (and I mean no disrespect here to Ishtar), as Ishtar ‘being whiny and having a temper tantrum.’ The language was tremendously dismissive and disrespectful (though whether it was because they were female Deities or because they were Pagan Deities, I don’t know). The women presenting didn’t give any thought at all to that disrespect. It was completely unthinking and casual. I cringed every time one of our Goddesses was described as ’emotional’ or “petty’ or ‘whiny’ or ‘vain.’ I felt unclean, as though I had taken in miasma through my ears.
I really couldn’t suss out whether these Goddesses were being dismissed because of Their gender or not. It was disheartening to see Anat, who defeated and slaughtered Death himself to save Her brother Ba’al, being dismissed as having had a temper tantrum. Would a male God have been dismissed so easily? Would Jesus or Yahweh? I almost covered my ears when Ishtar, who was once described by a worshipper as stalking the battlefield and feasting on the bodies of her enemies like a dog devouring a corpse, was dismissed as ‘whiny,’ and Aphrodite as ‘vain and feminine.’ It had never once occurred to these students that they were talking about someone’s Deities and perhaps a little respect might be warranted.
That level of casual disrespect isn’t limited to academe. I see it all the time in Paganisim and Polytheism. Every time we dismiss our Gods as petty, we reduce them to something less in the hierarchical scale of things than humans. We lower Them in our estimation. We show Them disrespect. That we may not grasp the inherent wisdom in Their sacred tales or actions does not automatically equate to pettiness or vanity or cruelty or any other human failing. Until we start respecting the Gods as Gods we’re going to have trouble, in our personal devotions, in community restoration, in everything. Where there is contempt and disrespect, especially casual disrespect for the Gods, there cannot be devotion.
I think reducing the drama and potency of the Gods’ interactions to “pettiness” and “squabbling” is a way of reducing Their place in our lives, of rendering Them less “evolved” in our estimation than humans. It’s bullshit, of course, but we’ve been so out of right relationship with the Powers for so many generations that we simply as a group struggle excessively because of it. This brings to mind something my colleague Kenaz Filan said to me when we were talking briefly about piety last week . Kenaz was sharing an incident he’d had to deal with recently and brought up something quite important about the nature of piety and contagion:
“That is the great danger of Impietas: it works like the AIDS virus and erodes your defenses. These people have been wallowing in filth for so long that they find cleanliness distasteful: their noses are so inured to foulness that every stench gets treated like perfume. The deeper Impietas gets into the community, the more difficult it is to dislodge. Ultimately it eats the group alive like a parasite: right-thinking people shun the impiety like the plague it is so you get nothing but the dregs. With them running the show the end is inevitable and generally messy.”
We have been wallowing in filth for far too long. Irreverence has become the cherished law of the land. Casual disrespect is so common in our treatment of our Gods that no one even seems to notice anymore, instead it is reverence and respect that draw hostility. Well, casual disrespect is impiety. Ultimately, it patterns us to perceive of the Gods as less than They are. It reduces Them to our level, which is perhaps convenient when we are struggling to accept our place in this work. After all, if a God is asking something difficult of us, instead of examining how much of our own hurts and baggage we may be projecting onto that interaction, it’s so much easier to dismiss the God all together as mean, or cruel, or petty. Instead of dealing with our own discomfort and resistance, it’s easier to condemn the Deity in question with our words, creating pathways in our minds that only reinforce the imbalance within ourselves with which we’re already being confronted. More than anything else, I think this casual disrespect (in ourselves, in the media — another colleague mentioned to me today how much more hostile media — movies –portrayal of our Gods is now than 50 years ago. I suppose as restorations progress, They’re more of an active threat to the mono-religious establishment now) is one of the most damning and damaging things that I’ve seen in contemporary Paganisms and Polytheisms today. Our Gods are not petty. They are not whiny. They are not having temper tantrums. They are GODS and it’s about time we treated Them as such.
I think some of the most important work we can do when we catch this behavior in ourselves is to stop right then and there, apologize to both the listeners and to the Deity in question, and reframe it. Correct oneself on the spot. When I was dancing, we were told that for every time we did a movement incorrectly, it took between three and ten perfectly correct repetitions to train the right form into the body. I suspect this is much the same. We’ve all inherited a bad habit and it’s up to us to correct this. It’s not going to change itself after all. When we find ourselves being so casually disrespectful to the Gods, I think we’d be better served by stepping back and considering what we’re feeling and why and looking within ourselves rather than dragging the Gods down onto our own level. I try to choose the words with which I describe the Gods — be it in academia, devotional work, my writing, anywhere – very carefully. With each word we utter we’re working an enchantment on our psyche. We are imprinting ideas and attitudes that can serve us or make the work ever so much harder. I think it really behooves us individually to check ourselves, and develop a pattern of mindfulness until we can rid ourselves of this particular bad habit all together. Our Gods deserve as much and frankly, so do we.