The Gods are Not Abusive
A professor once came to a Zen master begging for training.
The Zen master invited the professor in and offered him tea.
While pouring the tea, the Zen master allowed the cup of the professor
to fill, and then to overflow. “Stop!” the professor cried, “what
are you doing?! It’s already full. Nothing more will go in!”.
The Zen master set the teapot down and calmly
looked at the man opposite. “Like this cup, you are already
full of your own opinions and preconceptions. How can I teach you Zen
unless you first empty your cup?”
(traditional Zen koan)
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles recently talking about how to deal with abusive Gods, and how to control one’s devotional relationship, and what to do when one “realizes” that the Gods are treating one “abusively.” Earlier this year I even posted an article going almost line by line through one of these pieces (because the author claimed he/she – not sure of the gender of the writer—was not being taken seriously in these things. Of course I took it seriously, but came to a different conclusion than that author, que sera sera). It concerns me every time I see it and once again, I’ve decided to wade into this discussion.
One of the primary reasons that I’m doing so is the potential for harm that such pieces have (for reasons I’ll go into in a little bit). When someone is new to our religions, to devotional work, or when someone is struggling given that our community is spread out across the globe, one of the first places most people turn is the internet. People can be influenced by what they read and that influence can cause them to take their spiritual struggles to a good and beneficial place or to a place of harm.
I’m going to be fairly blunt in my analysis of this, partly because I’m tired and partly because there’s not much to say that I haven’t said before. Basically, nearly every article that I’ve read has had an undertone of a desire to bring the Gods down to the same hierarchical level as people. To some degree, I get this. It’s easier to engage, safer, and we can have very personal relationships with the Gods for all that They are inhuman Holy Powers. But often this goes farther and there is personal hurt here that I cannot fathom: it’s as though the fact of a cosmic hierarchy with humans in the subordinate position automatically, in the minds of some of these folks, renders the humans as less than as a person. In other words, in some of these pieces there’s an undertone, conscious or not, that being in a hierarchy however natural is oppressive, that hierarchy itself is abusive so of course the Gods being above us in that hierarchy are also by virtue of this position, abusive.
We live in a fucked up world with very few examples of healthy hierarchy. If one is that wounded, it’s important to understand that the scars carried are going to impact one’s relationship with the Gods, and sometimes the way those scars have twisted and patterned one will set up unhealthy dynamics. We need to deal with our wounding without projecting it onto our relationships with the Gods, something sometimes easier said than done.
Can Gods be dicks? Yeah, but challenging and demanding that we up our game is not the same things as abuse. Not giving us what we expect, or what we want is not abuse. Demanding that we sort through our issues is not abuse. Not accommodating us is not abuse.
In the ideal world, we would have elders and teachers, a community generations strong in its polytheism and devotion to help us learn and grow and root ourselves spiritually. We don’t have that. Unfortunately that also means that we are having to rediscover protocols for devotion and ritual. In the ancient world, these protocols existed for a reason: to limit how much of us was exposed to how much of Them. Mystics and shamans, spirit workers and specialists always went farther, got their heads blasted open, danced in the holy fire but for the average person, that was not their experience. They made their offerings, performed their prayers and rituals, honored their Gods and lived their lives. The protocols were there to facilitate communication with a modicum of danger. Why? Because the deeper you go to the Gods, the more accountability is on you to man up and deal with the consequences, and that includes dealing with the fractured and wounded parts of yourself.
To me, it is enough to warn a person: if you go farther, it can be dangerous. It can have consequences. There may not be a going back. We’ve lost our protocols. We also have a culture that is deeply suspicious of any sort of hierarchy even when it is embedded in the fabric of our cosmic experience itself. Now, I’m going to be blunt here: be careful whom you read and take advice from – myself included. When you find someone who is caught up endlessly in constructing a narrative about how abusive their situation with their Gods is, maybe look at the headspace that person came in with, and how it patterned them to BE with a Being farther up the food chain. Be very, very cautious about making that narrative your own, because once you put a label on what a thing is, once you categorize it as THIS and nothing else, it’s very, very difficult to ever look past that. Then solutions become truncated into fight or flight.
I wish we had more effective spiritual direction in our communities. I wish we had an over-culture more amenable to spiritual consciousness. Right now, we don’t, nor is there a network of experienced laity to help a newcomer through. We may one day have these things. We may one day have restored our traditions to their full, multi-generational, inter-generational glory but that day is not today. Today we’re still stumbling, sometimes blind, finding our way in re-learning how to engage with the Holy Powers.
What I do know is that these are Gods. We all have a tendency to want to frame interaction by means of human dynamics and sometimes that works well, sometimes that language and those concepts are useful, but there’s a limit. Sometimes it’s precisely that which allows us to forget that we are dealing with Gods. There’s a balance to be struck there.
Of course, I’m also making an assumption here: that the people claiming abusive relationships with the Gods are actually dealing with Gods. There’s a story in the ancient world about people who were having weird communications with Apollo. These were disturbing enough that a neo-platonic philosopher – nearest thing to a spiritual professional they could find — was consulted. His response (my paraphrase): “what the hell are you doing? That’s not Apollo, it’s the soul of a deceased gladiator fucking with you.”
There’s also a general Christian theory about how one can tell the difference between divinely inspired communication and demonic. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall who wrote about it (I want to say Therese of Lisieux but I can’t recall—it was something I only read in passing). Divine communication can be bitter, very bitter especially at first but then often yields riches spiritually and becomes sweet. It’s opposite begins sweet and only once one is roped in reveals the bitter. All of this hinges on spiritual discernment, something that we tend to overlook all too often in our development, and something that involves an awful lot of working through our own shit. It’s worth keeping in mind however, that things are not always as they immediately seem.
Now go read this article by John Beckett on a completely different topic. He gives some good food for thought.