The Obligation of “Good” Religion
I recently skimmed through a Patheos article titled “The Two Obligations of Good Religion”, which posited that good religion was there to heal the world and heal ourselves. Not bad goals I suppose, and the article (which I believe was originally a sermon?) was not bad, but I don’t think that’s at all what religion is for. (We just can’t help ourselves. We’ll make everything human centric if we can).
From the perspective of many polytheisms, religion is there to A). serve, honor, and venerate the Gods, first and foremost. It is about the Gods and about our ancestors and maintaining our ancestral traditions (1) and B) to maintain balance in the world. Good polytheism acknowledges the cosmic hierarchy of Gods – ancestors – land spirits-community (people). Maintaining right relationship within that hierarchy is what leads to health and abundance. (2)
This does not mean that working to establish and remain in right relationship with the Powers doesn’t inspire a person to do good works and to be deeply engaged within the community. It does and it should but that is a side effect from getting oneself rightly ordered. There’s a saying by one of the ancient philosophers (I forget by whom at the moment) that the Gods are not there to provide virtue. It is our job to nourish it and when we do that, They will help augment what we ourselves have carefully tended. I think that’s an important point. Caring for the world and ourselves is good but it is not religion.(3)Religion is about the Gods and the protocols of our relationship with Them. It is about learning how to engage in healthy ways with the Holy, being changed by that, inspired by that and bringing all of that back into our homes, lives, and communities.
We care for the world because it is sacred and alive, because it is holy –the body of one of our dearest of Gods. We heal ourselves because the process of coming into right relationship with the Powers forces us to do just that; but we practice our religions because it is right and proper to honor the Gods and ancestors in these ways. To mistake effect for purpose is to end up unable to differentiate between sophistry and prayer, or social justice work and piety.
Maybe in the long run it doesn’t matter: after all, helping the world is a good thing, as is healing ourselves but whenever the purpose of religion gets discussed, it always seems like the Gods get elided out of that equation. Religion is Their territory, Their space and I think it’s important for our own integrity of practice (not to mention cleanliness) that we understand the difference between human space and sacred – i.e. God owned—space, and what constitutes right priorities in each. Our traditions deserve that, as do our Gods.
1. Cicero posited that the word ‘religio’ from which we get our word ‘religion’ meant to be bound to the ways of one’s ancestors. He was likely wrong about the etymology but not necessarily about the ideology.
2. The Romans called this the “Pax Deorum” or ‘peace of the Gods.”
3. I very much believe that true health and happiness comes from proper veneration of the Holy Powers and from rooting oneself within our polytheistic traditions. It is, however, a side effect not a goal.