Prioritizing the Gods
On the way to the post this morning I drove by the local Presbyterian Church. They have a sign out front that they change regularly and it usually includes some pithy saying or tagline to draw one in. Today their sign caught my eye because of what it said: ‘Making God’s priorities your priorities.’ I thought, “Yep. That about covers the most difficult part of growing in devotion.” Since I was still thinking about that as I got home, I decided to write a bit about it here.
I’ve always maintained that it’s not enough to just believe in the Gods. In the end, it’s not even enough to venerate Them. As with ancestor practice, polytheism is something that should become the lens through which every part of one’s life, every interaction is filtered. The awareness of the Gods and spirits changes everything, should change everything, most especially how we stand in relationship to Them and to our entire world. It requires re-evaluating our goals, our values, our priorities and considering whether or not these things are in proper alignment with our devotion to our Gods and with what our Gods desire. Often it involves getting ourselves out of the way (more on that in a bit). That, I think, is the place where most people balk.
It’s easy to think that devotion is all about feeling the presence of the Gods. Maybe one is particularly gifted and can hear or even see Them. I won’t deny that the capacity to experience the Gods directly is a tremendous grace but, those things are in the end unimportant and focusing on them too much can be a powerful distraction to actual devotion, especially when they are sought or embraced without even a hint of discernment. If our devotion is predicated on seeing, hearing, or feeling the Gods what happens when we can’t do that? What happens when we’re in a dark place, a dark night of the soul, or going through some type of emotional upset that has impacted our discernment? What happens when feeling or seeing or hearing is not forthcoming? Does our devotion go away? Moreover, demanding that we have that feedback every single time we make an offering or prayer is putting the Gods on our timetable, holding Them hostage, subordinating Them to our whims and our needs. It is a violation of the hierarchy of being of which the Gods are part. They are Gods after all, not our invisible friends (for all that They may care for us, nurture us, and engage in a friendly, loving manner with us at times). It prioritizes our desires over what is good and right and proper: maintaining right relationship with the Powers. It reduces the Gods to playthings and elevates us in Their place.
This is where getting ourselves out of the way comes in. I strongly believe that we are deeply loved by our Gods. I think that They want the best for us in all possible worlds. I also think that our own world is poisoned and out of balance and our wants and desires, our egos and hungers have been shaped by that lack of balance. We’ve been taught to value things that are detrimental to our spiritual life. We’ve been raised by virtue of the culture in which we live to prioritize things that are not in alignment with the goals the Gods have for us and that are certainly not in alignment with any developed and authentic spiritual expression. When the time comes to raise ourselves up, to curb the corruption or atrophy of our very souls, when the time comes to change, to move beyond the immediate reinforcement of seeing or feeling, we balk. Sometimes we run like hell. Sometimes we throw tantrums and immerse ourselves even more in those things that are spiritually detrimental.
I’m prepping a paper right now on pop culture and religion for an academic conference and anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m not a fan of combining the two. In fact, I think that absorbing pop culture uncritically can have devastating consequences on our spiritual sense. The problem isn’t, believe it or not, pop culture itself. Pop culture has existed as long as we have possessed the ability to craft and convey stories. In the ancient world, Homer might have been considered ‘pop culture.’ Certainly, later philosophers challenged the Homeric corpus (at least the Iliad and Odyssey) on the grounds that they presented the Gods and heroes impiously. The problem is less the stories we tell than the context in which they’re told. In other words, the problem is our over-culture. In the ancient world, you had a culture steeped in polytheism. Not having yet had the dubious benefit of modernity and the ‘Enlightenment,’ devotion and piety were not yet positioned culturally as primitive, foolish, or potential mental illness. The culture itself was steeped in religion in a way that allowed for the inter-generational transmission of piety and these things countered any potential harm from the pop culture of the time. Even those who may have had a paucity of actual faith were encouraged by the philosophers of their time, by their culture, by their traditions to attend to the proper rituals and otherwise behave themselves. We don’t have that.
What we have instead is a culture that encourages us to prioritize the shallowest aspects of our lives, that encourages us to treat the Gods as errant children, that encourages us to behave, in effect, with gross (though usually ignorant) impiety. We have a culture that encourages anything but deep devotion, and that certainly doesn’t respect any intergenerational transmission of tradition. This complicates the process of opening ourselves up to the Gods. It complicates our growing in faith and spiritual awareness and it complicates us growing into fully developed human beings, human beings in right relationship with our Gods and dead.
Does all of this mean we should never expose ourselves to popular culture? Maybe. If your idea of a good night’s television is the Kardashians please try to develop your tastes a little. But maybe it means that we approach the popular culture that we imbibe critically, with eyes open, aware that it carries with it seeds that could blossom into gross impiety and ugliness in our souls. It’s an opportunity to have conversations, to challenge ourselves and the culture in which we were raised to reconsider and to do better. There are times where I will leave a movie or turn off a particular television show, even if I’m enjoying it, because I don’t want to give that level of pollution space in my head. I don’t want it to take up real estate that would otherwise become fertile ground for devotion. I want the seeds of that devotion to grow in rich, clean soil. Then there are times where I’ll watch anyway, but make offerings and cleanse afterwards, and maybe discuss with whomever else was present why it was problematic, even though it might have been enjoyable as hell. It depends. I think we’re called to do this not just with pop culture but with our culture assumptions, our values, the foundation of our morality, our goals, priorities, and everything in our world. We are called to consider everything.
It is a challenge to allow ourselves to be reshaped from the inside out by our piety rather than to attempt reshaping our piety to suit our undeveloped souls. We may not know all the time what our Gods want, but we can do those things that make us receptive to finding out. We can immerse ourselves in those practices that help us develop deeper piety, deeper devotion. We can accept that this process of doing devotion well is going to have its ups and downs, its fallow periods and its periods of deep insight and communion, and that it will, if done rightly, change everything about how we view our world, how we position ourselves in it, and ultimately how we will set ourselves to changing it.
So yes, I think devotion ultimately does come down to cultivating love of the Gods, cultivating a hunger to approach Them in our hearts, to making offerings and doing rituals but above all else, to allowing ourselves to be changed by the process of devotion, to allow ourselves to be transformed, and to a willingness to critically examine every single premise with which we’ve been raised, and every single thing our world tells us most especially in relation to our Gods, but not just there. And if the idea of aligning our own priorities with those of the Gods evokes resentment or anger, then maybe the place to start is in considering why.