Integrity in Speaking about the Gods
This entire autumn has raised awareness for me, in a theological sense, of something that I never considered before; namely that, when speaking of our Gods, it is incorrect and grossly unethical to state categorically that “Deity X likes [insert belief or behavior here] (1). It’s one thing to share insights into a Deity’s nature within the devotional relationship (always implicitly mediated by our own human understanding), and quite another to project our own opinions onto a God.
I think we recognize this right away when the sentiment being ascribed to a God is something like the Westboro Baptist Church with their “God hates F*gs” rhetoric. It’s hateful, gross, ugly and of course we all agree, the Gods, including theirs, don’t think so. That makes sense, right? Well, the opposite is also true and it kind of blew my mind when it was pointed out to me.
I was auditing a class and when the professor noted this I and several of the other students almost fell out of our chairs. We were reading a piece by Rowan Williams (chapter one of his On Christian Theology).Williams notes that (in theological or political discourse – he briefly noted the latter as a segue into his theological discussion) “to make what is said invulnerable by displacing its real subject matter is a strategy for retention of power (2).” This is true regardless of which end of the social scale is utilizing this tactic. What that means, essentially, is that to speak for God is to grant oneself the absolute agency of God. Williams goes on to discuss what constitutes honest and potentially fruitful theological discourse, namely that it invites discussion and response, and most importantly of all, it does not claim to speak in any unqualified way for God. In the course of the class, we were going to be reading MLKs “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the professor pointed out that just like Westboro Baptist Church is making absolutist claims about their God, so is MLK (3). We happen to agree with MLK (and I think, rightly so!) and because of that, such a rhetorical choice slips by us.
It’s easy to see the lack of integrity when the sentiments expressed are so incredibly vile like Westboro Baptist, but what about when they’re something we completely agree with, like homophobia is bad. Or, what about, to give an example that was recently brought to my attention, someone who firmly believes “Thor hates racists (4).” My understanding from reading Williams is that he would push for interrogations and reconsideration of those statements too, perhaps most especially because we accept and agree (thus removing the apparent need for further and deeper consideration).
I also think such rhetoric, potentially elevates our divisions and categories as something embedded in our cosmology and in the desires of our Gods which in turn reifies those divisions in ways that also reify the problems caused by them. But there’s a bigger question at play here. Why is it so important that our Gods ratify our decisions not to be complete assholes? Why do we need our Gods to tell us that racism is bad? Shouldn’t we be able to reason that out for ourselves? The bodies we wear, after all, in all their glorious brokenness, are part of the condition of being human. It does not follow that such corporeality is relevant to the condition of being a God (5). Are we so ill-prepared for moral reasoning that we have to push it all onto our Gods?
I think this goes right back to the place we have been conditioned to ascribe to both religion and morality. In the polytheistic world, religion was not about determining ethics and morality. It was a set of protocols for engaging properly with the Holy Powers. Developing virtue, character, one’s morality, one’s ethics – all of that came from education, culture, and most of all philosophy. It’s only monotheisms really that traditionally elide all these things under ‘religion,’ but we’ve grown up in a monotheistic society and we ourselves instinctively default to this same equation as “normal” and “correct.”
There’s a larger issue at play here too. In speaking from the POV of the Gods, unqualified, unmediated, and doing so while at the same time ascribing our opinions and politics and feelings to those Gods, we are distorting the role of religion. We are making it instead a clique – and this is true regardless of what side of the political spectrum we’re on, regardless of what feelings we are expressing, regardless of what issues are at play. We are setting up a litmus test for determining who might approach the Gods. We are determining who is licit in Their eyes. We are determining who can pray to our Gods. We are blocking those who do not fit our agenda from cultus, even if they themselves are fulfilling all the requirements of proper religious practice (6).
Then there is the reality that taking responsibility for our moral choices deepens our character and our ability to stand on our own two feet in performance of our religious obligations too. It makes us better, fuller human beings on every level. Devotion is not a weapon. It should be the one place we can come together in unqualified veneration of Gods within our traditions. It matters how we talk about our Gods and it matters even more when we presume to speak for Them.
- I think it’s fine to say “Freya seems to like strawberries.” That’s passing on information that will help another devotee make a good offering. But to say ‘Freya hates TERFS,” well, probably, but I still think it’s wrong to state such a thing as unqualified fact. You don’t know. You’re assuming. You’re projecting your own opinion onto a Deity and presenting it as unqualified fact. If we are looking at lore alone, we could say Freya is a Goddess of women and I think this can open up a very fruitful discussion about trans issues, and I think that there is enough in the lore about Frey and Freya to make the assumption that neither Deity would support gender exclusion but I would still argue that one should qualify that as extrapolation and inference, not unqualified fact. It’s one thing to say, for instance, that Odin is the God of soldiers. We know that from the lore. It’s quite another to say that Odin * likes * soldiers. He may. It’s not an illogical assumption, but it’s pretentious assuming the perspective, the point of view of Odin to infer His emotional register and preferences. It’s projecting our own limited way of looking at the world onto the Gods and that is a conscious choice to likewise limit the Gods themselves, putting us in Their place and granting to us Their authority. It becomes more complicated since we are religions of diviners and oracles, but even there, there is an obligation to be as clear as possible, to assume nothing, to make sure that the interstices of our humanity are articulated without ambiguity.
- His argument is fascinating, complex, and thought-provoking – far beyond the scope of this blog post but I encourage people to read the book, or at least the first chapter. I read it in September and it’s been percolating in my brain and affecting the way I write about the Gods since, because I think he’s correct both in the theological inaccuracies such language promulgates and the power play that so often lies behind its use. Now I do think it is perfectly acceptable for an elder or teacher within a tradition to speak to the boundaries and practices of the tradition, because their sacred work is specifically nourishing and sustaining their religious tradition and helping to pass it on in a clean and thorough way. That is different though from saying, “Deity X thinks…” with no other categorization. Even saying, “within the bounds of this tradition, this is how we interpret thus and such a story about God X” opens up the discourse in a way that taking on the role and voice of a God simply does not. The latter is a presumption bordering on hubris.
- If you haven’t read this, go here and read it now. It’s one of the key documents of the 20thcentury civil rights movement and a powerful indictment of the moral fence-sitting happening amongst white clergy during protests against segregation in Alabama. It is where we get King’s famous dictum, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- This blog has been problematic for a while. The owner has a bug up her ass about me and my work despite the fact that, to my knowledge, I’ve never met her. So, given how much and how often she slanders me, I’ve no problem using her as an example here lol. She’s constantly posting unqualified statements like ‘Freya hates TERFS’ and ‘Thor hates racists.’ Can we infer that? Probably, BUT it’s simply wrong on a very deep theological level to state such a thing without the qualificationof “I think that,” or “From my experience,” etc. Doing so implies that we know the feelings, opinions, and will of a Deity fully and as human beings, that is simply never the case. It puts us in the position of our Gods.
- Since our cosmology teaches both that we were created carefully by the Gods and endowed with certain characteristics (breath, warmth, and sense, i.e. the ability to reason) and also that the Gods moved amongst us further fathering children, I think one can make a carefully reasoned and coherent theological argument against racism. I would still word it very carefully however, when alluding to what the Gods Themselves might feel or think, no matter how sure we think we are. It’s good practice, a good habit to get into.
- For instance, while I find Fred Phelps and company utterly, irredeemably vile I can think of no one who more “needs Jesus” or some other God, the leavening influence of cultus, the elevating influence of proper religious observance to cultivate what little humanity the troglodyte has left.