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On Gods and Holy Terror

There was a very good discussion happening last week over at The House of Vines and the subject of holy terror came up. I think this was fundamental to ancient experience of the Gods. The Holy was recognized as being terrifying, even as it was ecstatic and transformative. Contact with the Holy Powers was acknowledged as dangerous, something one needed to prepare for, and something to be treated with utmost reverence and respect.  This sense of the Gods qua Gods, as Powers, as possessing the volition and capability to interact with our world, is, I believe, the defining aspect of pre-modern religious experience.

That sensibility changed dramatically with the Enlightenment and that change was cemented culturally with industrialization. As a result, we are all entrained – by secularism, humanism, modernity, etc.– to position ourselves as central to our spiritualties. The prevailing narrative across modern spiritual traditions is that the Gods are there to help us evolve. It’s all about us reaching our potential, healing, etc. We’ve forgotten what constitutes right relationship. This is further complicated by the fact that for many of us, our first steps in our devotional lives were with Gods Who chose to show Themselves in ways that were very comforting and even healing. Gods can do that, of course, and often do (and it’s a good thing. It does, however, complicate our comprehension of holy terror).  I know for myself, having venerated Odin for many years never giving a thought to hierarchy, protocol, or the potential terror of the Holy, it was a huge shock for me when I first experienced it (and I asked to experience it). It threw my entire spiritual world off kilter for a long time because nothing I had experienced was that terrifying, that overwhelming. It’s one thing to read or have some intellectual sense that yes, the Holy can be terrifying, Gods can be terrifying; to experience that first hand is a totally different animal. I think further cognitive dissonance occurs because while the Gods can be terrifying, They are also positive Powers, “good” if such a small word can encompass Their creative power.

Over at House of Vines, commenter IHJ accurately notes:

“Secular Humanism is their actual religion from which they derive their values. You brought up the subject of “Holy Terror” in your post, and I think this is a key concept missing from the theology of most modern polytheists. They don’t view the Gods as objects of awe. Many of them are obsessed with gaining mainstream social acceptance seemingly blind to the fact that no form of religion that retains its integrity will be allowed a seat at the table in the modern west. Why should we give a fuck about meeting to the moral and cultural expectations of a post-monotheist open air shopping mall which is openly hostile to us? I don’t think that we should be approved by the mainstream, in fact we should go out of our way to radically separate ourselves from it, both to weed out the impious and uncommitted, and to draw the attention of those looking for something real.”

I think this is the source of so many of the divisions that plague our communities (certainly it was behind the 2012 schism over identifiers “Pagan” vs. “Polytheist”). It all comes down to the ontological nature of the Gods and how we position ourselves in relationship to that. I think too often we see Them either as commodities, or (and I’m not sure which is worse) as tangential to our spiritual worlds. A couple of weeks ago as part of my practicum series, a reader asked me about the process of conversion. I think this right here is a key facet of that transformation. It’s not enough to replace one set of divinities with another, to shift to a different liturgical style. We need also to look precisely at this: the terror of the numinous and how we relate to that, or if we’re capable of even conceiving of it in terms that rightly humble us before the Powers.

I don’t have any answers here. I put this out there for contemplation. Our communities, I firmly believe, are riddled with a rejection of the Gods’ nature qua Gods, a nature that eschews any subordination to human limitations. I think that eventually direct experience has the potential to move one past this, but without that direct experience, without the willingness to put oneself in the vulnerable and receptive headspace where such a thing is possible in the first place, and most of all, without the willingness to allow such theophanies to change one’s orientation vis-à-vis the holy, I don’t have any solutions. I just know that this, right here, is something we need to be addressing. It’s one of those defining things for a tradition, and for each and every devotee.