I saw a passing question on twitter: ‘What makes a God worthy of worship?’
Here are my thoughts.
I believe it is hubris to even ask that question. As human beings, I do not believe it is for us to determine the worth or lack thereof of a God. Our portion rather is to fall on our knees and venerate.
Better that we should ask if we are worthy to approach the Holy, and what we can do to better prepare ourselves and to make ourselves so.
(I”m reposting this piece, which originally posted some time ago, upon request from a reader).
I counseled someone recently who came to me distraught (and I am sharing this now with permission from that person). “There are days when I don’t believe.” She said. “Days when I question. Days when the Gods seem so far away.” She was sure that she had offended her Gods greatly because of those moments where the reality of Their presence was the farthest thing from her mind in the world. I just shrugged and said “me too.” And watched the girl almost fall off her chair.
Belief is a funny thing and while it’s important to cultivate I think it’s equally important not to fetishize it. I know the Gods exist like I know gravity exists. I don’t have to beat myself over the head thinking about it every single day. If for a span of days I don’t feel Them palpably in my world, so what? I don’t consciously feel the presence of gravity either, thinking every time I drop something: behold its power. The most devout person I ever knew, a woman I considered a living sancta told me once that there were times she didn’t believe; but she continued, “whether Loki exists at those times or doesn’t exist, I love Him anyway.” And that was all that mattered. It was that commitment, dedication, and love that guided her devotional life, not abstract musings on the state of her belief. She didn’t let it bother her when it was less than she would have liked; rather, she worked to cultivate it regularly to be more than she could ever hope and in between allowed love and devotion to guide her.
I think it is normal given that we are fighting for restoration, rather than living it organically, that we are picking up and reweaving sundered threads rather than inheriting the full tapestry of tradition passed down in an unbroken ancestral inheritance that sometimes we will be self conscious about our internal processes around belief. Nor am I saying that non-belief is ok. I think, however, that part of building a devotional relationship is learning how to cultivate belief every single day. It’s difficult not to fetishize belief when we are working at a nexus of communities wherein we must fight for space for our Gods to exist but I’ll share with you what I was once taught about it, by the sancta I mention above:
Belief is a choice. You make it over and over every day, throughout the day. You make it every time you choose to engage in devotional work, every time you choose to do something that deepens your relationship with the Gods, that prioritizes Them in your world and like working a muscle, the more you do that, the easier it becomes. Belief moves from the realm of the abstract into a bone and soul deep certainty that sustains.
It is less than about any right belief than understanding that because the Gods exist it has consequences in our lives. Because we are seeking to cultivate devotional relationships with Them, to prioritize Them in our lives, our behavior with respect to things sacred will be impacted. Things have consequences. When one is likewise working to rebuild a tradition, well, that has consequences and requirements too. Getting back to belief however, it’s counter productive to beat oneself up when it falters. It’ll happen. If we think that we contemplate our belief only at those times when it is physically and emotionally palpable, then we must realize that what we are dealing with is an emotion and emotions are questionable guides to any truth. Just because we do not feel belief at a given point in time does not mean that our belief is shit. What it means is that feelings are vague – at best—indicators of ontological truth. Feelings are fragile. They can be affected by anything from lack of sleep to indigestion! We’re all going to have times where we’re just not where we want to be in terms of actively feeling belief. That’s when you make the choice to carry on with devotion anyway, to act in right relationship with the Gods anyway because emotions are variable things but the Gods are not.
I think people often get too caught up in the “feeling” of belief instead of action. In reality it’s not about right belief or feeling, it’s about hospitality and being respectful. One can be respectful regardless of the state of one’s belief. One can treat Them well, as proper guests, respectfully even if one is struggling spiritually. One can likewise struggle toward organic belief and doing so is one of the things that helps to build a strong spiritual life.
I don’t think any Deity expects perfection of practice, not now, not ever. I think that it is the struggles and sometimes even our failures that add color and texture to the fabric of our spiritual lives. I think struggles can be immensely productive and working toward belief can bring us more deeply and closely to our Gods than simply moving through devotion by unthinking rote. The corollary of course would be to embrace those fallow times as deeply nutritive, at least in potential, to our faith but I’m not quite there yet! I dread them, even knowing their worth. Still, and here is the heart of what I’m saying in this post, it’s not productive to beat oneself up for those times belief seems very far away. Just get on with devotion and know that when you can do nothing else, you can still make the choice to be kind, hospitable, and respectful to the Powers.
In one of my classes I’m reading quite a bit about the development of scholasticism, that is the intellectual culture of medieval Christianity, namely its schools of theology and philosophy (a simplistic definition, I grant you, but it will do for now). One of the driving impetus of scholasticism was the union of faith and reason. Theologians wrestled with how to co-opt classical learning within a Christian context and what the proper role of reason might be in theorizing about the nature of God. One of the major theologians of the time was St. Anselm, who –in an insomniac frenzy (I’ve been there, buddy, I’ve been there lol) came up with a rather obnoxious “proof” proving the existence of God. His contemporaries and pretty much every following generation of scholars, including philosophers like Hegel and Descartes spent a great deal of ink engaging with this proof, and having had to read way too much about it lately, while at the same time hearing Pagan and Polytheistic colleagues complain about the pointlessness of discourse with atheists, I began to contemplate Anselm’s task.
I’m not going to delve into his argument here. I find it mind-numbing. Those interested can read this article. I also recommend the book Scholasticism by Josef Pieper, who does a masterful job at explaining both the proof itself and its theological and philosophical impact and import.
I am, however, going to address his task. In addition to having read Anselm, much of this was prompted by this piece by John Beckett, which may be read here, and a couple of unrelated facebook conversations on devotion, polytheism, and praxis.
I often find that people will approach devout polytheists — generally in online spaces but sometimes in person too — with the expectation that we will ‘prove’ the existence of our Gods.(1) I have seen people scramble to attempt to do just that and I have to say it’s a pretty futile exercise. It’s not our job to prove the existence of our Gods to anyone. Our job is to venerate Them. If someone cannot look at the world, the universe, the complex and often stunning beauty of nature and see the hand of the Gods in it, Gods as architects of the cosmos, of all that is, then no proof we can ever offer will prove valid in their eyes. If someone cannot look to their own souls and find some sense of the Holy therein, if they cannot conceive of something beyond the limited sense of their eyes and ears, if they insist upon being unmoved by the Beauty the Gods create, then any proof offered would be, essentially, a waste of breath. We are literally neither moving in the same reality nor speaking the same language. Moreover, those who demand ‘prove it’ are not actually looking for proof. They are looking for the devout person to admit defeat. They are looking to crack the edifice of faith and devotion, to pull that person down to their level of spiritual barrenness.(2)
Sometimes this type of thing is couched in terms of spiritual seeking – “I want to believe, help me.”(3) Then of course any kind and caring person feels obligated. Unless you know for certain that the person really is struggling spiritually, don’t. In the end, belief and devotion are choices. One makes the decision to live one’s life in a certain way, to cultivate certain principles, and to behave rightly with the Powers…or one doesn’t. If someone is hostile to the very idea of the Gods then nothing you say is going to change their mind. What you will be doing is entering into space where someone is effectively pissing on your devotion while you’re being backed into an ideological corner by the type of sophistry that makes one apologize for being devout. Don’t fall into this trap. I would not expect a child who was mentally challenged to be able to do higher math. Neither do I expect someone who has categorically taken a stance in opposition to the Gods and the right order that They have ordained to suddenly transform into a devout person by virtue of my words. “Proof” in the area of faith requires a shared world view and fruitful discussion requires good faith assumption of shared good will. If, in particular, that latter is lacking, there’s no point in engaging.(4)
Where we should be engaging is with each other. It is up to polytheists to do the work of polytheistic theology. It is up to us to pick up where the polytheists of antiquity left off, in philosophy, theology, academia, in lay discussion, in developing cultus, in sharing what we do and how and why we do it.
I wonder at the need to define the nature of God, and at the need so often articulated in scholastic theology for forming some reason for God. I think for the Christians it speaks to a certain discomfort, dis-ease, and anxiety over the existence of thousands of years of polytheistic intellectual culture (which they promptly set about appropriating and twisting out of true, I might add.) (5) I think such mental gymnastics can be helpful in a developed faith (though really, Anselm could have used some Ambien) but I wonder at their role for us now. What are we trying to accomplish if we engage in mental pyrotechnics to prove what is provable only through the lens of devotion? What are we doing when we do this while at the same time eschewing devotion? When, moreover, one has the direct experience of the Gods in devotion, is it then faith or experiential knowledge? Where is that line and is it even an important one to define (6)? Do we really think that our Gods can be fully known through the interpretive filter of our minds alone? But oh, the longing to know Them fully and deeply is what drives so much of our devotion.
I’ll end with a prayer my adopted mom used to say all the time, one ironically drawn from the New Testament. (7) “Oh my Gods, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” Maybe that longing, in the end, is enough. There’s a wonderful image, a sculpture by Bernini of St. Teresa being pierced by the fires of God. It’s unapologetically sensual, erotic, and we see Teresa writhing about to be ripped open by an angelic spear. (Take that any way you wish). It speaks to an experience of God that transcends any neatly reasoned proof. It speaks to the terrible ecstasy Divine Presence can evoke. It speaks to that longing.(8) I can’t help but think that at least some of the scholastics shared the same longing as mystics like Teresa. There was never any need to pit faith against reason. Knowledge comes best through experience, and it is the experience that should drive one’s theological inquires otherwise, what is the point? You want me to prove the existence of my Gods? Give me a decade of consistent devotion and come talk to me. Maybe then, we will be speaking the same language. Until then, your lack of belief is not my problem. Do what the rest of us do: hammer out your reality on your knees in fear and trembling before the Powers. If you’ve not that courage, I’ve not the time. I’d rather read more Anselm.
- It may be that this happens to devout monotheists too – I don’t know. I do think that in many cases it’s a passive aggressive attack on devotion, which is itself a symptom of modernity and its hostility toward religious devotion of any type. I will often engage online if people like this are coming into polytheistic spaces, or attempting to speak for polytheists, largely because they are loud and obnoxious and very good at setting themselves up as reasonable authorities and the potential for this to mislead new converts is enormous. I never, ever, however, mistake their assumed innocence for anything but what it actually is: an attack on devotion. The aforementioned article by Beckett is good, but read the comments and there’s a perfect example of the type of obnoxious behavior I’m discussing.
- No, I don’t think atheists have any business training as clergy or leaders in our traditions. I find it obscene. I have no issue with an atheist attending rituals provided they are respectful, but presuming to have a voice that will shape the future of our traditions – no. Moreover, why would they want one, as so many seem to do? Polytheists don’t generally go into atheist spaces (or any other spaces for that matter) demanding that they suddenly start worshipping the Gods. The reverse is not, however true. I think it’s time we opened our eyes to what is going on here. People, outside my community, upon learning I’m a polytheist, ask me all the time why do I not want to be called Pagan. Many of my colleagues in Classics don’t understand initially why there would be any dissonance between the two terms, until I explain that in the modern communities, Paganism doesn’t necessarily involve any Gods or cultus. Various Paganisms seem to welcome non-belief, non-devotion, lack of piety, spiritual apathy. The focus of polytheisms lies in the very etymology of the word itself: many Gods. The natural corollary to that is that it’s our honor to venerate Them, and good, right, and proper. Sometimes one can compromise, but this isn’t one of those times.
- If someone truly wants to struggle down the long, hard road of spiritual life, then I’ll go to the wall for that person and walk with them as much as I can. “Help me” can be a sincere call and one to which I think we should, if we can, respond. It’s the specific “I refuse to believe, have expressed contempt for the Gods and those devoted to them, but oh, help me see why you do this crazy thing” said smugly and with the assurance of superior reason that I am objecting to here. Of course, some people have been damaged by abusive religious upbringings, by no religious upbringing, by seeing the misery and pain we bring into the world and have a great deal of anger and hurt to work out. Sometimes people choose to do this by attacking in ways subtle and not so subtle others’ devotion. Let them do it on someone else’s dime.
- Understand however, that sometimes being polytheist and having the gross temerity (sarcasm) to not hide it away like something shameful, will naturally cause others to question their own religious decisions. This is a good and positive thing, a natural thing. Many if not most people don’t ever think about why they are whatever religion they happen to practice (or why they aren’t religious). They are whatever they were raised to varying degrees of piety and unless something happens (like a Deity outside their tradition comes calling), there’s little impetus in our culture and society at large to dwell overmuch on this. Of the many character traits young people might be expected to develop in our society, a devout and pious character sadly isn’t one of them. So, it’s natural that when confronted with a religious option they not only may never have considered but more likely have never even heard of (outside, maybe, of history books), that they will be curious and that their own internal questions may start. Be encouraging. You may be the only polytheist they’ve ever met. This is where fruitful dialogue can occur.
- Though Aristotle had the last laugh there. It was the reintroduction and rediscovery of the Aristotelian corpus by the West that spelled the end of formal scholasticism. Some polytheistic ideas just can’t be tamed to Christian appropriation. The reintroduction of Aristotle in the west was the death knell of scholastic theology.
- I think it is. I often worry that I am not a woman of faith because my devotion has been, by grace, reinforced by intense direct experience. Would I prove weak in faith were it ever put to the test? I don’t know. I hope not, but I don’t know. I think there is a particular and very holy grace in being devout and passionately loving the Gods without the reinforcement of direct theophany.
- If they can coopt our philosophers and theologians we can coopt them in return!
- I really do think that pitting faith against reason is a false dichotomy. To a devout person there is nothing more reasonable than faith and to a person of faith, reason is a gift, not something to be feared. Like the fire and ice that drove creation in the Norse creation story, the eternal tension of opposites, these two things feed and drive each other in ways that can be very, very beneficial to one’s tradition. Together, they are absolutely necessary for full, clear discernment too. Faith and reason circle around the same fire.