I constantly hear from my Christian friends, even those in theology, that “God is love.” I understand what they’re trying to get at with this, but I’m always given pause every time I hear it. Something with that just doesn’t sit right with me, and it’s not that it’s the Christian God they’re talking about, though in many cases, there is an unconscious universalizing factor in such rhetoric that is likewise disturbing. Your God is not my God. Using language like this dismisses differences and ultimately monotheizes the very idea of a Deity. There’s something about reducing any God to an abstraction I find intensely problematic. It took me awhile to parse out my thoughts on this and I suspect that I’ll be returning to this again in the future because I’m just scratching the surface here with my comments. There are, I think, massive issues with reducing any Deity to an abstraction, particularly to an abstraction that makes us comfortable. It may be pleasant rhetoric, but what are the actual consequences?
For one thing, the more abstract a God is rendered, the less need there is for concrete expressions of devotion. If God is love, well, love is a universal concept. Everyone feels love. Everyone is, most I think would agree, deserving of love. Love in such statements as “God is love” is never actually defined. What kind of love are we talking about? To say that God is love also subtly negates one’s God being anything else. It impersonalizes.
Because of that impersonalization, it’s also profoundly limiting. “Love” after all is a very human concept. It’s a concept, a feeling, a verb, impersonal and only one among the myriad of feelings we humans are capable of. It precludes the terror of the Divine. Then, of course, if we divorce “God” from terror, and equate “God” with a feeling, what happens when we just aren’t feeling ‘love.’? Does that absolve us from religious duty? To say that God is love in fact, given modern ideas of love, in and of itself absolves one from any duty; we don’t after all typically think of duty as walking hand in hand with love. In this day and age when fidelity is a rarity and lack of virtue in relationships is celebrated, the idea that love might entail obligation is almost unthinkable.
The abstraction of love also erases any personality in that Divine figure. It’s as lazy as saying “spirit” without being specific as to which one, Whom, etc. Because love is such a human centric concept, it’s about relationships and interactions, it pulls the God in question down to human level, making that God approachable in ways that perhaps a Deity ought not to be. It removes mystery. Suddenly it’s not a matter of transcendence or immanence (I think Gods can be both), but this open, loosely defined idea of ‘love.’ What is that? Certainly, not Being-hood or independent identity. I also wonder if it doesn’t deny a God independent being-ness outside of that Deity’s relationship to us.
Finally, I think that to say ‘God is love’ removes any agency from the God. I would say a God may express love, a God may love, but any Deity is so much more than any one abstraction. Maybe one can say that one’s God is the embodiment of love, but even that presupposes that God’s relationship to us. I don’t deny that our Gods can be extremely loving, can even embody that state of being, but They are so very much more whether we are in the picture or not and it’s the rest of the equation I think such blanket statements erase. Maybe this is why the biblical God when confronted by Moses asking His name kept it simple: I am. Maybe that is enough.
In last month’s newsletter, I posted about my recent interview with Sarenth and Jim on their podcast Around Grandfather Fire, but I don’t believe I mentioned it here. I gave a fairly long interview and had a great time. They asked some deeply insightful questions and I think the convo is worth a listen, which you, my readers, may do here. They have a whole index of interviews that you can listen to on various topics of interest to our traditions .
When you are contacting someone for religious advice, for advice on how to do polytheism well, for advice about your Gods, resources, or anything else for that matter, regardless of what bona fides that person has or says that they have online, you need to consider the nature of what you’re told, and where that advice will ultimately take you.
If the person you contact is suggesting things that would draw you away from the Gods, that would cause you to prioritize other things, that would cause you to avoid the development of spiritual virtues, that would limit your devotion, or even that would pull you away from venerating a particular Deity for any reason whatsoever, think twice.
Just because someone claims to be an expert doesn’t mean they are. Look to the results of what you’re being told. Will it make you a better devotee of your Gods, a better human being, more devout? Will it cultivate piety? Will it help you approach your Gods more mindfully, more cleanly? Or are you being given advice to ignore those things, to take the easy way out, to do what feels good to you – regardless of whether it is useful in your devotion and development or not? Will it enhance your understanding and practice of your tradition, or not?
I think that we are meant to be people of worth before our Gods. We are meant to develop within ourselves the habits and character that will allow us to honor Them rightly and well. I very strongly believe the Gods want us to be healthy human beings, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and insofar as is possible (because bodies suck lol) physically and the key to that is centering oneself in the ancient contracts of honoring our Gods, our ancestors, and the land. I believe it is through our devotion that we become fully realized human beings and honoring our Gods fervently is good and right and true. I believe that the problems that arise are often due to a disjunction between proper devotion, a worldview steeped in piety, and the degradation and emptiness of our modern, anti-theistic world.
Nothing, not politics, opinions, personal differences and divides should impact the answer to the only question that matters: will what you’re being told increase your capacity to love the Gods even more? Will it make you better in your devotion or not? You don’t have to like the person who is giving you advice – this is not about us after all. It’s about building our traditions and getting better at honoring the Gods and if someone’s advice helps me do that, I will heed it. Personalities and politics are pointless in the face of that. So, consider your priorities and maybe allow for the remarkable thought that your Gods may not share them.
Last week I had a FB discussion with a former Heathen, who has since left Heathenry to become agnostic. We were arguing over the death of that missionary who tried to pollute the Sentinalese. I considered his death well deserved and my interlocutor disagreed. I had assumed that I was arguing with a co-religionist but it was almost immediately apparent that our worldviews were drastically different and finally it came out that he was agnostic. He had left Heathenry because the community was mean (whine whine), and there were white supremacists, and blah blah SJW talk blah. Dealing with Heathens of all different approaches and opinions apparently proved too much of a challenge to his “progressive” values. Ok fine. Bye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I wish you well. But I also said that our disagreement, in light of this, made perfect sense. At which point, he first starts trying to explain why he’s become agnostic (I do not care. In fact, I could not possibly care less why you chose to abandon your Gods and I certainly don’t want to hear your life story unless you’re paying me to provide pastoral counseling and probably not even then) (1) and when that wasn’t well received, opined “don’t you think my path is as valid as yours?” um, no, I don’t.
Firstly, it’s a mistake to fetishize community. Yes, we all want it. Yes, it’s important. It is not, however, equal to the Gods. Religion is all about being in right relationship with the Gods. That a community is not, should not impact the faith of the individual. That’s a hard thing, I know that but I don’t think anyone should belong to a particular religion solely because of the community. People are fallible and it’s inevitable that at times they will disappoint, sometimes deeply. One’s faith should not rest on the infallibility of any human creation. One’s faith should instead rest on experience of the Gods and ancestors, devotion to Them, and a commitment to veneration.
Secondly, why on earth would I consider an agnostic (or atheist, or anything else, including other religious positions) point of view as valid as that of polytheism? From the perspective of devotion, it’s simply not. One either believes in one’s tradition and Gods and values those things as the highest good or one doesn’t. If one does, then that is obviously the healthiest and best position one might hold; and while I may not condemn someone for making a different choice, neither do I have space for them in my emotional or spiritual world (and we’re not even talking potential miasma). From the perspective of faith, all religions and choices are not actually equal and what’s more, they don’t have to be. We are not, after all, attempting to build one overarching religion. Everyone does not have to agree. I think we’ve all been brain washed by a society that elevates “tolerance” over everything, including moral courage. I prefer “respect.” I respect your right to follow a different tradition. I will even fight for your right to do so. I do not, however, have any need of your company and I may think you are very misguided, foolish, and possibly deluded in my heart of hearts.
Finally, as a person of faith – at least on my good days ;)—I don’t see the point of allowing those who do not share my worldview to take up cognitive space. I’d rather expend my rather limited energies on building up a devout community, on engaging with co-religionists, and on doing what I can to honor my Gods and ancestors. I remain astounded that someone would think that I would consider any other faith or lack thereof to be equal to polytheism. Our traditions are not interchangeable after all. Our Gods actually matter.
- Inevitably those who have chosen lack of devotion and impiety insist on explaining themselves, but this is usually merely a means of gaining our support and approbation. There’s really no reason to care. I’m not in the business of proselytizing. Nor am I in the business of encouraging atheists and agnostics to proselytize in my presence. I kind of side with the Sentinalese on this one.
“Between “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy”, I privilege neither, but rather affirmation of the Gods Themselves. This is not reducible to “orthodoxy”, because there can be multiple doxai concerning Them, nor to “orthopraxy”, because practices can and do change.”
–Edward Butler, Phd
For one of my classes, I recently had to read Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth. In one of the chapters, Orsi discusses the impact of Vatican II on devout Catholics. Now, I personally think that Vatican II was one of the biggest mistakes the Catholic Church ever made (pandering to Protestants in the name of ecumenism, excising devotion, Marian cultus, saint cultus, and embodied devotional practices, putting the mass in the vernacular, easing up on regulations binding priests and especially nuns, devaluing the latter almost all together) and we in other traditions can learn quite a bit about what not to do from it as we engage in our respective restorations. It was a surrender to secularism and modernism and the end of the Church as a functional entity. It was also an outright attack on devotion. That being said, as part of his work, Orsi discusses several interactions with clergy on the matter of lay devotion and it’s that which I wish to discuss.
One chapter discussed a priest, post Vatican II, who was so against any aspect of devotion that he talked about the immense disgust and rage that he had whenever he saw statues of the saints or Mary, or any old school devout Catholic practice. He told Orsi that he wanted to destroy the statues and sacred images and spewed an immense amount of vitriol toward the very idea of actual devotional practices. This is a priest saying this, someone who ought to be encouraging devotion. It was striking and one of the most polluted things I’ve had to read this year. The account involves a Father Grabowski and occurs on p. 56-57 where we have a priest encouraging desecration and sacrilege — in the name, of course, of progress. “’The urge to destroy…haunts me’” Father Grabowski confesses” (57). He is talking about seeing statues of saints, and in the same paragraph, a statue of the Virgin. Time maybe to call an exorcist.
Disgust, aversion, and especially rage toward things associated with devotion or the sacred is one of the first signs at best of spiritual pollution and at worst of demonic obsession or even possession. What so many Catholics would term the demonic, I tend to see as an extension of what some of us term “the Nameless.” Evil exists, evil being that which is categorically ranked against the order that our Gods have created and that They work to maintain. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. It is insidious. It is the thing that we must ever and always guard against in our spiritual lives. It may have only the openings we give it, but it is very, very good at conniving to have us give those openings.
When holy things, devotion, and other sacred things begin to cause a reactive response of rage and disgust, an urge to destroy, that is a serious warning sign. I’ve gone through this myself, time where being in the presence of the sacred has been like razor blades down the skin of my mind, and every single time it has been an attempt to derail my work, to put a wedge between me and the Gods, to pollute. I have regular cleansing practices and this is one of the reasons. After the first time I noticed this, once I took care of it, I heightened those protocols to prevent just such a thing. With those cleansing practices in place, it’s much easier to recognize this state of spiritual emergency and deal with it as soon as possible. That’s exactly what it is too: a spiritual emergency. In better times, I might feel sorry for this Father Grabowski that he lacks appropriate spiritual direction to overcome this, but with things being as they are now, I’m just disgusted. It’s not just that one person may feel disgust, part of their poisoned state is a desire, no, a needto spread that poison as far as they possibly can, and to destroy devotion wherever it might be found.
This isn’t something that only affects specialists either. Lay people are every bit as susceptible. This is one of the many reasons why having a good prayer practice is so incredibly crucial. It realigns us every single time we choose consciously to engage, even if we do so imperfectly. Sometimes we must fight our way to the Gods inch by bloody inch, against the press of “progress” that would cast our devotion as superstition, against “modernity” that would urge us to abandon belief and practice, against evil.
Today I was checking my Facebook and I came across this gem:
“Notice to my friends-I will not be taking part in or hosting or organizing any [Pagan denomination name’s] rituals or [name of Heathen denomination]’s rituals until I start getting the things I have coming from the Gods and Goddesses. I have grown weary of communing with them, giving them offerings etc to have nothing in return for my connection to them. In my world there is suppose (sic) to be reward or at least confirmation that what I do for them is being put on the balance sheet. So until the scales get balanced in my favor I am withdrawing from all ritual work to honor the Gods until they start to fucking recognize and reward what I have done for them over the years. I will honor my class obligations but beyond that I will be ignoring the Gods.” [I am omitting the name of the author as well as his denoms.]
I’m sure the Gods can hardly contain Their upset at this guy’s decision. SarcasmI sincerely hope this person gets the things he “has coming” from the Gods. Oh, I sincerely do. The level of obtuseness here irritates me but also makes me very sad. Someone hasn’t had very good spiritual direction, at the very least. Now I’m not posting this to shame the poster (If I were, I would have included his name) but because I think this attitude permeates, to varying and lesser degrees, large swaths of our community (especially Heathenry). I rarely see it as clearly articulated as the above, but it’s there coloring, all too often, our devotional lives. I probably should have more compassion but I’ll be honest, I don’t. We should be well beyond this by now and one of the biggest issues with Heathenry today is that we have zero structures in place to provide proper spiritual guidance, to provide good, devout models of how one should engage with the Gods, and most of all, we have zero infrastructures that challenge this outlook. We allow atheists to claim community privilege, we shit on the very idea of proper clergy and specialists, we reify the lore as though we were bible thumping Protestants, mock and spit at devotion, and at every turn we give our Gods nothing. While it’s marginally better than when I first became Heathen thirty years ago, there’s still a terribly long way to go and there shouldn’t be.
We all have our peevish moments before our Gods. Those momentary lapses are not a bad thing. We’re human and our Gods’ awareness and understanding must encompass that, given that They made us. The problems arise when this is a default spiritual setting. WHO THE FUCK ARE WE TO ASSUME THAT THE GODS OWE US ANYTHING? This guy whines about all the things he’s done for the Gods. What? What have you done that possibly abrogates your responsibility as an adult for venerating Them? We do not honor the Gods and ancestors because we want things in return – not unless we’re shallow, selfish, underdeveloped, pathetic human beings. We honor them because it is the right thing to do, because it is our privilege to do so, because establishing and maintaining right relationship with the Powers transforms everything. It elevates us and brings us into balance with the cosmological order that the Gods Themselves established. The Gods OWE us? No, on the contrary: we owe Them EVERYTHING.
Attitudes like those expressed in the quote above are poison. They corrode the health of any spiritual relationship. Devotion shouldn’t happen only when it’s convenient to us. It shouldn’t be predicated on getting our way or getting rewarded in some way – it is not our place to dictate to the Gods. I can hardly believe that I’m having to write this. It is not our place to dictate anything to the Holy Powers. We can ask. We can beg. We can even have our occasional temper tantrums but in the end as adults we must realize that They do not operate according to our whims and whining. I can only imagine what this person’s life is like if this is the attitude he takes with those in it. Our Gods are patient and wait for us to come to Them properly. They wait and encourage us to order our minds and hearts in healthy ways and if we allow ourselves to recognize it, often provide us with everything we possibly might need in order to do so.
The Gods do not require our devotion. We, however, are the better for it. Attitudes like the above, even when one is going through the outward motions of ritual and respect automatically close the door to any blessings They might bestow. And really? Why should They bother? That They so often do is one of the most profound graces of our lives. The least we can do in return it learn to center ourselves rightly before Them. Let us know, now and always, our proper place before the Gods. We’re only hurting ourselves otherwise.
I suppose all examples are valuable, even the negative ones and here we most certainly have a perfect example of how NOT to engage with the Gods, how not to position ourselves vis-à-vis our devotional work, and the attitudes and behaviors not to encourage …if we give a shit that is about our Gods, our traditions, our ancestors, our communities, and our faith.
Today on facebook I saw an image that had an heroic looking warrior on it and the words ‘There are no Nazis in Valhalla.’ I stopped and looked at the image for a very long time. I do appreciate where the artist is coming from – the rise of political insanity (both right and left I might add) of late is terrifying and bodes ill for our future as a cohesive nation. I understanding wanting to reclaim space from anything smacking of neo-nazism. That being said, from a theological perspective, I think the image is, at best, misguided. It might make us feel good now, pointing out that Heathenry is nota haven for white supremacy and that most of us find neo-nazism disgusting and vile but if one looks at the purpose of Valhalla theologically, I’m afraid I would have to make the argument that yes, there probably are those who were Nazis in life, in Valhalla. The question is why?
Valhalla is the hall of Odin. Its name literally means ‘Hall of the Slain.” Staffed by Valkyries and peopled by warriors slain in battle, it is where Odin collects the best of the best [fighters] in preparation for the inevitable battle of Ragnarok. That preparation is to battle and stave off the destruction and unmaking of the order the Gods have carefully created, a destruction far worse than anything of which humanity can quite conceive. That is Odin’s primary goal: protecting the order of creation. That is His primary agenda and nearly everything He does throughout our mythos is designed to further His ultimate success. In furthering that particular agenda, Odin is absolutely ruthless, as His particular stories clearly show.
To fill His hall, Odin sends His Valkyries out to collect those skilled and brave fighters who fall in combat. Half the slain goes to Odin and half to Freya (the result of an agreement the two of Them made – note that Freya has nothing whatsoever to do with the Valkyries). To think that this God would put any political affiliation ahead of fulfilling His goals goes against both common sense and His essential nature. There is no specification given in anything written about Valhalla in the surviving lore that points to Odin excluding valiant fighters on the basis of their political affiliation. It would be foolish, in light of the purpose of Valhalla, to do so and one thing Odin is not, is foolish.
Given Odin’s goals and the nature of Valhalla, it may be expected that He will snatch up anywarrior of mettle regardless of that warrior’s living allegiance. Death is, after all, a great equalizer. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Valhalla is peopled only by soldiers who share our favored political stances. The only point of discrimination indicated in stories of Valhalla, is that of skill in battle. The only requirement, that one die in combat.
To assume, moreover, that the Gods share our political affiliations is incredibly narrow minded and naïve. It might help motivate us to become involved politically, it might allow us to feel a certain connection to whatever Gods we venerate, it might even make us feel better but it is a terribly humanizing view of Powers that are well beyond our factiousness, or the limitations of temporality and human foolishness. It’s really a shame that we insist on bringing our Gods down to our short-sighted level (and I think we all do this at times).
The purpose of Valhalla is to prepare for a war beyond the scope of human imagining. Death relieves those warriors there of any political allegiances they may have had in life and they become part of the Einherjar, the warriors of Odin, ever-training to protect that which the Gods have wrought: creation. A God as ruthless and far-seeing as the All-Father would be, I think, unlikely to pass up an able addition to this group solely on the basis of politics. Everyone has the right to honor the Gods, and I think it’s a grave mistake to project onto those Gods a political litmus test, or to use Their stories to further our agendas. We can fight for what is good and right, I think, without doing that.
It’s easy to love the Gods when things are going well in our lives. It’s not so easy when every day is a struggle. It’s not so easy when mired in depression or pain or when one’s life is shattering. It’s when we need the Gods the most that it’s the hardest to reach out to Them. It’s so hard then not to become like churlish children, blaming Them, spewing vitriol at Them, pushing Them away in a myriad of ways. I think They understand when we do this (and no matter how devoted we are, I think we all do this sooner or later). I don’t think They blame us for our humanity but I have, in my own moments where I clutched at whatever shards of grace were allowed me, had glimpses of how deeply They ache for us when we suffer. Loki told me once that the Gods number every tear and I believe that to this day, though it’s damned hard to remember when all you want to do is smash your shrines and screech to the heavens, “why?”. (No, this is not a reflection on my own personal life, though there have been times; rather it’s something that hit me strongly when I was watching the tail end of a random tv show that dealt with pain and finding faith despite it). One would think loving the Gods would make things all better – and I think it does, but it doesn’t remove challenges and obstacles and the pain of living, of navigating a sad and twisted world. We are shaped by that world after all and we are human. There is fragility and magnificence, cruelty and kindness in that state of being. It’s up to us what we choose to nourish. One of the most courageous things we can do is choose, consciously choose (and it is a choice) to nourish devotion in the midst of crises.
One of the biggest graces that we’re given though is that the Gods will wait for us. As much pain as I think we cause Them, They are there even when we deny or try to push Them away. I think one of the most important things we can do for ourselves spiritually is not allow jealousy or bitterness or pain or anything else twist our devotional relationships with Them out of true. I pray about this all the time. I pray for lay people and specialists, for those struggling and those momentarily secure in their purpose. Prayer is a powerful, potent tool in this struggle and I think one of the things it does is remind and restore us in relationship to our Gods. It opens us up to Their grace. That’s no small things. The times we want to pray the least are the times we desperately need to reach out. It should be our go-to when things become difficult. (I learned this recently the hard way from Sigyn). This is why it’s so important to develop good devotional habits when things are going well, consistencies that we hold to as a matter of course, a base line that can sustain us when our world falls apart because no matter how devout we are, we move in a fractured world, a mortal world, an imperfect world and those earthquakes will come. How we choose to respond can bring us so much deeper into devotion and faith, can provide us with the most potent of all lifelines or…we can mire ourselves in our own sense of isolation. The Gods don’t do that, we in our pain do it to ourselves. Those times that hurt the most are opportunities to renew ourselves in the presence of our Gods and when we commit to that, we can indeed endure.
There was a moment today where I was filled with awe and gratitude for what it means to belong to a God. The path of Odin that I follow is that of Gangleri. This is how He comes to me most of the time, and when it comes to ordeals and challenges that define the boundaries of my spiritual life, they tend to be dictated by this aspect of Odin’s nature. I had a moment today where I realized what that truly means and how deeply and significantly it can impact one’s life.
There are things I want or want to force into a specific shape so badly that I would rip my own entrails out in order to be able to do so. There are things for which I ache, actions I wish to take driven by raw emotion, desires, life paths I want desperately to follow, even the indulgence of certain emotions and I cannot – no matter how much it feels like not reaching for these things will tear me apart – I cannot because of obligations I have to the Gods, because of my reason for being, because of whom They have made me, and whom I’ve agreed to be with Them. I cannot do and be in some ways that I want (healthy or no, good or no) because to do so would be to abandon everything I have promised my Gods; and sometimes I hate it (such a mild word – hate—for the cyclone of emotions embedded in all of this) and I rage and it takes me to a point of almost suicidal despair. If I have also neglected my devotions, if I am unable to slide my heart and mind and spirit into a place of receptivity, humility, and deep love for the Gods, if I am unable to sense or touch Their reassuring Presence than it is very easy to go to that darkest of places, to feel oneself being drawn to within a hair’s breadth of that precipice. But if I am able to reach out, and if I’m given the grace of the touch, barest touch of Their presence, of Odin’s presence, everything changes and I am restored.
It happened ever so briefly today and I realized that in carrying my own pain and rage and disappointments, I carry His. Perhaps this is a small bit of what He goes through, over and over, this most passionate of Gods Who must sublimate everything – even His own desires– to His own higher purpose, His own question for power and knowledge and that which will enable the Gods to maintain cosmic order. Perhaps this is what it means to be devoted to a God, to belong to a God. If I can re-position my own struggles thusly, it allows me to connect so intimately and so directly with Him. It changes everything. Then these things are a glory to bear, and they carry sweetness because they lead to Him. Then, bearing them lightly becomes part of my spiritual work and a joy.
I wish to Gods I could stay in this head space always. I can’t do that though and so I have to bring myself consciously back via prayer and meditation. Still, the mark of that initial grace remains and I am grateful. I wish gratitude to always be the motivating force in my relationships with Them. It resets the soul. It cleanses and restores. It brings a joy so deep that the soul laughs. It lightens and sustains. It restores focus and with Gangleri, it’s all about that ultimate focus. I praise Him, now and always.