Of gods and men: searching for a theology

Pagans like to talk about other Pagans. Recently, we have tried to define Paganism yet again, philosophised about what constitutes a religious community, who should be included, and if the gods are among them.  These are questions that concerns us humans; they are more about how we relate to each-other, than how we relate to the gods. If this sounds denigrating, this is not my intention. I happen to think humans are very interesting and that religion as a human construction is very interesting. In fact, identity politics was one of my favourite research topics in university. And maybe I also just enjoy a bit of gossip. Being such, I do not fully share Sannion’s impatience or disdain for this controversy, this “fighting over empty air” as he describes it. This is not to say there hasn’t been much nonsense and stupidity on show, there clearly was and plenty of it, including a lot of damaging and unimaginative name-calling. Yet, despite his disdain, he has commented on the matter, and said something that has rather stuck with me.

But what does concern me is that intellectual and creative energy that could be going towards honoring the divinities or making beautiful art or a dozen other laudatory ventures is instead being squandered on fruitless navel-gazing, politicking and ad hominem attacks.

All this human bickering may be of some interest to me, but it is nothing to the gods. There is a valuable lesson here, namely not to let myself to be too detracted for no blogging can make up for sloppy religious practice, or come even close to any other creative or productive activity. But there is something else, something bigger, that troubles me.

What would interest a being so old, one that has seen so much? Would prayer do? Would beautiful art? What are we to the gods anyway?

Are we their tools,
a mistake,
their dreams,
their life-force,
simply entertaining,
those funny men down below,
those strange creatures up above?

Zeus doesn’t care …

I know there are heathens out there who believe the gods probably are rather indifferent to us. Others figure that our human existence serves as a testament to the gods, making us pretty important. A year ago P. Sufenas Virius Lupus wrote the following in response to Galina Krasskova’s statement that the gods owe us nothing:

I do not think that human belief in the gods “creates” the gods, as some people do; but likewise I think human intermediaries to speak to their existence and influences are pretty necessary. Sure, birds and trees and animals can perhaps do that to some extent, but what use is it if there are not humans there to put those observations into words, works, and symbols which other humans can understand? It’s the whole Zen koan of a “tree falling in the woods” and such, really…if no one is there to hear it, whether it makes a sound or not is irrelevant.

Drew Jacob on the other hand writes that the gods do not care much whether we believe, or even if we honour them on a regular basis. If they exist, they exist regardless.

And what if they did want something from us? What does the wind want from humanity? What does the moon want from us? (…) The gods I worship are ancient, calm, wise in their years. They are sages. They will speak to you if you approach, but if you do not? It isn’t their concern.

But why would the gods speak to us at all? In his conversation with Lugh, something else did come up, something that may point to the gods being directly invested in our actions. The tone of Drew’s writing seems to change here, or is this just Lugh talking, with a mind of his own, maybe disagreeing with Drew a little bit?

Lugh’s Words

Do you think I care what you believe?
You have a mission. When you inspire people, I am there. When you sacrifice yourself, I am there.

Assuming that Lugh is the one doing the talking here, he seems to suggest that he is present in Drew’s actions. Now, his very existence may not be dependent on them. He is probably present in many places and many acts of sacrifice. Yet, he is also not fully independent or separate of us. The gods are connected to us. This is what immanence means.

To come back to P. Sufenas Virius Lupus. We humans do act as testament to the gods in a way. But I am not sure if they necessarily care if we sing their praises or recognize their signature.  Lugh may be present in Drew’s sacrifice not matter if Drew recognizes him to be. Yet, if awareness of Lugh motivates you to be more virtuous and thus make his presence even stronger, that probably would appeal to him. Devotion and regular religious practice seem to be the most direct way to connect with the gods.

The gods live in many places, not just in our prayers or in our human actions. Lugh, may be immanent in our human courage and adventurousness, more primal gods, like the winds or the moon, may not. And some gods may think birds and beasts far more interesting than we are, and have fewer interest in our human way of thinking in the first place. So in all likelihood there are gods who are invested in how we  build our little religious communities, others may not. Other gods may be invested in good art, some couldn’t care less. This is all part of the wonders of polytheism. The only way to find out for sure, is to ask them.


8 thoughts on “Of gods and men: searching for a theology

  1. Really excellent thoughts!

    I had a long response for Drew, but the website wouldn’t take it, so I wrote it to him privately. I think he mischaracterized my viewpoint a great deal, but I won’t waste time going into why–that would be a waste of air, as Sannion said.

    1. Thank you for your response. I feel somewhat responsible for the debate as I started the whole thing on Drew’s blog Rogue Priest. I am afraid I like to stir things up a little, and since I find both your blogs very interesting, I felt the need to reconcile your respective approaches. As you have probably noticed, Drew made your reply public and has adapted his interpretations quote a bit. I suspect that the relationship Drew has with his gods, is in all likelihood not as different from yours as it might appear.

      Yet I do share his … dislike of the word ‘contractual’. I understand where the use of the word comes from, but as it isn’t a word I would use to describe my friendly relationships with fellow humans, it is also not one I would use for my relations with the gods.Furthermore, I think the word is often used to discredit pagan religions. Whilst Christ would love everyone unconditionally (which I very much doubt), pagans would only try to appease the gods for personal gain, making Christianity look very altruistic in its outlook, and polytheist religions quite selfish. Of course I know that is not the way you use the word, but the word has a history, quite similar to the way ‘belief’ has a history of meaning. And it is quite difficult to ignore it.

      1. There’s a lot in Drew’s follow-up posts and comments that is not ideal either…but, I won’t get bogged down with that here at present.

        I am very insistent on use of the word “contractual” because it is something that applies to all the religions you’ve named here; and, in Irish polytheism, it’s especially apt. One word for “friend,” ceile, is also the word for “husband/wife” and for “client” (amongst other meanings), and the clientship of all of these roles toward their counterparts is, by nature, contractual and negotiated and attested to with mutual bonds, oaths, and commitments. There is such a lack of commitment in so much modern culture, to understand our devotions to our gods, and to our friends, in these manners is in fact more important than ever, I think, and doesn’t need to sound mechanical or selfish at all. Everyone benefits from a good contractual relationship; it’s something that even applies to “god-slave” situations, though the negotiation there is lacking (and thus, from a certain perspective, not-as-positive, but anyway…).

        The salvation that Jesus offers to his followers in the interpretation of most forms of Christianity is a contract as well: they must accept it, and if they do not, they don’t get the benefits of it. Yes, it is offered to all (in their opinion), but one must still accept it, so it is no more or less contractual than any other such relationship. And, the Hebrew God’s relationship with his people is also inherently contractual–or, in more appropriate terms, “covenanted.” One doesn’t make covenants that one doesn’t intend to keep, and the making of them binds people and the individual contractual parties together like few other things. Marriage is inherently contractual, no matter how one swings it these days, whether secular or spiritual.

        So, while I understand your reservations, at the same time, it’s there and it exists and it is understood in these directly legalistic and contractual ways all over the place, and especially in historical cultures that practiced polytheism (and even some monotheisms to the present day). Thus, nothing to worry about or be afraid of in thinking more deliberately and consciously in these terms, in my opinion. 😉

      2. Mmmh, I have to reflect on this a little more. Thank you so much for explaining. Is there any literature on this concept that you would recommend to me for further study?

        When I think of contracts, my first association is with our bureaucratic society in which everything has to be quantified. And you can understand that I am not eager to attempt to quantify my relations with the gods. Maybe it is because my university education had been focussed more on sociology, political philosophy and culture criticism, and I am not as familiar with theological reasoning as you are. Yet I would like to correct this if I can.

        In wonder if the word contractual is of-putting to more Pagans and/or polytheists. I know concepts like ‘kharis’ have this contractual understanding (as you define it here) build into them, but many still prefer the word ‘kharis’ to contract, do they not? It is not a word that people tend to use when describing their own personal relationships with the gods.

      3. I think you’re right: almost no one thinks of it in these terms, because even those who understand kharis or do ut des don’t think of that as “contractual” so much as “the basis of divine relationships”…which is, horror of horrors, contractual! I know I am firmly familiar with and comfortable with the “contractuality” terminology because I’ve understood it as a part of my training in academic Celtic Studies, where contractual bonds are the reality of all social interactions in Irish society (as one example among many), and are precisely legislated and outlined in great and specific detail in many cases. As most ancient European cultures had such contractual concepts, and relationships, and even gods who oversee contractual law (including, amusingly enough, Drew Jacob’s primary god, Lug!), it’s very likely that these sorts of thing occurred in many more cases than we’re willing to admit.

        Most people think of marriages as “about love” first and foremost today, and only secondarily as a legal contract. In reality, they’ve been more about legal contracts throughout history than they have been about love. I had a long interaction with someone undergoing a deity-marriage with an Irish god, and he basically indicated that as a result of a little sharing of a drink between them, “that was it” and the marriage was enacted. I replied, “if his lawyers weren’t there, and his family didn’t witness it, it’s not a legal and binding marriage.” Someone said “Fuck that, it’s about love!” But no, it isn’t–or, if it is about love, it’s as equally about the contracts such love implies between two people.

        Everyone laughs at Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory for his 31-page contract on being a boyfriend-girlfriend with Amy, but that sort of thing would have been implied in many serious relationships in traditional societies…

        As for contractuality and the gods specifically–not much on it specifically, unfortunately. On the contractual nature of Irish society generally, Fergus Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law is a good start; it’s easy to then extrapolate from human relationships to divine ones there, since some of the same terms (including ceile) get used for both.

  2. Hello, I enjoyed your post but since I am briefly quoted wanted to clarify something. I don’t believe the Gods owe us anything. That would imply that They were in OUR debt and I simply don’t believe that to be true. That way, imo, lies hubris. That being said, however, I believe that They are very interested in engaging with us. Those are two very different things. My initial comment was largely a response to the degree of self-centeredness and lack of piety and sometimes even basic respect that I often encounter within various Paganism and Heathenry. That it is not for us to top the Gods does not mean that a deeply engaged, devotional relationship wouldn’t benefit both parties. I”ve written quite a bit on just this thing on m blog and elsewhere.

    1. Thank you for responding Galina. You are right, I did not explain your position well at all. I mentioned you mostly because I wanted to defend part of P. Sufenas reasoning, and to do so, I needed to mention what he was reacting to. So, I didn’t go back far enough into the debate to do your article justice.

      Thank you for this rectification and I’ll do my best to better represent your writing in the future. As I am an avid reader of Gangleri’s Grove, I am sure this won’t take to long.

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