Author and philosopher Brendan Myers has a new blog post with the rather provocative title of “The worship of the gods is not what matters.” And provoke me it did – my gut level response was “of course worship matters!”
But I found Myers’ essay to be quite reasonable. Go read it and then come back – it’s not long. If you’re inclined to disagree don’t form a rebuttal as you read – read it in as neutral a frame of mind as you can. If you feel the need to rebut, you can do it later.
Brendan Myers is a good Pagan. He’s followed this path for twenty years and he’s as knowledgeable on ancient pagan philosophy as anyone. He’s an active participant in the wider Pagan community and he works to “help create a spiritual culture that is intellectually inquiring, artistically flourishing, environmentally aware, and socially just.” And he pours offerings to a goddess. That’s more than enough Pagan credentials for me.
The things that matters to Brendan matter to me too. People, relationships, the Earth. Life and death. Art, music, and culture; science, knowledge, justice, and peace. These things matter to everyone, Pagan or not. Our popular culture has one way of looking at them. The conservative Christianity that has dominated our politics for the past 30 years has another way. And while the Pagan movement is far too diverse to say that there is a single “Pagan view” on these topics, there are clearly Pagan ways of relating to these topics that are very different from the mainstream.
These Pagan ways are informed by our ancestors, including the philosophers who are the foundation of Brendan’s life’s work. They are informed by Nature and our relationship with the natural world. They are informed by the gods, whether they are the distinct individual beings I recognize or the personification of values and relationships Myers honors with his offerings.
If the way in which one person mixes and matches these Pagan ways differs from my own, why should that bother me? If what matters most to you differs from what matters most to me, why should either of us be surprised, much less care? The roadside trash pickup starts Sunday at 12:45 – will you be there? Is it your turn to bring the beer or is it mine?
But while his essay is quite reasonable, and while I am rather uneasy challenging a professional philosopher on a definition, “worship” seems to mean something different to Brendan than it does to me. He says:
I do not bow. I do not obey. I do not ‘worship’. Perhaps this is one of the last remaining strands of my Catholic upbringing, but to me the word ‘worship’ means absolute unquestioning affirmation of the authority of the deity. I’ll not have that in my life. If you are wise, neither will you. The gods, if they exist, are just the people who happen to live on the other side.
I agree with Brendan’s last sentence. Whatever the goddesses and gods are, they are not “wholly other” as the monotheistic religions claim of their god. You need only read the stories of our ancestors to see their gods are more like us than not. You need only understand the scientific story of the origins of the universe and of life to see the Gods of Nature are our relations. The idea that the gods are so much greater than us that our proper response is obeisance is not a Pagan concept.
You have the sovereignty that rightly lies with all beings. You retain that sovereignty even when dealing with the gods. You may choose to give some of that sovereignty to a particular goddess or god in deference to their wisdom, much as you’d willingly – but not mindlessly – defer to a human elder or teacher. None of the gods or goddesses I’ve come across seem interested in lavish praise. They know they’re deities – they don’t need us to remind them of it. None of them want sheep for followers.
The word “worship” comes from the Old English word weorthscipe meaning worthiness or respect. The gods and goddesses are certainly worthy of our respect by virtue of being older, wiser and more powerful than we humans. Their gifts to us require our thanks and reciprocity. Their kindness and generosity (sometimes given in ways that don’t seem like it at the time) inspire our devotion.
The God of the Forest comforted me when I was an angry child, restored me as a confused adult, and gave me purpose with a call to be his priest. The Mother Goddess taught me she never turns her back on her children and gave me the confidence to move forward boldly. The Battle Raven challenges me to reclaim my sovereignty and to serve the greater good, no matter what.
This is why I pray.
This is why I make offerings.
This is why I worship the gods.
If you prefer another term for these practices, that’s fine. If you prefer other practices, that’s fine too. If you see the gods differently, hey, you might be right, or at least less wrong than me. This is what my heart and my head tell me is true.
But the roadside trash pickup starts Sunday at 12:45 – will you be there?