Reciprocity, The Will of the Gods, and Theodicy

[Sometimes I have ideas for blog posts that I know will get me a lot of flack, and so I hold onto them until my loins are properly girded to deflect flack. Or I just save them up, mix them together and get them out of my system all at once. This post is of the latter type, and my loins aren't really girded at all.]

There are a lot of thoughts about our relationship to the gods. The one that makes sense to me is reciprocity. Not tit-for-tat, but a commitment to help one another and work towards the same goals. There can be no sense of equality, because we are working with vastly different skill-sets and limitations.

In many ways this idea of reciprocity wears harder on the soul than the idea that we are given everything freely from an altruistic, unconditional love, or the idea that we receive no help from the gods but gain only that which we build with our own two hands. Because if you are giving without receiving anything in return, when all your synchronicity is the bad kind, when every time you say “At least things can’t get much worse…” and then they do, it damages your faith. Job is no shining example in Pagan traditions. We may die for our faith, but we see no virtue in suffering.

So what to make of things when you are giving your all and your life is increasingly turning to crap? When the gods are silent? I asked a friend about this, and their response surprised me: they said if you are striving to be a good Pagan and your life is going to crap, then you are doing Paganism wrong.

That’s a foreign thought to most of us. Sit with it for a minute. Think about it. If you are doing Paganism right, your life should be improving and stabilizing. You should be in harmony with the rhythms of life. This is not to say that nothing bad will ever happen to you, but in general your life should have a strong supportive foundation built on your faith and faith community. If you are struggling to stay steady on constantly shifting sands, something is fundamentally wrong.

Humans are particularly adept at ignoring the obvious. The warning signals. The bare facts that spell disaster. We are good at making bad decisions thinking that we are the exception to the rule. Just because he hit his ex doesn’t mean he will hit me. Just because she cheated on her ex-husband doesn’t mean she will cheat on me. Just because this guy has never delivered on a promise doesn’t mean his current project will fail. Just because this coven is known for excessive secrecy and drama doesn’t mean I will find it too demanding and intrusive.

I’ve spent the quiet moments of the past week reflecting on the past year of my life. Of all the signs and signals I ignored. Of all the hardships and heartbreak I walked into willingly. Of all the bad fortune I encountered. Suddenly, there I was, with few belongings and no car facing the scary prospect that I had no place to live. But many of those awful things that happened aided my move. I had moved from full-time to part-time work (which was good for my stress level but bad for my financial well-being), and my car had died a horrible death. Even though I gave a lot away, and left a lot behind, it was easier for me to pack a few bags and fly to new city because of these awful thing things. Looking back I can see all the signs and bare facts I had ignored that said I was not supposed to remain in Georgia.

From the moment I realized my best option was to move to Minnesota, blessings began to shower on me. Community rallied to support me, things fell into place and I found myself caught up in a current of good events. While it was still scary and heartbreaking, it was so easy compared to the last year. And that was a revelation: when you do what the gods want of you it is surprisingly easy.

Theodicy and divine providence are strange things in polytheism, because there is no single ultimate authority. There are many holy powers with sometimes conflicting agendas out there. It’s why we align ourselves with certain gods, certain theologies, certain philosophies and certain practices, to the exclusion of others. We commit to certain visions of how things should be. When we move closer to those visions, life becomes more reliable and stable and good things come our way. When we cling to things that harm us, we get dragged kicking and screaming, and we can get injured along the way.

I think my gods want me here in the Twin Cities area. They certainly seem to have drug me kicking and screaming here. But now that I am here, my perception has opened up and I am seeing the big picture. I resonate with the Midwest Pagan vibe, and have thoroughly enjoyed having some of the most amazing conversations with Pagans here. I feel at home. I know I still have things to take care of before my life is back on track, but I don’t feel abandoned by my gods here. I did back in Georgia.

I wrote about my crisis of faith over the past year. Suddenly it seems like a distant memory. I am back in harmony with the vision that I share with my gods. I’ve gotten with the program, and blessings flow once more. What I’m doing now feels more right, and my prayers flow more easily. My gratitude is more ready, even in times of hardship. The yokes that felt so heavy before now feel light. My faith fills me with grateful joy.

And people will think I am wrong in this. My experience will be considered stupid and wrong by some. Worth mocking to others. A product of an uneducated and unlettered person. (A friend recently pointed out that you never hear Pagans saying that people who believe in science are uneducated idiots.) I don’t give a crap. This is my journey and my soul.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mirage358 Jason White

    “When we move closer to those visions, life becomes more reliable and stable and good things come our way.”

    This in particular is a powerful statement for me. Everything you say in this post lines up with my experience of reciprocity & divine providence. Thank you for this reminder.

    • http://www.facebook.com/eala.ban Éireann Lund Johnson

       “I am back in harmony with the vision that I share with my gods.”

      And this is the second most powerful statement, in tandem with the first.  I think it speaks volumes about how pagans & polytheists view ideal living in the world.  Thanks for providing these meaningful phrases so accessibly. 

  • Kaitlyn Dickerson

    I feel like I’ve been getting prodded in the direction of this realization for some time. Thank you for articulating it; you’ve given me something to think about. 

  • Aine

    Beautiful and powerful! Gave me tons to think of, and very well-timed with my own life~

  • http://threeshoutsonahilltop.blogspot.com/ gorm_sionnach

    Your post makes a greatdeal of sense, and certainly raises issues that many polytheists may not think about. Afterall, we’re not burdened with the weight of trying to reconcile the existence of suffering with an all powerful, all benevolent deity.

    Still, there seems to be a penchant for folks to still try and see the gods in the same light as being only concerned with the well being of humanity, and not say the long view of things. Is there some fear that by acknowledging that the gods are not omni-benevolent, that they (or we) are somehow lessened? It appears to be a case of wanting the cake, and eating it too.

    Perhaps it the fear that the logical conclusion of “Your life sucks, you must be doing it wrong” is that individuals are therefore responsible (a la “the Secret”) for everything good/bad in their lives, and  in the case of the later were essentially “asking for it.”

    The problem may lie with the hyper-individualism which permeates western culture with a theological perspective which does not hold that the individual is the sole arbiter of their destiny. Not to remove the idea of agency, but there are older concepts which have been superceded with the idea that ‘we create our own reality”, and so lead to things like ignoring the idea that the gods have their own things to do, and maybe your problems aren’t at the top of their list.

    Your notion of swimming against the order of things, of acting outside of the harmony that the reciprocity which forms the basis of god-human relationships is certainly something which is a feature of the mythic litterature. We are far better when we are in harmony with the gods, than when we are without. Of course, this also means that there is a degree of agency in our own suffering (as you’ve illustrated with your examples of “not reading the signs”). The jump from this to, “everything bad that happens in your life is your own fault”, is pushing it, and allows the space for other agents to impact ones life, deity included.

    No, I think you are definetly on to something here.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    I undersand this very well. I’ve been getting those (what my friends affectionately call) “divine whacks with a clue x 4″ for some time now. I’m just continually begging for a little more time before I move where they want me to go, because it’s a very demanding course of study and I have a newborn. Here’s hoping they have enough patience to let me get her sleeping though the night before I dive in.

    All that aside, well said, Star.

  • Tara

    I’m enjoying reading about your voyage from Georgia to Minnesota. Your blog is so open, honest and articulate. Keep up the good work! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Carron/100001353268347 David Carron

    Why bad things happen to good people?  Because life isn’t fair.  Our Gods die at Ragnarok anyway.  The hero doesn’t always win. 

    But we do get the promise of potentially living forever in name from our deeds.  It’s not much.  But this is our world and if we want it a better place then we damn better fight for it. 

    • Vision_From_Afar

       Hail and well said, sir.

  • Sharon

    Great advice and perspective. A great many pagans come to these traditions as converts, inculcated to the idea of being born a sinner or less than worthy being. Joy can be an adjustment. Moving back and forth between joy/not joy, as an experience, is perhaps the only way to learn the difference. In the longterm, it’s a healthier strategy. Certainly, it’s better than waiting for some transcendent divine rescuer (or squad) to swoop in and deliver us from ourselves. But it’s seldom an overnight recognition. Thank you for such an authentic rendition of the lesson in story. It’s a great reminder. BB

  • http://twitter.com/ditzydruid DitzyDruid

    “And people will think I am wrong in this. My experience will be
    considered stupid and wrong by some. Worth mocking to others. A product
    of an uneducated and unlettered person.”

    No way!  I agree with your post 100%.  Sometimes bad things do happen to good people.  Sometimes they’re things we can’t control…  but there are plenty of things we can control through the cumulative choices we make.  Change can be painful, but when we do change for the better, and admit that we were taking things in the wrong direction, we embrace a certain power. 

    Very well-written, Star. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000451145781 MrsBs Confessions

    After what you’ve been through, it’s great to hear you are settling in and feeling more positive.  This post actually comes at some a timely place, as I’ve recently accepted something that I think I’ve been being pushed to, something that I hadn’t had the guts to listen to for quite some time.  Thanks!

  • Mmammabear

    I have to completely agree with you. When I have ignored the”signs”, whether they are intuition, messages from my higher self, or messages straight from the Goddess, I have learned to my extreme sorrow that it’s a bad idea. Life definitely flows more smoothly when we listen to that divine inner compass.

  • DiannaMoon

    1,000 times YES!

  • Lillymomkelly

    I think I was supposed to read this today. The horrors of my life and everything I thought was what I was supposed to be doing and building falling apart and exploding in my face over this year have absolutely ( finally) penetrated my thoughts and caused me to think this way, I’m doing something wrong. Now the challenge is to find out what and how to do something right……I’m working on it. Your post definitely is an encouragement to keep looking and working towards happy. Thanks.

  • http://profiles.google.com/emkatcreations Kat Emralde

    “when you do what the gods want of you it is surprisingly easy”

    For me this is the take-away quote.  I love this post and will probably be re-reading it time and time again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-H-Halstead/1170545330 John H Halstead

    When you do what the gods want, your life is good?  When you don’t it’s bad?  And if you think you’re doing what the gods want and your life is bad, then you must be wrong?  Really?  Is this really what contemporary polytheism is all about?  Does no one else see a certain circularity to this logic?  Even assuming your gods exist, you have to assume that they are aware of you, that they care about you, that they have the power to alter your life circumstances, that they have more power to alter your life circumstances than you do alone, that they will chose to help you if you do certain things (i.e., make offerings), and that their influence on your life will be greater than all the other influences put together.  I think that is a lot of inferences to draw from most of what I have heard polytheists describe as their personal experiences of deity.  But even if you assume all that, then when things still don’t work out for you, you explain it away by taking it on yourself.  You believe you must have done something wrong.  Why not just skip all the other stuff and jump to the last point?  It seems like a lot of work to go through to come back to square one: personal responsibility.  Your life is a product of (1) personal choices and (2) factors beyond your control, and you can’t do anything about the latter.  There is no ultimate justice.  You may give your all, as Star says, and your life be crap.  And someone else may be born shatting gold.  That’s not the gods.  That’s life.  It is really discouraging to leave Christianity, discover Paganism, and then to find Pagans caught in the same theodictic bind and giving the same tired apologies for their gods.  Is this what we want?  Little gods that care about our little problems?  Where is the radical new vision of divinity that Paganism seemed to promise?

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Thanks for being rude and dismissive.  I’m not making excuses for the gods.
      My life and my well-being isn’t a “little problem.” Find a radical new vision of Paganism that suits you. Mine doesn’t think temporal salvation is petty, and doesn’t promise me pie-in-the-sky summerlands.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

       “Where is the radical new vision of divinity that Paganism seemed to promise?”
      ‘Paganism’ promises nothing. Anyone that says different is just trying to sell books.

      Also, does it not seem odd to claim that a system supposedly acknowledging ‘old gods’ and embraces ‘old ways’ is going to have a ‘radical new vision of divinity’.

      you’d think that it’d be espousing a return to an old view of divinity. You know, the kind that would see a crop failure as being punishment from the gods and requiring of a sacrifice (possibly of a dog, perhaps of the local tribal chief.)

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-H-Halstead/1170545330 John H Halstead

        That’s an excellent point.  The theistic view of the gods is regressive, psychologically and culturally.  Wanting an invisible person to love us and take care of us is regressive psychologically.  Whether it is a Christian father figure in the sky or a Pagan deity, it reduces us to perpetual childhood.  (I’m not talking about a belief in deities, but the desire for those deities to take care of us.) 

        And wanting to return to a pre-modern paradigm is regressive culturally.  I understand looking to the pagan past for inspiration, but not uncritically.  Not everything pagan is worth reproducing — as you point out.  But I’m an unabashed NEOpagan (See Phaedra Bonewits post: http://neopagan.net/blog/2011/06/01/be-neopagan-once-again/), so what do I know?

        As for those books … I, like many people, came to Paganism through those books.  So I think they are important.  I saw there a vision of something different — something new.  To give you an example, when thealogians and goddess feminists in the 70′s and 80′s wrote about Goddess, they insisted that they were not talking about “Yahweh in drag”, but about a fundamentally different conception of divinity (one that was largely pantheistic, influenced by process theology, and ecological).  Similarly, when Pagans in the 70′s and 80′s wrote about polytheism, they too insisted that they were not just multiplying the Christian God, but rather were describing a very different vision of divinity (largely influenced by Jungian thought, postmodernism, as well as a kind of neo/eco-animism).  So, yes, the growth of this latest form of literalistic polytheism in the Pagan community seems like a broken promise.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

           First things first, I can’t respond to your link, because I got 404′ed.

          I have to agree, desiring the gods to take care of ‘us’ is not a positive thing. I have often heard/read the adage ‘the gods help those who help themselves’.

          Not to say that the gods do not exist, merely that they are not our nannies, there to pick us up after every stumble. In fact, Pagan mythology is littered with instances of the gods setting obstacles in front of their ‘favoured’ mortals. It is only through adversity that greatness is attained, afterall.

          I personally find a lot of positives in looking back to pre-industrial and Pagan cultures. Not necessarily to recreate them, but to be inspired and informed by them. If nothing else, move society away from an economic base onto something a little more sustainable.

          I must admit, I don’t recall pointing out that not everything pagan (small ‘p’ to denote historical context) is worth reproducing.

          I think that a lot of books are important, but a lot are also pretty shite.

          My terms of reference are more informed by historic usage than ‘post-modern’ usage. When someone says ‘polytheist’ I think historical belief in panthea rather than modern advocacy of psychology, for example.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-H-Halstead/1170545330 John H Halstead

            Sorry about that — there’s an extra closed parentheses on the link.  Here’s the correct link:
            http://neopagan.net/blog/2011/06/01/be-neopagan-once-again/

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

             Neopagan: Basically, anyone who could possibly be termed ‘Pagan’ today, that doesn’t follow either an unbroken tradition or a combined one.

  • Kimberly

    I didn’t come away from Star’s post with the impression that
    she was saying that life will be all roses and rainbows if we do everything the
    gods ask of us.  Life is life and it’s a
    mixed bag and sometimes cruel and unfair. 
    However, in my opinion, if we have a strong foundation to work from, those
    crappy things that happen in life are not made easier necessarily, or even
    taken from us, but we are better equipped to handle them. 

    And I do believe my gods care about me…it’s a
    relationship, right?   However, unlike the faith I grew up in, as a
    Pagan, I don’t expect the gods to fix everything.  I’m a big girl now and they expect me to
    behave like one.   So many times we ignore the warning signs, like
    Star spoke of, and then wonder why everything is going wrong?  Only when I start paying attention to that
    inner voice (gut instincts, intuition, or whatever you want to call it), and
    becoming a more active participant in my own life, does the road I’m meant to
    follow open up and grant me access.  It
    doesn’t guarantee perfection or riches, but at least I know I’m heading in the
    right direction.   

     


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