All of the polytheists that I know, though by no means does this mean all polytheists ever, affirm that the gods have individual agency. They can call people, they can bring blessings or misfortune, they are autonomous beings. It doesn’t seem contentious, yet this idea has a few implications that I haven’t seen talked about much. It makes our relationships dynamic, unique, and yet malleable. There is, for most of us, no perpetual covenant or deal that we must keep nor continual favor. Relationships can change, just as they do in mortal to mortal interactions, suddenly and quickly. The reasons may be obscured to us at the time, but, just as with our fleshed friends, they have a cause, a reason, and a desired goal.
Changes in Relationships
Part of the implication that we must deal with in our assumptions of individual autonomy is that we can end relationships with the gods and likewise the gods can end (or suspend) relationships with us. Mortals and gods are both capable of initiating these changes. We can choose to walk away from gods who have plans for us. Evidence from outside our own communities is abundant. There are reams of stories of Atheists who rejected what they–at the time–saw as YHWH’s plan for them, and you can find similar stories in abundance in Pagan and Polytheist communities. Beyond the typical story of YHWH, you can find plenty of tales of walking away from a particular deity for X, Y, or Z reason and embracing another. Likewise, you can also find tales of deities turning away from or suspending relationships with certain worshipers due to their own agendas and designs. Our relational arrangements are not set in stone, things can and do change.
I described this to a (vaguely) “spiritual” friend of mine and they found the thought horrifying. Why would you want to worship gods who may at the end of the day reject you?
Why choose Zeus when you can have the all accepting Jesus?
Mutability is Strength
The ability of our relationships with the divine to change is a source of anxiety for some, certainly, but it is also a great and wonderful strength. While people who worship one god and only one god often claim unconditional acceptance, this acceptance comes at a price: there are standards and requirements that the deity has its worshipers follow and if the deity rejects you, for whatever reason, it makes it extremely difficult to participate in communal religious life.
This rejection can result in feelings of extreme disconnection or confusion for the supplicant. Yet the idea of rejection by deity is denied. The blame must then fall on the worshiper, who is rejected, since the deity in this particular theological outlook must accept the worshiper as long as X, Y, and Z is done. If one is rejected and one is following X, Y, and Z it is assumed one must not be genuinely X-ing, Y-ing, and Z-ing hard enough.
In many polytheistic theologies, rejection or suspension can happen for no reason that is apparent to the worshiper. If he or she was involved in a devotional relationship, it can in fact result in feelings of disorientation but it does not mean that one must leave the tradition altogether. The mutability allows for a frank and honest examination of one’s relationship to the tradition and the plethora of divine beings allows for one to participate meaningfully in the tradition even if one particular relationship goes catawampus.
The mutability may in fact cause some anxiety for those who do not sufficiently understand the relational schema. But, for those who sufficiently understand it; a great comfort can be had.
Breaking Up: You’ve Done ItAll of this begs the question then; how does one handle a divine relationship when things change? Much like with human relationships, ending one can leave an individual weary, hurt, confused, and angry. It may make one feel like drawing close again is not worth it due to the potential for getting hurt. How many of us have met the person who has given up on love due to heartbreaks? These are understandable and natural reactions, but our reactions are not our destinies. After you have split, or gone on break, with someone (or Someone) you have to pause and ask yourself “where do we go from here?”
It might be necessary for you to re-evaluate your involvement with your tradition. Like joining a club that your romantic partner was in, you have to determine whether or not you were in it for you or for them. You may find that you only did it because it helped you connect with them more, and that further participation without them is undesirable. This is okay. Just be sure that leaving the tradition with which the deity was affiliated is what you really want and not what you are simply doing out of anger. You may choose to stay involved with the tradition despite the heartache you have just experienced. This is also a perfectly valid choice. Just be certain that you are staying because it is what is good for you and not staying out of nostalgia and longing for one who is gone.
The “break-up” may leave you eying other traditions and curious about them; you may find yourself yearning to explore. Explore. Don’t rebound to someone (or Someone) else, but if you have a genuine yearning to explore and experiment, do so. You will gain new knowledge, and if you are truly meant to be a part of that particular tradition you will find yourself there in time.
Above all, don’t give in to despair and anger, which is so frightfully easy to do when a divine relationship changes. It is very easy to be angry, bitter, resentful, and desperately want to put as much distance between you and the One who put you in this situation as you possibly can. Don’t give in. Make choices slowly and very deliberately, find healthy outlets for your emotions, talk to a friend who can provide a truly sympathetic ear, and realize that things will get better. They won’t ever be the same, no, but they will get better. Don’t regret the time you spent in worship and meditation with the deity; you will look back and realize it made you who you are. The feelings will, with time, fade and simmer down.
Maybe you will get involved in another intense devotional relationship, maybe you will join a new tradition, maybe things eventually go back to normal with you and this particular deity, but things will get better.
And, you’ll be better for it.