Lamp & Labyrinth: Reciprocity, Tit for Tat, and Vending Machine Religion

Lamp & Labyrinth: Reciprocity, Tit for Tat, and Vending Machine Religion August 17, 2016

[Editor’s Note:  Please welcome Chris Godwin to the Agora.  Chris’s column, Lamp & Labyrinth, will be published twice monthly on the first and third Wednesday.  Welcome, Chris!]

In my paganism and my personal practice, reciprocity is of utmost importance in thought and consideration when dealing with all beings, spirits, and gods. This includes you and I and those otherworldly dead. These laws of reciprocity are extremely built into people, so much so that by them alone, one can gain favor, influence and opportunity in a community one wishes to join and serve.

two men sitting next to a river conversing
unsplash / pixabay.com

I generally like to be accepted by folks I meet. It’s important to me to be in the good favor of the folk, so at our local CMA festival I jump at the opportunity to help people set up camp, then I quickly disappear. In Indo-European paganism, we give so that we might receive, knowing that the gods will follow through depending on the strength of the devotional relationship, but with no real certainty or expectation of return. This is the same way we treat human beings in our community, strangers and friends. Later at the CMA festival, I generally am offered liquor, bacon, invited to parties, exclusive workshops, and access to some real cool conversations with real people that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. The end game for me is to talk about my paganism and have a good reputation so students aligned with what we do are directed, by the community to me. Through hospitality and reciprocity, I effectively turn the community into an army of my own promoters. To me, the pure sensual enjoyable stuff of life finds its way into my world via reciprocal relations, and those blessings are primed by my first initial offering and gifts.

Nevertheless, I run into folks who continually call what we do “vending machine” religion, and one notable argument about this which I had with a fellow grove member, comes to mind. The topic of the discussion was about signing client/patronage contracts with deities. I had proposed at a grove meeting that we have our grove as an entity enter into a clientage agreement with our tribe’s tutelary deity, Bríd. My thinking was that our end of the bargain would be to uphold our duties with regard to The Imbolc Retreat. Hosting that event in her honor would be a workable way to show our devotion and a privilege. In return we ask that she be our patron for Otherworldly equity and resource and that she make us into great story tellers and liturgists.

The response I got from the grove members at the time was nothing short of an outburst with a TLDR conclusion of, “you don’t sign contracts with friends” and “doing business with the gods is like vending machine religion.” I’m paraphrasing with quotes here. While this particular person left our grove months later, the concern continued to bounce around in my head for a long time, even after I signed that same contract personally with Bríd, which I renew each year on my own.

In my thinking and researching the topic I formed the opinion that Indo-European religion is very transactional. Phrases like count your blessings apply. Ancient Greeks would keep logs of offerings they gave and blessings they received so they could keep the gods overpaid, so to speak. While I agree this is spiritual business and economy, it is not the same thing as meaningless “I only do this to get what I need” practice, which is what vending machine religion really is and is analogous to.

In order to understand any Indo-European religion you have to understand their idea of Cosmic Order, or Rta as it’s called in the Vedas. The very word rta means to fit together. Wyrd, Orlog and Firínne are IE cultural cognates to rta, relating to both law and movement like dharma of Vedism. Everything in an Iron Age tribe fits together and had a proper place and order. Things were efficient and your friends were indeed the same people you worked for and with; while being the same people you did business with. Free folk weren’t free to roam other kingdoms so everything was super localized. In an Iron Age friendship, degradation of reciprocity and the relationship means degradation of reputation, honor and livelihood. Friendship and businesses were transactional and as the Havamal says, a gift calls for a gift. You don’t need to pull gebo out of your rune sack three times to figure out many of your own life’s problems are due to not putting attention on reciprocating the blessings you receive with offerings to others, be them friends nor gods. Part of rta and the proper order of things is that there isn’t room for frivolity, nor keeping friends nor business contacts who take and provide no reciprocal value. It’s also important that those with which you have reciprocal duties to conceptualize these notions in the same way.

four frends leaning against a railing with the sun setting behind them
90_skull / pixabay.com

Every time I try to reciprocate dutifully, my friends who may be less immersed in my pagan philosophy sometimes discard my behavior by saying, you don’t have to be “all tit for tat” about it. This simply doesn’t compute with me and my natural emotional impulses which I cannot control cause me to feel bad when I cannot reciprocate in the ways I want to. But, that’s just an excuse, because everyone has some value that they bring to the table. I just simply do not understand what is wrong with matching every effort and act of consideration that others do for me, and doing so with the conviction of pious practice. I do not ever want to take advantage of my grove, friends, family and support systems. I am lessened when they are diminished and when they are bettered we are all bettered. Reciprocity is more than just giving, it’s the notion that I am within them and they are within me. But, I also want to be some level of self sustaining, and so I need to measure that. It isn’t as if I’m going to try to cash in my social capital with a person, rather, I prefer to keep them in equitable position on top. I’ve simply come to terms with finding middle ground on the topic between self reliance and each of us being integral piece of a tribe, nothing without togetherness.

I’m of the opinion that our ancestors, and sometimes we, do and did make business deals with friends and those with whom they had reciprocal relations. And, as contemporary Indo-European pagans, we do make contracts with our closest cosmic allies. Whether a god is your friend or not is up to you, but my gods that are also the First Ancestors to Irish families I’m a descendant of would take issue with me mooching off of our relationship. Just like a friend who hates mooching, your deities will not be happy if you do not uphold your end of votive bargains and some level of meaningful reciprocation.

So I courteously reject any and all holders of the notions where having a reciprocal, transactional spiritual economy–including patronage contracts–is seen as “vending machine” religion. We treat our gods, who work their theurgy, as persons and not as objects which behave based on electronic or mechanical instructions. I think in general, folks fail to see how relationships degrade when parties cease providing value to one another. Folks feel they aren’t friends with people because of the value they provide. They tend to say things like, “I just like hanging out and having fun with friends.” These are real quotes in the aforementioned conversations about patronage contracts. I think that is a classification error, because if you don’t view others’ company alone as another providing value, then you’ve got a fundamental worldview issue in the human department, speaking from experience.

It isn’t “vending machine” anything because, a vending machine exists and is there to serve you, that is its primary purpose. It isn’t because in Indo-European paganism, the worldview is such that the divine has a mutual agenda with humans in seeing the entire Cosmic order be preserved, yet abundant, bettered, yet still growing toward the highest of achievements. It isn’t because in our paganism, we do give so that we might receive, yet we choose to give and receive from those *allies* whose ethos and values overlap with our own.

It isn’t because a vending machine has no will and is not any sort of ally seeking to better the Cosmos. Commanding rather than asking the divine for blessings, however, is treating your spirituality like a vending machine. It would be an interesting experiment on the mind to practice thanking all the vending machines which serve you and beginning to do as we do in our Grove, personifying objects instead of objectifying beings.

One of the most important aspects of this to grasp is that the gods don’t have jobs or duties, and shouldn’t be seen as a “god of [insert power]”. At least in Celtic Polytheism it isn’t that way. While Bríd is motherly, she’s capable of providing a warrior’s protection. After all, her father is An Dagda. Once you find your tutelary deity, you go to them for most things. You build a relationship with that deity which is strong. You shouldn’t go to a thunder god for this and love god for that. It’s not about what the deities can do for you, it’s about what each person in such a relationship becomes together, because of that relationship. With Togetherness, we better ensure that health, wealth and wisdom are in store for us and that our Cosmic Order is maintained and preserved.


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