Hearing voices or talking to ourselves?

Hearing voices or talking to ourselves? June 2, 2013

All revelations are personal.

That’s why all revelations are suspect.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

In my last post, I reviewed some of the recent controversy over the issue of so-called pop culture Paganism, and tried to make sense of the varying perspectives of those participating in the debate. I concluded that post by observing that both “sides” of the debate (polytheistic recons on one side, and a variety of non-recon polytheists, magickal Pagans, and archetypal Pagans on the other) had valid points: I think the recons have a legitimate concern about danger of trivializing or desacralizing Pagan religiosity by conflating it with pop culture. However, the problem that recons face is how to distinguish true worship from profane fandom; in the process of trying to draw the distinction, they ended up excluding whole groups of people whose religiosity is arguably genuine.

The most common mistake made by recons participating in this debate was trying to draw the distinction based on the object of one’s religious attention. Obviously, reconstructionists privilege older religious forms. But the fact is that one person’s worship of Superman might be genuine religiosity, while another person’s adoration of Odin might be an example of what Galina Kasskova calls “spiritual puerility”. PSVL writes that just because something may be sacred, does not mean that it is. I think that’s right, but it applies just as much to ancient Greek gods as it does to pop culture icons. There is a difference between worship and fandom, but I think that the difference is not in the object, but in the subject — in the worshiper, not the worshipee.

How sacred is Superman to you?

I think at least part of the difference between sacred worship and profane adoration is to be found in the experience of sacredness. As Frater Inominandum writes in his short essay, “Why Not Invoke Superman”:

“You must hold the object of evocation as being sacred and powerful. You may think that Superman is powerful, but is he sacred? Is he sacred the way that a goddess is sacred? Can you be caught up in his rapture like Nuit? Do you really look upon it with awe? These are the things that separate spiritual beings from fantasy.” (emphasis original)

What does “sacred” mean? There are a lot of definitions of sacredness, but one definition that works for me is “something that has value aside from any instrumental or practical usefulness”. Think about the things or relationships in your life that matter most to you, and I think they will satisfy this definition of sacred. An encounter with the gods, if it is to be deserving of that name, should be of the same quality as the other things in our life that we call sacred.

Dver, a spirit-worker and devotional polytheist, argues that, whatever we think about the nature of the gods, what we should all be able to agree upon is that there is a “difference between slaughtering a pig over the bones of your tribe’s legendary ancestor in holy awe and supplication for a good year ahead, and liking what Superman stands for.” I agree, but on the flip side, I also think there is a difference between conducting a sacred rite to honor the divinity which has manifest for you as Superman, and liking one of your famous ancestors. The real difference is not the object (legendary ancestor or Superman), but the experience of awe felt and the attitude of reverence expressed in the presence of the object. This is, I think, is what PSVL means when e writes that the difference is one of presence or absence of “cultus”, where “cultus” means those practices of evoking, recognizing, and honoring that which we find sacred.


The other difference, I think, is that genuine worship involves an encounter with the “other”. This is true whether you are a hard polytheist who believes the gods are beings which exist completely independently of the human mind, or a magickal Pagan who believes the gods are created by human minds but then take on an existence of their own, or an archetypal Pagan who believes the gods are part of the human psyche, but that the psyche includes parts that feel separate from what we identify as “us” (or in the words of Lon Milo Duquette, “It’s all in your head … You just have no idea how big your head is.”).

Philemon from Jung's Red Book
Philemon, one of Jung’s divine “others”, from his visionary period, as recorded in The Red Book.

Dver explores this in a a brief but powerful post entitled, “Worship Them”. She argues that the difference between between fiction and worship is that the former is an act of imagination, while the latter actually involves the experience of interacting with something other than yourself:

“Not the characters in your head, but the real, bigger-than-you’ll-ever-comprehend, powerful, life-changing GODS. When that happens, all else pales in comparison. You stop being in control. You are not the one writing the story or making the rules. (Maybe that’s why so few people do it – it’s scary and dangerous.) But, you become part of a much bigger, more significant story. You begin living mythically. But you can’t do this alone in your safe little world of imaginary characters. You need to engage with the real, independent, divine beings that exist outside of any of our limited ideas of them. You need to let go and WORSHIP. That’s when the really good stuff happens.”

This question of control is really critical, I think. Control is the difference between an encounter with your own ego-self and an encounter with the “other”, whatever the nature of that “other”. Even though Dver and I disagree about the degree or quality of the separation between us and the gods, I agree 100% with everything she says above. Even from an archetypal perspective, a true encounter with the gods is not something that we can consciously control. It is dangerous and frightening, and it can transform a mundane life into a mythical life.

This experience of otherness, combined with a sense of sacrality, is what Rudolf Otto called the “numinous” (a term adopted by Jung). And the numinous is what seems to be missing from a lot of archetypal descriptions of the gods, to the extent that they reduce the gods to mere metaphors. This is something at Jung himself warned against:

“Their numinosity gives the contents [of the archetypes] an autonomous nature. […] Not only is the existence of archetypes denied, but even those people who do admit their existence usually treat them as if they were mere images and forget that they are living entities that make up a great part of the human psyche. As soon as the interpreter strips them of their numinosity, they lose their life and become mere words.” (CW 18: P 595-596)

I suspect this lack of numinosity is what causes many polytheists to reject archetypal descriptions of religious experience out of hand.

Hearing voices?

If you’re seeing things
running through your head
Who can ya call?
— “Ghostbusters”, Ray Parker

But what does it really mean to have encounter with an “other”, especially when the “other” is one that can be heard, but makes no sound, can be felt, but not touched, and can seen, but not with the eyes? This is how most polytheists have explained their experience to me, and this is consistent with my own experiences of encounters with the divine, previously as a Christian and more recently as a Pagan — intangible, invisible, inaudible, and yet somehow still present in a way analogous to sensory experience.

Of course, we all can “hear” a voice in our head when we “talk to ourselves”. And we can “see” things when we imagine them or remember them. But what happens when we experience these things without willing them? What happens when the voice we “hear” or the thing we “see” feels like something that is happening to us, rather than something we are doing? What happens when these experiences seem as “real” or as significant (or more so) than things that everyone agrees are real? As Druid Nimue Brown writes in her her recent post, if we admit this publicly, then we are labelled “insane”. But this is merely a social judgment: “Insanity has never been purely a measurement of mental health,” writes Brown, “It is a measurement of deviance from consensus.”*

The irony is that we all hear voices and see “things that aren’t there” when we dream, voice and visions that we do not consciously create — and that’s considered socially acceptable. It’s even acceptable, to a certain extent, to look to dreams for personal direction. But for some reason, it’s not acceptable to listen to these voices or pay attention to these images when we are awake. And the truth is that everyone hears voices and sees image in their head, even when we are awake. And I would hazard that most people have had the experience of hearing a voice or seeing an image which did not feel like it came from them. And sometimes these experiences feel … well, significant. Pagan Judith O’Grady describes this in her book, God Speaking, as a kind of “reverberation” or “mystical echo” which causes her to pay more attention to certain experiences.

The difference between a person who is considered sane by our society and one who is considered insane is not that the purportedly sane person does not have these experiences; rather the “sane” person is the one who dismisses these voices and images as “not real” or not significant. We are socialized to disregard them, in fact. We are encouraged to distract ourselves from them, to drown them out with television, pop culture, addictions, and interpersonal drama.

But if we are quiet, if we listen, if we attend to these experiences, then we can begin to hear and see them more clearly. As Nimue Brown writes, “The voice of spirit does not go away just because our current culture has no place for it.” We can sometimes hear them as “loudly” than other people talking to us. And we can also learn to tell the difference between the voices of the divine “others” and the sound of us talking to ourselves. We can eventually learn to appreciate different degrees of depth, or levels of meaningfulness, in these experiences — just like how we can sense that some dreams are more significant than others. This is called “discernment”, a term I see used increasingly by polytheists, many of whom are working to develop an experientially-based methodology for identifying genuine encounters with divine presences. I think this is something that Neopagans (speaking as one myself) can learn from polytheists.


To learn to separate these experiences of “otherness” from our conscious thoughts and to to distinguish the more meaningful experiences from the random flashes of our imagination is, I think, a key to distinguishing sacred worship from profane pop culture. Dver references an earlier post of hers entitled, “Discernment”, where she distinguishes talking to imaginary people in your head from really interacting with the gods:

“I read a lot from people who appear to be having constant conversations with the gods as if They were simply invisible friends, always near and always interested in everything we think or do. …

“The gods are not just people who happen to be invisible and inaudible to most (despite our tendency toward anthropomorphism), and They are not limited to our ideas about Them. If the god you’re hearing never seems to stray (in appearance, tone, message, etc.) from what one would expect based on other people’s experiences, if They never surprise or even shock you, never challenge you, and if They are always there whenever you happen to turn your attention toward Them, then you are probably not touching the true nature of that god. To reiterate, you don’t always need to be doing so. But if you never go further, if you fail to recognize the limits of this everyday chit-chat sort of approach and thus fail to push yourself to access a deeper level of communication, then you will never really know the god you love as thoroughly as you could, and that is a shame, especially for one who aspires to that sort of mystic relationship.

“… If I want to get Their full attention, I work for it – I do ritual, I put power behind my words and actions, I choose potent times and places, and then I shift my own consciousness to a receptive state in which I can listen and see more clearly. And I never, ever assume I have reached the end of this work to get closer to Them.”

In other words, there is an experiential difference between talking to yourself and hearing the voices of the gods — even though both may take place “in your head”. And the same is true for those experiences which are more visual or tactile (or those that involve that bodily sixth sense that Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense”).

And contrary to what many polytheists claim, I don’t think it matters what you call the gods, or what you believe about their existence. For the polytheist, these voices are the gods or our ancestors. For the monotheist, they are God or God’s Spirit or the Holy Ghost (or sometimes the Devil/Satan). For the archetypal Pagan, they are the powers of the autonomous psyche. But whatever we call them, I think we are experiencing the same thing (except that I think polythestic Pagans are more open to a diversity of voices than monotheists). What matters is (1) that we learn to listen and (2) that we exercise discernment. Polytheists and Pagans do the first step through ritual. Jungians and some Pagans do it through active imagination (not to be confused with what is commonly called “imagination”) and dreamwork. The result is the same.

The next step is to exercise discernment. Here are some questions that I think might serve s a kind of litmus test for discerning whether you have really encountered the presence of a divine “other”. This is a work in progress, drawing primarily from the posts of Frater Inominandum, PSVL, and Dver, all individuals with significant experience interacting with gods and spirits:

1. Is the experience “sacred” to you? Is it similar to other things that you consider sacred.

2. Does the experience evoke a sense of awe or reverence or of being overwhelmed (i.e., with joy)?

3. Do you experience a presence, a strangeness, or a sense of “otherness”, something or someone distinct from what you identify as your conscious waking self.

4. Does the experience feel beyond your conscious control?

5. Are there aspects of the experience that surprise you or challenge you in some way?

6. Is the experience difficult to explain using everyday language? Is it mysterious or ineffable?

7. Does the experience sometimes require effort on your part to evoke?

8. Does the experience sometimes not respond to your effort to evoke it?

9. Does the experience tend to occur when you are in a more receptive state?

10. Has the experience ever occurred regardless of your level of receptivity?

11. Does the experience humble you? Does it move you to bend your knees or bow your head or remove your shoes or “kiss the earth” (Rumi)? Does it move you to worship?

Not every experience will conform to all of these, of course, but the more of these questions that you can answer affirmatively, I think, the more likely it is that you are having a genuine encounter with divinity — whether you call it a god, or God, or Self, or whatever — as opposed to just talking to yourself. And the same test can be used to separate genuine religiosity from profane pop culture. If your relationship with Superman meets most of the criteria above, then I think it’s wrong for anyone to say that your “god” is less real than anyone else’s.


Finally, I want to address briefly the idea of worship. The last question above, #11, is an awkward one for archetypal and naturalistic Pagans. Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of worship, at least to the extent that it seems to imply a surrender of our reason or our critical faculties. In a follow-up to her post “Worship Them”, Dver argues that worship is the appropriate response to a genuine encounter with the divine:

“I am suggesting that we not only acknowledge and honor those beings, but that we get down on our knees before Them – not because we must grovel for being pathetic and small, but because Their presence should bring us to our knees.” (emphasis original)

While I disagree with Dver about the relationship of these presences to our psyche, I agree that a encounter with them should evoke feelings of awe that move us to … well, worship. There is a kind of surrender involved in worship. At the very least, an acknowledgement of what lies beyond our control and beyond the grasp of our rational minds. It can be discomfiting, to say the least, especially to those of us who are are overly reliant on our left-brains. Nevertheless, I think it is the natural and appropriate response to an encounter with the divine “other”. I think a level of comfort with kneeling before this presence is something else that archetypal and naturalistic Pagans (speaking as one myself) can learn from devotional polytheists.

* The real difference between the sane mystic and the insane person is, in the words of Jung to James Joyce: one is swimming, while the other is drowning.

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