Imperfect Gods

Imperfect Gods May 14, 2012
Sehkmet – a very imperfect goddess

After the last post on worship, Star Foster had a follow-up titled “Worshiping an Imperfect God” where she discussed the fact that the gods and goddesses of our ancestors are far from perfect. You can read her essay for yourself, but for me the key line is this:

I am not a flawed imperfect being cringing before a flawless God. I am a mortal striving for excellence worshiping immortal beings greater than myself, who also strive for excellence.

I’ve had people – mostly Christians – ask why I would bother worshiping an imperfect god. I think that question shows a disagreement on what “worship” means. Worship is not bowing low before some great and terrible being. Worship is expressing your love and respect for someone or some idea that is bigger than yourself. “Bigger” doesn’t mean “perfect” – unless you think that only a perfect being would be greater than yourself…

For those who insist on worshiping a perfect god, let me ask: where in the Universe do you see perfection? Might and majesty, yes. Wonder and awe, certainly. But perfection? In a Universe where there is suffering? Not just pain – which can have a clear and necessary purpose, if not exactly a perfect purpose – but suffering?

We can speak with meaning of perfect love and perfect trust, of perfect justice or perfect mercy because they exist as abstractions. Still, I agree with Star that we should strive for excellence which is attainable rather than perfection which is not.

Trying to move from a perfect concept to a perfect being presents a problem – particularly when that perfect being is presumed to be a – or the – creator. Can the perfect create the imperfect? When the perfect creates the imperfect does that not end its perfection? Conservative Christians get around this by saying Creation was perfect until “sin” entered the world, which they blame on man, and woman, and the devil. But if man, woman and the devil were created by a perfect one, their imperfection must have come from the perfect one, who thus cannot be perfect.

As John Michael Greer said in A World Full of Gods, the world as we actually experience it is better explained by many limited and imperfect gods than by one all-powerful God who is perfect.

That’s philosophy and theology, which I enjoy contemplating. But as a Pagan, I don’t judge religious beliefs by philosophical consistency – though that’s certainly important. Instead, I judge religious beliefs by whether they are meaningful and helpful.

Belief in a perfect god is clearly meaningful for millions of people. But is it helpful?

A perfect god would be “wholly Other” – nothing like you and me. Calvinist Christians and some Muslims (whose beliefs are far more similar than either cares to admit) worship such a god – a god who sees nothing wrong with casting millions of sentient creatures into eternal torment for following the “wrong” religion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson warned us to “be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” We cannot become perfect. If we worship a perfect god, we become like a god who thinks he’s perfect: callous and arrogant, reactive and unthinking, judgmental and uncaring. We can extrapolate the otherness of such a god to other peoples and other creatures, declaring they are worthless – “worth less” than we are. And when they are worth less than we are, we have no problem exploiting them or even killing them to satisfy our less-than-perfect desires for possession and control.

As a Pagan, I say there is no Other. We are all part of the same interconnected web of Life. We all trace our beginnings back to the first life and back to the Big Bang – and whatever unknowable wonders preceded it. A chimp is like us, only slightly different. A rabbit is like us, only slightly different. A god or a goddess has origins in the same Creation as us and is like us, only different.

The difference in gods and humans is quantitative, not qualitative. That quantitative difference can be lessened or eliminated – as is demonstrated by the humans who have been deified.

Perfection is an abstraction. The old gods and goddesses? They’re another matter entirely.

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  • I think this also depends on what we mean by "perfect." It doesn't necessarily mean perfect *in every way.* A perfect fork isn't responsible for ending world hunger anymore than a perfect thunder god is responsible for world peace.

  • Very true. This isn't a problem for polytheists. It presents serious problems for monotheists.

  • Jana

    You’ve wrote down my thoughts on the matter exactly! I’m not a very religious person, but based on my expiriences, the thought of one perfect god who is above us al and all that, is appaling, and the thought of several imperfect gods makes far more sense!