Worship the Gods

Worship the Gods February 7, 2013
Sophia from Celsus Library in Ephesus

Author and philosopher Brendan Myers has a new blog post with the rather provocative title of “The worship of the gods is not what matters.”  And provoke me it did – my gut level response was “of course worship matters!”

But I found Myers’ essay to be quite reasonable.  Go read it and then come back – it’s not long.  If you’re inclined to disagree don’t form a rebuttal as you read – read it in as neutral a frame of mind as you can.  If you feel the need to rebut, you can do it later.

Brendan Myers is a good Pagan.  He’s followed this path for twenty years and he’s as knowledgeable on ancient pagan philosophy as anyone.  He’s an active participant in the wider Pagan community and he works to “help create a spiritual culture that is intellectually inquiring, artistically flourishing, environmentally aware, and socially just.”  And he pours offerings to a goddess.  That’s more than enough Pagan credentials for me.

The things that matters to Brendan matter to me too.  People, relationships, the Earth.  Life and death.  Art, music, and culture; science, knowledge, justice, and peace.  These things matter to everyone, Pagan or not.  Our popular culture has one way of looking at them.  The conservative Christianity that has dominated our politics for the past 30 years has another way.  And while the Pagan movement is far too diverse to say that there is a single “Pagan view” on these topics, there are clearly Pagan ways of relating to these topics that are very different from the mainstream.

These Pagan ways are informed by our ancestors, including the philosophers who are the foundation of Brendan’s life’s work.  They are informed by Nature and our relationship with the natural world.  They are informed by the gods, whether they are the distinct individual beings I recognize or the personification of values and relationships Myers honors with his offerings.

If the way in which one person mixes and matches these Pagan ways differs from my own, why should that bother me?  If what matters most to you differs from what matters most to me, why should either of us be surprised, much less care?  The roadside trash pickup starts Sunday at 12:45 – will you be there?  Is it your turn to bring the beer or is it mine?

But while his essay is quite reasonable, and while I am rather uneasy challenging a professional philosopher on a definition, “worship” seems to mean something different to Brendan than it does to me.  He says:

I do not bow. I do not obey. I do not ‘worship’. Perhaps this is one of the last remaining strands of my Catholic upbringing, but to me the word ‘worship’ means absolute unquestioning affirmation of the authority of the deity. I’ll not have that in my life. If you are wise, neither will you. The gods, if they exist, are just the people who happen to live on the other side.

I agree with Brendan’s last sentence.  Whatever the goddesses and gods are, they are not “wholly other” as the monotheistic religions claim of their god.  You need only read the stories of our ancestors to see their gods are more like us than not.  You need only understand the scientific story of the origins of the universe and of life to see the Gods of Nature are our relations.  The idea that the gods are so much greater than us that our proper response is obeisance is not a Pagan concept.

You have the sovereignty that rightly lies with all beings.  You retain that sovereignty even when dealing with the gods.  You may choose to give some of that sovereignty to a particular goddess or god in deference to their wisdom, much as you’d willingly – but not mindlessly – defer to a human elder or teacher.  None of the gods or goddesses I’ve come across seem interested in lavish praise.  They know they’re deities – they don’t need us to remind them of it.  None of them want sheep for followers.

The word “worship” comes from the Old English word weorthscipe meaning worthiness or respect. The gods and goddesses are certainly worthy of our respect by virtue of being older, wiser and more powerful than we humans.  Their gifts to us require our thanks and reciprocity.  Their kindness and generosity (sometimes given in ways that don’t seem like it at the time) inspire our devotion.

The God of the Forest comforted me when I was an angry child, restored me as a confused adult, and gave me purpose with a call to be his priest.  The Mother Goddess taught me she never turns her back on her children and gave me the confidence to move forward boldly.  The Battle Raven challenges me to reclaim my sovereignty and to serve the greater good, no matter what.

This is why I pray.

This is why I make offerings.

This is why I worship the gods.

If you prefer another term for these practices, that’s fine.  If you prefer other practices, that’s fine too.  If you see the gods differently, hey, you might be right, or at least less wrong than me.  This is what my heart and my head tell me is true.

But the roadside trash pickup starts Sunday at 12:45 – will you be there?

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  • Thank you for this. 🙂

    • John Beckett

      Brendan, thank YOU for being a voice for reason in a community that, for all the good it brings, still has a lot of growing up to do.

  • Lisa Dunn

    I enjoyed reading both your article and Brendan’s article. One of the things I love most about being a Pagan is that we don’t have to agree on everything, just be respectful to each other. And a perk to that is that if you read/listen with an open mind, you just might learn something to add to your own belief system. :o)

    The word “worship” bothers me, but I know that is coming from my Christian upbringing, when to worship meant to give up what you thought and felt for what some man said that God said you had to think and feel. I follow, listen for, listen to, respect, love, honor, and cherish the Divine within and without me. I see myself as part of the whole, one with all that is. I bring this Divine to me in the form of gods and goddesses, and they are very real to me. They are friends, mentors, protectors, teachers, and guides, and they move me (sometimes prod me) along a better path. So yes, I can say to myself that I lovingly worship my gods and goddesses.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • John Beckett

      Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I’m glad you’ve gotten past your difficulties with “worship”, and I wish more Pagans would learn to listen respectfully instead of assuming any disagreement is a personal insult. As you say, we might learn something!

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about these things also, ever since this latest iteration of “hard polytheists vs. pantheists” began.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the distinction that matters most to me is not whether or not you worship the gods, but where you think humanity’s place in the cosmos is. The dominant view in our culture seems to be that humans are the most important thing in the world, and everything else is here to serve us and for us to use. I suspect this comes from Abrahamic religion, and the idea that God created the world just for humans, but there are plenty of people who aren’t of those religions who seem to believe the same thing. I’ve even met some pagans who seemed to believe so, though they were more into Alistair Crowley type occultism where you do magic to bend the universe to your Will.

    The reason I got into paganism to begin with was not because of the gods, but because I’ve always believed that humans were just one species among millions, and if there is a God or gods, he/she/they must care at least as much about beetles as they do about humans. Subsequently, I’ve met a few Christians who seemed to actually align with my views on this better than some pagans and atheists do! (Something they call “Creation Spirituality”, which is not at all the same thing as Creationism.)

    I didn’t encounter any actual gods (at least that I could put a name to) until I was several years into being a pagan. And that was only after I got into meditation and journeying techniques, and unexpected things started popping up. If that hadn’t happened, I would have remained a much more pantheistic type pagan.

    The important thing is that if the gods exist, they’re just additional members of the community. In Germanic cosmology, the gods are still a part of Wyrd. Some of them seem to care a lot about humans, but there are probably others out there that we never hear from because they care a whole lot more about ants. And just like there are gods that don’t have relationships with humans, there are humans that don’t really have relationships with gods. What’s so bad about that?

    And yes, I also don’t adhere to the mainstream definition of “worship”. I have a Jewish friend who just couldn’t get his mind around the idea that I would “worship” something that is imperfect, like a pagan god. To him, the only being worthy of worship would be all-powerful and perfect in every way, which would of course be HIS god (we eventually quit talking about religion because we wanted to remain friends!) So maybe “worship” isn’t really the right word for what I do. “Honor” perhaps, or “venerate”. Though as you say, “worship” is a perfectly good Old English word that used to be used to describe what I do, so why can’t we keep it?

    • John Beckett

      Amanda, that’s a very good point. One of the reasons I worship the gods is to remind me of “humanity’s place in the cosmos”. The idea that “God created the world just for humans” is part of what has gotten us in this mess of climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion, and species extinction. If we’re going to reverse that – if our species is going to grow up before we kill ourselves off – we need a better way of relating to the rest of the cosmos. For me, Paganism is such a way.

      I’m glad you mentioned “Creation Spirituality”. These Christians approach the issue from a different perspective but come to much the same conclusions. They are our friends and allies and we should remember to treat them as such.

  • Wendilyn Emrys

    As a person who has NEVER been anything but Pagan I will say, I worship, revere, and respect the Goddesses, and Gods, in their many forms. A few I may even admire and love, they are all masks of the same Universal Intelligence to me. I do not have a ‘converso’s’ need to rebel against a former religion. The Ancients WORSHIPED, as do I, but with a modern sensibility. I do not agree that they are just, ‘people on the other side’, at least not for me. I would not worship or revere other people, that is too Humanist for me, and I find that too close to Hubris. I see the human need to cloak the Divine in different garments as OUR making sense of our experience with it. It has nothing to do with the true reality of what we cannot know in all certainty at this time. This, at least, is my concept and experience of the Divine as I see it.

    • John Beckett

      I agree with you that the gods aren’t only “people on the other side”, but considering that some of them are deified humans, I don’t think that’s an unhelpful way to view them. My main point there was that they’re more like us than not, and while we should approach them with honor, respect, and reverence, we need not approach them with the self-abasement that some of the monotheistic traditions teach.

      Not needing to rebel against a former religion is a very good thing, and I totally agree that we can’t know the true reality of the Divine.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    I personally don’t think of the gods as “just the people on the other side.” I worship. I even bow. 🙂

    It’s okay to have humility. It’s okay to acknowledge and even embrace the idea that your own self is not the most important thing in the universe. To me, that’s what spirituality is all about. Of course there can be other ways to do this than by worshiping, but that doesn’t mean worshiping is wrong.

    • John Beckett

      Humility is good! The gods don’t need to be reminded that they’re bigger/stronger/wiser than us, but frequently, we do.

  • Sorn

    Thank you for this very nice piece. I especially appreciate your paragraph about weordth scipe; as a Heathen, the difficulty some of my co-religionists have in describing their behavior towards the gods as worship has been a longtime source of frustration and annoyance to me.

    • John Beckett

      Thanks, Sorn. Unitarian Universalists have had a similar reaction to “worship” for similar reasons. We seem to be getting past that now… or at least most of the UUs I interact with have.

  • meg

    Could anyone recommend some reading on sovereignty? I keep seeing the idea thrown around but I don’t have quite a grasp on what it means.

  • Thank you for this insightful post. I suspect the great difficulty here – upon which you touch – turns upon the question of language, and of what we mean by words like “worship” and “venerate” and honor and such. These are questions which predate the emergence of the contemporary Pagan movement in history – the Protestant reaction against the Catholic cults of saints continues to resonate even today – although given my own limited knowledge of ancient history and particularly ancient thought, I’m not sure whether analogous questions would have occurred for one or more subsets of ancient Pagans or Polytheists.

    That said, as someone who grew up Catholic in the Bible Belt, explaining the difference between worship and veneration for skeptical Protestants hell-bent on challenging the legitimacy of my then-Catholic faith – That particular theological and social challenge occurred before my coming into Paganism, and believe me, you don’t spend years and years answering particular questions like that without concurrently developing an often unhelpful attachment for such questions, and for the answers which made sense way back when.

    I understand why Brendan Myers might identify “worship” as a loaded term. I likewise understand why others might wish to rehabilitate “worship” as an expression which, for at least this former Catholic’s ear, sounds much more like “venerating” the Gods. And likewise, I understand why some might feel the expression “worship” doesn’t have those unhelpful connotations to start, but we make sense of language through our personal history and our cultural background, and for many people, “worship” *does* imply unchecked subservience and really thoughtless obedience – both theological impulses which ill-suit contemporary Paganism, IMHO.

    These are things which call for serious reflection, but by the same token, I agree that theological niceties like these are hardly the most important thing for contemporary Pagans, at least in terms of how and why we daily tend the shared hearth fires. I thank you for this insightful post. Be safe and be well!

    • John Beckett

      Thanks for the comment, Scryer. Even when I was one of those Protestants in the Bible Belt, I understood what my Catholic friends meant when they spoke of venerating the saints but worshiping God. And both of those are very different from the low church “preachin’, prayin’ and singin'” definition of “worship”. I have no direct experience with Catholicism, but I’m inclined to agree with you that what most Pagans do is most comparable to veneration.

      Still, the ancients described their practices as worship (or at least, that’s how it’s been translated into English) and if I can help rehabilitate the word, I’m going to try.

  • I call this idea pragmatic Paganism. I once had a conversation with another mom about whether or not I was worried that about my children being “good Christians” because of something that I had done or said that she didn’t approve of. Rather than be all indignant about being assumed to be Christian, or go into a religious education dissertation about Paganism (neither of which I thought would go over well), I simply told her this: “I’d rather my child be a good person than a good Christian. I don’t care what gods my child decides to worship, or not, or what churches they decide to go to, or not. I care that they treat their fellow man with compassion and respect, and that they walk softly over the earth. That’s it.”

    And that is still all I care about. What gods you worship doesn’t mean anything to me if you don’t have reverence or respect beyond them. I worship the gods (having grown up in the United Church of Christ, I don’t feel awkward in using the word) because they matter to me, but at the end of the day, what I do in the context of my family, my friends, my community, matters more than who or how I worship.

    • John Beckett

      “Pragmatic Paganism” – I like that!

  • Cool stuff!
    My 2cents concerning those who get “twitchy” about the “W-word”…
    In part 3 of my collection of essays, “Belief and Neopaganism”
    http://thebookofsassafras.blogspot.com/p/neopaganism-and-belief.html , I state:
    ” …I really do think people are waaay too squeamish about the w-word. Most of that comes from growing up in a Fundamentalist culture where we are programmed with the notion of “worship” as being something only licensed to those with “the One True Way.” In that model, if you’re foolish enough to get caught worshiping the Wrong Thing, you will be (a): excommunicated; and possibly even (b): executed. Either way, you will certainly end up in (c): Hell; where the atheists on either side of you will think you’re really quite (d): stupid.

    Yep, worshiping something other than the God of Abraham may feel to some degree risky. Also, it implies (somehow or other) that you are assuming an inferior-status to that which you worship. So, must it follow that if you worship dirt, you are less than dirt?

    To me the implied syllogism isn’t really there at all. I don’t worship things just like me, I worship things wonderfully different from me. (“Apple-damn-it, he’s right!” said the orange.) When, as I do, I worship the Sun by offering It daily prayer, I summon-up my amazement and gratitude and launch it out into the All-That-Is-Not-Me and, in the shadow of my own actions, my externalization of the internal, I have setup a feedback loop that helps rectify my relationship to that which I have elected to worship.

    The Sanctity / Veneration feedback-loop

    The veneration of holy things not only makes them holier to us but it can have a profoundly healing effect on us as well. We do not belittle ourselves by worshiping something, we elevate ourselves in the process… To a Pagan the world is full of things worthy of veneration, not solely the ghosts wrought from a grossly misunderstood book and forced upon them by red-faced men spouting brimstone, politics, and fear.

    So, RELAX, really, it’s all up to you…
    Only you define what “worship” means… Just don’t sell yourself short.
    Here’s a few models for the W-word, ranging from the mild to the extreme:

    “Worship” defined as
    willful remembrance and acknowledgement…
    “Worship” defined as
    tribute and respectful salutation…
    “Worship” defined as
    acts of veneration of the sacred…
    “Worship” defined as
    a willful act of submission to the sublime
    spiritual aspect(s) of a deity, spirit or thing.”