Wrestling With The Gods

Wrestling With The Gods December 17, 2013

There’s a t-shirt I see regularly at UU gatherings and occasionally at Pagan ones.  It says “some questions are too important for answers.”

I respect the humility in that sentiment.  Philosophers, theologians, and ordinary people have struggled with the Big Questions of Life for thousands of years.  Many of these questions aren’t simply beyond our current knowledge, they’re beyond our capacity to know.  Assuming we have certainty when we do not has been the source of countless problems, most notably fundamentalism.

In practice, though, many of the people wearing these shirts seem more interested in proclaiming our lack of certainty than in actually engaging the questions.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Rembrandt

The Old Testament tells the story of Jacob, who wrestled with an angel all night, refusing to let go until the angel blessed him.  In the end, the angel gave him his blessing but also put his hip out of joint.  In the church where I grew up, it was said that while Jacob was rewarded for his persistence toward a worthy goal, the injury was his punishment for arrogance – for what some current polytheists call impiety.

Like most good stories, this one has many possible meanings.  Blessings – wisdom, enlightenment, magic – do not come easily.  The blessings of the really important questions do not come from simply acknowledging their presence.  Their blessings come when we wrestle with them: when we propose answers, when we try them on and see how they fit.  Their blessings come when we weigh the various answers for strengths, weaknesses, and meaning.  Their blessings come when we read and study and meditate and contemplate, and when we discuss our findings with others.

As Jacob’s injury shows, wrestling with Big Questions is not without risk.  You may have your assumptions challenged.  You may lose your comfortable ignorance.   You may be forced to confront parts of yourself you’d rather leave hidden.  Initiations – whether in ritual or in the ordinary world – leave you changed.  Those changes aren’t always pleasant and sometimes they’re painful.

There is perhaps no bigger question – and no more dangerous question – than that of the gods.  What are they?  Who are they?  What do they offer us, and what do they want in return?

There are many possible answers.  If after an appropriate amount of wrestling you’ve settled on one that is meaningful and helpful to you, then I’m happy for you.  For any absolutists readers, that doesn’t mean every answer is right.  It means this is a Big Question that we can’t answer with certainty.  I’ll judge your theology by how it motivates you to be a good person, not by how closely it matches mine.

There are many thoughts on the gods in the Big Tent of Paganism:  hard polytheism, soft polytheism, duotheism, pantheism, non-theism.  As you try them on, though, remember that we live in a culture dominated by Christianity and by materialism.  It is very easy to view the goddesses and gods of our ancestors as variations on the popular view of the god of Christianity:  as omniscient and omnipotent and greatly concerned with our well-being.  But if there are many gods they are by necessity limited in power and scope.

It’s also easy to view the gods as purely psychological phenomena and believe they exist only as products of our brains.  Some forms of Paganism teach this, indirectly if not explicitly.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I’m reminded of my favorite book subtitle of all time, from Lon Milo DuQuette’s Low Magick:  “It’s All In Your Head … You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is.”  Even if goddesses and gods are purely psychological phenomena they are still mighty and powerful and worthy of our respect and emulation.

I’m a polytheist, but I’m not concerned with Pagans whose answers differ from mine.  As with Christians and atheists and others, I’ll judge their theology by how they live their lives, not by how closely their thoughts match mine.

But I am concerned with two things.  I’m concerned with Pagans who fail to wrestle with the questions and thus adopt a view of the gods that is weak and unhelpful.  I want Paganism to be a robust religion (or if you prefer, religions) on its own, not just an environmentally friendly version of the mainstream.  And I’m concerned with Pagans who profess to be polytheists but who tap out of the wrestling match and fail to consider the implications of multiple deities of limited power and scope.

Morpheus Ravenna – dancer, artist, and defacto high priestess of Morrigan – has an excellent blog post titled Gods with Agency: Ritual theory for polytheists.  If you’re a polytheist, go read it in it’s entirety.  Read the comments too.  Here’s a key quote:

If your Gods are real to you, treat Them like beings with agency. Agency: the capacity of an entity to act. In magical terms, agency is something like will.

If our Gods are real, They have agency. We don’t get to order Them around. We don’t command Them; instead we invite. We don’t dismiss Them when we’re ready to move on; instead we say thank you and goodbye.

If our Gods are real, They don’t disappear outside of ritual space … If our Gods are real, and They have agency, They are making a choice whether or not to respond to our calls. They are making a choice whether or not to engage, to help us, to be present. We can’t be treating them like a tool you put back on a shelf when you don’t need it, and then expecting Them to come and wield Their agency for our benefit!

What would you do if the Gods were real to you?

Athena Parthenos

Though my early rituals were heavily influenced by Isaac Bonewits’ work, I also mindlessly copied some other rituals that “summoned” and “dismissed” deities.  But when I came to the conclusion that the different experiences I had with different deities meant it was likely they were different beings, I started being more polite in my rituals.

The first time I participated in a Drawing Down ritual, I understood in a very tangible way that the gods – or at least a certain Forest God – have their own ideas and their own priorities.  My personal growth was a secondary concern, and my comfort and convenience wasn’t much of a concern at all.

I still struggle with maintaining a reciprocal relationship on a daily basis.  My prayers are consistent, but my devotions and offerings aren’t.  And I think it’s time for more wrestling – for more diligent work to experience the gods first-hand and to learn more about them in the process.

Like all the Big Questions of Life, the nature of the gods is ultimately uncertain.  We can choose to ignore these big questions and carry on with our lives.  We can give them some casual thought, then drop them when they lead us to places that are inconvenient.

Or we can wrestle with the gods, in full knowledge that we may be injured and we will be changed, and through our wrestling find answers that bring us meaning and wisdom.

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  • Conor O’Bryan Warren

    Great article. The point of ‘knowing’ is the hard one that I continue to grapple with. For example, I’m rather certain my gods exist as evidenced by my own experiences. however I’m only as certain of that as I’m certain that I will be alive tomorrow, which is approximately 99.998 percent by my estimations. I would, in fact, say I know my gods exist, however, on the same hand expecting this to be a self-evident truth for all is foolishness, since folks do not have the same experiences that I have had.

    (And as an aside on the word ‘know’, before I get any ‘correcting’ comments, be aware that being absolutely certain about something is only one of the words many definitions. I’m not absolutely certain, just almost entirely certain.)

    • You better be alive tomorrow, Conor. : )

      • Conor O’Bryan Warren

        Well, you just never know when a meteorite is going to slam into your bedroom and crush you in your sleep. It is just one of the many things that adds spice to life!

        • Guest

          Wait…. Spice comes from meteorites? I thought it was produced from giant worms.

          • Conor O’Bryan Warren

            “He who controls the spice controls the universe”

    • Inside the circle (during ritual, during meditation, during prayers, etc) I’m certain the gods exist and that I know them as well as I know any human. Outside the circle, where my logical self has more influence, I’m not so sure. But because I know those inside-the-circle experiences are so strong and real and meaningful, I order my life as though they are.

      • TadhgMor

        I’m curious about this distinction. Is that common among the OBOD? Because it seems very ceremonial magick to me.

        I’ve never been able to make any distinction. I mean there are always certain areas that are set-aside, but I never had the craft/mundane distinction (I think those are the right terms, but I never went through Wicca so I’m not really sure).

        • I’m using “inside the circle” metaphorically. Perhaps I should have said “when I’m in the moment”.

          It’s not an intentional distinction. When I’m actually experiencing the gods, it’s hard to think of anything but them and the idea that they’re not really real is absurd. Without the constant stimulus of their direct presence, though, the ideas of our mainstream materialist society start to creep back into my mind: “it’s all in your head” “you’re hallucinating” “it’s just wishful thinking”… I can’t completely dismiss those thoughts, and objectively, I understand they might be correct.

          But I do know this: those experiences of the gods are real and meaningful and helpful. So I act as though they are really real, even though I can’t be sure. Paganism doesn’t talk about faith very much, but to me, this is what faith is: being faithful to the gods and to my experiences of them even though I can’t be sure.

          It’s not ceremonial magic… and I don’t know that anything I do is typical of OBOD.

          • TadhgMor

            Thanks for the response, I guess I misunderstood. I’m not used to the “circle” language and the like.

    • Henry Buchy

      LOL. knowing from your own experience is all that is necessary…

  • Really good post, John!

    Can you elaborate a little more of your fear of those who “fail to consider the implications of multiple deities of limited power and scope?”

    • Thanks, Rhyd.

      I’m concerned that Pagans who do that will present an immature version of Paganism to the wider world. Individually that’s no big deal – on an individual basis what matters is whether your religion is meaningful and helpful to you. Not everybody wants deep religious experience. Going back to the Pagan Unity post, I’d rather have those folks filling our circles than filling church pews.

      But the more those kind of ideas are spread, the more people think of the gods as supernatural vending machines or as divine helicopter parents, the fewer people will truly honor the gods for the divine beings they are. That means fewer people having truly meaningful experiences of the gods, and fewer people following the gods.

      As I said in the post, I don’t want Paganism to be just a nicer version of materialism and monotheism. I want it to be the powerful, countercultural, world changing religion it can be, and that I think we need.

      • Beautifully said, particularly the part about not everyone wanting deep religious experience. I’d add that not everyone is in a place where deep religious experience is either necessary or possible. That is, the profound experience of the Other is really awfully inconvenient sometimes, and Divine Trauma is something for which we don’t have much space for, not only in modern society but in our own collective practices. We’re not even really equipped always to deal with what happens when the gods appear outside our circles, let alone make space
        for them in our outside-the-circle life.

        And there’s a scary point where they stop being “supernatural vending machines,” that they’ll only hold your hand for so long before you start proving yourself to be a very ineffective ally to their work. That’s the other part of discernment, I think, not just knowing that they’re there and want to co-create with us, but recognising when we’re actually getting in their way. They’ve all seemed rather patient with me so far, but, well, being patient usually has the expectation that at some point one won’t need to be patient any longer.

  • ximendingdave

    Great article and you raise some very important questions. As an American living abroad I often visit and take part in various Taoist and Buddhist ceremonies in addition to my usual Episcopal ones…what does the Sea Goddess Matsu, very popular in Chinese coastal societies, have to teach me and inspire me to do? How do I respectfully and gently discover her various meanings? For a seafaring diety she is intimately involved in protecting those who live near and live from the Sea. What bigger meaning does this have for me? Does she mirror Mary Star of the Sea a Catholic saint? Is there beauty and knowledge to be found in meditating on her task of guiding those on the “sea of life” or “lost at sea” in what ever manner that may entail? You’ve helped me to focus some of my thoughts. Thanks!

  • Henry Buchy

    nicely said.

    and good advice here:

    “There are many thoughts on the gods in the Big Tent of Paganism: hard polytheism, soft polytheism, duotheism, pantheism, non-theism. As you try them on, though, remember that we live in a culture dominated by Christianity and by materialism.”
    I might add -and keep them in ones wardrobe…

  • 12StepWitch

    Theologically, I live somewhere in the middle and to the left of the Polytheists and the Naturalists. The first time I read a Polytheist describe the Gods as “like people, but with powers, on the other side” my honest, knee-jerk response was horror, a sense that something almost blasphemous had been uttered. It just in no way seemed sacred, strange, or mysterious enough to jive with my experience of what the Divine actually is. I believe Polytheists when they say that they eschew belief in favor of what they have actually experienced, and so all I can say is that my experience of the Divine has not rolled that way. On the other hand, I simply cannot agree that there is no such thing as a god, or many gods, or that the Divine is simply Nature is and doesn’t think of us at all. I have had a direct experience of my life being dramatically changed by divine intervention. As to the nature of the Gods beyond that, little has been revealed to me directly. It isn’t something that I want to dissect. I’ve sat down with a blank word document in front of me and challenged myself to define my theology, and found that the mystery fled in front of me. It simply isn’t mine to define; it is for the Divine to reveal to me.

    I understand that to some this might look like spiritual laziness, or represent a failure to wrestle with the questions. I’d submit that it is not that I am fearful of “wrestling with the Gods” as you state, it is simply that my way of wrestling with them might not even look like wrestling to someone else.

    In Aikido the master uses only defensive moves to disarm his opponent. The master blends with the energy of the attacker and redirects it rather than opposing it head on. He leads and redirects the attackers momentum with throws and turning movements. It looks nothing like other martial arts, and requires little physical strength. To the Judo or Karate master, the Aikido technique may seem weak or ineffectual. It may seem, as you say of the techniques of other Pagans, “weak and unhelpful.” But there entirely different skills, and techniques being developed here that are unseen by outsiders. While to you, or others, it may seem that some Pagans are choosing to just tap out when questions get too hard, is it possible that they are exploring questions and narratives that others are just unable to see or appreciate? I think we’ve all seem Naturalist Pagans miss the point as far as Polytheists are concerned—decrying their devotional practices as too alarmingly slavish or servile. Obviously for Polytheists concerned, something else entirely is going on—something much richer, with deep meaning and nuance, something that provides great benefit to the gods and to the devotee. Is it possible that you, John, are simply not capable of seeing what is happening for these people who you write off as simply practicing an “environmentally friendly version of the mainstream” in much the same way that they are unable to see what is happening for others?

    Or, we can get alarmingly hippie here and ask why “Wrestling with the Gods” is the objective. Maybe “Dancing with the Mystery” is what some of us are here for.

    No doubt there are unengaged people in every type of spiritual community, and yes, in the Polytheist community, in the Naturalistic Pagan community. And we should practice what we call in the recovery community “Attraction rather than Promotion” in order to encourage them. Let’s make wrestling, or dancing, look SO fascinating and irresistible that they just cannot bear to be left behind.

    • Thanks for contributing to the discussion. What you describe sounds like honest wrestling to me, or if you prefer, dancing with the Mystery. And I like the idea of attraction rather than promotion – gotta figure out how to do more of that…

  • Sunweaver

    This is beautiful, as always. The photo of Our Lady of Nashville caught my eye, but what you’ve said here is even closer to home than She is. I wrestle with the Theoi all the time and with my relationship to them. I go through bouts where I’m not sure they’re there and then they show me that yes, they are.
    And I’ve been doing devotional work that doesn’t look like devotional work. Much of that is just gratitude practice. They aren’t spiritual Pez dispensers and blindly following their will is problematic in different ways (and complicated when you’re a polytheist!). This kind of wrestling with the Gods is healthy and I’m glad you bring this up in such an eloquent way.