Serving Real Gods in a Shallow Culture

Serving Real Gods in a Shallow Culture July 12, 2015

One of the foundational principles of polytheism is that the Gods have agency.  In colloquial terms, They do Their own things for Their own reasons, reasons that may have little or nothing to do with humans.  So the question of why various deities wax and wane in popularity and in apparent activity is complicated (I say “apparent” because we can never be sure what a given deity is doing in places and in ways we can’t see).  Last week there were two very different blog posts on this question.

Patheos Pagan Managing Editor Jason Mankey asked Can Deity Be a Fad?  The title proved to be unnecessarily provocative, but the essay is a good survey of how various deities have risen in popularity at various times in history.  Here’s an excerpt:

The Greek god Pan had a pretty long run as a fad, from about 1800-1920. He went from not really being written about in the English language to being one of the most written about deities ever. He was reborn as the English god of the countryside in the Nineteenth Century and has held a piece of the world’s imagination ever since … The “Pan fad” of 200 years ago is why this blog is entitled Raise the Horns.

Is it fair to call that a “fad”?  Jason admits it’s probably not, and then speculates “perhaps divine beings re-engage or re-awake when they are needed?”

Author and Priest of the Morrígan Morpheus Ravenna finds Jason’s title question offensive and is not satisfied with his explanation.  She says:

It’s the wrong question because it’s a shallow question. It is looking at a numinous devotional and religious phenomenon using a purely social lens which only recognizes the action of deities in terms of human behaviors, and only those human behaviors driven by the most shallow of motivations, social popularity. It utterly erases the agency of the Morrígan Herself, and Her engagement with culture, time, and history.

I think these two essays stand well on their own.  Rather than rehashing their arguments, I want to look at a practical matter:  how do we deal with people who approach the Gods as a fad?

Now, I completely agree with Morpheus that “to coyly wonder aloud whether the upsurge in people feeling called by the Morrígan is just because She’s trendy” is offensive.  It ignores the agency of the deity in question and it’s insulting to the person.  It’s the equivalent of a dismissive parent brushing off a teenager’s artistic or religious calling by saying “it’s just a phase – you’ll grow out of it.”

Hercules - entertaining but not very deep
Hercules – entertaining but not very deep

But the fact remains that some people do approach the Gods as fads.  I suppose it’s unavoidable – the entertainment industry has gone from telling Their stories to rewriting Their stories to co-opting Them in their own products and spectacles.  For some people Morrígan is a character in a video game and Thor is a character in a movie.  I get occasional questions about Druids that are clearly based on Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft.  And let’s not forget the biggest Pagan-related fad of all – the people whose ideas about witches are based on Hollywood’s portrayal of them.

We get these people with their faddish ideas and shallow expectations at our public rituals, in our social media, and in our e-mail in-boxes.  How can we respond to them in ways that are respectful to them, to the Gods, and to the spiritual traditions involved?

Assume the best.  Fad-pursuers can be annoying.  They can be unintentionally offensive.  They can suck up hours of time with questions that could be answered with the right googling.  But if someone has taken the step from playing with fictional gods to inquiring about real Gods, it’s reasonable to assume there’s a genuine interest involved on the part of the person or the deity or both.  Those of us who have made commitments to our Gods and our communities have an obligation to respond in good faith, no matter how young or ill-informed the inquirer is.  Listen respectfully and try to point them in the right direction.

That obligation is not unlimited.  After about the third generic question on Druidry, I’m likely to respond “go read one of these books and come back if you have specific questions.”  I refer inquiries on Cernunnos to some of my blog posts and to this book of devotions.  Sometimes they come back, sometimes they don’t.  But I can’t ever remember having to tell someone “you’re not serious, go away.”

Herakles - a modern copy of a Roman copy of a 2300 year old Greek statue - deep
Herakles – a modern copy of a Roman copy of a 2300 year old Greek statue – deep

The loudest voices in our culture insist there is only one God and the next loudest scream there are no Gods.  It’s no wonder people stumble towards the Gods filled with misinformation, as well as ordinary doubts and skepticism.  Our job is to help them find the Gods that call to them.

Talk about what you do.  If you’ve read any expert advice on talking to the media about Paganism, it usually starts with “don’t respond to questions about Satan – talk about what you do instead.”  Even if you do your best Sandra Bullock imitation (“there’s no devil in the Craft” – from Practical Magic) reporters and their audiences are likely to focus on what’s sensational rather than on what’s true.  Instead, talk about your devotion to your Gods, ancestors, and to the natural world.

Likewise, it’s not generally helpful to debunk the entertainment industry’s ideas about Gods and magic beyond saying “that’s fiction.”  Instead, spend your time telling the old stories about your Gods.  Talk about what’s known about Their worship in ancient times.  Talk about your experiences of Them and about the work you do because of Them.

Polytheism as it’s actually practiced today is pretty interesting – and it’s not fiction.  Talking about what you do is enough.

Demonstrate depth.  Our mainstream culture is incredibly shallow and it has the attention span of a gnat.  Some religions and spiritualities cater to this because it’s easy and popular and it makes money (see The Secret and the Prosperity Gospel).  But that doesn’t satisfy everyone, and those who approach the Gods are often looking for depth even if they can’t quite articulate it.

Demonstrate your regular spiritual practices:  mediation, prayer, offerings, study and such.  Demonstrate your group worship.  Talk about your beliefs in ways that show you’ve spent time reading, contemplating, and thinking about their implications.  Show how your beliefs inspire action to make the world a better place.

Just remember this quote from Nietzsche:  “Those who know they are deep strive for clarity.  Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity.”

Are the Gods using video games and other fads to get Their names out into the mainstream culture?  Perhaps.  For me, that’s uncomfortably close to Christians who say “God’s using this for His glory” whenever something odd happens.  Yet it’s undeniable that more and more people are yearning for the many Gods.  And it is just as undeniable that certain deities are calling followers to do Their work in this world.  I don’t know why this is and I don’t know what it all means, though I love to wonder about it with other polytheists.

Morpheus Ravenna ends her post by asking “What do your Gods want from you, and for you, at this moment in history?”  I can’t answer that question for you, but one of the things They want from me is to demonstrate the Pagan virtue of hospitality to some people who are just starting out on the Way of the Gods.

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