Ever come across an essay whose title strikes you as wrong, but when you read it you find yourself agreeing with almost all of it? That was my experience with The Gods Don’t Give Us Meaning by Lily A. Connor, published on Gods & Radicals just after the Winter Solstice. The title put me on alert and I read it looking for points to rebut. I never really found them.
It starts with a story of dealing with anti-abortion fanatics who “weaponize” Jesus and who claim that only Jesus (or rather, their version of Jesus) can provide real meaning. It looks at the way Christianity has been hijacked to support the rich and powerful, a point as valid in today’s economic and political climate as it was 150 years ago… though it fails to mention the good work done by the liberal and radical Christians who oppose them.
I have no arguments with Lily’s political message. But then she asks “why should finding meaning for mortals be a god’s job?” Strictly speaking, it isn’t. But often, it’s a job They choose to do.
I want to be really really clear about one thing. Those who claim “you can’t be good without God” are wrong. Period. Their claim that we can’t know what’s good and what’s bad without some deity giving us a list is ethnocentric naiveté. Their claim that without the threat of divine punishment there would be nothing to stop anyone from raping and murdering says more about their own lack of character than the merits of their religion. I’ve never heard a Pagan or a polytheist make ridiculous claims like this and I hope I never do. There are many sources of meaning, and it’s up to you to find the source that speaks to you.
But the Gods give me meaning.
They supported me when I was young and hurting. I had a difficult childhood. Now, it was far easier than what many have had to deal with. My parents loved me and did the best they could with a geeky kid who didn’t fit in, and my childhood experiences gave me a foundation that still supports me today. But it was difficult and painful and frustrating and at times enraging.
Thankfully, the woods were literally 20 feet outside my back door. Even living in what was then a semi-rural area, there were plenty of people who thought the woods were scary (“there’s snakes in the woods!”). Not me. The woods were nurturing and sheltering. The woods were magical. The woods were where I met the God of the Forest.
I didn’t know He was a God – the only God I knew was the God of the Fundamentalists. But the God of the Forest listened when no one else would. He left me alone when I needed to be alone. He covered me when I wanted to scream and when I needed to say things I wasn’t allowed to say. He reminded me that nothing lasts forever and that some day I would be free. And eventually, I was.
My earliest experiences of Cernunnos gave meaning to my life and they still do. They’re a big part of the reason why I’m a Pagan and a polytheist.
They give me purpose. As I was writing this, I went back through my private journals from about 20 years ago. I was depressed (in the colloquial sense of the term, though probably in the clinical sense as well) because I didn’t have the things I wanted (high level job, big house, luxury car, athletic success, etc.). In a moment of cold, logical clarity, I wrote “even if you had all this stuff, you’d still be depressed, because you weren’t important enough or rich enough or strong enough – and of course, because you had sold out to the mainstream.” I was chasing the stuff I was told I was supposed to want.
When I committed myself to exploring religion, things began to shift. Not all at once, mind you: the conversion model of Saul on the road to Damascus works for few Christians and even fewer Pagans. But when I started diligently reading, studying, praying, meditating, and thinking about what it all meant, I started to realize that there was something bigger than all that material stuff – something even bigger than me. And I wanted to be a part of it.
They fill me with Their values and virtues. I think every mother in the world has warned her children “be careful the company you keep.” Hang out with a person and sooner or later their values and virtues (or lack thereof) start to become your values and virtues. The same is true of the time we spend with the Gods.
Through Them I have learned or deepened my understanding of the inherent worth of Nature, the importance of reciprocity, the meaning and value of sovereignty, the importance of community, and the reality of deep magic.
Would I have these values without the Gods? Some of them, probably. Others, probably not. But either way my understanding of them would be very, very different.
They remind me to think with the perspective of a God. There are some Pagan traditions that like to quote Robert A. Heinlein (often without knowing the source): “thou art God.” While we are all part of the same universe that includes the Gods (something I’m starting to understand as a statement of interconnections and relationships rather than as an affirmation of pantheism), and while apotheosis is a real thing, I am not a God.
I am a human. My lifespan is brief, my needs are immediate, and my wants are never-ending. But the Gods remind me that the things of greatest value are bigger and longer-lived than me. Today’s Pagans and polytheists are privileged to live in a time when the Gods are returning to prominence. I will not live to see the Way of the Gods fully restored, and not just because I’m getting old. This process will take many generations. But the Gods who have been around at least since the beginnings of humanity remind us that things of value endure, and while we may or may not return to this world in a future life, what we build here will remain.
I don’t have to build a marble temple on the Denton town square. I just have to do my part to build a community that is healthy, vibrant, and strong in the Way of the Gods. Some day they will build that temple. Or perhaps they’ll decide something else is more important and they won’t. Either way, there will be a community of Pagans and polytheists here, continuing the Way of the Gods.
The Gods have shown me that there is meaning in my service and contributions here and now, and that what I’m doing will remain in this world long after I’m gone.
Many Gods, many ways. There are many Gods and there are many ways to honor Them. Lily Connor is absolutely correct that we should never assume our way is the One True Way. Weaponizing the Gods treats Them as things to be used instead of as holy powers to be honored, and we would be just as wrong to do that as the Christians she rightly calls out.
Another essay on Gods & Radicals addresses this issue in a different way. In Are The Gods On Our Side? Heathen Chinese concludes by saying:
We could all certainly use as much divine protection, aid and blessings as possible. It is not so much a question of whether the gods are on our side, but whether or not they are at our sides.
At the sides of the Gods, I have found great meaning.