In high school English we’re taught that metaphors (“this is like that”) are helpful tools in understanding complicated subjects. Metaphors can be tricky in religious matters, though, because some people take metaphors literally and read scripture in ways it was never intended. Others can’t see past the metaphors – they see only the figurative examples and never the reality illuminated by them.
In our current discussions about the nature of the Gods, our various conceptions of Them, and our often heated disagreements surrounding Them, I think a metaphor will be helpful.
The Gods are like apples.
Apples are beautiful and nourishing. Apples are many and varied. Apples are different sizes, different colors, and different flavors. They grow on different trees in different lands. There is a certain “appleness” about all of them – we intuitively recognize that a Granny Smith and a Gala and a Red Delicious are all apples and that oranges and pears are not. Each apple is an individual – all apples are not the same kind of apple, much less one Apple.
There are certain facts about apples: they grow best in cooler climates. They are susceptible to some diseases but not others. They contain certain chemicals (here I’m referring to naturally occurring chemicals like fructose and sucrose, not pesticides, which would take the metaphor in a different direction). Their DNA has a specific structure.
Some of these facts are simple to discover and some are quite complicated. It is not necessary to know all the facts about an apple in order to enjoy it, but these facts do not change based on whether or not we like them. All opinions about the chemistry of an apple are not equally valid.
Our worship and devotion – how we relate to and interact with the Gods – are like apple pie, baked apples, cinnamon apples, raw apples, applesauce, apple juice, and hard apple cider. There are many good and enjoyable ways to experience apples. And there are a few bad ways, as anyone who’s ever bitten into a not-proverbial bad apple (or worse, gotten food poisoning) understands all too well.
These apple experiences are all different: apple pie is not apple cider, even though both are made from apples. And while you don’t need anyone to tell you how to eat an apple, if you want to make apple pie or apple cider, it helps to have a recipe to draw on the experience of those who’ve gone before you. Just pick the right teacher for what you want to learn: a good pastry chef is not likely to be an expert cider maker, and neither has the skills and experience of an orchard keeper.
None of the many apple experiences are inherently better than the others. Are raw apples a more pure or essential experience of apples than apple pie? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make them “better.” If you don’t like raw apples, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy baked apples or apple juice. And there’s no reason to limit yourself to just one form. I’m not particularly fond of applesauce, but I love apple pie and apple cider and a good crisp Granny Smith that’s in season and has never been in cold storage.
At some point, though, you start to lose the appleness of an experience. Fresh organic apple juice is one thing, but what about reconstituted apple juice? By the time you get to “apple flavored drink product” it’s safe to say you’re not having an authentic experience of apples.
That doesn’t make it “bad” or “wrong.” The candy pictured here came out of my desk at work. I eat one or two of them after lunch most days (though I prefer the other flavors). It satisfies my sugar craving and keeps me from hitting the junk machine for a Snickers bar with far more calories. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not an apple.
The painting shown below is beautiful and even inspiring. I’d love to have it on my wall. But if you put it on my plate and tell me it’s dinner, there’s going to be a fight. Is it real? Of course it is. Does it capture the essence of appleness? To a certain extent, yes. Does it fulfill the same purpose as a plate of apples that came from a tree? Absolutely not.
If your religion is all about pictures of apples and apple-flavored candy, count me out.
At this point the metaphor starts to reach its limits of usefulness. Our experiences of the Gods are not the Gods Themselves. No matter how authentic, no matter how powerful, no matter how real, any experience of the Gods is filtered through our own lives, past experiences, values, and beliefs about what is and isn’t possible.
Perhaps simply having those experiences is enough for you. You don’t need a deep understanding of apples to enjoy apple pie, or to be able to make apple pie. You don’t have to be an expert on ancient Celtic societies to pray to the Morrigan or to do Her work of restoring sovereignty.
But some of us do.
Some of us want to know – and are compelled to learn – all we can about the nature of the Gods. We want to know all we can about the history of the Gods who call to us and how They were worshipped in ancient times. We want to know how others are honoring Them and experiencing Them so we can refine our own beliefs and practices. We aren’t content to just drink the cider. We want to know about the apples and the trees and the cider press and the history of orchard-keeping, so we can make the best cider possible.
The Polytheist Movement and our many polytheist religions need both kinds of people. We need those people who are passionate about the Gods and devotion and who are determined to get it as close to perfect as they can, even as we recognize perfection is impossible. And we need the people who just want to honor the Gods and lead ordinary lives… or perhaps, to lead extraordinary lives that focus on something other than polytheism.
Find your place in the orchard, or in the kitchen, or at the table, or where ever you can best honor the Gods and contribute to building a healthy and thriving polytheist community.