Suffering For the Gods

Suffering For the Gods February 10, 2014

I’ve met a lot of people over the years and as a result have a very diverse group of friends. Many of them not surprisingly are Pagans, but I also know a lot of Christians. Some of those Christian friends are progressive followers of Jesus, and we find that a lot of our political and social philosophies are very much in sync. But I also know a lot of Christians on the other side of the aisle, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, hard-core Catholics, and Tea Party Christians; people who most likely think I’m destined for their hell, yet find me amusing for whatever reason.

Loki knows suffering.  "Loki and Sigyn" by Frølich.  From WikiMedia.
Loki knows suffering. “Loki and Sigyn” by Frølich. From WikiMedia.

While I don’t talk about religion with my Evangelical friends very often I do come across their comments about it on Facebook and during random conversations. Today one of those friends wrote that “it’s a blessing and a reward to suffer in this life because it draws us closer to God.” There are many things that bring me closer to my gods: wine, orgasm, ritual, meditation, joy, celebration, and rock and roll spring instantly to mind, but not ever suffering. In times of strife or trouble I have sought out my gods for comfort, but I’ve never thought that my cat dying or being broke was some sort of cosmic reward.

I just can’t grasp the idea of an omnipresent god sending horrible things my way as a gift. Bad things happen because people are sometimes assholes. Bad things happen because there is free will. Bad things happen sometimes due to random chance. I’m no deist, I don’t think the gods created the world and then left us to our own devices, but I also don’t believe that they are dictating every event in our lives. I feel as if Dionysus and Ariadne are paying attention to my life, and might sometimes even intervene in it, but I don’t think they are purposefully setting up distressing moments as a form of blessing.

Times of trouble certainly do test us, and they do sometimes make us stronger, but that doesn’t make me look upon them as divinely orchestrated. I’m of the opinion that the gods help us through those moments, but they don’t create them. We’ve also been given the tools (and many of us the circumstances) to create better situations for ourselves. Many of the more mundane challenges I’ve experienced in my life are the result of my own poor choices, not a deity putting me through the cosmic-wringer. (Of course a god could choose to torment me or anyone else if they wanted to, so it’s best to stay on their good side.)

As a polytheist I believe that the powers of the gods are limited. There is a natural order to things, and as powerful as deity is, I don’t think it can overturn that order. Pan has a great deal of sway in this world, but he can’t turn back time or bring the dead back to life. People get cancer because our world is polluted and the body is not meant to last forever. Sickness is caused by microbes and viruses, it’s not a reward or a test from a spiteful god, it’s a part of how the world works.

My friend also quoted a book this morning that put these words into the mouth of Jesus: “See, the nail prints in my hands. I have suffered for you.” So much of what goes on in Christianity just seems so un-life affirming. “I have suffered for you,” well that’s great I suppose, but I never asked you to. I just can’t comprehend an all-powerful deity having to suffer for humanity due to that deity creating people with a serious design flaw. (If you are a Christian who stumbles across this blog, don’t bother explaining “ritual sin” either, it’s equally baffling.) People suffer as a reward and then deity suffers in search of a cosmic thank you . . . . . no wonder we all ended up in the Pagan camp.

My gods have suffered for the sake of myth. We see archetypal forces at play in cosmologies such as the Oak King/Holly King, but there the suffering is a metaphor for a higher truth; for new things to live old things have to die. There’s not a “literal” Oak King who kills his brother once a year for my sake. There’s simply a natural earthly cycle that we’ve captured in story form. That particular story speaks to (some of) us, but I don’t expect the Holly King to walk up to me holding his dismembered head under his arm saying “I have suffered for you.”

People close to the gods I honor have had horrible things happen to them in myth, but again I don’t look at those instances as literal occurrences. Stories of Dionysus driving individuals into madness serves a reminder that denying the ecstasy of the spirit (experienced through gods such as Dionysus) has serious consequences. Imagine a life without sex, joy, pleasure, story, and song; that would certainly drive me mad!

My relationship with the gods has always brought me joy. When I feel them near me I’m filled with happiness, fear*, and awe. Their presence is never negative nor do they demand some sort of strange bowing and scraping for the “suffering” they’ve undertaken on my behalf. People are free to have whatever sort of arrangements they want with deity and to interpret that relationship however they see it, but I’m certainly glad that my gods aren’t sadists and I’m not a masochist**.

*I love my wife dearly, but I fear her too. I fear because I often feel like I’m not living up to the trust that they (or her) have put in me. Besides, they are also gods, and I’m rather sure they are a little more powerful than me.

**That being said a little consensual BDSM never hurt anyone, unless they wanted it to.

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  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    There is a Heathen meme that frequently “does the rounds” on-line. It goes like this:

    “Odin only gives me what he thinks I can handle… Apparently he thinks I’m a bad-ass!”

    I think the deeper meaning behind this is that the gods do challenge some of us, from time to time, but they do this because it is through adversity that we grow as a person.

    Further, we see Óðinn suffer in the Eddas, but his suffering is a sacrifice for knowledge, such as when he plucks out an eye in exchange for a drink from Mímisbrunnr or when he hung himself for nine days and nights in exchange for the knowledge of the runes.

    What we can learn from this is that suffering can happen, but there is something in it for those that persevere.

    On the subject of the “omni” abilities of a god, I also dispute it. Swap “omni” for “most”, and there may be something to it – Ƿōden is the most wise of the Ēse, for example.

    Suffering for the sake of suffering, however, is plain weak. That’s not growth, that’s slavery.

    • The Stoics would agree:
      Difficulties are the things that show what men are. Henceforth, when some difficulty befalls you, remember that god, like a wrestling-master, has matched you with a rough young man.– Epictetus

      • pennyroyal

        I usually like Epictetus but this is as an assertion, fails the test of reason. Anyone who says they speaks for god/gods doesn’t, IMO.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          You disbelieve in prophets, then?

          • pennyroyal

            I’m not a theist but like Pagan thinking about living in harmony with nature.

    • pennyroyal

      that’s a version of the myth of Prometheus who suffers so that humans can have knowledge. At least pagans don’t take these myths literally which makes all the difference in our lives.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        Not really; Prometheus suffers for others. Óðinn is far more self-serving.

  • Nathan

    It is precisely the life-affirming thing that brought me to paganism in the first place. Having (what I feel) the great fortune of not growing up with a strong christian influence in my home, it was always grotesque to me the amount of negativity that was apparent in the religion.
    I believe there are a number of valuable teachings in the life of Jesus but they’re so overshadowed by a sort of death cult that the message doesn’t come through. I think this is why it’s so easy for people to point out the fallacy of certain christian’s behavior versus the exact words of Jesus.
    Definitely there are some branches that try to walk the walk, UCC comes to mind and those in the UU who are christian. Overall, yes, I feel that the gods are there for guidance, to give me a boost in hard times. I can see Lēoht’s point about Odin and the growth that comes from challenges for sure. But the ‘suffering’ that some of the christian faith are almost addicted to? No thanks.

  • Mother Wolf

    I was raised a Catholic in an unreligious family, but attended Catholic schools till I went to college. I remember the beginning of my interest in Paganism. I was 13 and my father had literally dropped dead of a heart attack.My mother had died years earlier, so I was now an orphan. Of course, everyone who knew my family sent us all notes of sympathy and support. One of the notes I personally received was from the nuns at my school. They wrote,” God must love you very deeply to have given you this suffering.” I can remember being jarred by that, just stopped dead. There was no way I could grasp that kind of “love.” I still can’t.

    • pennyroyal

      seems like they wanted to make you feel ‘special’ in a perverse way. Congratulations on escaping that mind-trap.

  • Dacia Jesseman Ferris

    Two thoughts come up while reading this: 1) I personally believe in reincarnation, and that before each life, we lay out the lessons we want to learn and how we wish to learn them. Other souls involved agree to their place in the plan and so forth: hence, certain challenges, in theory, may come about as a matter of pre-incarnate personal choice. 2) As far as the respectable lessons of Jesus go, I believe (a belief mostly based on historical such and such) that those lessons have been around for a very long time, much before Jesus’ supposed time, so it’s difficult giving credit there – to even ‘progressive Christians – when so many have been murdered and continue to suffer in the name of a religion whose “silver lining” did not even originate with it. My $.02.

  • Treeshrew

    Hit the nail on the head with this one, Jason. I have so much leftover Catholic guilt that even when I’m not suffering, I’m suffering by worrying that I should be suffering!

    Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I quit the RCC. The life-affirming sense of Druid and Pagan faiths that allow and revel in joy and see nature and happiness as sacred just seems so much healthier.

  • g75401

    That cult of suffering apparently was carried out to the ultimate degree by Mother Theresa, who opened hospitals and then allowed the patients to suffer and die without treatment. She wrote that she was in awe of their suffering and how she saw the actions of “god” in it. After she died, it came out just how she defrauded her patients and their families. Consider that when you see the RCC make her a saint instead of vilifying her for her cruelty. There’s a reason why I and similarly minded people consider xtianity to be a death cult. It is.

    • Treeshrew

      Yep, this is why I get so annoyed when even non-Christians refer to her as the model of virtue. Also, she was a hypocrite. When the poor were sick, their suffering was holy but when she was sick, she used her Order’s ‘charity’ money to fly herself to the USA for the best medical care she could get. Ugh.

      • pennyroyal

        the Classical Virtues from Ancient Greece and those from Confucian China predate Christianity with its morbid over-valuation of suffering. In X-ianity suffering makes you a better person; it’s seen as redemptive. That is one sick theology (the doctrine of atonement)!!

        The classical virtues/Virtue Ethics are are far better moral guides than passive suffering and misery. They include, honesty, courage, perseverance, reverence (a secular virtue), tolerance, gratitude, humor, self-love/self-acceptance, patience, awareness (mindfulness).

        IMO the Buddhists have a superior view of suffering to X-ianity. They’ve been studying suffering and the relief of suffering for 3000+ years and came down in a far different place than X-ianity mostly because of the toxic notion of original sin.

  • Northern_Light_27

    This may not be a popular thing to say, but I think some Pagans give Christians a run for their money in the suffering-for-the-Gods Olympics. There’s a certain breed of Pagan that almost seems to get off on saying how much they suffer for their gods. Phrases like “I am my god’s chew toy” or “She stamps me underneath her booted feet” and so many iterations on how their god “ripped them open”. People saying that they’ve cut everything and everyone out of their lives that aren’t either about religion/spirituality or about their devotion, that serving their gods is Hard Work and sacrifice and suffering, and if it’s not hard and sacrifice and suffering, it’s superficial and “mediocrity”. That we can’t judge whether a god is worthy of our worship because they’re gods and we’re not, and we exist to serve them and do whatever they ask us to do. To be honest, it creeps me out enormously. Deep devotion is one thing, but a dynamic which if it were with another human would be really clearly abusive is something else entirely. I do believe the Gods exist beyond our minds, but I also think our interactions with our gods say something about us and our needs. Some people need their gods to validate their every move and chatter at them incessantly throughout the day (and even trick them into cleaning their floors for the pleasure of their subjugation), other people need their gods to be sadists and feel it isn’t real if it isn’t a deep hardship. I agree, I don’t think it’s very life-affirming, and it bothers me when it’s put forward as a model for other people to follow. In any event, it’s definitely not a thing restricted to Christians!

    • Treeshrew

      Some people just need to brag about how hard they have it, and how much *more serious and real* their religion is than anyone else’s. Weird, but I suppose it helps some people feel superior.

      By the way, I totally agree about the abusive dynamic. Whether it’s another person or a god, if you’re not being treated with respect, that’s not a healthy relationship to be in.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Why does anyone want to believe in any gods, at all? Isn’t it enough to believe in eternal, universal energy? No disrespect intended, just asking.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      I don’t think that belief is about what a person wants. Most people do not choose what to believe, they believe what they must.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Interesting concept. This seems to be in direct opposition to the concept of free will. Does “what a person must” apply to actions as well as beliefs? If so, can anyone be held responsible for one’s actions?

        • Mother Wolf

          I don’t think it applies to actions. I can act differently than my beliefs would dictate, though it’s not pleasant. As far as freedom of will, I think we are not anywhere as free as we think we are, but to me, living according to your beliefs, especially your ethics, is what our lives are for.

          • Y. A. Warren

            i was indoctrinated with tactics similar to brainwashing, from the time before my birth, to believe certain things that I no longer choose to believe. This does affect my actions because it affects my decisions.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          I did reply to this, but my response seems to have vanished.

          I think the concept of free will is interesting, but flawed. We are all slaves to our senses and our ability to reason.

          I believe what I believe because of my experiences and how I have interpreted them.

          How I act can be informed by what I believe, but my beliefs do not force my actions.

          As such, how I act is something I can be held accountable for.

          • Y. A. Warren

            “We are all slaves to our senses and our ability to reason.”

            Many homo sapiens have little or no ability to reason, and their senses are easy to manipulate. I believe that it is frontal lobe function that enables free will.

            Frontal lobe of the human brain gives us the ability to use judgement and impulse control. There are many impulses that can impair the frontal lobe, either temporarily or permanently. Fear is one of these impulses, and why it is so widely used to control people.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I never said people weren’t stupid, or that they can’t be manipulated, just that they should be held accountable for their actions.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I don’t believe i said that you posited that people are stupid, or that they can’t be manipulated.

          • axelbeingcivil

            The inevitable question to follow this is what makes you engage your judgement/impulse control and come to your various decisions. Does it act completely randomly, devoid of outside input, or does it act on the factors directing it at the time? If the former, in what way can you ever be said to make a rational decision? If the latter, in what way can you ever be said to have free will?

          • Y. A. Warren

            I engage my judgement/impulse control, make decisions, and act based on factors that past lessons and present input, from which I attempt to reach an envisioned future. The fact that I am able to decide which factors to add to the mix of my judgement is what defines, for me, free will.

          • axelbeingcivil

            And why do you select any given factor to add to the mix?

          • Y. A. Warren

            I observe how different acts of others, past and present, impact(ed) what is around me, and I tend to copy those that seem most consistent with my goals.

          • axelbeingcivil

            And how do you determine your goals?

            You can probably see where I am going with this. Eventually, you reach a point that you do not control that determines all the rest; the outcome is predetermined.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I see that we’ll simply have to agree to disagree on the predestination perspective. To believe in predestination is, in my opinion, to abdicate all person responsibility for one’s actions. It creates a WTF worldview, which I don’t share.

          • axelbeingcivil

            I’ve got two issues with that answer.

            Firstly, it’s an argument to consequences; you don’t make an argument that X is wrong, you simply dislike the potential consequences of X and therefore it must be wrong. The truth is, you only make choices based on inputs you have no control over, and the things that drive your choices are much the same. Hence, wherefore arises free will? That you don’t like this doesn’t in any way contradict this.

            Secondly, responsibility has more than one meaning. On its face, it simply means that a given entity performed a given action. Just because someone is a product of systematic outputs doesn’t mean they didn’t take the given actions in question, nor that we cannot react to them appropriately. Just because a dangerous criminal is a product of environment and circumstance doesn’t mean we can’t put them in jail to try and rehabilitate them or protect ourselves from them.

          • Y. A. Warren

            What part of “agree to disagree” did you not understand.

            This phrase contradicts your own argument for predestination: “Just because a dangerous criminal is a product of environment and circumstance doesn’t mean we can’t put them in jail to try and rehabilitate them…” Rehabilitation is impossible in predestination.

          • axelbeingcivil

            I had a problem with your argument and didn’t feel like letting it lie.

            Also, how is rehabilitation impossible with predestination? Certainly, you could argue that whether a given individual will be rehabilitated or not is predestined but we lack knowledge of whether they will or won’t. Similarly, if a person is a result of a systemic interaction, then surely one can very plainly point out that altering this system can alter the outcome. In other words, by changing the factors that lead to their decision-making (educating them, for example), we can change the outcome.

          • Y. A. Warren

            pre·des·ti·na·tion (prē-dĕs′tə-nā′shən)

            1. The act of predestining or the condition of being predestined.
            2. Theology
            a. The doctrine that God has foreordained all things, especially that God has elected certain souls to eternal salvation.
            b. The divine decree foreordaining all souls to either salvation or damnation.
            c. The act of God foreordaining all things gone before and to come.
            3. Destiny; fate.

            It seems to me that predestination nullifies free will and makes intervention futile.

          • axelbeingcivil

            For the record, I’m working off the first point, not the theological ones. Predestination is simply the statement that, from the first cause of the cosmos, all events are set to occur and a sufficiently intelligent outsider observer could predict the procession of the universe from start to finish. This might not actually be true (quantum scale events might be random but this has yet to be proved beyond all doubt) but, on the macro-scale, it effectively is and, for human beings, certainly is.

            Why exactly would it make intervention futile? Logically, if you intervene, the outcome of your intervention is predestined (as is you taking the action to do so), but the specific outcome could be just about anything. Some people will be helped by intervention, some won’t.

            Again, though, even if intervention was futile, it wouldn’t make predestination wrong.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            It’s the difference between chaos and complexity, isn’t it?

            A chaotic system cannot be accurately predicted, as there are no causative chains. On the other hand, a complex system will be entirely predictable, regardless of complexity, if the system is sufficiently well understood.

          • axelbeingcivil

            Neither of which really allows for free will, neh? A purely chaotic system is random; it exists independent of cause and effect. It makes taking one action as likely as any other and which it takes can hardly be said to be a decision as it occurs independently of reality.

            Whereas a complex system can be predicted in its outcome, from start to finish, as long as the observer sufficiently understands it and its surroundings and is not a part of them itself, in which case wherefore arises free will in such a system?

            Free will is a paradox that cannot possibly exist, as a system is either deterministic or random (or perhaps has elements of both) and neither can be said to be truly “free” in its decisions since said decisions are a natural outcome of processes.

            I hope I’m not answering the wrong question here.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Free will, or the illusion of it, exists in a complex system when those involved in the system lack a comprehensive understanding of the system.

            Free will, after all, is not the ability to do whatever you want, but the ability to choose from the available options.

          • axelbeingcivil

            The point I’m trying to make is that it is, indeed, an illusion. The ability to choose changes dramatically in meaning when it is taken into consideration that what you choose is something that is ultimately predetermined.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I think the issue with the word “predetermination” is it suggests a directing will, rather than the slightly more neutral “predictable”, which would suggest a discernible cause-and-effect chain.

            I think we agree with each other, but are using differing words.

          • axelbeingcivil

            Fair enough. That is effectively what I am saying; that cause and effect are essentially absolute, barring some form of randomness, neither of which allows for free will; merely the illusion of it.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I believe that the terms “intervention” and “predestination” are mutually exclusive. Without human intervention, for instance, there would be no human-made space trash floating above earth;’s atmosphere. Humans chose to intervene in this manner, outside the natural laws of the universe..

          • axelbeingcivil

            They aren’t, though. Humans could have been (and were) destined to put said space trash up above the atmosphere. Steren suggested that perhaps predestination is a loaded term here, though, so I suppose a better phrasing might be that I am stating that cause and effect are absolute, barring some degree of randomness, which renders the concept of free will purely illusory.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I believe predetermined design, randomness, and humanity’s ability to make complex decisions before acting are at play in the future of the earth, perhaps of the totality of the universe.

            I don’t believe we will ever actually know the answer, and i guess I’m arrogant because I don’t care whether i ever know. In my lifetime, I prefer to believe that what I do makes a difference.

          • axelbeingcivil

            What you do does make a difference. That cause and effect are lock-tight in no way diminishes the reality of your feelings. Your decisions are still very real to you and the emotions you feel with them are entirely real as well. It might expand your empathy for others, but otherwise…

          • Y. A. Warren

            I would have no need or desire for empathy if I believed in predestination. I don’t believe in eternal, individual consciousness, but I do believe in universal collection eternal energy. It is my conceit to believe that my physical life can leave a negative, positive, or zero sum imprint on the earth that my physical manifestation inhabits.

          • axelbeingcivil

            Why wouldn’t you have any desire to feel empathy for others if they weren’t a part of yourself or were locked into cause and effect like you? They’re still people and, just as you, did not choose their path but were set upon it by a cosmos indifferent to both their joy and their suffering.

            That, if anything, speaks of a greater need for empathy than anything.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I purposely cause some things, based on my own freedom to choose. While the effects are not always exactly as I envisioned, I do know that I had an effect on the action.

          • axelbeingcivil

            The thing I’m stating is that the choices you make are a result of causes and effects you ostensibly have no control over and, as a result, your choice cannot be said to be something you have control over either; just the outcome of a system.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I know it all goes back to the Big Bang, but I still see that choices i make affect the immediate outcome, even if not the eternal outcome.

          • axelbeingcivil

            I never said your choices didn’t have an effect; they’re a part of the outcome, both immediate and long-term. The only point of contention I make is that both outcomes are set long in advance, your choices and the consequences thereof included.

      • Mother Wolf

        I think you are absolutely right. The most important revelation in my life was the realization and acceptance that I couldn’t MAKE myself believe anything, and I should quit deciding to believe something (futile) and decide instead to discover what I really did believe and follow that.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          That is why I advocate the sharing of the stories of the gods. How are people to discover what they believe, if the stories they connect with are kept from them?

  • INRI Initiate Nail Removal Immediately

    The only thing suffering should be succotash.

  • Gregory C

    One of the reasons I’m a former Evangelical is exactly this morbid fascination with suffering. Here’s my take on it.

    The Atonement: Self-inflicted Guilt