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Friendship with the Gods

May 1st, 2016

I have called this ‘friendship’ with the gods rather than ‘devotion,’ because pagan religion does not require us to fake emotions the way the biblical religions do. As many of us know, Jews and Christians are commanded “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy soul, and all thy mind, and all thy strength.” Was a more impossible commandment ever given? The pagan gods of nature, unlike Yahweh, “in whom we live, move and have our being,” do not compass us round about. They arise from chaos at the beginning of a world cycle and build a new world out of matter in the chaotic state. “Chaos,” which later biblical theologians have mistranslated as a void, meant in Hebrew (and other ancient languages) a devastation, the world left over from its destruction at the end of the previous cosmic cycle.

So the gods build a new world around themselves and live in it as their cosmic house. They create animals, plants, men, and other beings, of gross and of subtle matter (spirit), to share their habitation with them. This is not creation out of nothing; indeed, the idea of something coming from nothing was at first absent from, and later repugnant to, the ancient mind. In the still largely pagan Genesis, Yahweh creates Adam out of the dust of the ground and breathes into him his breath-soul, in Hebrew his nephesh, made out of subtle or elemental air. Odin, Vili, and Ve create the first man and woman out of an ash and elm tree, respectively, found along the shore of the primeval sea.

Thus the gods are our neighbors, as well as, in a sense, our parents and elder brothers and sisters. They inhabit the cosmic world of time and space with us. They live a very long time, but not forever. They perhaps inhabit a higher dimension as well as ours (there is no reason why our cosmic home should not have more dimensions), but they do not inhabit eternity. They are not transcendent in any absolute sense. They are wise, powerful, and generally benevolent; but they are not all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. They are persons like us, if incomparably older and more sublime and powerful.

This means that if I want to become acquainted with some of the gods, I must put myself forward and greet them respectfully, as if for the first time, for it will be the first time, at least for this incarnation. And the same rules of social intercourse that hold between humans hold between humans and gods. To take an 18th century parallel, it is like a country farmer calling on the local squire for the first time. This gives us a clue to how best to approach the gods.

If you were a country squire and a local farmer approached you for the first time, fell on his face and begged for mercy, how would you feel about it? Chances are you would not like it, and neither do the gods. Though, as we know, a few gods here and there do like it, for they are after slaves rather than friends and neighbors. But let us leave them to their slaves and focus on the pleasant gods of paganism.

The story of the Pharisee’s prayer in the New Testament, contrasting the praying of a Hellenized Jew with the groveling of a more orthodox Jewish publican (tax farmer), is informative for neo-pagans inquiring into the right way to approach the gods. The Pharisee, though a monotheist, has learned the temple etiquette of the Greeks. He stands before the altar in an attitude of self-respect and thanks his god for having made him the way he is. He mentions his alms-giving, his fasting, and his other accomplishments. The gospel account presents him as self-satisfied and vain, but notice that he takes no credit for his virtues but instead thanks his god for having granted them to him. Nearby, the wretched publican (who oppresses the poor as a tax farmer) is groveling in the dirt and imploring mercy from his god. The Pharisee notices him and adds thanks to his god that he did not make him like that; in so doing, he is not blaming the publican but assuming he cannot help himself: Yahweh has made him as he is, and the Pharisee thanks Yahweh for making him a different sort of person.

The European pagans, except when in dire extremity from plague or famine, approached their gods in this manner, for they wished to be friends with their gods above all. They also generally prayed when in a light-hearted mood, and this was no doubt very important the first time they made contact with a deity. You would not wish to be friends with someone who pulled a long face the first time he met you. The idea is not to fake cheerfulness, but to wait until you are light-hearted and cheerful before making first contact with a god; and most of your interactions with a deity should be conducted in the same way. After all, the most common reason for prayer is to thank the gods, and in order to do this sincerely we must feel thankful. They are sensitive to our feelings as well as our words, and if we thank them while feeling depressed or deprived they will know it.

Pick two or three deities to start, not all of them great gods, but on different levels. It is good to start with household deities like the threshold and hearth guardians. Then add in the sun and moon, and possibly the night. Night is a great goddess, akin to chaos and fate, and we should salute her when darkness falls. She is the origin and final destiny of men and gods, and it is good to connect with her. We cannot ask her for favors (she is implacable), but a positive relation to her helps us to accept those things in our lives which are fated.

Make a little altar or two to your new friends, and include incense, a candle, a bowl of water, and possibly a dish of salt and/or grain (afterwards distribute these to plants and animals). Light the candle and then address the deity. The usual tradition is that the deity is not present until the candle is lit; it is like putting through a call on the phone. This is convenient, for you would not like the deity to watch you twenty-four hours a day, and the deity wouldn’t like it, either. They have other things to do. This is a big difference with the biblical god, who watches us like a hawk day and night and never sleeps. The gods sleep, and wake, eat and drink and laugh and make love, just as we do.

If you spend time occasionally with your gods you will get a sense of an ongoing friendship with them. They will become part of your personal history, and you will have a small share in theirs, which is their myth. Please don’t think you have to visit with them every day. Give them a break!

They do not seek to become your all-in-all; they are content to check in with you occasionally. But if you ask them for a favor, you must thank them after it is granted. And here you will receive a pleasant surprise. If you do not lame your prayer by adding the words ‘if it is your will,’ you will often find your request granted, though not always in the way you anticipate. Do not ever say ‘thy will be done’! This is one more example of a back-handed compliment paid by biblical worshippers. Of course the god or goddess will do as he or she wishes; you don’t have to remind them that they have free will! Nor need you reassure them of your friendship and continued loyalty if for some reason they cannot, or will not, grant you your request. These practices contain veiled insults to them.

As you continue in your friendships with gods and demigods (daimones, the local deities of house and field), you may find your friendly feelings blossoming into something like love and devotion. That is all right, but it is best to keep it light in your prayers to them. Don’t embarrass them by professing love, for they know how you feel anyhow (when the candle is lit and you are praying to them) and the gap between god and human cannot be bridged in any case; and to put yourself forward in this way would be presumptuous, to say the least. Be content to be good friends.

If you are a good neighbor to your gods, they will reciprocate.

Pagan theology: Paganism and Existential Faith

Do you believe in the Gods and Goddesses?

I would suspect that many Pagans would answer: “don’t know,” “maybe,” or “doubt it.”   Fair enough.   Neo-Paganism accommodates a lot of different theologies, including those that border on atheism, deism, pantheism, pantheism, or Gnostic monotheism.  However there is also a literalist interpretation of our religion, one where the Gods and Goddesses exist as real entities.  For those of us who believe in their existence, the idea of faith poses a particular challenge.  What does it mean to have faith in the existence of the Gods and Goddess, and what kind of responsibility does the acceptance of that faith impose on us?  What have we who believe been given by the Goddess, and what does she expect in return [1]?

Kierkegaard presents us with one possible, and very challenging, formulation of the requirements and responsibilities of faith.  He speaks of a “leap to faith” [2] meaning that when you accept religious faith you move from a place where evidence and apparent paradox prevent you from belief, to one where such things are irrelevant to your understanding of deity.  The idea that you believe in the Gods and Goddesses, while at the same time they do not manifest themselves in the world in a truly tangible form (i.e. directly, as in sitting across from Matt Lauer on the Today Show) does not matter, it is replaced by the knowledge that comes from transcendent experience, experience that cannot be duplicated in the world.   Faith requires you to suspend reason, to transcend to a place where the paradoxes of religious belief do not matter anymore.

This, of course, is not easy, and we are constantly bombarded by things that cause us to question our faith, or lose it entirely [3].    For us (as opposed to Christians) it is the thrill of constantly re-finding our Gods and Goddesses in the natural world that sustains our faith and makes it continuous.   Once committed to the faith of a Pagan it becomes much more difficult to lose faith as the Gods and the Goddesses are right here with us, immanent in the natural world.

While, as I said above, the Gods and Goddesses do not directly manifest, our belief does change the way we perceive the world.  What others would see as coincidence, we see as action of the deities in the world.  What others would dismiss as fantasy or imagination, we see as direct access to the presence of the Lord and Lady.  The change in view that comes with Pagan faith is what makes the world magical, and what allows us to refresh our faith in the absence of tangible, concrete, evidence.

In order for Christians to have the same experience as Pagans Jesus would have to had remained in the world as the incarnate god.  If he had, then the wonder and fascination, and reverence, we have for the world might have led Christianity down a very different path.  But he did not, he ascended, leaving the world as the source of evil and not wonder, and the transcendent as the source of wonder and reverence. Our Gods and Goddesses have not gone anywhere, they remain with us, and their continued presence makes for a faith that thrills in its constant contact with them.  Our renewal comes from these contacts; contacts that are written in ritual, amongst us as a community, and in the natural world.

For Kierkegaard this faith was overwhelming, both personally and socially.  Ethics and laws do not matter to someone who has such a faith.  The ability of god (or the Gods and Goddesses) to overrule human behavior or norms may occur at any time.  The story of Abraham and Isaac is a central example of this absolute, absurd, nature of faith.   The knowledge of the Jewish God led Abraham to be willing to do anything, include sacrificing his son, because he knew that his God existed.  For those who have faith, who really believe, the challenge is clear:  they must act out what they believe.

Such existential requirements don’t really work for Pagans the way they do for fundamentalist Lutherans.  For the Christians sin and redemption represent a set of compelling requirements that challenges them to act out what they believe.  Our Gods and Goddesses have requirements, and penalties for those who transgress or offend them [4], but they are not transcendent, or all powerful, the way the Christian god is.  Instead of leveling requirements and making commandments, our Gods and Goddesses give us particular and peculiar requirements, tailored to their personalities and to our own.  They do not ask us to avoid sin, or to have any other specific engagement with society or the world for the matter.  Instead they talk to us dimly through ritual and have remembered beliefs.  They whisper, and those whispers are easily lost in many different ways.  Their whispers require careful attention to hear, and encourage us as much as tell us what to do.

For Pagans, unlike Kierkegaard, the other side is joy and wonder.  When we are out in the forest or mountains (or beach if you prefer), we smell and feel the wonder of the growing, living planet.  When we are with those we love, whether within circle or within the family, we feel intimate and close to those we are with.  We have a joy that comes from knowing some other, either another that brings power and peace (the natural world) or another that brings intrigue, ideas, and love (other people).

But we still have the same problem that confronted Kierkegaard and others:  if we have made that leap of faith, what do we do on the other side [5]?  If we see the world as filled with spirits, a world of wonder and excitement, then what do we do because of that?  What change must happen in us, and in the world?

One way to understand what must happen is to examine the nature of the Gods and Goddesses.  The Gods and Goddesses represent the natural, and the social, world.  They are part of the natural world, the same world we experience when we are within nature.  But they are also individual entities, individuals, who can be experienced in the same way that we experience other people.  Except the Gods and Goddesses do not have material form, they are experienced through ritual, meditation, and unmediated [6] personal experience.   This experience leads to the same joy, wonder, and inner satisfaction that we experience when interacting with nature or loved ones, only many times increased due to the fact that we can get even “closer” to the Gods and Goddesses as we do not need to use our senses to experience them.

This wonder, this experience that does not come through senses, leads us directly to the change that occurs as we move from a “religious” Pagan to a “faithful” Pagan:  magic.  Magic comes into the world through the change in perception that occurs when Pagan’s have faith in the existence of independent, individual, deities in the world.  Because the deities are immanent in the world, the world becomes divine.  And a divine world is a magical, wondrous, mysterious world that allows for all kinds of workings, changes, and effects that do not occur through other experiences or belief systems.

This magical view of the world is tied directly to faith, and thus avoids any and all criticism that comes from applying scientific [7] or pseudo-scientific criteria to magic.  Magic exists and works because we have faith, faith backed up by direct experience of the Gods and Goddesses in the world.

This sense of wonder in the world, brought on by the presence of the Gods and Goddesses is, I believe, the third great pillar of Pagan theology:

The first pillar is the immanence of the Gods and Goddesses in the world.

The second pillar is acceptance, from which comes multiplicity of deity.

The third pillar is joy and wonder in the unmediated experience of the world, from which comes magic.

While these may not be the only pillars, they are the ones I have discussed in these columns so far.   They, in my opinion, represent a underlying foundation behind a lot of what we do, say, and write about in the modern Pagan movement.

[1]  This sounds a lot like “meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”  True and false.  It is true that faith in existence of deity pretty much leads you to the same truth claims and issues no matter what exactly the deity that you believe in looks like.   The responsibility of faith requires that you make some decisions about how the world is organized, otherwise its not a very strong belief.  However at the same time Paganism is different than book religions in that it embraces a radical acceptance of the other, including other religious viewpoints.  So while we may not believe they have the right belief, we do have the basic, bedrock, requirement to allow those other deities and beliefs to have the same claim on truth and respect that we claim for ours.

[2] From which the “leap of faith” arose.

[3] Here we have to depart ways from the Lutheran Kierkegaard, who sees the central paradox in the incarnation, and who sees constant renewal of faith as a necessary counter to the tendency to drift, a renewal that is necessary.

[4] Though those trials can be seen two ways.  A tourist who steps barefoot on thistles in front of  a main stone in a Celtic circle may interpret the encounter as disapproval of such dilatants messing around with the God of the place.  (Certainly the locals will see it as such.)  But another interpretation might be that the God is testing her, placing a message on the path of faith, that not all is easy or simple, and that faith is more than posing or claiming it, it is keeping it despite hardship or pain.

[5] Kierkegaard is no help here, as he was a misogynist, crazy, reactionary.

[6] By unmediated experience I mean experience that happens independent of the senses in the world, that we do not actually see, touch, or smell them.  This does not preclude unmediated sensory experience, only that the experience does not come through interaction with objects in the world through physical senses.  It’s a mystical or shamanistic experience, if you will.

[7]  In several previous columns I’ve discussed various concepts of magic.  This is my fundamental concept and theoretical basis for magical workings:  that the divinity in the world, as expressed through our mystical wonder at our engagement with the world, allows us to see the world in a new, magical light.  We change, the world does not change, and through our changes magic comes into being.  I will elaborate on this idea in future columns and try and place it within a framework of an overall theory of magic.

Conflicts: do the gods and goddesses have them, and how do they deal with it?

Today I’d like to explore a topic that’s been on my mind of late, for no particular reason. If you’ve read my earlier articles, you know I see the gods a bit differently than most, not as above us, but being made of energy, without a “location” in the cosmos, they are literally everywhere, but also nowhere. Having an infinite existence, in space and time, must make for quite a life. But do they occasionally have conflicts with those of their own kind? If so, how would they resolve them?

The very nature of their existence, at least in my mind, means that they are in constant “contact” with each other, mentally and even perhaps physically, if there is such a thing for energy beings. I’d like to think that they truly live in an environment of complete and total love, as you often hear them speak about, as if there is no other emotion. It’s pretty clear to me from all the stories I’ve heard about them that this is in fact the case, I mean how else could a race exist in such a way, in constant and total contact with one another, if they could feel anything else?

Imagine if we humans lived like the gods do. Always in constant and total contact with every other person on the planet, where we could feel and perceive everything they do, all the time. In that case, there would be no loneliness, no feeling of being alone, no way to be angry at anyone, or sad, or jealous. Everyone would be aware of everyone else’s thoughts, and perceptions, and I imagine that there would be nothing to ever get upset about, since that’s one limitation of being human…we don’t really know how anyone else feels or what they are thinking. So we start to assume things, we get scared that someone else might be getting a better deal, or that they have ulterior motives, or that they don’t love us. That’s where all the negative emotions come in, when we’re not sure. If we knew exactly how they were thinking though, none of that would be an issue. I believe most conflicts start with us making assumptions about another person, because we can’t put ourselves in their shoes, and see things the way they do. But the gods can, and so therefore, there is no conflict, because they are intimately aware of every thought.

It’s a really long stretch for the human mind to comprehend how that could even work. It would seem to preclude any sense of individuality, with all those thoughts being present in one’s mind. How in the world could you ever feel like you were “yourself”?

But maybe that’s the key. To be at one with all of creation, and everything in it, allows one to rise above all the things that keep we humans fighting amongst ourselves. When there is no desire for material gain, when there is no drive to own precious gems, or own a particular plot of land on a relatively small planet, then a lot of things that cause us to fight would simply no longer matter. Humans can only perceive a small portion of reality, this physical existence prevents us from seeing much more, but maybe this type of existence, as we live multiple lifetimes, helps us to learn how to perceive the true nature of love, and what it really is. We couldn’t learn that if we were born into it, we would already know it, but only by association, not by personal experience, which is why I believe that’s what we are here to do, to learn how to see the cosmos as our “gods” do.

It’s a long process to be sure, learning about the cosmos, and how to really “see” it. Sure, we can see it with our physical eyes, but there is so much more that can only be described as a feeling, or a thought. Energy is everywhere, and it has a consciousness. A huge, universal consciousness that encompasses everything, and every single being that exists in it is part of it. To be born of that energy, and to be aware of it, is indeed a precious gift.

My mind is always working, trying to comprehend the nature of the cosmos, even though I know there’s no way I can possibly understand it all. I’m like the rest of humanity, we like instant gratification, but to truly understand something that big, it takes many lifetimes of learning. We must first understand what we are, and learn about the possibilities and extremes of emotion, all of which are just part of the love of the universe. I wish I had words to adequately describe the process, but there again, I am only human, and thus far, I have only scratched the surface of what that process might be. I’d like to think that to understand love, the saying “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” rings true.

I’d really like to see what it’s like for the gods. I have no idea if they have conflicts or not, but I’d like to think that they don’t. I’d like to think that one day we humans will have the opportunity to see and perceive the universe as they do. But it’s not time yet, not for this human anyway, I’m still on my path, my journey, and the conflicts in my own life are teaching me a great deal along the way. And I think that’s how it should be.

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