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Association of Polytheist Traditions

Deity and Humanity: Human-Deity Interaction

Copyright © by Arlie Stephens 2003

To show the interaction of concepts of deity and concepts of humanity, it is useful to examine the ways in which deities and humans interact. This may seem too obvious for words, but in fact monotheistic religions, particularly law oriented monotheistic religions, are drawing on a somewhat different paradigm, placing their emphasis in different places, excluding some of what we care about, and including a whole area that we see very differently.

Deities and humans are drawn to form relationships with each other, both individually and in groups. We use several models to try to understand these relationships. These are only models, not to be taken too literally.

The first model is that of friendship. A "god friend" is someone particularly devoted to a specific deity, with whom the deity has a special relationship. This tends to imply a kind of special affinity to deities, a virtue that has at least as much to do with wisdom, honour and achievement as with anything directly spiritual, and the ability to help others with the sort of situation where they might want to involve the deities.

The second model is that of kin. We see our deities as our elder kin. We can thus relate to them as we would to great grandparents, or parents, clan leaders or wise old cousins. One element of this model is, of course, a continuing love almost regardless of behaviour. The third common model is to relate to deities as leaders, whether immediate chiefs or exalted monarchs. (Not too exalted, however; we're not too keen, culturally, on monarchs that get too far from their people, not even divine monarchs.) Thus some heathens describe their relationship with Odin as having elements of a relationship with a manager, someone they work for, by mutual choice. Others see themselves as having less choice, with the deity more like monarch than manager.

Deities provide assistance to human beings, both individually and collectively. This assistance includes practical assistance with tangible things, like food and shelter, employment and health, as well as emotional support and the promotion of psychological integration and spiritual growth.

Such assistance takes various forms. Sometimes, they simply arrange something we want or need, like recovering from some illness, or finding a better job. The mechanism often seems perfectly ordinary; e.g. your doctor reads about a new treatment that proves to work for you. Occasionally, things happen that seem to have no plausible mundane explanation. It's more common for them to simply provide opportunities for us to act upon, such as happening to hear about the perfect job, just in time to apply for it.

They also provide less tangible things. They may make suggestions, either by talking to those of us with the talent for "hearing" them, or by subtly reminding us of things we already know, so that the right idea just pops into our minds, perhaps in a new context. They often provide emotional support: comfort, relaxation, a sense of purpose; intangible things that are nonetheless very important. They may encourage us when things feel hopeless.

Sometimes, too, what they provide is a kind of generic luck. Someone favoured by a deity tends to prosper. They tend to be in the right place at the right time. The flu passes them by, and their car breaks down the day that something terrible happens at their workplace.

This appears, of course, to be an unrealistic theology. Science seems to have left no room for deities to change the future, or individuals to have sustained patterns of luck, except to a statistically insignificant degree. Thus a faith that accepts science is often reduced to claiming that all a deity can or will do is provide encouragement, emotional support, and ideas, working entirely through human minds and human agents. Heathens generally insist that our deities in fact do more than this, though normally staying within what's obviously possible. They specialize in adjusting the timing, or the odds, just a little, so things come together in ways they probably wouldn't have done without that nudge. I can't prove this, and I'm very aware that anecdotal evidence is not proof. Yet I observe it happening, and regularly encounter coreligionists who observe the same thing; in fact, a common reason given for conversion to heathenry is the convert's experience that our deities answered their prayers, whereas those of their previous religion had not.

Deities almost never do things for us without requiring our active co- operation. They may cause our resume to get noticed, but we still have to present ourselves well at the interview. They may comfort us for our failings and help us to improve, but we still have to make amends to those we've wronged, and consciously work at improving. [21] It also seems to be important to them that we ask for their help; while they'll to some extent look out for people who are strongly devoted to them, providing luck and general prosperity, [22] they mostly don't help unless we ask. They almost never do take over and do everything we want or need; and when they do things for us we could have done for ourselves, it's generally trivial things, done in an attempt to get our attention.

Deities also act as role models and inspiration for us. That's one reason there are so very many anthropomorphic stories about them. The stories may not be literally true, but it can be easier to deal with stories than a list of concepts. Stories allow us to form an intuitive impression of their personalities and attitudes, complete with ways in which they balance competing claims. Lists of attributes tend to leave us trying to decide which virtue is more important, as if such a decision could ever be made in abstract. Stories allow us to better answer questions like "What would Odin do" when faced with a decision in our daily life.

It's important to ask not just what deities bring to humans, but what humans bring to deities. Heathens, too, need to ask "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?", [23] though our answers are a little different from the normal Christian or Jewish answers. To heathens, relationships should be mutually beneficial, not flowing only one way, and that includes relationships with deities. Our deities are not so much greater than us that mutuality is unimaginable. On the other hand, they don't need much of what we have, and could easily get it if they wanted to.

The most obvious thing we bring to our deities is relationships. They want to form connections and interact with us. That's part of their nature, and a fortunate thing for us, since the overall effects of involvement with deities tend to be good for human beings. We also bring them gifts, including praise, which they seem to appreciate, artwork, and offerings. The idea of offerings needs some discussion, perhaps, in a paper addressed to people used to Christianity, where people seem to give gifts to the Church, and not directly to their God. The most common ritual in heathenry is the blt, which is the more or less formal giving of gift(s) to one or more deities.

Why would a deity care about being given tangible offerings, like food and drink? They don't turn up physically and eat with us, so what are they getting out of this? What are we doing, when we share our meals with them, particularly on holy days? One theory is that they do somehow consume and use some kind of essence from the food offered, even if it's physically eaten by the local wildlife. Another is that the gift is the effort of preparing the food, or the sacrifice of not consuming it ourselves.

All I'm sure of is that these rituals matter, and the giving of offerings to deities is common in just about every polytheistic or shamanistic religion. It's only members of monotheistic religions that don't generally give gifts directly to their deity, and even then, they often put significant time and money into decorating their churches, synagogues, etc. the better to glorify their deity.

Humans also provide assistance with divine plans. It seems as if deities work through humans, most of the time, to accomplish anything. They seem far better at putting ideas into human minds, or making small adjustments to the odds of possible events, than acting tangibly and visibly in the physical world. (Alternatively, they've some reason for not acting too blatantly.) Either way, we wind up acting on their behalf. This tends, in general, to be good for human communities, but not always good for the individual. It's quite possible to follow one's god or goddess into considerable sacrifice of time, money, comfort, or even life. Some things are, in their eyes, and hopefully also in our eyes, more important than our own personal desires.

Finally, I believe we provide them with change and ideas. My theory is that deities grow and change along with humans, with each group acting as a catalyst to the other. Moreover, there are things we can see better, from a short lived and limited perspective, than they can see from a too broad vantage point. Perhaps life simply tastes sweeter, to a short lived mortal, and they enjoy that taste through their relationship with us.

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