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Association of Polytheist Traditions

If Gods Exist, How Can A Human Be Happy?

Copyright © by Arlie Stephens 2003

Many (not all) polytheists believe that the gods and goddesses literally exist, being in some sense individuals, with goals and personalities, capable of acting in the world. In this essay, I look at some of the implications of such a belief, from a viewpoint at once cynical and practical; basically, the question I'm asking is "if they exist, what then?". I also look to some extent at religion and spirituality, and possible approaches to them, partly to give an idea of my own viewpoint, and partly to set a context.

This is of great personal interest to me; I've been struggling for some years to establish a mutually satisfying relationship with Odhin, after becoming unable to continue ignoring and explaining away his individual existence and apparant interest in me. I don't have good models for relationships with gods, and those I have mostly come from very different religions, such as Episcopalianism or Wicca. This leaves me trying to figure things out by trial and error, intuition, lore, logic, and hints seemingly received from Odhin himself. This has proven to be a difficult process, and many of the things I've tried have proven to be unsatisfying or unworkable.

Because I'm drawing in large part from my own experience, this essay will emphasize heathenry. I believe many of my points are generally applicable; however, I've been dealing with Odhin, not e.g. Brigid or Hephaistos or Isis, and I don't know enough members of other polytheistic religions (reconstructionist or otherwise) to really know how they deal with similar problems.

Goals of Religion

It seems to me that religion and spirituality can be approached with several different goals.

  • making people and societies more functional
  • helping people with their personal and social goals
  • making people happier
  • making people whole
  • helping people to see the "truth" in a fairly deep way

These are arranged in order from practical/unbelieving to the more metaphysical/believing. That is, earlier goals can be approached with no belief in the reality of the gods, with spiritual and mystical experiences seen as entirely subjective, and the whole thing as properly examined via such disciplines as sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.. The latter goals tend to require a more spiritual or metaphysical approach for them to even make sense. However, even the earlier goals become richer and more interesting from a believing standpoint.

The things I want from religion tend to be early on the list. I'm personally a somewhat reluctant convert, and tend to ask questions like "what use is it?". I feel comfortable with goals like community building, even communities including gods and goddesses. I don't feel so comfortable with goals like "enlightenment", "salvation", or "understanding Wyrd". Even the idea of seeking "wholeness" makes me nervous, and I'm inclined to wonder whether it's possible or meaningful.

I also tend to look for practical, mundane benefits from religion. It makes sense to me to honour deities who provide prosperity, and health, and good spirits, and even intangibles like poetic inspiration. I get rather antsy with the idea of honouring deities for providing "learning experiences" or "growth opportunities".

Of course, like most people I don't have only one goal. There are lots of things I see as possible benefits from religion, spirituality, and/or relationships with deities. Ideally, I'd like to have prosperity and happiness, wholeness and enlightenment, and the whole thing in a context of right relationship with deities, humans, animals, spirits, plants, and land.

What are the Gods

To discuss the implications of believing that gods and goddesses exist as more than metaphors or psychological archetypes, we need some kind of model of what the gods are, or at least how they behave.

Here's mine, drawn from personal experience, observation, discussion and reading. It should be taken more as a tentative hypothesis than as a statement of how things really are. All it is is a collection of the best ideas I have today, subject to change tomorrow (perhaps as a result of feedback on this essay).

Gods appear to me to be: non-corporeal, long lasting, and to some extent alien to human experience and attitude. (That is, they don't think like humans, and their motivations are "other".) They seem interested in humans and often very positively inclined towards them. Few seem anti-human, and it's likely we simply don't encounter any who are basically indifferent.

They communicate through human consciousness and perceptions, rather than directly. There seems to be no clear "god language" we could learn to speak; instead, they use the language and concepts of those they are talking to. (Sometimes they can communicate new seeming words and images, to some people at least, which prove somewhat verifiable.)

They don't seem to have a continuity of consciousness and memories like humans do. They are also perfectly capable of multiple independent interactions at precisely the same time. This would seem to make them more like computer software than like individuals, except that they seem capable of changing and learning over time, and of acting towards a goal. They also show signs of having personality quirks that are probably not integral to any purpose.

It seems as if they aren't fully differentiated from each other. They seem to blur into related gods on various sides (e.g. Odhin blurs into Odin and Wotan). They also seem to blur into other entities, including some that probably have only psychological reality (this makes them look like "archetypes" a lot of the time). Perhaps this is a limitation of human perception, rather than an attribute of the gods themselves.

The gods seem to be able to do things and know things in ways not generally available to humans. They do not appear to be omniscient or omnipotent; I've seen them apparantly make significant mistakes. They also seem to put a lot of complex effort into things they want to have done, which would be quite inconsistent with omnipotence.

Contact with the gods has a tendency to be pretty overwhelming to human emotions; this ranges from significant charisma to euphoria, and I suspect they may be equally capable of triggering profoundly "negative" emotional states. Contact with them doesn't always have this effect; it can simply be a very light sense of "something". Many religious rituals appear to be intended to produce this light sense of presence; others, however, attempt something more profound, and may well achieve it, at least for some participants.

The Alienness of Gods

I've said above that the gods seem to me to be alien to human experience and attitudes. This probably needs some justification.

One of my favourite examples of this is the gods' attitude to death. Humans die. If we're especially long lived, we may last a bit more than a hundred years. This seems to be an eyeblink on the time scale of the gods. It's also observable that, at least with some gods, their favourites tend to die young; Odhin in particular gets seen as arranging the deaths of his chosen heroes.

Humans generally want to live as long as possible. We may console ourselves with ideas of an afterlife, or rebirth, but we're rarely eager to experience it.

The gods, on the other hand, seem to honestly pay more attention to how one lives, than how long. They see no point in avoiding death, at a cost of honour or similar things; and they really mean it, because to them whether I live 20 years or 100 years, I'm still going to be a memory, or ghost, a lot longer than I'm going to be alive. What matters to them seems to honestly be my memory, or the legacy I leave. Whereas for me, that legacy is in effect a consolation prize, something to seek as compensation for my mortality.

Another example of the gods' alienness is their inhuman perfectionism. Humans seem to be almost by nature happy to make things a bit better, and ever aware that perfection can't be achieved. We may try for perfection, but we understand that it's ultimately futile, and think someone who doesn't realize this is more than a little weird, and likely to do much worse overall than someone who knows how to live reasonably.

The gods, on the other hand, seem to constantly push us to more and better. They may be pleased when we make some improvement, but pretty soon they are pushing us to improve still farther. And Odhin, at least, encourages risks I consider foolish; he'll bet his head against the possibility of a tiny increase in learning; moreover, he seems to expect me to behave much the same way.

The Numinous

The gods seem to be connected to something I'm going to call "the numinous", for lack of a better label. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but it seems to me to be the thing pointed to by concepts like deity being in everything, or the common ground behind all the gods; possibly also some of the metaphysical ideas found in monotheistic religions. (When monotheists talk about their god as more like an abstract concept, rather than personal or individual, they may be talking about this.) I think it is completely impersonal (not a "person" in any sense).

It tends to be transformative, forcing humans who contact it to change, becoming both more aware of the way things really are and of their own personal quirks that may need changing. Perhaps because of this, I've found contact with it frequently quite upsetting.

I think the numinous is pretty much always masked or transmitted through symbols. This may be because it's ineffable ... something humans cannot think about or communicate with words. Gods, it seems to me, probably can "think" about it ... to the extent gods can be said to "think". At any rate, it seems much more like home to them than it is to us. This may be one key reason why they seem so alien. I don't think, however, that the gods themselves are mere symbols or masks for the numinous, any more than a human (no matter how god oriented) can be merely a symbol or mask for his god.

Contact with gods seems to carry with it contact with the numinous, even if the former is sought and the latter unwanted. This is particularly true the more "magical", "mystical", "meditative", or "psychic" form that contact takes ... all else being equal, which it rarely is.

For some people, the primary value of religion and spirituality lies in contact with the numinous. They seek to get behind what they see as the masks of words and images. There's a strand of this particularly noticeable in Hinduism, where some appear to seek to get beyond individual gods, seeking instead something westerners mostly translate as "Enlightenment". This idea also appealed strongly to western monotheists exploring Indian religion and mining it for ideas and concepts; it's prominent in the Theosophical movement and its derivatives, including the Golden Dawn and related magical systems.

Implications of Believing in Gods

For me, the idea that the gods were more than metaphor came as a great shock, throwing my model of reality into chaos, and leaving me feeling like I'd no idea how to live in such a different seeming world. This may seem strange to someone who's always presumed that a god or gods was at least a possibility, but I had a nice orderly view of the way things worked, and a personal life purpose that fitted well within that worldview, yet didn't seem to work at all once I'd found the worldview to be apparantly contradicted by observed data.

There were two components to my problem. The first was what believing in their existence did to my aspirations, hopes, and sense of purpose. The second was dealing with having a relationship with one of them; In this essay, I expand that to the broader question of what happens if one has a relationship with one or more deities, voluntarily, involuntarily, or ambivalently.

So, what does it matter if gods exist, and are active in the world? What changed, just because I could no longer see "Odin" as an archetype, and felt forced to think of him as something with some kind of independent existence?

Logically speaking, very little changed. There have always been people more powerful than I, more knowledgeable, and more skilled. This is true for everyone: no one can aspire to become best at everything, though some few can realistically hope to be best (or at least among the best) at some few things they focus upon. With gods, I seemed to move from the category that could reasonably aspire to be among the best, to a category that can perhaps never be as skilled/powerful/knowledgeable as the least of the gods. And even that may not be true; they seem to do and know some things that we never can, or better than we ever can, but not everything. Why couldn't I specialize in something they can't do, or can't do well? (Indeed, I already do something really simple that they can't do ... I live in "ordinary reality", with a body and all that entails.)

They do have power, and seem to be able ... sometimes ... to trivially create effects I'd have to work hard for, and quite possibly fail. Worse, they can seemingly casually uncreate those effects I've worked for, and sometimes seem to do so. I think that's the worst thing about gods; they leave me feeling futile. But surely this, too, is true for everyone. If the king (or the government), wants your family home, you are pretty well sure to lose it. You might manage to get some compensation, but then again you might not, though you can have at least some influence on what sort of treatment you receive, or at least on how much you manage to salvage. And even if you are yourself the king, there are other kings, and coalitions of the powerful ... someone can always take what you've worked hard to gain, or do the opposite, and give you that which could otherwise have been a major effort and achievement.

But their existence nonetheless seems to change my sense of what's really important, and throws all human goals and achievements into question. And that's a terrible loss, at least for me. Moreover, and perhaps just incidentally, it throws into question all my models of the way the world works. And that leads me feeling even more powerless and alone.

What do people generally do about such feelings? It seems one option is to refuse to believe. Another is to create a comforting theory of how things really are, and live by that. A common one is to try to form positive relationships with the gods, either a single patron or all that you commonly encounter. And a final one is to keep one's distance from them, and basically cede whatever they want, running as far away as possible when they come near, or simply passively allowing them to have their way with you while hoping for their eventual loss of interest. (These are, of course, also ways to deal with anyone else who's too powerful to effectively contest with. With governments, the comforting theory is often a belief in the unswerving justice of all government actions. Sometimes it's a belief that the little guy can indeed have an influence ... and that's also a strategy I see tried with gods.)

Well, the comforting theory tends to get blown out of the water by reality; otherwise I'd be using it. Some get away with it for a while; perhaps even a lifetime if the gods have no particular interest in them, and if they are capable of attributing their lives' misfortunes either to non-god causes, or to factors which they expect to be ultimately positive. Refusing to believe is just a special case of the comforting theory. And I can't get away from them, since on the one hand they seem to have an interest in me, and on the other hand their overwhelming emotional effects function somewhat like an addictive drug.

Relationships with Gods

So that leaves me with a relationship with the gods, which I try to make positive, or at least less negative. But what kind of relationship is possible with someone both powerful and alien? We try to fit these relationships into our human relationship models. Shall we see our god as our father? our mother? our leader? our king? our teacher? our sibling? our lover? Each of these has problems. One of those, I'd argue, is that gods can't properly fill any such role, because they simply are not human. Their alien attitudes reach up and bite us eventually, invalidating whatever model we chose. Worse, any relationship with them brings that contact with the numinous, and all of the pain and change that triggers. It seems there's no way to have comfort in a life that involves a god, unless perhaps that god appears rarely and at a very formalized distance.

There are a couple of ways to get around this problem. One way is to see the gods as teachers, and the change they bring as fundamentally beneficial, no matter how much one may dislike it at the time. One focusses on future benefits, potential or actual. This runs into problems if no benefits arrive, or they clearly aren't worth their costs; that can be handled by conveniently forgetting the true costs, exaggerating the benefits received, or insisting that there are better benefits still to come. (If all else fails, one can expect the benefits in a future life, or in the farthering of some divine plan beyond one's limited human understanding. Alternatively, one can blame oneself for being a slow learner, having clearly failed to understand the lesson.) This method is very popular among new agers, and also among heathens heavily influenced by new age goals.

Alternatively, one can simply seek out contact with the numinous directly, either for its own sake or as a source of "wholeness" and "personal growth". I don't understand why anyone would want that, since the results seem painful and often damaging, but it's clear that people do seek it, and not all of them are simply too naive and inexperienced to understand the consequences.

Another way is to focus on working with the gods upon shared goals and shared projects. There are 3 ways to go about this: try to recruit them to your goals; try to find common cause; and try to convert oneself to preferring their goals to those natural to you. The first of these is typical of those who try to treat gods and other wights as tools or servants; those who do this with gods generally see them as basically archetypes rather than truly gods. It's also the basic strategy of those who try to bargain with the gods, except in this case they are expecting the gods to further their goals in exchange for the human furthering the gods' goals. The third of these is pretty much required by the major monotheistic religions; all teach that their god's goals are superior to mere human goals, and a righteous human should be satisfied to serve them. (Islam probably has the strongest streak of this, but it's strong in Christianity and probably Judaism too.)

The second is the one that seems to have the most promise: to work with the gods where our interests overlap, and go our own way when they do not. It may also have significant benefits, because gods are likely to be involved in important seeming projects, so it (or simply adopting the gods' goals) is likely to involve one in significantly meaningful activities, and a lot of people find that satisfying in itself.

Unfortunately, it, too, seems to founder on the gods' basic alienness. They don't seem to understand what it means to be human. Either that, or they basically don't care, and insist on trying to make us fit entirely within their goals. But that gets us right back to powerlessness and futility. What is meaningful in following another's goals, not even because I chose to do so, but because they've tricked or forced me into compliance? Or not so much consciously tricked me, as completely failed to understand what I wanted, and simply presumed I wanted the same as them, even while having a broader view of events such that I couldn't evaluate whether their chosen course of action would serve common goals, or only theirs.

*sigh* This seems to lead to a dead end. Yet people seem to manage to have satisfying relationships with gods, that last beyond initial enthusiasm, and don't appear to be based more on wishful thinking than reality. There's no logical reason why such a relationship wouldn't work, in spite of differences of power and viewpoint; children, for example, generally have exactly this kind of relationship with their parents, at least while young. Perhaps the difference there is that parents have been children themselves, and children eventually grow up and share the parental perspective and power. Whereas gods remain gods, and people remain people, and it's not clear that either group can truly understand the other.

My Dream

What I personally seek with the gods is a relationship of friendship. Close friendship with the god I'm closest to, and a more distant but still friendly relationship with the others. My model is neccesarily human friendships; negotiating the differences between god and human continues to be very difficult, and has frequently seemed to be make the whole idea impossible.

There is at least some precedent for this, in the idea of the "god friend" as found in the Icelandic sagas. There are sagas that refer to a god as someone's friend (Old Norse vinr); in Eyrbyggja Saga one such person is recorded as asking the advice of his friend Thor about what to do about a problem, and moving to Iceland as a result of the advice he received.

But the old god friends didn't leave us records, and the saga form generally doesn't speak much of emotions or personal interactions, except in abstract terms like "they came to love each other". So perhaps all this can give us is the idea that it's possible, and was seen as normal, though not perhaps common.

There may be a bit more potential in records of the early European Christian mystics; they, too, were sometimes called "friends of God", and some wrote specifically of their experiences. I suspect that, on the human side at least, there were lots of echoes from the experiences they would have expected a few hundred years back, with their community's earlier gods.

There's also the problem of language. The modern term "friend" doesn't have exactly the same meaning or connotation as the Old Norse term "vinr" or any of the other Norse, Anglo-Saxon or even Latin terms for "friend"; nor do these terms all mean the same as each other. So just because there's a similar translation, that doesn't mean the sort of relationship I imagine ever truly occurred. And if it never occurred in the past, why should I believe it would be possible today, or that my god would want such a relationship with me?

Conclusion

It's a long and complex process to attempt to understand a god on his own terms, so that his behaviour and motivations become less surprising, rather than trying to convince him to fit into some pre-crafted and ill fitting model. But this is what one must do in any friendship, if it's going to really work. It's just a lot easier with a friend who's human; even then, it can be quite difficult, particularly if you come from very different cultures.

It's also much easier to negotiate a shallow relationship. A simple, stereotyped trading relationship ("a gift for a gift") seems likely to be easier than what I've been attempting. So why attempt it? Well, essentially because it seems to be what we both want. There'd have been no need for him to try so hard to get my attention, simply to set up a relationship of practical exchanges, offerings for inspiration, or essay writing in exchange for material assistance.

So where does that leave us? Personally, I'm still struggling to create a workable relationship with my god. There are times when I feel like the whole thing is futile; either the gap between us is too great, or he's not really interested in bridging it. But there are also times when I have hope, and even confidence.