Earlier when I asked for everyone’s attention I got just about that and a wealth of discussion was spurred, both in the post’s comments and in several other places around the internet that I’ve learned of through WordPress’ cool “referrers’ list” thingy. There was one section of my post though that got very little attention, and from what I can tell did not reach and may not be able to reach the audience that needs to read it most. The issue of throwing around the phrase “Their Gods must not be real to them”. Bianca Bradley pointed it out in the comments and suggested that a more in depth post might be needed, and moonwolf233 also commented on the possible damaging effects of this on her blog.
First, lets start with what I’ve already written:
Not only in the present discourse over the proper nature of libations but in previous conflicts I have seen a number of regrettable and hurtful things said on both sides of each argument. It would take me an inordinate amount of time to sort out everything I have witnessed that I see as attacks not only against the individual they were directed against, but against the very hope of fostering positive and supportive community relationships among polytheists. Therefore I have chosen to discuss only one today, which heads this section of my post.
The retort “Their Gods must not be real to them” I have seen repeated in a number of places and forms and believe it has now become rather commonplace. I have even used it once myself thinking I did so purely out of support for a friend, without really considering the implications of what I said.
If the individual on the receiving end of the comment is a Mystic, it implies that that person is not hearing Gods at all but merely voices in their own head. This could even be taken as a suggestion that the target of the comment is mentally ill. It also somewhat implies that the speaker somehow has gleaned from clues gained in discourse as to the inner mental workings of the recipient, that the speaker somehow knows the difference between what the recipient actually experiences and only imagines.
Proving or disproving the existence of the Gods is beyond mortal ability. An individual may find a proof that works for that individual, and find others who share in that experience. Even then there is still no empirical means of proving these experiences to an individual who does not share them. Or that the Gods exist as more than thoughts in our heads at all. While we may not accept the experience of another, we can no more disprove their experience then they ours. To imply otherwise one must also accept that one’s own experience with the Gods may be disproved, shown to be imaginary, and possibly the result of a deranged mind.
In the present context I have been seeing the implication that another’s Gods must not be real to them because a person does not make physical offerings that are not consumed by the one making the offering. The argument here is that to consume an offering is the same thing as taking away something that belonged to the God. By not acknowledging this principle the one making the offering does not actually give the God anything. Thus the individual must not truly believe the God is real, else would have known to leave the offering alone so that the God might benefit from it. If offerings are not given at all yet the devotee still professes to have a relationship with the God, then the devotee must still not recognize the God as real because he or she is not doing enough for the God to merit the God’s favor.
This implies that with an understanding of the reality of a God, a devotee would already know this. Given that almost all modern Polytheists come from a non polytheistic background this could not be more unlikely. As I noted above when describing developing my own practice of offerings I was unaware of the idea for considerable time and it was some time after that before I felt ready to incorporate offerings into my practice. If as in the above argument I would have already been doing so if I really believed Odin was real, then this implies I did not and several years of powerful experiences of the Old Man’s presence were all imagined.
Further this and related statements such as “if you’re not willing to put in the work then the Gods are not for you” which I have also seen used in the present debate and previously in different ways, creates conflict with the idea that the Gods have agency. Given that the Gods are individuals with the capacity for individual thought, decision making and most importantly action, then it follows that the Gods can and do decide for Themselves who is worthy of their interest, who is not and what is required of each individual. By stating that those who are not making proper offerings must not believe that the Gods are real or otherwise suggesting that such a person does not benefit from a Gods affection and concern without first meeting certain standards the speaker is interfering in that process.
And now back to the present.
Picking up where I left on, on interfering with the agency of the Gods, when someone implies that they have knowledge as to the non-reality of another’s spiritual experience, the speaker is also implying knowledge and authority to say which are and which are not valid experiences of the divine. In effect, it would be as if the speaker were implying a nature akin to a Bishop, Cardinal or even Pope. A figure who by some means has been given authority to set dogma for the religion in place, and deem all ideas outside of those confines heresy. A middle man between devotee and the Gods. Someone who speaks for the Gods themselves.
Perhaps I don’t need to say it, but I will: There is no mortal being capable of being the infallible mouth peace of a living, breathing, Changing God. Those who attempt to do so and take it upon themselves to define what is a valid experience of a particular God, interfere with the God’s right to define itself to it’s devotees, and with the right of those devotees to meet with their God on their own terms and their own time.
The best we can do is try our hardest to interpret and sometimes share what glimpses we do receive. None of us, even the most devout mystic, can ever grasp the totality that is the vastness of even one God. There will always be exceptions to what we believe a particular God is and is not and the ability to share in those experiences with others of a different perspective is perhaps one of the most wonderful things about Polytheism: There is always someone who can teach you something new about the Gods you love that you never encountered before.
Responding to these differences with the retort “They must not believe their Gods are real,” robs the speaker of the chance to join in that wonder.
Now I’d like to go back to another point in my original text, about the implication that a devotee would already know to give certain types of offerings, etc., once the devotee accepted a God as real. I’ve seen this tossed around in several other ways, such as when a devotee does not accept the concept that a God may be pained by situations here on Earth. Gods are vast, powerful, intimidating and often intoxicating beings. Trying to look up at one and grasp what it may be like to be a God, what its needs and desires may be, can be rather like trying to stare up at the top of a mountain and try to glimpse of it’s peak through the clouds. Even once a devotee grasps the reality of a God it is still very easy to think of Gods as incomparable beings, without needs at all as we would think of them. True, certain influences from Abrahamic religion reinforce this idea, but even without that the Gods are so much More than we are that it will always be a learning process to internalize the idea that Gods can be affected beneficially or adversely by the actions of mankind, let alone a single individual. Some devotees may never become comfortable with those thoughts, as the idea of a God who does not want for anything is much more comfortable and seemingly stable. However, to imply to these devotees that their experience of the divine is invalid because on their journey they have not reached the point of these truths is a very good way to turn them off from ever attempting to do so in the future. People need time and space to grow, especially in their relationship with the Gods.
One more hot button topic and then I’ll call it quits for tonight: Monism, Dualism, and other forms of Soft Polytheism.
In case anyone reading isn’t already aware: I am a Hard Polytheist, and as such I firmly believe that each of the Gods are their own independent beings. Soft Polytheists of varying sorts, believe that in some fashion the various Gods and Goddess are different facets of a greater whole. This position baffles and frustrates me to no end, however, I can neither prove nor disprove their position, any more or less than I can do so for mine. I can cry that I have personally experienced the touch of an Individual God who was not Other Gods all I want, but at the end of the day I have no means of proving my experiences any more or less real. People in these groups do tend to account less for the idea of the Gods having personal agency in our lives and are less interested in the same sort of devotional activities I am. Even so, none of thus justifies the frequency in which these groups tend to be the target of the phrase “Their Gods must not be real to them”. We have no means of knowing this for certain, and we never will.
In closing I’ll add that as much as I am focusing on a common retort used by Polytheist, there is also no excuse for many of the hurtful things that are said up to when this retort is most often used. However, as those who wish for a greater community devoted to the honoring of our Gods, I feel that we all need to stop and think very carefully about how we respond even to those who come at us with the greatest vitriol. Even those people may be loved by some God and given time and patience they may one day come to realize that, but if by our words and actions we spurn them away from the Gods we claim to defend the worship of, then they never will.
Thank you all for reading,