Deity, Discernment and Faith

John Halstead shared a very interesting post the other day, titled “The role of faith and hubris in Paganism,” which has sparked a lot of thought and commenting from me. Below, I’m just going to re-post some of the (far too verbose) comments I’ve left both on his blog, and on a response posted by one of the people he quotes in his post.

My initial response to his blog post was:

I do wonder, though, if much of the character of faith-based hard polytheism is influenced specifically by Protestant and Evangelical denominations of Christianity, particularly here in the U.S. Long before I became a Pagan, I found myself having these kinds of conversations because I was raised in a (liberal) Catholic tradition that emphasized the vital and necessary role of a person’s own conscience and a careful process of discernment in determining how to act on “divine inspiration,” always with an awareness that distinguishing the source of that inspiration can be nearly impossible. (But then again, I’m not sure if this is something that’s really common to Catholicism but not Protestantism, or if it’s something common to liberal Christianity rather than conservative Christianity, or if it’s just an accident that this was an emphasis in my childhood church and doesn’t actually represent a larger trend at all.)

Placing devotion to a deity in the context of personal discernment pretty much rules out for me any notion of handing over my will or submitting myself entirely to an external force. Not to mention — and maybe I am just not special enough to be on any god’s mailing list — I’m rarely on the receiving end of so obvious or direct a message from the gods that it includes how high I need to jump or which bridge I should be jumping from. My spiritual life is much more an on-going process of deep listening to a complex web of urges, attractions, distractions and repulsions, the various sources of which are just as often in the natural world around me or in my own psyche as in some externalized god-form (more often, I should say). I might sometimes talk about my relationship with my gods in terms of “messages” or guidance or inspiration, but it’s almost always metaphorical, not literal.

For Elani, and others, it seems like hubris to question the instructions of the gods. For me, it seems deeply arrogant to be too eager to attribute our various impulses to some external deity, to clothe our instincts or intuitions in the finery of divine inspiration as a way of elevating or ennobling them. It seems hubris to act on our assumptions that we are receiving and hearing such messages correctly, without first turning a very careful and critical eye on all of the ways our own desires, assumptions and projections might be biasing us.

Which is not to say that I don’t believe there is some transcendent divine reality that transcends not only our individual selves (and our Selves), but also our human and more-than-human/natural communities as well. But determining what influence that transcendent divinity has on our lives has, for me, always been an exercise in retrospective contemplation, where the patterns of coincidence and chance resolve into a coherent and beautiful melody even when, at the time, I was only ever bumbling along doing my best to tease out the signal from the noise.

I followed this up with a visit to Elani Temperance’s blog, where I eventually succeeded (Google bugs not withstanding) to leave this comment on her post, “The girl who kicked the hornets nest (again), part 2“:

I only just got home from traveling for the winter holidays visiting family, and so I was only just now able to catch up on John’s post and all of these various replies. I wanted to say thanks for continuing the conversation. I wasn’t familiar with your writing and John’s brief quote was the first I’d heard of it — I mention that, because I have some questions that I’d love to hear your thoughts on and, if you’ve already addressed them elsewhere in your prolific blog, even just a list of links of your past writing on the subject would be awesome. :)

Firstly, I was really struck by how you consistently equated a very specific kind of asymmetrical faith-based approach to religion with religion and/or organized tradition in general. B.T. touched on this already when he pointed out that it wasn’t the religiousness of your approach that was threatening to him, but the more specific *kind* of faith you described. I was wondering if you could elaborate on why you don’t think that other approaches (which may or may not include the kind of asymmetrical faith you have) are “religious” or “organized.” You seem to suggest that traditions without asymmetrical relationship lack structure, cohesion, “solid community, shared gnosis, etc.” For instance, right after quoting B.T.’s comment, you say:

“While I doubt that a more structured religious movement within Paganism will be the end of Paganism, I also think that the Traditions based upon religious commonalities will outlast the ones without them, simply because there is some ‘glue’ missing.”

Because you seem to be equating “religion” with *your* particular approach to faith, it sounds a lot like you’re saying that the only way to have an organized religious tradition is to place an asymmetrical relationship with the gods, in which the gods hold the power and authority, at the center of one’s religious life. But it seems to me that we have many, many examples of long-lasting religious traditions that do not at all include your view of faith as inherently or necessarily asymmetrical. Is that what you meant to say, or have I misunderstood your point here?

Another point that intrigues me, that you didn’t really get into in this post but that I’d love to hear more about, is the exact nature of how you listen to your gods. That is, how this asymmetrical relationship with them actually manifests for you. Your example of the synchronicity of the conversation with the masseuse is interesting, but it doesn’t sound like anything different from the experiences someone might have if they had a more equal relationship with their god(s), or even someone who didn’t believe in or have a relationship with any god(s) at all.

I left this comment on John’s original post, and I’ll reshare it here because I think it has some bearing:

“Maybe I’m just not special enough to be on any god’s mailing list — but I’m rarely on the receiving end of so obvious or direct a message from the gods that it includes how high I need to jump or which bridge I should be jumping from. My spiritual life is much more an on-going process of deep listening to a complex web of urges, attractions, distractions and repulsions, the various sources of which are just as often in the natural world around me or in my own psyche as in some externalized god-form. I might sometimes talk about my relationship with my gods in terms of “messages” or guidance or inspiration, but it’s almost always metaphorical, not literal.

It seems like for Elani, and others, it’s hubris to question the instructions of the gods. For me, it seems deeply arrogant to be too eager to attribute our various impulses to some external deity, to clothe our instincts or intuitions in the finery of divine inspiration as a way of elevating or ennobling them. It seems hubris to act on our assumptions that we are receiving and hearing such messages correctly, without first turning a very careful and critical eye on all of the ways our own desires, assumptions and projections might be biasing us.

Which is not to say that I don’t believe there is some transcendent divine reality that transcends not only our individual selves, but also our human and more-than-human/natural communities as well. But determining what influence that transcendent divinity has on our lives has, for me, always been an exercise in retrospective contemplation, where the patterns of coincidence and chance resolve into a coherent and beautiful melody even when, at the time, I was only ever bumbling along doing my best to tease out the signal from the noise.”

I guess my question for you is, how does an asymmetrical relationship with the gods help you to “tease out the signal from the noise”? If you believe that your deities really are real, external beings separate from yourself, then how do you guard against attributing your own desires and biases to them? In other words, how do you avoid making your gods “in your own image”? What process of discernment do you use to distinguish authentic communications from your deities from your own projections or sentimental imaginings? And what are those authentic communications actually like?

Sorry to bombard you with so many questions. I find this conversation really intriguing, and I hope you’ll have a chance to explore some of these issues. Thanks for being willing to share and open yourself up to criticism.

I put emphasis on the part where I quote myself from the comment I left on John’s post, in part because I think this is maybe the heart of the matter for me, and in part because the second version has been cleaned up a bit for the sake of clarity. For even more clarity, I ended up commenting again on John’s original post after he replied to my first comment. In particular, John said:

While I do think there is a certain amount of over-confidence in polytheistic discourse, “hubris” and “arrogance” just do not seem like the right words to describe Elani’s practice. If you watch some of the videos she has posted of her practice, you will see that humility characterizes everything she does.

To which I responded:

Thanks for bringing this up — I should have clarified more in my original comment, and I hope I didn’t step on any toes by accident. “Hubris” may not be the right word for Elani’s practice at all. Reading your brief quotes from her here was the first time I’ve encountered any of her writing, so I really didn’t mean to judge her practice specifically (since I know pretty much nothing about it). Instead, I meant to offer my own definition of “hubris” in the religious sense, in the context of our definition of and relationship with deity. (In other words, “That’s not a knife. This is a knife.” ;))

I’m intrigued by the idea of “kharis” that Elani mentions — it looks like this Greek word shares etymological roots with words like charity, charisma and even eucharist, all very potent words in various forms of Christianity and many of them directly related to the theological concept of grace. An emphasis on “kharis” as a kind of divine grace once again seems to put this approach to polytheism in line with more Protestant forms of Christianity, not to mention the charismatic forms of the Evangelicals in particular. I really appreciate the enthusiasm and celebratory aspect of Evangelicalism, though being an introvert myself and more inclined to personal moments of poesis, I think I’m naturally more drawn to mysticism than public charismatic movements. :)

All that said… I’m not sure merely a belief in divine grace is enough to justify submission, at least not to me. Why would anyone submit to a deity if they did not hold a belief in the goodness of that deity? It seems like that is not so much an explanation for the choice, as it is its most basic prerequisite. One could easily believe that the gods are benevolent without agreeing that this necessitates complete surrender to them. It seems like, instead, there has to be an accompanying belief that humans are as imperfect and flawed as the gods are benevolent and powerful, in order to explain why we must not merely enjoy but utterly submit to divine guidance.

I’m not particularly convinced by the argument that “willing submission” is really just another act of will. If it is, it is only in a very limited, truncated sense, it seems to me. Take, as a more mundane example, a marriage in which a wife agrees to “submit” to her husband. In practice, this might mean that she allows him to make all of the household and lifestyle decisions (and that when she makes decisions herself, she attempts to enact what she believes is his will, rather than her own). She may relie on his benevolence and love for her to guide him to take her into account when he makes those decisions. It may be that her belief in him is justified and he does his best to do right by her. It may be that she enters the marriage freely, and it might even be that she can leave any time she wishes through divorce. But none of those things change the fact that, within the context of the relationship, she does not act according to her own will but that of her husband’s. In other words, she really only has one choice to make (whether or not to submit to her partner’s will), and once she has made that choice, by the very nature of that choice she relinquishes her ability to make any others. I suppose that greatly simplifies life, to have only one real choice to make, but it’s not the kind of simplicity that I find all that appealing, either in my personal relationships or in my spiritual ones. It’s not a model I would strive to instantiate in my life.

I also do not think that this kind of submission is the same as, or the only way to express, mutual trust. Trust is most definitely an act of will. Submission seems to me to be, by definition, the relinquishment of will. “Willing submission” is, in that case, at best a description of a single specific act in which the will itself is abdicated; at worst, it is an oxymoron that only serves to confuse the issue.

But now I’m afraid I’ve hijacked your comment thread for my own musings! :) Thank you, as usual, for providing so much food for thought.

I have many more thoughts on this and will probably be adding another blog post here as a follow-up. In particular, I’m still very much grappling with the issue of discernment and the theological/spiritual concept of attending (in the sense of (a) deep listening, (b) full presence, (c) service — all of which are practices which stretch and challenge the self to both transcend and deepen).

I think I am in some respects in a “dark night of the soul.” But it is a dark night full of the sound of crickets. I am finding it difficult to listen not because I do not hear anything, but because the deeper I try to listen, the louder the cacophony seems to be, so that discerning some sense or meaning in it has become a challenge. This suggests to me that maybe there is an imbalance in the different ways that I approach the spiritual work of attending — but that is a question for another blog post.