Agency, Authority, and Obligation

Devotional Polytheism is built around a few fairly consistent beliefs:

1: The Gods are many.
2: The Gods are real, distinct entities with agency.
3: We can form two-way, personal relationships with Them.

Within that scope there’s still room for a lot of variation in our beliefs and perceptions around what the Gods are, and the nature of the cosmos in which we and these gods interact, much less how we should go about interacting with Them collectively or individually.

Reading, listening, and discussing this topic with fellow Polytheists, I’m encountering a strong dichotomy between two specific positions, neither of which I agree with, both of which seem to be wrestling with the same fundamental problem: How much control do we have, and what are we responsible for controlling?

Granted, in my frustration with this false dichotomy, these are deliberately skewed towards straw figures, but here are the most extreme versions of opposing poles I’m seeing in this discussion:

A: The gods are essentially people. They are fed by our worship, and lack of our worship harms Them. We should expect and perhaps even demand that our modern values  be taken up by our gods in return for our worship of Them. They owe us full consideration, and had better listen to our demands or risk losing our respect and attention, just as They had lost it for centuries before.


B: The gods are powerful beyond our understanding. We are subject to that power, such that not only is it potentially futile and foolish to object to Their choices, but we may not even have the right to question them. They are only influenced by us to the degree that They care about us, and They can afford to stop caring, so we’d best be careful. We owe the gods every consideration for the gift of our existence, and we had better do whatever They demand, or risk Their wrath.

Now, both of these are views that attribute independent agency to the gods, so it’s quite possible to be a polytheist at either extreme. I’m also quite sure most polytheists beliefs place them between these two extremes. Mine certainly do. Most polytheists in my experience treat the gods as people for the sake of relating to Them as directly as possible, but don’t believe that this is all the gods really are. Many polytheists in my experience believe the gods are huge and complex and impossible to fully understand, but most don’t believe that this means they have to accept whatever the Gods seem to do without question or critique.

I could write up a whole post ranting about the problems I find in both ends of this argument as I’ve seen it so far, but I want to focus instead on trying to articulate what I actually believe. I believe rather a lot, so get comfortable. 😉

I want to believe the Universe is an orderly place. I want to believe that the order comes from something which cares about me personally. On some level, I do believe both of those things, but I don’t believe that they are provided by the gods, and I don’t believe the nature of that order has anything to do with human ethics.

I believe that the gods are just as bound by rules of reality – Wyrd and Orlog – as everything else that exists. How those rules apply to Them is a question I’m not prepared to answer. Sometimes I suspect They don’t want us to know.

I believe that encompassing structure of All That Is is indeed an ultimate Divinity, which I usually refer to as the Divine Whole. I do not believe the Divine Whole responds to spiritual petitions beyond answering “Yes, I am here” when we tap into it (which it can not help but do, on account of it is indeed there – it’s like throwing a rock into a pond and watching the ripples reflect back towards where you stand on the shore).

I do not believe the gods are facets of that Divinity. Well, yes I do, but by that standard so am I, so is this keyboard, so are all the Worlds, etc. I believe the gods are autonomous Powers within the context of this Divine Whole. Freyja has indicated to me that there are Powers greater than the Powers I can perceive, that it is part of Her role as a Priestess of the Sacrifice to relate to Them, similarly to how I relate to Her. I do not know whether They are between the scope I can perceive as gods and the scope I can abstractly conceptualize as the Whole, and She’s not telling, but I suspect it’s some variation on Turtles All The Way Down. Fractals make my brain hurt, so I’ll be over here, thanks.

I believe that absolutely everyone has a direct relationship with the Divine Whole because we are all part of it. I believe that the spiritual and religious traditions grounded in that relationship are every bit as valid as polytheistic and spirit-work. I believe it’s a mistake to assume that because the Whole is divine, no other Powers are present or significant, but I also believe it’s not up to me to punish anyone for the oversight.

I believe the gods are capable of taking on personification in terms we can understand, for the sake of relating to us, and that They do so both because we affect Them, and because They want to. I do not believe that that personification is all They are.

I believe the gods (and equivalent Powers) are also present in the world, that They are embodied both by individual living entities who walk in Their paths (note: not just human ones), and that They are embodied in natural forces. I do not believe that everything the gods do or are is centered around what humans are or need. I do not believe it is reasonable to expect Them to care about me personally in all that They do. I don’t even expect that of other humans.

I believe the word “God” is a job title, not a spiritual “species”. There are job requirements that can only be met by a being of a certain level of power. It is not clear to me whether it’s actually possible for a spiritual entity that isn’t sufficiently powerful at first to take on sufficient power over time, or whether those are more a case of spiritual merging of various kinds. I suspect there are several different ways of being or becoming sufficiently powerful that the requirements of the God job can be met, but maybe that’s just illusions of human culture around something out of reach of my understanding.

I believe the gods do grow, learn, merge, split, and ultimately change, and that Their limitations are why They CAN change. I am not sure that human cultural observations about those changes necessarily directly reflect what actually happened, but it seems to not be irrelevant either. It seems likely that spirit cultures and human cultures have interacted all along, and thus mutually influenced each other.

I believe there are entities of sufficient power to be equal to gods, but who lack the interest in humanity required to be called gods by us. Basically, if They never respond to our petitions for assistance, and They don’t want offerings from us, They may be equivalent in scope to a god, but They are not a god to us. Sometimes They change Their mind and end up taking up the duties of a god. I suspect it is possible to quit the job of being a god, and I don’t know what the consequences are for Them, but the potential consequences for us are pretty daunting. What happens to a people who are dependent on a god who has decided they are no longer worthy of Their service?

I believe it may be possible for a god to have only some people They are willing to respond to, only some They want offerings from. This may be in the sense of expecting a group They serve to have a designated agent (priest, shaman, medicine worker, etc.) or that They are focused on a particular set of needs, locations, practices, etc. Regardless, I believe it’s not up to us to decide what any such restrictions actually are, and that it really is hubris to assign restrictions where it is demonstrable that no such boundary exists. Yes, I do believe the gods can play favorites. That may or may not be fair depending on the god. They’re not all gods of fairness. But we can be pretty sure we’ve created the gods in our own images when They hate whomever we hate.

I do not believe we are hostages to the gods any more than we are hostages to the world or the Universe. I can easily understand feeling like a hostage to any or all of those things when life sucks. Nobody ever promised that reality would be fair. I’m downright obsessed with fairness, so that upsets me on a regular basis. Still, I have to acknowledge that my definition of fair is specific to my time, place, and scale, and even by my own standards it’s not fair for me to impose it on times, places, and scales to which it does not apply.

I do not believe we control the gods any more than we control each other or any other autonomous being. I believe we can exercise a measure of control in how we interact with Them, because interaction is a two-way street, and we’re one of those two ways. I believe how the gods interact with us goes beyond mere cause-and-effect such that Their reaction to any given action on our part is not a foregone conclusion. They are the other half of that two-way street, and for all the same reasons we do not want Them to directly control us, we have no business expecting to control Them. Respect is required in both directions for there to be a positive relationship. (Respect should not be confused or conflated with admiration, however.)

I believe it is unethical to coerce those less powerful than us unless we have to for their safety (i.e. protecting pets and children). I believe it is extremely unwise to try to coerce those greater than us in power in much the same way standing on train tracks is not an effective method for stopping a train. I believe that I can apply that ethic to the gods all I like, and only some of Them will agree with it. It may be useful to get the help of those gods who agree with me to mediate in my negotiation with any who don’t.

I believe we are equally valuable in our existence, because all that exits is equally valuable in existence. I do NOT believe that any given human is equally powerful to any given god in terms of our ability to create change in the world. Moreover, the gods have greater power to create change in worlds beyond our own. This difference in scope encompasses orders of magnitude, and I believe the Mystery of that is a very important one.

I believe the gods are limited. I believe there are things the gods can’t do, and yet other things They must not do because the consequences would be dire. I believe sometimes the latter happens anyway and the consequences are indeed dire, and sometimes we probably even get caught in the middle of it, when our world is where it happened to take place. I think that sucks, but nobody promised reality was fair.

I believe the gods are powerful enough to inflict consequences on us if They don’t like our choices. I believe the power of an individual god to inflict us with consequences is not the only relevant variable, however – other gods may disagree with Them, and They may have any number of reasons, including what kind of example They are setting for us, for choosing not to inflict additional consequences on us when They don’t like our choices. However, reality will also provide us with consequences to our choices as a simple result of cause-and-effect, and the gods are connected with those forces as well.

I believe it is possible to Belong to a god, that it’s possible to be claimed by a god. I believe it is possible to reject that claim if you don’t agree in much the same way I believe it is possible to reject the family of one’s birth. You can’t erase the claim itself, but you can refuse to engage with it, and minimize its relevance in your life in favor of other relationships. You can even potentially arrange for new claims to supersede prior claims, such as adoptive parents taking over the rights of one’s birth parents. But that requires effort and negotiation between relevant parties. Only our own part is under our own control.

I believe “Belonging” is not about objectification, but about understanding ourselves within the context of things greater than ourselves. I believe belonging to a god is part of that picture, just as belonging to a group, family, culture, or cause is part of that picture. To say that belonging implies ownership is a very narrow understanding of what the word means.

It is my very strong experience that a “Calling” is a thing that very much does exist, and that not everyone is called where they would prefer to be called. I believe that recognizing one’s calling is very important, and that some callings are too strong to reject. I am not certain that callings are issued by the gods, however, and I don’t believe that it is only ever a calling if it leads to clergy work. All that said, I believe that plenty of people are not so strongly called, that some people may not have any predetermined calling at all and are entirely free to choose. And I believe it is possible to resist your calling, but that it’s usually more effective to transform it, if you have a calling strong enough that resistance is an accurate description of your response. All that said, the happiest people I have known are those who have been willing and able to follow where their calling has led them.

Basically, I do indeed believe the gods are many, that They exist in Their own rights, that we can form relationships with Them, and that They are both powerful and complex beyond our understanding AND care about us individually and collectively enough to be influenced by our values and needs.

What I don’t believe is that any of this is simple, or that our relationships with the gods override our obligations to each other as fellow human beings who have to share this world.

Different people start in different places in their path to understanding what they can and can’t control, what they are and aren’t responsible for. If two people’s paths look different, we can’t safely assume one is more mature or progressed than the other if we don’t know how far they’ve come, or how far they have yet to go.

It’s a lot more important that we listen to each other than that we all have the same answers.