Archive for the ‘Gods and Goddesses’ Category

How do you use God? Do you use Jesus? How about Allah, ever use him?

The idea of “using” Jesus or Buddha sounds strange, doesn’t it? And yet, I’ve heard many pagans talking about the deities they “use” for various purposes. I’ve done it myself, in deciding which gods I wanted to “use” in JMG’s Sphere of Protection ritual.

But Teo Bishop brought me up short on it with this entry at Bishop in the Grove.

After describing attending a ritual at which a leader briefly suggested the best gods to “use,” Teo writes:

Huh. What an interesting use of the word “use”, I thought. Using Gods to cure what ails you. Using Gods to get what you want out of life. Huh. How consumerist. Pill popping deities; making use of them in order to – what – be pain-free, blissful, satisfied?

It got me wondering – Is that what the Gods are? New Age Prescription Drugs?

Me, I’m still wrestling with my concept of deity, and I’ll say more about it as I continue the “My Pagan Soul” series I’ve been slowly working on. I’m not sure if I’m a “gods are real” polytheist or not, as Teo describes himself. I’d like to be, but coming from a long time of alternating between monotheism, agnosticism and panentheism, it’s an alien concept that I’m still working to get comfortable with.

But I do think that whatever the gods are — real individual beings, manifestations of a single larger divinity or psychological archetypes — the very concept means they deserve to not be seen as commodities that we can “use.” They deserve respect and some degree of reverence. (I recently read a discussion where one poster mentioned he’d named his dog Cernunnos, after the horned god of the Celts, and another said it was a “great name for a dog!” Is it? Know any devout Hindus with a dog named Krishna?)


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Tonight I went to a discussion group at the church, the first in a once-a-month series of theology talks. This one was centered on the belief of 18th-Century Universalist minister Hosea Ballou that all humans have a “God-given right to be happy.”

The discussion was lively, and touched on whether we have a right to be happy or to pursue happiness, on whether anyone ever does anything that’s not ultimately motivated by the desire to be happy (Ballou believed we do not), and whether happiness is a state of frequent euphoria or more a pervasive feeling of contentment.

A few people objected to the phrase “God-given,” and that got me to thinking. A good number of UUs are atheists or agnostics, I know, but I’m not. Not anymore.

On the other hand, I don’t conceive of God in the way that most traditional religious systems posit God either.

Some people believe in a God who manipulates everything about the world, and they tend to try to scry the will of God out of every event. Something as momentous as an earthquake or as trivial as their finding a good parking space, they’ll chalk up to God’s will. I don’t agree with that.

On the other hand, some people believe God is an entirely human imagining, made up and not real in any objective or important way. I don’t agree with that either.

Some people believe God created heaven and hell and sujects us to a final judgment. Various religions have various schemes for staying out of hell, but I don’t believe in hell. Others believe God wound up the universe and then went away somewhere, perhaps to a summer home. I don’t buy that either.

The most useful way I’ve found to think of God in my recent years is, as Paul Tillich and then John Shelby Spong more recently put it, as the Ground of Being. This is not the personalized, anthropomorhic God of the Bible, with his giant-sized emotional reactions and sometimes schizophrenic tendencies. It’s a less personal fundamental essence undergirding all of existence. The Source of Love in Spong’s formulation, but not a cosmic puppetmaster. This is, at this point, where I am. Which means I am comfortable with Ballou’s God-language, and don’t need to reformulate “God-given right” into “human right” as some of the group tonight suggested, but also means I do not have an especially concrete idea of God that I feel a need to talk others into sharing.

There is one philosophical point that I considered mentioning tonight but ultimately didn’t. The presence of “God-given” in Ballou’s phrase (and more broadly) establishes an objectivity for the existence of rights, and a foundation for considering things to be inherently right or wrong. The Founding Fathers attributed our “inalienable rights” to our Creator, the specific identity of which they left amorphous, but which they did deliberately invoke. I think they were wise to do so.

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This is a momentous day in numerous cultures past and present, and one that most of us have let fall by the wayside… by now, with our Christmas season that gets accelerated to somewhere before Halloween in order to sell more, we are, most of us so very done with the holidays.

And yet, tomorrow (Epiphany) is the last day of the Christmas season, which didn’t actually begin until the day before Christmas and tonight is Twelfth Night, the Eve of Epiphany and the kick off of the Mardi Gras season that preceeds Lent.

In Medieval times, as noted by Shakespeare, this was one of the ‘thin’ times, where the barrier between the mundane and magical was thin and merriment and misrule were the order of the day.

In Christian myth, Epiphany marks the date when the Three Wise Men visited the infant Jesus and marked his divinity.  In at least one reading I’ve come across, this is said to be significant, as it is the first time that Jesus is presented in his divine state to Gentiles.

The only time I’ve ever seen it observed as a holiday was when I lived in Germany – I rather liked the way they stretched out the gift-giving of the holiday season, kicking off with Saint Nicholas on his holy day in early December, adding a few more gifts on Christmas from the Kristkind (Baby Jesus) and ending with the Three Kings on Epiphany – children would stuff their shoes with hay or carrots for the camels, and get a last few trinkets from the Wise Men before the season shifted.

In Italy, another tradition says that an old woman named Befana was so caught up in her housekeeping routine that, when the Wise Men passed by and invited her to come see the divine child, she told them she had too many chores to do… and so now she rides her broomstick on Epiphany Eve, gifting gifts to children, hoping one of them might be the one she missed honoring when she had the chance.

As with so many religious observations in the Christian calendar, this one predates Christianity and was adopted by early Christians, modifying a popular holy observance to fit in with their new religion.

Epiphany – a Greek word for ‘manifestation’ was observed on this date in Ancient Greece, to mark the divinity of Demeter (as well as the rising up fron the Underground of her daughter Perspehone/Kore).  Most everyone knows the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone.. Persephone gets kidnapped by Hades and her mother Demeter, goddess of all growing things on earth, in a fit of rage and despair tosses the world into its first Winter, allowing nothing to grow until her daughter is returned to her.  After a series of negotiations and bargaining with other gods and goddesses doing their part to try to get all this resolved, it is decided that Persephone will spend half a year with Hades as the Queen of the Dead, and half a year with her mother, at which point, spring and summer will come again… and so we have an explanation for the passing seasons.

Epiphany marks a lesser known portion of the story that occurs as Demeter is wandering the wintry earth in despair – she is so lost and raggedy in her grief that no one recognizes her, and the Queen of Eleusis takes the older woman to be a caretaker for her children.  Demeter pours out her maternal self on the Queen’s children, and decides she will make one of them immortal.  The Queen walks in on the attempted transformation, thinks she sees the new governness burning her son alive and stops the process in horror… at which point the epiphany – the manifestation – occurs, and they realise they have indeed been in the presence of the divine.

Later, after Persephone is restored to her, Demeter bids the people of Eleusis to commemorate their stories in the Mysteries, and Eleusis becomes a seat of worship for Demeter and Persephone, acting out Persephone’s descent into the Underworld and ascension back to life each year, and Demeter’s material anguish and quest to return her daughter to the land of the living.

The key to this story in terms of epiphany – and the visitation of the Magi in the Christian adaptation of Epiphany.. and even in the revelry of the celebration in the depths of icy winter is the recognition of the divine in the humble and ordinary.

Demeter looks like an old, unhappy, lonely woman – but had she been recognized for the goddess she was, the Queen’s son could have been elevated to the divine, himself.  His mother’s inability to see what was really happening stunted his own spiritual progression.

Jesus in his stable (yes I know… the Magi would have visited long long after he got out of that trough, but isn’t this how most people see it, based on nativity scenes and the scant number of days between Christmas and Epiphany?), as humble a birth as might be imagined, and yet these Wise Men – no fools they – saw in him the spark of divinity and knew him for the special soul he was, even though his culture and station were very different from their own.

And for centuries, as a last hurrah as the stores of winter food were depleted from feasting, one last blowout before lean times – one last time to blow horns and play jokes on one another and declare that this scullery maid or that knave might, for today be the Lord and Lady of Misrule, more special – more divine – than the Master and Mistress of the House.

The Epiphany, whatever the story or time or culture – the awareness, the aha – is that we are all divine, that all is a part of the divine if anything is, and that you shouldn’t trust surface appearances when you decide who or what is important.

These stories of divinity in disguise seem to be universal – examples abound in mythology, legend and sacred texts.  Seems to me, that is a good sign of something worth paying attention to.

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Peace, O come to us, holding corn with its tassels, and pour from the breast of your robe a harvest of fruit! (Tibullus I.10.67-68)

According to a little almanac thingie I keep in my offline electronic journal, today is one of the feast days of Pax (Peace) in ancient Rome.  Pax – Irene in Greek – was the mother of Ceres, and often depicted as either an agricultural goddess or as a mother bearing a child.

Both of which make good sense to me… war has its uses.  If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be so prone to finding excuses to make war.  But hostility is antithetical to procreative activities – you can’t plant a crop if you’re decimating fields.  You can’t reap a harvest if you’re off holding seige.  And you cannot safely raise the next generation while you’re busy destroying this one.

Peace goes beyond the absence of fighting as any of us who grew up during the Cold War know quite well.  Nor is it peace when you get so used to the notion of hostility as situation-normal that you forget your country is in the middle of of a war unless someone in your own family is in uniform, as many many Americans seem to be doing today.

Peace comes from a sense of security that the world is a safe enough place to invest one’s own children in the future.  That the steady progression of season to season will allow the seeds sown today be harvested months from now with no human interference.  Peace comes from confidence not only in the present but in the future that no one is trying to harm you or yours.

And I believe that is why the best means of securing peace is not to have bigger weapons or scarier armies – or, on the one on one level, the loudest voice and biggest vocabulary.  It comes from widening our nets and seeing everyone as ‘me or mine’… seeing ourselves interconnected and on the same side, we would no more seek to cause harm than we would deliberately destroy our own crop or harm our own children.

Today I will seek to honor Pax by trusting in the future enough to plan for it, regarding those I encounter today as ‘mine’ and seeking most of all to do no harm by word or deed.

Io, Pax!

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