Monday, August 25, 2014

Sacrifice, Reciprocity, Gods, and Spirits


I encountered a discussion on-line concerning the idea of reciprocity between Mortals and spirits, anchored from John Halstead’s excellent article in two parts ( here and here). John is a humanist and atheist, though perhaps not a materialist in the most reductive sense. He strives for a Paganism that does not depend on a relationship with non-material intelligences. Regular readers will understand how different that is from my own interests in spirituality and sacred occultism. Let me say that I have covered a lot of my background opinion on issues surrounding sacrifice in an article here.

As I read John’s well-reasoned paper, I find that it is his original assumptions that make it flawed for me. Like many humanists he seems to have skipped the step where one discards the common monotheistic notion of God, and addresses the persons of the divine as specific, limited beings. Whether or not one ends up at pantheism or monism or even atheism (as many polytheists over the ages have done) I see value in moving from the idea that ‘gods’ are cosmic creator-owner-operators-of-existence, or cosmic background-principle-of-existence, to a model in which the divine is expressed locally and specifically. I think that is invaluable in reclaiming the essence of what pre-Christian religion was about, which is a goal that is still at the heart of my idea of Neopaganism. It seems to be a step that many Humanists simply don’t see, or decide to avoid.

Of course the Universe doesn’t give a crap about the horn of ale that I spill. I don’t worship the universe, and I don’t see what the point of doing so might be. To me, worship is a social exchange, and that makes sense only with beings that can know and respond to my worship. It makes no sense to me at all to ‘worship the divine in the sunset’ unless one understands the sunset to be a person who can respond to one’s worship.

I note that some branches of traditional Paganism, such as certain Buddhisms, reject such personal worship in favor of a discipline of contemplation and self-refinement. This seems to be a natural path for some folks, though the folk-religions that have been made on the Buddhist base almost all return to the core tradition of offering-and-asking. That tradition is so central to world non-Abrahamic religion as to be an identifying marker of religion itself. I understand, I think, that John isn’t trying to be rid of the practice but rather is reaching for a rationale that satisfies his humanist leanings. Nothing wrong with that.
Finding the living intelligence in the awesome beauty of
the land is rather the point for me. Why stop at the material?

Somehow I suspect that Humanist Paganism is no more likely to be interested in direct dealing with spirits of the Dead, or local Landwights. In my opinion traditional Paganism (which is my model) does not limit its religious work to the gods. There is no notion that only gods are worthy of worship in the ancient model – local spirits of the Dead and of natural features had at least as much to do with one’s fortune and life as did the poet’s gods. While any small worshipper might wonder whether an offering to the Highest Queen would be noticed the blessing of one’s lineage of ancestors, or the local Chief Tree is a much more intimate thing.

I suppose that a symbolist, materialist rationale could be devised for reciprocity between the idea of the Ancestors or local land-features. That is simply unsatisfying to me. I don’t bother with religion for the sake of community building or personal aesthetic satisfaction – I could get those without religion. I do magic and religion to engage with mythic reality (to use a rationalist description). I consider mythic reality a part of the natural world, and consider that to ignore it is simply to ignore part of the natural world in a system that takes nature for our revelation. So, whatever my own little philosophical opinions, I address the gods and spirits as the gods and spirits, and have repeated the experiment many times over the years because I have been pleased with the results.

Finally, let’s directly address some of John’s concerns. (John in italic):
The notion that the gods will grant worshipers material well-being assumes certain things:
• that deities exist (whatever that means) in some sense independently of you (whatever that means),
Good, as below we’ll take that as given, especially with the “whatever” tag. But I’d like to reduce this from ‘deities’ to ‘spirits’ if I can do it and preserve the sense. The divine is not expressed as deities alone.

In general, the culturally-universal history of human interactions with spirits, which has never ceased except in the more repressed segments of western cultures, makes me unwilling to replace mythic and traditional narratives with those of modern scientism.


• that your deity is aware of you,

Here, again, we have a difference of type and degree in a polytheistic or spiritist system. To get the attention of the highest gods, Olympians, etc, was always a Big Deal. The notion of getting on one’s knees and ‘praying’ to Athena seems silly to me. Why would such a great being notice such a small deed – unless the worshipper has come to the god’s attention through a more serious effort. Not all deities are aware of me, I suppose, but my formal efforts make me comfortable in assuming that my local deities are.

My Ancestors are linked to me much more intimately, of course, and I make some effort to enter relationship with the strange non-humans of my area. While the latter are quite local, they seem more alien in their way than the human-shaped gods we usually deal with. There is never a lack of Mystery.

As to how I know they’re aware, I trust both the results of my own technical vision-work, and the results in my life. They respond to me and stuff.

Even if we take #1 for granted (that your god exists), I just can’t see how you get through the rest of the assumptions.  Even if you have had an experience of a powerful personal presence which you identify as a god, how do you infer the rest of the assumptions from your experience?

• that your deity cares about you,
“Care’… I don’t concern myself with their emotional response. You functionally mean ‘will respond to customary approaches’. As long as they ‘keep the Old Bargain’ I don’t ask them how they feel about me.

• that your deity has the power to alter your life circumstances,
Here again we rely mainly on the testimony of tradition, though each practitioner will get results according to their effort and skill. We seek that general luck-splash blessing through community religious work, and that can be enough for most people. Some religions provide more technical methods of getting spirits to aid one’s work, and some systems call that ‘magic’ while others just call it part of religion. Magic, in general, relies only partly on the power of ‘gods’, often being more involved with non-deity spirits, and with the ‘occult powers of natural things’.
An altar arranged for a technical spiritual experiment.


Humans have the power to alter our life circumstances. With the aid of beings whose perspective and ability is different from ours (I think ‘greater' is fair) we can alter it more. Nothing is omnipotent - no spirit can bring that Palace of Gold (probably) but it is good to have strong allies.

• that your deity has more power than you alone have to alter your life circumstances,

Any two beings have more power than any one being. That one’s easy.


• that your deity will chose to help you under certain circumstances (i.e., in exchange for offerings), and
They have always done, and always said they will. There’s no reason to set aside the planet-wide pattern of traditional religion because it offends some philosophical position.


• that your deity’s influence on your life circumstances will be greater than other influences working in the opposite direction.
That’s a crap-shoot. Nothing is omnipotent. My allies and I forge ahead with skill and strength.

As to whether reciprocity ‘works’ when deliberately used for material benefit, I’d say that such experiments depend on a number of variables. We know that in material science an experiment will only work replicably if all the details are performed correctly and all the variables are controlled for. In general, if an experiment fails it must be because the operator ‘hasn’t done it right’. In art there is rather more leeway – a familiar melody can be approximated and result in a successful performance. Still in general an artistic effort must be ‘done right’ to achieve any specific effect. To wish there were a system that could work by wishing is merely… wishful. (sorry…)

It seems to me that John wants to measure religion by a different standard than material nature. Why doesn’t it make entire sense, in a model in which nature is our revelation of the divine that religious practices meant to produce specific material effects would be subject to some of the same rules as other types of human effort? Traditional Paganisms generally include a body of formal method by which devoted and skilled operators can get results beyond those of a dabbler. I suspect that dropping one’s silver in the wishing-well works as well today as it ever did – unless one has built a specific relationship with the spirit of the well, perhaps.


I don’t want to go too far into mythic psychology and the relationship between one’s chosen worship and one’s psychological condition. I’ll say that polytheism (as opposed to pantheism or other monisms) offer a menu of human potentials to be awakened through the long list of gods and spirits. I hold with “as above, so below” – when I bring a mighty power near me, the microcosmic mirror of that power lights up in me. If I need Motherliness, or Loverliness, or Coachiness I can get it. It is not regressive to make allies and to interact with them to improve and direct one’s life. My theism does not lead me to make the gods the big actors in my life’s story. I am the big actor in my life – the gods have stories that converge with mine, like any other being.
Here's a nice roadside shrine.

Here’s the deal for me – I want to bring the divine down out of the realms of Great Cosmic Wonder to where the rubber meets the road. I love those moments where I look out into the world within my heart and just Dig it All, for the sake of digging it, but I don’t consider that to have much to do with religion. I do religion to bring the power of the spirits (whether conceived as psycho-linguistic bundles or ethereal wights) into the common world, for the blessing of mortals. Again, for me, that means engagement with the mythic, regardless of whatever ‘rationalist’ discourse may say. I’ll always be more interested in the roadside shrine than in the mystic’s suggestions of natural wonder, but that's just me.

3 comments:

Laine DeLaney said...

Good essay, and excellent response. It seems in a lot of cases our personal views of the cosmos don't need to get in the way of our practical approaches and connections that we make to it, but they can be influenced by them nevertheless. Also, it's nice to hear someone speak out, no matter how mildly, against the assumption that every aspect of our lives need be supported by materialist doctrine.

Colin John said...

I enjoyed your essay and agree whole heartedly. Our view of Spirit and the way in which we choose to interact both on a spiritual and practical level along our path seem to me fundamentally different from John Halstead's well stated argument. However, as above, so below has worked for me over many years of solitary practice and, though it may sound trite, I know what I know and believe what I believe through experience. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

allergicpagan said...

Ian, Thanks for the thorough and well-reasoned (as always) response. I especially appreciated the criticism that my article has some unexamined monotheistic assumptions, which I think is right. That's a common problem with humanistic approaches to religion, I think. Thanks again, John