Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

Our Gods, Ourselves

The near-death experience, made popular by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, has hit the cultural mainstream with movies like Heaven Is Real. The now-familiar scenario of going through the tunnel toward the light and meeting something like God is so widespread that mention of “staying away from the light” can be a metaphor for remaining alive. Although experts (one of which I’m decidedly not) disagree on interpretations, nobody doubts that the dying often report such things. Some say it is the impression left on an oxygen-starved brain about to implode, while others postulate a soul has made an actual bid for freedom only to be returned to sender. No matter what you believe, it’s hard not to be intrigued. Not all the experiences are identical, however. A friend recently sent me a story from World News Daily Report that headlines “Catholic Priest Who Died for 48 Minutes Claims that God Is a Woman.” The story by Barbara Johnson, which ran earlier this month, is an interesting variation on the standard. Often the “being of light” met at the end of the tunnel is kind of asexual. After all, there are no physical bodies there.

This story has me thinking. Traditional Christian, indeed, Judeo-Christian thought posits that God is neither male nor female. Of course, given human experience, many people find that difficult to conceive. It does occur in intersex persons, and it is actually pretty widespread in nature where some animals change gender over their lifespans. Still, when it comes to the Almighty, people want to know with whom they’re dealing. Think about it. When you walk into a doctor’s office and meet a physician for the first time, your response will differ depending on their gender. The same is true of going into a car dealership, or a daycare facility. We use gender to give us the first hint on how to respond. A genderless God, let’s admit, is somewhat disquieting. What is the message you want to send to a person without knowing their gender? Or maybe like me you’ve read a book and discovered halfway through that you had the gender of the author wrong. Doesn’t it impact how you read the rest? So, what if God is a woman?

Interestingly, the case of Father John O’neal comes from a Catholic context. Along with Evangelical Christians, Catholics are among the most likely to hold a residual maleness to God’s identity. Theology of the Trinity, always beginning with “the Father” makes it hard to escape. Perhaps what Fr. O’neal unexpectedly encountered was a God-concept without judgment. That would certainly be disorienting to a faith that has a multi-layered afterlife including limbo and purgatory as well as heaven and hell. A deity who decides the fate of souls must be a judge, and although Judge Judy rules daytime television, the church still has a traditional mensch on the bench. What if Fr. O’neal really did get to heaven? What if he found God really was female? Could human religions ever recover? I, for one, am intrigued. Still, I’m content to wait another few decades before finding out. And maybe for the time we have down here we should all start practicing by realizing that gender is always far less important than the personhood that we all share.

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Incitatus Redux

What more is there to say about God and politics? Far too much, I fear. In a Sunday Review in the New York Times, Frank Bruni lays out a catalogue of what, in a rational universe, would be considered violations of the United States constitution by politicians who insist their (conservative) Christianity is the faith of the nation. This is, however, one of the philosophical conundrums of religious freedom. Religious believers are free to use their faith to try to change the system from within. And the fact that the media is telling us that religion has become irrelevant doesn’t help. Who should be afraid of what’s irrelevant? Can irrelevant substances harm you? Can irrelevant bullets kill you? Why, yes, they can! And so being told repeatedly by the media that religion is something we can safely lock into a box marked “Medievalisms Outdated” we step out the door to see politicians using a religion poorly understood to gain power. A recipe for an apocalypse, it sounds like to me.

Academics too readily fall prey to the media hype. University presidents and deans suppose that religion really is dead and shouldn’t be studied. Who’s going to help us through the morass of the upcoming election if people who understand religion are made indigent and put out on the streets? Good luck to the rest of society! We must, if we are to survive, understand religion. Its death, following shortly on that of God, was proclaimed early last century. And yet it’s showing no signs of dying. In fact, it’s just waking up. Who are we going to ask? Scientists? Accountants? Economists? What will you really learn about our laws being God’s laws in the minds of the wealthy and powerful? Don’t ask me—I’ve only spent some thirty-five years studying religion. What do I know?

I sometimes wonder what it must’ve been like to live in Rome as Alaric was whetting his sword among his Visigothic horde. Insane—literally insane—emperors wielded unchallenged power and lived lives of opulence amid the slaves and poor. Religion was front and center on the agenda, of course, because emperors were gods. You don’t have to listen too deeply to hear the same message even today. Those who proclaim God as the justification for their political ambitions know that God is the ultimate malleable deity. In fact, God can even be in the Oval Office. Lead can line your aqueducts and your horse can be made a senator. Lord knows an ass can be. And all the while let’s shut down the voices of those who’ve looked at religion, beginning in the Stone Age and up to now. If we want to grab power it’s vital that we keep it from public view that self-deification is as old as kingship and in a post-religious world, we have only to pretend.

Photo credit: Louis le Grand, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Louis le Grand, Wikimedia Commons

Under Who?

Who is God anyway? The question occurred to me as I read about the current Superior Court decision in New Jersey that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance remains constitutional. The American Humanist Association had sued to have the offending prepositional phrase removed, based on first amendment rights to religious freedom. I’ve always found the whole indoctrination of swearing to a flag somewhat provincial and perhaps even damaging to the unity of humankind. Nations, after all, are about keeping things for ourselves, something that the God of the Bible seems to find naughty. During the Cold War, waged against the “godless Communists,” the questionable phrase was added in 1954, only after we’d secured nuclear weapons. Does any nation that has the bomb have the right to declare divine sanction? I guess so, on second thought.

IMG_0962In his decision Judge David Bauman said that God, in this context, is not about religion, but about the state’s history. Granted, one of the New Jersey delegates to sign the constitution was a clergyman, and president of Princeton College. The same Princeton that became the home of the man who would open physics enough to let us begin a nuclear reaction. But I’m getting ahead of my story. This concept of God being an arcane aspect of history as opposed to a present and active force motivating people’s lives is a curious one. In order to keep the deity, he (and the historical God is male) must be demoted to an historical relic. If that is true of divinity, what does it say about the concept of nationhood itself? Have we come to admit that it is all a fiction to keep status quo ante?

Humanist and atheist groups have argued for years that public school (which no government takes that seriously) should not be a forum for religious indoctrination. Some religious groups (such as Creationists) clearly see such schools as a mission field ripe for proselytizing young minds. Such was clearly the case in 1954. Today we see the Russian Orthodox Church becoming a supporter of the government in Russia, where godlessness might be more a factor on the ground than on paper. In the United States we have a culture that provides lip-service to the almighty while the true god is secreted away in the shrines of bank vaults and expense accounts. It is really about a way of life, after all. Should we keep or remove “under God” from a pledge to personal gain? It is all a matter of how you define “God.”

Thor’s Return

Once as I sat in the office of an Ivy League professor of Greek religion, I asked about the myths of the Classical gods. The professor (who knew that I had taught religion as well, but at more like a Noxious Weed League school) appeared genuinely insulted and told me in no uncertain terms that scholars of religion didn’t take that nonsense seriously. The study of “myths” was left to Classicists, not actual scholars of religion. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t really have a grasp on what the average person believes? Being a blue-collar scholar, I always took seriously what students told me about their beliefs. It wasn’t really a great surprise, then, when my wife pointed me to a story in The Guardian about a temple to the Nordic gods being built in Iceland. According to the story, the modern adherents of Ásatrúarfélagið (thank you unicode) don’t really believe in a literal Odin or Thor or Frigg, but see them as metaphors to help them face the way life is. A millennium after becoming Christian, some Icelanders are apparently getting back to their roots.

There has always been, to me, a fascination with the Nordic gods. These rough-and-tumble deities inhabited the harsh and snowy regions where daily life was often a struggle to survive against the elements. Frost giants were enemies and nobody really emerges as the winner after Ragnarok. In the Bible Yahweh does sometimes come out swinging, but for the most part he seems a deity content to sit on his throne and issue commands. The Scandinavian gods were characters of action. In some sense they seemed to struggle just like the rest of us do. They are, of course, more powerful and as the movie makes clear, Thor has a charisma that more self-righteous deities appear to lack. Lest anyone be ready to run to their priest at this point, please be aware that this too is a metaphor.

On the other side of the equation there are sure to be critics who argue that building a temple to fake gods in this day and age is obviously a waste of human talent and resources. Such are people with no imagination. Religious belief, metaphor or not, has been part of the human psyche from the very beginning. Elsewhere I have suggested that animals show the same behaviors as what we Homo sapiens would declare rudimentary religion. Rationalism has not provided a reasonable alternative to religious expression. Even a Stoic knows to appreciate art, although beauty provides no essential element to simple survival. Simply put, humans enjoy the finer things of life. Perhaps unappreciated since long sublimated, among those finer things are the old Nordic gods. And their return is a kind of resurrection.

The Battle of the Doomed Gods

The Battle of the Doomed Gods

Mother’s Night

It wouldn’t be Christmas, in the Christian tradition, without Mary. Still, apart from her later enhanced role in Roman Catholicism, Mary’s part beyond Christmas is minor in the church. She seldom features in biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. It is easy to forget the female role that was so much a part of winter solstice celebrations that coalesced into our modern twelve days (really only one, for work purposes). That’s why I was glad that a friend sent me a link to a site about Mödraniht, or Mother’s Night. Honestly, I had never heard of this holiday before. Given the Germanic penchant for dramatic festivities, it comes as no surprise that Yule involved a night celebrating the feminine aspects of the season. Apart from the occasional references to Mary, we tend to think of this as the time a male son of a male God came to save mankind. What of the women without whom none of this would have been possible?

As Carolyn Emerick notes on her page, we know little about this sacred day because Christianity managed to wipe out most of the pagan traditions of northern Europe. Some, of course, survived and worked their way into Christmas. Modern holidays, being primarily days off work rather than deeply felt celebration (for we live in a world with no need for religion), have gravitated toward what had once been the male preserve of earning a living. Watching movies of Dickensian times, it is clear the women continued to work—likely even more than usual—to bring off a holiday celebration. It was the male prerogative to be the recipient of largess.

Photo credit: "Urban" WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: “Urban” WikiMedia Commons

My concern is that gender equality may sometimes be confused with gender stereotyping, or even with patronization. How is it possibly to build equality into a system put into place by generations of men? Is civilization truly civilizing when half of the race and only a very small portion of the planet benefits? The Christmas season, even now rapidly slipping away, is a time for considering equality. Every year modern non-believers and humanists ask for equality—a dream always held at arm’s length, since the holiday earns record profits as it is, and the financial year revolves around it like a Pole Star. It is the time of year when we see if we’ve turned a healthy profit. The rules in the system were set long ago. Even with Mary in the manger, she blends into the background while shepherds, wise men, and other interested males plan to make a holiday of it.

Are You Fey?

SeeingFairies‘Tis is the time of year that one might make inquiry into elves and the wee folk without being thought too strange. Santa has his cadre of mythic diminutive helpers and even the shepherds have their angels. The two, it seems, are not unrelated. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies is, in many respects, a charming book. Compiled by the author during a lifetime of corresponding with people who claim to have seen fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, brownies, gnomes, and even angels, the stories—as parsimonious as any sermon—do create an aura of mystery. It is clear that Johnson believed (the book is posthumous) sincerely in the unseen world. As the preface makes clear, she was influenced by Theosophy, and the majority of the material dates from the 1950s and earlier. There is an almost childlike credulousness to the accounts, with Johnson not questioning psychic dreams or astral projection, placing them side-by-side with eyewitness accounts. This is a good example of what an editor might have done for the book.

Many people assume a doctorate in the humanities is a soft thing—pliable in a way that the hard sciences are not. The point of advanced study, however, is to ingrain habits of critical thinking. Nothing is taken at face value. For those of us who study folklore’s first cousin, religion, the task is often to set aside belief in the light of evidence. What can we know about the unknowable? Of course, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are now supposed to be better equipped to answer religious questions. Religion, after all, is something people think and do, and what can we really learn from studying it per se? We need an interpretative device—an hermeneutic filter (or pneumatic hammer)—to guide us toward the reality of the thing. And yet science itself is based on observation. Accounting for what our senses reveal about the world around us.

Some people, it is clear, find the world around them filled with wee people. Recently a major road construction was halted in Iceland out of fear of disturbing the elfin habitat. And Icelanders are some of the most literate people on the planet. Johnson’s accounts (some clearly hard to swallow) range across the earth, but center in the British Isles and Celtic lands. Perhaps the light is somewhat different there. Perhaps nearing the North Pole things really do change. What becomes clear from Seeing Fairies is that some highly credible and educated people see, from time to time, what they allow their eyes to see. Believing is, after all, seeing. Johnson ends her book with a chapter on angels, beings she clearly views in continuity with fairies. The difference is that the monotheistic religions allow for, and perhaps even demand, angels. When they become travel-sized, however, the only evidence is that of those with very keen eyesight.

When Darkness Reigns

I recently read an article about the Druids. The fact is, historically speaking, we know little of them. They are mysterious and silent and irrevocably linked in the imagination with the solstices. Cultures throughout the northern climes of the northern hemisphere have always treated the winter solstice with an extreme reverence. It is the day of the year when it seems like light just can’t come in any shorter supply. In the depths of that desperation, offerings are made to ensure that tomorrow, if only by the merest moments, the day will be longer. And so we begin the lengthy climb through frigid days to the point six months from now when light will reign supreme. We don’t know, historically, if the Druids gave the great significance to equinoxes and cross-quarter days that the Celts eventually incorporated into their religion, but we do know that much of the monumental architecture of the United Kingdom and Ireland is oriented toward the sun’s feeblest rays at the winter solstice. Stonehenge, New Grange, Maes Howe, and the list could go on and on. We are waiting for light.

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

The solstice seems to creep up on me these days. I work in a cubicle with no outdoor light visible. I leave for work in the dark and arrive home in the dark. I’m inclined to offer up prayers to Odin while I while away the hours before an unresponsive computer monitor. Business has already shut down in all but the greediest minds by this time of year. It is time to hibernate and await a brighter tomorrow. Even in the darkness there can be light. This weekend I attended a Hanukkah celebration, and looking at the menorah I was struck once again how fervently we seek light this time of year. Of course, Hanukkah is connected with the rededication of the temple after the desecration of the Seleucids, but is it coincidence that the candles are lit near the solstice? Perhaps I’m getting too old to believe in coincidences.

In the ancient apocalyptic mind, light and darkness were bitter enemies. Of course, today we recognize that people generally use eyesight as a primary way of interacting with the world—of keeping us from danger. With our diminished senses of hearing and smell, we feel vulnerable when we can’t see our potential predators. Light is the key to our successful preservation. Today technology has taken the place of ritual. We have artificial lights to help lengthen our working hours. We eschew the limitations of being associated with the earth’s rhythms. We are the masters of our own domain, and we can keep the forty-hour work-week going on all but the most insistent of holidays. Perhaps the wisdom of the Druids needs to be rediscovered. Perhaps only then will natural light really return.