Today, we transition from talking about the beliefs that bring Structure and Order to our lives to the early spring theme of Inspiration. We are fortunate to hear from fantasy author, Scott Oden, as he talks about what is in his “god box”. This is the second article in our new column, De Natura Deorum, where we explore the beliefs of Naturalistic Pagans about the nature of deity.
I have never had a supernatural experience.
I have never seen a ghost, a spirit, a wraith, or a shade.
I have never witnessed an inexplicable omen.
I have never heard the voice of a god.
When I look at the list above and compare it to the experiences of other Pagans, it makes me wonder what’s wrong with me. Am I not doing it right, this faith thing? Do the Gods have no use for me whatsoever, and thus have cut themselves off from me? Did the faith centers in my brain never fully develop? Am I blind to the Gods? Can I not perceive them because my own prejudices get in the way? Do I expect too much from the Divine? The search for answers, to these questions and myriad more like them, are what brought me into the sphere of Humanistic Paganism and introduced me to the writings of Humanistic Pagans like John Halstead.
On John’s blog over at Patheos, The Allergic Pagan, I first encountered a wonderful phrase: “the god box”. Far from a negative connotation, I translated this as the space inside a person’s head where they perceive the Divine, where they hear and understand the unique voices of the Gods, where they see them in their mind’s eye, and where their faith is first given expression. Exploring this notion led me to make a rather predictable discovery: my own god box is empty.
This came as no shock to me. I’ve always wanted to live under the aegis of a divine pantheon rich with antiquity, to lead a life brimming with mystery and myth drawn from the great spiritual literature of the ancients, from writers like Homer and Hesiod and Sallustius. I’ve always wanted a cacophony of Divine voices that drove me to the heights of ecstatic madness and filled me with that unbreakable, resolute belief that only the truly faithful can possess. But that’s not what I have. No, that space inside my head where some sense of the Divine resides is empty, nothing but errant cobwebs and dust. I could blame time and location – I am a 21st century American living in a fully Christianized country – or perhaps I could blame my mindset, which is not agrarian, tribal, or yoked to the unknown whims of Nature, but rather is mechanized, urban, and electronic. I think, though, that blame for the emptiness I feel must surely fall squarely on my own perception of reality.
Reality, by which I mean the physical world that exists outside my own head, is where my faith stumbles. I am not bereft of imagination. I write historical fiction and fantasy for a living, and writing is a field that places a high premium on imagination. And while I can imagine all manner of strange and supernatural happenings, there is a great gulf between imagining something and believing that it truly exists in the physical realm. I can imagine thunder as the wrath of Zeus given voice and offer a sacrifice to propitiate Him, but outside of my imagination I know thunder is nothing more than a sound caused by lightning – itself a complex series of naturally-occurring factors that meld to create an electrostatic discharge. I can fill the divine spaces inside my consciousness with poetic imagery of Zeus in all His multi-faceted glory, drawn from the myths of the ancient Greeks and the writings of the Romantic authors; I can pour libations and ask for divine favor as thunder roars and crashes overhead, but if thunder is merely Nature being Nature and Zeus exists only in my head, am I not, then, simply worshiping a voice in my own subconscious?
It is because I am a writer by trade that I don’t credit the voices in my head with divinity, even if there is a great deal of mystery as to how some of those voices got there and from whence they originate. The same goes with some of the imagery I get. One of my strong points, if you believe reviews, is the ability to conjure a place or a time. I could say it’s a mystery, that the hand of some God moves me to write of these things I’ve never seen, of times I’ve never lived. But that would be disingenuous. I can conjure place and time because I read voraciously about those places and times, and have the good fortune of being capable of relating an image formed of research in a concise and engaging manner. And if I really examine them, most of the voices have their genesis in real-world connections, such as something I see on the street or read in a book. Some, especially the voices of protagonists, are subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of wish fulfillment: I am not a man of action, so I tend to gravitate toward characters that are exactly that.
What am I, then? An atheist? No, I think not. I have faith that there is something god-like and divine in the cosmos, something greater than me. I used to self-identify as an agnostic, but agnosticism is an unfulfilling stance for someone who desperately wants to experience the Divine. I was a Hellenic Reconstructionist, for a time, but I could never get over the idea that the gods of Hellas behaved in exactly the same manner as the Christian god: because they move in mysterious ways they can only contact mere mortals via wholly unverifiable moments of personal gnosis or through the most subtle of clues and omens. Was that voice Hermes? Was that swirling zephyr a sign from Apollo? As you might imagine, my tenure as a Hellene ended with me standing in a violent, lightning-laced thunderstorm, daring Zeus to strike me down. He didn’t, and that only added more questions to my already burgeoning list. No, I am a Pagan, and my brand of Paganism is a very simplified form of pantheism.
I arrived at this after searching for gods in the physical world, for sources of the Divine that existed as more than subconscious voices and subtle omens. I came up with three: the Sun, the Earth itself, and Inspiration. Sol Invictus, Gaia, and the Muses, if you will. Sol Invictus gives life; he creates a synergy with Gaia to create food, water, and shelter; and the Muses give us a needed push in the right direction to populate the world with science, art, drama, and discourse. Representations of each of these three are as old as Humanity itself. We’ve filled our god boxes with elaborate personalities and stories; we’ve crafted rituals and sacraments and offer sacrifices in hopes of gaining favor, but even if we do nothing, the sun will rise, the earth will turn, and ideas will pop unbidden into our heads. If humanity failed to sacrifice or to propitiate the mighty Sun, Sol Invictus would not withhold the bounty of his energy. He doesn’t care.
This revelation brought with a weird dichotomy of feeling. On the one hand, there was a sense of absolute freedom from the rigors of attempting to please a divine force whose wishes and desires were forever hidden from mortal understanding; on the other, a profound sense of sadness – sadness in that I could go outside, tilt my face to heaven, and behold the theophany of a God who ultimately did not care if I worshiped Him or not.
John Halstead asked me once if I had a practice. I do not, not in the strictest sense, for in my belief there is no point to it. Instead, I offer thanks: to the Muses for their continued gifts, which makes my day job all the more easier; to Gaia, for Her gift of shelter and sustenance; and to Sol Invictus, for keeping the cold dark of oblivion at bay.
For conversation …
In the comments below, share what’s in your “god box”, that “space inside a person’s head where they perceive the Divine, where they hear and understand the unique voices of the Gods, where they see them in their mind’s eye, and where their faith is first given expression”? Is your “god box” empty? What effect does that have on the practice of your spirituality/religion?
Hailing from the hills of rural North Alabama, Scott Oden‘s fascination with far-off places and times began in grade school, when he stumbled across the staggering and savage vistas of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb. Though Oden started writing his own tales at the age of fourteen, it would be many years before anything would come of it. In the meantime, he had a brief and tempestuous fling with academia before retiring to the private sector, where he worked the usual roster of odd jobs-from delivering pizza to stacking paper in the bindery of a printing company to clerking at a video store. Nowadays, Oden writes full-time from his family home near Huntsville.
Oden is the author of the critically-acclaimed historical novels MEN OF BRONZE (2005), MEMNON (2006), THE LION OF CAIRO (2010), and the forthcoming A GATHERING OF RAVENS.
Are you sure that you didn’t write this article by lifting my own thoughts from my own god box? This describes me very well, though I continue to use the names of the Hellenic deities in my ritual practice (weak as it may be) firstly because it’s convenient and secondly because I trust the experiences of others who have described to me the contents of their god boxes.
Nicely said Scott. Don’t you see any purpose to ritual or prayer aside from the surface one of worshiping supernatural beings. I ask this in all earnestness. I struggle to find meaning in solitary ritual because it seems so separate from the modern world I live in.
My religion, my god box, is walking in the woods, it is by far my longest lasting and most consistent practice. If the gods and spirits want to come along they are more than welcome.
Thanks, Kenneth. Most rituals I’ve ever witnessed are asking for some sort of favor in exchange for sacrifice or worship, or as thanks for something given in the past. I do favor saying thanks, so as not to seem impolite, but I cannot find any reason at all to ask a favor or beg a boon. My conception of the Divine doesn’t partake in our daily affairs. Your mileage may vary, of course.
I, too, participate in walks outdoors as a form of practice, I guess. I have places that speak to me more than others, and I favor walking near water.
I guess what I’m getting at is something like this: I find prayer a great exercise. Even praying to gods that I don’t believe are real. You are asking the divine for something, have you really thought it through, is this a need or a want, what am I willing to do to get this thing? Am I just wasting everyone’s (nonexistent) divine time? I find it sharpens my goal setting, or my expectations of life in a way that sitting down and thinking logically does not. I get pretty caught up in the concrete, nuts and bolts stuff and prayer as an ‘as if’ exercise, is a way to break away from that.
Expand your definition of ritual. Professional sports is a ritual. You come together in community, chant certain things, cheer, you follow the narrative of your team and it’s players. Every season is the Illiad, as heroes and their opponents strive for victory. Over here where we recently won the super bowl, people flew flags from their cars and in their yards. There’s not many definitions of ritual behavior that wouldn’t include all this behavior. Like the funeral games int he Illiad, or the Greek dramas, it is way for people to participate in a narrative that lends meaning. People are overcome by emotion. I know some who literally couldn’t watch during parts of some games because the tension was too great. I don’t even have to believe these guys are embodying divine forces, but people do, don’t they, no matter how absurd it is. It falls in that area where fiction lies, in the willing suspension of disbelief. My prayer in some ways lies in that area as well.
That kind of feeling is hard to get as isolated individuals, and I don’t know what the answer is. But there’s something there worth striving to find within the naturalistic pagan worldview. If only I had answers instead of questions I’d be dangerous.