Note: Part 1 of this essay is a critique of one conception of divine reciprocity, where a deity gives material blessings in exchange for devotion. The second part, which will be published next month, proposes an alternative conception of divine reciprocity, one founded on the idea of the interconnectedness of all things.
PART 1: A CRITIQUE OF DIVINE RECIPROCITY
I’ve been accused by polytheists of just “not getting it”. And they’re right. Setting aside the whole issue of whether or not the gods exist, I don’t just get the idea of divine reciprocity, specifically material reciprocity. This is the idea that the the gods will grant worshipers material or practical well-being in exchange for something, like worship or offerings or oaths. This is a foundational idea for many Pagan polytheists, as well as many Christians and other monotheists. For Christians, the reciprocity seems to usually take the form of good behavior for blessings. For Pagan polytheists, reciprocity often takes the form of material offerings to the gods, like foodstuffs. And often this is done in conjunction with and in the expectation of a request for some material or practical blessing.
I was prompted to write this after reading a post some time ago by a well-known Pagan polytheist on the concept of divine reciprocity. She wrote that, if you are striving to be a good Pagan and your life is “going to crap”, then you must be “doing Paganism wrong”. But if you are “doing Paganism right”, she writes, your life should be improving. I can accept this, to a certain extent, if we are talking about spiritual or emotional well-being, as opposed to material well-being. I do believe that spiritual practice is generally conducive to happiness — a deep sense of inner peace and joy. But even the most spiritually centered individual will encounter crisis and tragedy.
But that’s not what this particular Pagan polytheist was talking about at all. She was talking about material well being. She went on to conclude that her recent financial and residential problems had occurred because she wasn’tt listening to the gods and the gods wanted her to relocate. So she promptly picked up her stakes and moved across the country. This attitude is all the more disturbing to me because of how similar it is to Christian discourse, which contemporary Paganism distances itself from in so many other ways. As a Jungian, Neo-Pagan agree that religion (whether theistic or non-theistic) can produce psychological or spiritual well-being. But what I cannot buy into is this idea that theistic worship produces material well-being. Here’s why:
FIRST ISSUE: The idea of theistic reciprocity relies on too many assumptions.
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),
- that your deity is aware of you,
- that your deity cares about you,
- that your deity has the power to alter your life circumstances,
- that your deity has more power than you alone have to alter your life circumstances,
- that your deity will chose to help you under certain circumstances (i.e., in exchange for offerings), and
- that your deity’s influence on your life circumstances will be greater than other influences working in the opposite direction.
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?
SECOND ISSUE: It doesn’t work.
The concept of divine reciprocity should dictate that, on average, theists (including monotheists and polytheists) are better off materially than non-theists (including pantheists, atheists, Buddhists, etc.). If the gods could grant material or practical well-being, then we should see a noticeable difference in the material quality of life of theists overall, and that’s just not the case — despite the promises of all the peddlers of the prosperity gospel. The fact that (mostly non-theistic) Unitarians are among the wealthiest of religious people and (theistic) Pentecostals are among the poorest is sufficient to me to disprove this thesis. For every single instance where a person has felt they were materially blessed by their deity, there are probably nine more instances where they have not been blessed — eight of which they have probably forgotten about.
THIRD ISSUE: It all boils down to personal responsibility anyway.
When their deity inevitably fails to bring the promised material blessings with any measure of reliability, then theists (both poly- and mono-) fall back on another assumption, one that I left out of the list above:
8. If your life circumstances are still unfavorable, then you have done something wrong.
If things don’t work out for the theist, they end up blaming themselves. They say, they petitioned their god in the wrong way. Or they weren’t faithful enough to the god’s demands. Or the bad fortune is a message from the god that they have to change something. In the end, it’s always the petitioner’s fault — not the god’s — things didn’t go right. And it’s up to the petitioner to make it good.
Here’s the thing: I can get to #8 by skipping numbers #1 through #7 entirely. The theist and the non-theist ultimately arrive at the same place — personal responsibility — but the non-theist does not have to assume the existence of unreliable deities that they have to placate and who will inevitably fail them.
FOURTH ISSUE: It’s regressive.
We all want someone to love us and take care of us. It’s natural. We want to be loved unconditionally and taken care of like children. In brief, we all want a perpetual parent. And so, if we are Christian, we imagine an invisible father in the sky who loves us and cares about us and watches over us. If we are polytheists, then we imagine someone a little closer, like an invisible friend, who will love us and watch over us and tell us what to do. But no matter how I look at it, this arrangement seems infantile and regressive. While it’s natural, it is also something we should grow out of — not the belief in gods, necessarily, but the desire for them to take care of us. I understand religion as a product of a desire to connect with something larger than us. But why do we need that something to care for us?
Some Pagan polytheists of the reconstructionist variety might respond that this is what ancient pagans did. It certainly was. But why should we imitate it? Why should we believe or act like people thousands of years ago if what they believed or did was infantile? As a contemporary (Neo-)Pagan, I believe we should take the best of what our Paleo-Pagan ancestors had to offer and blend it with the best of what we moderns have to offer. The ancient pagans were not infallible, after all; they were human just like us, and their religions were products of the helpful and the unhelpful, just like ours are today.
What about hope?
I ran all this by my son a few years ago. (He who was Christian at the time. He’s now atheist.) I asked him, what the belief in gods gets people if they can’t count on material blessings. He astutely responded: “Hope.” I think maybe he’s right. Maybe theism is all about giving people hope. Hope, when they feel that their efforts are not enough. Hope, when the world itself is not enough. Hope, in spite of everything.
Personally, I prefer Nietzsche’s challenge to live without the hope of this kind of divine reciprocity:
“You will never pray again, never adore again, never again rest in endless trust; you do not permit yourself to stop before any ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power, while unharnessing your thoughts; you have no perpetual guardian and friend for your seven solitudes; […] there is no avenger for you any more nor any final improver; there is no longer any reason in what happens, no love in what will happen to you; no resting place is open any longer to your heart, where it only needs to find and no longer to seek; you resist any ultimate peace; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace: man of renunciation, all this you wish to renounce? Who will give you the strength for that? Nobody yet has had this strength!”
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science
In part 2, of this essay, I will propose an alternative understanding of divine reciprocity, one rooted in the notion of the interconnectedness of all things.
John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.org. John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.