Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Circles: A Look at An Article about Distrusting the Deities

I spent some time and a couple cups of tea reading over a different author’s recent post about Why [He] Doesn’t Trust the Gods. The author in question refers to himself as a Jungian Neo-Pagan and defines deities as “real, independent semi-conscious archetypes.” Jung, father and progenitor of theories about archetypes says: “In the individual, the archetypes appear as involuntary manifestations of unconscious processes whose existence and meaning can only be inferred…” (p. 153, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious by C.G. Jung) Jung held that a person would inherit the forms of archetypes from humanity much like one inherits one’s genes from one’s genetic predecessors. Thus archetypes are both outside the self, as well as inside and an intrinsic part of the self. (Archetypes are not gods, but for the sake of looking at this argument further, I will refer to them as “gods” because the argument itself often focuses on “gods” being defined as archetypes.)

The whole argument in the article is about how a person cannot trust the “gods” and the “gods” may not be trustworthy. The argument spends a great deal of pixels on a matter of what the author may be going through as a part of self-exploration (which potentially could be a beneficial and useful thing!), but the article is also a persuasive piece to convince others to distrust the “gods” or to consider distrusting the “gods,” or at the very least to reconsider the “gods’ trustworthiness.” So, according to the article and the arguments therein, the “gods” are not trustworthy.

After exploring the untrustworthiness of the “gods,” the article then holds up the experts (experts, priests, shamans, and so on) and even a few “experts” who may not really be experts, as also untrustworthy. The author dismisses the experts, and he dismisses the ones who may or may not be experts altogether and wholesale, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. So now, not only are the “gods” untrustworthy, the experts are also not trustworthy. There's a  Ralph Waldo Emerson quote used as a (better?) expert’s opinion on polytheism and the gods. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a poet, philosopher, and a Transcendentalist, but he was no expert on polytheism or the gods. The article seeks to destroy the notion of experts in polytheism and then substitutes polytheistic expertise with a quote from a well-known poet who is not a polytheist. The quote sounds nice, and it has a ring of “truthiness,” but its usefulness and pertinence here is highly suspect. It would be inappropriate to consult a poet writing about electricity in place of an electricians’ advice no matter how thought-provoking the writing is or how well-known and time-tested the poet. Using an Emerson quote here, a name with history and a person esteemed for thoughtfulness only adds false credence and false significance to the argument…and distracts from the author’s original premise about trusting or distrusting gods or “gods”.

Next in line is humanity. Although the article does not discuss whether or not humanity is trustworthy, it is prudent to consider that if the experts themselves are not trustworthy, then humanity and popular opinion are also suspect. If an expert cannot be trusted, then Joe, Jane, or Jamie-on-the-street and their knowledge about the “gods” or gods cannot be trustworthy, either. (Consider that the author is also not an expert on polytheism, or the gods, and thus his opinion on these grounds is also excusable by intention of his own argument. If he cannot stick with a definition as to who his “gods” are, see below, then he is clearly not an expert.)

So. The “gods” are not trustworthy (in the article). Neither expert opinions nor popular opinions about the “gods” can be trusted either (as per the article and logical deduction). The self is all that remains which can be potentially trustworthy. But there’s a problem with this. Go back and look at the information in the first paragraph here about the “gods” as archetypes. Archetypes are both outside of oneself…and also intrinsically part of oneself. If one cannot trust the “gods” and the “gods” are part of oneself, one can also not trust one’s own self.

The author of the article does not trust his own “gods” and because of this logic, it follows that he can also not trust “himself.” Although interesting, the argument is not particularly useful since it twists and turns in on itself. I would presume that the author of the article is at least in part the gatekeeper of his own mind and its subconscious ebb and flow; and as a healthy adult of sound mind, is therefore at least partially responsible what goes on in the self, conscious mind, and subconscious mind. He would then be ultimately responsible, at least in part, for how his “gods” (remember, he defines “gods” as archetypes) act in him, with him, and through him—therefore consent, in this specific context of what goes on in and of one's own mind, is not an issue. This author may very well distrust his own subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is tricky business and we would all do well to tread carefully in that uncharted ground. However, if the author distances himself wholesale from his “gods” (remember: he defines them as archetypes) and a part of himself through which those archetypes appear, he is sabotaging his own process of self-actualization, a process for becoming whole with oneself which Jung, the father of archetypal theory, advocates as vital process.

If in this context of his argument the “gods” or gods the author refers to are not archetypes (and therefore not his “gods”), then whose gods is he distrusting, and why would he bother since they are not his “gods” anyway? For what reason is the article trying to persuade others to do likewise and distrust these gods and/or experts on these gods? What is the motivation for convincing others to distrust gods whom oneself does not personally accept as real? Or does he somehow actually believe in them and hasn’t come to terms with this yet…? Or does he not mean “distrust” at all and has confused it with and mistaken it for “approach with caution”—something I myself would support for gods, for archetypes, and for forces of nature. It appears that the author may (accidentally?) acknowledge that there are gods who are outside, independent, sentient beings of their own. If this is an (inadvertent?) acknowledgment that gods are gods, and that he distrusts these gods, then this whole article ends up looking like an attack on these gods, and their experts and priests.

An article meant for this kind of attack and persuasion does not demonstrate the respect for others and others’ religions that this author may want to portray. Maybe the arguer truly believes in his heart of hearts that he is being respectful, but his belief that this is respectful doesn’t make it respectful. Or maybe this is a veneer, the mere appearance of respect without the substance of respect. (For those who watch South Park, you may remember the episode in the seventh season where Cartman wants to go to Kyle’s birthday party at Casa Bonita. Cartman shows up at Kyle’s door wearing a nice sweater: Cartman either has convinced himself that wearing a nice sweater is actually the same as being nice, or Cartman is trying to convince Kyle that because he wears a nice sweater that he is actually nice, or a little of both. Kyle calls Cartman on his scheme, telling Cartman that wearing a nice sweater is not the same as actually being nice.)

Furthermore, in this article, the author constantly shifts between the definition of the “gods” as archetypes, switching off with a definition as the “gods” being natural forces or a part of natural forces. The author tackles a long section about his not trusting nature or natural forces because of nature’s capriciousness. Despite nature’s capriciousness, the sun still rises daily, the tides still flow with regularity, and gravity continues to act as it has since before humanity walked on two legs. Switching between definitions of “gods” from archetypes to natural forces for the sake of convenience and for the sake of an argument may be helpful for rhetoric, but it is not useful in a logical, clear argument. If he is switching between definitions of who and what his “gods” are, it looks as though he hasn’t yet figured out what is going on in his working relationships and/or dysfunctional relationships with them. Therefore he is no expert on relating to them, and consequently in no place to persuade others to trust or to distrust either “gods” or gods.

There are a few questionable questions asked in that article as well; I will tackle one here briefly. The question asked is “Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?” It makes for pretty rhetoric. Really, who can argue with that question? And this is the point—no one can argue with that question; it is set up to make the answering party fail. It’s the old “Have you stopped beating your spouse yet?”* question—either way it is answered, the answerer ends up committing to premises he doesn’t have but that the question forces on him. Whether or not the author intended the question to be nasty, it ends up being nasty: it is a question fit for dirty politics. “Bowing down” is a phrase that has become loaded over the years and is intended to belittle and degrade what once was known as an act of respect. (It vaguely reminds me from a quote from the movie The Princess Bride: “So bow down to her if you want, bow to her. Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo! Boo!”) At least any Queen of Filth would be more honest and more clean than a manipulative question hiding in a veneer of "respect" and..."virtue."

Besides, power’s opposite is powerlessness. Virtue’s opposite is vice. By pairing the two against each other, power and virtue, one is making a false comparison which champions the one (here: “virtue”) against an “enemy,” (here: “power”) which is not really an enemy or an opposite. It is a false dichotomy, a forced dichotomy, on many levels. The question is built on many premises which another arguer may or may not accept all of—premises such as power is evil and corrupt, power must be paired with virtue, that one “really” genuflects to power-the-force and not a deity, that power and virtue cannot coexist in one being or Being, if a deity carries more power than virtue that deity must therefore be inherently evil, if one honors a deity that carries a lot of power one bows to power and thus bows to evil or corruption, and so on.

By forcing this false dichotomy, it actually takes the author further away from Jung, who advised that one should resolve opposites—such as vice versus virtue and power versus powerlessness within oneself for the sake of the self and wholeness. In the argument itself, this question shifts the original premise of the author’s argument from how he does not trust the ‘gods’ (with the subtext that you shouldn’t trust them either), to a “good versus evil” debate, which isn’t the same question, argument, or dialogue. Instead, a person who takes a stand other than the author’s stand would end up arguing, badly based on premises he hasn't accepted and doesn't carry, this major distraction instead of staying with the original argument about trust and the gods.

At any rate, distrusting the deities because they might do you wrong is like refusing to be in potentially loving, healthy relationships because of the tales of heartache and family-splitting you’ve heard about or have experienced. This is an argument based on negative consequences which haven’t and may not even happen in one’s own life in one’s own relationships with the deities. To base a choice in refusing a relationship with a deity, any deity, or all deities for these reasons is to base a decision on fear. And for others who have read the article and have taken its arguments to heart, they could be deciding to avoid relationships with the deities based on someone else’s fear of something that may not be imminent or imminently happening. Making a decision based on someone else’s phantom fear is not all that useful.

In the end, the author finishes with a large caveat or disclaimer meant to put the entire article and its argument into the realm of the relativistic. This takes everything that is said in the argument and gives it the appearance of a personal a belief held “by him." By using this caveat of relativism somehow the argument is made to look as though that belief is not being “forced onto” anyone. The argument may not be technically forced onto anyone, but it uses emotional manipulation, stilted rhetoric, and other problematic devices, which might blindside a casual reader. It also makes the argument unavailable for being questioned because beliefs are personal and it is supposedly rude and mean-spirited to question someone else’s personal belief in this culture right now…even if that belief is something like “It snows frequently in the Sahara. I believe this. It is my Truth!” And we’re back to this article looking like a persuasive piece meant to cause people to distrust the gods or the “gods,” which is at its core disrespectful to the gods, disrespectful to many religions, and potentially even an attack against the gods (and their experts, and their people).

To recap: If you choose not to trust the deities, that’s up to you. Just do it for good thought-out reasons, or experience, or expert advice, or any combination of these. It may be prudent to reconsider making a decision when it is based on conveniently shifting definitions, cagey questions, appeals to emotion and popular opinion, argument from negative consequence, circular logic, quotes lacking appropriate context and/or pertinence, lack of experience with gods, questionable or unexamined motives, and someone else’s fears.

I will close with a quote that is at least as pertinent and “truthy”:
“Who is the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”
This quote comes from a fictional character, Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Star Wars movies. Obi-Wan Kenobi never lived, never died, never existed beyond the imagination, Sir Alec Guinness’s memorable portrayal, and the silver screen. But since Obi-Wan Kenobi is born of and out of archetypes and allows an archetype momentarily to fill a form, that of a “wise old man”—if it is indeed possible for an archetype to manifest for a moment in a form—he is as good an expert on Archetypal Neo-Paganism as Ralph Waldo Emerson is on polytheism.



*“Have you stopped beating your spouse yet?” The question forces you into one of two answers, yes or no. The question makes you commit to the premise that you have at one time beat your spouse. If you answer “no” to the question, it means “you are still beating your spouse,” while if you answer “yes” to the question, it means “you did beat your spouse at one point in time and have since stopped.” Either way, it’s designed to make the answerer fail.



5 comments:

  1. If I were asked, "have you stopped beating your spouse yet?" my reply would be a confused look and "I didn't beat my spouse to begin with."

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    1. I think most of us would answer something similar, Anonymous. The problem in this case is that the question demands one answer or another. In the case of "Have you stopped beating your spouse yet?" the question demands a "yes" or "no" response, and any answer other than a "yes" or a "no" could earn the answerer the claim that he or she was not being direct in his or her answer.

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  2. As an animist Scotttish Druid with a Brythonic Polytheist background, I find this post to be interesting (along with others I have read around this specific post) in so much as it appears to be a useful exercise in how the written word has the potential to be interpretated in a multitude of different ways. I understand your viewpoint but I read the original piece in a very much different way to your own. As far as I could see, the author was attempting to highlight the somewhat, illogical premise held by some in the wider pagan community that suggests that their Gods are always benign and benevolent and the almost self denial, that as independent entities, they may be prone to acts of (what may appear to us) to be negative (which is to say, their acts and the results of these acts may be subject to the same laws of nature as the rest of us). Of course, we may not always be in the best position of absolutely determining what actually is negative, but I think it is prudent to allow for the fact that our interactions with our deities / other than human communities may result in actions that may not fit our current understanding of what is appropriate. Which is how I understand the meaning of the phrase of "not trusting" in this piece.

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    1. Hello, Corvusrouge. I think the post-in-question itself could have benefited from two things: better clarity of thought (even before writing) and more precise writing—this is perhaps why the post itself is thought of, by some, as being similar to an “ink blot test.” The post-in-question raised potentially useful topics and questions, but they were embedded and hidden within problematic arguments and unnecessary verbal parries—a sort of needless “shadowboxing.” I agree with you that sometimes some members of the Pagan community/communities(?) may look at some deities through an expectation of benevolence-from-a-human-viewpoint.

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  3. I agree with corvusrouge. I also got that the man purpose of that post was to point out why neopagan shouldn't assume the Pagan gods to be like the Christian god (supposedly all benevolent), only in multiple. As an earth based pagan, myself, I got what he was saying with the nature analogies. Although a storm can be life giving, beautiful, and even awe inspiring, it can also produce a tornado which can level an entire town, killing men, women and children. Because of this we shouldn't "trust" storms to be benevolent all the time. What I got from that post is that he was saying we should approach pagan gods the same way, with caution. While we may greatly admire a storm god, we must keep in mind that he has a dark side too. A storm will be a storm and a god will be a god, and sometimes gods act in ways that are not to our benefit, just like natural phenomenon. That's what I took away from the first half.

    I will agree with you on the second half of the post. That left me confused. I don't know what the whole you need to worship an entire pantheon stuff was about. Depending on the pantheon that would be an impossible mission. And I don't get his beef with henotheists. Gods will call who they call and sometime a person only gets called by one deity.

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