Thursday, June 19, 2014

Final Follow-Up, and Why You DON'T Want a Lot of Divine Intervention

It’s been difficult to write about spirituality lately. The whole can of worms about sexually exploitative elders in the Pagan community left me wrestling with a lot of memories and crap that I honestly thought I had put to bed for good. It’s not easy to stop oneself from mulling over bad memories at times, but it’s necessary in order to move on. We only encourage the bad stuff to linger by dwelling on it so much. But sometimes it’s tough to remind oneself of that fact. I slipped a little, these last several weeks; it took me a while to be ready to move on.

In the meantime, I have been thinking a lot about relationships between deities and humans, and how Western culture especially leads us to having unrealistic expectations of the Powers that Be. Mainstream religion encourages us to seek a relationship which is both very dependent, and expects an awful lot from the deity or deities in question. I'm realizing more and more that not only is this not realistic—it isn't healthy.

One of the biggest pieces of misinformation put forward by popular religions is that spirits and gods will look after their adherents on a consistent basis. If something good happens, God blessed you. If something bad happens, God let it to punish you or teach you a lesson. Frankly I think that divine intervention simply doesn’t happen all that often. The spirits don’t generally swoop in like a parent protecting a toddler from the evils of the world. Why not? Here are three very good reasons.

  1. Most spirits and gods simply are not powerful enough to meddle with physical-world causality on more than a subtle and sometimes very gradual level. If they were, you would be hearing about it daily—and it usually would not be a good thing. The Evening News would be reporting events normally relegated to the pages of eighties-era tabloids—because what makes you think these beings would limit themselves to answering our prayers if they could affect the physical world so profoundly? Imagine the chaos when Poseidon, for example, lets us all know what he really thinks about the Pacific Garbage Patch. Or Thor gets into it with Hercules in the middle of a major city. Or Babaluaye gets sufficiently annoyed at anyone. And for those who believe in the Abrahamic God...have you actually read how much slaughter and destruction he gets up to with very little provocation at all? I don't know about you, but if my miracles come with a side of brimstone rain and horrible plagues, I don't want them.

  2. The flip side of protection is control. The only consistent way that any being can protect you from all harm is to watch you constantly, and limit your activities, food, drink, entertainment, interactions and travels to those which minimize your chances of having accidents, meeting violent people, becoming ill or otherwise incidentally coming to harm. Now some people think that giving up free will and having a deity as their perpetual nanny would be a good thing. Fortunately, spirits tend to be wiser than humans, and generally don’t consider obsessively looking after us to be their job. Believe me when I say that this is for the best. For an idea of how this kind of benevolent, protective control would actually work out for humanity, have a look at Jack Williamson’s science fiction novelette “With Folded Hands…”, which nails it. As lovely as it would be to live in a safe, predictable idyll where human tragedies such as starvation and war never happened, the price would be to give up all freedom and most opportunity for growth as individuals. With no trials to face, no potential cost to anything we undertake, and no real control over our own choices beyond the little bit we are granted, we would quickly become stunted, dependent and childlike, leading limited and boring lives with little purpose to them. That's not paradise; it's prison. 

  3. The spirits’ point of view about our world, us, and our problems is radically different from our own, which can make it hard for them to understand and address our problems. Also, these beings, though wiser than mortals, are imperfect themselves, and can get mean, play pranks, or just make mistakes.  Also, most of our problems put them in a difficult position. They know that most human suffering is generally caused by humans, whether themselves, someone else directly, or through damaging social constructs (like America’s rising oligarchy). There isn’t that much a spirit can do to rescue us from ourselves and each other without directly violating our free will. Nor do many of the things that horrify us (loss of property, loss of our life or a loved one’s life) particularly bother a spirit who would see death, for example, as the mere loss of a physical shell, and separation between the living and the dead as very temporary. They don’t want us upset or hurting, but that does not mean that most spirits or deities really “get” mortal life and its trials. And if they don’t understand the problem, they can’t be much help even if they have the opportunity and ability. The spiritual traditions of many a culture are filled with stories of wishes granted without full understanding of their consequence, from the machinations of the Djinn to what happened when poor Eos asked that her mortal husband be granted eternal life—but forgot to ask for his eternal youth. You might fear death, but spending eternity as a cricket chirping away in a basket would be infinitely worse.

The point is that often we must find our solutions to real world problems within ourselves, those close to us, and our community. The spirits are not here to make our lives easier, as sad as it may be to give up that illusion. Teach us? Advise us? Reassure and comfort us? Bolster our strength and confidence? Give us an unexpected boost of serendipity sometimes? Sure. But taking care of ourselves and each other is our job. Even if the spirits could look after us like parents after children, they don't want to. Considering what the world and our lives would look like if they did, maybe we should be glad of that.