The Gods Don’t Give Us Meaning
What makes a god a weapon?
In front of Planned Parenthood across the street, they’re displaying neon yellow posters with Photoshopped fetuses. Standing in a semicircle, they read from their Bible, and they pray. Sometimes, they walk across the intersection to our side — glaring at our signs saying “Tacoma is a Pro-Choice Town” and “Pro-Health Pro-Choice,” blaring YouTube sermons from portable speakers, or asking us to talk. It’s like talking to cops, my Clinic Defense friends tell me; they want to get under your skin, get you upset, rile you up. Give them your story and you give them power.
I nod. I know the type: “prayer warriors,” living for the struggle. In their hands, the biblical “sword of the spirit” gets as close to literal violence as the law permits (and sometimes goes even further, as a string of assassinated doctors testifies). But today, they stick to their corner and we stick to ours. Eventually, they get bored, say one final prayer together, and pack up their signs and leave. As we start to do the same, I recite the Orphic Hymn to the Meter Theon (Mother of the Gods, Kybele), and the bearded man on my right says “blessed be.”
Every time the anti-choicers protest, they pray. Paraphrasing Carl von Clausewitz, “war is politics by other means” — and in their spiritual war, Jesus serves as both casus belli and favorite weapon. The sense of purpose driving their mix of legislative lobbying and personal intimidation may strike a secular progressive as nothing but patriarchy in motion, but for them? It’s transcendental. They don’t do politics (or, for that matter, patriarchy) for the sake of reforms or social classes, or for the game itself. The intoxication of divine mission overwhelms everything — including the specific imperatives that such a mission contains.
I spend a lot of time at protests and at each one, I pray to the Meter Theon. I feel deep, exhilarating joy at seeing polytheist anticapitalism become a proper movement, not just a rare and private preoccupation. But the fact that we’re here at all begs the question:
Do our gods agree with our politics? Are we, like the militants in front of the clinic, applying a feeling of divine energy to a social cause?
Now, I could observe that just as gods are diverse and individual, so too are their social demands. I could speculate that housing Syrian refugees enacts piety toward Zeus, defender of guests, or that Artemis Eileithyia, helper in childbirth, surely demands that prenatal healthcare be accessible. However, that strikes me as somehow disingenuous — shouldn’t politics and ethics fundamentally attend to the people whose needs they address, rather than to gods whom we couldn’t endanger even if we tried?
So, while my worship of the Theoi may not cleanly untangle from left-wing organizing, at the root, I don’t look to them to provide me with a social agenda. Movements aren’t made of gods. The sidewalk by Planned Parenthood isn’t the Trojan plain; we aren’t armed with Olympian gifts. Our causes matter because they matter to mortals. But across the street, they don’t agree. Ask them why they’re out there shouting at strangers; they’ll tell you it’s because they believe that the imperative to do so comes as a package deal with the sense of meaning that, they claim, only Jesus can provide.
But why should finding meaning for mortals be a god’s job?
“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning.”
– Rev. Rick Warren, Saddleback Church
Whether we polytheists like it or not, the societies in which most of us live remain ideologically Christian. This hegemonic worldview seeps out of religious participation and trickles down into every part of our sense of the world. Christian theology dictates common sense, “normal” emotional response, and the pre-conscious attitudes and assumptions that structure every Western culture and nearly every psyche living within them.
However, dominant Christianity is itself dominated. The capitalist system — economic and political control by the business class — exercises even more power over Christianity than Christianity does over everything else. If Jesus serves a political agenda, an economist will find it faster than a theologian. So, what does a religious basis for meaning in life mean in practice?
According to the seminal sociologist Max Weber, the “Protestant work ethic” means valorizing exertion, discipline, and frugality as inherently good things themselves, rather than just as the means to an end; it’s the theology of putting in extra overtime and thinking, “I should be saving more money.” Further, he claims that this attitude could never have become widespread without the emergence of capitalism from the collapse of the medieval system.
As Weber writes,
“Calvinist believers were psychologically isolated. Their distance from God could only be precariously bridged, and their inner tensions only partially relieved, by unstinting, purposeful labor.”
Getting religion meant getting a job. From this angle, it’s no coincidence that a career path became a “vocation” — from the Latin “vocatio,” a calling. Just as a clergyperson is called to receive ordination, so is a truck driver divinely called to deliver on time, or a factory worker to stand at the assembly line, or a grocery clerk to take inventory (even to the point of using the same word!). Existential meaning, Christ, and work all melt into one.
Who, I wonder, might want to promote such an attitude?
“There is nothing in this world that can compare with the Christian fellowship; nothing that can satisfy but Christ.”
– John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil Company
As in all social matters, we should first ask: who benefits? When a worker believes that all meaning comes from Christ, and Christ says “go to work,” the boss isn’t complaining. Since the business class is currently the most powerful class, their philosophy is the most powerful philosophy, and their religion the most powerful religion. Collapsing deity, work, and purpose all together provides them with one of the weapons they use to keep things that way. And, like every ruling class, they gladly affirm Alexander Pope’s dictum (from an explicitly theological poem, no less), hoping you’ll believe it, too:
“Whatever is, is right.”
So, what makes a god a weapon? The political strength of a social class.
“On the other hand, that man is a weakling and a degenerate who struggles and maligns the order of the universe and would rather reform the gods than reform himself.”
– Seneca the Younger, Stoic philosopher
The gods with whom I relate are just as real as any human I’ve met. However, the shared characteristic of existing does not render deities and mortals interchangeable! As Seneca reminds us, while the gods may run the universe at large, human affairs stay a human concern. And what’s more human than to need to make meaning out of a finite life? In politics, as in our everyday lives, we mortals bear the first responsibility for how we conduct ourselves — the ways in which we look for purpose included. Could anything be more hubristic than demanding that the gods handle that for us? When I protest, I pray, but I don’t expect Kybele to dial in for a conference call, goals and strategy in hand. (I don’t have that sort of “godphone.”) Healthy polytheism synthesizes piety to the deities with an ethical embrace of human responsibility and freedom.
As the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre declares, “I am condemned to be free.” To weaponize a god, to invoke a divine political mandate, is to deny that. So when we do politics, let’s organize for, as well as with, each other — honoring the gods is no excuse to act as if our lives, and all the meaningfulness therein, aren’t still ours.
[Image: “The Industrious ‘Prentice Alderman of London, the Idle one brought before him & Impeach’d by his Accomplice,” plate 10 of “Industry and Idleness,” engraving by William Hogarth]
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than polytheism, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, writing for Gods&Radicals, nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.