Theurgic Binding: A Response

For the past couple of days, I’ve been mulling over whether to post some kind of response to Morpheus Ravenna’s post on dedication to a deity. But whenever I begin drafting something, I get frustrated and delete it. Nothing seems to quite get at what I feel needs to be expressed.

Then, today, a friend of mine linked to a post contrasting the Buddha’s “Parable of the Raft” to Mormon Teachings. Here’s the parable:

A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty – but on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety.

The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?’” The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.

The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?”

The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude.

The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with — not for seizing hold of.”

I find online conversations about the Morrigan to be very strange and not much like the practices I see in real life. If you read something about her and find it frightening, or if you find it leaves you with guilt and shame and a sense that you thought you were okay but now you feel like a total fuck-up and you think you’d better let an expert tell you what to do before you get hurt or worse, then take a breath.

Take another.

And one more.

Dear one, you’re doing okay.

This is me, a mother and an educator and a priestess who may or may not have a little more experience than you, promising you that you’re doing okay. Maybe you flew headlong into a formal dedication because it just felt right. Maybe you’ve had a good relationship with a god but now it’s starting to go sour. Maybe your practice is just in a rut right now and you’re discouraged and anxious that some all-powerful being has it out for you.

You’re still doing okay.

You didn’t sign away the next nine generations of your family by telling a god you wanted to be close to them. You’re not going to meet some disaster because you followed your gut and not a contract. If the Morrigan or any other deity is putting other people through those kinds of tests, then it’s because that’s what they need in their lives at this moment. You’re your own person, with your own needs and strengths.

Maybe you know for a fact that the gods are real and powerful. Maybe you know for a fact that they’re just archetypes. Maybe you know for a fact that they’re all aspects of one divine reality. Maybe, like me, you have absolutely no idea and you feel your way along, day by day, wanting only to live an authentic life of service and gratitude.

Whatever the case, gods can’t hurt you unless you continually give them that power. And no, you didn’t already sign that power away by lighting a candle and saying some words. Did the god give you any indication at all of what they wanted to take from you? No? Not even a hint? Then they’re not entitled to it unless you consent.

And even if you did knowingly sign away your life and your house and your dog and your Playstation 4 and now you’re losing sleep because it was a huge mistake, then simply tell the god you need to terminate that contract. Figure out a good compromise. Maybe they get the Wii instead. Tell them you’ll throw in Smash Brothers. Our spiritual lives aren’t mortgages. Put down the raft; you were never meant to carry it forever.

But above all, let me reiterate: no matter what scary things you read on blogs, you’re doing okay. As we say in the Reclaiming Tradition, you are your own spiritual authority.

Always.

No exceptions.

Blessed be.

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16 thoughts on “Theurgic Binding: A Response

  1. Avalon Rainsong says:

    THANK YOU for this post. You’ve managed to basically express exactly what I was pondering and feeling about that same article.

  2. Alley Valkyrie says:

    I often agree with what you write. When I don’t agree, I usually still respect your opinion and try to see it from your perspective. But a few days after reading this piece, I’m still bothered and concerned on a very deep level, and while I usually don’t speak out to simply complain that I don’t like someone’s viewpoint, I feel obligated to speak out when I feel that the message is harmful.

    “Whatever the case, gods can’t hurt you unless you continually give them that power. ”

    This is a very dangerous piece of advice.

    I know you couched it with the admission that you are unsure as to the true nature of the Gods, but I would have hoped that the nature of being unsure would have left you expressing strong caution as a default. The Gods do not work this way. The Gods have power over your well-being, your consciousness, your very life, whether you want them to or not. The Gods can take your life and re-shape it in a split second, re-shape it in a package of permanent consequences that can and will haunt you for the rest of your life. I’ve seen it happen, I’ve experienced it myself, and you don’t have to make vows for that to be the case.

    I know your intent was to reassure, not harm. But I ask you to consider the possibility what you’ve put forth here is indeed very harmful, and that the wrong person taking your advice may very well get seriously hurt by it. Reassurance is great to an extent, but the world is not a soft and reassuring place. The world is scary, both gods and humans play with fire, and there are many casualties of that interplay. I’m glad that you have the luxury in your life to believe that your statement is true and useful, and I’m thankful for you that the Gods have not decided to wreak havoc on your life as they have with the lives of many others. But working with Gods is dangerous, and Gods can most definitely hurt you without your consent.

    • Asa West says:

      Hi Alley,

      First off, let me say that I also really respect and admire your writing, along with Morpheus’s.

      I grew up in a Fundamentalist Christian area and, thus, spent my childhood and adolescence pretty steeped in their theology. Here’s a sentiment I heard expressed over and over again by proselytizers: “Jesus has power over your life whether you like it or not, and anyone who says otherwise is dangerous and will lead you into harm.” I’m sure you can see the parallels to your comment above. I bring this up not to sling “Christian” around as a pejorative, but to encourage you to think about the types of practices and communities beliefs like these create.

      You say that you’ve seen and experienced the gods wrecking havoc on people’s lives, including your own, and I don’t doubt it. However, for every story you tell me about those situations, I can tell you a corresponding story about someone who said, “You know what? I don’t have to think this way anymore,” and left their belief system for a drastically improved quality of life.

      No matter how powerful, meaningful, and unmistakably real my experiences with a deity are, I’ll never be able to prove to an outside observer that that deity exists. I’ll never be able to prove that Deity A burned my house down or Deity B gave me mono. However, I *can* demonstrate, very quickly and easily, that religious literalism–the treatment of the unproveable as indisputable fact–has ruined countless lives throughout history. To me, it’s absolutely clear where the harm lies.

      • EmberVoices says:

        > religious literalism–the treatment of the unproveable as indisputable fact–has ruined countless lives throughout history. To me, it’s absolutely clear where the harm lies.

        Believing the gods (and other non-corporeal entities) have independent existence and thus the capacity to affect us whether we choose to allow it or not, and believing that scripture should be taken literally are not equivalent. Clearly the latter will prompt the former, but the reverse is not remotely true.

        So okay, your message is indeed that people should change their theology to make the problem go away. But that’s a far cry from uncertainty about the nature of the gods. You may not know what They are, but you are clearly quite certain of what They *aren’t* – that Their nature does not include the independent ability to affect us directly.

        If that’s not the case, if you actually do believe it’s possible They exist independently, then you are showing a willingness to tell people that things outside their control should be treated as inside their control, which is pretty solidly a form of victim blaming, and I think you need to take another look at that.

        But even if it’s not, even if you’re quite sure that you’re right, and we’re wrong in our perceptions of the gods as independent beings, do you not see how disrespectful it is tell us our experience is not relevant because it doesn’t match your beliefs? This is *incredibly* dismissive and condescending of people whose theology happens not to match yours.

        But even if the gods *are* basically archetypes, social constructs, lacking independent will… You know what? So are institutionalized racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. To tell someone that they have no effect on them that they don’t give power is the height of privilege. Pretending an invisible problem doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. There ARE things in the world that we don’t have to believe in, or even correctly label, that still affect us whether we can isolate the variable to prove it or not.

        I’m not saying theology shouldn’t be argued, but if the difference in theology is the basis for your argument, then admit it up front, and recognize that this level of interfaith argument over theology pretty well go *nowhere* because they don’t start from the same premise. Granted, theology informs ethics, and ethics should be questioned. But this is far overreaching the thing you actually object to. Believing that things outside our control affect us, that relationships between things require an acknowledgement of what is and what is not in our control, that respect is due to things outside ourselves, and that things outside us includes things we can’t see. This is NOT synonymous with blind faith, with taking scripture literally, or especially not with using any of these things as excuses for mistreating others, or ignoring what IS within our control.

        Morpheus’ post is about taking responsibility for our end of such relationships, while recognizing our own limitations.

        -E-

      • EmberVoices says:

        Hm. I see that I didn’t necessarily provide any ways in which Monotheistic Scriptural Literalism and Concrete Polytheism are *not* equivalent.

        The main difference I see is in the assumption of infallability. Monotheistic literalism doesn’t leave any room for values change. It doesn’t leave any room for testing the validity of any human understanding of God’s judgement, as previously written. It doesn’t leave any room for questioning whether something is *right*.

        Concrete Polytheism asserts that the gods exist independently of us, can affect us – but it doesn’t presume They’re infallible, that They can’t or shouldn’t be argued with, or that we can not evolve in our understanding of what is right over time. There’s no rule in Concrete Polytheism that the gods are *right*. There’s no rule that we must not question or re-evaluate what came before. There’s no rule that everyone’s relationship with any given god fit an established correct pattern. Heck, there’s not even an assumption that the stories we have of the gods are accurate descriptions of Them.

        So you can see why it’s hugely problematic to conflate the two.

        But even if you do see problems with the latter… it’s disrespectful to be condescending when presenting those arguments to a person whose faith differs from yours. I don’t require or expect you to agree with me, but I DO expect to not be talked to like I’m a child because my faith differs from yours, yes?

        –Ember–

  3. roseladenmagdalene says:

    I would like to thank you for writing this post. It’s not the popular opinion, but a dissenting voice is always a good thing. I also found that the original blog didn’t sit well with me. Honestly, when I read things like that I really does make me consider walking away from the gods. For the last few days I’ve been pondering why this was, and I figured it out today, because it reminded me a lot of some of the messages I received when I was a Christian. I was raised Fundamentalist Christian. I remember repeatedly being told stuff like, my personal desires didn’t matter, that my only purpose was to serve God, to obey, obey, obey and to be afraid, very afraid. Basically, going off and attempting to live a life where God was not central was sinful and guarantee to bring disaster into your life.

    It was exhausting, oppressive and unhealthy, it was spiritual slavery. Slaves run away and never come back, and I’m not bringing this stuff into my Paganism. If that makes me fluffy, or new-agey or a prideful fool, I don’t really care. I’m trusting my gut here, and that approach to divinity feels wrong to me throughout every single fiber of my being.

    I’ve gotten fired, had my heart broken, been followed and attacked on the streets. My life never goes as planned and yet I’ve never felt the need to blame any of that on a deity. Hardship is just a fact of life. Bad things happen and sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to it. The way I see it, is if certainty was all that I was worried about I would have stayed a Christian. Because, if they are right I have an eternity of Hell awaiting me. It’s the same if a Pagan makes a vow to a deity, and then find themselves going another direction which means breaking that vow. Maybe the Devotional Polytheists are right, and that person has a whole lot of hurt coming up in the future. But maybe not, and maybe Hell doesn’t exist either. None of this is remotely provable. While some people are 100% certain that they know, the fact is that no one really knows. We all are just as likely to be wrong, the only thing we can do is to trust our own experiences and our guts.

    • Asa West says:

      Oof, I hear you on Fundamentalism…my own household wasn’t Fundamentalist (although my late grandmother was and my mom had a lot of internalized guilt and insecurity), but virtually everyone around me was, and that was enough to do a lot of damage. I’m so sorry you had to go through that, and I’m glad you escaped.

      As for being fluffy or new-agey or foolish…well, there are worse things people could call us. 🙂

    • Asa West says:

      Thank you, MiddleWorldWitch. What you say in your post about the neo-lore especially resonates with me. There are a lot of interesting conversations going on about the Morrigan’s roles as earth goddess, mother goddess, poet, etc. (which is NOT to say she’s a wimpy lovey-dovey goddess, as the accusation commonly goes), but whenever one of those conversations reaches a big platform, it gets shouted down by the war goddess crowd. I thought my gnosis was completely wacky until I discovered scholarly literature supporting it.

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