Dii facientes adiuvant

I was going to let 9/11 pass without commentary but then I read one too many Pagan responses to the anniversary and the bad theology on display prompted me to speak up. One of the biggest questions that people are asking is, “How can we believe in gods who would let such atrocities take place?” This line of thinking is problematic for a number of reasons, but I’ll limit myself to the most obvious.

First off, I do not recall the gods ever promising us that life would be easy, simple or without pain and struggle. This is part of the human condition and has been since the beginning of time. There has never been an age without war and poverty and disease – hell, we’ve actually got it pretty good in comparison. It’s only relatively recently that the average life expectancy rose beyond 40. You don’t have to worry about four out of five of your children dying in birth or before they’ve reached their first year. You don’t pass a stack of stinking corpses, contagious victims of the plague, on your way into work each morning. You don’t have to worry about marauders sweeping in and burning your home to the ground, salting your fields and carrying off most of your neighbors as slaves. I’m guessing most of you have got a roof over your head and enough food in your belly and that if you get a scratch or the sniffles it won’t be an automatic death sentence. So, really, where do you get off questioning the benevolence of the gods because a handful of maniacs flew a couple planes into some buildings?

Secondly, and even more importantly, when exactly did the gods promise special protection to the United States of America? All of the documents prepared by the Founding Fathers make it pretty clear that this is a secular nation that draws a firm distinction between church and state. Beyond that the culture of this country has been predominantly Christian for most of its history. This is in marked contrast with what we find in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. There it was the duty of the king to cement the bond between the gods and the land, a bond that was periodically renewed through the repetition of important ceremonies during his reign. Even when these nations became more democratic and rejected monarchic institutions they retained the figure of the king, limiting his role strictly to the performance of these rites because it was understood that they were absolutely essential for the well-being of the nation and the assurance of the gods’ protection, fertility and other blessings. (I have collected a variety of sources on sacred kingship here, here and here for those who would like to see how this concept was understood in Hellenic and Greco-Egyptian society.) In fact, the Romans took it a step further through the rite of evocatio which was basically a business transaction they conducted with the gods of foreign populations. Before they met those people in battle they had the priests offer their gods the opportunity to defect to Rome’s side, promising them abundant worship and new temples if they abandoned their original devotees and helped the Romans defeat them. Clearly, judging by the unrivaled success they experienced, this was an effective policy on their part. As far as I’m aware the United States of America has never made such a binding agreement with any divinity – not Yahweh and certainly not the gods of Pagan Europe either. So, what right do you have to accuse the gods of not holding up their end of a bargain when no such bargain was officially in place? (And indeed, since America has no kingly authority nor state church we have no one on our side who is qualified to bring such a deal before the gods.)

Even so, I think it premature to suggest that the gods “turned their backs on us.” We suffered a single massive coordinated terrorist strike. It was a horrifying event, no doubt about it, and the loss of life on that day is truly to be lamented. But America was not brought to her knees by this one atrocity. We did not suffer invasion and occupation by a foreign army, this was not the beginning of a prolonged and constant state of siege with terrorists blowing up synagogues, schools and discos every other week, half our population wasn’t wiped out and forced into slavery or concentration camps. We got our nose bloodied a little bit and after we picked up the pieces we went on with our lives pretty much like before. (Discounting the erosion of our civil liberties, waging unprovoked and staggeringly expensive wars on multiple fronts, selling our country out to big business, the increasing polarization and lack of civility in our public discourse, etc.) Other countries have had to deal with far worse on a far more regular basis and yet don’t whine about it nearly as much as we Americans do.

The gods were there with us on 9/11 just as they were with the English during the subway attacks, with the Indians during Mumbai, with the Haitians during the earthquake and the Japanese when we bombed Hiroshima. The presence of the gods will not shelter us from bad things happening, because it can’t: bad things are just a part of physical existence. Because they were mortals even Sarpedon, Aeneas, Melampos and Antony had to taste of death, despite being well-loved by the gods. What the presence of the gods does is help us heal and grow stronger, help us pick up the broken pieces and form them into something beautiful and meaningful. Bad things are trials that make us wiser, stronger, more compassionate and creative. They are the fuel of evolution that helps us to reach our full potential as human beings. It gives value to our experiences. I look at the face of my beloved and I know there’s a chance she won’t be here tomorrow. But now, in this moment, she is here with me and so I will show her how much she means to me, never letting an opportunity to express that love go by unanswered. That is the heart of Pagan theology – recognizing the fragile and ephemeral nature of existence and celebrating it as much as you can, while you can. All the rest is just empty talk, especially when you are trying to hold the gods to a standard they never agreed to in the first place.

In closing I would like to leave you with a sober thought: all of you who read this will be dead one day. In fact it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone who is currently walking the earth will be gone within a hundred and fifty years, hardly a blip on the vast scale of geological time. The question we should be pondering isn’t why but rather what. Specifically “What the hell am I going to do with these few precious moments that have been allotted to me?” That is how you create a life worth living, a life worthy of the notice of the gods.

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14 thoughts on “Dii facientes adiuvant

  1. Upper-middle class people don’t handle adversity too well, do they? Not even most Neopagans.

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    • I’d say especially not Neopagans since most of us lead lives of comfort and plenty. I’ve spent most of my 30+ years a close friend of poverty and even I don’t really know what true suffering is like. But regular exposure to adversity does prepare one for facing serious calamities, inoculating the soul against its evils.

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  2. I adore this post, I really do. You are one of the very few who are fit to be called a pagan Theologian, and you show it well.

    Vale bene!

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  3. “Bad Theology On Display” would make an awesome name for a band.

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  4. Pingback: Pagan Platitudes on 9/11, Etc. « Dimension Bomb: Wepwawet-mose

  5. Great post!

    “I do not recall the gods ever promising us that life would be easy, simple or without pain and struggle. This is part of the human condition and has been since the beginning of time.”

    Psh. Exactly! What is woven in Fate’s tapestry is not always going to be what we want. Hel, in my theology not even the gods themselves escape the turnings of the Wyrd. We can only follow in their example and do the best we can with whatever life throws at us, and work towards a better future. Because, after all, the ‘future’ arises from the present.
    9/11 was certainly a tragedy, and one worthy of our sorrow and rememberance, but it seems to me that the sparks of hope and heroism shine brightest even in such dark times. As americans we have bonded together. We have recognized the seriousness of national security, and are trying to work towards peace. Even tragedy has its important role to play in the world.

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    • Excellent point about Fate and Wyrd – even Zeus himself, in Hellenic thought, must obey the dictates of the Moirai.

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  6. Pingback: Gods and bad things « 4 of Wands

  7. It’s only relatively recently that the average life expectancy rose beyond 40.
    Well, like you say, that was the average for centuries, and averages are mathematically kinda quirky, as extremes can skew the average when “the average person” will experience a different reality than the mathematical average will suggest. Wikipedia has a fairly accurate table explaining historic life expectancies, and even in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, when the “[average] expectancy” was 28, reading the final column reveals that this is due to infant and paediatric mortality — if one could make it past the age of fifteen, then one could expect to live to about their early fifties, and septuagenarians (like Pindar) were not scarce amongst the higher classes.

    All in all, in about two thousand years, the post-adolescent life expectancy has only really increased by about twenty/twenty-five years, maximum, and the greatest change has been in the non-aristocracy classes. The most significant change in the Western world in the last 150 years has been the extreme reduction in infant and paediatric mortality, increasing the overall Western average by the widest margin.

    But I digress, and anyway, you’re smart and presumably already knew this, so I’m mainly just saying it cos I’m a pedant who knows that a bare minimum of one in a hundred of your readers will be learning this explanation for the first time. ;-)

    That is the heart of Pagan theology – recognizing the fragile and ephemeral nature of existence and celebrating it as much as you can, while you can. All the rest is just empty talk, especially when you are trying to hold the gods to a standard they never agreed to in the first place.

    VERY well-said. I’m not a deist, I believe that the gods are very active in the lives and cares of mortals, but to say that because they are then they will take care of everything and make our lives forever happy, even in cases where that has not been explicitly asked for (and watch out which deity you ask that of — S/He could give you eternal happiness via brain damage) is a tad much, to say the least. I’m active in the life of my best friend and house-mate, and I care about his happiness, but if he were to get in a car accident on his way to work, surely it’s not because I wasn’t there with him, and nobody with any sense would blame me for that accident.

    While a god certainly has more power to stop an on-coming car than I do, to say that they always should, whether you ask Them to or not, is expecting a bit much, I’d say. At the very least, it’s expecting more out of the relationship than one has even come close to putting in. But I’m a believer in the tapestry of the Moirai, and there’s only so many places our threads can weave before the bar slides back over us and pushes those events into place, and even the Theoi themselves are bound to this law. There’s no cosmic law against taking an opportunity, even one that can cause the deaths of millions, and it certainly does not mean that those accefect by that happening have been abandoned by the gods.

    At the same time, though, I know it can feel like one has been “abandoned” by the gods when a great tragedy happens, but feelings are illogical things, and feeling something doesn’t make it true. Our senses are more deceptive than we mortals tend to credit them for.

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    • You know, I actually thought about including a little note in the piece about average life expectancy because that is a surprisingly misunderstood concept … so I’m glad you commented with that information. And I also enjoyed your excellent remarks on the gods. I, too, believe that the gods could have averted this event – or at the least forewarned their people not to be there – but that’s the thing, ain’t it? How many devotees of Zeus died at WTC? Or Sekhmet? Or Freyja? Or Quetzalcoatl? How many people in the U.S. today are even aware of the existence of these deities, let alone actively pay them any kind of proper cultus? Why then should they feel obligated to intervene in the affairs of man (and let us always remember that this was the act of human beings, regardless of the justifications they put forth) when those men have done nothing to earn their regard and favor?

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  8. Pingback: PBP: Remembering « 4 of Wands

  9. Pingback: The road that the bakchoi and other mystai have trod | The House of Vines

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