Friday, November 3, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 3: The Gods Who Live Among Us

Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash.

To understand why I'm thinking about taking a deeper dive into a pagan practice, I first have to explain my history with religious exploration. This isn't something I just decided to do out of nowhere. As I've mentioned, I've been sort of pagan-adjacent for many years with my wife, who considers herself a Taoist and would freely admit to being a shameless tree-hugger. She also has a longstanding interest in Norse mythology, so much so that I bought her a bonsai ash tree a few years ago so she could have her own little Yggdrasil, complete with an eagle, some squirrels, a Midgard serpent, even the rope from which Odin hung for three days. Sadly, Little Yggdrasil succumbed to what we think was some kind of fungal infection. We're anxiously awaiting the wrath of the gods and the end of the world for committing our heinous sin against the World-Tree.

Anyway, I was the first person in my family to be born into the Catholic church. My maternal grandparents, who adopted and raised me, were Protestant converts in the Sixties, in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council. Just as they got settled in to the ways of the old Latin Mass, everything went vernacular and modern. But I was born in the years following Vatican II, at a time when the Catholic church was having an identity crisis. This was a time when ecumenism was in the air, and the church decided it didn't want to do anything to alienate its Protestant fellow travelers. As a result, anything that carried the slightest whiff of Catholic exclusivity was being held at arm's length. When I was a kid in the Seventies, I can remember vividly when Mary statues were being shoved into closets, as if having the Blessed Mother overlooking her children was something to be embarrassed about. And no one talked about rosaries. I had a nun slip me one at some point, I think during my first communion, but actually learning how to use the rosary in prayer was something that nobody ever talked about. Catechesis was abysmally bad around this time as well, I guess because catechism teachers didn't know how much they should actually teach about the faith. Teaching us how to be religiously inclusive seemed to take precedence over how to actually be Catholic. 

As a result of all this, most of what I learned about my Catholic faith were things I found out myself, through my own research. Not many kids are going to take that kind of initiative. So the Catholic church shouldn't be surprised that church attendance fell off a cliff following Vatican II, as my generation grew up, and has never recovered. If the church never told you why you should be Catholic as opposed to a member of any other church, guess what? A lot of people are going to find no compelling reason to stick around. Such are the fruits of modernism. 

I had it even worse because Mom (as I knew her) brought a lot of her evangelical baggage along with her into her Catholic practice. Imagine the solemnity of your weekend Mass clashing with fire-and-brimstone evangelical preachers on TV all week long, not to mention the significant doctrinal disconnect between one and the other. But then imagine bringing the evangelical spirit into the Catholic church itself. Dad and my godfather were both into the Charismatic Catholic movement that was all the rage in the Seventies and Eighties. If you don't know what that is, just imagine the "spirit-filled" emotionalism of a Pentecostal service in a Catholic context. Arms waving in the air, people speaking in tongues, all of it. They also did the whole laying-on-of-hands-thing in hopes of bringing about miraculous healings. It wasn't quite as crazy as one of those tent revivals where the preacher smacks you on the head and you fall limp to the floor, having been "slain by the Holy Spirit" -- I regrettably got dragged to one of those services by a Pentecostal girlfriend when I was a young adult -- but it was enough to keep a kid like me wondering what the heck I was supposed to believe. 

The praying-for-healing bit, in hindsight, was probably what ultimately doomed my faith more than anything else. I was raised by my grandparents because my birth mother was mentally ill, scarily violent, and abusive toward me in my youngest years. Living in fear of her as I was growing up caused me a lot of anxiety, and for all I know, I probably inherited some of her mental ailments. From my mid-teens onward, I started experiencing some worrisome health problems that felt very real but for all I know could have been psychosomatic. The only thing I know is that I haven't really felt physically well for most of my adult life, and after thousands of dollars of tests and procedures and being bounced from one specialist to another, the only thing anyone's ever told me is that I had some anxiety disorders. I'd get sent off with some antidepressants and that was pretty much it. But none of it ever addressed how I actually felt, physically. My vision was almost constantly blurry. Then I'd have bouts of severe dizziness. Sometimes I'd feel disoriented. Other times I'd look at my own hands and feel like they were someone else's, as if I was looking through a TV screen at somebody else. I wouldn't sleep for days and sometimes weeks on end. My heart would palpitate. I'd sweat uncontrollably. I'd suffer panic attacks in waves, so bad that sometimes I'd miss days of school, and later on days of work. 

Thirty-plus years later, none of this has ever really gone away. I've just learned to live with it, even though things are getting worse as I get older, and some days I feel like I'm barely hanging on by a thread. But imagine feeling this way as a teenager, and when the doctors can't give you any relief, you turn to the prayer that you're told is supposed to make everything better. Ask and you shall receive, they always said. So I did. I had people laying hands on me in those prayer meetings. Dad and my godfather would repeat the process at home, with the two of them speaking in tongues as they petitioned their God for my well-being. If I was supposed to feel something, I never did. The Holy Spirit never whacked me to the floor and made me better. Eventually, I resorted to praying with those TV preachers, the ones who'd tell you to put your hand up against theirs on the screen while they started receiving messages that someone in Oklahoma was being cured of cancer. They never mentioned a kid in Michigan, though, All I could do was remain there on my hands and knees, tears streaming down my face, begging God to please have mercy on me and make me better. I asked, and I never received.

For a long time, I felt like it was my own fault. I must not have been faithful enough. I must have been doing something to displease God to make him withhold the healing I asked for. That just turned an anxious kid into a neurotic one with a massive guilt complex. Meanwhile, Mom, very unhelpfully, would basically just tell me to snap out of it. I felt like no one was ever in my corner. I was awkward and shy at school, and I very frequently got picked on. Those kids neither knew nor cared about the pain I already felt inside, or else they wouldn't have tried to make my suffering even worse.

As I got older, I ate to deal with the pain I felt inside. I still carry the extra weight from abusing my body for years with bad (and excessive) food, and it was probably a contributing factor to my developing Type 2 diabetes. At least I never got hooked on drink or drugs, and that was probably only because I saw how drugs destroyed my bio-mom's life. I was also afraid to be even temporarily out of control of a mind that I felt I only had a tenuous amount of control over in the first place. I've only been drunk once in my life, and that was more than enough for me. 

I also got into a lot of stupid relationships, in the hopes that receiving affection and care from someone would fix whatever was wrong with me. 

All the while, I hung on to my Catholic faith. I'm not even sure I could tell you why, except that I was probably holding on to some elusive hope that maybe someday God would make things better for me. I mean, I guess that's why most people cling to religious belief, right? Because life's tough and they hold out hope that things will one day be better? That they'll receive a heavenly reward someday if they just do the things their religion tells them to do? 

In 2000, I met the woman who would become my wife. I honestly don't know how she didn't run screaming from the hot mess I laid on her doorstep. But I'm sure glad she didn't, because I can't tell you with any certainty that I'd even be here writing this blog post now if not for her. I joke that she collects broken things and makes them better, but only half-joking, because it's kind of true. She has more kindness and compassion in her heart than the overwhelming majority of people I've met who dare to call themselves followers of Christ. I probably make her life miserable most days, and I know she must get tired of watching me try to hold myself together. But somehow she never gives up. 

When I met her, I still thought of myself as Catholic, but I was starting to explore other religious paths. I first delved into Buddhism. Even though I was skeptical about some of its teachings, I found it far more sensible than Christianity, and I became something of an armchair Buddhist for a good 15 years or so. But I took that path as far as I could, and when I felt I couldn't take it any further, I spent the next several years bouncing around in search of ... well, of something. What that something was, I didn't know. I studied pagan myths. I deepened my study of the Tao Te Ching, which remains one of my favorite books of all time, religious or otherwise. I explored obscure practices and traditions like Cao Dai and Gurdjieff's Fourth Way. I even circled back to Christianity by way of the Quaker tradition. The simple, contemplative silence of the Quaker service, leaving room for the "still, small voice" to speak to you, was to me not so different from Buddhist meditation. 

Eventually, Catholicism came calling again. When we lived in the Seattle area, there was a Catholic church that put on what it called a "Mercy Night" once every quarter (if memory serves). The services were contemplative and beautiful. The church was illuminated only by candlelight. A small group of musicians played softly as people came and went during the evening, most of them just sitting or kneeling quietly and reflectively in the pews. The idea behind the service was to welcome back weary pilgrims who'd been on a spiritual journey but were ready to come back home. People were invited to come forward to light a candle at the foot of the altar with a prayer intention in mind. Informal prayer groups were set up around the sanctuary for people to come and talk to. There was even a priest on hand to hear people's confessions. 

The quiet of the services was occasionally broken by people who'd take to the lectern to share their stories of returning to their Catholic faith. They were usually quite moving stories, often suggestive of some kind of spiritual epiphany that I couldn't really relate to, as much as I might have wanted to.

At one of these services, I decided to come up and have a chat with one of the prayer groups. I can't even remember anymore what we talked about, but the one thing I do recall is that my eyes continued to be drawn to the Mary statue just a few feet away from where we were sitting. I think I ended up going to confession that night, but after that I wandered back over to Mary and just knelt down and had a long, silent conversation with her. 

As I did that, a lot of memories came flooding back. In particular, I remembered that one of things I enjoyed most about attending Mass with my family as a kid was sitting in the dark and quiet of the church before the service began. I enjoyed watching the altar servers and the lay assistants flitting around, getting the candles lit, the vestments prepared, the lectionary put in place, the song numbers being put on the board as someone softly played the organ. Those were moments of reflective peace and tranquility before the priest came in and we had to sit, stand, kneel, and respond when the rubrics of the Mass told us to. I didn't mind the Mass itself, even if I always had loads of questions about why we believed the things we did. I enjoyed the regularity of the rituals, the depth of the traditions, the annual ebb and flow of the liturgical seasons. I always looked forward to the beauty of the Easter Vigil and the Christmas Eve service. But as I was reflecting on that one night in Seattle, many years later, it occurred to me that those quiet moments in the darkened church, when people were free to pray and reflect on their own, were some of the most spiritually moving moments I could remember. No wonder I enjoyed sitting with the Quakers. And no wonder I enjoyed being there at those Mercy Night services. 

The other thing I realized that night was that my Catholic faith was pretty darn Mary-centric and probably always had been. Lacking a great mother figure in real life, I think I spent a lot of time contemplating the Blessed Mother as a kid when we sat there in the dark of the church before Mass -- at least when someone hadn't seen fit to hide her statue away. It just didn't fully register with me, I guess, until that one Mercy Night in Seattle when I sat there and just talked to this kind and compassionate Mom who'd always, in hindsight, always been there for me, even if I'd never had much to say to her as a kid.

Through Mary, I found my way back to the church for a while. I even had what I guess I'd call my first real "religious experience" in the presence of another Mary statue not too long after that Mercy Night chat I'd had with her. I don't know what to think of what happened to me in her presence, even all these years later. For all I know, what happened was no more than an emotional projection on my part. Maybe I wanted something to happen so badly that I "made" it happen. I really have no idea. But one thing it did do was solidify my spiritual framework around a connection to the Sacred Feminine, something that institutional Christianity seems to ignore in favor of an all-male Trinity. Even the Catholic church officially teaches that Mary is not to be worshiped, and that her value to the church comes mainly from her meekness and obedience. In other words, you can respect her and turn to her in prayer, but don't forget that all women ultimately need to be kept in their place -- even the Mother of God. 

But as time has gone on and my body gets older and weaker, my patience for the excuses of the gatekeepers of Christianity has just worn thin. I know what the theologians and philosophers of the Catholic tradition want me to believe. And I admire the men and women who make up the rich history of the Catholic intellectual tradition, just as I admire the Catholic mystics whose experiences of the divine reflect my own (admittedly limited) experiences. But in the end, they're just asking me for too much of a suspension of disbelief. When I look back and see that Catholic giants like Augustine and Aquinas were inspired by the likes of Plato, and I find more enrichment from reading Plato than I do from those who built their Catholic framework around his philosophical ideas, then it just seems like there's a middleman that I can cut out.

The truth of the matter is that what's been handed down to us is most likely the culmination of a mythology that one man, Paul, overlaid on what he probably knew about the life and times of an itinerant apocalyptic Jewish preacher named Jesus. For reasons we'll probably never know, Paul decided that Jesus was the prophesied Jewish messiah, even though Jesus didn't fit the description of what the Jewish people had been waiting for. And even though this figure was supposed to be for the Jewish people only, Paul decided that he was for everyone. Add in some ideas about a dying-and-rising deity, which could easily have come from stories Paul would have been familiar with, given the religious pluralism of the time and place he lived in, and you have yourself a ready-made religion. Incorporate a binary vision of the afterlife, with heavenly bliss awaiting those who follow the script, and an eternal hellscape that was borrowed at least in part from Greek myth as the destination for everyone else, and you'll have superstitious people knocking down the doors to sign up. 

I've really tried to make a go of it in the past few years, I still enjoy going to Mass once in a while, especially the Latin Mass. I find it familiar, soothing, and comforting. I've listened to contemporary Catholic thinkers making a solid intellectual and philosophical case for their theological stances. When literal belief has failed -- and it did for me a long time ago -- I've tried to embrace the stories of the Bible as instructional metaphors pointing to deeper truths about our existence. I've even delved pretty deeply into Jungian thought that sees religious figures as psychological archetypes. But in the end, it's just not enough for me to sustain whatever tenuous thread still connected me to the Catholic tradition. I deeply admire the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and I'm still drawn to Mary as a powerful symbol of the life-giving Sacred Feminine and of unconditional motherly love. But really, that's about it. 

Look, why does anyone "need" to be rescued from eternal torture in hell in the first place? And how does the sacrifice of one guy 2,000 years ago magically confer on us the ability to avoid that supernatural death sentence? If the deity behind this system is all-powerful, as his believers claim he is, then why can't he just be merciful and let people through the pearly gates, knowing that we're flawed human beings who are inevitably going to screw things up? His believers say this deity is also omnibenevolent, so isn't that something an all-loving deity would do? Why is there some sense of divine justice that has to be appeased before he'll give an inch? Is God some kind of judge in a courtroom, bound by his own laws, and demanding that we consent to a legal transaction before he'll meet us halfway? If so, what kind of messed-up deity is that? Why did he even feel a need to create a "hell"? This God sounds strangely more like a projection of limited human minds than he does a perfect and all-encompassing being that by definition would be beyond any kind of human restriction. He certainly wouldn't have human emotions like wrath, jealousy, or regret, as the Bible that talks about him claims he has.

I'm not making an argument in favor of atheism, mind you. It just seems obvious to me that if there is some kind of divine presence out there, it has nothing to do with a deity that is so painfully obviously a creation of feeble human minds and -- more to the point -- a projection of the hopes, fears, and prejudices of those minds. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Look at the facts, based on what we're told to believe about this deity, and watch how it falls apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny.

  • We're told that this deity is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent -- all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. Given those qualities as a starting point, how do we explain why a deity would create a world that he would have known would fall short of his ideals? If he's omniscient, he knew that humans would "fall." That must logically mean, then, that he wanted them to. Otherwise, being omnibenevolent, he would have created a world in which they wouldn't have to suffer for their mistakes. Or, at the very least, he would have simply forgiven them for their human frailties and had mercy on them. He certainly wouldn't have needed to create a place of eternal torment for them. An all-loving being would be incapable of doing such a thing in the first place.

  • We're told that God found his creation "good." That creation included human beings. So why, then, especially in evangelical circles, are we told to believe that God views us as beneath contempt and deserving of eternal punishment? Why is that our default? How could a God of love have such a lowly view of his creation, one that's supposedly made in his image? And if the only way he'll tolerate you in his heavenly presence is if you accept his son's sacrifice, so that when he deigns to look at you, he doesn't see you but Jesus instead, how is that loving and merciful? How is that anything other than divine contempt?  

  • How does original sin get transmitted from parent to child, and why should it be that way? Why should we have to suffer for what some mythical couple did thousands of years ago? Why is what they did our fault? Couldn't God just do a reset -- or, again, simply have mercy on humans and forgive them without the need for a human sacrifice? 

  • Why did God need to become human and essentially sacrifice himself to himself before he could forgive people?

  • We know that suffering exists in the world. Some Christian apologists claim that the suffering is a result of free will -- in other words, people do bad things to other people and create human suffering. But putting aside the fact that free will and divine omniscience can't coexist, the free-will defense still doesn't explain natural evils, like the cancer that takes a child's life or the hurricane that levels a city. If God is all-loving, why would he allow people to suffer from these things? If he's all-powerful, why doesn't he stop these things from happening? Something obviously doesn't add up.

  • If Satan is responsible for so much evil in the world, why doesn't God just kill him? Is he unable? Then he's not omnipotent. Is he unwilling? Then he must not be omnibenevolent.

  • Why are we supposed to pray to this deity? Prayer would have no effect on anything, since God already knows how your life will play out, and you have no chance of changing his mind, since he's a perfect being. 

  • Why would the creator of the entire universe take such an inordinate interest in this one tiny little backwater planet? When the stories of this deity were written, people believed that Earth was at the center of the universe and heaven was directly overhead, beyond the clouds. Now we know better. Now we know that we're just one of billions of planets in the universe, and that we hold no special place in it. Is this deity just as micro-focused on a bunch of other inhabited planets billions of miles away? Does he have a separate Bible for them? Did they have their own Adams and Eves, and did their stories play out differently from ours? Did he make a sacrificial Jesus for them if things went wrong? Or are we the only ones who needed this special treatment? And if so, why? Given what we know now about the nature of our universe, as opposed to what the writers of the Bible thought they knew, doesn't the entire narrative simply fall apart?   

  • Why would a perfect being want to create anything at all? It would have no need to, finding everything it needs within itself.   

What it boils down to is that the alleged "perfection" of this deity, it's omni- characteristics, are its Achilles' heel. The universe we live in simply doesn't line up with the existence of such a deity. If this deity existed, things would be very different from how they are. And they aren't. Therefore, the deity must not actually exist. 

So what is out there? Maybe nothing. Maybe some kind of entity or creative force that we could never hope to comprehend with our limited human understanding. None of us will know the answer until we die. Our religions are just best guesses, and they tend to say more about us than they do about the deities they claim to know all about. 

But that's not the only reason I can no longer find any place for myself within Christian theology, even on a symbolic or metaphorical level. The unpleasant truth is that Christianity, as practiced by most people and preached in most churches, is harmful to people and the planet. 

Think about it. Any religion that makes you think you're worthless and deserving of hell just for being born is damaging people's self-worth at best and committing severe psychological damage at worst. There is no "good news" in being told you're worthless. Luther was the way he was because he was obsessed with his own sins and what they would mean for the fate of his soul. His religion made him a neurotic mess, to the point that he had to reject even the slightest notion that anything but blind faith alone would get you into heaven. 

We live with the results of his hang-ups today, with Christians who fail to act the least bit Christ-like because they think it doesn't matter: All you have to do is believe. And in fact, if you do try to do something nice for another human being, you get accused of engaging in "works-based salvation," which evangelicals equate with trying to buy your way into heaven. They have an amazing knack for making the performance of good deeds seem so distasteful -- even though Jesus explicitly said he wanted others to see his followers' good works and told them that they would be judged based on what they did in this life for the poor, sick, and needy -- in other words, for "the least of these." Jesus was, lest we forget, Jewish, and the Jewish people focus their religious deeds on making this world better. After all, people in need, need help now. They don't have the luxury of waiting around for some heavenly reward.

Not only are the needs of human beings ignored among people of this religious mindset, but the needs of the planet are as well. Why worry about the fate of the environment if you think Jesus is coming back any minute now?  

The same goes for peace on our planet. At this moment, we have evangelical Christians supporting the conflict in the Middle East because they think every conflict that involves Israel means the second coming is at hand -- and they'd rather usher in their apocalyptic end-times fantasies than worry about the fact that people are dying. It's no wonder that an evangelical Christian I once spoke to, one who could quote Paul from memory, had no idea what the Beatitudes were. As Kurt Vonnegut once observed, Christians are quick to want to display Moses' tablets in American courtrooms, but no one ever seems to advocate for displaying, say, "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon or "Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom. But then Jesus' ethical teachings seem to be an afterthought to a lot of believers, especially the evangelicals and fundamentalists. All they really seem to care about is getting their ticket to heaven punched.

OK, so what does any of this have to do with turning toward a pagan path? Why not just become a hard-nosed atheist and be done with it?

Glad you asked. 

The short version is that I think there's more to our existence than just this physical material world. But even if there isn't, I don't think that the purely materialistic view of our universe that sprang out of the Enlightenment has done us any favors. Reducing both humans and the natural world to nothing more than a temporary assortment of meaningless molecules has not only stripped any sense of magic, sacredness, and wonder from our existence, but in the end it makes us nothing more than disposable commodities. We all ultimately become just things to be used, means to an immediate end, without regard for any kind of deeper meaning or value. Not only do we treat our fellow humans worse as a result, but we also do the same to nature. Nature becomes just something to exploit for its resources, something to be dominated, without any regard for the long-term consequences. And somehow we've forgotten that we're part of that same natural world we're so eager to dominate. What affects it, affects us. 

One of the reasons paganism made a comeback was that modern people felt disconnected from the earth, and they were hungry to rediscover that connection. Pagan practice is rooted in nature, from caring for our ecological treasures to understanding our place within the environment. We're all connected, people and the natural world alike, because we're made of the same basic stuff. You can think of that stuff as meaningless temporary assortments of matter, as we've become conditioned to do, or you can see that as the basis for a deep spiritual connection. Think about the difference it makes to how you interact with your environment if you imagine that you're an inextricable part of the natural world, and that natural world is imbued with spirits. If there are gods and goddesses lurking in the forests and tending to the fields and sailing on the oceans, you feel drawn to revere the things they oversee and care for. They become alive. 

To me, this is one of the things that the Abrahamic religions as a whole lack, and it's a serious deficiency. You can believe that God created the heavens and the earth, but what does that really mean if that God always stands aloof and distant from his creation? Christians are always warned not to revere the natural world because it could lead to nature worship of the kind the pagans practice -- as if this is a bad thing. Why wouldn't you want to find your deity inhabiting the natural world? Why would you want your only interaction with him to be when you're being eternally rewarded or judged for what you did during your life? How does that bring the sacred into the everyday world? It doesn't. 

There was a group of Russian Orthodox thinkers in the early 20th century who developed a theological school called Sophiology. This school saw the Sophia of the Old Testament as more than just the personification of Divine Wisdom that she's said to represent; it saw her as an active divine presence in the world -- the immanence of God himself. One of Sophiology's most outspoken proponents, Sergei Bulgakov, once wrote that he experienced Sophia's presence when admiring the beauty of the natural world. In other words, when he contemplated the mountains and forests and rivers, he saw God's presence, as expressed through Sophia. If God is found through the contemplation and pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty, Sophia is the beauty. 

To have a sense of the presence of the divine in the natural world around us would have done much to bring Christianity into greater harmony with life on this planet. It perhaps would have made it a little less obsessed with some far-off heavenly realm that may or may not actually exist and more concerned with the needs of the here and now. But, alas, the Sophiologists' religious superiors denounced their views as being out of tune with the nature of God as they understood it to be. It's likely that the idea was simply too pagan for the church to tolerate. God has to be out there. He can't be here with us.  

And yet that's where the pagan gods are -- right here with us. They experience the seasons like we do. They go through the same ups and downs that we do. They're relatable, not just because they share this world with us but because they're usually imperfect like us, and sometimes just as mortal as we are. There's something deeply endearing about that idea. And that doesn't even take into account that through the pagan myths, we get a chance to engage with deities who might even share our ancestral history. I don't have any connection to a Middle Eastern deity. I'm not the slightest bit Middle Eastern. So why wouldn't I want to develop a closer relationship with a deity who might actually come from a similar, if not the same, cultural background? It ultimately makes more sense, especially inasmuch as it holds the potential to make you feel even closer to the pagan gods. 

But even if you can't take the existence of the pagan gods literally, think, once again, about simply what a difference it makes to imagine them here with us, by our side. It makes us want to be better stewards. When you think of Earth as just a big, cold, lifeless rock that we're all stuck on as we float through the void of space, how much do you really care about any of this? But if you think of Earth as your mother, everything changes. You want to care for it, respect it, love it. When I think of Earth, I think of a caring mother who shelters and nurtures us. I think of Mary, Sophia, and the Holy Spirit (which I regard as a feminine spirit, as did many ancient Christians). I also think of Gaea, or her Anglo-Saxon counterpart, EorĂ°e. And I think of the Tao, whom the legendary author of the Tao Te Ching refers to as the "Great Mother."  

That's why these ancient stories matter. We're storytelling creatures, and if we can place ourselves into the story of a world where the gods look after us and us after them, it's going to make a difference in how we interact with the world. It helps us see the importance of finding a balance between the material and the spiritual. To me, this is one of the central interpretations of yin and yang in Taoist philosophy. Yin and yang represent complementary opposites, like hot and cold, or light and dark, and the famous tai-chi symbol is a representation of those opposites in perfect balance with each other, with each containing an element of the other while eternally changing into one another and back again. They need each other to be complete. 

And so it is with matter and spirit. To focus too much on one or the other puts us out of balance. We need both, and we need healthy and productive ways to engage with both. To embrace the old pagan ways is one method of trying to do just that. At the very least, I think that to do so certainly serves us and our planet better than our institutional religions will ever manage to do. If your God is out there, far away, separate from you, then you're going to focus all your energy on wanting to be there, with him. But if your gods are right here, reaching out from their spiritual realm to engage in the physical world right along with us, then your worldview changes, quite possibly for the better of everyone -- and everything -- involved. 

[WC: 6,122 / TWC: 10,203]

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