Monday, September 19, 2011

To you, I offer this post

A former coworker of mine, Steve, said a lot of nutty things, but one thing he said is some of the best general advice I've ever heard: to receive more of something, first give it away.

Steve was talking about reciprocity with other people, such as how if you want other people to listen to you and take your opinions seriously, you should first listen to them and take their opinions seriously. After listening to them for a while, they're likely to listen to you—probably without realizing it. Ditto for respect, trust, love, money, and nearly anything else you give and take with others.

Steve's advice helps me make sense of Chapter 8 of A World Full of Gods, which is about polytheist worship. According to Greer, The essence of Pagan worship is reciprocity between divinity and humanity. The polytheist universe is populated only by finite beings and entities, and this universal finiteness means all things exist through giving and mutual interaction.

Religion in the Pagan sense is a matter of exchange. While the gods are greater than human beings, they are not infinitely so, and humanity thus has the potential to bring something of its own to a relationship with divinity. Each participates in the relationship in a manner proportioned to their relative place in the cosmos, but the relationship is never merely one-sided.

The principle of reciprocity provides the proper context to the much-misinterpreted Roman religious maxim do ut des, usually translated I give that you may give. Too often, even by those alert to the complexities of Roman religion, this has been read as a commercial transaction in which Roman worshippers paid their gods in advance for some benefit.

This is unjust. What the maxim actually implies is the exchange of gifts as an expression of ancient rules of friendship and hospitality. Behind this conception lies a concept of an exchange of gifts between different orders of being as the bond that unites the universe.

While I don't doubt there were at least a few self-interested Romans who gave to the gods with the hope they were partaking in a commercial transaction, the idea of reciprocity makes sense of a puzzling question I've long had about polytheism—as well as other religions—Doesn't anyone care about track record? Just as with the recent, well publicized rain prayer in Texas and how it didn't immediately conjure an end to the state's drought, it must be ages since people first realized the gods don't respond predictably to offerings and beseechings.

Modern theorists of religion have wrestled with the habit of making gifts to gods, ancestors, and spirits, on the assumption that there are no obvious returns on the investment. To ancient and modern Pagans alike, however, the assumption is transparently false. If such beings exist and govern the natural world, their gifts are as obvious as food and drink on the table, rain on the fields, fertility in the soil, and the fact of life itself. The gods are primarily and superlatively givers of good things, and the world in which life takes place is their gift to us.

In other words, the polytheist doesn't make an offering to the rain god simply to ask for rain. Instead, he makes the offering to fulfill his end in his coexistence with the rain god, who has already provided the polytheist with a lifetime of rain.

For the core of Pagan sacrifice is participation and celebration, not appeasement or renunciation. Making offerings to the gods is central to Pagan religious practice because it allows human beings to respond to the generosity of the gods with gifts of their own. Prayers are accompanied with offerings, or with promises of offerings to come, to reaffirm that gods and humans both participate in the web of reciprocity, celebrating their friendship with an exchange of gifts. Thus the old Pagan rituals of animal sacrifice were festive events for the entire community, more like a barbecue than like most modern religious rites. The gods received their share of the offering, and the rest was cooked and served out among the worshippers.

The polytheist gives to the gods not only because giving is good for the gods but also because giving is good for the giver. This reminds me of Christianity and how it advises us to forgive others for their transgressions again us, not only because forgiveness benefits the transgressor but because forgiveness benefits the forgiver.

This perspective leads me to wonder to what degree the modern world's slew of philosophies and ideologies centered on markets and rational self-interest are by-products of our world's increasing detachment from the natural world and related ideas such as the web of reciprocity. When most of what we consume is bought from strangers, prepackaged and paid for using money, each transaction ends with the deal squared, freeing both participants from further responsibility. But if detachment from nature is a fiction, as many ecologists are apt to point out, perhaps such arrangements are not so rationally self-interested after all.

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