For one of my undergrad philosophy classes, I wrote an essay explaining why God’s alleged omnipotence and omniscience didn’t necessitate human obeisance. I don’t remember what class it was for specifically or what I grade I got on it, only the righteous indignation as I sat muttering into my fifth cup of coffee in one of the campus dining halls. Adoration, unquestioning faith, and blind obedience: this kind of absolute surrender to a deity seems to be the most common understanding of what worship actually entails. I know people who have been drawn towards one Pagan path or another but who find the idea of developing a relationship with a deity utterly repelling because of this misunderstanding of what worship should entail.
The word itself has cracked under the weight of its connotations. I see it far more often used in relation to Christianity and Catholicism, which naturally establishes a reflexive association between the word and institutionalized religion. I have trouble applying it to my own private practice. When one honors a goddess of sovereignty, there’s an added edge of revulsion towards the thought of freely handing over one’s will, power, and self-possession, whether the recipient is a divine being or simply another person. But there is nothing in the act of worship itself that necessitates this kind of submission.
Now, there’s no one right way for polytheists to worship, honor, or work with their deities. It depends on the path, of course, due to a combination of history, cultural context, the deity or deities in question, and the individual’s unique circumstances and relationship to that deity or deities. All are equally valid and equally profound. What, then, entails a healthy form of “worship”?
Establishing boundaries is the cornerstone. Gods and mortals occupy different realms and interact with the other’s realm in very different ways. Gods are capable of acting in ways that are extraordinary, but then, so are mortals. When Camila Vallejo broke into global news during the height of the Occupy protests, she was 23 and already taking to the front lines against the Chilean government for the sake of its students and youth, successfully bidding for concessions and the resignation of two ministers. When Japan’s nuclear reactors in Fukushima had a meltdown, the elderly were volunteering to enter the reactors in place of the younger generation, willingly taking on the high risks of the effects of radiation in order to spare those who, presumably, still had many years left to live. Unbeknownst to me, my mother, fighting cancer and living on food stamps, still found ways to invest what little she had to ensure that I would be taken care of after she died.
None of these things address the ultimate fate of civilizations or the outcome of a pivotal war. Sometimes these actions echo on a national stage, and sometimes they’re witnessed by only a few individuals. All of them, however, exist on the heroism, love, determination, and idealism of mere mortals acting in ways that the gods cannot. After all, if the gods were capable of everything mortals are, I believe they wouldn’t need to bother with us.
My point is that differences in ability and the subtlety and scale of those abilities do not require a dynamic of imbalanced power. When we approach the gods, when we interact, we have the right to establish personal boundaries over what we will or will not do, give or not give. We are not slaves or toys. They may be gods, but we are mortals, and our finite nature makes our brief lives all the more incredible for the things we learn, the things we risk and sacrifice, and the things we accomplish on any scale.
As an outgrowth of establishing boundaries, respect for both yourself and the deity or deities is integral. Just as you honor your own sovereignty, you honor the sovereignty of the other. It’s about balance, not domination, or otherwise you end up either right back at the deity-worshiper power inequality or attempting to reverse the roles in a way that perpetuates the very same problem — and rightfully earns you an education on why, exactly, that’s a really bad idea.
Are the things you’re being called to do reasonable? Justified? Are they achievable, or are you being set up to fail? In the future, would you be able to look back on them and still look at yourself in the mirror? Are they fair? Devotion can be powerful and fulfilling, but even the most oath-sworn devotee should always, always have the right to say, “No.”
All beings have limitations, whether they are god or human. Unfortunately, we mortals often have to contend with the intricate dance of social expectations and discrimination, economic restrictions, forms of political oppression, and personal capability.
I think of my goddess as a guide. Hers is a very tough love, but I trust that her tests don’t set me up to fail and can be passed on my own merits. Part of those tests involves knowing my limits. You are no use to anyone, let alone yourself, if you push yourself past the point of breaking, and self-care is part of respecting yourself and the deities in terms of being honest and pragmatic. I have never made a secret of my having bipolar disorder and despite — or perhaps because of — the stigma against mental illness in both the secular and Pagan worlds. Despite past shame of feeling like something is inherently wrong in who I am, I have learned to take what people consider a weakness and adapt my self-understanding and private practices, turning it into a strength. I may not be able to keep up an intensive daily routine of devotion, I may need to find alternatives to techniques that the average polytheist will use without a problem, but knowing those limitations and taking care of myself means that I am that much more capable in the bigger picture. My psychological and metaphysical tool set is unique and well-tempered for having been tested and continuing to be tested.
Neopaganism was born out of a collection of movements that sought to establish a link to the past while also acknowledging the power of the individual. For some, it’s a path of self-empowerment. For others, it’s a way to develop a religio-spiritual practice tailored to personal, not institutional, needs. Yet more find an opportunity to discover greater depth and meaning when the daily grind of an American capitalist society has worn them down. The link between these motivations is in the individual: sovereignty. Meaning. Purpose. It would be counter-intuitive and self-defeating, then, to be drawn in by such powerful concepts and then promptly surrender it all for absolute obedience. If Neopaganism seeks to break out of the mold of formal, institutionalized religion, then it should also break out new definitions, new understandings, and new relationships between mortal and divine, tradition and innovation.
Essentially, my understanding of healthy relationships to the gods, worshipful or not, devotional or more impersonal, can be summed up by the golden rule of the BDSM community: safe, sane, and consensual.