[Previously published in Green Mantle (Samhain, 2004) and in And Banish With Laughter (Konton Press, 2006). Kindly reprinted with permission of the author.]
“My god is better than your god!”1 The taunt was meant in jest, on Pagan to another. But like many such jokes, it was funny precisely because there have been, and continue to be, times when it is a deadly serious jibe.
Not surprisingly, on coming across the discussion, one of my first reactions was to ask – “on what basis can anyone make such a statement?”… which leads to the interesting scenario of a group of people listening to the claims of various deity-hopefuls, assessing them against some set of mystical criteria, asking probing questions, demanding deific feats of prowess, and in a moment of untoward compassion, asking if the struggling competitor would care to “phone a friend”.
Farcical? Of course.
But then again – not.
Just what does make a god, a god?* And, in fact, who can make the decision? Who should populate our board of deity-detectors? Anthropologists? Sociologists?
These groups – particularly if they include among them feminist anthropologists and general ethnologists2, would certainly be well able to say what it is humanity expects in a goddess. They would speak ably about super and supra empirical powers; about the need to go beyond (transcend) what is possible for humans. They would know the comfort humans take from the concept of the divine (should they be followers of Weber) or the function that any being aspiring to divinity would need to fulfil within human society (if they follow he functionalist line)(Craib, etc….; Aron)3.
The ethnographer could speak eloquently of the value particular societies and groups put upon the notion of the divine they might well, (indeed, should) have first hand experience of a group’s interaction with its god (assuming it is that kind of goddess).
All in all, sociologists and anthropologists would have a lot to contribute to any delineation as described above. But should they be the only board members, the only groups to make up the judging panel? Should we not, perhaps, hold out some of the 1 – 10 placards to theologians?
After all, theology is the study of the divine. Well, literally, it’s a lot more than that – or should be. Theos is god or the divine, yes – but Logos is a lot more than study of. It’s more even than “knowledge of”. It’s also well neigh untranslatable.
But some sense of what it means may be given in an analogy. It is perfectly possible to “know” a language in the sense of knowing what individual words mean; perhaps understanding what those words mean when strung together in sentences of paragraphs. But until one lives a language, as it were, until one dreams in it, and without thinking understands the subtlety of its intricate word play, one does not have the “logos” type of knowledge of that language. Logos is about having something be so much a part of you that it is at home in your dreams – and moreover – you are at home with it there. No mere list of vocabulary can do that. 4
Sadly, theology of all ilks is far too often of the order of memorized lists of vocabulary, rather than a visceral knowing and understanding. Whether it’s a Christian holding forth on the hypostatic union or a mage discoursing on True Will, if it’s not keeping you up nights, it’s theo-knowledge rather than theologos.
But assume for a moment we can find some theologians – real ones – to join the panel. They should be able to tell us what people have said about deities. (I have a sneaking suspicion that a real theologian wouldn’t get too het up on denominational or faith differences…). Are we, in the classic phrase of children in cars, there yet? Can our assembled group give us enough information to decide who is, and is not, a goddess?
Because all they can do is give us one perspective – the human one. What humans think, or have thought; what functions gods have played for humans; that humans need from their gods. In essence, they could tell us how humans define the divine.
As I said – the wrong perspective.
Surely what makes a god is – simply being a goddess?
Yes, many groups have lore abut humans becoming divine, or semi divine. Herakles, Augustus; perhaps Odin, almost certainly Herne. Yet even with these divinities, they at some point became divine. (Yes, it is possible to argue that we are all divine – I just don’t happen to be arguing that at the moment).
There are also stories of Gods being unwelcome among other deities – Susanno–o comes to mind, driven from heaven for his violence. But not made un-divine in the process.
My point is that our panel of esteemed anthropologists, etc., even with the inclusion of the rabidly aware theologian, is simply in no position to decide who is, or is not, a god. Or, indeed, whose god is bigger, better or brighter than anyone else’s.
The only people who even approach such authority are an entirely differently constituted set: believers.
Perhaps, in the end, the only one who can decide the question of “what god” and “who is god” is the believer.
And the goddess in question herself, of course .…
Adelman, Clem. “Who Are You? Some Problems of Ethnographer Culture Shock.” Field Methods in the Study of Education. Ed. Robert G. Burgess. London: Falmer Press, 1985. 37 – 50.
Aron, Raymond. Main Currents in Sociological Thought 2 : Pareto, Weber, Durkheim. 1967 (U.S.A.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970.
Burgess, R. G. In the Field: An Introduction to Field Research. London: Routledge, 1984.
Craib, Ian. Classical Social Theory: An Introduction to the Thought of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Diotima. And Banish with Laughter. Konton Press, 2006.
1 Note that “god” here is being used as a generic. In the interests of fair play, “goddess” will be used as an equally inclusive term. The male may embrace the female, but in this century of the fruit bat, the female is quite likely to embrace back…
2 Ethnography is a particular way of doing qualitative research – it involves the researcher identifying with the researched to a much greater extent than previously had been the case. See, for example, Clem Adelman, “Who Are You? Some Problems of Ethnographer Culture Shock,” Field Methods in the Study of Education, ed. Robert G. Burgess (London: Falmer Press, 1985). and R. G. Burgess, In the Field: An Introduction to Field Research (London: Routledge, 1984).
3 It is assumed that followers of Freurbachen, “opiate of the masses” sociology of religious would refuse the initiation to joint the panel and would have decamped – gloomily – to the bar.
4 Nightmares about language exams notwithstanding….