I really enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods. From a science-fiction idea, I love questions like: what if that was all true? What if Odin, the one-eyed all-father, walked amongst us, accompanied by his ravens Huginn (Thought) and Muginn (Memory)? What if Zeus was roaming around, impregnating human girls, pursued by his irascible wife Hera? And it looks like it makes for entertaining (if not very edifying) TV too.
It’s a fun idea to play with. But our culture has spent a long, long time escaping from that enchanted world, and there is no way back. People claim we live in a secular state. Australia, they assure me, is a post-enlightenment culture, in which the irrational affairs of religion are not allowed to intrude. We are a commonwealth – not a kingdom, not a theocracy, not a battleground of warring gods – which functions as a rational benefit-maximisation machine designed to give the greatest opportunities for self-realisation to the greatest number of rational utility maximising subjects – the famous homo economicus of the Utilitarians.
I used to buy this. I’m just as much a child of the Enlightenment as the next person – if I may paraphrase St Paul, as to education, a philosopher; as to career; an engineer.
However, I have come to realise that it is simply not the case. People are not in fact the utility maximising calculators that economists would like to think. The gods most assuredly walk amongst us.
If anything, far from vanishing, I suspect they are making a comeback.
I don’t mean that there are literal beings called gods exercising agency in the world. Obviously. You could strain every molecule in the universe and not find an entity called “Zeus.” However, it isn’t completely clear that even, say, the Ancient Greeks thought that the gods were literally real in the same way that you and I are real. I suspect they would have thought us oddly literal – it never seems to have occurred to them to mount an expedition up Mount Olympus, a mere 654 kilometres from Athens.
However, we live in a world boringly (and unwisely) committed to demythologizing, and under the odd misapprehension that we understand things better that way. Of course, the homo economicus is just as mythical as Achilles (with the exception that it’s quite probable that Achilles did exist, just as Troy did, whereas no-one has ever met a completely rational utility maximiser.)
Getting back to my point, I think that the best way to get insight into the world is through understanding its myths. You can see what people do by surveying them or observing them, but it is a lot harder to understand why, to get inside their heads. It takes empathy, and imagination, and the knowledge that we are essentially story-making, myth-dwelling creatures first, and disinterested data-processors second.
One of the (many, many) benefits of thinking in terms of gods is that it makes this plain. Take your career. When you accept that you are not some entirely rational symbolic analyst, but rather a devotee of Apollo, the god of daylight clarity, and of Athena, goddess of practical wisdom, it makes it clearer what you’re doing – your aspiration is to provide this service as a sacrifice, an act of worship, to that which is the highest value that you know.
The evidence for this is that this devotion actually stands in the way of maximising your self interest, Imagine that you are a researcher. And imagine that someone was delicately hinting to you that, if you were to slant your data a certain way, they would make it worth your while. You would (I imagine) turn it down – not because the potential costs of getting caught outweigh the benefits of the bribe, but because it is blasphemous against the highest thing you know. It isn’t a matter of balancing benefits, it is a shocking, outrageous suggestion!
So I went on a bit of a quest a few weeks ago. Ostensibly it was to provide some backing visuals to a thing my chapel worship team (you know I’m a theology student, right?) but I could have just googled some pictures if that was all I was after. Instead, I spent an evening and an afternoon on an ethnographic expedition to see the gods at work in this allegedly secular state.
Karl Jung, the famous psychiatrist and psychotherapist, had a Latin inscription over the doorway to his house: Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit. Which is to say, bidden or not bidden, the god is present. While I don’t want to travel the whole way with Jung, I think he was right about that. I can’t locate the source of this, but I’m sure I read that he would say to his students “find out what god the patient believes in – especially if they don’t think they believe in one.” The divine is a permanent factor in human life, no matter what people think they believe.
So what exactly do I mean with all this baffling waffle about gods? Instead of a full definition, here are a few pointers. Firstly, rather like Jung’s archetypes, they are permanent psycho-social features of human life – some interaction between the human condition of fragility in the face of an implacable-seeming cosmos, basic human drives, whatever it is that makes us want to (and be able to) live together in these huge conglomerations… the million and one different factors are at work within and between us. They are something about us, rather than the external universe. (I’m not sure where exactly Jung would have stood on the question of their existence – he was into some esoteric stuff. Perhaps someone could enlighten me.)
Secondly, and perhaps more controversially, that they have power. Because they are gods, they can make shit happen – and they demand sacrifice. My favourite example of this is the weird reaction of some environmentalists to the recent fatalities of surfers at the hands (well, teeth) of Great White Sharks off Australia’s coasts.
In Ballina, northern NSW, one of the shark attack capitals of the world, where many residents know people who have been killed or maimed in attacks, a well-known shark conservationist walks down the main street wearing a T-shirt depicting a great white and the words “Respect the locals”.
I’m not entirely sure which god this guy is honouring – perhaps Poseidon? Or perhaps Kali, goddess of maternal nurture and also destruction? In any event, it was something other than the purely rational, the purely humanist to see something appropriate in the destruction of puny humans who dare to profane the holy sanctuary of the sea. This environmentalist presumably lives in a house – which means less natural environment available for wildlife, which is a much greater destruction of animals than some harmless surfer hanging around on the surface of the sea, surely? But we aren’t dealing with the rational, but with something much deeper.
The obvious place to turn when thinking about the gods is Jung’s near contemporary G K Chesteron. In Orthodoxy, he says
A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull’s blood, as did Julian the Apostate.