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Gods of Consequence

Gods of Consequence

In the various debates that have been coming up of late, about the further differentiation of polytheism from other paganisms (especially humanist paganism, “self-centered” paganism, super-hero-worshiping-archetypalism, and so forth), I have noticed something. Obviously both sides of the various “lines” being “drawn” are having trouble coming together in agreement around a great many things, and both sides feel very misunderstood by the other. (That's what disagreement frequently leads to...) However, in all of my talks with polytheist colleagues, theologians, and co-religionists, none of “us” seem to be confused by *what* the archetypal-and-superhero-folks are saying about their beliefs or practices. We may be dumbstruck by some of their statements – generally when they are comparing their thought-forms to our gods in direct and offensive to us ways – but overall I don't sense a disconnect of understanding in that particular direction. (Agreement is another matter entirely...)

However, I have sensed a tremendous disconnect in understanding, and a great and wild mischaracterization, in the other direction. Polytheists are being called fundamentalists, are being called ontologically cowardly, are being called extreme to the point of instability, are being called delusional, and so on. All because we engage with our gods as beings great and powerful and worthy of holy veneration *outside of our own unconscious*; beings that are wholly and fully separate from us, who were no more born “inside” us (or “for” us) than that tree over there, or the air that I am breathing. They are not manufactured to suit our needs (like the apple-juice I am about to add whiskey to) nor are They engineered or tailored to “fit” us. There is no monism, and certainly no atheism, in polytheism.

The disconnect seems to be that the humanist side of the issue doesn't seem to realize the excessive “boxing” and “labeling” and ultimately conformist-based actions that it appears to be taking with regard to (or even against) some polytheist practices. That they are generally doing this with less openly aggressive (and occasionally blatantly passive aggressive) and far more gentle language does not change the fact that it is still being done. Whereas many polytheists, who are admittedly quite ready to be honest with their frustrations and emotions (read: more obviously aggressive in tone), are actually writing from a place that has no demand of conformity on humanists, because the polytheist paradigms ultimately have room for things like archetypes. It just also differentiates archetypes from actual gods. What I mean by this is that polytheist theology does not necessitate the exclusion of humanist or archetypal engagement, whereas humanist and archetypal engagement *do* exclude polytheistic process.

Example: If one airplane seats 100 humans and 50 tigers, and another airplane seats 100 humans and zero tigers but provides a tiger video accompaniment as a complimentary in-flight package, these airplanes are not the same. The first airplane ("Air Tiger") is inherently "more", in that it includes space for 50 tigers. 50 actual tigers. It may also include in-flight video accompaniments; nothing about the space for 50 tigers interferes with the ability to also have a video of tigers, or of giraffes, or of dirty NYC detectives, or of child models. The second airplane ("Air Human") is inherently "limiting" (not less, however, in terms of value), in that it by its own definitions and mechanical specifications does not include space for actual tigers. The presence of actual tigers would upset the seating arrangements of a full flight on “Air Human”. The video of tigers does little to change this phenomena.

So the problem is that the executives of Air Human are saying "But we DO have tigers! We just installed all of these video displays! We have a THOUSAND CHANNELS of TIGERS! On Satellite! And and and! You can even buy TIGERBALM for your sore neck from your in-flight console! And TIGER BARS for your snacks! And our pillows are made of dead tiger kittens! Our blankets are Tiger Skin! We even hand out Tiger Kidneys! WE HAVE TIGERS! Rawr!"

Meanwhile the executives of Air Tiger are sort of sitting back and saying, "But, um… those aren't tigers. Those are images of tigers, moving pictures of tigers, products unrelated to tigers but named for them, and then also the desiccated remains of murdered tigers. That is not the same as tigers. That is actually quite the opposite. You are defining your airline by the absence of tigers and then compensating with simulation and bad marketing techniques to try and imply or suggest tigers. We actually just made room on the upper deck for.. tigers."

And then all of the tiger-enthusiast passengers trying to book flights are confused as the two companies go back and forth. However, one of those companies is sort of lying (sorry, guys) and limiting the accessibility of resources (tigers) to its passengers, while the other is being honest and totally not limiting anything, as it actually has space for tigers, and in addition can absolutely provide all of the other stuff too (with the exception of the inhumane murder products) for anyone who wants them.

In truth, the problem isn't so much that Air Human is trying to be dishonest to its market demographic, but rather it is more that they don't believe in real tigers, anymore. They think that they're already extinct. Or maybe they didn't really exist to begin with. (Just like jugglers. See below for the truth about jugglers.) Air Tiger, on the other hand, is trying to provide a presentation that by definition offers “more”; the plane is bigger to accommodate actual tigers, and the seating arrangements for humans doesn't run the risk of spacial overlap with giant four-legged feline apex predators, and the in-flight options can include all the tigers – or any other animal conceivable, including the honey badger! – and so forth. There is no requirement onboard Air Tiger that every passenger go up and hug a tiger, or ride a tiger, or feed a tiger, and in fact these are probably best left for those who know how to do these things. But all of them are invited to look up at the cabin ceiling above them, through the transparent viewing glass, and *see* the tigers above them. From awkward up-shot angles. (Unless the tigers are in a zero-gravity cabin, in which case, maybe they're floating upside down and the angle is less awkward.)

Ahem. And then this brings us back to the issue of “belief”, and who has it, or who doesn't, or who needs it, or whose whole identity is shaped by it, or what the word even really means, and so forth.

Polytheists do not require “belief” (although for many of us it is there as a useful tool on the side) anymore than I need to “believe” in the presence of black bears in the California mountains when deciding where to store my food on a campsite. (That I *do* believe in bears is irrelevant to their belief of entitlement to my food; you don't need to believe in a bear to find yourself uncomfortably between it and a roast pork sandwich.)

And therein lies a major difference that I have seen: the self-described “self-centered” or humanist or archetypal pagans are engaging with powers and so forth which are by their own definitions of no greater consequence than their own (collective, at times) unconsciousness, and no matter how much you glorify and believe in the great and sacred power of internal cognition and transcendent psychology, these things are not going to maul you to death in the woods.

And the thing is? Our gods will.

Guns fire bullets that can kill, ripping through flesh and bone and sinew. Power-saws can slip from timber and take off a hand. Cars, airplanes, baseball bats, whiskey bottles, and juggler's flaming bowling pins; all of these things have tangible consequence when they are not approached with the proper respect. The respect that they are due. The respect that they demand, not based on some flimsy made-for-us fabricated belief system, but because steel, brass, iron, lead, glass, hickory, and fire are elements of consequence. And humans? They are soft, meaty, fragile creatures.

Gods are greater than guns, faster than cars, bigger than airplanes, wield more concussive leverage than a bat and hold far more spirit than a tempered glass whiskey bottle. Gods are the source of fire. And bowling pins. (And jugglers.) Approaching the deities with respect and deference is not a thing of belief, but a thing of necessity.

This is an intrinsic difference between polytheists and archetypal-or-humanist “self-centered” pagans, spiritual-seekers and so forth. Unless you view the gods as having the power to rip your arms off and beat you to death with them, or take the face of your lover while turning your skin inside out and dropping you in a pit of jello and alligators, we're not talking about the same thing.

I use the above imagery to communicate dramatic (perhaps over-dramatic) points, although none of it is exaggerated. (Except the bits about jugglers. We all know that they come from unholy powers, nothing sacred about it.) This is not at all the only expression of, or way of relating to, our gods. But it is there. Always. No hunter, butcher, lumberjack, soldier, archer, wood-chipper-landscaping-specialist or nuclear physicist would ever try to suggest that there was nothing viscerally dangerous or tremendously destructively powerful about the tools of their trade, and this is not different with religion. The “tools of my trade” are dangerous. They are great. They are powerful. And They are much beloved by me, and if I am reading the signs correctly, I am of Them as well. (They are also not tools; this is a metaphor, before I get misquoted as comparing my gods literally to woodchippers or rifles, and so forth. Critical thinking, people...)

My devotions are not about self-development. I do not rely on my gods to be a good person (I take responsibility for that myself) and I do not rely on my gods to be a good brother (I take responsibility for that myself) and I do not rely on my gods to be a good son (I've never been a very good son, truth be told), and I do not rely on my gods to be a good partner (mainly because I am single), and I do not rely on my gods to be a good father (as my raven will attest, I probably suck at this as well). I turn to my gods when I struggle, yes, but not so that They can “make it better” or “make it go away”; I turn to Them for support, not for co-dependence. I find comfort in the protection that They offer me – and I am very well protected, as any of my enemies could attest – and I find inspiration at Their touch, and I find myself elevated and lifted in Their presence, even (and especially) when I fall to my knees in reverent, deferent praise.

But They are not a self-help book, or an internal model for “how to not be a dick”.

Philosophies of moral theory and ethics have informed much of my exploration of “how to not be a dick”. Finding elders in my communities who are not dicks? That taught me how to not be a dick. Finding elders in my communities who *are* dicks? That taught me how to not be a dick. Being a dick? That also taught me how to not be a dick. I am not always not a dick. Sometimes I am a dick. Being a dick and being a bad person are different. Sometimes I find myself compelled to be a dick. But I am always a good dick. My gods have very little to do with whether or not I am being a dick. My religion does not exist to stop me from being a dick, or to inform me of how to be a good person; those are things that generally speaking are in my court to take responsibility for. (When I am a dick, I don't blame my gods for it. When I am a good person, I praise Them for giving me the space to find that within myself.)

They also don't care all that much, so long as I get the job done. The work that They have given me to do would be sort of impossible to do if I were a dick all the time. So I also have compassion. Not because They gave it to me, but because They demand that I do what I need to do to complete the tasks assigned. To do this, I must also have softness, tenderness, receptive qualities and embracing qualities and I have hope and I have visions of a better world. Those visions are not born of my mind, of my unconscious, of my intellectualism or blah blah blah. Those visions are the visions of my gods. Those visions are the blueprints of my job here in this world; the schematics that I am seeking to navigate.

Some people spend their lives and their religious engagements seeking the divine, seeking understanding, seeking meaning, seeking something outside (or inside) of themselves. I am not seeking those things. I already have Them. That does not mean that I have *everything*, however, for I still seek – daily – to learn the better place foot to earth with the right balance of righteousness and humility, to learn to better place bat to skull when the circumstances call for it, to learn to put the bat down when they don't. To learn to use my voice to bring not just change, but change that leads to realized vision, received from gods and blessed dead. I am seeking, always, to better calibrate my own human baggage, to embody it when needed or shift it aside when not, to better see the fulfillment of the will of my gods brought through into this world.

Because my gods have a plan. It is a good one. I've seen it. I am living inside of it.

But They can also rip my arms off and beat me to death with them, or fill me with the ability to do my work with no arms at all, across any distance, if only I have the strength to trust in Them that much more than I already do. And so I fall to my knees and I praise Them.

My religion is a religion of consequence. The day to day maintenance of human existence and so forth? That is on me. There are tools provided in the whole “polytheistic package” for assistance in those pursuits, such as divination, oracular work, healing, blessing and so forth, and my gods encourage the use of these as needed. But these are provided to compliment the human investment – the effort to be a good person, to practice and execute acts of good character inside and out, to engage with my world in a progressive and constructive and hopeful way, to encourage empowerment and compassion in those around me and lend what I have to the building (or rebuilding) of healthy and cohesive community – rather than to replace it. I am strictly forbidden from turning to my gods for aid if I have not first tried to resolve a thing myself, not because They won't help me, but because They've already given me many blessed tools. Thumbs, for example, and a brain capable of many great things, and a voice that can range in delivery between “don't you dare touch that child or I will kill you” intensity to “it is okay, dear, the scary man is gone” in gentleness.

My gods are gods of consequence, not abstractions torn from the back of my mind. Don't get me wrong. The unconscious is powerful, potent, and is the landscape of internal revelation. It provides the language through which outside influences can communicate meaningfully with us. The unconscious also provides the interface for us to communicate with ourselves, and “do our own work”. But my gods do not dwell there, are not born there, and don't generally give a flying feck what color the wallpaper is inside. They're from outside of it all, outside of me, you, and everyone else: that is what makes Them gods. (And yes, They're inside of us, too. But They're not from *from* inside.)

My job is to do my work and to live in this world, embodied and realized as a human-formed being, and to know myself inside and out well enough that I can put myself to the side and as far out of the equation as possible when the situation calls for it. My religion is here to provide me the tools and structures not for developing myself, but for using myself to see Their will realized in this world. My religion provides me the rules of engagement, the process of negotiation and the technology to do it all safely, sanely, cleanly, and efficiently. Looking back at my career as a spirit-worker, as a priest, as a teacher? I have done a good job. I have done good in this world. There are people alive today because I was there, because I submitted to the will of my gods and saw that will enacted through me. There are people who could have done harm who were rendered unable, not at my intervention but at the intervention of my gods acting through me, because I knew enough to step aside and let Them speak, and act, and be.

One of the concerns that I hear from a lot of people who are not polytheists in this sense, is that this all sounds like a scary “cop-out” of personal responsibility. That it sounds like an “abrogation of personal accountability”. To this I say, it could not be further from those things. To open myself up to the gods, those forces who I serve and praise outside of myself, who I adore with all of my being, is to likewise embrace a deeper accountability and sense of personal responsibility than I have witnessed in any other around me. We should be afraid of our gods, but we should not be afraid to lose ourselves to Them... for we are nothing without Them. My humanity exists as a tool for Them, as my religion exists as a tool to engage fruitfully with Them and see Their plans unfold through me in this world.

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A temple priest, shaman, and spirit-worker in the Thracian tradition, Anomalous Thracian lives in a van in the Northeast United States, with a crazed raven from Africa. He teaches foundational spiritual principles and results-oriented mysticism, with a focus on anchoring ancient nomadic wisdoms and values in contemporary reality. A Thracian mystic reconstructionist, he leads an initiatory tradition and facilitates rituals, traditional rites of passage, various methods of divination and temple functions appropriate to the needs of the community. In all of his doings, he attempts to honor the ancestors, the gods, and his living relations in this world and the rest of them, while focusing also on further understanding and addressing contemporary issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

Comments

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Saturday, 08 June 2013

    I find the use of the term "self-centered" to be problematic, simply because people outside Jungian circles generally take it to mean something entirely different (and in a negative sense). "Self-centric" makes more sense to me, because it's not a term used differently in common discourse; it's more likely to simply be unfamiliar, so the listener is likely to ask, "What do you mean by that?"

    Thanks for the explanation.

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Saturday, 08 June 2013

    This is very much where Jung and I part ways I suspect.

    I do not think they are or can ever be reconcilable (though I very much appreciated your breakdown. i think it was apt). I think it would be a very sad day when any reconciliation of these povs occurred.

    the last thing we need is devotional polytheists compromising both belief and praxis in order to reconcile with those we find flat out impious at worst and misguided at best. I"d rather see the whole restoration fail than reach such a compromise. Reconciliation in this case is just another word for de-sacralization.

  • Laura P
    Laura P Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Why is anyone who does not believe in the Gods even getting their panties in a twist over being definitions of polytheism? It is just basic...look up the word. It implies a belief in many Gods. Therefore, f you do not believe that Gods exist, you are not a polytheist. This is just basic. If the term does not apply, feel free to find another term, just don't redefine the term to suit people to whom it does not apply. This has been your moment of logic.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Saturday, 08 June 2013

    But what does "a belief in many gods" mean? I recognize that most ancient pagans were "hard" polytheists, but there were Neoplatonists who saw the gods differently and probably others as well. I also know that Heathens, like Galina, have been defining polytheism in the radical or "hard" way for decades. However, (Neo-)Pagans have been defining it in archetypal or "soft" ways for just as long. See Adler's *Drawing Down the Moon*. My point is that neither group has the right to define the word to the exclusion of the other. You can say, "They're not polytheists in the way I am polytheistic." But, you don't own the word, and you can't prevent "soft" polytheists from using the term in their way, any more than Baptists have the right to define Mormons out of the term, "Christian".

  • Anomalous Thracian
    Anomalous Thracian Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Nobody is claiming to own the word polytheism, they're claiming to know what the word means. There is a difference.

    True it is probably inappropriate for a Baptist to tell the Mormons that they're not "Christian" (or whatever), but it is not inappropriate for a Baptist to point out what the definition of monotheism is.

    If folks believe in "many expressions of one god", they're not polytheists. If folks believe in "many archetypes that are, for the sake of lazy inclusion, called archetypes", they're not polytheists. Both of those *are* something, and it may even have a catchy name, but it is not polytheism. Because words and things. They have meanings. :)

  • Dver
    Dver Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Because words and things. They have meanings.

    But don't you know, all points of view are equally valid and should be given equal weight, even on matters of simple fact, because your mileage may vary and we have to be inclusive of every opinion or belief or approach possible.... as long as it's not OUR beliefs and opinions and approaches, which are wrong and we are terrible for stating them.

    There's really no use arguing logic with people who can't even adhere to their own standards.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
    P. Sufenas Virius Lupus Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Congratulations on winning, Dver!

    And, yes, I think you've stated very accurately how almost all of us polytheists are feeling, at least on this blog and in some of our own, as far as we've been approached by others. Stifyn has done exactly what we've said they've done in their most recent post, about making us aware that there are other viewpoints--and, as I stated earlier, we are aware and we don't agree. Insisting we're not aware and drawing further attention to themselves by continuously arguing for the visibility of their viewpoints in our spaces and forums is very annoying, and often rude--and, as Galina and Anomalous Thracian have stated, not just to us but to our gods.

  • Dver
    Dver Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Woo-hoo! I knew that being a snarky bitch would pay off eventually! And hey, I appreciate things that are biologically alive too. Or were once biologically alive. :)

    A horrendously awesome amount of hard liquor seems like the perfect accompaniment to this mess.

  • Anomalous Thracian
    Anomalous Thracian Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Ding ding ding! You are lucky comment number 50! For this, Dver, you have won... SOMETHING... which.. I will.. uh.. find. In either my ritual supply closet or my Temple supply closet or arbitrarily on a shelf somewhere between these two places. For reals. (I promise it won't be alive. Biologically.)

    I've been anxiously waiting Comment 50, while drinking a horrendously awesome amount of hard liquor.

    I am immensely pleased to see the honor go to you. I'm completely serious on winning a prize with it, too.

    I'll contact you off-list to sort the details ;)

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Now i have to assume you're just being provocative because "belief in many Gods' is really not that hard to comprehend. Polytheism is the belief in many Gods and until monism came along and corrupted the matter, it was the belief in many Gods as independent beings. There's a reason that I never have and never will refer to myself as a 'neo' pagan, and you've pretty much nailed it in your comment. I'm not 'neo' anything. I hold to polytheism the way my own polytheistic ancestors did. and no, i can't prevent a neo pagan from claiming to be polytheist, but i can and will call such a person out when they do. In fact, i'd say i have an obligation to my ancestors and Gods to do so in some cases. This may not stop them, but it does provide a counter voice for those coming into the communities and just learning how to honor the Gods.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Saturday, 08 June 2013

    I wish I had written this post. Brilliant, AT.

  • Anomalous Thracian
    Anomalous Thracian Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Archetypally speaking, maybe you did! It was just your inner Archetypal Anomalous Thracian penning these things virtually...

    Ahem.

    I mean thanks ;)

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Anomalous, I wanted to comment on your most recent post, but alas the 'reply' function won't work for me either. Simply put, i want to say "yes. this." When your or I or any number of polytheists and /or spiritworkers talks about the Gods, *we are not speaking metaphorically*. That is what it comes down to. Our consensus reality is different. it's been colored and indisputably altered by our interactions with our Gods, ancestors, and spirits. These are not ideas. They're not archetypes. They're not manifestations of our psyches, or fiction or whatever else many of those involved in the other side of this debate seem to suppose. They are holy Beings Who have the capacity to act for us, with us, on us and our world and Who often do so in many different ways. They are not subject to our whims, our fancies, our comfort levels. I think you may be right: when we engage with non polytheists and non spirit workers in this debate, we're talking about very different things. (I know for myself, I get pretty damned tired of people assuming that I'm speaking metaphorically when I answer questions about my relationships and experiences with the Gods. I don't speak in metaphor).

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Stifyn, again, i'm not able to respond to your comment above where you counsel "be true to yourself." So i'll post my comment here. That highlights exactly what i'm talking about. It's not about being true to myself; it's about being true to my Gods and ancestors. That right there is the divide we're dealing with.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Saturday, 08 June 2013

    " So, yes, literally ripping arms off. Gods. Tangible consequences. Like bears in the woods. ... When I talk about my arm being eaten by a cow, I mean an actual physical middle-eastern cow who tried to eat my arm (it was awesome, but painful after the elbow or so) ..."

    Ahhhhhhhh. Galina is right; I've completely misunderstood. I have no frame of reference from which to comment about such an experience. Nor do I wish to.

    I hope your arm is feeling better.

    This is John, signing off.

  • Anomalous Thracian
    Anomalous Thracian Saturday, 08 June 2013

    You really are a patronizing fellow, aren't you? lol. Enjoy your sign-off, J.H. :p

    For serious though, "we told you so". At least a few of us did, anyway. ENTIRELY different conversations. Glad you finally got with the program. Have fun misapplying Jung (about as competently as you've quoted or paraphrased me time again) in all of your pursuits.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Stifyn: Regarding the *American Gods* book: I don't want to misquoted. I don't think the book gave rise to hard polytheism. For the sake of those who have not read my post, what I said was "I have a theory that Gaiman’s book may have had a direct influence on the growth of hard polytheism in the Pagan community." As I understand it (and Galina can correct me here if I am wrong), Heathens have always been hard polytheists, and the Heathen revival in the US started coincidentally around the same time as the Neo-Pagan revival, in the late 1960s. But the two movements remained separate for decades. In the Neo-Pagan community, a "soft" polytheism seems to have been the norm until around the turn of the millennium. I recall reading that Diana Paxson (herself both a Heathen and Pagan) started reviving the practice of oracular seidr in the mid-90s. Around the same time, there also developed an interest in the Pagan community in the Vodun phenomenon of being "ridden" (possessed) by a lwa/orisha. These practices led to "harder" form of polytheism among Pagans, who felt that a reductive psychological account of the gods did not adequately explain their experiences. This all became more visible after 2000 and culminated in Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone's publication of *Progressive Witchcraft* in 2004. Janet and her late husband Stewart were formerly important proponents of archetypal polytheism (see their *The Witches' Bible*), but Janet's new book articulates the view of deities expressed on blogs like this one. *American Gods* was published in 2001. It's popularity among a certain demographic is hard to overstate. And I've noticed it being quoted frequently by polytheists, (especially the exchange between Wednesday and the Neo-Pagan girl in the book). So, while I don't think it gave rise to hard polytheism by any stretch of the imagination, I do think it encouraged its growth.

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Sunday, 09 June 2013

    @John Halstead: I agree with you about the influence of "American Gods" on contemporary polytheism. I see it referenced everywhere.

    I have to admit, though, that I was thoroughly *bored* by the book. It was like slogging through mud. I gave up at the halfway point and never tried again. :( A pity, since I enjoy Gaiman's poetry so much ....

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Sunday, 09 June 2013

    Thanks for the insight, and my apologies for the sloppy paraphrasing. I should have done a better job of capturing what you said by quoting directly. I wonder if Gaiman is aware that he may have had some influence in this regard. I'm going to meet him later this month, and I may well ask him.

  • Christine L Berger
    Christine L Berger Sunday, 09 June 2013

    Anomalous, thank you for this thorough and brilliant post. I became aware of being claimed by a God about a year ago. Life will never be the same, and with an intensity that sometimes is challenging. I read what you and Gallina and Sannion write because it helps me a great deal. Otherwise there are times that relying on the experience of have of the Gods that is central to my life gets to be a lonely place. I do not need to hear of your experience of the Universe as Deity centric for it to be true for me, but it is good to know I have company; other than maybe one or two people I know in my local environment.

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