The God We Never Knew

I recently decided to go back and read all the books on my bookshelf I’ve never read. There are many.

The first book I’ve been reading in this project is The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith by Marcus J. Borg. I bought it under the suggestion of my doctor in Alabama–she saw me reading a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die a few years ago, and suggested I read this author, whispering that there are people like that in Alabama, they just keep quiet about themselves.

So I bought the book, but have been avoiding it for fear of being irritated at all the Christian theology. But I haven’t been at all. There have only been one or two times in this book where I’ve rolled my eyes internally.

No, this author gets it. He knows the point of faith, and that it has nothing to do with the afterlife. Sure, I find it a little annoying that he states that he uses the terms “God,” “Spirit” and “the Divine” interchageably, but the Christianity he proposes solves many of the same problems with traditional Christianity and Christian culture that made me leave it in the first place. Plus, he’s working from the same kind of place I am as a pseudo-reconstructionist. He really knows the history of the Bible, and has studied what the words would have meant at the time they were written. And sometimes they mean very different things than the meaning generally given them in modern times. Those other meanings clarify Christian theology and his knowledge of history gives him the space to really find God, the way that I think knowing of the history of the Heathen faith clarifies and allows for my worship of Freyja.

I even found a few chapters very thought-provoking when viewed from the lens of a pagan, and I figured I would share some of these thoughts with you guys.

Christianity as Superego

One of the problems he sees with mainstream Christianity is its complicated relationship to the superego. Because of all the focus on sin, the religion actively reinforces the superego of its followers, who are then seeking a closer relationship with the religion in order to escape their overactive superegos.

This reminded me of my days as a Christian, when I had (I still do) a quite overactive superego. I was afraid of doing anything against the rules, going so far as to basically make up nonexistent rules that I was afraid of breaking. And I remember that snake of the superego leaving me the moment I decided to convert.

I still don’t want to break rules, but I’m much more reasonable about it now.

In any case, I was thinking about how wonderful paganism is in that it has helped me becomes friends with my id. Most of the people in this culture are too enculturated, we are all too big of friends with our egos and superegos, interested in what we can do or have and what we should or shouldn’t do or have. But in pagan rituals, I take a step back from all that and just be in the animal part of my brain, my ego, utterly at awe and surrendered to the flesh and the gods and the cosmos. And that tempers the ego and the superego that act so much of the time, and that balances me out and makes me much happier.

Images Relating to Values

One of the sections in this book talks about the different metaphors or images of God that have been written about throughout the centuries. He explores God as king, as lover, as rock, as mother, as wisdom, as journey companion, as father. And the he makes a very good point–the values of a Christian are directly related to his or her image of God. “For the monarchical model, sin is primarily disloyalty to the king, seen especially as disobedience to the laws…For the metaphor of God as lover, sin is unfaithfulness–that is, sin is going after other lovers. This is a classic image for idolatry…For the metaphor of God as the compassionate one who cares for all her children, sin is failure in compassion” (Borg 77-78).

That got me thinking about how my images of the divine (that being, multiple deities but primarily Freyja) influence what I think of as right action and ideas. Polytheism (that there are multiple deities with multiple ideas about the world) shows me that there is no ultimate truth and that everything is viewed from different lenses. Thor and Odin will take very different approaches to an encounter with a giant, but neither is wrong. And neither is morality so specific. But, given my image of the divine as being primarily Freyja, as she who I am closest to, I think that my ideas about values have a specific lens. For me, shunning beauty would be bad, though for many ascentics it is the correct thing to do. I want to fully enjoy life and sex, and I want to learn magic. I want to spread beauty wherever I go. That is what I learn from Freyja.

God(s) as doing, leading, or giving examples

I thought about the different relationships people have to gods while he was quoting a psalm that says “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” This suggests to me a relationship with God wherein God in doing your life for you. All spirituality is acted within the person through the actions of god, leaving the worshiper to be a pawn. I don’t like this model of relationship to the divine. It’s not a real relationship. There is no free will, no give and take, no gifts in exchange for gifts. It is simply as if God is living millions of lives simultaneously instead of anyone living their own.

Then I thought about other relationships to the divine, and I think the other two primary ones are leading and giving example. Many Christians I know follow by example–the WWJD bracelets everyone had when I was a kid are a good example of that. They look to how their god lived and follow that example. Some heathens do that, but not many, I think. I certainly look to Freyja for inspiration, but wouldn’t exactly say I live my life by her example. I don’t have multiple sex partners, for one thing.

My relationship to Freyja, and the one I perceive most pagans as having, is the gods leading us in our lives. They give us hints about where to go, but it is ultimately us doing the living and making the choices.

To finish, I’m just going to say that I’ve enjoyed reading this book. I feel much more at ease with Christian theology after understanding where it came from. I think the theology in this book answers many of the same questions pagans have, and therefore sheds some light onto what kinds of questions we’re asking. And it’s always fun to read a book by a person with a relationship with a god who really gets it. His chapter on mysticism was particularly helpful in that regard–a reminder that sacred story and reenacting and dancing (ok, maybe he doesn’t really talk about dancing) are a way to the gods, and that any tradition can get you there.

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