Responses to Theurgic Binding

I read and have been contemplating a direct response to Morpheus Ravenna’s “Theurgic binding: or, “S#!t just got real”” post. Meanwhile, Asa West posted a response of her own. I initially reblogged in response, but the formatting of that post got borked, so I’m recreating it as a non-reblog post. The original expanded post is below.

Hm. I can tell the author, Asa West, is trying to be reassuring in the face of what she saw would be a likely response to Morpheus’ post about her experience with the consequences of being dedicated to The Morrigan.

Unfortunately, to me this comes across as incredibly patronizing and dismissive. It’s a similar feeling to hearing, Don’t worry, the monster under your bed doesn’t actually matter, dear. Just stop believing it’s real and it will go away.”

Do I think she intended it to come across that way? I assume not. I certainly hope not.

But I do think that the fundamental difference in how she approaches the gods vs. how someone like Morpheus approaches the gods may make her counter-message moot at best for the people who are worried by Morpheus’ post.

I see two major problems with this response:

1: Say for a moment I am that worried person, and I’ve just taken a particular Goddess seriously enough to dedicate myself to Her, whether in a fit of passion, or after years of consideration. To tell me that She only has power if I attribute power to Her makes very little sense in a context where I have already attributed that power.

Setting aside why a person would make such a vow when they don’t believe the entity they’re promising to has real power, even the most casually taken oath of dedication is unlikely to worry a person who does not attribute power to the entity they gave that vow to, eh?

Allow me to thoroughly belabor a metaphor:

Say I’m standing next to an open barn, worrying about wandering cows. How helpful is it to tell me that the cows can only get out if I turn the door handle and pull? Assuming you’re correct that this was the only door to the barn in the first place, the point is moot since I clearly just opened that door myself.

Now, maybe I have a bit of a grace period to close it again before the cows get out. Maybe the cows will stay in the barn anyway, being peaceful cows who prefer not to exert themselves just because the door is open. But if I’m freaking out that the cows are already wandering around, all you’re really doing by telling me how doors work is making me feel like an idiot for having let them out in the first place.

Now let’s say there IS another barn door, and the cows were already wandering before I opened the door to let one more cow out? Then it’s quite a lot to put on my shoulders, the blame for all those wandering cows, is it not? Maybe it seems silly, my fear of wandering cows. Maybe it IS silly to fear wandering cows, although if so, it’s incredibly rude and dismissive to say so, and for that matter unlikely to make me fear cows less, or feel better about myself for fearing them.

Finally, let’s say one of those wandering cows is acting like a bull ready to charge. Telling me that the way to avoid injury is to act like I never opened the door is not much help at all, is it?

2: Uncertainty as to the nature of the gods is fair. I would argue that skepticism is incredibly healthy, and even the most certain mystic should probably stop to take stock every so often against other ways of looking at the gods. I’m very fond of both Buddhist non-duality and the Scientific Method for different kinds of reality checks for this very reason.

But part of this author’s uncertainty apparently includes a very clear idea that the Gods don’t have the ability to affect me independent of my choosing to engage with Them. Now, I happen to believe quite firmly that They exist entirely independently of my faith in Them.

Unless the point here is for me to discard that faith in order to reclaim my personal power – and I accept that it’s quite possible that IS the message, especially given the source follows the Reclaiming Tradition – the suggestion that beings which exist entirely separate from me have no agency relative to me unless I first bestow that agency upon them is dubious at best.

[Edited to add] It occurs to me that actually, yes, that probably IS the intended message. Specifically, that the idea is that the kind of polytheistic faith that attributes independent agency to the Gods is a spiritual/psychlogical crutch that we’re to abandon as we mature – the raft not to strap to our backs, to use the metaphor of the parable Asa quotes. If so, this is even more dismissive than I initially perceived.

Somewhat more likely, the idea was that the power of the Gods is that raft – useful, helpful when we need it, but not something to depend on when we don’t need it, or bear as a burden by carrying dependence on it with us. If that’s the case, it’s missing the point that it’s not our power to begin with, but Theirs.

We don’t carry it. We might choose to carry or not carry the raft, but without the river water holding the raft up, AND the rushing of said water being dangerous to cross, the whole story is moot. The raft may be faith, but in this metaphor the river is the Gods, and we do not control the river.

It is both reasonable to fear drowning AND reasonable to be grateful for the ability to float a raft across safely. But perhaps your own body is sufficient to carry around thereafter, in faith. After all, the logs, the vines, the materials to make the axe, and even your own body, are all part of the same world as that river. Once again, if not, the raft is moot, because the river doesn’t actually matter.[/edit]

Look, I admit that it’s not pleasant to realize that independent beings are capable of making choices relative to us that adversely affect us. But if that’s news to you, living in the world we do, you have a much, much bigger problem to confront within yourself: the realization that YOUR OWN choices affect other people, whether they like it or not.

–Ember–

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About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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14 Responses to Responses to Theurgic Binding

  1. Pingback: Theurgic binding: or, “S#!t just got real” | Banshee Arts

  2. Helen/Hawk says:

    “Unless the point here is for me to discard that faith in order to reclaim my personal power – and I accept that it’s quite possible that IS the message, especially given the source follows the Reclaiming Tradition – the suggestion that beings which exist entirely separate from me have no agency relative to me unless I first bestow that agency upon them is dubious at best.”

    Hand waving in the air – Hello! as another follower of the Reclaiming Tradition, I’ve got to say that the above is a misunderstanding of what we do. And is quite possibly falling into the same problem y’all were complaining of, minimally sweeping generalizations. As a tradition, reclaiming personal power is part of what we do. We tend to view our relationships w/our Gods as ones of co-creation of the world. Some folks may see Them as separate Entities….others may not. Our tradition does not dictate one way or another.

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    • EmberVoices says:

      Ahh, that’s my understanding getting lost in the process of a paraphrase, sorry.

      I was not intending to say that this was the whole of Reclaiming theology, merely that what I understand of Reclaiming theology does tend to emphasize both personal power, and a more abstract definition of the gods than I tend to work with, and that this is understandably an influence on the author of the post I was commenting on. I’m not surprised to hear that there is no particular prescription of how concrete the gods are or aren’t made within Reclaiming, since that’s not a major focus within the tradition. However, I have met very few, if any, hard polytheists out of Reclaiming, and have found Reclaiming theology is less compatible with a hard polytheistic perspective than with a more abstract or archetypal theology.

      That said, unless you can unpack more of what you’re trying to say, please, I’m not seeing how what you’ve said contradicts my paraphrase above?

      –Ember–

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    • EmberVoices says:

      Let me unpack my end a bit more:

      Yes, I understand that reclaiming personal power is a key focus within the Reclaiming Tradition, and I respect that. If one does NOT view the gods as separate entities, and one is focused on reclaiming personal power, then asserting that the gods have no power over us that we do not give Them makes complete sense.

      However, even within a perspective of shared power, it’s not accurate to say that an independently existing entity can only affect me if I allow it. Fellow human beings are a more obvious example here – you clearly exist separate from me, and you can definitely affect me whether I choose to give you that power or not. That power is innate to you, and is not mine to take from you.

      So I conclude that one of two things is happening:

      1. Despite the lack of prescriptive theology regarding the concreteness of the gods, Reclaiming Tradition theology precludes regarding the gods concretely as independent entities as a side effect of their theology regarding personal power, which trumps other emphases.
      -OR-
      2. Reclaiming Tradition teaches that independent entities can only affect us if we let them, in which case, there is something deeply problematic with Reclaiming’s teachings.

      I tend to believe the former, because that, at least, is both self-consistent, and reasonably ethical, but it does create a problem when the contradiction is ignored. There ARE people who come out of Reclaiming, and other similar traditions, with a sense that the lesson being taught is that *nobody* has the power to affect anyone else unless we let them. They fall into certain traps of thinking that result in a combination of victim blaming and underestimating their responsibility for their own effect on the world around them. I would argue, however, that those people are actually missing the point of what traditions like Reclaiming are trying to say, and that staying with their traditions until they gain a more complete understanding of what is being taught is the obvious solution to that problem.

      But that more complete understanding would NOT include hard polytheism, and advice given from that perspective, would necessarily be *at best* misapplied in a hard polytheistic context.

      –Ember–

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      • EmberVoices says:

        I suppose a third logical road would be that the quote from the post that I’m disagreeing with in the first place:
        > “Whatever the case, gods can’t hurt you unless you continually give them that power.”
        is *not* characteristic of Reclaiming Tradition’s theology of personal power?

        In which case, yes, please do unpack more, so that I can understand the alternative third road, because otherwise there’s just a logical hole in the theology that is only there if the polytheism is switched to “Hard”, and is otherwise very easy to miss, and that is indeed the core of our disagreement.

        –Ember–

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        • Helen/Hawk says:

          1st I have to say, that what I’m writing is my own understanding. Reclaiming supports individualism. That said, from our Principles of Unity:
          “Each of us embodies the divine. Our ultimate spiritual authority is within, and we need no other person to interpret the sacred to us. We foster the questioning attitude, and honor intellectual, spiritual and creative freedom.

          We are an evolving, dynamic tradition and proudly call ourselves Witches. Our diverse practices and experiences of the divine weave a tapestry of many different threads. We include those who honor Mysterious Ones, Goddesses, and Gods of myriad expressions, genders, and states of being, remembering that mystery goes beyond form.”
          http://reclaiming.org/about/directions/unity.html

          So, in the supporting of individualism & the practice that our ultimate spiritual authority is within: there is not a hard definition of Deity w/in the tradition.

          As for personal power….once again from the POU “We strive to teach and practice in ways that foster personal and collective empowerment, to model shared power and to open leadership roles to all.”

          In my experience, the whole “personal power” thing is Not in Relationship to the Gods (however an individual views/experiences Them) but rather to the fact of how many individuals Give Away their Personal Power on a regular basis (or have done so). Reclaiming that is a personal practice that many choose to perform.

          Because of the highly individualistic nature of the tradition (w/in the container of the POU and community/culture of practice)…..I’m speaking from my understanding/experience. For many the Gods are very specific unto Themselves. But the tradition teaches neither yes nor no. When the POU says “each of us embodies the divine”, it’s refering to our personal ultimate divinity. This can stand alongside the hard polytheism you talk about. And/or it can stand alongside the softer imaging you mention. Paradox. This is how I understand the phrase. Other Reclaiming folks might have another/different understanding. Part of the joy/difficulty of individualism & supporting that in others.

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          • EmberVoices says:

            Thank you very much for the clarification. 🙂

            > Reclaiming that is a personal practice that many choose to perform.
            And a healthy one, I believe. But sometimes there is an in-between phase where people over-extend what it means, to the point of blaming victims for other’s actions, because “you gave away your power”. That’s not necessarily a fault of Reclaiming, so much as a weakness of the human emotional process.

            I’m still not confident there doesn’t end up being an unintended contradiction in practice, when the emphasis on reclaiming personal power combines with the hard end of the open-ended definition of divinity, but there are probably multiple ways around it, depending on one’s individual experience.

            In any case, I had never intended to claim that the original poster was representing Reclaiming’s theology, much less as a singular doctrine, only that she’s understandably influenced by Reclaiming’s emphasis on personal power, and that’s a significant difference in perspective.

            –Ember–

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  3. Pingback: S#!t May Have Been Real All Along | Drinking From the Cup of Life

  4. Kaisular says:

    I also remember thinking it was a great departure in tone for Ravenna. I thought, is this where Polytheism is going? Toward priests who know better than me just like Monotheism was? Because if so, I want no part of it. I was glad when Asa provided an antithesis. I think it was needed and broke a little bit of a shocked silence.

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    • EmberVoices says:

      See, I didn’t parse her that way at all. I parsed Morpheus as saying, “Look, this is fair warning. Learn from someone else’s harsh experience if you don’t want to learn this way first hand.” and Asa as saying, “Oh no, dear, you don’t listen to her, you listen to me.” which isn’t an improvement at all.

      That said, yeah, there IS a certain amount of people saying “Here’s why I’m right about this.” not just among self-identified Polytheists, but across the Pagan spectrum. As some have observed, it’s a natural product of our having sufficient numbers now to be confronting how different our practices, experiences, and beliefs really are, instead of glossing them in favor of holding tiny isolated communities together against the tide of everybody-else.

      At no point in anyone’s religious history does the need to discern who to listen to and who not to listen to ever go away.
      -E-

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  5. Kaisular says:

    I am watching this thread started by Morpheus Ravenna with interest. It seems all three authors are very close to the matter concerned (as am I) and the topic raises some real emotion.
    The points I got from Asa West included to make sure I acid-test an opinion, even of a career priest, against my own judgement, and that point was well taken. I perceived the raft to be a metaphor in this case for any promises that may have been rashly (or soberly) made in a time of trouble to help get one through. I guess that’s a bit of an assumption in itself. But meant to say, you can renegotiate your contract rather than carry a lot of weight of their expectations and your own concerns that might not be necessary.

    If it actually did mean “my faith”, then, yes I’m not going to put down my relationship with another person just because it might take time and energy on an ongoing basis. Relationships do.

    When I read Ravenna’s post, I thought she seemed frustrated, unwell, in pain and maybe a little afraid. We all feel that way from time to time. The admonition did sting to not rush into binding contracts, as my own dedication was taken in maybe a half-rushed way, when negociations broke down after 6 months. I felt under enormous pressure and had no contacts to advise me. My main reaction to the first post was that I remembered being afraid all the time, and I didn’t like feeling that way. About three years ago, after around 8 years of service I was able to take a break and come back to the practice on my own terms.

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    • EmberVoices says:

      Certainly it is extremely important to recognize that contracts CAN be renegotiated, and that part of the point of the gods is that They are wise. It’s very individual whether the gods will accept particular term changes or not, or how you will be treated if you choose poorly, of course. The Morrigan is one to step very carefully around.

      I parsed Morpheus as having a sense of humor about it, but considering the whole thing fair warning. Yes, frustrated, but I didn’t parse her as overwhelmed by the pain. But then I’m a person who says things like:

      One thing wrong is a problem
      Two things wrong is a drama
      Three things wrong is a tragedy
      Four things wrong is a comedy!

      So I may not have an accurate gauge of Morpheus’ sense of humor.

      I served the Vanir for 9 years before taking witnessed vows to Them, and the Vanir are relatively safe to get things wrong with. I’m the sort to be very, very slow to take vows. Even so, I do fret when I feel like I’m falling down on my spiritual obligations. But if a particular power – Odin, the Morrigan, Exu – strikes me as too dangerous to cross, I’m much, much more careful what I’m willing to promise Them in the first place for exactly these reasons.

      Because the gods are NOT Tame Lions.
      –Ember–

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    • EmberVoices says:

      Your point about the acid test is more or less what I first assumed she was *trying* to say, but for me that signal got lost in the noise of the patronising tone.

      Some of my interpretation does come from an awareness of what Reclaiming Tradition does and does not focus on. I respect their activism tremendously, but their theology does not support my beliefs or experiences much at all, really.
      -E-

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