It’s often said that one of the big questions that philosophy tackles is “If God is good and all-powerful, why does human suffering exist?”
The simple answer is that assuming that there is one good and all-powerful God contradicts our observed experience in the world. It takes serious mental gymnastics to attempt to reconcile the two ideas. Humans can be very good at such mental gymnastics. In attempting to resolve the contradiction, some disregard what should be our observed experience of the world and pay attention only to those things which reinforce their beliefs. I fear this disconnection from the world leads to dangerous delusion and a destructive path.
I hold a different view, and with it, I side-step the quagmire of that question and see what’s before me. The world is not ruled by a single force, beneficent or otherwise. Nor is it a duality of forces simply struggling between light/dark. The world has many forces at work, which sometimes work together, sometimes are at odds, and sometimes work independently without the slightest regard for the others.
The ancient cultures knew this. They often saw the divine powers as families that alternately worked together, squabbled and let one another pursue their separate paths. They were connected, yes. They perhaps all came from a common source or had common parentage. But no god or goddess was the single mind that controlled all of the variables that may impact a human life. The world was just not that simple.
Let’s think about something as universal as the weather. Many forces are involved – wind, water evaporation, topography, axial tilt, ocean temperatures, volcanic activity, vegetation, urban heat islands, and many other forces and variables that determine if today will be warm and sunny or if we will see a blizzard. Weather is clearly not one force. In the ancient world, people knew that these forces operated to some extent separately. In order to understand them, to hear what they are saying, they were given a name, a human form, a way to interface. They created and passed down stories about past interactions. The north wind has a particular character, and if we are sensitive to it, if we talk to it, maybe we can know when it will bring the harsh snows. If we listen to the volcano goddess as she speaks with earthquakes or steam vents, perhaps we can try to understand her actions and know when it’s OK to stay and when to get on a boat and get far away.
It’s typically human to make things around us more human for ease of interaction. From ancient Aesop’s talking animals to Winnie the Pooh to Siri, we’ve been making beings and things around us look and sound a bit more human for our own comfort and ease of communication. So the ancients made the gods and goddesses look rather human and sometimes gave them rather fanciful stories (thank you, Ovid). To modern eyes the fanciful story is sometimes all that we see, and it seems a bit implausible as a way to understand the divine. This doesn’t mean that those powers don’t exist. It just means that the face and clothes that humans added for ease of interaction are a bit out of date.
The divine powers do exist. They are separate and interactive, with us and with each other. They are greater than our individual humanness. They are more enduring, more powerful. Sometimes we have the good fortune to work with them and they work through us. Sometimes they will flatten us like a steam roller.
I love to find the ancient versions of these stories and to see the ancient images of the gods and goddesses. It’s a window to how humans interacted with divine forces before the monotheistic systems came through and blasted away the understanding of the diversity of forces at work in the world and attributed everything to one force, one God. Maybe not all the old stories translate well into a modern context. The world has changed. Many of these sources are quite incomplete, anyway. That’s why we need to take those as just a starting point for creation.
Modern polytheists know the gods and goddesses are alive. They know that sometimes they need new clothes, a new language, and sometimes even a new name. But they are still divine forces. And we can talk to them, sing them new songs, tell new stories about them, or tell the old stories in a new way.