Welcome to the Anthropocene, and congratulations: you are now the now the dominant natural force on the planet. There is an island of plastic bits and shopping bags in the Pacific. Sea life is turning up dead on our shores. The ice-caps are melting. The seas are rising. Global warming is transforming once fertile grasslands into deserts. We are facing the planet’s sixth mass extinction, and the majority of scientists believe it to be our fault.
We are members of the most deadly, most powerful, and most monstrous species on the planet. Properly trained, a human can run down a horse. We have a septic bite that can cause festering wounds. We wield guns. We have bombs. We belong to the only species on Earth who has set their feet among the stars, the only species threatening the global ecosystem, and the only species that can save it.
Embrace this truth. Walk with it, breathe it in, own it, hymn it, and take responsibility for it. Denying its existence cannot make this power go away, it will only prevent us from having important conversations about how to use it responsibly.
If you don’t believe that you have agency and power, you cannot take responsibility for your actions. That is a problem.
Of late, I have seen too much written and spoken about the non-relevance of human volition and the use of degrading analogies to demonstrate exactly how powerless we are. We aren’t ants. We aren’t cats. Ants and cats have never even come close to an ability to destroy the planet. We, on the other hand, possess nuclear weapons and machines of industry which may very well do just that.
It may seem like you have very little control over your life. Illness and death are certainly a part of the world, but just about everything else which plagued us is human caused. Many of our problems such as war, poverty, oppression, and the rise in natural disasters are because some humans have more power than others. I’m not going to tell you that embracing the reality of human power is going to make them go away on a personal level, but I will tell you that giving up on the idea that you have it isn’t a good way to offer resistance to the tyranny of other human beings. I can also tell you that NOT having a dialog about the responsible use of human power, or downplaying its influence in the world we live in is categorically unhelpful.
So what does this have to do with theology?
I know it doesn’t seem related when people are waxing poetic about how gods are volcanoes, or how we can’t choose what deities we worship, or how we are just the domesticated pets of deities who are the real actors in the human world, and the force driving all things. I know that the Puritan idea of “vocation” doesn’t seem related to Climate Change. I understand that when a person attributes every bad thing that happens to them, big or small, to divine intervention, it doesn’t seem connected to long-dormant anthrax killing deer in Russia, but it is very much related.
“We have no power, the gods have all the power” is the implicit belief behind all of these things. The gods, not us, some say, are ultimately the movers and actors, the only beings with power or volition. These ideas are poisonous to our capacity to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, individually and collectively, because they let us off the hook. This is directly parallel to the belief that God controls the climate, and that therefore humans cannot be responsible for Climate Change. It is parallel to the belief that Climate Change is divine punishment for people doing things that Christianity does not agree with. These beliefs are strongly correlated with irresponsible and unsustainable legislation as well as personal behavior.
The Puritan concept that power and luck belong to those destined for salvation is at play here, too. American culture reviles the sick, the poor, the victim and the downtrodden. This is in part because we believe that if they’ve fallen down under the weight of a heartless society, it must be divine will, rather than the result of a misuse of power. Therefore, they must deserve it. This belief fosters cruelty.
Saving our world is possible, but in order to do that, we need to believe that it is possible. We have to understand that Climate Change is not divine wrath, and divine intervention will not, cannot save us. Praying for the poor and the oppressed cannot restore justice to them. Only banding together and becoming adamant about using our power responsibly can.
The belief that humans are powerless is morally and ethically paralyzing. It takes the responsibility off of humans and wrongly assigns blame for our misdeeds to the gods.
We need to find deities to venerate who embody a responsible use of power.
I’m not going to say that venerating deities who abuse power is going to cause you, necessarily, to abuse power yourself. Some people need evil deities to explain otherwise inexplicable misery in the world, and don’t seek to emulate their gods.
However, I will say that human beings do not need more mythic exemplars of how to misuse power. They don’t need more examples of powerful beings who hurt people and get away with it because of their station in life. They do not need more examples of how to use patriarchal violence, or how to leverage one’s own lack of ability to emotionally self-manage against weaker individuals. We don’t need any more examples of Beings who, by virtue of their power, are free to choose vengeance when justice is more appropriate (vengeance tears things apart for personal satisfaction, whereas justice repairs things for the common good). We already have plenty of examples of that, terrestrial, celestial and otherwise. Neither do we need any more practice tolerating evil in this world. We have already, as a species, mastered the skill of being silent and passive in the face of injustices. Those deities have their place (so long as we don’t use them to remove responsibility from ourselves or others who commit destructive and oppressive misdeeds), but we don’t need any more of them.
What we need now are deities with emotional intelligence who can teach us how to gracefully take responsibility for our power. We need myths that describe, in detail, what actual justice looks like. These deities need not reach out to us — simply existing and being respected highly for their inherent goodness is enough. What we venerate grows inside of us, changes us, and enlightens us with respect to itself.
If you can’t find deities in an existing pantheon, find human exemplars and deify them.
If you can’t find humans who have done that successfully, then do what the ancient Greeks and Romans did: imagine that Responsibility, Fairness, Justice, Volition, Equity, Self Control, and Empathy are deities, and worship the ideas directly until they start to take on the proportions of deities in your mind. It was a solid conviction of the ancient Greeks that for every sacred, necessary and important thing, there had to be a deity of it, even if their true name could not be known.
Harmonia (Harmony), Aletheia (Truth), Dike (Justice), and Kalokagathia (Nobility) are examples of the ancient Greeks doing just as I suggested, and these divinities make up a large portion of the ancient Greek pantheon.
We need theologies that help us to come to grips with our power, and what it means for those who believe in deities.
People whose highest ideal of piety is the absolute submission to divine will might have trouble swallowing the idea of powerful humans who can choose to venerate or not venerate deities based upon what ideas foster right action. However, the two ideas need not be at odds. Instead of saying that one should submit because the deity has the power, one can instead make the conscious decision to submit because the deity has wisdom, and without their guidance (or deep contemplation of what they stand for if one is not a mystic) one is in danger of using one’s power in a destructive way.
An absolute submission to the will of Gaia, or Dana, might serve us quite well if we view Her will as being the preservation of the environment. An absolute sacrifice of our will to Apollon or Aletheia might look like an eternal quest for scientific truth and the correct actions that go with it. Absolute spiritual submission, or entering sub-space with a deity, can be comforting and fulfilling for many people. It can be a choice. It need not be forced upon us in order to be relevant. It need not be universal in order to be valid, and we do not need to make other people do it with us for it to work.
Another obstacle to this way of thinking is feeling like your own power is too small to matter. In many cases, this seems true. We figure one vote, one plastic bottle thrown out of a window, one car, one voice isn’t going to change the world. However, when we look around us, we see the impact that everyone else, together, as one, doing the exact same thing is having. Human power, with some few exceptions, exists in aggregate. Think about an action, any action. Ask yourself, “if everyone did this, what kind of world would we live in?” If we think of human power in terms of power together, rather than power over another, and if each of us takes responsibility for the portion that is ours, we will inevitably be living in a better world.