Asatru Leaning Agnostic

These days I mostly describe myself as an “Asatru leaning agnostic.”  I don’t particularly believe in the Norse Gods (or any Gods for that matter–although I don’t exclude the possibility) but I find that the philosophy of Asatru makes more sense than most religions of which I am familiar.

I first got introduced to modern Asatru via the novels of John Ringo, specifically part 2 of Princess of Wands and an oblique reference near the end of Through the Looking Glass.  Curious, I followed up by getting Greg Shetler’s book Living Asatru and Diana L. Paxson’s Essential Asatru.

As a somewhat humorous note, I am a physicist.  And so I find it interesting to note that in the Norse creation story the sparks from Muspelhem, the land of fire (heat) meeting ice from Niffleheim, the land of ice (cold) was the driver behind the creation of the world.  In much the same way the meeting of heat and cold is the driver behind the science of thermodynamics which is behind everything interesting that happens in the Universe.  Neither Relativity nor Quantum Theory has altered that.  All that happens in the world comes about because of the meeting of heat and cold and energy flowing between the two.

On a more serious note there’s the concept of ørlǫg  as described in those books.  I broke from the religion I grew up in (Latter Day Saint) first because of their young earth creationist position which was only a starting point in questioning the whole concept of the O^3 (that’s O cubed:  Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent) God.  I’m supposed to believe that.  Once you start looking at that the whole thing quickly falls apart, particularly when so many of the “sins” are supposedly so for no better reason than “God said so.”  Personally, I like the idea (again, based on my understanding from reading those two books) that “punishment” for “sin” comes about not because some old man in a nightshirt decrees it so but as the result of the nature of the sin itself.  The mere fact of doing “evil” tends to bring about its own punishment and any declarations by any Gods are more in the way of warning:  don’t touch the fire or you’ll get burned” than commandments “thou shalt kiss my divine heiny or I’ll punish you.”

As a real-world example of that idea consider the words of Al Capone: “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.” Yet Al Capone, in following that philosophy, ended up in prison at 33 and dead at 48.  I, following a different philosophy, have lived longer and, while I may not be surrounded by as much money, women, and power I’m quite certain I’ve spent far less time looking over my shoulder wondering where the metaphorical hammer was to fall.

ørlǫg.  A far better justification for right and wrong than “the old guy in the sky said so.”

And so, while I remain agnostic, I find a lot of appeal in Asatru.  Still, appeal is not enough reason, by itself, to believe in Thor, Odin, Forsetti and the lot.  And so I remain agnostic–but an Asatru leaning agnostic.

One of the things that, from my own reading, modern Asatru seems to lack is the concept of “sin” per se.  Things aren’t good or evil based on whether they are offensive to the Gods or not, but rather, if anything, they might be offensive to the Gods based on whether they are good or evil.  Although it appears that the codification of these “Noble Virtues” is fairly recent, the basic concepts are quite old.  While not found explicitly in the Asatru Lore, I think they’re a good distillation of the virtues that are celebrated in the Lore.  And they make a useful shorthand to answer questions about ones “moral compass.” And so I’ll take a look at them here.

Courage.
I’ve generally seen this defined in modern Asatru as the bravery to do what is right at all times.  Determining “what is right” might be open to question, of course, but for me the other virtues serve as a good guide.  It’s also possible that different people may come to different conclusions about what is right:  a soldier defending his home against invaders may see this as the right thing to do.  Another soldier serving his nation in invading and stopping a dangerous “evil” (by his standards) regime may see that as the right thing to do.  And, here’s the thing, they could well both be right.  The solder defending against the invasion is doing the right thing for him.  The soldier invading is doing the right thing for him.  And, in the end, when the dust has settled, the victory has been won by one side or the other, and the soldiers  of the victorious side can honor the courage of their vanquished foes while the soldiers of the defeated can respect the courage of those who bested them.

Courage need not just be courage on the battlefield either.  The political activist who risks arrest to stand up for a position he believes to be right, the scientist who braves ridicule by saying to his peers “you are wrong and I can prove it”,  and the medical personnel who risk infection to minister to the victims of a plague all exercise the virtue of courage.

Courage is also, I think, a virtue that is its own reward and its lack is its own punishment.  There is no need for some stern lawgiver to say “if you do not have courage you will be punished.  If you do, you will be rewarded.”  From the punishment aspect consider Kipling’s poem “That Day”:

There was thirty dead an’ wounded on the ground we wouldn’t keep —
No, there wasn’t more than twenty when the front begun to go;
But, Christ! along the line o’ flight they cut us up like sheep,
An’ that was all we gained by doin’ so.

I ‘eard the knives be’ind me, but I dursn’t face my man,
Nor I don’t know where I went to, ’cause I didn’t ‘alt to see,
Till I ‘eard a beggar squealin’ out for quarter as ‘e ran,
An’ I thought I knew the voice an’ — it was me!

And that’s the way it’s been.  The horrible death tolls in battles weren’t usually (not until the “modern” age anyway) caused during the battle itself but in the pursuit.  Shakespeare put it another way: “Cowards die a thousand deaths. The valiant taste of death but once.”  That certainly has been the case in my own life.  When I’ve let cowardice dictate my actions the result has usually been misery, even if I avoid whatever it was I was afraid of.  When, on the other hand, I am moved by some small measure of bravery the result is that I’m usually happier even in “failure” than otherwise.

And yet given all of that Courage is a hard one for me.  Fear is a powerful motivator even if one knows, in ones head, that it tends to lead to more misery than it saves you from.  And so this is one I struggle with.

Truth:
Say what you know, or at least believe, to be true and right and it’s generally better to be silent than to lie.  Now, according to the Norse beliefs (remember, we’re talking about Asatru here) there is no obligation to be true to those who lie to you.  In the mathematical field of Game Theory a strategy of tit-for-tat is often the most effective strategy and I find it interesting that a mathematically sound approach is what has come out of Norse religion.

I would add my own thought that Truth may sometimes conflict with other virtues such as Hospitality.  This is the concept of the “white lie” told to spare others hurt.  I’m not particularly opposed to that concept just be sure that 1) it doesn’t cause greater  hurt later and 2) be absolutely sure that you’re telling your “white lie” to spare the other person and not to spare yourself (see “Courage” above).

Honor:                                       
Oh, this is a hard one.  I’m tempted to retreat to the “I know it when I see it” but that wouldn’t be fair.  I’ll try to give my own thought on the matter rather than repeat some other folks words.  To me, honor is the natural tendency to do the right things for the right reasons.  An honorable person doesn’t have to think, doesn’t have to figure the angles, doesn’t have to calculate the odds, he just does it.  It’s what you have when you take all the other virtues and pull them together into one smooth whole.

Loyalty:
As individuals we are rather small things in the vast universe but by giving our devotion to something outside ourselves, whether it’s a cause, a belief, or a person, we can become something greater.  But this only holds so long as we remain true to that something outside ourselves.  To abandon the something is to lose all that one has gained and then some.

Now, this doesn’t mean that devotions cannot change with time, but if they do we need to deal with them honestly.  A clean, honest break with old devotions is better for all concerned than betrayal, deceit, and trickery.

Discipline:
Anything worthwhile takes work.  It takes effort.  It takes putting off immediate gratification in favor of future, greater, satisfaction.  Whether its sweating and aching in the gym three times a week to build a strong body or spending six hours a day studying to learn a difficult subject or pushing doorbells every day to drum up support for the political candidate who supports the causes you favor it takes work, lots of work, to get the greater rewards in life.  And yet every time one takes that road it’s a gamble.

The work does not always pay off in the ways you might like.  When I was younger I wanted to be able to sing well.  I spent hours every week working on it.  I took classes.  I had voice coaches.  The result?  I got to the point that if I practiced a particular song long enough with the right preparation I could stay mostly on key.  But sing well?  I don’t have the voice.  I don’t have the ear.  And I never will.  So that exercise of discipline didn’t pay off.  Or did it?  Humans are creatures of habit.  Simply applying the effort, the discipline, made it that much easier to do so when next I wanted to accomplish something.  Years later when I wanted to get good at Judo, I spent hours every week practicing, exercising, studying everything I could about Judo.  And, while I will never be a “great Judoka,” I got good enough to earn the respect of my peers in the dojo–and the respect and honor of the instructors.

So the rewards of exercising discipline are not always obvious.  It’s easy to say “it’s not worth it” but trust me, it is.  Oh yes indeed, it is.  And I don’t need any old man in the sky to tell me that.

Hospitality:
When I grew up my family had a simple rule.  Well, we had lots of simple rules but I’m talking about one in particular.  Whenever we had guests the rule was that no one went away hungry.  This is a rule I have continued as an adult.  And, I think “hospitality” goes beyond just house guests.  Helping my neighbor at need is also a part of hospitality.  And, in today’s shrinking world “neighbor” can reach very far indeed.Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of people not follow that rule.  Oh, yes, it can be hard to make sure that your guests and neighbors are tended to, sometimes ones duty to guests might mean going short oneself.  Easier to just look after yourself and let others fend for themselves.   Besides, if you’re that hospitable you’ll end up with people who just take advantage of you.

But there’s a catch to that “easy approach”.  A great truth in the world is that if you want to have friends you have to be a friend.  To let others fend for themselves is to end up with a lonely life.  But, there’s another catch as well.  It’s not the cost or the fanciness of the “hospitality” that works the magic.  That it’s provided cheerfully, and willingly.  A table of potato soup and collard greens, provided cheerfully in the presence of good company is far more “hospitable” than caviar and filet mignon grudging from the hand of a stuck up . . . Well, you get the point.

In the myths the Gods were often wandering the world and a guest one hosts could easily be a god.  There’s a lesson there, I think.  Consider any guest as a possible God in disguise and one will rarely go wrong.  And while one might attract a few moochers along the way by that approach, one will rarely lack for friends.

Industriousness:
This one I think relates strongly to Discipline.  Where discipline is taking the harder, longer road to great rewards rather than the shorter, easier road to small rewards, Industriousness is pursuing that road with vigor.  When I chose Judo as a martial art, I chose one that took time and work to achieve high rank rather than one of the many “belt mills” where you can show up for class (if that) pay your fees and you, too can be a black belt in six months.  But that choice would mean nothing if I didn’t put in the time and effort.  If I didn’t do the work.  So it is with many things in life.  Discipline and Industriousness go hand in hand if you want to achieve real success.

Self Reliance:
Too many people these days look for other people to take care of them.  I was raised to take care of myself.  Help others in need, yes–see Hospitality–but there’s a difference between “need” and “want” and the old adage about “giving a fish” also comes into play.  Sometimes your neighbor may want a fish but what he needs is to learn how to fish and perhaps someone to give him a shove out toward the lake.  The best help you can give most people is the motivation and ability to fend for themselves.  And, in that, example is a great teacher.  One helps others be self reliant by being self reliant.

One of the great virtues of being self-reliant is that self-reliance is essential to freedom.  If you are beholden to anyone for your survival then to that extent they control you.  To be free you must be able to stand on your own.  And if anyone tries to make you dependent on him or her, flee that person.

Note that fair trade is not a violation of self-reliance.  Both the farmer trading part of his crop and the blacksmith providing iron tools for those crops are self reliant.  Each takes only what they give good value for.  The employee giving honest work for an honest wage and benefits is self reliant.  There is no shame in doing work, even the most menial work, in order to be able to say “I earned my way.”

I think this is one of my biggest disagreements with the traditional Christian concept of God.  Salvation cannot be earned.  It is given entirely and completely at the pleasure of the Christian God.  A person’s eternal future is entirely at the sufferance of another.  This is completely contrary to the very idea of self reliance.  And so people bow and plead and beg and worship in the hope that they will be given as a boon something they cannot earn cannot win of their own efforts.  And why can they not win it of their own efforts?  Because the Christian God says so.

Perseverance:
No matter what you do you will occasionally face failure.  The truly successful are the ones who can come back from failure and keep striving until they succeed.  Yes, sometimes the reason for the failure is that you’re on the wrong path and no amount of perseverance will succeed, but all too often people quit when continued striving would have brought success.  In the end you have to make that call for yourself.  Quitting is easy.  Nothing is easier than to drift along with each change of fortune.  Staying the course despite the difficulties along the way is much harder.  But it is only there that greatness is achieved.

And so in these nine virtues I find yet another set of reasons to find Asatru appealing.  But again appeal is not sufficient reason to believe in this specific set of deities.  And so I remain agnostic, but an Asatru leaning agnostic.

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