Asatru Leaning Agnostic

This is a topic I’ve talked about before so there will be much rehash.  I was raised in a religion that, well some consider it “Christian” but others not so much.  In any case, I was taught Young Earth Creationism in it and…the more I learned the less viable that became.  Either the religion was wrong on that aspect–and if I couldn’t trust it on that, how could I trust it on anything else–or the God described by that religion was playing an enormous practical joke on mankind, deliberately designed to mislead most and lead them astray.  This latter one would mean that what the religion said about the nature of God was wrong.  And if I could not trust it on that, how could I trust it on anything else?

The answer was, I couldn’t.  And not being the White Queen on the other side of the Looking Glass, I could not believe seven impossible things before breakfast.  It didn’t happen instantly but over time I found I just didn’t believe it any more.

Humans, however, have something deeply hard-wired into us that demands ritual and symbolism, a look for something outside ourselves.  I didn’t recognize that for a while but eventually the lack caught up to me leaving me open for other possibilities.  Oh, not necessarily for belief.  And thus why I couldn’t fill the need with the common monotheistic religions–belief is the core of their philosophy; that one has to believe is what makes whatever “salvation” they offer possible.  Cynically following a practice without belief simply because it fills the internal need for ritual and symbolism was contrary to my own ethos.  I couldn’t just pretend.

Pagan religions, however, don’t have that problem.  The gods and goddess as described in them generally do not care whether people believe or not.  (This, incidentally, breaks the “magic systems” in many games and books which postulate that a god or goddess’s power depends on the number and sincerity of believers.  But if that were the case then all these gods would encourage their believers to proselytize, to convert others to their belief so that they, the gods would have more power.)

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.

It was like a flashbulb (and doesn’t that date me) going off.  Here was a system that was not only full of symbolism, but with hooks on which I could build my own rituals that suited me.  It was also built around an ethos that I found highly congenial.  And ones status in the afterlife (should there be such a thing) was based on deeds, not the belief in which I was simply not suited to give, not without a lot more evidence (not “proof” mind, I never asked for proof) than any gods that exist have ever seen fit to offer.

One of the first things the books said was that the myths were stories about the gods, told to convey principles.  Indeed, when I studied mythology in college, that was the very definition of myth, the stories told in a culture to define that culture.  We tend to think of “myth” to mean false, but whether they’re literally true or not they contain a greater truth–the values and ideals that make up a culture.  So the myths are not truth in the literal sense that there’s a large tree and the world is stuck in one of its branches with Asgard in another, Nifflehiem down by the roots and so on.  They were stories told to convey ideas and ideals.

No need to reconcile modern science with Young Earth Creationism here.

That said, on 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.

Likewise when it comes to right and wrong, the common monotheistic religions tend to base that on “God said so.”  Pagan religions like Asatru are more like the gods say so because it’s right and wrong (and don’t try to pretend that the gods are ultimate examples of “good”.  They can be flawed just like people are.  Indeed, the ultimate deciders of fate in Asatru are the Norns and you’ll have to look long and hart to find someone claiming that they are “just” let alone “loving and merciful.”)  There is the concept of ørlǫg.  Basically, that’s the weight of ones actions to that point, and to a lesser extent the weight of the actions of those that came before.  It’s what determines ones fate.  Ones fate is determined by the sum total of all that ørlǫg.  One can change ones fate my making different choices but its hard because it takes a lot of effort to shift that ørlǫg into a different direction.  And the direction the ørlǫg pushes you is not simply because the gods say so, but rather the nature of the thing itself.  I have examined that a bit in my post on Morals, Ethics, and Religion.

The Lore of Asatru does not come with a nice convenient set of commandments akin to the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity.   Some modern practitioners, however, have distilled a number of ideas from the surviving Lore into what they call the Nine Noble Virtues.  I find them a good guide, myself.

This is just one of several different lists.  I don’t particularly say it’s better or worse than others, but I had to pick one to go into here.  So, here it is:

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.

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