Personal Development, Philosophy, Religion, The Great Adventure

A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

Aztec gods. Art by Mostro.

In 2012 I began a journey across the Americas on a bicycle. I had several reasons for going: to become a writer, to fulfill a lifelong dream, and to learn something about heroism and adventure. But if I had one goal, one purpose for the whole trip, it was to meet the gods.

I’ve now covered 2,000 miles, and in that time I’ve said almost nothing about meeting the gods. That’s not because I’ve given up, it’s because the gods are elusive. I’ve sought them for two years and for two years I haven’t met them—not even a glimpse.

But I believe I have learned a few basic truths about what we call gods, and today I’m breaking my silence.

What Does It Mean to Meet the Gods?

When I began training in Vodou, one of the many phenomena I got to witness was possession. Possession is the central event of most Vodou ceremonies, as common in the temple as taking Communion is at church. Possession is a chance for the lwa, the spirits, to speak and move through a person and deliver messages to the people at the ceremony. It’s also a chance for all of us there to have direct contact with the divine. While the person being possessed may seem to be at the center of attention, they rarely remember anything that happens. They lose themselves in the moment and allow the spirit to come through for our sake. It is the community, not the person possessed, who benefits.

These possessions are poignant. Before I left New Orleans to bicycle to Texas, we held a ceremony for Papa Legba. Papa Legba is an old man who sits at the crossroads between the worlds. He walks slowly, with a limp, because he has supported his human children for so long. Now he leans on a cane, but he is still strong, and he will never leave our side.

During the ceremony Papa possessed one of our priests. He—Papa Legba, not the priest, who was for all intents and purposes checked out—lit a cigar. Cigars are common offerings in Vodou. Papa sat on his chair, like he does, and puffed. We kept dancing (Vodou ceremonies are mostly dancing, which makes them way more fun than other kinds of services). But as I passed by him, Papa stopped me.

He looked in my eyes, took a long draw of the cigar, and blew smoke on both my feet. Before I could thank him or ask him any questions, he gave me a firm push back toward the dancing. Papa doesn’t coddle.

Art by Brocoli.

Despite the gruffness of the act, there was no way I could miss its significance. I was about to set off for a 700-mile ride, not knowing where I would sleep or exactly what route I would take. And on practically the eve of my departure, this spirit—who had never talked to me at any other ceremony for him—blessed both my feet. The feet that would power me the whole way.

Or at least, that’s one way to read it. I think this is where many people would declare they have spoken to the divine, or that the divine spoke to them. Certainly I was overcome with a sense of awe. Being in the presence of the possessed, and having them single you out and touch you, is intense. In that moment, the priest looked and acted nothing like the man I know. He was Papa Legba.

But this is where I ask questions. It wasn’t the first spiritual experience I’ve had. When I pray, I get sense of a presence, a sense of guidance. That is “meeting the gods,” but I never took it on faith. And when I go into trance during meditation, I have vivid inner experiences, visions if you wish to call them that. I meet and talk to the gods there too, but I never took it on faith. Why would possession be any different?

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting fraud. There is no denying that a tremendous psychological transformation overcomes those who are possessed. I believe fully that this priest was unconscious of what was happening, that his actions as Legba were out of his conscious control. But did a divine agent move through him? Or did this personality come entirely from his own unconscious mind?

Some people might answer, what does it matter? But let’s not let it go so easily. This is a really important difference, one that has a huge impact on what religion means: if a supernatural, independent being named Papa Legba moved through my friend, that means we are not alone; it means there is far more to the universe than we can see empirically; it means that maybe prayers can be answered, maybe faith has a power greater than the atom bomb.

And if Papa Legba is simply a state of mind, not a spirit at all, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that religion is pointless, or that Vodou is canceled. The experiences are just as vivid. Even if I knew for a fact that it was all in our heads, I would still want to dance at the temple and Papa’s blessing would still make me soar. But some things would be different: I wouldn’t expect prayers to be answered. The human brain can’t stop hurricanes, or heal cancer with a word, or protect Rogue Priests on bicycles from speeding trucks. That’s the provenance of spirit beings. So if those beings don’t exist, it makes a real difference.

You’re starting to see the problem. I can’t just declare I’ve met the gods whenever I get a vivid spiritual experience. I haven’t seen anything yet that couldn’t be explained by psychology alone. So I can’t be sure whether the gods are spirits, or in our heads.

Past Mistakes

I wasn’t always so cautious. I used to be really sure the gods are real. I was “sure” because I had felt them myself. I felt their presence when I made offerings.

But that sureness was a mistake.

More and more, I’ve come to feel that the greatest sin a religious person can commit is to act as if they know the answer. We don’t know anything about the gods. All we have are experiences—highly subjective personal experiences. A lot of those experiences don’t even look alike. So when no two religious experiences are the same, what does that mean? It could mean the divine is a big ol’ mess of noodles. Or it could just mean we’re all imagining things.

There are some safe conclusions you can draw from a spiritual experience. You can say, “I know spirituality is meaningful to me.” Or you can say, “I know that I have powerful experiences, and I know I’d like to keep having them.” That’s fair. But I used to go a step further. I used to say I knew the gods were real. And I was wrong. No one knows that.

This realization isn’t something that set in during my Journey. To the contrary, I started to realize this before my Journey even began. In fact, if I hadn’t admitted this uncertainty to myself there might be no Journey at all—I’d still be sitting at home saying I knew everything, instead of out in the world looking for answers.

So when I started out I had no road map. I really have no idea what it would mean to “meet the gods” (that’s part of why I rarely bring it up; how would I explain it to anyone?). I suppose it would be a good sign if I saw something that non-gods can’t do, like if that possessed priest had lifted right up in the air and levitated. But really, if I saw something like that I’d just worry I was schizophrenic.

So maybe I hope I’ll find the entrance to the other world, or that I’ll get some cosmic revelation. Or maybe I just hope to get some peace on the issue, to decide once and for all that the gods aren’t real or that it’s something we can’t know. But how heroic is that?

I plan to keep questioning and questioning, and experimenting and experimenting, until I have some kind of breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it would take, but one way or another I want an answer: are there gods or aren’t there? And if there are, I’m going to need to see them.

Goddess of the moon & queen of the stars. Art by Mostro.


Revelations

I have had some revelations along the way. While I haven’t met the gods, I’ve learned a few things that seem important to tracking them down.

1. Acceptance

The first thing I learned is that even the religions you don’t like have an awful lot of good people in them. We can all find a religion we just don’t like. Even if you’re the most open minded person in the world you’ve probably made fun of some fringe sect or another. But for me, for a long time it was Christianity.

Many polytheists have hard feelings toward Christianity, and I won’t go into more detail than that. Suffice it to say that in the past my feelings toward Christianity have ranged from uncomfortable to hostile. I was aware that lots of individual Christians are good people, but that didn’t offset the problems I had with Christianity as an institution.

A few things changed this. For one, a brave friend explicitly told me I was bigoted. It didn’t even sting when she told me that, because the second the word left her mouth I felt it. She was right. The breath kind of went out of me, and I stopped whatever I was saying, and had to reflect on it for a long time.

Then, as I bicycled down the Mississippi, I had some extraordinarily warm experiences with Christians. It’s hard to be so judgmental when you’re personally on the receiving end of the generosity, kindness and love that Christians are taught to practice. Not all my interactions were this warm—sometimes the kindness came with a conversion hook, which ruined it, and once I was even turned away by a monastery. But in the experiences that were positive, I could see that Christianity done properly really does improve the world.

(I continue to have reservations because even the most warm, friendly Christian churches support missionary work that undermines other beautiful religions. The difference is that I’m better able to separate these two issues.)

And the last thing that helped open me up was Vodou. Despite many claims to the contrary, Vodou is not a branch of Catholicism. But the first year I formally practiced Vodou was also the last year I could say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Christmas, Easter, and other bits of Christianity have been absorbed into Vodou and they’re there to stay. They may be primarily window dressings on a pre-Christian faith, but those dressings have forced me to confront my relationship with Christianity. Vodou, that ever-changing gumbo of a religion, has made me accept new flavors I never meant to try.

All of this has informed my view of polytheism generally. To many practitioners, polytheism just means “believing in many gods.” But it’s more than that. Historically, polytheism not only had multiple gods; it had multiple doctrines and clergy and belief systems. It is a truly pluralistic system in which there is a belief for everyone—in which you decide for yourself what you believe. That is polytheism’s great strength.

In such a view, there is no room for bigotry. Yes, we should discourage aggressive proselytizing, and we should fight forced conversion wherever it’s practiced. But when we embark ourselves on polytheism, we cannot close the door on anyone.

2. Amazing Things are Possible

My sister is also on a spiritual journey. In her case, she decided to commit herself to a Buddhist monastery. She has been there for five years now and, other than a few weeks one summer, we haven’t seen her since she went in.

I respect my sister’s path, but mine has always been in-the-world. I’m not interested in a spirituality that locks me away, that separates me from the love and the shit and the joys and the pain. So although I perform intensive spiritual practices, I balance them against a career, an art form, drinking, napping, and dating.

It’s not always easy. I think most of us are in a constant crisis of self worth. Why aren’t I a famous writer yet? What did I do wrong in that relationship? What if I lose all my clients? Is this journey a bad idea? Will I get hurt? And even if I make it, will I one day think this was all a waste of time?

Really, none of us are sure what we should be doing, or whether we’re doing it right. And we make that problem a lot worse by constantly doubting ourselves. We measure ourselves against others. We have so many wishes and regrets that we can’t even see what we really need to be happy.

When I underwent my Vodou initiation, I got to experience a life without that self-doubt. For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head. During that time I never second guessed myself. I was more charming and charismatic than I normally am. I moved with a grace I don’t normally possess. And most importantly, I understood what others really wanted or needed, even if they had a hard time saying it. It was all because I turned off the doubt.

Eventually the presence of that spirit passed and, with it, that glorious freedom from self-worth. Sometimes the spirit comes back into me, when I really need it. And sometimes, if I quiet myself, I can conjure a little of that mind state on my own.

But the weight of that experience is much more than whether it makes my days easier. It proved to me that we are capable of this change. The promises of mystic texts are not untrue. You really can transcend doubt and fear, you really reach a state that is almost superhuman in its grace. That switch was already in me, and my initiation proved to me that I could flip it. I believe we all have that capability.

We all can do amazing things.

Art by Brocoli.


3. We Carry the Gods With Us

Despite all my questions and doubting up above, I’m not in a crisis of faith about the gods. Oh, it’s true, I don’t have much faith. But the third and final thing my journey has taught me is how little that matters.

Earlier in this article, I asked whether the gods are “real” or if we’re “imagining things.” But I don’t truly think those are the right words. We know the gods are real: they are real experiences people have everyday. Whether they are real subjectively, and come from our psyche, or objectively as independent beings, the thing we call “gods” is a real force that humans live with.

As I came to understand that, it took away the terror of losing these deities. Once, the idea that the gods weren’t “real” was like a personal affront to me. I actually felt angry when other polytheists entertained this idea. Like they had betrayed our gods.

But if the gods are purely psychological—which they might be—that doesn’t make them meaningless. Lots of things are in our heads: love, memories, warm feelings of friendship. The brain creates those things. We wouldn’t say they don’t matter.

Whether atheists like it or not, our species has carried the gods for the entirety of our existence. They may not be out there, but they are certainly in here, in our heads, where it counts. We find them when we perform ceremony, whatever they are; and their guidance is useful to us, wherever it may come from. Psychological gods can’t perform miracles, but they can do almost everything else.

Despite my skepticism, I’m not 100% sure there are no objectively real gods. But thanks to my Journey, I am completely certain there are subjectively real ones, and they are powerful. We carry our gods with us, wherever we go, passed from generation to generation; and when one generation forgets them the next one finds them again, by different names perhaps, but finds them every time.

The Journey Continues

I may not have found the gods yet, but I have found their tracks. I know they are inside us, and I know that contact with them can be life altering. My hope is to deepen my search by practicing more spiritual traditions hands-on as I continue on my way, and to broaden it by speaking more openly to people about their beliefs wherever I go.

Most of all I hope to reach deeper into myself, to continue working toward that state of no self doubt, of being totally at home with who I am. And I hope to share this journey with others.

What are your doubts and questions about the gods? Sometimes the journey seems hard to me, like I’ve picked up a weight I don’t need to carry. Does a spiritual search like this ever have a meaningful conclusion, or does it just lead to more questions?

It’s possible that with my skepticism, no experience will ever prove to me that I’ve met the gods. But I hold out hope that eventually I’ll get an answer. Please leave a comment and let me know: what do you think it means to meet the gods?

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34 thoughts on “A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

  1. I’m glad you came to the realization about Christianity that you did. We clashed (politely, as there was a power differential) on that a bit, as I recall.

    I don’t know what it would mean for me to meet the gods, but I’d need a good definition going in. You said that the difference between a psychological god and a physical god was important for humanity, particularly in the ability to perform miracles. However, is that a necessary requirement to be a god? What IS a requirement to be a god?

    While I have traveled really far from my Mormon roots (no, really), one thing that stays with me, though I paraphrase: as man is, god once was. As god is, man might become.

    So what’s the threshold? If you meet a god, how will you know it’s a god? I believe I’ve SEEN a god, but it may very well have been the delusion of a young girl that really, really needed guidance at the time. But what criteria can I use? If I can’t trust any of my senses – as you have put forth – what CAN you trust? It’s basic solipsism, of course, but when trying to meet something that skepticism is invested in disproving..? Is it multiple eye witnesses? That could work, absent a claim of mass hypnosis/mass hysteria of course…

    I believe there’s a reason why I hold to a labyrinth as a potent sacred symbol. All of the questions lead us back inside. You can only trust you. You’ll meet the gods when you’ve decided you’ve had proof that satisfies you, and not before.

    • I love the way you put this, Colleen. I particularly like “as man is, god once was. As god is, man might become.” I didn’t realize that was a Mormon concept and that has given me even more respect for Mormonism.

      The idea of humans going through a process to become deities—a sort of “becoming wise” type of process—is definitely in line with traditional polytheist theology. And it’s one I’ve always taught. In a way, that may be where my own pursuit of refining and improving myself came from: the idea that the gods aren’t just some higher order of beings, but one that we can aspire to.

      But in a way I think that’s still different from the question of whether they are spirits or states of mind. Here’s why:

      If the gods are spirits or non-material beings, then becoming godlike is a process with cosmic implications. A person who attains that god-like state could expect to exist in it forever, to join the other gods in a sort of transcendent state. Potentially, we could expect to take many lifetimes to complete the process. And achieving that divine state could also come with attendant supernatural powers, like the ability to heal people or even reshape the world.

      But if the gods exist only in our psychological wiring, then becoming godlike is much more limited. It would still be very rewarding personally, and a godlike person would be very valuable to those around them. But like all of us, they will stop existing when they die. And although very wise, a person with that divine state of mind would have no special powers—they couldn’t do anything that the human body isn’t physically capable of doing. They would make a good counselor, a good teacher or a good friend, but their influence would be very limited.

      I guess that’s why I’ve focused my search primarily on the question of whether the gods exist as immaterial spirits. So maybe that’s the definition we’re looking for: meeting the gods means finding immaterial beings, if such spirits exists. Our relationship to those beings and how we become more like them is a whole separate question. (Though, perhaps oddly, one I feel very comfortable with; I already have a close relationship with my “gods,” I just don’t know what they are.)

      • Sharon says:

        Well, in the sense that I’ve never been in a trance or had those ecstatic experiences. I pray, but I’ve never felt anyone or anything respond. The closest I’ve experienced is a few occasions when I’ve been outside and a sudden wind comes up. It feels like the wind is alive, or something. It makes ME feel more alive. (Shrugs)

        • That makes sense, Sharon.

          So, as somebody who felt nothing from religion for a good chunk of my life (and didn’t like it), I’d be interested to hear more about prayer. You said you pray but don’t feel anyone respond. What keeps you praying? What do you feel is the value of prayer for you personally?

          • Sharon says:

            Hmm. Perhaps it is the triumph of hope over experience? ;)
            I think prayer is reflexive for me. I was raised Southern Baptist, so, for good or ill (mostly ill) I’m steeped in that. As an adult I have been attending an episcopal church, and they have beautiful formal prayers.

            If I want to communicate with the gods then it makes sense for me to talk to them. Also, I think people turn to prayer when they feel helpless. In situations where it seems as if you have no control what other recourse is there? “Please let the test results come back negative!” “Please keep my kids safe!” But perhaps that is a Christian hangover sort of response?

            Andre, do you offer some sort of spiritual direction services? Because I’m finding this quite therapeutic!

            • I’m glad it’s therapeutic Sharon!!

              To respond briefly:

              ‘Also, I think people turn to prayer when they feel helpless. In situations where it seems as if you have no control what other recourse is there? “Please let the test results come back negative!” “Please keep my kids safe!” But perhaps that is a Christian hangover sort of response?’

              That’s not the way I pray, personally, but I do understand it’s how many people pray. I don’t think it’s specifically Christian; most of the old inscriptions to the Classical gods are also petitionary.

              Anyway, I don’t presently teach classes or lead services… But I’m here to talk if you want :) You can reach me at andre@roguepriest.net

  2. For me, I had to come to the realization that I was a spiritual person having spiritual experiences. I think we all do, but if you don’t recognize them for what they are, they remain invisible. The Gods then become real if we recognize then as such. Without that recognition, they remain indivisible, or unreal.

    For me there is no difference between Gods externally or Gods internally. I think my concept of The Gods is one that permeates everything, including our subconsciouses. There is no real difference.

    Perhaps I’m alone in my perspective, or delusional, but I find those that have this belief are often label delusional.

    • I don’t think you’re delusional, Urban. And the idea that the gods become real when we believe they are has a long and respectable history.

      From my perspective, that belief is no different than if they are objectively real all the time. It just adds some extra calculus to explain why we can’t all see them.

      If the gods can become objectively real under any circumstance, even only in the presence of a true believer or great sage, that raises the same questions (and objections) as if they are out there bopping miracles 24/7. Either way it implies something far outside of our evidence-based knowledge of the world.

  3. Sky on her Isle says:

    I’ve been asking this very questions for a few years now – and have set out on my own adventure to get answers. Not just any answers – they have to be satisfying, satiating. I’ve asked people along the way too, “What are the gods? How do you see them? How do you know they are real?” The answer is mostly always the same – people see them or feel them either as archetypes or as disembodied ‘energies’ different from our own. Or they believe they are real beings, but can’t really explain why or give any more details like, where they live, how they travel, why they are interested in us at all. The really devout say that it doesn’t matter to them what they are, just as long as ‘they are’ and they can see the results of a personal practice in their lives.
    For me personally – this will never be enough. As you said above somewhere, if the gods are real it means we are not alone. I can’t stand the thought of praying to a tiny god that exists only in my own psyche – I don’t care how much work I can do with it. And I do think the human mind is capable of all kind of magic, including manifestation.
    After two years on this I still am not sure where I stand with it all. I think that I really want them to be real ‘flesh and blood’ Beings that are either ‘other’ than us or kin in some way. Anything else than a face-to-face may come up short.

    • I understand what you’re saying Sky. First off, this:

      “The answer is mostly always the same – people see them or feel them either as archetypes or as disembodied ‘energies’ different from our own. Or they believe they are real beings, but can’t really explain why or give any more details…”

      Yes! It’s frustrated me so many times to ask people these important questions, only to get non-answers.

      However, on this:

      “I can’t stand the thought of praying to a tiny god that exists only in my own psyche – I don’t care how much work I can do with it.”

      This is how I once felt. I no longer feel this way. There are even some atheists who feel that spiritual experience is so useful that it’s worth doing despite not believing in the gods. But I do remember how painful it was to first admit this to myself, and the grieving I went through in releasing my insistence on “real” deities.

      One thing I didn’t mention in this essay, which may or may not shed a little light: regardless of what they are, I believe it is important to interact with them as if they are real, objectively extant beings. One must set aside the philosophy when picking up the incense, so to speak.

      I’d love to talk more with you about this. I have a small group of thoughtful not-quite-believers with whom I feel you’d fit in well.

      • Sky on her Isle says:

        Sure! I’d love to have more people to discuss this stuff with.
        I agree that any spiritual experience is worthy of pursuit – and I do believe in other things, based on my own direct experience with them; ghosts for example and nature spirits/devas. I had an experience once that led me to believe that the gods are actually nature expressing itself… I am nowhere near an atheist. But – I am surrounded by them! So it would be great to be able to talk more about all of this yes :)
        Why is it important to ‘interact with them (the gods) as if they are real’?

        • I think for the same reason it’s important to suspend disbelief while watching a play or reading a book: because it allows you to be swept up in it and experience the feeling or message it is designed to communicate. And because being too much “in your head” can directly interfere with spiritual experience: in Vodou, for example, it’s often said you’ll first be successfully possessed by the spirits when you finally stop trying to get possessed, when you stop scrutinizing every surge of feeling that comes over you in ceremony, when you just let it wash over you and go with it.

          After a vision is over, I can begin to question whether it was mystical or psychological and what the difference is; that is useful and important. But during the vision, just watch the vision, I suppose.

          Anyway…. it will be hard for me to make a ton of time while on this bicycle adventure across Mexico, but I would love it if you’d email me at andre@roguepriest.net. Maybe we can set up a time to video chat and talk more about our experiences.

          • Sky on her Isle says:

            Ah yes! I see what you are saying. It’s similar with shamanic journey-work. You have to suspend judgement (as to whether the journey is actually ‘real’ or not) and just let it happen. The mind tends to doubt while having the experience – and this can get in the way of it.
            I’ve begun study at a pagan seminary college – and recently come to some new conclusions about the gods. Maybe not conclusions – more like gut feelings. The more I enter into a relationship with them, the more it feels to me like they are actually real – in a sense. Rather that the Divine is real, and malleable – and whatever that creative force is in the universe, it reaches out to us. It wants relationship. I think the gods are created in our image, for us – so that we can easily comprehend the Divine.
            It’s not that the gods are intermediaries then, more like mouthpieces. Anthropomorphized Divine or Source.
            I’ll email you Andre thanks :)

      • Hah, I feel bad because I haven’t been able to offer much commentary beyond what I posted there. I wish I could contribute more to every fascinating person I meet online. I wish I had the time and the mental resources to do that.

        What you wrote here, and everything you write here, deserves so much more thought and commentary than I’m able to give it. That’s the way things go, I suppose.

        Thanks for getting out there and doing all that you do, and thinking all that you think. It will keep enriching people’s lives!

        • Funny enough, it deserves more commentary than I’ve been able to give it, too. So far my travels and work have kept me from writing about this as much as I’d like to. I’m hoping to take a sort of sabbatical after this journey across Mexico and get more done.

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  5. Q. How does one gauge a true perception of divinity?
    A. By the degree of madness which accompanies it.
    Q. How does one gauge a true perception of reality?
    A. By the degree of madness which accompanies it.

    These two realms are in fact one.
    The coin of the realm is therefore “sanity”.

    Q. How many coins does one wish to leave on the table?
    A. This is paradox, for one always enters and leaves broke… and yet not so.

    Remember the coins.

      • “For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head.” – Some might call that a madness of sorts… found something there we did (or perhaps it found us). It is now gone, but yet we remember the feeling of it. Congratulations, let’s do it again even if others may find that “one of the scariest things”. Why? “fears to rise of no return, of all to burn to burn to burn, so sweetly fired away it seems, you crazy lucky bastard” (resorts to poetry). And so we ask, “How many coins?”.

        • I’m a linear, logical type thinker, so that’s how I’m going to parse this. I agree some would say a spiritual initiation is “madness.” But, first, that doesn’t mean they’re right – in fact I’d say that the more I delve into my spiritual journey the more convinced I am that all this is not just part of the human psyche, but a normal and healthy part of it.

          But, to go a bit further, even if there is madness in it, I don’t know that we should use madness as a gauge of a spiritual experience’s authenticity (per your earlier comment). And madness is definitely not a gauge of the authenticity of how we perceive the real world – pretty much by definition.

          I do respect divine poetry, and the power of poetry to express complex concepts. But I also know that two people can have very different ideas of what a line of verse means (as we clearly do here). And if one person has experienced the spiritual very differently than another person, talking in poetry widens the gulf. That’s why I generally use logical “day language” to describe and discuss the spiritual. To each his own, of course; but my point is I may not grok – or respond much – to the paradoxical poetry responses :)

          • Lloyd Hargrove says:

            That which I term “madness” amounts to an altered state of perception aside from the consensus of subjective which humans mistake as objective. For example, other animals quite likely experience the world quite differently than humans because their senses have evolved towards different ends. I use “madness” not in a derogatory manner so much as one which poets and various artists might best appreciate. It is something new, outside of normal experience whether drawn from within or some outside influence. As to our own reality being objective, it is limited by our senses and what our brain chooses to say but half a truth is forever a lie.

            • Ah, I see what you mean then. So then, to go back to your earlier statement, “how do you recognize a true perception of the divine/ By the degree of madness that accompanies it” (if I recall), what you mean is it’s recognized by the degree of to which the person has an altered state of mind that stands apart from our normal human perception of the world. I think that’s an interesting take. Here is a question… what about people who are religious or spiritual, and get a basic sense of guidance, a sense of “something greater” from their spiritual/religious practices, but who don’t enter an altered state of mind at all? To the extent that the majority of humans are religious or spiritual, wouldn’t their perception of the divine be part of that shared human subjectiveness?

              • From what I’ve gathered, most of the mainstream religions have originated in mysticism (direct interaction with the Divine) even if they tend to avoid anything other than historical references to their original Prophets and High Priests who for the most part have apparently reserved such purview unto themselves.

                Therefore, while the average church goer can benefit from the study of those direct experiences as well as the obvious social interactions of congregation, it remains for the few, most curious and driven individuals to attempt any individual mystical experience of God or Gods when speaking of those persons from mainstream religions. That said, there is with many group activities a regular manipulation of endorphin releases in some religious services which many members might nevertheless perceive as a perception of “God”. (Not meaning to be critical with that, it’s just a human thing.)

                One might observe that any direct experience such as sought by the actual mystics of many various religions is often discouraged by their own group’s status quo in some cases because it is claimed by the leadership that such is unnecessary or that without expert guidance, one is easily misled and confused towards their own doom or at least might incur some bit of non-doctrinal enlightenment, to coin a phrase… and such may be quite true. ;)

                Personally, an early childhood grounding in Christianity with ultimate faith in the reported words of Jesus Christ has served as an anchor, a “built on the rock” thing which has heretofore managed to pull me out of at least one potentially dire situation incurred while exploring the limits of my own “madness”. My faith says such explorations are quite unnecessary with regards to personal salvation, but such is my own cross to bear. To wit, here I am, but also… to each his own.

                In such regards I live to serve as might be called upon, whether it be so humble as to keep the bird bath filled or to rectify something beyond human description or comprehension. I view myself as a factotum, but as for who or what… the endless elements of the Divine may or may not in any particular instance say, and for that matter such elements may never even call. Eternity is such a long time, don’t you think?

                • Understood, Lloyd.

                  I would say that several major world religions – I’m thinking Hinduism in particular – explicitly aim to give their followers the same kind of direct experience that their great sages have had. Some sects of Buddhism could say the same. The whole point is to show you how to do what these legendary folks did. In that context, the guidance of a teacher is not designed to restrict you away from such experiences, but to help you reach them effectively – like a coach helping you shave minutes off your running time.

                  I think your path is an interesting one and I admire it.

  6. Powerful post. I am mostly in the “it doesn’t matter” camp, because my perception of the Divine is so all-pervasive that I go a bit (more) crazy if I don’t assume it’s real and act accordingly. I’ve tried, at several different times in my life, and people around me have agreed it’s not good for me, including loved ones who are themselves atheists or agnostics.

    But I *have* seen things that humans can’t do. I don’t say “non-gods”, because it’s not really clear to me what belongs to the gods alone and what can also be done by less exalted spirits, and that dividing line is blurry in our myths as well. But I have witnessed, for instance, an object that once belonged to a deceased person appearing out of thin air in the apartment of someone mourning that person. Spirits have given me factual information about physical states of affairs that I had no way of accessing, which have then been confirmed by human experts in those affairs who had access to methods that I did not. I know the location of several portals into other worlds, where if I happen to pass when the veil is thin, the geography of that place is different than on other visits and different than it appears on maps, and people I trust have reported the same experiences in the same places. (Several of these places are modern transport hubs, which puzzled me until I realised they are crossroads on a vast scale.)

    I wasn’t looking for proof when any of these things happened to me, and I still mostly don’t concern myself with whether gods and spirits are subjectively or objectively real, because I would act the same way in either case. From what you say in comments about setting aside the philosophy when you pick up the incense, I wonder whether it would make any practical difference to you either, if you found your proof. Yes, a world in which the gods can directly intervene is a very different world from one in which they only act through or from within our minds, but unless there are concrete ways in which I need to interact differently with those two worlds, I’m not sure it’s more than a “nice to know”.

    Of the meetings I’ve had with gods and spirits, the ones that directly affect objective reality aren’t even the most profound, because it’s actually often difficult to discern any meaning to them. Compared to the things that happen in a trance journey or another more subjective spiritual experience, these often feel like just brute facts, whether they’re this-worldly or other-worldly facts or both. But when the question gets asked, these experiences do force me to come down on the side of believing that there are spiritual forces, entities, places, that are objectively real. I don’t share these experiences to convince you of that; they shouldn’t, because for that you’d need to have more context than I can give you here and more trust in an occasional Internet correspondent than I can give you reason to have. You’ll have to find your own proof, and then decide whether it still matters. But I share because you asked.

    • Eilidh, thanks for this. I will admit, it was the last paragraph that sold me – you really do understand the mind of a skeptic and you made that clear, even though you yourself choose to believe based on your personal experiences. (That was the reason I believed for a long time as well. I found reasons to question the things I’d seen and felt, but that’s me.)

      I do think it matters, for the reasons I gave in the article, but I understand what you mean – from the perspective of personal spiritual practice it makes very little difference, at least as long as one’s spiritual practice is not based on hope of getting material aid from the divine.

  7. “”When I underwent my Vodou initiation, I got to experience a life without that self-doubt. For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head. During that time I never second guessed myself. I was more charming and charismatic than I normally am. I moved with a grace I don’t normally possess. And most importantly, I understood what others really wanted or needed, even if they had a hard time saying it. It was all because I turned off the doubt.””

    This… may actually be one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard.

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