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An Alternative Conception of Divine Reciprocity

Author: John Halstead
Posted: April 2nd. 2016
Times Viewed: 3,270

The most common understanding of divine reciprocity in the context of Paganism is the idea that the gods will grant worshipers material or practical well-being in exchange for something, like worship or offerings or oaths. But there is another conception of divine reciprocity. It is rooted in the notion of the interdependence of all things — where “all things” includes the gods (whatever they are) . It contrasts with the conception of a god who is transcendent and independent of creation. This kind of reciprocity has nothing to do with the granting of wishes for material blessings. It is rather about the idea of our being “in relation” to every other thing and to the world itself.

As a pantheist, my divine “other” is the universe, and especially the earth. We are dependent on the material world in every way, for sustenance and for resources. Our very bodies are made of matter, and our ability to think depends on a material brain. But it goes even deeper than that. As Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas explain, our very selves are constituted by that which we call “other” in a reciprocal relationship.

David Abram, the author of Spell of the Sensuous, explains one way in which we experience this reciprocity with the world itself: “Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter – of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor – as a dynamic presence that that confronts us and draws us into relation.” Abram goes on to explain:

“Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. [...]

“There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn.”

We can try to mentally remove ourselves from our picture of the world or we can describe the world as consisting solely of inert or passive things. But this objectivity is an illusion. Our immediate experience of the world is one of sensuous reciprocity. In this sense, reciprocity is not something we do; it is, rather, something we realize. It is a condition of the possibility of our being in the world. (See also David Abram’s essay, “Reciprocity and the Salmon”.)

When reciprocity is understood in this way, as something which already is, rather than something we create, then ritualized offerings take on a different meaning. Offerings, usually the pouring of libations, have always been a part of my Humanistic Pagan practice. (I prefer liquid libations because of how they are absorbed by the earth.) Theists and atheists alike would probably find this hypocritical. “Who am I pouring libations to?” they must wonder.

To answer this question, I call your attention the numerous images on ancient vases and pottery which depict Classical gods and goddesses pouring libations and making sacrifices. These scenes would undoubtedly strike a theist and an atheist equally as strange. Who, after all, are the gods making offerings to? Kimberly Christin Patton observes, in her book, Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity, that the gods’ worship in these scenes “seems to both parallel and respond to human cultic observance.” “This is why mortal libation scenes appear on the opposite side of the vases, ” Patton writes, “As the gods pour, so do mortals. As mortals pour, so do the gods.” (emphasis added) This may or may not be a historically accurate explanation of these scenes, but this image — of gods and mortals pouring libations in one continuous circle — expresses one meaning which ritualized offerings might have for a religious naturalist.

While I pour libations, I don’t imagine that I am making an offerings to someone or even to something. Such a conception presumes a separateness, which is precisely what I am trying to overcome through ritual. I do not pour libations out to gods, who I wouldn’t imagine would need them if they did exist. Nor do I make offerings to the earth or to nature (unless you count my compost box) , which would inevitably receive the matter I am offering in some other way. Nor am I making offerings to myself.

Instead, these offerings are a way of remembering, a way of restoring the experience of connection — of reciprocity — with the world, a reciprocity which is always already present, but which we human beings have the ability to (intentionally and unintentionally) make ourselves blind to.

As I pour out the water, wine, honey, or oil on the earth, I create, in the form of the stream of liquid, a living connection between myself and the earth. It is a visual and visceral representation of my connection to the earth. And in so doing, I experience both an “emptying”, what the Greeks called kenosis, and also simultaneously a “filling”, what the Greeks called pleroma . It is as if I am both emptying the vessel of myself and filling myself at the same time, as if I am both the cup that pours and the earth which receives — emptying because I am giving up substance which I might take into my body as sustenance, and filling because my body is already connected with the earth so intimately that I cannot give to the earth without sustaining myself.

In this act, I restore in a small measure that sense of sensual connection which I have to the world. Especially if the libation is water, I am reminded how this water long ago traveled across the cosmos in comets, how it was part of ancient oceans, and how it has traveled from the bottom of the ocean to the highest mountains. I am reminded how this water at one time was part of great glaciers and tiny snowflakes, how it has flowed through the bodies of great dinosaurs, tiny amoeba, and the bodies of my ancestors. I am reminded that this is the water I am made of, the water that sustains me, the water that I was formed in, and the water that I will return to. I don’t just think it; the ritual helps me feel it. As I pour the libation, I watch the stream of water flowing onto the earth and being absorbed by the soil, and this connection moves from the conceptual to the visceral, from my mind to my flesh and bones.

This for me is the true meaning of divine reciprocity.


John Halstead

Location: Chicago, Illinois


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