When the Gods Left Our Dwellings

This is an old text, slightly reworked and rephrased.


We in the West are a strange people. We think we are individual, separate persons, living our lives on our own, connected only, if at all, to our immediate family. We have no gods, no spirits, we are not part of something. We are not connected with life and our fellow beings. We think meaning is something of our own making.

There are reasons for this. They go way back in the history of our culture. But our concept of what it means to be a person is so pervasive that it distorts our views on our own history. We read history with our modern eyes, thereby validating our current ways of being and dismissing others. At the same time, we long for those other ways, but as we don’t understand them we consume them in a sentimental fashion.

People are wider than the boundaries of their skins. They are embedded. Their relations reach to the communities of people, animals, plants, spirits, gods. But here in the West, these things have turned out differently. Here the way our egos are related to other people mirrors the way they are related to the gods, afar and unfathomable.


1     Systems of reciprocal obligations

We live in a world whose being made of objects is not all there is. The world comprises more than stuff, e.g., emotions, dreams, sufferings, conscience, moral, numbers, minds occupied with chatter internal and external. To a world a whole sphere of invisible and intangible things belongs.

Religion is, or in some respect: was, part of this world. Humans had relationships with their deities, the spirits, the fairies, for ages. Even here in the West, devotion, the relation to the deity, was something that was of concern primarily to a clan, a neighbourhood, a hamlet, a parish. It was something a community did and experienced as a community. [1]

The individual was thus dependent on and embedded in communality in at least two ways –with his fellows as with his deities – that restricted the concept of autonomy which was to become a major feature of the occidental self.

The importance of community as well as of communality not only shows in the need for physical or psychological survival of the individual person. Not only is the individual dependent on others in the production of food or the sharing of values and cultural ingredients that convey sense and meaning. Likewise, the individual takes part and contributes to them. And a main feature of any society is that between being dependent and being contributing there must be a balance. Otherwise, individual as community are threatened.

The balance of receiving and contributing amounts to a gift-economic style of social interaction that is necessary for any society to be of stability. (The individual must be able to contribute in order for it and the society to be a community at all.) This isn’t refuted by reference to ages of injustices. On the contrary, exploitation, violence, crude dependence have always been deemed unjust, and people looked for means to end them. The goal was to rebalance a communal body. Even the bondsman in the Middle Ages, as he has an economic and cultural function, is someone who takes part in maintaining a specific oikos, a distinct world. And even as his sovereign rules over the people in his vicinity, the feudal system likewise places him into a bondsmanship to God that imposes on him the duty to safeguard the well-being of his subjects – be it the distribution of food or the guarantee of a legal order. Accordingly, his subjects will accept their share in the duties only when they see that they receive such securities in exchange, when they see that the sovereign fulfills his obligations as well. If this does not happen, peace is endangered. Even hierarchical societies are thus systems of reciprocal obligations in which the breach of duty from one side is regarded as an injustice by the other.

Societies (or “systems”) of reciprocal obligations ensure that activities we usually see as economic possess a cultural value as well. They not only are a part of a culture, they create and prolong a culture. It is one-sided to think that the early barters came to an end when something like money was invented to cover the degree of (mutual) obligation. Rather, those “barters” were first and foremost singled out, and standardized with the help of a metric, if they involved material objects that could be handed to-and-fro. This kind of barter was the most basic reciprocal obligation that could be grasped quantitatively. But barter as a whole – the give and take – comprises much more and that becomes clearer when seen as reciprocal obligations. To see a society, a culture as a specific “system” of mutual dependencies and reciprocal obligations leads to the consequence that a distinct oikos, a specific world, results, whose values, meanings, and faiths are shared by the members of this culture and which are perpetuated in the process of give and take. Accordingly, the occupations and activities of the individual – be it craftsman, farmer, trader, etc. – is nothing solely economical. On the contrary, the economic sense of an activity becomes clear only when the activity is seen as something that gains cultural meaning through the whole as it simultaneously lends meaning to the whole by being practised throughout time. It’s systems of reciprocal obligations that explain why one party can come to feel being treated unjustly at all through the activities of some other. Deviation from a norm presupposes the prior understanding when the norm is followed. Somehow it must be ingrained in all members.

In this sense legal, economic, political regulations are specific embodiments of particular systems of reciprocal obligations. These systems are “natural” in the sense that they even include the understanding, the experience, the opinion and knowledge of what exists and what not, what is true and what not, what is due, opportune, mandatory, and optional. Those systems are in a sense beyond alteration as even what is optional isn’t seen as being made optional by human endeavour. Such systems are the entirety of what there is.


2     Forcing the Gods to Be Explanations

Part of our being human is that there are “things” much larger than us that still pertain to us – things like birth, dying, life, death, sickness, happiness, love, etc. There are the experiences that every person is part of a community of persons and that there are individual and collective stories that place the individual into a succession of ancestors and descendants. There are border experiences, experiences that somehow deviate from the ordinary and daily ones. There are fundamental experiences of rhythms like day and night, change of seasons, change of wake and sleep. There are dreams, forecasts, and forebodings. There are experiences of kinship with other people, with animals, and there is strangeness. There are the feelings of normality and abnormality, of the static and the irruption. There are experiences of mastery, of unity, and of loss of control, of failure, and of being exposed. There are the experiences of madness, of healing, of horror, of panic and dismay, of bliss, joy, ecstasy. There are the experiences of work and play, of tension and relaxation. There are jokes and humour. There is suffering. There is the question of meaning and of destiny. And there is the experience that all other people feel the same.

In the systems of reciprocal obligations it is the task or role of the gods to create such fundamental experiences. They are the “reasons” for them, and come to light inasmuch as they cause such experiences. It is important to see that in the West this role of the gods appears in a very specific and restricted manner: the contact and reference to a deity is a means of explanation as long as there is no theory – a proposal made by humans (!) – of why those things happen at all. The Christian creation myth (Genesis 1) only stepped aside when there was a cosmological theory (like the Big Bang) presupposing centuries of physical research in a variety of topics like gravitation, symmetries, elementary particles, strong and weak forces, etc. Such hypotheses are well supported, but not proven true, and as no hypothesis can be verified, the Christian creation myth became a myth in the moment it could be superseded by some other, now more plausible one (that, being plausible, doesn’t show its being a myth). A myth was superseded by another myth – if both have been myths at all. The important thing is that the possibility of an influence and effect by a god became implausible in the moment when the same circumstances could be explained by a theory that was human made. [2]

Such experiences are continuously made. And when at the end of the 19th century a scientific theory occurred that started to explain such fundamental experiences as something inherent of the individual person – e.g., deriving from her experiences in childhood –, those experiences began to lose their character of present that made them individual to the person and changed to become repetitions of childhood experiences. Psychology and Psychoanalysis (at least at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century) not only presupposed a specific concept of person, individuality, and self, that, in their dependence on the Enlightenment, embody the ideals of autonomy and separation. More important, those theories, as being scientific, presupposed the concept of causation that was to be found in the natural sciences. The biography of a person became a causal chain of events, and stopped being a story, a tale, a song. Accordingly, fundamental experiences that include loss of control, borderline situations, and the loss of the everyday routine, became diseases, disturbances of the daily, normal, controlled, and autonomous self. Borderline experiences and with that a huge part of fundamental existential experiences became pathology.

It is not important to determine whether psychology and psychoanalysis are right or wrong. Rather, it is important to see what effects their appearance have had. As with all scientific theories the recourse to the divine – this time in the field of the human and fateful – became irrelevant, unnecessary, old-fashioned, even false, and became substituted by a scientific theory. The divine disappeared (or became forgotten) when there was a possibility to describe the same “topic” with the help of a man-made theory.

The remarkable thing in both cases, physics as psychology, is that when a proposal for explanation becomes possible, the old and now replaced conception becomes termed a myth, a superstition, a sign of primitiveness. This is not really done on purpose. But advocates of the theory will nonetheless insist that there couldn’t have been a Creator God in the beginning as he was simply shaped after the model of the human fabrication of products. Now, as the former world views no longer have the status of an explanatory tool, they will say that God in fact was a Creator God shaped in the light of the human face. Man has used his own activities as a model and by extrapolating it onto the boundless transferred it onto the world. Now they will say that Man always has been destined for freedom, autonomy, responsibility (it was just not seen until recently). Now they will state that borderline experiences in (and by) which at former times the Divine “visited” Man are “in reality” pathological conditions which the individual person can only bear and explain by “projecting” experiences of powerlessness from childhood into the world. Accordingly, every borderline experience becomes a pathological condition in which not the Divine visits Man but in which the ailing Self personalizes its fears or the irruptions and places them as persons outside, projects them and bans them. This mechanism, they will say, may be described in a metaphorical or even religious language, but in reality this parlance is simply wrong (and the parlance of psychology is right). What in former times had been a factual manner of speaking now not only receives the status of metaphorical speaking – it is now seen as always have been a metaphorical parlance.

This attitude has two consequences.

First, what is valid now only for specific fundamental and borderline experiences, is, even tentatively, extended to all fundamental experiences. Dreams are no longer sent by the gods, and people are no longer visited by them, but they are now attempts to cope with conflicts of one’s daily life. Earthquakes are no longer (the expression of) the wrath of the gods but simply tectonic displacements of plates. Insofar they are no longer of any concern to us as they don’t address us – and as geophysical appearances they cannot mean us. The recourse to the Divine to explain some phenomena seems not only unnecessary in an individual case – as there is a “better”, “more plausible” or “equally strong” theory (that is created by human understanding) – this approach is extended to all areas in which there seems (or seemed) to be an encounter of Man with the Divine.

The result of this is that those fundamental experiences increasingly lose a characteristic feature that was constitutive of them in former times: Those experiences once showed that there is something bigger than Man that addresses him – as an individual or as an collective. In that way fundamental experiences lose their present character of being an encounter. They are now only signs of a dependence of Man from Nature (if at all). The fundamental experiences thus lose what was once intrinsic to them.

Second, given the development so far every belief that points to the possibility of an encounter becomes a sign and symptom of a primitive creed, as such beliefs now only enlarge human qualities (as they are now still known) and project them outside. The consequence of this is, that questions that ask why some deity sent this plague, this message, this demand (which had to be scrutinized and understood collectively) now become meaningless. Questions like how to accommodate the Divine, how to reconcile with it become incomprehensible questions because there is nothing there with which one should (and could) have to reconcile with. The upshot of this is that the world begins to consist solely of human things. When there is no Other at all, then the question simply does not or no longer arise what it might want from those people to which it occurs or how one might interact or co-work with it. The world becomes a world of humans, void of the Invisibles as of any divine.


3     The Exodus of the Gods

Two consequences or aspects arise from a specific way of dealing with fundamental experiences. In former times specific fundamental experiences in which the person experienced something bigger than herself (to which she was exposed) could be understood as an encounter between Man and Divine. If this other is a deity, a “higher” being, an angel, a guardian, etc., then it is this being that “visits” the respective person. It is this being that communicates with the person (rituals show the case for the attempt in the opposite direction). If there is now a scientific theory that explains this phenomenon (its occurrence, its meaning, etc.), then this larger being that shows itself in an encounter disappears, as it is no longer necessary to be part of a causal explanation in the form of a Why?-question. From this arises as second consequence a specific kind of dealing with all such former experiences that amount to a negation of the possibility of such experiences at all. The denial or negation of such experiences has some specific and very welcomed consequences on behalf of the scientific theory itself. Now it becomes clear to those who favour such a theory, that

  1. former existential experiences only seemingly had been experiences; instead they are results of phantasy, myths, pathologies;
  2. such an encounter never has happened at all;
  3. the occurrence of such seeming experiences are a confirmation to continue with the current way of research to detect more errors “of this kind” (thus validating one’s research practices and world view);
  4. such experiences that purportedly show the dependence of the self from something “larger” or “other” are not possible because such “experiences“ will always show themselves to be appearances (thus, other people are essentially like me, only with a different biography at a different place);
  5. every experience that today might show the possibility of some such encounter – trance, vision, ecstasy – are no refutation of the current research procedures but an obligation to continue the research.

Those consequences all result without recourse to a psychological theory. [3] But when we claim that gods, higher beings, angels, guardians, etc., are moulded after Man and his activities, it is important to keep in mind that the (western) way of explanation with the help of analogous models is taken from the sciences. The claim that “the Other” that visits Man comes in the guise of a person is thus an explanation why the phenomenon chooses this form rather than some other, but not why there are such phenomena at all. The latter comes into focus only when something like a scientific theory of personhood, personality, and its troubles and diseases comes into being – like psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis. Only now do we have a way to explain how deities come to their characteristics and how they may interact with the human sphere.

Psychology and Psychoanalysis work with an elaborate set of concepts, tools, theoretical entities, and doctrines. They comprise e.g. introjection, projection, countertransference, idealization, personification, trauma, resistance, the distinction of the conscious and the unconscious within the individual itself, the conviction that present conflicts have their causes in childhood or that in dreams the individual processes conflicts of its daily life. But if you have a theory that distinguishes the conscious and the unconscious inside the individual, that declares present day conflicts as rooted in the past, that declares dreams to be the place of coping with the threats and conflicts, then you end up with the result that all psychic phenomena are located inside the individual, that the individual is locked against the broader environment. Accordingly, psychology is now prone to explain borderline experiences as a pathological state of the individual’s psychê and the divine as something moulded after the analogous model of human craftsmanship and character traits, enlarged into something oversized and projected outside. That means: Only when a theory of human personality is established that is crafted according to the ideals and standards of western culture can we come to view deities, holy beings, guardians, angels, fairies, etc., as a kind of oversized personalities in our sense, can we come to identify them in other cultures as well as in our own past and declare them to be “projections” or ways of acting out or “processing” of human tribulations and conflicts.

But what gets lost is that people everywhere carried out and still carry out rituals, ceremonies, specific activities in order to invoke the gods, to get in contact with them, to do something for them. This is simply missed or declared part of the “processing”, “coping”, or “acting out” (like it is fashionable in ethno-medicine). Other cultures (now, as our history in the past) become a variation of the western civilization, and they are used to confirm one’s own conceptions.

Seen that way, something important of such encounters gets lost – the character of present those encounters still have today. Those encounters that are alive and still sought after are encounters that reach into both directions. Ancestors, deities, holy beings, guardians, etc., not only visit humans constantly, humans as well constantly evoke, call, and consult such beings. If those events are not simply declared as repetitions of earlier experiences, the only way left is to explain such encounters in the way the ethno-medicine does as healing ceremonies or theatrical happenings in the course of medical treatments. And indeed, such encounters often are part of a medical treatment. Shamanic healing ceremonies, e.g., often do have the goal to treat diseases, psychic strains or other “forms” of imbalances. But here too such treatments of hardships and the experiences that come with them have an impact on the culture in which they take place, as they are part of that culture. The ceremonies are therefore not simply about revoking some individual imbalance inside the individual, but to recognize and treat it as some disorder in the relation of individual and deity as well as to find a way to rebalance this relation. As the occurrence of this imbalance takes place in a community, it will be recognized as being an information about the current relation of the community and the deity as well. The existence of this imbalance has meaning – individual as well as collective. Seen that way someone who dreams doesn’t need to be the “addressee” of the “content” of the dream. He may “receive” it, but he may receive it substitutionally for others or the whole community.

Such views aren’t much common in the western world. (We know it in somewhat secular form in the image of the artist – not the artisan! – and his inspiration.) Here the personal or individual imbalance – be it sickness, be it suffering – isn’t something that asks for mediation and levelling with something other. It is a private affair. Only the individual has it and only he is “addressed” by it. One has to keep this in mind to fully appreciate the fact that in all shamanic healing ceremonies the shaman is someone whose task is to mediate in a disturbed relation between deity and individual, as the disturbed relation comes to light in form of a disease the deity sends to the individual. The shaman has to mediate between two parties, he acts more like a conflict counselor than a (western) medic. The relation between deity and individual is disturbed, somehow the individual has “angered” or “upset” the deity. When the relation is re-balanced the tribulation vanishes. In order to find out the nature of the “dispute” and the means required to end it, the shaman will betake himself on a shamanic journey. It is important to see that the shaman always has supporting spirits or escorts, to which belong his totem animal and his deceased teacher. Before the shaman can begin the healing ceremony he must ask for the approval of his guardian spirits (at times he even has to beg for it). And the shaman will refuse to perform the ceremony if only one of these companions refuses to lend support. A shaman doesn’t act with the confidence in his own abilities, ego, and goals (like our own physicians), but only when he knows that he is allowed to perform the treatment.

We find such “dependencies” everywhere. In some tribal nations it is still common that the adolescent engage in a vision quest. They are sent into the wild where they remain a few days fastening. In these days visions occur that show the young person his totem animal and something about his destiny in life. Coming back home he is awaited by some elders that explain to him the sense of those visions. The sight of the totem animal introduces the adolescent into his genealogy – to which ancestors, to which branch of clan he belongs (as the biological lineage is most often of minor importance).

When such experiences of initiation, of healing, of “dependence” from something “larger” and “different” are made repeatedly by a community, it has an effect on the understanding of oneself and the world that differs sharply from the one of the West. Primarily what is perceived is mutual and reciprocal dependence, obligation, and kinship. And that means: There are conceptions or rather perceptions of the (own) self that recognizes itself as a self but not as something independent or separate. There is a form of the soul or the self that doesn’t come to mind by activities of separation or the mood of autonomy. There is a way to be oneself that doesn’t imply isolation, dominance, and resistance against others. It lies in the recognition of what we have in common. In this the gods are like older brothers, with intentions and peculiarities, not like forces to be manipulated for one’s private profit. But the West has lost its gods, as they chose not to be insulted by being seen as stuff and matter. The gods are gone, and only sometimes they return, disguised as pathology, a mania, a daimon. But as long as we think they belong to us and are to our service, we’ll miss them. As the world vanishes in oblivion behind the flitter and dust.


[1] Individual devotion – not necessarily private devotion – seems to be a development of the 14th century. Take as example the Christian devotional images (Andachtsbilder) that arise not until the 14th and 15th century in northern Europe, picturing the suffering of Christ (from the Garden of Gethsemane to His Crucifixion) or those of the saints. Their wounds were depicted extremely intensely in order to give the individual spectator a means to contemplate (and memorize). Individual contemplation with the help of Andachtsbilder was uncommon in the centuries before.
[2] For sake of brevity I ignore not only that prediction is a major criterion for the value of an explanation along the lines of scientific explanations, but also that such explanation-schemes subsume instances under generalized formulas (“laws”) whereas deities are not generalized entities but individual (or: individualized) “causes” or “principles” (aitiai).
[3] The early 19th century declared other culture’s beliefs and conceptions simply to be superstition and didn’t ask for psychological explanations.


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