The body’s involvement in religious endeavors can be an enormously complicated thing. Each of our traditions have particular attitudes regarding the fact of the body and the experience of embodiment; even if these attitudes are not very explicitly spelled out, they are present and shape collective, individual, and private conceptions of the body, its fact, and its experience.
For instance, Heathens tend to have positive attitudes about the body, since it the site of physical pleasure, social enjoyment, education, and family. One’s physical presence at an event feeds the strength of community and allows for the flow of hospitality. However, attitudes about the body are rarely so straightforward. While affirming the value of physical pleasure and sexual enjoyment, some Heathens regard various sexual activities between consenting adults as immoral, icky, or less-than-ideal. The shape of bodies may be used to determine one’s character as “frithy” or not. The strength, flexibility, poise, and control of a body may be prioritized in the selection of event sites. The body’s fact and the embodied experience remain complicated even in traditions where both these things are ostensibly glossed as positive things. Addressing the way(s) that spiritual endeavor and religious experience intersect with the body’s fact and embodied experience is an essential part of engaging with our tradition. This has implications for many in our pagan and polytheist communities – ritualists, leaders, community builders, event planners, social media coordinators, writers, event-goers, teachers, students, etc. – and it has very particular implications for devotional practitioners.
Where does religion live? Where is it found? Can you point to it? One might point to a church or other physical site as the locus for religion. If a wall was torn down, does religion suddenly lack a wall? Does religion leak out or spill onto the ground now that its container is lost? If a grove is bulldozed, is religion restricted to memory? Has religion disappeared along with the familiar form of the grove?
How do you know religion when you see it? What color does it have? Is it brighter in the morning or afternoon? Does it change color like deciduous leaves? Does it cycle in shape like the moon? ?
Religion is given form, character, and expression by human bodies. Religion cannot be demonstrated without bodies and their agency. Religion cannot be located without a human presence. Religion is an emergent property from the fact of bodies, not the other way around.
Spirits and other non-physical entities may be *part* of religion and of religious tradition, but polytheist and animistic traditions affirm that these beings have their fact in a non-physical state. They are not dependent on our perception, naming, understanding, engagement, or embodiment for their reality. However, because religion is – so far as I’ve ever seen demonstrated – a matter of humans doing human things for human reasons with human bodies typically with the aid, for the benefit, and for the worship of non-physical beings. That is, even though religion typically involves non-physical beings, religion is not found in them since religion as we know it can only be expressed, considered, and done by physical bodies and specifically human bodies.
Is religion found in the gods? I would argue no, since if it was religion could not be present unless the gods were. Although one could argue that like religion, the gods have no “place” to speak of (“Where is the physical world? Where is the spiritual world? How far apart are they? Where are their borders?”), it would seem entirely possible to do religion without the particular presence of the gods. Ideally, religion happens together with the presence of the gods – but one may experience the presence of the gods without any religious paradigm or context and one might perform religious actions without the gods seeming present. They may coincide but they are not the same. Religion does not flow from the gods, and neither do the gods proceed from religion.
(Of course, there are any number of faith traditions that state quite explicitly that the god(s) taught humanity how to worship and gave highly direct and personalized instruction regarding how religion ought to be handled. None of what I’m saying here should be regarded as contrary to such teachings. At most, I’m hoping to open up the nature of religious engagement (specifically devotional) and the matter of embodiment with regards to traditions that do not have particular teachings regarding the transmission of religious principles from the god(s) to human beings. Heathenry, for instance, might credit the gods with the lively and articulate nature of humanity, but nowhere have I seen it suggested that the gods gave us religion or taught us how to worship as such.)
Situating religion as an emergent property of the fact of bodies and the experience of embodiment means that everything we individually and collectively have been, are, will be, and have the potential to be and do are part of our religion. We do not leave our individual history behind when entering ritual. We carry around trauma, success, misery, injury, joy, anxiety, and any number other sensations and experiences in our bodies. Because religion too is part of our bodies, faith and spiritual endeavor can be part of addressing injury – and it can be the cause of injury. What we experience is real. Even our astral or spiritual perceptions are filtered through physical neurons, and the memory of these experiences are stored in grey matter. Our physical reality participates in our non-physical existence (and, I believe, vice versa).
Since trauma, anxiety, fear, and all kinds of other psychological and emotional baggage lives in our bodies and is part of our embodied experience, these things are brought to a devotional practice. Like religion more generally, devotional practice becomes evident – becomes real – only in the presence of human bodies. However, devotional relationship, the experience of transcendent emotions, and sacred communion is not fed by us alone even if we cannot precisely identify these things without the fact of the body. That is, lacking the perceptive faculties made possible by the physical fact, where does the experience of devotion lie? Where can transcendent emotion be found? (A number of traditions answer these questions with the idea of a non-physical self independent but connected to the embodied physical self, containing its own perceptive faculties that are not dependent on brains or nerves or biochemistry.)
Fear, anxiety, and trauma – and desire, satiation, and joy – are real. They have a site in the body’s presence. Devotional engagement too has a site in the body’s presence and is exhibited through manipulating objects, taking in education, and crafting a lifestyle conducive to increasingly honed engagement. We therefore bring all these emotions to our practice and things can get messy very quickly.
Many people – myself included – are familiar with just how terrible a devotional practice riddled by anxiety can be. There have been many times when I couldn’t do very much because I was worried about whether I was accepted and loved. I couldn’t accept assurances of these things because my feelings of anxiety were more real; in other words, I had more confidence in the embodied reality of my anxiety than in anything else I was experiencing through my body’s senses and faculties.
Embodiment gets hard when you’re trying to juggle two (and more!) sets of input like that. I couldn’t just wish away that anxiety and fear; it was a part of me and so it got hauled to the altar along with everything else I am. Treating them as unreal or irrelevant was not helpful. Failing to acknowledge the impact these feelings had on my devotional practice meant I was holding back from deepening my devotional engagement and failing to resolve issues that prevented me from a connection uncolored by assumption.
Embodiment is not easy for anyone I think. I’ve certainly had more challenges with it than I feel are really necessary. These challenges have had the benefit of demonstrating just how profoundly devotional engagement is influenced by the experience of embodiment and all that resultant traumas and anxieties that get carried around. Regardless of whether I want to bring them to my practice, they are there. Even though fear and anxiety can’t be left behind as if they were stray LEGO pieces, they can be acknowledged with strength and honesty.
The gods have seen it all. They have already indicated that they have no fear of our damage or darkness, the places we can’t see and don’t want to look. It takes immense bravery to open up those closets and hidden rooms but the gods are already willing to live in this house. We just have to show them full welcome.