My kid is watching “Riverdale.” Telling him he could watch it is proving to be one of the dicier decisions I’ve made as a parent. He’s learned a new word that he’s having trouble with. The Black Hood is terrorizing the town in Season 2 in an effort to rid it of “sinners.” And my son is confused.
He’s confused because as a household guided by pagan tenets, the concept of “sin” just isn’t something we engage with.
Don’t get it twisted. I’ve been teaching my son the difference between right and wrong. It’s just that the underlying theory behind which is which, and why it matters is wholly different when you’re a pagan.
“Sin” is a technical term, one that has been pored over in fine detail within the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). For them, it’s a very specific kind of wrongdoing. The commission of a sin is not the working of injury on someone else, it’s violating sacred laws prescribed by deity. One can work injury against anyone, one may only sin in defiance of their god.
I am not here to expound upon the notion of sin from the Abrahamic perspective. I leave that to people who walk those paths. What I am here to discuss is how pagans see the idea of “sin.” (Always keeping in mind the “Rule of 100” — NOTHING is 100 percent true for 100 percent of pagans 100 percent of the time.) And the truth is, “sin” is not a concept that pagans really engage with very much. That’s just not how our gods usually operate.
First off, pagan gods make no claim to absolute perfection. In point of fact, their stories are rife with foibles and instances where they might even look foolish. Doesn’t matter which pantheon you look at — in every one gods have a decidedly mixed bag of experiences that indicate that if you’re looking for a god who’s nothing but goodness and sweetness and light, you might be looking a long time. Our gods are capable of things like lust, and envy, and get angry and sometimes hurt people. Some are, of course, more prone to mischief than others. Some adore mankind, and others can take humans or leave them. Their stories are epic, but often touched with pathos and even humor. When Skhadi seeks retribution for the slaying of her Jotun father, the gods of Asgard endeavor to make her laugh. They try lots of things, but nothing works until Loki ties one end of a rope around the neck of a goat and the other around his testicles, and the ensuing tug of war, which DID indeed make Skhadi laugh, is slapstick comedic gold the likes of which Three Stooges episodes would later be made.
That said, our gods are no laughing matter. They can be inscrutable, and their agenda is often NOT our own. They do not always tell us what we want to hear, and they do not dispense cheap grace for the asking. When you come to a pagan god, you need to bring your A game. If you don’t, you’ll hear about it. You need to know who you’re dealing with and what you’re getting into with every deity you work with, because they are all different. The ride you take with Odin will be vastly different from the one you take with Hel and different still from the one you take with Freya (and they’re all in the same pantheon.) Our gods often reach out to individuals seeking to be their patrons, but just because a god calls you does not mean you have to go. If you find you don’t like the ride you’re on, you only have yourself to blame, and its up to you to figure out how you’re getting off it.
While our gods are capable of great mercy and tenderness, they do not suffer fools gladly, and do not look kindly upon grown people stooping to baby-like attitudes in an attempt to curry favor. They are not benevolent Sky Parents who generously spoon feed us wisdom, forgive our transgressions and save us from our problems. On the contrary, pagan gods demand you not phone it in, take you at your word, and hold you accountable. They expect you to be an adult, to put on your big person pants and save yourself. They’re right behind you every step of the way, no matter how hard the path gets, but if you’re looking for a shortcut or an easy way out, they’re not having it.
The upside of this, of course, is the empowerment. Because our gods do not ask us to capitulate ourselves entirely to their will, and do not offer unqualified absolution for our behavior, pagans stand in power, not penance. Our free will and our ability to choose for ourselves when we engage deity means that while it is wise always to show your gods respect, abject supplication is not a prerequisite to being heard. That empowerment, however, comes at a price — you own your life and all that you do with it. Proclaiming something is “the will of the gods” only works in situations where you truly have no personal control over what is happening. It is not a catch-all excuse you can use to justify all your decisions and actions. And since the gods can only set rules upon us if we agree to be bound by them, “sin” is really as much a gainsaying of ourselves as it is a violation of a law prescribed by a god. Looked at in that way, “sin” just doesn’t have the same ring to it when viewed through a pagan lens.
Not only do humans own their own lives in the pagan worldview, there is no inherent increased level of morality or amorality in being a human. Humans are not naturally good or naturally evil, any more than a squirrel or a tree might be. We are natural beings with natural impulses, and the actions we take and the choices we make have natural repercussions. Some of those are good things that work beauty and wonder in the world, and make the world a better place to be. Some of those things are categorically shitty things that hurt people and make the world darker and more awful. Most actions probably contain a little bit of both, depending on your perspective. Dispatching a snake in your garden may seem like a good thing, snakes being potentially dangerous and all. But snakes often are less dangerous than humans think, and often perform important pest control functions in gardens. And killing another living creature, even if it IS a snake, is always a dubious proposition.
For those who want bright line rules, and a world that is conveniently pre-sorted into good and evil things, sinners and saints, the pagan worldview is deeply unsatisfying. You can’t just cite some passage from a book and make your choice based on it. We don’t have any universally accepted texts. You can’t look to a recognized supreme head of paganism. We don’t have one. Even the adages that get tossed around a lot (“An it harm none, do what thou wilt” and the “rule of three” for instance) are actually somewhat controversial among some of our thought leaders. A pagan path will demand you do more than follow along like a sheep. You can join a group or find a teacher to follow, but it’s all on you to choose. And there are a shit ton of options. Questions of right and wrong will take active thought to navigate — you’ll need to actually consider the consequences of your choices and weigh them. Very often doing what you want will come at a price, and the ever present question is, are you willing to pay it?
So how does one raise a child in a world view where there are no rule books, and where actions cannot be easily dismissed as “sinful” and therefore verboten? My son and I, we talk a lot about cause and effect, the fact that his choices have consequences. We talk about the fact that he needs to consider what those consequences are and decide if he wants to live with them. We talk a lot about empathy, and seeing his actions from someone else’s perspective. We talk a lot about imagining whether he’s going to be proud of himself if he acts a certain way or does a certain thing. We talk about what kind of person he ultimately wants to be, what kind of community he wants to be a part of, and what he wants to stand for in this world.
As his mother, and while he’s still young, I have some influence on how he chooses and what he wants. Ultimately, however, I have to let HIM decide. I can try to tell him what I think he should stand for in this world, and help him think through what that might mean for him, but in the end, it’s going to be his choice. Even if I wanted to dictate that to him, it would be futile. Sooner or later, he’ll be in a place where I not only can’t help him, but he won’t want me to.
Teaching values this way takes more time. The conversations are more complicated. But because he’s learning how to choose and not just what to choose, I believe that he’s going to be better equipped to meet the world. Because one thing I know as my kid enters his teen years is that choosing what’s right doesn’t get easier with time, it gets harder. The stakes are higher, the problems are thornier, and things become way less cut and dried. A list of pre-determined “sins” and a clear instruction of what he can and can’t do is great if the only problems my child ever faces are on that list. But life doesn’t work that way. My kid is going to face issues that I haven’t dreamed of yet and cannot prepare him for.
Just like my gods expect me to show up, make grown up choices and hold me accountable for what I choose, I can instill in him the same expectation. I can give him a framework that will lead him to make choices he can be proud of, even if I have no idea what choices he’s going to face. I can teach him how to become someone who is principled not because he follows someone else’s rules, but because he knows what he wants to stand for, what kind of community he wants to live in, and acts accordingly. And if he succeeds in becoming such a man, I think he’ll be happier for it. A world without “sin” is not heaven. It’s filled with hard choices. But it can also be deeply satisfying.