A Thousand Local Gods

Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods…living Geniuses of Place and Person!…Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, slate roofs—just as of certain frowns in people and slouches…
Equus, Peter Shaffer

Some of your earliest memories involve rituals of worship, and some of the sensations those rituals generated remain with you to this day: smoke slowly twisting and rising; winking candle flames dancing on the altar; hushed silences echoing high into the ceiling above; creak of wooden pews; hymnal pages rustling like leaves as you searched for the next song.

Most of all the call-and-response language of the liturgy. Its poetry. The collective chant of voices in the stilled air of the church. And always the presence of the god you worshipped when you sat or served or read at Mass. Always the Word embodied in words.

In the Old Testament, according to the story of Babel, humans once spoke a single tongue and in their arrogance planned to build a tower that would climb to the heavens. But the Single God blocked these plans, dispersing different languages among the people, erasing common understanding, and destroying our ability to easily engage. Without that ability, the dream of the tower collapsed, and it forever remained unfinished, undone by multiplicity.

For many, this remains the central story: life beginning in goodness and community beginning in unity’s purity; difference and division pulling the rug out from under our chance at paradise; a Single Path our only solution. Singularity as innocence, differentiation a dilution leading only to chaos.

As you grew older, you found the Church’s many voices often didn’t harmonize. You lost the certainty that doctrine had promised. Bit by bit you turned away. But you also found yourself yearning for the words. With the slightest prompting, you could speak the congregation’s refrains:….And also with you…It is right to give Him thanks and praise…You could even remember the celebrant’s words: Father, all powerful and ever living God, we do right always and everywhere to give You thanks and praise…

Eventually you found refuge in other words: Your own. But at times your loved for them puzzled you–inescapable as it was–because the more you listened to and spoke them, the less they promised the certainty that the words at Mass has held for you. And you began to realize that this very uncertainty drew you to them.

While you saw yourself turning away from god when you left religion, you’d turned slowly toward what sustained you. Rather than a Single Answer, the thousand specific questions that each specific and ephemeral place asks spoke you. Words bubbled up, constantly trying and always slightly failing to be definitive, and in that gap left by the not-quite-enough, making space for what had never been asked before. You realized you’d always felt lost in this culture that insists on single names. Unitary, universal, static.

Eventually, you asked, well, if the devil dwells in the details, why not the sacred too? Why not the thousand local gods embodied in words? Words that undermine your awkward attempts to make existence still and nail experience down. Words that, in your unintended mis-translations, invite you into dialogue with others.

And yes, your gods demand sacrifice, ask you to turn your back on ordinary values. But they only ask what any gods require: that you peel down to your true self, which happens only in surrender to the reality and inevitability of their presence. And in that surrender, writing becomes the act of worship that brings you clarity and peace, that moves you closest to who you are.

Because Babel has the story backwards: Arrogance exists in insisting on a single understanding. The tumult of differentiation blesses you as you seek ways to name and rename this existence that inexhaustibly changes and rewrites itself. Words properly invoked drop the illusion of unified, stable experience; they don’t stand still. And this reality demands that you stay awake to how people use words and what the words are doing, but even more, awake to yourself: What to do with the words swirling around and inside you?

You now believe in these many-tongued multiple gods. You believe in the teeming tumble, the jungle of experience and expression. You believe that everything in existence shouts the necessities of difference and complexity.

You realized you had worshipped the words all along: their sound, their feel rolling around in your mouth and then sent forth from your lips and tongue and teeth. All along it was words doing what you thought god was supposed to.