Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tinker Bell Theology... or if you just believe.

I've not come across any sort of formal use of the term, though most folks seem to understand what I'm nattering on about when I make use of the expression. The "Tinker Bell Doctrine" or "Tinker Bell Theology" or "Tinkerbell effect" is a term I utilize when I encounter a peculiar, if pervasive, perspective when it comes to the nature of the gods. The origin of the term denotes the character Tinkerbell, originating in the works of J.M Barrie and most popularly, the 1953 Disney animated film, "Peter Pan", and in particular that the more an individual (or group) believes in something, the more potent it becomes. This is a concept which, while not necessarily a major strain in theological thought, is none the less pervasive, especially in fictionalized representations of mythic beings.

There are a number of fictional works where this approach to deities can be observed, ranging from stories by Douglas Adams, to Neil Gaiman, to the show "Supernatural". Jason, at the Wildhunt blog, has already explored some of the problematic aspects of the practical application to gods some of us actually still worship (in the case of the later); it is one reason why I dislike the show and despite the protestations of my wife and others, will not "give a chance". I'll touch on this in a little more detail later on.

I wanted to touch on and explore in a little more depth the approach Gaiman in particular takes. I really, really like the fiction of Neil Gaiman. I am at a loss to name any other recent author who so thoroughly "gets" what many refer to as "mythical thinking". The love the man has for mythology, in and of itself, permeates all of his works. Coupled with the understanding that myth is a framework, a lens through which to understand our experiences, to provide meaning to those experiences, is a thoroughly refreshing approach, normally only found haunting academic approaches to the subject itself.

Having gotten my fanboy gushing out of the way, Gaiman does make substantial use of "Tinker Bell Theology", smatteringly throughout his "Sandman" graphic novel series, but centrally in his novel "American Gods". In particular, his framing of the origins and extent of deities in particular (sometimes conflated with genius loci, sometimes not) fully adopts this perspective. The basic framework outlining the "life" of a god or goddess is as follows.

1. Humans have something they begin to believe in strongly.
2. This belief manifests itself in a physical form.
3. This form will follow the humans who believe in it, or another localized form will do the same.
4. The level of offerings/sacrifices/ influence directly correlates to the potency of the god/ goddess.
5. As the level of devotion wanes, so too does the god.

In conclusion, the mitigating factor in the existence of a deity is the extent in which Humans actively/inactively believe in them. The more people who believe, the stronger the deity is.

While this creates an interesting framing of the origins and nature of gods, and certainly works as a plot device in a number of fictional universes, it is at its core, incompatible with a truly polytheistic approach to theology. Pantheistic, Panentheistic, Monistic, even perhaps so called "soft polytheism", but not polytheism in and of itself.

I personally think such a theological approach to the gods is an almost textbook definition of self-importance and solipsism. That we create the gods, that they are beholden to us, that they need our worship to sustain them speaks far more to the ascendency and dominance of monotheistic thinking, than to the actual nature of the gods, from a polytheistic world view.

If the gods are little more than thought projections, delusions of a fevered mind or mass imagining, then what value do they have, really? How can these mere mental (and later physical) constructs, or idols, hope to compete with the supreme being, with the "author of creation"? In a word, they can not; they are literally straw(god)men, built up specifically so they can be torn down by the obvious truth which can only be found through the worship of the "One true God". Monotheists, while trying to explain away the historic context of the struggle monotheistic systems had in dealing with contemporary polytheism, will argue that references to "gods" do not refer to deities aside from their own, but the metaphorical idols of the human condition: money, greed, power, lust, etc. In the same breath, the gods of our ancestors are explained away as at best base superstition and at worst demon worship. The gods of polytheism necessarily have to be imaginary friends or hallucinatory monsters, because they do not fit anywhere else.

While I can appreciate the more sympathetic approaches in some of the other theistic frameworks I listed above, they all tend to have one thing in common; they reduce the existence, the nature of the gods, as being sourced to the human mind. The gods become archetypes of human endeavour, they become names of power, they become explanations of natural phenomena to a primitive people, they are relegated to a bygone era, they are shelved in storybooks, and they are proclaimed to be dead (especially when compared to the "living" god of monotheism). Is it any wonder, then, that people will often look askance at those of us who mention that we not only "believe" in these gods, but that we actively worship them?

This turns back to one of my major criticisms with the show "Supernatural", and also why I balk at it, but give Gaiman a pass. The narrative framing of the series is from a monotheistic theological perspective; gods when they do show up, are little more than glorified monsters and readily dispatched by the recurring heroes/villains. Living in a culture steeped and saturated with the superiority of monotheism, I'd rather spend my time in fictional universes more sympathetic to my own view of theology. While Gaiman does us similar framing, and is just as guilty of utilizing 'Tinker Bell theology", he applies it equally across the board. For those of you who like me have the 10th anniversary edition of "American Gods" and have read the Apocrypha, you'll understand what I'm getting at. For those who have not, suffice to say that Jesus is "stretched", just a little bit, not unlike an aged Bilbo Baggins. Gaiman gets a pass for having a good grasp of the myths his characters are sourced from, and not just using them as magical (and recognizable) names, to be disposed of at will for plot convenience. In addition, his sympathies lie with mythic thinking, and not mythic name dropping.

I am firmly of the perspective that the gods are both real and external to us. They do not require our worship, nor do they require our belief in order to exist. At least not anymore than I require your belief to exist. Subjectivity is fine and good, and context is always relevant, but one needs to have a grounding in what is, so as to not fall into the trap of solipsism. Why then worship the gods, if they do not need our worship to sustain themselves?

Because it is better to live in harmony with the gods than to be in opposition to them.
Because they enrich our lives and provide us with models and guidance to follow.
Because they offer to us a connection to something far greater than ourselves.
Because their worship establishes a connection with those who came before us.
Because they, and their stories, provide us with meaning and purpose.

I believe in the gods, because they believe in me.




  1. This is an interesting article, and something I've thought about without the exact terminology. As someone who is a hard polytheist, a lot of what you write makes a lot of sense and I agree. However... I don't think the world needs to have or have not a "Tinker Bell Theology." Instead, I think there is a way for the Tinker Bell Theology and the belief they are matter regardless of belief. This is my personal gnosis and way of understanding what I have so far experienced: The Gods like Lugh and Brigid exist, but exist in "weaker" forms without offerings. Still Gods, though. Still there. I use this model of thinking because it then explains how mortal characters like King Arthur or even Pop-Culture icons can start to materialize into their own entities with spiritual presence. Greater than just a thought form or mortal, but less than a God. This would even apply to local heroes in myth and legend who rise to the placement of deity despite not being born as one, such that I consider Cuhulain to be.

    I don't know if that makes sense?

    1. I'm going to amend my comment. I shared my thoughts about this article on a forum, and their response gave me a new insight. That spirits can merge with the natural elements and become stronger that way, which would explain people like King Arthur or Pop Culture or even other mortals who may ascend just a spirit level.

      I prefer this line of thinking, because like other hard polytheists I don't like the idea that gods are at the whims of the people who worship them. That prayer or not, they exist and exist in whole.

  2. I think it gets back to the purpose of offerings, what they represent and what they are for. Traditionally, our relationships with the de ochus ande are founded upon reciprocity and hospitality. We provide offerings of foodstuff, craftwork, poetry, etc. because these are things which are attested to in the lore and folk custom. We provide offerings because of the foundational compact made between the sons of Mil and the gods when the settled the land.

    None of these things are necessary, in so much as the gods will shrivel up and die without them; they are not dependent upon our good will to exist.

    Now, having said that, there is something to the idea that foundationally, sacrificial offerings were a slightly different matter. The lore in and of itself is rather silent on such things, aside from allusions to localizations of Biblical events (Crom Cruach = Moloch, etc.), but the continental sources are a little more detailed about such things. When approaching things from a broader IE context, the idea that sacrificial offerings essentially provide the "raw materials" for the process of recreation, and that by providing such offerings to the gods, we assist them in their endevours. Again, not essential, but who doesn't appreciate a little help?

  3. ...and yes, the more I reflect upon the very last line of this post, the more I realize it is a bit treacly, so you're not wrong that one Lokean who reposted and commented on it via their tumblr.

    I can elaborate a little, and perhaps provide some context to the thinking behind the phrase. I always worry about receding into a Protestant theological position when it comes to how involved the gods are in my(our) day to day lives. Certainly they've better things to do with their time then whisper into our ears how special we are (something I have alluded to before).

    There is a quote I borrowed (with permission mind you) from a fellow polytheist many years ago, and it has become my signature on the various religious forums I frequent, which is as follows:

    "If you approach the (Celtic/Gaelic) gods with the attitude of "I am not worthy", then they will reply "Come back when you are"."

    The notion that a culture which holds honour as a core value necessarily has to impart its members with a sense of self worth, is self evident. As such, the common attitude of "I am not worthy" when relating to deity would be anathema to such a value. When I said that "I believe in the gods, because the gods believe in me", it was more to do with this idea of having worth in the eyes of those gods, than say having a divine booster club telling me how great I am.

    But yes, it comes off a little sickly sweet.

  4. Dearest Gorm
    I note, with incredulity, that you are so overburdened with a Gaelic Polytheistic form of pride and narcissism (unlike the old heroes and heroines of ancient Gaelic mythology and Legend) that you are constitutionally incapable of posting my sent messages on your site for the perusal of your devoted followers. And how cowardly is that? Conall Cernach (my very own long lost ancestor) would certainly not have been proud of you and not have adopted you as his son. You have my pity. Your conception is like fairy dust in the western winds. Your courage like a stone sinking into the springtime peat bog. Your manhood like the eternally shifting sands of Old Donegal. Goodbye. Don't Cry. Every man has to die.

    1. Or, you know, I'm busy and don't spend all of my time eagerly awaiting the mewlings of Trolls?

      My but aren't we the brave one, Anonymous, hiding behind a screen of anonymity and rancor.

      This is all I'll allow you though, so by all means take your stink of mildew and billy goats and go back to cowering under your bridge.