“What’s this?” she asked. She lifted the pendant from my chest and studied it.
“It’s my Thor’s hammer,” I replied.
“Oh. Why do you wear it?”
“It’s a religious symbol. It’s like wearing a cross, sort of.”
She stopped, looked at me in surprise, and dropped the necklace. “Oh, God. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She kissed her hand and pressed it to the hammer. “I’m sorry to him, too.”
She was already kind of drunk – Scotch, I think, though now I remember tequila being mentioned at some point. (I was not; to the best of my knowledge, I never have been. This surprises more people than I would expect; apparently being a one-beer Heathen graduate student is something of a logic bomb.) She was also a colleague, another student in the English program, which meant we were friends by default. The peculiarities of graduate education – the deeply idiosyncratic work, the misunderstandings of the outside world, the fact that most of us had master’s degrees and yet were willing to work for less than fifteen grand a year – bring us together, a relationship of proximity and necessity. The English department is sort of like a prison gang in this respect.
She disappeared to the bar for another Scotch-or-tequila. When she returned, she sat down in the chair closest to me. “You know, even though we’re opposed on lots of things, I think I have more in common with you than I do with most people here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean – well – I mean you believe in a higher power.” She paused. “I mean – that’s unusual here. Like – I don’t feel comfortable telling anyone about what I believe. That I’m a Christian, I mean.”
This is not the first time I’ve had a conversation like this since I came back to graduate school – both in the sense of a Christian confessing their feelings of secular persecution to me and in the sense of talking about religion with an intoxicated person. They both used an identical phrase – “believe in a higher power” – a synchronicity I found odd because, as far as I knew, neither of them were regular attendees at Alcoholics Anonymous. I suppose it was a gesture towards universality. They believed in their God, I believed in Odin; either way, we shared a belief in a “higher power” that the others didn’t. That was the assumption, anyway.
“Really?” I asked. “Why do you feel that way?”
“This place is really hostile to faith,” she said. “Anybody who actually believes in anything… They just think you’re some kind of idiot. They mock you. They think you automatically hate gay people, or that you’re basically like the Westboro Baptists.”
I frowned. “It’s weird to hear you say that. I’ve sort of been trained to see Christian privilege everywhere… It’s just part of how I was raised. It’s hard for me to take seriously the idea that Christians are any kind of oppressed group.” I sipped at my watery Coke. ”But then again, that’s my baggage. I don’t mean to sound cold.”
“Oh, no, no,” she said. “No, you’re fine. You’re fine.” She looked to her drink, then back at me with a serious expression. “I – You don’t have a problem with me being Christian, do you?”
“It doesn’t matter me to me. Just don’t try to convert me.”
“I won’t!” she said, a little quickly. “I promise.”
We made religious small talk for a little while. I asked her what denomination she belonged to; I believe she said Presbyterian, but the latest round was starting to make its way into her bloodstream and her speech started to slur. Our friends began to leave the bar; it was about midnight, and the bars here close at one.
“So… What do you believe in?” she asked, after a while.
“I was raised Wiccan,” I said, in the boiler-plate response I give when asked about my religion. “I still do that with my family. But when I’m by myself, I tend to worship the Norse gods in specific… Odin, Thor, that bunch.”
Suddenly, she became skeptical. “Do you really believe in them?” The tone in her voice reminded me of the accusation of another Christian acquaintance: “Modern Paganism is just sentimental atheism.”
“As much as I believe in anything.” Asking if I “really” believe in the gods is always a difficult question; I don’t have the conviction of a hard polytheist, which I know sets me at odds with some members of the Heathen community. (Granted, that’s hardly my only problem with those folks.) I’ve read too much Robert Anton Wilson in my life to really believe with heartfelt conviction; like him, I don’t believe, so much as I wonder a bit. “The way I usually explain it is like this… I’m willing to admit that the chances are better than even that what I call ‘Odin’ is just a game I’m playing with myself. That it’s all in my head. But believing in Odin has had a lot of positive effects on my life, and I’m a better person because of him. That’s real enough for me.”
She took this in. “Really?”
“I mean, you laid your cards on the table, I’ll lay out mine. When I got accepted into this school, I didn’t know that I would do it. I mean, it was a big pay cut, and I would have to move, and the job market is really uncertain. But… Well, I had a dream. A sign, sort of. And at least the way I interpreted it, it was from Odin. I came here because of Odin. The work I’m doing here… I dedicated it to Odin.”
I blinked in surprise; this was the first time I’d ever said that out loud to anyone except for, well, Odin.
She broke into a grin. “That was God! You got a message from God!”
“Well, obviously I disagree with your interpretation.”
She shook her head for a moment, then stood up. “I’m getting another drink. Can I buy you something?”
“Another Coke, thanks.”
She disappeared again, leaving me to wonder how I kept getting pegged for inebriated religious discourse. I guess it’s part of wearing your religion on your sleeve, as I do; even if you don’t bring it up, it gets brought up for you.
She returned with her drinks. “It’s hard for me to figure you out,” she said. “I mean I don’t understand what the difference is. You believe Odin is up there, controlling stuff. How is that different from God? Why don’t you believe in Him?”
I decided not to press the issue of my “belief,” given that even I find it nebulous, and I wasn’t on my fourth shot. “I don’t know. It’s not how I was raised. I’m not saying what you believe isn’t real. It’s real enough to you.” I shrugged. “That, and I have problems with the all the omnis. The omnipotence, the omniscience, the omnibenevolence. I’ve read some theodicy, but I’ve never been convinced.”
“So you can’t believe in an all-powerful God?”
“No,” I said. “It’s something I’ve never been able to convince myself of. But again, I don’t want to say-”
I paused, because I saw that she had hunched over her drink. She lurched, trying to hold herself back.
“Woah,” I said. I put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
“Because I do,” she said. “Because I really, really do.”