Cedric's Pagan Thoughts

The spiritual meanderings of a NeoPagan shaman, an eclectic Wiccan, a Celtic musician, a world traveler, a bard, and an uncompromising cat-loving Bast-worshipper

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Pagan View of God

I sometimes have an odd dream, in which I’m filling out an online form about my religion. I come to a section that reads as follows:

Is your religion polytheistic, monotheistic, or pantheistic? (Choose one.)

And then there are three little circles to click, one for each –ism, and as soon as I click one, the dot moves to that circle. It’s impossible to click all three. In my dream, I cuss and swear at the computer and the small-minded people who programmed the form.

Okay, I don’t really have a dream that goes like that, but sometimes I feel that way when I’m trying to explain Deity as I understand it. Before I get into that explanation, let me cover a few definitions.

Polytheism—the belief in many gods and/or goddesses

Monotheism—the belief in one god

Pantheism—the belief that god is in everything

A lot of people label all forms of Paganism (including NeoPaganism) as polytheistic, meaning that we worship many gods and goddesses. But this is an oversimplification. In fact, I consider our religion to combine all three of the –isms. Let me explain.

At the most abstract level, we have Deity. Some people refer to this as G!d, Spirit, the Source, the Divine, the Creator, the Unmoved Mover, the Universe. I’m not picky, but I try really hard to go for a gender-neutral term here, and I avoid the term “God” simply because it’s laden with so many associations from other religions. Perhaps I should call it the Great Beyond, because the Divine seems to be beyond many things: It’s beyond gender, being neither male nor female. It’s beyond race, not being Black, White, or any shade of Brown. It’s beyond species for that matter. It’s likewise beyond matter and energy, life and death, time and space. It is ultimately beyond our comprehension.

(I have to give credit where it’s due. I first encountered this conception of Deity while studying orthodox Hinduism. In fact, there is little in NeoPaganism that does not have a parallel somewhere in Hinduism, which is essentially the most successful “Pagan” religion in the world today.)

So, at this level, I am a monotheist. There is only one Deity, only one Source, only one Divine Energy. The problem with it is that it’s a bit remote. Just as it’s hard to say anything about everything, it’s hard to relate to and interact with anything so vast as the all-encompassing Deity. I’ll borrow a few images here to explain that:

In the Bhagavadgita, there is a scene in which Prince Arjuna asks the god Krishna, who has been disguised as the prince’s charioteer, to reveal His true form. Krishna begins to comply, but then realizes that Arjuna’s senses would not be able to perceive that form. Krishna grants Arjuna just a little bit of divine sight, and Arjuna is overwhelmed by the majesty and enormity of what he perceives. Words apparently cannot describe it, though the poet finds quite a few words in his attempt to convey the experience.

Now most monotheists deal with this problem by trimming their God down to size. Rather than believing in an abstraction so vast that we can’t understand it, they simply worship an anthropomorpic deity, with gender, personality, and in some cases race; but they insist it’s the only one. Likewise, they separate this Creator from Creation. We NeoPagans have a different solution for the problem: the next level(s) of divine reality, in which the One becomes the Many.

At a level of understanding just below that of the One Undivided Deity, we introduce Dualism, in the forms of the God and the Goddess. The God represents the Male Principle within the Divine; the Goddess represents the Female Principle within the Divine. Now, in my worldview, these are equal and balanced powers. (Think of the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, if you’re not already.)

(I should note at this point that some NeoPagans, especially many Dianic Wiccans, insist on exalting the Feminine Principle over the Masculine, sometimes to the point of excluding the Divine Masculine. That’s not my view, but I feel that any discussion of NeoPaganism should include a mention of it. I can’t speak for those who hold that view, but sometimes I get the impression that they are using the term “Goddess” much the way I say “the Divine”—that is they mean that all-encompassing Wholeness that surpasses understanding. Why they don’t use a gender neutral term for that certainly surpasses my understanding.)

Now, within each of these gendered principles are certain archetypes: We know from our daily experience that not all women are alike, nor are all men. Likewise, people assume roles far more specific than merely male and female. Hence we reach another level of understanding, a level slightly less abstract than the God/Goddess duality.

Wiccans typically see three archetypes (or faces) within the Goddess: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. The Maiden is typically viewed as a young woman anywhere from childhood to the brink of adulthood. She is seen as creative, full of life, but sometimes naïve. The Mother archetype is often pictured as a pregnant woman, though in fact the bulk of motherhood comes after the child’s birth. Still, in pre-industrial cultures, women were expected to bear many children, so a mother might well spend a lot of her time bringing babies to term while raising other children. The Mother is not only a generative force, but a protective one as well. The Crone archetype surprises many non-Wiccans the first time they hear of her. (I remember one who said, “Crone? That’s an ugly word for a Goddess.”) The Crone archetype, often represented as the stereotypical old lady witch, stands for a woman who has passed childbearing age and experienced menopause. Much like many elderly people, the Crone has acquired a lot of wisdom, but she’s not inclined to sugar-coat it; she calls ‘em like she sees ‘em. The Crone archetype teaches us not to resist death. Personally, I think one of the most wonderful things about Wicca is that it teaches us to revere and respect age, in sharp contrast to the popular media that glorifies youth and beauty above all things.

I should mention that there are of course a lot of other ways to view the archetypes within the Goddess: The triple approach is one of many, but it works well, partly because the physical changes within a woman’s body are so clear-cut.

It’s a little bit trickier finding a system of archetypes for the Male Principle. Some Wiccans simply deduce a parallel structure, identifying the God archetypes as Hunter (or Lover), Father, and Sage. The catch is that not everyone can quite agree on these archetypes, and there are some faces of Deity that don’t seem to fit any of them, or which seem to fit all of them. The important matter is to realize that there are multiple archetypes within each Divine Principle.

At this point our religion is looking alarmingly polytheistic, and at the next level of understanding, it becomes even more so. As we decrease the level of abstraction, our deities acquire names. Every deity within a mythology anywhere is a face of one of these archetypes. So, for instance, Zeus is a face of the Father God archetype, while Isis is a face of the Mother Goddess archetype. It’s considerably easier to relate to the Divine as a personality, an individual deity, than it is to relate to the Divine as an archetype or a vast abstraction. Consider, for instance, that when you speak to your own father, you are speaking to an actual person rather than to the archetype of all fathers everywhere. It’s the same with deities.

Now, many Asatruaren I’ve talked with or read make a big point of denying that their gods and goddesses embody archetypes. “Odin is Odin,” they proclaim, “not a face of the Sky-Father!” Well, again, I think that Odin is capable of being both, just as my father is Jack, but is also a face of Fatherhood. In other words, being an aspect of the Divine Whole does not make an individual deity any less individual. Conversely, being individual does not make one any less Divine.

Some people complain that this view of deity is a NeoPagan development, absent from PaleoPaganism. That is not the case. While we could probably stack up a number of examples, I'll cite one now. In The Golden Ass by Apuleius, the author talks about Isis and attributes to her many names in many different cultures. Clearly, we see that Isis was an example of an archetype that made her essentially synonymous with many other goddesses. (I'll discuss The Golden Ass in more detail in a later post.)

And now we’ve reached the pantheism portion of our religious world-view. Pantheism, as mentioned above, is the belief that the Divine is in everything. (The Jedi notion of “the Force” is a form of pantheism most people are familiar with.) I like to think of the Divine in terms of a hologram. When you cut a hologram into two pieces, rather than getting two halves of the image, you get two smaller (and infinitesimally blurrier) copies of the original image. Each part contains the whole. As you continue the process, cutting the hologram into smaller and smaller pieces, each piece retains the whole image.

Similarly, the Divine (aka the Universe) has divided itself into a nearly infinite number of pieces. Everything we encounter is a slice of that Divine Wholeness; that these slices appear as separate rocks, trees, animals, people, televisions, cars, bananas, and bowls of cereal is a function of our perception, which must divide in order to define. (This is why thought is represented by the sword in the Tarot. Reality must be cut down to size to be perceived.) Some slices of the hologram are larger than others; these are the deities—individual faces of the Divine.

Some slightly smaller individual faces of the Divine are you and I. Thus, at one level of reality, you and I are separate beings; on another level of reality, we are both God.

Taking this view of other people can dramatically alter the way you treat them. As the Buddha said, “If you see yourself in others, whom can you harm?” Likewise, if you see the Divine in all things, it becomes logical and natural to revere and respect all things. There is a story about Sri Ramakrishna feeding part of a sacred offering to a stray cat. When worshippers protested that the offering was set aside for their Goddess, the holy man replied, “The Goddess is in the cat.” (We Bast-worshippers could have told them that.)

So, to summarize, we are monotheists, for we believe that the Divine is a single, undivided whole. We are polytheists, for we believe that the Divine has many faces. Finally, we are pantheists, for we believe that the Divine is in everything, that the Divine is everything.

So remember that if you ever have to program an online form.

[Webmasters/Ezine Publishers: Free professional content - pre-licensed to you. You are invited to use any or all of the Pagan thoughts articles by Cedric in your publication or website. The only requirement is that you include the by-line of the author, including the name and website of the article.]


At 9:57 AM, Blogger T. Scarlet said...

Just stopped in to see the blog. Awesome.
*Montreal Browncoat... Pagan teacher and HPS*


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