On Participation in Being-Itself

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

On Tillich’s view, since the divine is being-itself, all humans participate in the divine simply by existing.  But that participation is not experiential.  Any experiential participation in the divine can only be through the distinctive ways in which humans exist.  We participate in being-itself through our own being.  Since you are material, you experience being-itself through your materiality – through the physicality of your body, through its chemistry.  Since you are alive, you experience being-itself through your life – through your metabolism, through the feeling of vital energy in your own flesh.   Since you are human you experience being-itself through your humanity – through the distinctively human features of your physiology, your bipedality, your sociality, your rationality.

For several atheistic philosophers, as well as for Wiccans, natural creative power is sacred, holy, and divine.   You experience this power cognitively by learning about the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of your existence.   But you can also experience this power through the perception of the energy generated by your metabolism.  And you experience this power in a participatory way – you do not merely observe your own energy, your activity is the manifestation of that energy.   Your metabolic energy powers your actions as you think, talk, paint, walk, make love, or perform any athletic activity.

If natural creative power is sacred, then you participate in the sacred, in the divine.  This participation does not entail identity.  You exist; however, that does not imply that you are identical with being-itself.  You participate in being-itself; but participation entails that you are distinct from being-itself.  You are a being, not being-itself.  It is correct to say that you have being, but false to say that you are being.  You are distinct from being-itself because you are the result of a long series of specifications or refinements of being-itself into individuality.  And you participate in being-itself through those refinements.

To use some Neoplatonic terminology, a procession of being-itself is a series of increasingly more refined or specific universals.  Here is a plausible procession of universals that become ever more specific: being-itself > particularity > materiality > complex materiality > life > animalia > chordata > vertebrata  > mammalia > primata > haplorhini > hominidae > homo > sapiens. And finally, the universal at the species level splits into male and female: sapiens > manhood and sapiens > womanhood.

Within the procession just described, manhood and womanhood are the final manifestations of being-itself.  They are the final manifestations of the sacred or the divine.  They are the most specific or refined powers of being (of natura naturans) in which we participate as human beings.  However, they are the manifestations of the divine that are most immediately comprehensible or experientially accessible to human animals.   Thus we most directly experience and comprehend being-itself within ourselves through the creative activity of human sexuality.  We are most immediately linked to natura naturans via sex.

A man or woman who feels the procreative urge within his or her own body directly experiences natural creative power.   In sexual lust and activity we participate in a natural power that overwhelms the self.  It is a power that comes from the very depths of the self but which is enormously greater than the self.  It is sublime; it is numinous; it is holy.  Thus the Council of American Witches writes that affirms that natural creative power is at work in the whole universe and that “this same Creative Power lives in all people, and functions through the interaction of masculine and feminine” (in Cuhulain, 2011: 28).

For Wiccans, sex is sacred.   The Farrars explain that the “sexual polarity” of masculine and feminine is “central to Wiccan philosophy and practice” (1981: 157).   They discuss the centrality and sacredness of sexuality in Chapter XV of The Witch’s Way.   They say that Wiccans take “a positive approach” to sexuality and that Wicca accepts “sexuality as wholly natural and good, and goes on from therere to seek a fuller understanding of masculine-feminine polarity” (1981: 156).  Cunningham writes that for Wiccans sex is “a part of nature and is accepted as such” (2004: 13).  Sabin writes that “In Wicca, sex . . . is a sacred act . . . Sex is treasured and revered.  Sexuality is considered a gift from the gods . . . and a manifestation of the polarity of the God and Goddess” (2011: 32).  The Farrars further indicate that Wiccan celebrations may involve ritual sex.  This ritual sex is known as “the Great Rite” and may be done either symbolically or literally (1981: ch. 2).  And Wiccan rituals are filled with fairly explicit sexual symbols.

One way to understand the Wiccan god and goddes is probably to understand them as the universals.  On the most concrete interpretation, the god is manhood and the goddess is womanhood.  Perhaps less humanly and thus more generally, the god is masculinity (the quality of being male, present in most animal life) and the goddess is femininity (the quality of being female, present in most animal life).  On this interpretation, the god and the goddess are both immanent universals; they are creative powers of being.  However, there is a tension here: these universals are not persons and are entirely genderless.  Masculinity is neither personal nor male; femininity is neither personal nor female.

On the version of religious naturalism offered here, the very idea of a god or goddess is self-contradictory.  A god or goddess is something that is both maximally sacred and that has the form of something taken from some category of being.  On the one hand, being-itself is maximally sacred; however, it does not lie within any category of being, and thus it is formless.  On the other hand, anything that has a form taken from some category of being is less than maximally sacred.  Hence the concept of a god or goddess is self-contradictory; it is inconsistent.  It is impossible for any god or goddess to exist.

If you are a human, you can reasonably use your sexuality as a starting point for reflection on the continuity of life, tracing your life, through sexual and asexual reproduction, back to the very first cell on earth.   Meditation on this grand continuity and on the evolution of all life may (and should) arouse a sense of wonder and awe.  It should arouse you to reverence for all life.  Such meditation need not be merely cognitive, but can even include sexual activity itself.  Through such meditation on sexuality, you meet what Goodenough calls the sacred depths of nature (1998).  But you do not meet any gods or godesses.

Further application of the Wiccan logic of divinity suggests that we meet the divine most intensely and authentically in those activities which are most intensely and authentically human, that is, in those activities which are most distinctively human.  Sex, which is common to many forms of life, is not very distinctively human.  Other activities are far more intensely human than sex.  One example is running, specifically long-distance running.  Humans are among the best long-distance runners on the planet.  But the most distinctively human activity is reasoning.  That’s how the divine manifests itself in us.

Other posts in this series, and references:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

References:

Cuhulain, K. (2011) Pagan Religions: A Handbook for Diversity Training.  Portland, OR: Acorn Guild Press.

Cunningham, S. (1988) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) Witch’s Bible.  Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Goodenough, U. (1998) The Sacred Depths of Nature.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy & Practice (For Beginners (Llewellyn’s)).  Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    Eric, do Wiccans account for the differences between sex and gender? I am suspicious of essentialist language about “the essence of masculinity” or “the essence of femininity” and about the simple equation of these things with sex.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Excellent question and suspicion. I don’t know. Wiccans do permit homosexual couples and talk about the god-goddess polarity as psychological rather than physiological. But that doesn’t really address your question or suspicion. So I don’t know.

  • http://infinitegames.tumblr.com infinity

    I’m honestly only familiar with Wiccan theology from your posts. So please let me know if I’m completely off base!

    From an anthropological perspective, I’m highly skeptical of the assertion that despite being gendered male and female in language, despite being referred to as the essences of masculinity and femininity, the concepts of God and Goddess are “are entirely genderless. Masculinity is neither personal nor male; femininity is neither personal nor female.” Its easy to say this from a theological perspective, but as a cultural phenomenon, Wiccan views seem to derive from and contribute to a culturally imposed concept of masculine and feminine as true opposites. In fact, I think the use of them metaphorically to stand in for a general idea of polarity is even more indicative of cultural norms as the source of Wiccan ideas.

    This poses a problem, I think, when attempted to integrate Wiccan theology with atheist philosophy, at least of the naturalist bent, because masculinity and femininity as opposites are not natural concepts, they’ve arisen over centuries/millenia of cultural meme-transmission.

  • SAWells

    “We participate in being-itself through our own being”.

    But it is not clear that there is any such thing as being-itself to participate in. I can meaningfully say that: the universe exists, electrons exist, the United States of America exists, I exist, the game of football exists, and turbulence exists. But it is very doubtful that all these things exist in the same sense, which makes it doubtful that there is one “being-itself” which covers all the senses in which things can “be”.

    Suppose I were to take instead the following list: Usain Bolt runs very fast, my car runs smoothly, and David Cameron runs the country. If I were to declare that all of these partook of cursus currens, the immanent progressive power of running, it should be clear that I am just making stuff up based on a pun rather than declaring a deep and wonderful truth.

    And you still haven’t bothered to ask why the muon is so informative. You’re missing out.

  • grung0r

    But the most distinctively human activity is reasoning.That’s how the divine manifests itself in us.

    Bullshit. To pick one of endless videos of animals reasoning(Lots of birds, but quite a few mammalian and even cephalopodian examples too), here is a crow solving a puzzle:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZSk7oCNaHg

    Oh, but I guess that’s just how the divine manifests itself in that crow then, eh? How fun! Tautologies always are, as long as you don’t think too hard about them .

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      Ssst. He is philosopher. Philsophers don’t actually look at reality they just think about it and play with words.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Seriously, are either of you even capable of formulating a criticism that does not drip with some combination or another of hostile aggression, sarcasm, and/or contempt? It’s getting really tedious.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      *shrug*

      Offer an argument which is based on empirically validated reality and not on word-twisting, eclecticism and pure invention then your argument will get all the respect it deserves.

      Up till then, your, and especially Eric’s, arguments are nothing more than, well, theology renamed.

      I am certainly not going to pretend that the emperor’s clothes are going to keep you warm in winter.

    • SAWells

      One day you’ll realise that a criticism can be aggressive, sarcastic, contemptuous and correct.