Last weekend’s Intermediate Pagan Practice class covered deities: common concepts of God, Pagan views of God/Goddess and gods and goddesses, and how we can relate to and interact with them. We began by asking everyone “what do you think when I say ‘God’?” The responses ranged from traditional monotheism (we had one Christian in the group, albeit a very liberal, universalist Christian) to descriptions I would describe as “New Age” to hard polytheism to some concepts that wouldn’t be out of place in a conversation between mainstream liberal theologians.
From there we went into the concept that the variety of human religious experience is evidence (though not proof) of the diversity of the Divine: the world we actually live in is better explained by many limited gods and goddesses rather than by one all-powerful Supreme Being. This is one of John Michael Greer’s main points in A World Full of Gods.
In that discussion, Cynthia Talbot had one of the best analogies I’ve heard on this subject. 17th century Newtonian physics (the laws of motion and gravity) explains how things work in the world we experience. When we learn this in high school or college, we say “yeah, that makes sense.”
But 20th and 21st century physicists have found that when dealing with the very small (subatomic particles) and the very large (the Big Bang), Newtonian physics doesn’t always hold true. Most of us have to stretch to understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and we’re left scratching our heads when string theory and M theory are brought up. Even though the mathematics show that the universe may very well have eleven dimensions instead of four, we have trouble getting our minds wrapped around that concept – and it makes absolutely no difference in the way we live our lives day to day and year to year.
Likewise, the God of the theologians (such as Karen Armstrong’s “God beyond God”) may be necessary to reconcile authentic religious experience with the lack of conclusive proof of the existence of God, but that God has little impact on the daily lives of all but a few mystics.
The religious equivalent of Newtonian physics is polytheism. We experience the spirits of natural forces – sometimes in a way that causes us to identify them as Zeus or Poseidon or Demeter. We experience the spirits of a place or a land – sometimes in a way that causes us to identify them as Geb or Tefnut or Set. We experience the spirits of a people or a culture – sometimes in a way that causes us to identify them as Cernunnos or Danu or Brigid. We meet them in prayer and meditation, we interact with them in ritual: they are gods and goddesses we can understand and relate to.
The deities of an Earth-centered universe (i.e. – before Galileo and Copernicus) cannot explain the Big Bang, evolution, or black holes. But in the day-to-day world that we experience and in which we spend the vast majority of our time, they provide an intuitive, satisfying framework for understanding and making meaning from our religious experiences.