I know a lot of religious people. I have many Christian friends who have a deep, seemingly real relationship with Jesus and who speak about Jesus and God (the Christian one, that is) as if they are persons who they converse with regularly.
I have Pagan friends who claim to be in communication with The Morrigan, the Dagda, or some other deity – and for these folks, The Morrigan is just as real as Jesus is for the Christians.
Behind such claims of relationship are notions and convictions of deity as persons – as conscious beings who think, feel, and choose – personal beings who are capable of relationship. Also, often part of these relationships is the notion that the gods intervene on our behalf – answering prayer, taking action on our offerings and sacrifices, somehow manipulating or causing events to go a certain way.
And I’ll admit that many of these friends seem to have a mature relationship to their deities – they’ve avoided the immaturity of Santa-God – the whimsical deity who rides through the air bringing good things to good little boys and girls. Many of these friends understand that sometimes their deities say, “no”, that their relationship runs deeper than simply the giving of gifts and granting of favors, and that the universe and the will of their deity are sometimes inscrutable.
Some of these friends offer ontological defenses of their gods/goddesses – attempting to explain their metaphysical status, their role in the universe, where their power derives from, and so on. These arguments run along a wide swath of intellectual ground – some involving claims of design and creation, others being rooted in traditions and myths, and still others rooted in the generative powers of the human mind and human intention.
This way of belief, worship, and religion – this view of deity – be it monotheistic or polytheistic – I call Hard Theism. Those who subscribe to Hard Theism believe in the actual existence of their god/gods.
Now, I’m a soft theist.
This doesn’t mean that I think my Hard Theist friends are deluded. I understand the experiences and claims of my Hard Theist brothers and sisters, but they simply don’t “work” for me; they don’t align with my own thinking and understanding of metaphysics and the world; such claims and thinking isn’t confirmed by my experience.
I don’t see god/goddess as personal. I don’t believe that deities answer our prayers or intervene in the world on our behalf or otherwise. I don’t accept that such beings exist, because I have no evidence that they do, nothing to appeal to that confirms their reality.
At least on most days.
I also understand that conversations such as these involve complex ideas. I grasp that the universe is a big and wild place and that I don’t have perfect knowledge of how it all works.
All this means that I accept that it’s a tricky business proving the existence of deities – and it’s very likely a business that won’t ever be fully resolved. Smart and good people on all sides of the issue will offer their convictions, often in carefully crafted arguments – but at the end of the day – we can’t really prove or disprove the existence of god/goddess. We can simply follow the truth as we best understand it.
Now, while I may not be able to disprove that your chosen deity exists, that doesn’t mean that I won’t harbor doubts about your claims of your deities interactions and interventions. Cernunnos healed your sick child? Well, I guess that’s one way to see it. Jesus helped you change a bad habit and turned your life around? Good for you, but your explanation of events and causes leaves something to be desired – evidence, justification, proof, and so on. Was it Jesus or a good therapist and effective medication?
Soft Theism operates from the vantage point of spiritual realism – an epistemological conservatism that humbly seeks to understand reality and tries to offer some explanation for events and circumstances. Honest living offers ample experiences of tragedy, unmerited suffering, random and superfluous evil that tempers any inclination to lofty, unjustified saccharine theologies.
However, we must be aware that what passes as spiritual realism in today’s, post-Enlightenment Western culture is not the same as what passes as spiritual realism in other cultures. The Western epistemological drive for “evidence” is not shared by all peoples and cultures, and what constitutes “evidence” varies as well.
Still, offering complex metaphysical arguments about intelligent design, contingency, the ground of being, uncaused causes, and other such “ontological arguments” might sound good and predispose us a certain way – but they don’t prove that the deities whose existence you now believe you’ve justified, have any real, existential, or practical effect on the world, in your life, or in a particular set of circumstances.
Divinity as Metaphor
From the perspective of Soft Theism, the lack of evidence for interventionist gods and goddesses doesn’t require that we completely eliminate all notions of God and deity. Soft Theism understands the multivalent values of employing a god/goddess concept.
For those who find meaning in a God-concept, metaphors and symbols that help fuel the religious imagination prove valuable, allowing us foundations on which to build relational constructs from which to conduct our spiritual practice. No metaphor will adequately capture the essence of the divine. Yet each vision offered contains seeds of promise that can spark imagination, moral impulses, and move the heart and mind.
Soft Theism approaches notions of divinity as metaphors for some real and existentially significant, even vital, reality. God /Goddess can be employed as a metaphor for the creative and ordering principles found within the universe. The “Divine” can be metaphorized in many ways, as change, relatedness, love, life, and so on. Some metaphors work better than others. But we must never forget that any talk of God is a metaphor, given the lack of immediate and concrete experience of the Divine in itself.
A Soft Theism understands the overlap and blurring of lines between what we see as divine and what we experience as sacred. From a Soft Theistic perspective, the sacred is the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships that are forever making a cosmos out of chaos. We hold sacred that coordinating, integrating factor we find in nature that bespeaks the interconnectedness and unity of everything that exists – our ultimate concern, the creative principle in nature, and the life-affirming power that animates evolution and brings order out of chaos.
From a Soft Theist perspective, the sacred, by whatever name we wish to call he/she/it – is understood as a metaphor for the vitalism that interpenetrates nature and empowers the interconnected web of life – the energy flowing throughout nature and immanent in the earth’s cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration.
Giving a Face to Your Metaphors
History abounds with specific communities forming religions around named Gods and Goddesses. These communities and cultures create narratives, theories, and rituals that coalesce into complex moral and cosmological views and stances.
For many Nordic peoples, Thor, Odin, and Freya were the faces for their metaphors. For the Romans, it was Jupiter and Mars. For Jews, it was Yahweh. For Christians, it’s Jesus. And so on.
Soft Theism is careful not to deny all senses of the validity or reality of the above notions of deity. But Soft Theism understands that the source of this reality is some power in the world, and not the personal face we give it.
If by Jupiter you mean the creative and ordering forces of nature, then yes, those are real, and the face of Jupiter allows us a focal point, an icon, for such. However, if by Jupiter you mean a real personal deity who lives on Mt. Aetna or Mt. Olympus and controls human events by will and hurling thunderbolts – then we’re back to asking for evidence for such and the need to explore how you know such things.
Jesus and Christianity offer an interesting variation to this discussion. Most historians will affirm that Jesus of Nazareth was likely a real human being. A flesh and blood Jesus walked the earth and taught things that we find recorded in the gospels. And Christianity attests to millions and millions of people finding the sacred and meaning in the face of Jesus.
Yet claims of divinity, miracles, resurrection, and so on, require a level of justification and evidence that is found lacking and unconvincing for many.
Saying Jesus is the divine metaphor, the architectonic face of love, mercy, generosity, and so on is very different than saying he’s the second person of the Trinity and the Word through which the world was actually created.
Are Metaphorical Gods Any Practical Use?
What good are metaphors? From an intellectual perspective, metaphors are fascinating, useful tools to help us understand the world. Yet can a metaphor heal you, help you get the job you really want, feed the hungry, or grant life after death?
What use are metaphorical gods? The answer to this question rests on what you think the purpose of religion is.
If you see and approach religion as a system of controlling the world and events in your life, then metaphorical gods are, indeed, useless.
However, if you see and approach religion as an exercise in finding meaning, purpose, and understanding in life, then metaphorical gods might be of service.
The religious impulse can be likened to the artistic or aesthetic impulse – it is the human capacity for value response – the inherent ability of humans to be motivated by beauty, truth, goodness – all sorts of intrinsic goods.
The religious impulse, however, is more comprehensive than the aesthetic impulse because it is holistic and integrative, weaving its insights into what many call a worldview. By worldview, I mean a more or less cohesive personal philosophy, what the ancients called a cosmology.
From this perspective, divine metaphors can serve as hermeneutic and heuristic lens through which to see the world and to engage in religion as a psychological, existential, and mystical enterprise.
Are such metaphorical gods deserving of worship? Well, I might not be inclined to bend the knee for Zeus. But if you tell me that Zeus represents and stands for the creativity, fertility, and goodness of life, then yes, I might bend the knee for that.
Metaphorical gods might not intervene to get you that job or heal your child. But understanding what they stand for might help you make some sense of the outcomes of such situations.
Why Bother With the Metaphors?
Now, some will argue, “Why bother with these metaphors at all? Why not simply understand the world and life philosophically? I can appreciate mercy and love without knowing the face of Jesus.”
In my opinion, such assertions are true. But they also miss something of the power of religion as a force for personal transformation through tools of myth, ritual, symbol, and meditation and self exploration.
For example, one can certainly understand and appreciate the power of kenotic love without reference to Jesus. However, it’s hard to deny that, for many, the parables, stories, and examples of Jesus add a concrete dimension that has real power and captures the imagination and stays with a person. Reflecting on what would Jesus do works better than what would love do, for many.
These insights lead us to this conclusion – there is a healthy and appropriate degree of subjectivity and personalization in religion and wrestling with meaning and purpose. If meditating and relating to the face of Danu or Odin help you find your place and purpose in the world, then more power to you. If Jesus is the key to understanding and fulfillment, then by all means follow him. And if a philosophical atheism helps you become a better person and be happy with your life, then, of course, live as an atheist.
A side note – I’m not arguing that all gods/goddesses are of equal worth or represent equally valuable and noble values, powers, and realities. Jesus, in my humble opinion, certainly has moral advantages over Odin.
Each person should undertake a free and responsible pursuit of the truth, and engage their rights of conscience and religion. No one can force meaning onto another. We must all find the path that we feel works for us, produces fruit in our life, and that we can best square with the truth.