“There are a number of branches of philosophy that have not as yet by any means been adequately explored; but the inquiry into the nature of the gods, which is both highly interesting in relation to the theory of the soul, and fundamentally important to the regulation of religion, is one of special difficulty and obscurity, as you, Brutus, are well aware.” – Cicero, De natura deorum
Recently a discussion of the nature of the Gods and how Pagans relate to them has broken out. Morpheus Ravenna offered the question “How would you do ritual if the Gods were real to you?” and her own answers. Alison Leigh Lilly wrote a response focusing on what she sees as the excessive anthropomorphism of Ravenna’s underlying assumptions, and quoted a post I wrote about divinity in nature. Almost simultaneously, Traci Laird also wrote about the excessive anthropomorphism of Pagans in general. It’s worth noting here that Traci, Morpheus and I are actually fairly closely theologically aligned (we’re part of the same witchcraft tradition), and I don’t think Morpheus’ metaphors are more than just that. But I love me some Pagan theological conversation. The complexity of the topic only increases my love for it, because I am a nerd, and also because I think reality is complex and big ideas are worth wrestling with. As the epigraph from Cicero suggests, the Pagans of antiquity had strangely similar debates; in De natura deorum Velleius (who represents the Epicureans) says that the Gods appear in human form because the Gods are perfect and humans the most nearly perfect creatures. Cotta (an Academic) shoots down this anthropocentric view and points out that Egyptians worship gods in animal form:
“What therefore do you infer? that the Egyptians do not believe their sacred bull Apis to be a god? Precisely as much as you believe the Savior Juno of your native place to be a goddess. You never even see her in your dreams unless equipped with goat-skin, spear, buckler, and slippers turned up at the toe. Yet that is not the aspect of the Argive Juno, nor of the Roman. It follows that Juno has one form for the Argives, another for the people of Lanuvium, and another for us. And indeed our Jupiter of the Capitol is not the same as the Africans’ Juppiter Ammon.”
Leaving aside the Roman tendency to co-opt any deity they came across as a matter of Imperial policy, he has a point there relevant to modern discussions of syncretism as well. Cicero goes on to say that there’s such a wide variety of opinion on the subject “even among the wisest” that it’s hardly surprising that people are confused. He opines also that while he thinks at least one of the various theories is correct, it doesn’t seem possible that more than one of them is. Here is where Cicero and I part ways; I think its absolutely possible that more than one theory on the nature of the Gods can be correct, even the ones that seem to contradict one another. That is because I think our capacity to understand is more limited than the Gods are, also reality is weird. (Cf. physics).And yet, I do not think that any or all explanations are equally true. They have relative trueness, also relative relevance. Here are a few ways to evaluate both, as I see them:
1) Personal experience. Sometimes described as Unverified Personal Gnosis. If a God talks to you but nobody else can hear it, are you deluded or specially gifted or just tuned to the right frequency that day? Philosophically related to the question of phenomenology or how we know what we know in general. My reflexive position is basically, what else have we got to go on? If I can’t accept as a basic premise that (without evidence to the contrary, and with the occasional healthy questioning) my experiences have a direct relationship to reality, then I am in deep trouble just making breakfast in the morning much less guiding my spiritual life. Always with the caveat that our perceptions are necessarily limited.
2) Custom, culture, and other forms of group experience. Modern Pagans, because we are conscious of holding a minority world view (or to be exact, a group of minority world views) tend to place less value on this as a measure of truth, even to the point of mostly arguing with it when it comes up at all. And yet, there is something to stating that you had a particular experience with a deity, and having other people pipe up and say “Yes, me too!” This happens surprisingly often. Some of that can be traced to using the same source material, which is not to discount the value of doing that. Some of it seems spontaneous, which interests me.
3) Reality testing and practical results. In African Diaspora religions, people regularly test possession both to find out who has come to dinner and also to weed out fakes. That is, a person in deep trance can do extraordinary things, and also particular orisha or loa have characteristics and preferences which allow them to be identified. This concept in general is related to the issues Morpheus Ravenna raised in her original post; if you’re dealing with real Gods, you should expect real outcomes and behave as if that is at least a real possibility. I don’t mean that you push a button and get what you want. I mean that when a God shows up, things change. Pagans can be strangely skittish about the question of real world results, and while I understand the problems associated with excessive utilitarianism which leads to terrible New Agey things like The Secret (and its Christian equivalent, Prosperity Gospel), I also think that if you have a theology of immanence you should expect your theology to be, well, immanent, as in manifest in the world.
Next up in Part 2: The question of anthropomorphic anthropocentrism, the human and non-human divine, and other matters.