One important respect among several where NeoPagan practice differs from mainstream American religion is our relation to our deities. We consider the sacred as immanent in the world, whether or not we also include a transcendent dimension as well. (I do.) The sacred is around us, all the time, if we but have the eyes to see it, ears to hear it, and heart to feel it.
I used to think all Pagans had direct personal experience of our deities. But I have found the issue to be more complicated. Some Pagans have never had such an encounter. Some do not believe in them, others would like to encounter them, but have not. I want to explore this issue a bit here.
First, a little bit of personal history.
My First Close Encounter of the Third Kind
I became a Wiccan when I encountered the Goddess immediately after She was invoked during a Midsummer Sabbat to which I had been invited. I knew next to nothing about Wicca and had no real interest in it. But I was curious and respected the person who had invited me.
The ritual began hours late, my first experience of "Pagan Standard Time." When it finally began, far from being filled with anticipation I was mostly relieved that it had started because that meant it would eventually end. We had gathered in a glade in Tilden Park in the hills behind Berkeley, California.
Immediately upon Her invocation a presence manifested that was more beautiful than anything I had ever experienced, more loving than anything I had ever encountered, and more powerful than anything I could ever have imagined, but not in the sense of power as force or domination. The power of Her love put any other kind of power in its shade. She brought with Her a sense of the Feminine and of nature, of forests and meadows. She had another fascinating quality: She seemed more real than I was. At the same time She was invisible.
At the time I was a newly minted Ph.D. in Political Science, fascinated by power and its uses and abuses, and had spent years studying its various secular manifestations. I was also vulnerable to its allure. But after that experience, my interest in power faded away except as an object of study. I had lost any interest in seeking it for myself. That was in 1984 or 1985 (there are good reasons I never became a historian).
I began serious study of Gardnerian Wicca and eventually was initiated. But afterward I was told that day in Tilden Park was my real initiation.
I Am Not Alone
My first Wiccan teacher had also had his own personal encounters with the Goddess, and our Gardnerian tradition deliberately invoked the Gods' presence into the Priestess and sometimes the Priest. Most everyone in our coven felt that presence to some degree when a deity was invoked into themselves, and often when they entered into another officiating as High Priestess or Priest. However I quickly learned that even here intense manifestations such as I had experienced were rare. At the next public Sabbat I attended, with the same people, I also felt little or nothing. When She did manifest, She and other deities usually did so far more subtly, even if unmistakably. In other words, the Gods had their own agenda for when and how they came.
Over the years while never ceasing in my primary Wiccan identification, I ended up learning from and participating within other Pagan traditions, especially those rooted in Native American practice or that of the African Diaspora. In doing so I encountered a wide range of deity and spirit manifestations, from instances resembling my first Wiccan one to subtle hints of their presence through changes in the "energy" around me when they were invoked, to actually having my body taken over and even danced. I also heard friends describing encounters where they saw deities, which I have not, or where they visited temples and experienced overwhelming presences of conscious energy, but not with any sense of personhood. I have not experienced those either.
In other words, there is a wide range of deities and the sacred manifesting, and they seem to do so in different ways to different people. Different traditions do so in different ways, although with overlap. But I long believed one consistent difference between Pagan and Abrahamic paths was that we did not have to wonder whether our deities existed. Nothing seemed more a waste of time than trying to 'prove' the Gods were real.
Then I discovered to my surprise that many of us have not had similar experiences.
What did that mean?
Where Are the Gods?
I certainly did not feel uniquely "spiritually advanced" compared to many other people I knew. I did not for a moment think I had great insights as a guru or anything of the sort. Sometimes I think I am so hard-headed that it took personal encounters to get my attention where less difficult people who were more open in their hearts did not need such an effort on their behalf. I did not even feel competent to start a coven until about twenty years after my initial initiation. And in my life there have been hurdles enough at times that in the absence of such experiences I doubt I would have found the strength to continue.