My friend Maebius asked a provocative question over on his blog today. Go read it for the full question; I’m just here to give my answer.
I don’t know what most people want from the Divine. “Most people” are generally a total mystery to me. When most people talk about God, I have no idea what they are trying to say it and it usually makes no sense to me. When I do understand what is being talked about, it’s on an intellectual rather than a spiritual level. Philosophical discussions about the nature of the Divine are fun and stimulating in the same way that philosophical discussions about ethics are fun and stimulating. They get me to think, to consider things in new ways, and they allow me to see how other people think. When it comes down to my own life and my own choices in the moment, my ethical choices, like my experience of divinity, come from a different place than those philosophical intellectual games. I know the Gods, like I know right from wrong, in my heart, not my head.
I have had this conversation with people before and I never know how to handle it. How should I see the gods? What are they like? And all I can answer is, well, see them as they are, and know what they are like by spending time with them. It’s not a useful answer for most people, and I’m still trying to figure that one out.
It’s not a matter of belief or disbelief – I don’t “believe” in my cat, she’s just there. I know her nature because we spend lots of time together. If I stopped letting her live in my house and stopped feeding her and giving her love, she would go away and not be part of my life anymore. She wouldn’t stop existing, and I wouldn’t suddenly think that she never existed; she just wouldn’t be there anymore. Same with the gods – there are quite a few of them that I don’t pay attention to, and so they are not part of my life. It’s not that I don’t believe in, say, Kali or Jesus – I just don’t hang out with those particular gods. If I stopped giving my attention to anyone in my personal pantheon, I don’t think any of them would strike me down or anything – if they were those sorts of gods I probably wouldn’t invite them into my home to begin with. They would just stop being part of my life. And my life would be diminished by losing those contacts. The gods add a rich dimension to my life that would be absent if they were absent. I don’t want to lose them, any more than I want to get rid of my cat.
I’m not trying to be flip here by comparing the gods to my cat. I have plenty of respect for them (well, I respect my cat, too, but in a different way) and I know the fear that Maebius speaks of – when they really show up, as more than whispered messages or glimpses of transcendence, but really truly are there, I am always left shaken. It’s not fear, exactly – usually they express nothing but love for me – but more like vulnerability. It’s like being totally exposed, more naked than naked, and they know me utterly and show me who and what I am. It may be fear, but it’s also exhilarating.
I am left much more fearful by the idea that maybe the gods are just delusions and that the materialists are right – that consciousness is simply a mechanical, chemical process, that there is no more depth and meaning to the world than what we give it, that physical laws are ultimately meaningless, and that when we die we simply sink into matter and become inert. This is truly frightening to me, and I have certainly entertained the concept that my gods are simply delusions that my brain has created to protect me from this kind of reality. It’s not impossible. But the only way I have to judge reality is through my experiences, and my experiences are that the gods are real on a level far beyond personal delusion. Anyway, I didn’t pick my delusion; my delusion picked me.
I am not sure that belief and god-concepts are actually all that important in terms of religious practice. They are certainly important on an individual level, and to how people choose to live their lives, but when it comes to being in a room full of people who all profess the same religion, it’s just not that important that we all share the same beliefs. I’m not even sure that it’s possible to share exactly the same god-concepts. They might in fact be truly different for everyone – I am not at all convinced that we share more than tangential bits of reality. Using public transportation in a big city every day kind of reinforces that – I do not live in the same world at all as the people who are physically my neighbors.
Maebius says, “They say they believe in order to get the surface benefits of religion. They are thus able to forge a community of peers and like-minded allies in this crazy world we live in. They pray a certain way, they read the appropriate manuscripts, but I am convinced most people do not totally and unabashedly GROK their gods.” This is absolutely true and pretty much OK with me. I certainly don’t totally and unabashedly grok my gods – if I did I don’t think they would really be gods because I don’t think deity is that simple. The surface benefits of religion – a community of peers and allies, a sense of purpose and meaning in the world, a refuge in times of trouble – these are valuable. I am here for those surface benefits. My gods would be who they are and I would continue to do what I do whether I chose to be part of the Pagan community or not. I don’t need to call myself anything in order to have a relationship with the Divine. I want the community, though. I want peers and companions and elders and teachings and all that. I already have the gods; it’s the people that I really need.
I don’t need to share beliefs with those people. I am perfectly happy to stand in circle with polytheists, monotheists, duotheists, pantheists, panentheists, atheists – whatever your “-ist” and whatever your style of belief may be. If you share my practices and values, then you share my religion. If you have exactly my god-concepts, but you don’t think regular contemplative practice, acceptance of diversity, reverence for nature and communal honouring of the changing seasons are essential, then we don’t share a religion. Talking about god-concepts is fun to do over a beer or in a blog post, but I don’t see how it makes a practical difference in religion. Belief is your own business; shared practice is what makes a religion.