Thoughts spurred by a a tsunami and cyber-citizens across the globe
On December 28, 2004, the Guardian, a British newspaper, ran an essay by Martin Kettle asking how can a religious people explain the deaths of thousands caused by a natural disaster. In his article Kettle mused on the difference between the explanations given by science and those given by religions on why these things happen. For Kettle, Science wins out as having the rational and logically consistent answer, as he inferred that no rational, modern person could seriously believe that God was punishing evildoers, as Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist alike were wiped out regardless of religious adherence.
A day later, an email crossed my desktop, in which the writer asked: In Pagan terminology, “How can the Goddess do this?” or “Why has Poseidon caused this to happen?” or “What did we do to deserve this from the Gods?”
In both cases I was struck by how our conceptions, assumptions, and definitions of “god” or “the divine” influence not only our answers, but perhaps more importantly, the questions we ask. Both authors seem to have an assumed conception of God, or the Gods and Goddessses, as personal, omnipotent, and concerned about humankind. Not all religious or spiritual people have this same conception of God or the Divine.
In my pagan-pantheist worldview, the universe was not created and does not function with the convenience or even survival of the individual human in mind. The universe is much bigger than we, as individual humans, are. Natural phenomenon just happens. The universe (and the earth) considers the individual human about as much as we consider the life and death of a single cell in our bodies. At this level, Divinity (with a capital “D”) is not personal, as it is seen in the many monotheistic conceptions of a personal god whose eye is on the sparrow (and so, is obviously watching me at all times).
Taking a viewpoint closer to home, there are entities that are concerned with the human realm. These individual or personal deities are not omnipotent nor do they have control over the overall natural processes of larger cosmological entities, such as a planet or a star or a galaxy. Their sphere of influence and concern is the human level.
The question we should be asking ourselves, in my mind, is what can we, as humans, do to help mitigate the effects and suffering of other humans in such situations. What does our theology say about how we treat each other? How do our gods and personal deities influence how we respond to such a situation and the crying for help of others, especially others not of our specific tribe?
I have been asked how I reconcile the two seemingly different theological frameworks of polytheism and pantheism. Some contemporary Western Pagans sense this paradox and conclude that there is no literal existence of individual deities (Zeus, Jehovah, Kali, etc.), rather they are archetypal constructs. On an intellectual level, they have a more pantheistic perspective, but they acknowledge in themselves, and others, an almost instinctual, primal need to personalize divinity. Therefore, their religious expression is more polytheistic.
The rational scientific pantheist may look askew at personifying the great big Divine of nature, but for the contemporary Western Pagan who is investigating pantheism in his or her spiritual quest, understanding different levels and definitions of deity is important in theory and practice. My personal base philosophy is pantheist, but I come at it through years of interacting in the pagan community. I also consider myself agnostic, in that, while I have theories, frameworks, and metaphors that I use in ritual practice, I also admit that I really don’t KNOW the exact nature of the divine. So, I have developed a personal theological framework, which I find useful for living my life and participating in my religious community. It may or may not be any more real than any other framework. It just makes sense to me.
We can talk about what we call “deity” or the “gods” on, at the very least, two different levels. There is personal, individual deity – Hecate, Lugh, Kwan Yin, etc. I liken these to individual humans, but on a different plane. These are the gods that we call on when we need that personal touch. Much like we call on specific friends when we need a shoulder to cry on or the car fixed. Are these Gods really specific, independent entities or archetypal constructs? I don’t know. But I treat them as specific entities, just as I would individual people I know.
On a third level is the impersonal Divine — the totality of the universe. Does this totality have a personality, a consciousness? Again, I don’t know. I cannot know. Just as the mitochondrion cannot know if the human in which it lives has a consciousness. But I would posit that the Divine is sentient and that it is WAY beyond what you or I or any human could fathom.
The relationship between the specific deities and the Divine could be likened to the relationship between individual humans and humanity. Jungians talk of the collective unconscious of humanity, and one could think of the mind of the impersonal Divine in a similar fashion. Again, is this empirical truth or useful metaphor? I have to admit that I don’t know.
My view of divinity has been labeled objective, scientific, and non-religious, as if that negates human feelings of despair and compassion. I have encountered those who think that such a dispassionate view of the Divine could only be posited by someone who has not been directly affected by human tragedy or who is an “unfeeling scientific rationalist.”
Like everyone else, I find myself asking “why me?” when life does not go my way, when I am broke, when someone breaks my heart, when people close to me die. I do find spiritual comfort in the fact that it is not the gods who are after me, that they are not trying to punish me. My experience of personal pain may be minor in comparison with the rampant death and disease left by the wake of the tsunami, but in my fight with depression and the death of my father, I found this stance unexpectedly comforting.
Now some would say that, without a personal, transcendent deity, one has no grounds for defining or judging between “good” and “evil.” This is a rather simplistic, all-or-nothing view. Neither pantheism nor neo-paganism views natural phenomenon as evil. And there may be no “good” or “evil” on a universal or cosmological level, at least not that we would comprehend – our scale of reference is too narrow and does not encompass millions of light years. An impersonal divinity does not take the burden of evil off of humanity’s shoulders, but instead rather places the responsibility squarely on us. Evil lies within the realm of what we, as humans, to do other humans and the world in which we live (including animals other than humans as well). If ultimate divinity is impersonal, we have no devil or god to blame for what we do. Ameliorating suffering, being compassionate, working together are good actions, at least from a human perspective. And even though most neo-pagans twitch at the word, I would argue that actively ignoring or adding to suffering constitutes “evil.”
A shift in climate is not evil. But someone, a person, a group, or a government, who uses the effects of a climate to take advantage of the suffering caused by it, is to my mind evil.
Every time we face a traumatic event, such a death in the family or an earthquake, our worldview and our relationship with our gods – our stories – undergo upheaval. In order to make meaning and find our place in the world, we have to adapt our stories or find, and sometime create, new stories to tell ourselves. These are my stories and I offer them to you in the hopes that you may find some truth and comfort from them.
Blessings from a full heart.