Anatomy of a God

Earth 2 - WhiteTheology is a tricky thing. It’s no coincidence that the history of religion is just as full of heretics and apostates as it is of saints and theologians. Sometimes, it’s almost impossible to tell which is which.

Imagine, for instance, the human body. Laid out on the table, splayed open, its skin peeled back, its heart exposed and raw. What does this valve do here? Well, nothing now. And this webbing of veins and arteries, furry with capillaries, rooted in flesh, wrapped around bone — now they are all limp with the loss of blood, deadly still and pale on the autopsy table. We imagine that when this body was alive, it quivered and thumped with the rushing pulse of life. We imagine that when this dead heart quickened at the sight of its beloved, a great deal might have happened within these dried up vessels.

This is the dilemma of theology, too. We want so very much to understand our gods, to know them intimately, to see how they work in our lives. It is tempting to dissect, to analyze, to categorize. And sometimes, it is necessary, even beneficial. We are categorizing creatures, we human beings. We pick out patterns as a matter of survival. When it comes to our gods, we reach for them not only with our prayers and offerings, but with our reason and our intellects — we would know them with our whole selves, in all their parts, in part so that we might know our own selves better in all our parts. The challenge is to delve into theology without killing its subject, to try our hand at analysis and critical thinking without pretending that the numinous divine is a dead thing that will hold still beneath our careful knives. Theology is not dissection. It is much more gruesome than that; it is vivisection.

For the natural polytheist, whose gods arise in and from the natural material world, this challenge is not even always a metaphor. Our gods not only have transcendent eyes and metaphysical hands. They have antlers and feathers, hooves and scales, fangs and horns and wings and fins and claws. They are in the lands we strip for veins of precious ore. They are in the waters we poison.

Sea 4 - Black & WhiteNatural polytheism has an intimate perspective on the uneasy tension between science and religion that plays out in much of modern culture. We have seen the harm that religion can do when it remains wilfully ignorant of science, stubbornly clinging to antiquated stories about man’s privileged place above a wild and dangerous nature. And we have seen the damage that science can do when it rejects the awe and reverence of religion, plunging forward with its drill bits and lab tests, reducing the world to a clean, neat set of variables to be controlled and manipulated. We know the history of exploitation and grisly experimentation that lies behind the scientific knowledge that we take for granted today, the many mistakes and missteps from which we had to learn hard lessons. But we also know the kind of future that lies ahead if we shy away from science in the face of a warming planet and the ever-creeping sludge of pollution.

How do we reconcile this tension?

For me, this is where ecology comes in. Ecology is a science of systems; but more than that, it is a science of living systems. Ecology bubbles over with messy, amazing life. It is a science so full of life that it sweeps even inanimate beings up in its wake. Take, for instance, biogeochemical cycles — the spiraling dance of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and other life-giving substances through the environment — cycles that not only make life on the planet possible, but that incorporate life itself into their most basic processes. Unhindered, these cycles are self-organizing and self-sustaining.

For many Pagans and polytheists, the earth itself is a goddess: the Earth Mother, Mama Ge, the great Gaia who captured Lovelock’s heart. The science of ecology is, in one sense, a study of the Earth Mother’s anatomy, her systems and their parts. Sky 1 - WhiteThe tundra, the grassland, the forest, the ocean — the water cycle, the patterns of climate, the shifting pressures of tectonic plates — her biomes and ecosystems do not exist in isolation from each other, but work together and influence one another as part of a living whole. This is not a warm-fuzzy new age philosophy. This is a scientific fact, acknowledged by ecologists all over the world.

For the natural polytheist who finds her gods in the rivers and mountains, in the deep-rooted giants looming above the canopy and in the tiny creatures that move beneath them, ecology gives us a glimpse into a kind of living anatomy of the divine, a theology of physical as well as spiritual life.

The challenge is not to reconcile the conflict between religion and science by reducing one to the other, but to hold them in tension in a way that sings. Can we see our gods on the operating table and do the work of analysis with humility and gratitude? Can we see our gods in the wending river and mourn the pollution that flows from upstream, and act to stop it? Can we embrace the best of science and the best of religion, and bear the weight of both?

I think the answer is yes. And I think the worldview articulated by natural (or what I sometimes call, ecological) polytheism can help us.


Stay tuned next week for “Bear: Companion of Winter“….


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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