Earth Wind Water, by Christopher Beikmann
Deep Ecology, Featured, Holy Wild, Theology

Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mist

The other day I was talking with Jeff about a recent post by Morpheus Ravenna on ritual theory for polytheists, and he said something so profound in its simplicity that it made me gasp in recognition. I was noting how all of Ravenna’s conclusions about the reality of the gods seemed to assume that the gods are very much just like people, with the same needs, desires and expectations. Jeff replied:

The problem with asserting that the only gods that are “real” are those that are like humans is that it takes for granted a worldview in which humans are the only measure of what is real.

Earth Wind Water, by Christopher Beikmann

This is how I feel when I read posts by hard polytheists and posts such as Ravenna’s*. It’s not that I disagree with her about the importance of gratitude, commitment, respect, receptivity or deep reciprocity as essential aspects of polytheistic ritual. I affirm those values wholeheartedly and hold to them with fierce stubbornness in my own ritual practices.

Where we disagree is in the language and metaphors we use to talk about the gods. Ravenna speaks of her gods like they’re celebrities or superheroes, and her explanations for what the gods want and expect from us are all drawn from examples of interpersonal human relationships — how we might treat a dinner guest, a keynote speaker, or a new friend. She insists that if we perform rituals in ways that are not grounded in the belief that our gods have human-like behaviors and attitudes, then we must not believe the gods are “real.”

But I do believe my gods are real. Some of them are human-like, but many of them are not. Many of them are more like how Sara Amis describes her encounters with the divine:

This is how I understand the divine, and why I continue to seek it in the resolutely non-human world, with which we nonetheless recognize a numinous kinship. Sometimes, it will turn and lock eyes with you, lifting you out of yourself, changing everything. Other times, it will give you the side-eye and swoop away, leaving you longing for retreating beauty. You might not see it every single time you go looking, or where you expect to find it. No matter how common the experience, every time you stumble across mystery, or independent wild being, it is a surprise and a miracle. And every day, you can look.

My gods are not tame. They do not always come when they are called. This is not a failure of ritual or a weakness of belief. It is the nature of my gods. I would no more expect a god to “show up” in my ritual space than I would expect to be able to call a mountain into my living room. That is simply not the nature of mountains. If I want to meet a mountain, I am the one who must move.

Because I do not believe that humans are the only beings with agency in the world, I do not expect my gods to express their agency in the same ways that human beings do. There are gods who forever remain elusive, whose identities shift with the landscape, the seasons and the stars. And there are gods so intimate that they are never really absent at all, and meeting them is not a matter of inviting their presence but rather of quieting my own expectations and learning how to listen. There are gods whose presence looms like a mountain range on the horizon, and gods with(in) whom I walk with grace, my footsteps just one more melody in the great pattern of their being. What does hospitality look like to a mountain? How does a forest speak its mind? What does it mean to invoke a god of mist and sea on a mist-strewn shore?

God Of The Mountain, by Tim Johnson

You might not understand or relate to the metaphors that I use to describe my gods, but that does not mean that those gods are not real, or that I am being disingenuous about my beliefs. My rituals may look different from yours or have a different purpose, but that does not mean that they are incompetent or superficial.

For me, the hard polytheist definition of the gods as “separate, discrete and individual beings” is simply too brittle, placing undue focus on exclusionary boundaries and either/or ontological experiences. Recently, it seems to be increasingly common to talk about Pagan theology as if all polytheism were hard polytheism. Posts like Ravenna’s and Rhyd Wildermuth’s speak on behalf of polytheists without acknowledging that there are polytheists like myself who do not agree with the anthropocentric and theologically transcendent views of hard polytheism. (In fact, Wildermuth makes the mistake of labeling me a humanistic/non-theistic Pagan, despite my many, many, many, many writings about my polytheism.**) They worry that Pagans like myself are rejecting or denying their gods…. What they don’t seem to understand is that by insisting that gods can be “real” only if they fit the definition offered by hard polytheists, they are actively denying the reality of gods that may be wholly unlike the anthropomorphic, discrete and separate beings that hard polytheists worship. When they assume that because I am not a hard polytheist, I must therefore be a non-theist, they reject my experiences of my own gods as legitimate encounters with the divine.

My gods are not always like human beings. Sometimes my gods are like mountains, sometimes they are like mist. Sometimes I seek my gods in the forests, sometimes in ritual space or the beat of the drum. Sometimes my gods are inscrutable or apophatic, and my relationship with them is one of longing and seeking rather than invocation and offering. And sometimes it is the mountains themselves who are gods, and the rivers and trees who speak.

What I would like to see is a renewed sense of inclusivity among Pagan polytheists, and a return to the possibility that hard polytheism is only one way out of many to seek authentic relationship with the many different deities in this world full of gods.

* Please see Morpheus Ravenna’s clarification and my response in the comments below.

** It saddens me that we are losing the nuances of theological and spiritual exploration in this rush to establish which side of the hard-polytheist/non-theist debate everyone is on. The fact that I do not wear a hard polytheist flag pin on my lapel during every theological debate has apparently been enough to earn me the accusation of having “humanist/naturalistic [that is, atheist] tendencies” in a post that otherwise denounces this kind of simplistic othering. What’s more, Wildermuth’s interpretation of the Google+ discussion he quotes is clearly influenced at a basic level by the assumption that I am an atheist. When I asked questions meant to provoke a conversation about how our personal values inform our relationship with the gods and our approach to discerning the health of those relationships, he chose instead to see my questions as simplistic attacks on the existence of the gods themselves — not only missing an opportunity for a more complex and challenging conversation, but dismissing me as insensitive, even hostile, towards mystical experiences (clearly assuming that I’ve had none of my own), adding personal insult to social injury.

Photo Credits:
• “Earth Wind Water,” by Christopher Beikmann © 2007 [Purchase a print here]
• “Mountain God,” by Timothy Johnson © 2010 [source]

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

The Nature of Fog

It’s a quiet, foggy morning here in Seattle, and I’m thinking about ontology — the philosophical study of the nature of existence.

woods_in_fogFor a few reasons. First, there are passages from Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World playing in my mind against passages from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, both of which have been my nightly reading recently. Then there is this post by John Halstead from the Humanistic Paganism blog, exploring “tropical rainforest ontology” as an alternative to materialist reductionism. Unfortunately, the alternative that Halstead offers is all too familiar: an ontological hierarchy, with human beings at its apex. Although in naturalistic philosophy hierarchy no longer needs the divine sanction of a god to justify it, the supremacy of human culture and human consciousness remains unchallenged, the assumed pinnacle of evolution, with the masses of quarks, quasars, oak trees and elephants relegated to the same old mindlessness of mere objects, only so much stuff.

I admit to being disappointed. There is something deeply dissatisfying about our only choice being between reductionism and hierarchy, for both seem to me equally wrong. Here in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, there exists a messy, thriving tangle of lifeforms coalescing into communities of meaning and mindfulness on every ecological level. As I go stumbling along on my hikes through the forested mountains, clunky boots thumping heavily on the moist earth with every step, I can almost hear the chorus of beings laughing good-naturedly at the very idea of such neat, clean hierarchies and my species’ claim to supremacy.

But rather than go into any more detailed analysis of these dense and sometimes unwieldy philosophies, instead I want to talk a little bit about fog.

In early autumn, the rains have only just returned to Seattle after the annual summer drought. For a few months every year, the landscape here in the rainshadow of the great Olympic mountains becomes dry and brittle. Even the ubiquitous carpet of moss and lichens crunches slightly underfoot. When the rain returns again in the fall, the ground itself seems to drink gratefully of the refreshing waters. Small creeks swell that had only weeks before been reduced to mere muddy trickles, the moss plumps up again lush and soft, intricate spiderwebs suddenly seem to be everywhere shimmering with morning dew, and the banana slugs venture out from the damp, dark protection of the leaf litter to brave the exposure of wooded paths in the city parks. Most mornings this time of year begin in fog.

I sometimes think that, like the proverbial Eskimo words for snow, we should have far more words for fog. There are a few near-synonyms in English: mist, with its connotations of cool, damp breezes; haze and steam, clinging to the landscape with sticky heat; the unappetizing murk and the polluted hybrid smog; even the obscure, poetic brume, a dark, chilling thing that stalks through the coldest winter months. But when I look out my window this morning, what I see outside is not quite any of these. It is undeniably, simply: fog.

It is the kind of fog that arises from the earth itself, exhaled slowly into the still morning air, dense and quiet and lingering. It is the kind of fog that transforms the landscape into a soft, gray canvas on which distant trees are painted in watercolor greens, sketched in with a few thin strokes of graphite. This is a fog that you can only see by looking down the road aways. It doesn’t curl around your feet like an affectionate cat — it keeps its distance, withdrawing as you approach, always just out of reach.

As you walk down the road, houses, fences, gardens and stop signs emerge from the light-infused obscurity to arrest your attention. In such a fog, nearby objects seem to put themselves forward to be examined minutely in their singular beauty. The diffuse light reveals an interplay of texture, color and form that a harsher light of stark contrasts might obliterate.

If you keep walking west, eventually you will reach the shore of Puget Sound. Standing on the beach on a clear day, you would be able to see the craggy peaks of the Olympics on the horizon across the water, their heights a dappling of light and shadow, snow and stone.

But in this fog, from your place on the shore, the world seems to expand around you only a few hundred feet before disappearing altogether into anonymous silence. You stand at the heart of clarity and light, so that your own body is a landscape of creases, joints and goosebumped skin that appear infinitely more complex to you than your muted surroundings.

In such a fog, it’s all too easy to forget the mountains, to forget the trees and the houses — to imagine only the gently rocking waters of the sound extending forever in every direction in a smooth, unbroken simplicity.

You are completely alone in the universe.

Except that every now and then a solitary gull sweeps into view, its wedged form coalescing out of light, water and sky, with a cry that sounds like the sea.


Photo Credit: “gull6,” by Mike Marcotte (CC) [source]