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Gods, Myth, and Ritual in Naturalistic Paganism
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Article ID: 15793
Age Group: Adult
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Author: John Halstead
Posted: May 6th. 2015
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Not all Naturalistic Pagans use theistic language, but some do. The use of “god language” by non-theists can be confusing. Some feel that we should “say what we mean” and avoid theistic language altogether. However, some Naturalistic Pagans feel that to surrender all theistic language to literalists is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Both the heart and the head need to be satisfied. In religion, the evocative power of language is at least as important, if not more, than semantic precision. As B. T. Newberg explains:
“The imagination must be captivated and transformed by a vision, not of what one is not, but of what one is or could be. This missing element may be embodied in symbols that remind, invite, and inspire. The individual must be able to interact imaginatively with the symbols in ritual or meditation, and fill them up as it were with experience and affect. At that point, when they are charged with personal meaning and emotion, they may become powerful motivators of thought and behavior. They radiate the power to transform.”
Some Naturalistic Pagans have found that use of theistic language in a ritual context is more productive of certain kinds of religious experience than non-theistic language. For one thing, the word “god” or “gods” is embedded in a complex web of cultural associations. This is precisely why many Naturalistic Pagans discard such language (especially when those associations are negative) , but it is also a good reason for retaining “god language”. Such language is laden with emotional resonance (both positive and negative) and has unique potential to evoke powerful emotions of a special character. Because the word “god” lacks an objective referent, it is like a container that can be filled with many different meanings. Whatever goes in the container takes on the qualities associated with the word, including a sense of sacredness, a relationship with what is of “ultimate concern” (Tillich) , and moral power.
In addition, much of “god language” is anthropomorphic. Again, this is another reason why some Naturalistic Pagans avoid it: Anthropocentrism can lead to anthropocentrism. But anthropomorphic language is useful to Naturalistic Pagans because it stimulates different parts of the brain than non-anthropomorphic language. For biological and social reasons, anthropomorphic language tends to activate the regions of the brain associated with sociality and relationship, in contrast to the part of the brain that processes objects and abstractions. This is why we have a different experience in response to words like “God” or “Goddess” than we do to words like “Being” or “Nature”.
We experience “Goddess” as a “Thou” rather than an “It” -- to use Martin Buber’s terms -- even when we are using the word to mean impersonal nature. As a result, we become open to a kind of relationship with nature that would have been impossible had we used more objective language, and we become more susceptible to life-transforming religious experiences that flow from that relationship.
Like many ancient pagan philosophers, Naturalistic Pagans understand ancient pagan myths in the context of contemporary science. Naturalistic Pagans experience a profound and abiding sense of wonder and reverence at the vision of the evolution of the universe and of biological life presented by contemporary science. This sense of wonder, both at what we know and what we don’t know of the natural world, deserves to be called “spiritual” or “religious”.
The story of the evolution of the universe has been variously called the “Epic of Evolution” (E. O. Wilson) , “the Great Story” (Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow) , “the Universe Story” (Brian Swimme) , “the New Story” (Thomas Berry) , and “Big History” (David Christian) . The story begins with the Big Bang and proceeds through the formation of galaxies, the seeding of space by supernovas, the formation of our solar system and the earth, the emergence of biological life, the evolution of homo sapiens, right down to the present moment. The story is open ended, as the evolution of the Cosmos is ongoing.
The Epic of Evolution teaches us that the universe is self-organizing, that matter is creative, and that complexity is an emergent property of evolving systems. It teaches us that we are an interconnected part of nature and that our individual and collective lives are a small, but integral part of the evolution of the universe. It teaches us that we are related to each other as one large family, not just human beings, but also all animals, as well as plants, and even the earth and the sky. It teaches us that, in a very real sense, we are the universe. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains:
“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically.”
“So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up -- many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.”
The Epic of Evolution acts as a meta-myth or “narrative core” for Naturalistic Pagans. In a ritual context, Naturalistic Pagans may draw upon myths from ancient pagan cultures -- like the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, or Celts -- or from contemporary Neo-Paganism -- like Robert Graves’ myth of the seasonal interaction of the Goddess and her male consorts. But rather than taking these myths as literal fact, Naturalistic Pagans understand them within the context of the Epic of Evolution.* This helps to transform our understanding of the natural world into a religious experience.
Through ritual, Naturalistic Pagans seek to express that sense of wonder and reverence and to connect on a deeper level with that process of life. There is no single praxis for Naturalistic Pagans. Many observe some form of the Neopagan Wheel of the Year. Jon Cleland Host** brings science and Paganism together in his unique family celebrations. Other Naturalistic Pagans join other Pagan organizations, like the the druid fellowship ADF (Ár nDraíocht Féin) or the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) , and participate in those rituals, or they create their own traditions, like Rua Lupa’s Ehoah and Mark Green’s Atheopaganism. The religious practices of some Naturalistic Pagans may be outwardly indistinguishable from other Pagans, including casting “spells” and prayers and offerings to “gods”. Other Naturalistic Pagans may be more circumspect about their appropriation of religious symbolism.
*See, for example, B.T. Newberg’s 4-part series, “Isis in Big History”, exploring the myth of Isis in the context of Big History [ http://humanisticpaganism.com/2012/07/22/isis-in-big-history-part-1-from-the-big-bang-to-agriculture/]
**See Jon’s book, Elemental Birthdays, which is available at http://solstice-and-equinox.com/elementalbirthdays.html
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