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GOD AND ME (A Pagan's Personal Reply to the New Atheists)
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Thoughts on Cultural and Spiritual Appropriation
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A NeoPagan Cosmytheology
Article ID: 12581
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Bran th' Blessed [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: May 11th. 2008
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The NeoPagan religions are often identified as being focused on practice more than theory, on ritual more than belief, on an inclusive eclecticism more than an authoritarian dogma. This does not mean that we are or should be without a reasoned theology that addresses our belief, or lack of belief, in deity. In fact, there are certain shared beliefs and characteristics common to NeoPagan religions in general, even if NeoPagans are reluctant to require adherence to all of them.
Deity Is Inclusive
The most obvious shared belief of all NeoPagan religions is and must be that deity is inclusive rather than exclusive, that all religions are a combined expression of deity’s effort to communicate with humankind and humankind’s effort to comprehend deity. Thus, we recognize all religions as valid for those who follow them. Certainly there are conflicts in the beliefs of different religions, as is apparent from the number of religious wars that humanity has waged. But the conflicts and the violence may be seen to rest in the hearts of men rather than the hearts of their religions.
While NeoPagans believe in inclusive deity, it does not follow that all the religions we accept as valid are as accepting of us or indeed of any religions other than their own. The conflict between inclusive and exclusive views of deity arises from human spiritual needs and reflects the significant contribution to all religions of their human and cultural sources.
Belief in an inclusive deity entails that the many faces of deity, the many gods and goddesses of the world’s religions, cannot be accepted as ultimate realities, autonomous and independent unto themselves. If all such deities were separate and independent of each other, then we should necessarily have to conclude that some or most deities are liars, since their various mythologies often conflict.
Deity is so beyond human conception in its inhuman and transcendent nature that all our efforts to conceive it must fall short and yield diverse partial and flawed images. These images of deity are partly visions of deity and partly expressions of our human needs and desires, rather like the old parable of the elephant described by the blind men who each know only the part of the elephant within their reach.
Thus, the NeoPagan belief in inclusive deity presumes a transcendent deity that is comprehensible only in its many humanized images. The boundless must be clothed in finite forms to be known.
The Hindu concept of Brahman is an example of transcendent deity, of which all other gods and goddesses in their pantheon are only partial and intermediate manifestations linking humanity to the divine. But the Hindus worship Indra, Shiva, Vishnu and his avatars, dark Kali and the other goddesses; they do not commonly worship the transcendent because it has no form, it hears no prayer, it acts neither for nor against humanity.
Similarly, NeoPagans often celebrate deity in its dual forms, as god and goddess reflecting the fundamental duality of the universe. We borrow many of our visions of deity from the world’s PaleoPagan religions like those of the Hindus, but also the religions of Greece and Rome, Mesopotamia and Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Some NeoPagans even create their own images of deity based upon personal religious experience and their individual relationship to the divine.
We know that all images of deity are necessarily incomplete and metaphoric, but like the Hindus, we are also aware of our immediate association with transcendent deity abiding within and all around us. Deity is immanent and permeates the whole universe. All existence partakes of the divine.
Deity is transcendent and yet immanent to human existence. It manifests to us in an inclusive rather than an exclusive manner. All gods and goddesses are comprehensible, humanized aspects of the incomprehensible, transcendent divine. Together, these ideas comprise part of a theology, which must be supported by scientific knowledge and philosophical reasoning. Because our understanding of human existence in the universe involves cosmology and mythology, as well as theology, I call our search for understanding “Cosmytheology.”
Existence is Boolean
What exists? Do you exist? Does God/dess exist? Before we can decide what exists, we must first define what we mean by “existence.” Whatever the strict definition of existence may be, it is certainly accepted that a thing must exist (whatever that means) in order for that thing to have properties or attributes and in order for it to have the ability to act or to exhibit causal efficacy. In short, a thing that doesn’t exist cannot act or explain any action or object.
This is generally accepted as true. It doesn’t mean that imaginary things like boogiemen or dragons can’t influence our actions. Imaginary things do exist, but only as mental activities which can be confused with what we call “real” things.
It follows that we may say this about existence: If, at any time in the past, there were to have been a condition where nothing existed, there could never subsequently have ever become a condition where something exists. Since I now exist to write these words as you exist to read them, it is a certainty that something must always have existed.
This fact is important because it tells us something very critical about the nature of existence. Existence is Boolean; either it is or it isn’t! Existence never began nor became and therefore requires no explanation of how or why it is. Instead it is necessarily always true or forever false that something exists and that something has always existed.
But what, in particular, has always existed?
Look around you at the countless objects of our universe—frogs and flowers, rocks and rabbits, stars and sticks, planets and people—all of which have beginnings, transitions, and endings. Nothing is permanent except impermanence.
Cosmologists believe that the universe itself is impermanent, having originated in a “big bang” some 13.7 billion years ago. The birth of the universe was also the birth of space and time— the birth of dimensional extension itself— as well as the pure energy of creation, energy so hot and intense that no matter could exist until it cooled. This means that there is no space or time outside the universe. Each universe defines its own space-time parameters that begin and end with that universe.
Thus, whatever has always existed must be something that is able to exist independent of space and time. Such a something, therefore, can have no beginning or end, cannot change in any way, cannot possess any size or shape or location. It can have no appearance and must be indivisible and undifferentiated, one without other. It can neither reason nor desire. And yet, universes must come from it and have their explanation in it. (As I said before, the highest deity is beyond all human comprehension.)
Those familiar with Hindu philosophy and mysticism will recognize the similarity between my description of the something that might exist outside of space and time and the visionary descriptions of the immutable Brahman. I use a more neutral term for this something that exists without beginning or end. I call it SPIRIT.
Spirit is pure being, an absolute one without other. The language of mysticism is required to speak of spirit because all common language is designed to speak of things we experience, not things that exist.
Experience is so central to our existence that we commonly identify it as existence. The empiricist philosopher Bishop Berkeley said of existence that “to be is to be perceived.” The rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes defined his existence by the assertion, “I think, therefore I exist.” Both of these statements identify being with experience.
Such identification is reasonable since everything in our existence, in our lives, is an experience, even our thoughts and emotions and memories. If we could not experience, we would have no lives, we would be totally unaware of being born, living, and dying. It is important to understand both existence and experience better and to distinguish between the two.
Three Attributes of Experience
(1) Experience is a duality. While existence is an absolute one without other, experience requires a duality in order to occur. Something must experience and something must be experienced. If one of these somethings does not exist, experience cannot occur.
I call the something that experiences CONSCIOUSNESS. The something that is experienced I call FORM.
The two arise from the one, and experience therefore arises from existence, as the roots and trunk of the oak arise from the planted acorn, if I may here resort to metaphor. Let us lay aside any speculation about the origins of consciousness and form. It is important first to establish as a postulate a definition of experience that covers all kinds of experience including the five senses of the body and the various mental activities, which we also experience.
To this end, I define experience broadly as…any interactive process in which that-which-experiences (e.g., a consciousness) responds to the stimulation of that-which-is-experienced (e.g., a form) .
Every kind of experience meets this fundamental and comprehensive definition. Every kind of experience, however diverse in content, is functionally a response to a stimulus, an interaction between a form and a consciousness.
We may still wonder how consciousness and form arise from being, but it is at least clear that both of these elements must exist whenever an experience occurs. You and I are both conscious beings. We have (indeed, perhaps we are) distinct and isolated consciousnesses onto which canvases our lives are painted, from birth to death, by the multiplicity of experiences that enter upon them. It is possible to distinguish two categories of forms, things that are experienced, based upon the character of those experiences.
(2) There are two categories of things that are experienced. Some experiences seem to originate in a realm of shared experiences accessible to all conscious beings by way of our bodies and their sensory organs. This realm of shared experience necessarily has dimensional extension (e.g., it appears to be extended in space and time) by virtue of which property our bodies and actions may be differentiated and distinguished.
Some other of our experiences seem to originate in a realm of private experiences hidden from all conscious beings except to ourselves. This hidden realm has no extension and is not limited by the laws of the shared realm. (We could make an effort here to refute the arguments of those solipsists who suggest that all our experiences are internal and no external world exists. But why would they make such an argument if they don’t believe I exist independently of their imagination, and why would I answer them if I didn’t accept that they too exist? Most of my readers will accept that other conscious beings do seem to share part of their experiences, but not others.)
Empiricists have argued that a shared realm of experience need not require a dimensionally extended world of space and time because we can dream of such dimensions, and dreams have no real dimensional extension. Even our most vivid dreams and delusions, however, when closely examined, fail to have the immense detail and consistency of the world of our shared experiences, and our dreams never adhere so stringently to a set of laws as does the physical world to its laws. In any event, it is not important at this moment whether a physical world is real beyond our experience of it or not. I only argue that we all can divide our experiences between these two primary categories.
Some experiences seem to be shared with other conscious beings and others seem to be hidden except to our own consciousness. I call the extended realm of experiences that we share with others the WORLD (or the UNIVERSE), and the hidden realm of experiences to which we alone are privy I call the SELF (or the MIND). It is very important that we remind ourselves here that both of these realms, the world and the self, comprise things that are experienced; they are both categories of form and not of consciousness.
While the things that we experience seem to fall into two categories, we ourselves as the consciousness that experiences have only one category, because our own consciousness is the only consciousness of which we can have any direct knowledge. The existence of other conscious beings is something we accept on indirect evidence based on our experience of the similarity of their actions to our own. If we did not accept the existence of other conscious beings on such indirect evidence, we should necessarily resort to solipsism, believing ourselves to be the only real conscious beings in our realities.
The chief fault of solipsism is that it simply is not functional. Also, the visible actions of others are identical to our own visible and shared actions, which we readily associate, with our hidden mental processes and subliminal characteristics. But where shall we limit our acceptance of others as conscious beings like ourselves?
(3) Consciousness is universal. The variety of our own kinds of experiences forces us to define experience broadly, as…any interactive process in which that-which-experiences (e.g., a consciousness) responds to the stimulation of that-which-is-experienced (e.g., a form) .
Vision and hearing, taste, smell, and touch are all examples of various kinds of experiences. But our experience is not limited only to such sensory perceptions. We also experience feelings, emotions, and desires. Our thoughts and memories play themselves out in our imagination, which mimics the senses in our hidden realm of mental process.
Definitions of these various kinds of experience cannot be based on references to tone or color or symbolic language. The one characteristic common to all our experiences is that they represent stimulus-response interactions between whatever it is in us that experiences and whatever sources there may ultimately be for the input that enters upon that field of experience. That is to say, experience occurs when a consciousness responds to the stimulation of some form with which it interacts.
This comprehensive definition of the various possible kinds of experiences that we have also plays an important role in re-examining the scope and range of the phenomenon of experience. If we accept other humans as conscious beings like ourselves, should we not also accept other animals as conscious beings too? After all, experience should not be confused with self-awareness or intelligence, which may be examples of things that can be experienced but which certainly are not elements of the process of consciousness.
The ability to experience does not require understanding; many of our own experiences are quite beyond our understanding. Experience requires only that we respond in some fashion to whatever we experience. Dogs and cats, cows and birds, snakes and mosquitoes, indeed all animals respond to experiences they have. Therefore, they are conscious beings.
They may not be sentient in the manner of humans, but they are conscious. Their consciousness may not be as complex as ours, may not involve as many kinds of experiences or as many types or levels of response, but they do experience, they are conscious beings. In analyzing the scope of experience and consciousness, it is very important that we do not confuse what is essential to experience with the corollary events that are associated with our human consciousness.
Animal consciousness may vary widely in complexity, and certainly human consciousness is quite complex, but all animals are clearly conscious beings. What about plants, like trees and flowers? Are not these, too, conscious beings since they respond to sunlight, to musical vibrations, to carbon dioxide and to water? People, birds, and apples, all respond to the tug of gravity that holds them fast to the earth. Rocks and oceans also respond to that same gravity.
Inanimate matter also responds to stimulation, also experiences, also possesses consciousness. Cells and molecules, atoms and quarks, all respond to stimulation, all experience, all possess consciousness.
Consciousness is universal. Not only are you and I conscious beings, we are also aggregate beings made up of other conscious beings. The organs of our bodies are conscious. The cells of those organs are conscious. The molecules of those cells are conscious. The atoms of those molecules are conscious. The fundamental subatomic particles that compose those atoms are all conscious. And the vast universe itself is a single conscious being.
The Mythos of Consciousness
That single universal being awakens from spirit like an oak sapling awakens from an acorn planted in the ground. Its consciousness is like the roots of the sapling, extending from the acorn ever deeper into the earth. The earth represents the hidden realm of experience that has no extension and is accessible only to each individual consciousness in solitude and isolation. I have called this realm the self or the mind. The form (body) of the universe is like the trunk of the sapling, extending upward from the acorn, penetrating the surface and reaching high into the sky.
The sky represents the shared realm of extended space in which all conscious beings interact. I have called this realm the world or the universe. Thus, in this mythological metaphor, the cosmic being that awakens from the absolute unity of spirit is represented by Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
This image is carried over somewhat to the great Circle of the World that our NeoPagan magick circles emulate. Stand outside, by day or night, and consider your position in the world around you. You stand at the center of a great circle whose rim is the far horizon where the dome of the sky above you rests upon the disk of the earth below you. Sky Father and Earth Mother are the primal God and Goddess images of deity.
Sky Father rules all manifest being (what I have called form, that-which-is-experienced). His powers are emanative and radiant. It is in the sky and not in the earth that our lives are lived.
Earth Mother rules all conscious being (what I have called consciousness, that-which-experiences). Her powers are attractive and bonding. The sky is open, filled with light and activity, while the earth is closed, a hidden realm into which no light may pass, no eyes may peer.
The Sun and Moon in the sky represent the powers and deities of the two categories of form. The Sun is the Lord of Light who rules the shared realm of extended space that I have called the world. The Moon is the Lady of Mysteries who rules the hidden and private realm of memory and dreams that I have called the self.
The four corners of the Circle of the World are associated with the four primary elements of antiquity: Earth and Air, Fire and Water. Earth is associated with the north and Water with the west corners of the circle. Unlike other traditions, I place Fire in the east opposite Water, and Air in the south opposite Earth.
Fire is the element that elevates Earth into Air, as flames arise from the earth upward into the sky. It is placed in the east where the Sun and Moon, the stars and planets, all arise from the earth into the sky. Thus east is the direction of becoming, of change, of the future overtaken by the present.
Water is the element that lowers Air into Earth, as the rains fall from the airborne clouds onto the ground below. It is placed in the west where the Sun and Moon, the stars and planets, all set from the sky back into the earth. West is therefore the direction of perception (experience), of memory, of the present fading forever into the eternal past.
Earth is placed to the north where the stars circle widdershins about a still point, home to the north star and mythical Caer Sidhe. Here is the portal to the otherworld beyond all dimensions, the home of mysteries.
Air is placed to the south where the stars circle deocil about a still point in the sky. Here is the portal to the heavens and the abode of the gods and goddesses, the seat of divinations and revelations where the hidden and secret things of the world are made known. These are the mythical portals of transit between the realms of light and shadow.
Most traditions place Spirit at the center of the circle. For each of us, we forever stand in the center of the Circle of the World and are ourselves the representative embodiment of Spirit. Indeed, every conscious being is born of the unity of spirit, becoming manifest in the dichotomic realm of experience. And everything that is real in our universe is a conscious being whose form contributes to the vast body of the universe.
none except Descartes and Berkeley as noted in the text
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