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Knowledge:  The how do we know the Gods and Goddesses?

In a previous column [1] I gave an outline for upcoming columns.  Starting with last column’s look at multiplicity, we would move on through knowledge, action, adaptability, and eclecticism.  This is more or less the schedule I intend to follow, with some excursions into interesting side topics.

So how do we know the Gods and Goddesses?

In a previous column we asked whether the Gods and Goddesses exist.  This led us down the Christian path of the various rational arguments for existence of god. 

Now we’re asking how we “know” they exist.  This is different from whether they exist.  And it is different from asking whether we can prove they exist.  It asks what we can know, a branch of philosophy known as epistemology [2].

Knowledge of things unseen is always tricky.  It becomes even trickier when we can’t build a giant microscope or other device that extends our senses and lets us “see” that which we can’t see.   So how do we understand that which we cannot see?  How do we know the Gods and Goddesses?

I believe the answer is simple, but terribly mysterious. 

The answer is that we know the Gods and Goddesses through direct, immanent, experience of their presence.  We experience their presence in our lives, in our circles, and in our hearts.  We know in a way that transcends empirical knowing.  We don’t know them in the same way we know basaltic rocks, but we still know.

So we have faith?

I don’t believe so.

Arguing a lack of faith is a radical concept for any theology that tries to fit the divine into the rational world.  Faith is the universal “out” for belief.  When confronted with the rationalists’ skeptical demand to  “prove it” we can always retreat into the safety of “faith”.  Faith, by definition, does not need reason to justify itself [3]

To understand what I mean be “we lack faith” we need to explore the concept of faith, knowledge, and reason in a little bit more detail [4].   To preview the argument: a transcendent god requires faith because his manifestations in the real world are limited, while immanent Gods and Goddesses do not require faith, because they are immediately perceptible in the world.   They may not be as convincing as, say, a rock, but the path by which we get to our knowledge is direct.  But more on this later. 

By finding the divine in the world, we experience the divine through the world and not through something outside the world, outside ourselves.  If the divine is within us we merely need to experience what is within ourselves to experience the divine. 

In a Pagan experience of the world the immanent nature of the Gods and Goddesses means that our experience of the divine is likewise, immanent.

If this sounds mystical and shamanistic, it is.  Mysticism, gnosis [5], and shamanic journey are at the heart of all sorts of Pagan practices.   We also share the Transcendentalist’s view of the world as inherently more than what can be understood by reason alone [6].  All of these traditions see the divine as immanent, inherent and acting in the world.

In the future we will be able to develop this line of reasoning, the immanent acting of the divine in the world, into the concept and belief in magic. 

Now there are at least four ways I can think of for the divine to manifest in the world:

Immanent Gods and Goddesses, ones that are part of the inner and outer landscape of the world, manifest through all four of these mechanisms.  Obviously the transcendent god also manifests as an immanent force in the world.  The difference is both our justification, we claim experience of actions in the world for our faith, and the location or resting place for the Gods and Goddesses.  Our Gods and Goddesses are in the world, an inherent part of the natural world and ourselves.  By being part of the world, not absent from it, we can go to them in order to achieve experience.

We can go to them.  We are not dependent on the divine reaching out to us.  Thus book religion concepts like “grace” or “salvation” apply to Pagans, if they apply at all, in very different ways. 

This is appealing from a variety of perspectives.  As creatures of free will we can conduct our own journey into the divine, not sit and wait to be told what to do.  It also means we have an infinite number of places to go to find the divine, an infinite number of ways to experience the divine, and an infinite number of divine beings with which we can have an encounter.  Where we go is what we find. 

If we go inward we can experience the Goddess within ourselves.  If we create the sacred, social, space in a coven circle we allow the divine inherent in the world to manifest itself within the sacred space.  If we look in the right way, we see the fairies in their bower, we see the Goddess in her sacred wells.   We see the Gods and Goddesses in the world and know with a knowledge that is both mystical and practical.

We have a lot of different ways of experiencing the divine, and a lot of different forms of the divine to experience. 

It is the union of the mystical and practical that is yet another unique aspect of the Pagan experience.  Like the Transcendentalists we look beyond the material toward the ideal world of ideals and the abstract.  But what we see is that world as an ideal, as the divine [10].  A Pagan perspective sees the world as infused with unique personalities and characteristics that come from the beings and consciousness that experiences the world’s limitations and constraints.  We are these beings, alongside the Gods and Goddesses.  The need to be something rather than everything, the need to be here rather than be beyond, requires that the Gods and Goddesses have personalities, and uniqueness [11].  

And our experience of the divine is through these individual and unique personalities, and the relationships we build between them and us. 

While each method (direct, indirect, social, and inner) for knowing the Gods and Goddesses can be explored as a way of understanding and practicing Pagan Theology, I believe there is a way the encompasses all of them and is a more fundamental way of knowing.  In some modern Protestant theologians’ writings, it is the confrontation with doubt that creates a more profound acceptance and understanding of god than either direct experience or total belief.  This is an existential criticism [12] of absolute faith, or knowledge, of the divine.   As you confront the emptiness of nothingness, belief becomes the courage to continue to accept god in the face of that emptiness and doubt. 

Pagan knowledge of the immanent Gods and Goddesses, whether through direct experience of magic or mystical experiences could also be subject to such criticism.  If we have the absolute knowledge of empirical understanding, our spiritual life is not as rich as one that confronts the emptiness of existence and the nothingness of consciousness with a courageous belief in things unseen.  At the same time, absolute faith in the Gods and Goddesses with no direct empirical knowledge would place us in the category of unconsidered faith that denies our own natures.

With belief in multiple Gods and Goddesses who have individual personalities things change because the Gods and Goddesses themselves now confront the existential dilemma of being.  The monotheistic god, as the ideal of nothingness, does not have a similar existential confrontation. 

In Pagan belief the Gods and Goddess admit to loss [13].  Loss of perfection, loss of some omnipotence, loss of the trait of universal and absolute good, loss of love.  “Loss” means that many of the existential aspects of faith become part of the Gods and Goddesses.

Instead, however, of being the ultimate expression of the existential nothing the Gods and Goddesses become the ultimate expression of the response of being to nothingness. They, as we do, have to confront the challenge of a conscious being in a material world.  The response is not one of doubt and courage, but a deeper association of love with being.  A love of the material, of the world, that accepts what parts of being that make us up.  A love that acknowledges the material and its reflection in spirit.   A love that confronts with courage the challenge of a world where dark and light, good and bad, earth and sky are mutual reflections of a the dual nature of being. For Pagans it is not the loss of the material, the “world”, that is sought, but rather the experience of the material in its most true and beautiful form. 

The Gods and Goddesses represent this truth:  That the world in its most complex and unknowable form is itself worth worship and understanding as the world contains consciousness.  If that is the case, then the material confronts nonbeing.  And we participate through our interaction with the Gods and Goddesses. The complexity of how we experience the world through worship of the Gods and Goddesses creates the mysterious [14] in our spiritual lives.  We do not just experience the world through our material senses, but also through our spiritual relationship with deity.   By being present in the world and bringing it consciousness we participate in the magic of existence.

Do Pagans doubt?  Of course.  But when we doubt we look at the world, we remember the experience of the mystery of the world, the bower of the fairies, the warm moon rising in summer, and the smell of the sea.  We remember [15] the truth of the mystery that we have always known, just as men and women have always known that the Gods and Goddesses exist.  We remember that we are one with the spirits of the world, which all exist in a state of loss.  The world, the Gods and Goddesses, and we incorporate elements of dark and light, perfection and imperfection.  But that loss and the dilemma it presents to all conscious beings simply means that we must work harder to love the mystery of the world, and the magic that rises from that mystery.


[2] Epistemology:  “The branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.  Traditionally, central issues in epistemology are the nature and derivation of knowledge, the scope of knowledge, and the reliability of claims to knowledge.” [Anthony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, St. Martins, 1979]

[3] Though it’s perfectly reasonable (no pun intended) to use reason as an intellectual tool to explore the consequences of faith.   Likewise I’m making a simplistic argument here, there has been much discussion in the theological literature about the relationship between practice and world-relations (i.e. how you get along with others) in the knowledge of the divine. 

[4] In re-reading some of these columns I find that I often take philosophical digressions that get complicated.  Sorry ‘bout that.

[5] I do not claim to fully comprehend the complex and multifaceted object that is Gnostic philosophy.  However the similarity of the Gnostic “knowledge” of the divine to what we’re talking about is readily apparent: “The mystical gnosis theou–direct beholding of the divine reality–is itself an earnest of the consummation to come.  It is transcendence become immanent; and although prepared for by human acts of self-modification which induce the proper disposition, the event itself is one of divine activity and grace.  It is thus as much a “being known by God as a ‘knowing’ him, and in this ultimate mutuality the ‘gnosis’ is beyond the terms of ‘knowledge’ properly speaking.”  from Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Beacon, 1958, p. 285.

[6] “...the idealist contends that his way of thinking is in higher nature [than the materialist].  He concedes all that the other [materialist] affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as his senses represent them.  But I, he says, affirm facts not affected by the illusion of sense, facts which are the same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to doubt.” – Ralph W. Emerson, The Transcendentalist.

[7] Here I am beginning to develop the concept that the “space between shared experience” is what produces the “super” natural experience of conscious beings.  The gap between what you “know” about something and what others “know” about it leaves room for a wonder at the uniqueness of the conscious experience of reality.  Something I call the “mystery”.

[8] Science, contrary to popular opinion, is not divorced from wonder and beauty.  In fact it is the pursuit of beauty that drives much work in theoretical physics and applied mathematics.  An “ugly” result is one that demands to be approached in a different way. 

[9] See, for example, Tillich where he discusses faith in the presence of doubt (“meaninglessness”) being transcendent of both mystical and direct experience of the divine.  Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, Yale, 1952.

[10] But, unlike the Pantheists or others who see the world as the divine, we can see the world as embodying or symbolizing the individual, active, consciousnesses of the Gods and Goddesses.  

[11] See my previous column on multiplicity. 

[12] See, for example, Paul Tillich in The Courage to Be.   

[13] The concept of loss as attached to Gods and Goddesses has become a central thread to several of these columns.  I’m introducing it in an attempt to describe the nature of Pagan Gods and Goddesses as they exist in the world.  Each, because it has unique individual characteristics, has “lost” something in comparison to the ultimate concept of perfection.  Gods and Goddesses are not perfect, even in their embodiment of less than perfectly absolute concepts.  This means they can, in turn, experience doubt, emotion, and, for our purposes here, the existential nothingness that comes from being a conscious being in a material world. 

[14] I’m working on the concept of the mysterious here.  The mystery I am referring to is the infinite and unlikely complexity of our experience of the world.  We can experience the world through ideas (west, love, beauty), through direct participation in the world (swimming, looking), through the act of creation (art, engineering, science), or through an act of spirit (mystical experience, shamanistic journey, meditation).  All of these ways of experiencing the world exist within us at the same time and produce many different world experiences simultaneously.  The intuitive integration of these experiences into a wordless understanding, an “ah-ha”, is the experience of mystery.  We cannot describe what we see, feel, or understand, but we know that we have experienced it. 

[15] Pagan belief is in many ways more remembered than either chosen or converted.  Let a child free to explore and conceive of the unseen world, and they will quickly seize on elements of Pagan expression.  From Halloween, to Santa Clause, to fairies and Peter Pan, the attraction of the wonder and mystery of Pagan symbols seems to be inherent in our memory.  It is only through training that we unlearn our Pagan values and become something else in the world. 



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