Beltane Mountain Moon
Rabbi Rami Shapiro spoke to Beth Evergreen parents on how to talk about god to their kids. You can see on the board four terms and a fifth, panentheism, finishes it. (That’s Rami to the left standing and Rabbi Jamie to his right.) I think the first four are well known, panentheism perhaps not so much so. While pantheism says god is everything and everything is god, (all-god), panentheism says nature is part of god but god is more than that, too, perhaps even beyond time and space. The most well known panentheist, at least when I was in sem, admittedly 45 years or so ago, was Alfred North Whitehead, proponent of process theology.
My brother Mark asked me recently whether I was a theist or a deist. I wrote back, sort of tongue in cheek, polytheist atheist. This morning I thought, polyatheist. I like the contradiction, the tension between these two words. All the words on Rami’s sheet assume a monotheistic stance in which one believes, does not believe, doubts, makes coincident with nature or inclusive of nature but not limited by it. None of them describe my location in the world of god thought.
Perhaps better, polytheist agnostic. Even that doesn’t carry quite the right emphasis. What was it they said on the x-files? I want to believe? When I graduated from college, yes, it was 1969, 49 years ago, I decided to revisit Christianity. I chose to use Soren Kierkegaard’s leap of faith as a model. After reading his Fear and Trembling, I decided I would live as if the Christian god were real and that the gospel stories were true. That’s how I ended up in seminary in 1971.
It was not a perfect reenchantment of my world. A lot of Christianity, even then, I just ignored. Nothing would have made me predeterminist or even one interested in salvation beyond this life. The God and the Jesus I believed in were guarantors of a just world, a world where evil could be fought successfully and where evil denied our essential oneness as a species, allowing certain people to feel privileged due to race, gender, wealth, nationality, sexual preference. “Let justice roll down waters, righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Micah 5:24 Or, Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Martin Luther King, liberation theology, Jesus as a revolutionary those were my touchstones. Yes, I meditated, prayed, interpreted scripture, very occasionally served the sacraments, but the core of my shift from college non-belief to Christian clergy lay in the political implications of Christianity. This was a thin rationale for a metaphysical commitment. And, it broke apart. By the time I left the Presbyterian ministry in 1991, the scaffolding of bible, god, jesus, prayer had long ago collapsed.
When my then spiritual director, John Ackerman, said, “Charlie, you might be a druid,” I laughed. Then, I thought, hmmm. No, not a druid, but yes one whose religious instincts lead him to the garden, not for a last prayer before crucifixion, but as a participant in the web of life, hands in the soil. This was reinforced when Kate suggested I look for a particular focus for my writing. Since part of leaving the ministry meant novels, I took her suggestion seriously.
I have two broad genealogic streams in my dna, Irish and Welsh, and German. Ellis and Correll for the Celtic side, Spitler and Zike for the Germanic. I chose the Celtic side first, exploring the realm of Celtic religion. The Celtic Faery Faith, a book by W.Y. Evans Wentz, who went on to translate and make popular, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was an early influence. As I got deeper and deeper into crafting novels, always fantasy, always with an ancient religion at their heart, I began to entertain strange thoughts.
What if Cernunnos, the horned god of nature in Celtic myth, was real? Tailte, a Celtic goddess of the earth, came from a euhemerized Welsh woman. Euhemerus, a Greek mythologist, lived in the late 4th century B.C.E., and proposed that myth was an exaggerated account of the lives and deeds of real people. Thus, euhemerization might suppose that behind Zeus there was a strong, dominant man who ruled imperiously over his people. Or, that a certain Welsh woman, a gardener and farmer, one with a remarkable ability to make things grow and to find useful plants and animals in the wild, might become an Earth goddess. So euhemerization blurs the line between the real and the mythical. Had Cernunnos been a hunter so in touch with his prey that his success seemed super-human?
A more recent and accessible example of another myth-making process is Pele on the Big Island. Perhaps Pele was a strong, fiery Hawai’ian woman of long ago, one drawn to the vulcanism of her homeland. Perhaps she danced with the lava, foretold eruptions, protected people from the ravages of sulphuric gases. She may have come to hold the role of goddess of fire, goddess of the vital forces beneath the Hawai’ian archipelago, through repeated tales of her amazing feats. Or, it might be that ancient Hawai’ians personified the enigmatic and brutal forces of Mauna Kea, Kilauea, and Mauna Loa just as the residents of Leilani Estates have done since the eruptions began last week.
In my own post-Christian world these sorts of gods and goddesses resonate. The notion of one deity behind it all, a wizard or sorceress of creation, seems silly. That certain groups might confuse the god they hold closest with a monotheistic deity makes sense to me; that others might actually agree with them makes no sense to me. There cannot be more than one, one god. Simple logic.
When two groups assert that their god is The One, one of them has to be wrong and in my opinion, both are. Which leaves us where? Well, the assertion of two all-powerful deities makes sense to anyone with a polytheistic bent. Why is Allah any more sensible than Athena? Why is Yahweh any more divine than the triple-goddess Brigit? Why is Brahma more explanatory of cosmic matters than Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu?
So, I have become a polyagnostic. I doubt the existence of all the gods and goddesses ever imagined. I do not chose Yahweh to doubt anymore than I choose faeries and Odin to doubt. Yet. I want to believe. I want to see Pele at work in the now 18 fissures breaking through the human hubris of Leilani Estates. I want to find the god and the goddess, Cernunnos and the Maid, frolicking naked in the fields of Beltane. I want to see the Wild Hunt cross the sky. And, yes, I’d like to see Yahweh deliver the tablets or speak from the bush. Hell, I’d even like to watch Allah send Mohammad by horse to the temple mount, through the sky. I could stand in the Mithraeum and be doused by blood or water. It’s not hard to imagine, for me, diving into a holy well and ending up in the Otherworld.
What I’m trying to say here is that my doubt is not tied to the monotheistic faiths, rather it is tied to the polytheistic nature of global religious thought. Polyagnostic. I doubt and embrace all gods and goddesses, all nymphs, daiads, faeries, banshees, rashis, and chupacabras.
If we were to divide polyagnosticism into two camps, one leaning toward belief and one leaning toward polyatheism, I would be in the leaning toward belief group. I suppose that’s what keeps me a friend of all sorts of religious belief systems, all sorts though not all. I believe in the numinous, in the unseen mystery, in the still small voice that comes from the rock, the mountain top, the flowing river, the growing grass, the blooming flower. I believe it’s no accident that these forces have been named sacred, called divine. I think it’s appropriate to anthropomorphize them, to find in the wind Boreas, to find in the magma chamber, Pele, to find on Mt. Sinai, Yahweh. These are sources of wonder for me and ones I cherish.
I just don’t know which ones are more real than the others, or, if they’re all real in some way. I’m not even sure I know what real means or could mean here.