Monday, August 11, 2008

Peter on God and the Gods

I’ve become quite lax in the last few weeks about throwing around the word “God.” I talk about “the light of God” and I don’t really stop to ask which God. Quaker worship and Quaker conversations tend to encourage that. The Light that we experience in meeting really doesn’t announce itself by name, and the Biblical names for G*d that Christ-centered Quakers like to use simply do not map onto Quaker experience (at least not onto my experience) or onto the Biblical narrative with anything like one-to-one correlation.

When I first became Pagan, when I tried for the first time using a polytheist perspective in thinking about the divine, I asked myself What are the Gods? And what do they want of us? I don’t claim any Revealed Truth on this question, but the tentative answers that I came up with twenty years ago still work for me.

I imagine a thundercloud, and lightning striking the ground. The clouds are undifferentiated and cover the entire sky (God is one, infinite and unknowable) but lightning bolts touch the Earth in specific places (The Gods are individual; they are drawn to us and touch our lives).

I also find the Kabalistic image of the Tree of Life to be helpful. The Tree (at least in the post-Elizabethan High Magic traditions that have made use of Kabalistic imagery) can be described as a map of creation. Ten Sephiroth, or spheres, describe ten stages of manifestation beginning with pure undifferentiated spirit at the level of the divine and ending with concrete manifestation here in the material world. Along the way, creation passes through stages of increasing particularity. You don’t need to know all the details to get the idea of more individual at the bottom and more archetypal at the top. The traffic ticket on your windshield might be a far cry from the Platonic ideal of justice, but the one is ultimately grounded in the other, and along the path between them you find governmental systems and own constitution, and then laws and executive structures established to carry out those laws, reaching on down to the police force in your own town. You can deal with the ticket at the level of manifestation and just pay the fine, or you can fight it all the way to the Supreme Court where you call upon the highest principles of justice that have shaped human laws all through history, or you can stop at any of the intervening levels.

The individual Gods and the one unknowable G*d are like that, I think. An unusual rock or a pool of water may call to mind the awesome powers of creation, and a worshiper may fall to his knees and pray to it. A philosopher of religion may write a treatise on That Being Greater Than Which Cannot Be Conceived, but never feel the stirrings of awe in his heart or in his belly. Yet both are engaging with the same divine reality, just at opposite ends of the Tree.

So, during and after a week-long gathering of hundreds of Quakers, I find myself tossing around the word “God” as if I were a monotheist, and not worrying about it too much.


R. Scot Miller said...

Hello Peter, Reading this post leaves me somewhat confused about how I might converse with you concerning deities. You seem attracted to a little of everything, but the variety of references leaves me grasping for that which I can understand, or relate to, as a Quaker or as a potential member of a community. Your drawing from (or shopping for)the richer aspects of different religous and philosophical constructs makes intelligibility concerning the word God, or G*d, or anything else, not only out of reach to adled-brained persons such as myself, but perhaps intentionally so.
To say that God has been revealed according to certain constructs is not to deny other constructs, it simply allows for conversation to take place concerning revelation using language as a tool of unity, as opposed to individualism.
The Light that is experienced at meeting should lend itself to a common experience with a common language, otherwise there is no revelation - your unknowable god. But if god is unknowable, why bother. Not only is there no one-on-one realationhsip because you have just proved Feuerbach correct (you are simply in relationhsip with your own reality), but corporate relationships are impossible because a common language disappears. We become spiritually unintelligible to one another.
A god who does not reveal the divine self in intelligable ways is not a god, just a secret amongst secrets that shows no love because, of course, secrets deny the value of relationship.
The confusion I mentioned above stems from your recent undertaking with Genesis, where you are trying to make sense of a text on what you feel are the terms of the text, fully denying most every possibility that those terms are evident in multiple communities that have given it a voice. I don't see where the text is relevent to your theology, other than to be critical of other theologies that claim it as relevant to their worldviews. I cannot understand the statement that Christ-centered Quakers do not fall onto the map of Quaker-experience. That boggles me. It leaves me wondering if, as a pagan, you ever refer to Sunday as "First-day" because it fits so well into the experience of Qauakerism.

Anonymous said...


Very well said. You've given words for some stuff I've been sensing but hadn't articulated properly yet. Thanks.

(Apple & Oak)

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

R. Scot Miller--I'm not sure whether Peter has more confused you, or you have more confused me... I'll let Peter speak for himself, but let me just say, for a long-time Pagan, finding ways to understand the experience of the Spirit in a Quaker meeting takes a bit of thought.

Every now and then, the discussion here is going to veer into our native language, with what may seem to you, as a longstanding monotheist and Christian Friend, to be an odd hodge-podge of unfamiliar terms and unrelated ideas. It's not an arbitrary selection of terms and metaphors, however, any more than is, say, the selections from the Law of the Torah modern Christians find binding are. (Did Christians just go "shopping" for the parts of the Law they were interested in following? No--there is an internal logic, viewed from a Christian perspective, though it may look mystifying or arbitrary from the viewpoint of an Orthodox Jew.)

The language Peter (and I) use to express our spiritual experience is not the result of a week or two of Googling nifty spiritual-sounding ideas, but of twenty years of experience that--with the exception of the Quaker parts--would probably strike you as odd or alien. It's confusing to you--because you have essentially come in in the middle of a decades-long discussion.

Not that that means you're not entitled to ask questions! But things aren't quite as arbitrary or non sequitur as it may seem at first glance.

Again, I'll let Peter speak for himself. But to me, one of the wonders of Quaker practice is that, even with radical diversity of language, it is possible to sit in meeting with people I might never have thought I would be able to understand, and palpably share an experience of Spirit. As writers, Peter and I are both driven to try to explore this wonder in words--but I doubt that any set of vocabulary will ever really capture it.

How could it? How much greater is God (or G*d, the Great Mother or the Ain Soph Aur of the mystical Kaballah... take your pick) than is the human language we have in which to express that thought?

Still, we try. It's just this weird little compulsion we both happen to have, this trying to fit words to experiences that go so far beyond them.

Peter Bishop said...

There was one sentence in my post that was less clear than it could have been. I was not saying that Christ-centered language does not map onto Quaker experience, only that it does not do so with exact, one-to-one precision. All of us, whether Christian, Pagan, or whatever else, will draw from familiar language and images when trying to describe experiences of the transcendent. Christian metaphor works as well as any other, and better than some, for describing Quaker experience. But, as Cat said, G*d is much, much bigger than any of our words about G*d. And as I’ve said previously, there are good reasons why some traditions consider it blasphemous even to pronounce the name of G*d.

R. Scot Miller said that “A god who does not reveal the divine self in intelligable ways is not a god, just a secret amongst secrets that shows no love because, of course, secrets deny the value of relationship.” There I have to disagree. Even human love has a richness and depth that exceeds the capacity of mere words. How much more so, divine love.


Yvonne said...

Peter - your post made a lot of sense to me, but then I'm also trying to understand monotheism from an instinctively polytheist perspective, and I am reasonably well-versed in Kabbalah.

As to the comment about secrets. I think perhaps a better word to use would be mysteries. The Greeks distinguished between "that which cannot be spoken" (because it cannot be expressed in words) and "that which must not be spoken" (oathbound material). I can understand Quakers being suspicious of the latter, since they don't hold with oaths. But I would have thought the former would be a familiar concept.

Regarding Biblical names for God and Quaker experience: I assumed you meant that your & Cat's experience of the Limitless Sea of Light, Spirit of Peace, etc, as One being, don't match up with the ideas of the Trinity. I may be wrong...

Yvonne said...

Oh, one more thing: Pagan is spelled with a capital P.

Yvonne said...

PS - I really LOVED the lightning and clouds image, that is a brilliant way of expressing it. Great photo too.

R. Scot Miller said...

Peter, you immediately recognized the catalyst of my shrill response - the comment about Christ-centeredness. I apologize for being shrill. Also, Yvonne toched on a word that I was thinking of when she suggested the word mystery instead of secret. Mysteries allow that God has revealed the divine self, though it may be in a manner that I cannot comprehend due to my own insistance on a stale perspective.
As it stands, I am enjoying contact with Pagan Quakers because this is a discussion that has been in the making for myself for some time. My responses were a little too personal than I intended, as my main concern with some of the Quaker spiritualisms has more to do with philosophical notions of modernity, identity and particularity, than it does with a dislike of polytheism per se. I hope the conversations continue, perhaps with a little more understanding on my part.

New Quaker said...

I just don't get it, why are Pagans (so seemingly hostile to Christ centred thought / worship) attempting to infiltrate and remodel a Christian community like the Quakers?

It smacks of some form of religious imperialism...

karen said...

"I just don't get it, why are Pagans (so seemingly hostile to Christ centred thought / worship) attempting to infiltrate and remodel a Christian community like the Quakers?

It smacks of some form of religious imperialism..."

We're not. It's not.

We're coming from a totally different perspective than either/or.

I found at a local Quaker Quest that I was the least scarred by mainstream Christianities, and the most comfortable with the concept of Jesus as a son of a god/a son of G_d/an avatar, of all the people attending - all of whom identified as Christian or ex-Christian, and none of whom had any experience of Paganism.

You see, when people are scarred by their religious experiences, they often become very shrill and hostile to it. Some of those people are drawn to non-mainstream religions, some to different mainstream religions, and some to atheism. Some heal and become comfortable with an array of religious expression and experience; some continue to rail against that which scarred them.

Those of us who were not scarred in the first place, or who have healed, may find ourselves in a place where we discover that our spiritual nourishment comes from various sources - we are "open to the Light from wherever it comes" (or we try to be).

Because we're polytheists and/or pantheists, we don't see a contradiction in being firmly embedded in more than one religious tradition. It isn't a dual faith or dual identity or an attempt to infiltrate. It's an integrated, holistic approach to spirituality.

It's interesting to see this in the light of early Quaker writings, in which it was made very clear that being non-Christian was not a bar to sharing faith.

The fact is that even early Quakers differed in their ideas about what made a person a Quaker. The Society has gone all over the map in many ways in defining what Quakers believe - because the Society is made up of humans with all their flaws and strengths and insights and prejudices and blessings, all influenced by the social mores of the day.

I've tried really hard to track it through, and as an outsider, I keep coming back to orthopraxy vs orthodoxy. It seems to me that it's how Quakers DO religion that is the core of the thing. When you DO religion the Quaker way, you experience something that pushes you towards the testimonies, that convinces. So that, whether you believe Jesus is the Son of G_d and the One True Way (which implies that everyone else is up the proverbial creek without a paddle), or you believe that Jesus was a holy, Spirit-filled man you revere along with a bunch of other deities, ancestors, spirits, and teachers, there is that common ground of opening up and intentionally listening for Spirit, waiting for the Light as a person and a Meeting, and putting aside your individual and corporate egos to truly accept it.

At least, that's my experience as a Pagan who attends Quaker Meeting.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Oooh--I should go away out of Web contact more often!

Karen, thank you very much for a thoughtful answer... and for avoiding any temptation to respond with irritation rather than, as becomes us a Friends, in a spirit of Peace. I'm very grateful for your response!

New Quaker, I think your assumptions, that Pagans who are drawn to and/or become members of Quaker meetings are hostile to Christ or Christianity are understandable, but do not fit my experience or that of many Pagan Quakers I know. It's pretty clear that we will not be friendly to literalistic, fundamentalist readings of the Bible... but the degree to which that represents Christianity is much debated even among those who self-identify as Christian.

Is the Light of Friends Christ? If so, let me go on record as being pro-Christ, loving Christ, and deeply desiring to follow Christ in all things, even beyond the love I have felt (and still feel) for the Pagan gods I have worshiped for twenty years.

I don't call myself Christian because, despite how I feel about the Light of Friends, I have never yet received a clear personal sense either that that Light is Christ--or is Christ and only Christ--and because I do preserve that deep love and respect for the gods and goddesses of the natural world. This may, quite arguably, make me either confused or heretical... but I don't think I can be classed as hostile.

Moreover, far from wishing to infiltrate and remodel Quakers, I want merely to join in fellowship with other Friends. I find myself, at least, with no need to incorporate elements of Pagan worship into my practice as a Quaker; rather, I tend to carry with me my Quaker practices into Pagan venues when I am there, creating opportunities for my Pagan community to worship in the manner of Friends at festivals I attend.

I'm not claiming to speak for other Pagans drawn to Quaker practice and community, because we're at least as diverse a bunch as Quakers generally. But I will say that I personally am actively working to learn and master Quaker disciplines of community life, and, if I do not find it natural to couch my spiritual understandings in Christian language, to be open to hearing you speak your understandings in that language.

I do not ask my Quaker community to adapt to my presence. If my presence changes my community, I am doing all I can to ensure that those changes are in accord with the wishes of Spirit, not my personal desires and intentions.

Does that clarify anything? Hope so.

Blessed be.

Pitch313 said...

As a practicing polytheist Pagan, I try to be careful about the personalities and names of deities that I encounter or choose to work with or ask/accept guidance from.

The sum of my experience is that deities are not all the same, and that their possible ultimate identity in the unknowable one does nothing to alter this situation. Different deities are different, and they treat us humans differently.

Because I have few links to Christianity, I find that I rarely use terms like "God"--carrying any Biblical connotations--in my own practice. The deity associated with Christianity (if I may say it this way) that I have that most affinty with is Mary. So maybe when I talk about Goddess, I'm doing what you're talking about as you say God.

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