How Close the Gods? Transcendence, Immanence and Immediacy in Pagan Religion
by Sam Webster ©2007 Given at PantheaCon 2007
Theology is a funny thing for Pagans to discuss. When we invented it a few thousand years ago it was a way of using discursive, mostly philosophical and sometimes rational means to explore our understanding of the nature of the Gods. We were moving from narrative and poetic ways of understanding, embodied by our myths or sacred stories, to explanations of what the myths meant. We developed the tools of logic to criticize the ideas presented in these explanations and sort out the good ones. Our ancient forebears contemplated the old stories as well as the proclamations of oracles and the teachings of earlier ‘lovers of wisdom’ or philosophers and developed a rich array of explanatory traditions. They coexisted within and among the various schools of thought whose names are well known to us but long diseased: the Pythagorean Order, the Platonic Academy, the Peripatetics of Aristotle, the Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans, [and others]. The competition was fierce though limited to the educated and leisure classes. Most folks were happy with the old stories and grandma’s explanation. Except where philosophers got involved in politics, the state had little interest in theology, and left the debaters to their own devices.
This all changed when Christianity got a hold of it. Theology or ‘God-talk’ became the means of establishing doctrine as dogma which was then enforced as belief with the power of the State, originally the Roman Empire, but later the Nation-States of Europe. A truly horrible loss and a very strange distortion of religion. For Christians, religion became what you believe, a set of propositions that were subscribed to. Among religions this focus in Christianity on belief is unique. While Islam is close, the required set of beliefs, that Allah is God and Mohammed is His prophet, is very small. Islam is centered primarily on its doctrine of submission to the will of Allah. The word “Islam” means submission.
Christianity on the other hand took this innovative approach that set about defining the nature of the God(s), which, if you dissented from it, you would be considered a “chooser” as the word “heretic” is translated. Or, in other words, you had no choice. Non-adherence to the exact nature of the doctrine may be enough for war, as the Great Schism between the eastern Orthodox and western Catholic churches, and the Sack of Constantinople attested.
The progenitor of the western magical tradition, Iamblichus of Chalcis, considered theology a useful training for the mind, but only as a prelude to Theurgy, the working with the Gods, rather than just talking about them, which is theology. In short, all our talk about the Gods amounts to nothing when compared with the experience of the Gods that comes out of practice.
That said, there is some value in discussing the nature of the Gods. It can help us reflect upon our experiences, clarify our understandings, and lead us away from misinterpretations. Today we are going to discuss one small section of the entire theological terrain. We are, in essence, asking: Where are the Gods?
Because we are not Christians, it is not our way to create a laundry list of beliefs that every Pagan must adhere to in order to be considered Pagan. So, if we were to ask, we would quickly find that Pagan folk see the Gods in innumerable ways. However, whatever the details are, these ways tend to ‘bucket’ into three main types: Transcendence, Immanence, & Immediacy.
Transcendence is most familiar to us from the Christians. Orthodox believers believe that Yahweh made the World and the World is entirely outside of Yahweh. Or put more concretely (and in Pagan terms), the Goddess made the Tree but is not the Tree. Some Pagan folk see the Divine in this manner. Some do because they have not really examined the beliefs they have inherited from their former religion or from western culture at large. Others, having reflected and considered the alternatives simply conclude that the Goddess is entirely transcendent of the World.
Immanence is a very common understanding of the 'location' of the Divine. Many heterodox Christians believe this. The “immanent” Divine is present in the World even though the World is still not the Divine. We might say, “The Goddess made the Tree and is present in the Tree, but is not the Tree.” Another, perhaps unfortunate way of expressing this, but one that points to the problem with it, is where we see the Divine as the “Ghost in the Machine.” The Divine somehow inhabits the world yet remains separate from it. The advantage to this is that we don't start cutting down the trees to find the Goddess in them; we know the tree will “give up the Ghost” and we will only find ‘tree.’ The Goddess becomes displaced to some entirely spiritual realm, but one that somehow interpenetrates with the Tree and the World.
Immediacy is a more modern term for wrestling with this problem, although one can find the idea discussed in the deep past. It is a subtle idea but its implications are vast. Here we would say, “the Goddess made the Tree and is present AS the Tree (not just IN the Tree).” To touch the Tree is to touch the Goddess. She is immediately present. Nothing is between us and Her. The whole World IS Her, made BY Her and OF Her, and by implication, there is Nothing BUT Her.
Each of these naturally implies a different kind of spiritual practice. When we serve people in a ministerial or priestly capacity we have to deal with their understanding of the World they live in, the kind of relationship they have with the Divine, and the nature of the spiritual practice they are familiar with. Even more importantly, all of this must be tempered by the need they have brought to us. Let's take each of the three approaches and the kinds of needs each one implies, in turn.
Transcendence requires us to reach out to the Divine to rescue us from the World or to take us away from the World to where ever the Divine is, usually called 'Heaven'. Concepts of separation like repentance or sin tend to be applied here, or go as far as the Gnostic idea of actually considering the World as evil and needing to be escaped from.
Immanence brings the Divine a bit closer but still leaves us with the problem of finding it IN the World around us. At least this, our realm, is not existentially separate from the Divine, even if it is not divine itself. Here we find practices focusing on awakening to or otherwise finding the Divine in the World and its objects or simply trusting that the Divine is present even if we can't find It.
Immediacy challenges us to view the World as Divine, as the immediate revelation of all that is Good, True and Beautiful. The World is the direct communication, even scripture of the Divine to who ever is paying attention. Practice then focuses on appreciation and understanding. It asks us to seek the wisdom of the Divine in all phenomena, even where it conflicts with our human values.
Naturally, when we minister to Pagans, how they need to be treated will depend in part on their attitude to the Divine. Those who see the divine as “wholly other” usually have need of “redemption” to re-establish a positive relationship to the Divine. Re-Deeming corrects the sense of having lost connection with the Transcendent Holy by correcting or re-affirming the way we feel we are valued by the Divine. We are deemed ‘worthy.’ Often this is accompanied by a sense of being polluted or contaminated and thus unworthy to approach the Holy. Rites of release, purification, or ‘catharsis’ (Greek for purification) and are very helpful here.
When the Pagan we are asked to help has an immanent understanding of the Divine there is usually less of a sense of being unworthy or needing redemption or purification. Often the sense is that of alienation. For the adherent to the transcendent doctrine, the divine is inherently alienated, so there is no possibility of closing that gap. For the Pagan with an immanent sense of the Divine, It is only just out of touch. Re-awakening to that Presence or refreshing the Pagan’s faith in the Presence can end or ease that sense of alienation.
When pressed, however, and with careful dialogue worked through, many Pagans will identify the locus of the Divine as immediately present without anything between us and the Divine. In this case our job is to help the Pagan to ‘clear’ their ‘vision’ so that they can recover the sight wherein all things seen and felt are Holy. Our challenge is both very simple in that in this case there is not much distance to travel to find the Divine, but it is also a very subtle vision and easy to loose when driving in heavy traffic, frustrated at work, or getting the kids off to school. Here we must help the Pagan find the means to reclaim that vision when lost, hold that vision when found, and cultivate that vision across time so that the Pagan can live in the presence, providence, and wisdom of the Divine all of their life.
Naturally, the methods applied will vary depending on the actual character of the individual or group being served. What will work for one will do something very different for another, or nothing at all. For example, and only one method among many, when we design ritual for the Transcendent perspective, the Divine needs to be ‘put up on a pedestal’ or it will not be recognized as the Divine. The approach needs to be slow and filled with resistance, awe and dread. This will put the Pagan in the right state of mind to engage with and benefit from his or her encounter with the Divine.
For the Immanent perspective, acts of revelation and concealment can be appropriate, a kind of playing hide-and-seek with the Divine. Creating glimpses of Divinity which are immediately cloaked again such as a brief conversation with an aspecting Priestess is one way to achieve this.
For immediacy, we have the problem that there is nowhere to go and nothing to do to find the Divine, which of course is also an advantage. Rituals for this population can seek the Divine in the Ordinary like a flower or a sunrise or in a kind of Transfiguration where one’s lover becomes Divinity.
Now, just to be fair, let me turn myself in. My personal bias is to Immediacy. I find it simpler, and per Occam’s Razor that makes more likely. It can be directly experienced and proves itself in the doing. I find it gives meaning and purpose to the physical World and spiritualizes it. When the Physical is the Holy, such horrors are environmental degradation are unthinkable. But as with all things, your mileage may vary.
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