Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beyond Belief

I'd like to lay out two theoretical areas--though often intermixed in practice--that define pagan religion as I practice it and intend to develop it further.

First, there is what might be called the "spiritual" level. I am sometimes confronted the numinous. In part, this is a sense of a presence, a personality or at least experiencer, within something not normally considered a person--a stream, a tree, a mountain, a bay. Such is the intuition underlying animism. But there is more than that to the numinous. It is the sensation that one is in the presence of the immanent divine. Each experience differs, so it is hard to pinpoint what differentiates the numinous from the merely present. The sense can be of something masculine, or feminine, beneficent or uncaring, self-harmonious and tranquil or tempestuous and raging. But there is something else I cannot quite describe which gives it an immensity of presence to the mind. (Though a little effort can sometimes quash the sense altogether.)

If you haven't experienced something of this sort, you may not have any idea what I'm talking about.

When I say that no particular proposition need be adopted about these beings, I merely express the understanding that the experience of them--the sense of them as being, as having presence--does not entail any particular placement of them in a broader metaphysics. The personal ontology of experience differs from the propositional ontology of metaphysics.

Similarly, acceptance and experience of the presence of a close friend or a family member does not entail any particular metaphysical position. A reductive physicalist might accept that, ultimately, the sense of their presence just is physical interactions in his own brain, as resulting from light waves reflecting from the molecules which make up his friend. A radical solipsist would believe that, ultimately, the presence of his friend was the result of persistent, ineradicable self-delusion. In both cases, however, the personal ontology of experience remains the same. It is impossible for either one to accept the non-existence of the experience of the presence. Only the articulation in terms of a metaphysics differs.

Thus, the articulation of a polytheism in terms of acceding to a sense of presence of this kind is compatible with almost any metaphysics. The existence of gods, as usually conceived as independently existing immaterial beings of power and beneficence, is as compatible with this experience simpliciter as their non-existence is.

Thus far, the understanding of the numinous I have explained is not entirely sufficient for polytheism. While my experience seems to be of multiple presences, others have similar experiences in terms of a single presence whom they call God. While I believe that polytheism is a more natural sense--one that emerges more or less naturally when contradictory ideological commitments are not present--I cannot ignore the fact that in these inchoate, pre-propositional experiences, many people seem to have monotheistic experiences.

Both history of religion and comparative religion seem to agree that religious experiences differ across cultures and through time. Ideas about those experiences shape them as they are experienced, similarly to the way one's experience of a spoon is shaped by the concept of the spoon, and regular use of spoons. (Anyone who has learned to use a new utensil in this way is probably familiar with the change in how the thing is experienced when one learns what it is for, and then when it has been used.) Likewise, the meaning of great cultural texts, such as the King James Bible or Dante's Divine Comedy are experienced differently in different times.

When faced with inchoate, pre-propositional numinous experience, we must answer the question of what to do with this experience. Some simply take the experience as just a nice experience, and leave it at that. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, I think that the history of humanity shows that, in these experiences lies the potential for personal and social change, if interpreted and applied properly.

Thus, we are faced with a dual task. On the one hand, we must remain true to the experience if our interpretations are to be seen as relevant. On the other hand, we must recognize that the task of interpretation is at least in part constructive. It is possible to set out criteria by which the constructive aspect can proceed. This dual task I refer to as constructive exploration--exploration in that it attempts to remain true to the experience, and constructive in that, as the exploration proceeds, the thing that is explored is also constructed.

Constructive exploration of the numinous experience tends to proceed, in my experience, along two lines: the spiritual and the religious. The spiritual approach attempts to articulate the experience mostly in terms of experience, and in terms of practice mainly generally. In contrast, the religious approach--usually seen as involving creedal codification, though this is not essential, and I think is probably detrimental--involves specifics of behavior much more explicitly, either in terms of ethical injunctions, or ritual, or both. The religious approach also tends toward adoption or construction of more or less clearly conceived religious images seen as significant, if not central. (The image of Christ crucified, for instance, whether portrayed in sculpture or in the prose of the Gospels, is central to Christianity.) These images, as objects of meditation, become objects of experience and means of attaining more subtly refined numinous experience.

So much for the aspect of religion related to the numinous. Of the images and practices I will have more to say in my next post.

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