Naming the Water: Human and Deity Identity from an Earth-Centered Perspective

August 8, 2012 by Categorized: Natural Reflections.

Burney Falls
Photo (CC) courtesy of Greg Harder via the PNC Image Archive

In a post yesterday, Teo pondered what it might be like if our descendants make a mistake in their own reconstruction and worship us mere mortals as gods:

What if between now and a thousand years from now all of the precious archiving we do of our daily lives, through our blogs, through Twitter, or through the old-fashioned paper medium is lost, and as people are looking back to uncover what we were like they make a profound mistake when they stumble across a tiny piece of information about my life (or yours), and misperceive me (or you) to have been, not a person, but a god of some sort?

Teo doesn’t want to be worshipped as a god, presumably out of a mixture of humility and not wanting to be bothered with the nagging requests of worshippers to find them a good parking space. I’m reminded of the public requests made by Jim Morrison’s widow that he not be worshipped as a god, seeing the tendency of well-meaning fans to claim that he was the incarnation of Dionysus as a kind of posthumous harassment that fails to respect and honor the life of the man himself. (I’m sure Elvis would feel the same way — but we all know the King isn’t dead, he’s just gone back to his own planet.)

Though Teo’s contemplations focus on the difficulties of god and ancestor worship in a Pagan context, questions of human and deity identity aren’t exclusive to hard polytheism. I know Christians who believe that Jesus was an ordinary mortal, a political rebel and spiritual leader who helped his followers discover the divinity within themselves. Growing up in a liberal Catholic community, I was taught that Jesus only ever called himself the Son of Man, his followers calling him the Son of God only after his death. I was taught that the empty tomb discovered on Easter was the ultimate mystery of human identity. In the earliest versions of the gospels, there is no miraculous resurrection, no triumphant rising into the heavens to join the Big Guy — there is only the empty tomb, dark and quiet and smelling of earth, and the wonder of the morning sunlight falling gently on the hair of the women grieving in the garden.

As a Pagan, my theology is rooted firmly in the earth. To me, the earth is sacred, and so the ecological truths that guide and shape life on this tiny blue marble are sacred truths. One of those truths is that identity is fluid. I can no more name the discrete entity that is “me” than I can name the water flowing in a river. From moment to moment, that identity changes. This was the insight of the Buddhists, too: we are not the same person from one second to the next, and reincarnation is less like viscous soul-substance getting sloshed from one meat-container into the next as it is like a flame passing from one wick to another. Is it the same flame? Yes… and then again, no.

Like a river is defined by its shore, my identity is defined by my limitations, by the extremities of my being. I learned this before I even had the words for it. The first time a wail escaped my infant throat and my mother’s breast was not there to soothe my hunger, I knew what it was to be me and not her. I discovered how to move fingers and toes, how odd it was that these unwieldy awkward bits of flesh and bone were somehow responsive to my will in ways that other bits and pieces of the material world weren’t. We all experienced this as infants, learning who we are by discovering who and what we are not.

As we grow up, we discover that technologies and material possessions can expand our sense of self-identity as they help us overcome our natural limitations. When we sit behind the wheel of a car and speed down a highway — no, of course we don’t believe that we are literally the car, but our ability to drive depends on us momentarily losing that distinction at a subconscious level, being able to respond with instinctual quickness to swerve as that deer darts out in front of us. When we play video games, our sense of identity expands and we know what it is like to be our avatars. Scientific studies confirm this, in everything from our emotional well-being and psychological state of mind, to how we form habits in our real lives. (Did you know playing a video game in which you watch an avatar of yourself lose weight as it exercises can encourage you to exercise more frequently “irl”? Did you know that gamers with obese or unattractive avatars experience bullying and emotional abuse from other gamers that is just as damaging to their health and well-being as real-life prejudice and fat-shaming?)

The fact that material possessions and technologies can help us expand our sense of self is part of the impetus behind the rampant consumerism of modern culture. Accumulating and hoarding wealth can make us feel powerful, less vulnerable to scarcity, less insecure about the uncertainties of the future. Our sense of self-identity is shaped by what clothes we wear, what car we drive, what kind of house we live in, what indie music we listen to, what soda we drink, what organic foods we eat, even who we vote for — all the ways that our limitations are expressed or obscured in the eyes of our fellow human beings. Our personal choices are also ways that we communicate our belonging to different overlapping communities: foodies, conservatives, cyclists, dog lovers, environmentalists, Pagans. Self-identity is a social as well as a physical construct.

There are also ways of engaging with self-identity that are grounded in our sense of the sacred. Spiritual practices and rituals can teach us about the fluidity of our identities through exercises that alter our states of consciousness. Meditative practices of stillness and silence open up an internal space within which we lose our sense of limitation, the discrete boundaries of our being. Without the constant friction and noise of our being rubbing up against the banks of self-consciousness, we forget for a moment where our physical bodies end and the rest of the world begins. Like a river entering an ocean, we flow one into the other. This, too, is confirmed by neurological research into the effects of meditation on the brain: increased activity and interconnectivity among different parts of the physical brain, and a gentle relaxation in the right parietal lobe that is responsible for, among other things, spatial relations. Practices like fasting, contemplative prayer, sweat lodge ceremonies, shamanic trancework, even time in a sensory deprivation tank can bring on similar effects, altering our sense of our physical bodies and their limitations, allowing us to rejoice in the power and energy that flows in and through us. It is not an accident of history that so many religions throughout the world have traditions of mystical union and ecstasy. The belief in the unity of being arises from the experiences of worshippers themselves as they explore the porousness of the boundaries of self-identity.

But self-identity is also a mystery of multiplicity. Intense, sustained physical activities like dance, martial arts, labyrinth-walking, and sometimes painful acts like scourging or other forms of ritualistic body mutilation — all these can bring the boundaries of our being into sharp relief as dynamic liminal spaces of exchange and communication. Through community rituals of dance and movement, we experience our boundaries not as rigid forms that keep us trapped within ourselves, but as coterminous places of contact with the vast diversity of being beyond ourselves. We experience our extremities, the limits of our being, moving in harmony and grace within the sacred variety of world-being. And like a serpentine river whose banks are worn away by the rushing waters, twisting and changing through the landscape over time — our engagement with our own boundaries allows us to shape those boundaries as well, to craft our self-identity as a vessel of the sacred life-force that flows through us and connects us to all other beings.

The multiplicity of human identity is not just a spiritual principle, it’s a biological fact — a basic ecological reality. The cells that make up your body are dying off all the time, replaced by new cells born of the food you eat and the water you drink. We shed skin cells more quickly than it takes for our fingernails to grow out, and we replace the cells of our stomach lining sometimes as quickly as every meal. Even with all this, only 10% of the cells in your body belong to you. The rest are the cells of bacteria and microorganisms that call your body home, and without these symbionts living on and within your physical self, you would be unable to digest and process the nutrients necessary to keep you alive. Your physical body is teeming with a microscopic diversity of life that rivals a rainforest. The insight of the Gaia Theory — that “the Earth system behaves as a single self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components” — is as much a statement about our own physical bodies as it is about the planet. If we imagine the Earth as the body of a goddess, we can also imagine our own bodies as a sacred home to an ecologically complex and diverse array of microscopic life.

These are the first glimmerings of an earth-centered theology of polytheism. If human identity is complex, both personal and social, physical and psychological, spiritual and ecological — why should we expect deity identity to be any simpler? If our sense of self-identity is fluid and changeable, interconnected, responsive to the teeming, dancing life that permeates and surrounds us — why should we expect the gods to be objective, discrete and separate beings? The experience of spiritual practice and the biology of physical life teach us otherwise — showing us both the astounding unity and the sacred, interconnected multiplicity of being.

In his post, Teo seems to suggest only two approaches to a theology of polytheism. There is hard polytheism, which believes that the gods have a definite sense of separate self-identity, and that humans would likewise retain such an identity even after death. And then there is the psychological approach, that sees the gods as archetypes, stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and that, as powerful or moving as they may be, remain little more than make-believe, a fiction. Neither of these approaches seems all that satisfying to me. Both are abstract doctrines, not articulations of our real experiences of the world which ground us in a bone-deep knowledge of identity as porous and complex.

Identity does not have to be simple in order to be meaningful. It does not have to be rigid in order to be real.

I suggest a third alternative, an ecological or natural polytheism. In this natural theology, identity is responsive and creative, and divinity, like everything else in the sacred cosmos, is interwoven, connecting us all to all other aspects of being. We move through a world rife with gods and spirits, and a multitude of gods dwell within each of us. We show up to liminal places of communication — whether they be small altars tucked away in our homes, or the banks of a raging river carving serpentine paths through the wide, rolling landscape — and we open ourselves to experiences of connection in which we discover the porous, flexible natures of our own boundaries. We practice our spirituality through ritual and prayer, and discover that boundaries are not rigid constructs that separate us from the gods, but sacred points of contact, created and destroyed and re-created with every holy act. We rub up against divine being with every turn in the sacred dance, feeling the warm friction of our extremities, the very limits that define our beauty and direct our power.

We show up to the banks of the sacred river. Here the shore curves in such a way that a small pool opens up among the eddies, spiraling and foaming, and we catch glimpses of a presence unique to this place, here and now. Tomorrow, a year from now, a decade, a millennium, the river’s banks may have changed. But for now, this place is familiar to us, this presence is a friend. We name this place with the name of deity. The banks of the river define its identity for us, as the unique personalities and limitations of the gods define their identities for us in our worship. They step into our lives as guides, givers of wisdom, inspiration and love, as familiar patterns in the spiraling energies that move the universe. But neither the river nor the gods are static, unchanging abstractions separate from the physical, natural world.

We can name this river, here and now — but we cannot name the water itself. We can name our gods and we can name ourselves, but we cannot name the essence of sacred identity that flows through both, that connects us and sanctifies us.

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19 Responses

  1. Ah! Yes, yes & yes!

    This is what I try to communicate when I write & talk to others about animism. I recall being at a “cosmology coffee chat” with a group of fellow pagans, trying my very best to use words to describe the “spiritual soup” that I could literally envision before me. You should have seen their faces. In that moment, every one of them, even those who know me well, thought I was utterly daft. Since that day, I have worked on a more articulate rendition of my “cosmology.” Perhaps I should have just called you. ;)

    • I should warn you, I screen my calls. ;)

      Seriously, though, it took me a good part of the day to get this out and then another full morning to revise it. I doubt I could be so articulate off-the-cuff in person. It’s good to have people like you out there on the front lines breaking open the conversation. You make it easier for armchair philosophers like me to sit back and ponder. :)

  2. Ecological polytheism – I LOVE that term! It reflects what I believe in, and leaves room for the science, too. For me, that’s a perfect match. Thank you for this post!

    • Thanks, Jeanette! :) I still feel that I only scratched the surface of the whole idea, and there are murky depths still to be explored. Please please please take the idea and run with it! (And send it our way if you do! I’d love to have it as a guest post here on NUP. :))

  3. “In this eco-theology, identity is responsive and creative, and divinity, like everything else in the sacred cosmos, is interwoven, connecting us all to all other aspects of being.”

    And if our world is a mirror of the eco-poly-verse of the divine, then it makes sense that divinity would also express an endless unfolding. And perhaps that unfolding mirrors life on earth which evolves by endless mutation, by trading genes, and by symbiosis, all honed by the relentless forces of natural selection.

    As above, so below
    As without, so within

  4. This is quite resonant. This is theology I can relate to. I also feel my theology under my feet as I walk the land; I see it reflected in the foam and surge of the waves. And as I live in a fog-drenched place, I see the ever shifting quality of the mists reflecting the nature of the deities. There are no impermeable boundaries.


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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] my latest post over on No Unsacred Place, I respond to Teo Bishop’s recent musings over at Bishop in the [...]

  2. [...] last post extended deep into the theoretical as well as the practical, even spawning an interesting offshoot post on ecological polytheism, and a resurgence of questions about an American goddess named Columbia.The explosion of ideas did [...]

  3. [...] exploring polytheism in an ecological context, we quickly find ourselves beyond the pale: out in the wilds shaped by natural forces of forest and [...]

  4. [...] Sometimes archetypal experiences arise out of contact with wild nature, in which case they may be id….  (Perhaps this is how animism first arose.)  Other times, archetypal experiences occur in the context of religious ritual, in which case they may be identified with the paraphernalia of the ritual.  (This may be how totemism first arose.)  In both these cases, the archetypal image may be equated with some object separate from us.  But archetypal experiences do not always occur through interaction with an object.  Sometimes, as in the case of dreams or active imagination, there is no external referent.  (This may explain how spiritualism first arose.) [...]

  5. [...] Place this past year have revelatory.  Two of her posts definitely worth checking out are: “Naming the Water: Human and Deity Identity from an Earth-Centered Perspective“, where she explores the porous nature of our experience of identity, which led into her next [...]

  6. [...] was starting to take shape for me. I tried to answer this question, or at least articulate it, in a couple of posts over on No Unsacred Place, and they became two of the most popular posts on the blog. I [...]

  7. [...] paradigm is very different from the philosophy and physics in the early days of the Enlightenment. Here and here you can read Allison Leigh Lilly’s plead for a natural (poly)theology which embraces [...]

  8. [...] affirming our participation in the world, even in the very act of perceiving it.  See for example Alison Leigh Lily’s post on earth-centered polytheism here and Lupa’s (not Rua Lupa) post on ecopsychology [...]

  9. […] fact, Wildermuth makes the mistake of labeling me a humanistic/non-theistic Pagan, despite my many, many, many, many writings about my polytheism.*) They worry that Pagans like myself are rejecting or […]

  10. […] Ravenna for saying all this so I don’t have to.  Alison Leigh Lilly’s examination of related ideas from a different angle is also worth looking at.  I particularly like this statement and question from Ravenna’s […]

  11. […] idea at length, echoing thoughts similar to those I shared on No Unsacred Place back in 2012 in my exploration of human and deity identity, where I […]

  12. […] Alison Leigh Lilly’s “natural or ecological polytheism” which sees the gods as part of nature which (like our very own selves), rather than being made of […]