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.