Friday, August 23, 2013

To Limit the Divine

An excellent shrine from Pagan artist Marcel Gomes
OK, am I little cranky this morning? Perhaps. This is one of those general statements of things-I-think, whorth exactly what its worth...

I tend to doubt clichĂ© wisdom. Much of what passes for common-or-garden, bar-stool spirituality isn’t worth a crap, really. “All is One” So fucking what – hammer that nail with this cheese. “The Universe is mental – my mind makes reality”. Look out for that bus... One oft-recited nostrum is that one cannot or must not “limit the divine”. Allow me to dissect…

My first assertion is that limitation is absolutely required for real existence. Limitation is identical with definition. It is the edges that define – the limits. That might be band-width limits, conceptual limits or material limits, but all things, material or ideational are describable and definable because they are limited. If there could be things not describable or definable, we don’t (couldn’t) know of them.

My second assertion is that the divine, or spirit-world, is a part of the natural system, a segment of the whole cosmos. I expect the spiritual to reflect the material, and vice versa – as above, so below, etc. Thus I expect real divine things to have limitation, boundary and definition. Since I dismiss the notion of ‘one God’ I can dismiss several philosophical quandaries that come with it. As a polytheist it makes sense to me that the divine part of nature contains many persons, many beings, each defined by their limitation (or limited by their definition, as ya like). Odin isn’t Aphrodite isn’t Orpheus – the gods are the gods.

Let’s look at limitation in another way. One of the most reliable means of increasing power is through limitation. If you want that water to turn a wheel you must limit it to a channel cut in the earth. If you want those electrons to flip a switch you must limit them in a properly-connected wire. Even were one to posit some oceanic all-consciousness-style godhead, it would have to take more limited form in order to be at all present in the world. Even in monistic religions (not in monotheistic ones) the divine manifests as the many persons of the gods. 

So, when a modern Pagan undertakes to make real contact with the divine in the person of one of the gods it is reasonable for us to approach the god in a clearly delimited and focused way. This is the merit of using a formal shrine, of making a throne, a specific locale in which you ask and expect the power of the god to manifest. This is why it is valuable to make sacred space – to say “this space is different, separate, and specific”. The essential mechanism of formal theurgy is the manifestation of divine power in the idols and tools of the magician’s shrine. This is made possible by the creation of a narrow channel – by the skillful application of limitation. The proper image, properly-colored gear, proper offerings and incense, all create a narrow symbolic channel through which the divine power enters the material world.

So I would say that the work of limiting the divine is central to really knowing the divine. Like any real knowledge, some knowledge of the spiritual world must be acquired a piece at a time, one being at a time. To know the forest is to know each of the trees. We set ourselves to meet the god and spirits through our efforts, counting on their good will and our good method to allow the meeting. By providing a limited channel for the divine, we make it real in the real world, and greatly increase our chances of generating real blessing.

4 comments:

Davin Mac Lugh said...

Wonderfully put! Of course I agree with what you say here, but that is the preaching to the Choir for ya. ;) I will however keep this in mind when trying to explain why I do things in this way.

Christopher Crittenden said...

Nicely put. Indeed, things must have limits to be "things" at all.

Considering your comment about the separateness of the individual gods across pantheons, I do have one question, or rather perspective, about the gods that I am interested in your response to.

I am an ADF member (since 2006), and I have always enjoyed your musings.

I don't think that most people would doubt that you and I are different people, distinct and discreet persons. There are certainly limits to what "you" and "I" are, at least as we experience each other.

My personal view is that there are many gods, but only so many. The question/perspective I have is this, and I will use myself first as an example:

I am known by many people. Each of those people have different life experiences that color their perspective of "who" and "what" I am.

If my mother knows me as her son, she will have very different experiences of me than my best friend. I do different things for them, they do different things for me, we share different information with each other, because there are things I'd share with my best friend that I'd never tell my mother, and vice versa. It may be that if my mother didn't know my friend, and my friend didn't know my mother, that when asked to describe me as a person, they may very well describe me in such different ways that for all intents they are describing two separate people.

Now imagine I am also a Spanish teacher (which I am among other things) and one of my students (who also knows me in a completely different way and for whom I fill a very different role) decides to give me a nickname in Spanish that describes me. Let's say he calls me "pelon" as a way to poke fun at my baldness. He then describes me using that name and also by what role I fill in his life.

All three of those people are describing their very different experiences of the set of limitations that constitute "me", but does that make me a different person? Or ar they simply experiencing differently the same core and limitations of what "I" am?

Likewise, if the gods are known by certain names and nicknames in PIE, then those tribes separate, go to differnt environmental situations and have such limited contact with each other that their language fractures and diverges, each tribe using the nickname for the gods they prefer which changes in pronunciation with their language, then having different experiences of the gods due to what the gods must specifically help them with in the environments in which they find themselves, does that make them different gods? Or do each of those tribes experience the core limited individualness of that same god, just in different ways?

Even local features are not technically immune. I'm thinking here of Danu/Don, where as the Celts moved across Europe they felt no compunction at naming the local river after Her, or also of Shannon/Seine, etc.

IanC said...

I agree that there may be a limited number of gods. In general I do not follow the modern notion of 'hard' polytheism, in which each local aspect is considered a distinct entity, but rather assume that local deities with similar characteristics may actually be the same being - if appearing in different persons.
Your metaphor of the mortal 'appearing' differently to different people is apt. My current inclination is that the powers of deity include existing as more than one person, in a way rather more literal than the mortal metaphor.
I should post on 'hard' polytheism...

Viktor Junek said...

All of my UPG so far indicates precisely what Christopher says. Many deities, but most of them being present within many pantheons only under different names. Not limited to strictly IE cultures, btw.