Monday, September 14, 2009

Three Humans Walk into a Bar: Language, Labels & Naming Spirit

The three of us perched on barstools at a small tile-topped table near the emergency exit, sipping our beers and talking about Spirit: a polytheist, a panentheist, and an agnostic. Stop me if you've heard this one.

Pondering Deity

I've been thinking a lot recently about polytheism and deity, prompted in part by Kullervo's post about his "conversion experience" (for lack of a better term), and in part by my own continuing explorations in meditation and daily spiritual practice. I can feel it--part of me is waiting for something to click. And it hasn't happened yet. When I read about others' experiences of deity--the power and beauty and awe that go along with it, the certainty as well as the surprise--and when I talk with Jeff about his own views of the gods and goddesses, I feel as though I might be missing something. But try as I might, I can't seem to wrap my head around these ideas of gods, at least not in anything but a metaphorical sense. Faeries, Shining Ones, elemental beings and spirits of all shapes and sizes striving and thriving together in an "ecology of Spirit" that echoes and gives rise to the physical world--sure, hell yeah. But where do the gods come into it? How do I understand them? I'm still waiting for that part to fall into place.

As a child, and even into my teens and college years, I had experiences of what you might call "personal deity"--the small, intimate kind. Jesus and I were rather close for a while, even though I'd always had a better grasp of the Big Guy, the Transcendent Spirit of Godhead, the Breath and Life that infused everything, everywhere, with love and connection. In her recent post, Cat talks about how she began not with this unifying, unified Spirit that was too big and abstract, but with the little particulars of the world. For me, it was just the opposite--the Spirit moving over the dark face of the waters was something almost tangible to me, as though all these particulars were secretly veiling something else, some deeper essence. I could feel it in the wind and rain, in the bright summer fields, and in the way everyone's shoulders rose and fell together in one rippling intake of breath reciting the Our Father during Mass.

For a while, in fact, I struggled to understand where Jesus came into it at all, besides playing the role of wise teacher and political rebel. But at some point, this role as wise and loving shaman-sage developed into full-blown deity, Jesus the Christ, the Reconciler who brought transcendence and immanence together in a uniquely and fully human form. Jesus was not just embodied Godhood, but conscious, living, breathing, moving, evolving Godhead--change and flux within the perfection of essence, the human becoming as an expression of utter being. And other kinds of mystical language. But the simplest way to put it is, he was the broken-hearted god I met in dream: sitting quietly in an empty corner sipping his beer and watching the careless violence of love and connection bloom and shred to dust under dancing feet... he was the shy bisexual and misunderstood poet-lover shunned by the noise and callousness of the raging house-party, and utterly in love with every drunkard there. He was the one I could turn to when I needed to understand devotion and sacrifice, loneliness and death.

And then, gradually, we just lost touch. Almost without noticing it, I began once again to relate to the world with an immediacy that seemed to have no need for a medium or Reconciler. I went through periods of depression and near suicidal moods (that is, if a heart aching for connection, even if such connection means bodily death and the dissolution back into the universal tides of Spirit, could really be called "suicidal"); yet during these times, the world would not abandon me, would not leave me alone. Its presence--both beautiful and terrible in its indifferent, impersonal, imperfect perfection--bore down on me inescapably, so that I knew I could not merely cease to be even if that was what I wanted. All this time, it was the world-as-sacred, the immanence of what I once would have called Holy Spirit, that lurked in every blink of an eye, moved through every corner of being before I could look away. Transcendent Godhead seemed far away, or rather deep, deep within past the dull, devastatingly holy mechanizations of embodiment. And personal deity seemed about as real and relevant to me as things like "getting a real job" and "establishing good credit." It was something that happened to other people.

Where am I now? Back in February, I felt as though I might be onto something, something having to do with imagination and love and the way they work in tandem to create images of deity. I had some realization--which I can now barely remember--about the way poetry and metaphor led me back and forth between the transcendent Universal and the intimate Particular, and how these same faithful allies could teach me about personal deity in a polytheistic sense, about the role of archetype and personality, guardian and guide, in my understanding of divinity. I was making progress, developing an interesting if not always warm-fuzzy relationship with Caer Ibormeith, the faery swan-maiden of Aengus Og's dreaming, exploring through meditation and prayer ways in which her story of independence, strength, transmutation and love might have lessons to teach me. Perhaps I learned those lessons a bit too well; soon after that, I found myself plunging into a new romantic relationship that fulfilled and sustained parts of me that had been starved and bitter for several years. The need for personal deity once again dropped out of view, as the very real and immediate presence of a fellow human being took precedence.

Labels & Names

Three real and immediate human beings walked into a bar. I might be a masochist, but I can't resist the urge to provoke debate between two dear friends when I know they disagree. I sat nursing my Woodchuck (all right, not exactly a beer, I'll grant you) between Raymond, my old anam-chara, and Jeff, my new kindling flame. You might call Raymond a skeptic, or even an agnostic--if you wanted to sit through a long lecture about how he rejects labels like "god" and "spirituality" and "agnostic" not because he is uncertain or unwilling to commit to certain beliefs about this possible Something else, but because he respects the power of language and would not idly rob that Something of its namelessness. And you might call Jeff a polytheist--as long as you knew about the time his Zen Buddhist mother asked him if he believed the gods were actually real and he replied, with a conspiratorial wink to anatma, "As real as I am." And I sat in the middle, as if some literal-minded playwright had scripted the event, hardly saying anything but listening intently to their conversation.

I might call myself a panentheist--someone who believes in both the immanence and transcendence of divinity--and in fact I have called myself that for many years now... Except that more recently this term has started to sound redundant, as though it were almost too obvious to bother articulating. What else could Spirit be than "the eternal animating force behind the universe, with the universe as nothing more than the manifest part"? I don't exactly like the slightly dismissive sound of "nothing more than"--the vast complexities and mind-blowing, heart-wrenching harmonies of intricate manifestation are nothing to sneeze at--but in a nutshell, there it is: immanent manifestation and transcendent source, the complete package. Still, for me this doesn't resolve the question of the gods. From the panentheistic point of view, it seems to me that everything is God, you might even say that everything is a god in one way or another. But what could this possibly mean for traditional ideas of polytheistic gods like Apollo, Brigid, Cernunnos, Odin? I might feel the deity-aspect of ocean, but it is this ocean here, not some abstracted Manannan mac Lir striding through myth; just as it is this sun and not Apollo; or this woods and not Cernunnos. I struggle to bridge this gap between particulars in the manifest world, and particulars in the realm of transcendent divinity where specific gods and goddesses rule over certain ideals, realms, activities and cultural traits. Isn't the nature of transcendent Spirit precisely that it does not break and fracture into bits and pieces, but resides in a kind of unity of Universality? And yet, I understood Jesus at one time as personal deity--connected to that transcendent Godhead. Was this different, because I imagined or experienced him as "in the world" in a way that these other deities seem not to be? (Am I dancing around the need for idols, perhaps, and places of consecrated space dedicated to the gods and allowing them residence in the manifest world?)

I am losing myself in language once more, it seems, as I try to articulate my own stumbling blocks. Jeff's views of polytheism seem simple and elegant, but at times almost too literal for me to connect with in a deeply meaningful way. I admire the trust that both he and Kullervo express when they speak of taking their experiences of the gods at face value, and yet as someone without such experiences of my own I wonder if I'm missing something, or if I'm just not as good at make-believe. Of course this sounds insulting, but it's not meant to be. There are certain things in which I believe almost as though they were a part of my nature--reincarnation, for instance, and to some extent faeries and elemental beings--and I have wrestled before with the question of why some beliefs, which are no more rational or mature, come naturally while others just don't "click." But even if this struggle cannot help me to appreciate the language of polytheism, in other ways it helps me to understand where my friend Raymond is coming from when he objects to the use of certain words as unhelpful, even bordering on meaningless.

Because if there's one thing I do believe in, it's the power of language--not to label things, but to name them. For me, words are never fatal, killing a thing dead when we speak about it. Indeed, words are powerful--they allow us to think, they provide us with a structure, a grammar and vocabulary of thought. But a word that cannot evoke a meaningful and complex reality is useless to us; it is language which depends on a thriving essential connection to the real world, and not the other way around. When a word--be it "god" or "truth" or whatever--is thrown around too easily or too often misapplied, then yes, something does die: the word itself. A word that cannot speak to experience is dead indeed, empty and disconnected. But we're mistaken if we think that because the word is dead, we have killed the reality with it, or even that we have cut ourselves off from that reality in its uniqueness and intimate presence. The struggle to articulate our experiences can lead us far from the original immediacy as we knew it at first, but working through this divergence eventually brings us back again to a place in which reality can speak on multiple levels at once, both through particulars and through universals, without one denying the other. When we respect the role that language can play, when we respect both its power and its limits, words can become an instrument of connection, freedom and creativity, rather than a barrier or killing blow.

This, I believe, is the difference between naming and labeling, or the difference between limit and restriction, choice and decision, as I've discussed before. I have never allowed labels--even those applied to me against my will by others--to act as a restriction on my freedom to be who I truly am. Quite the opposite, in fact: I have always felt that who I truly am shapes and gives context to whatever words might attach themselves to me. This is the essence of a name. This is why I am and always will be an "Ali," not because my parents knew me before I was even born (they barely know me now!) and somehow picked out the best label for me, but because the arbitrary gift of that name has given me something to work with creatively and deeply, and I have made it my own. Likewise, being "a waitress" has not restricted me or forced me into a role I do not like; instead, I help to define and expand on what it means to be a waitress by accepting the word as a name and working creatively with it. Being "a Druid," I do the same thing, my ideas and experiences adding meaning, context and life to the word, instead of sucking life out of me and rendering my spiritual experiences shallow or silly. When someone seeks to label me, I do not worry too much that I might somehow be lessened in their eyes, for if they reduce me to a label it is not really me they are talking of, and if they acknowledge my own true being then the label itself is transformed and expanded by "my good name," so to speak.

Understanding the limits of language, as well as its power, means that I also relax a bit and develop a sense of light-hearted playfulness. Words are immensely powerful in shaping our thoughts (and our thoughts do, arguably, shape reality in turn), but I am not just my thinking. I am also my poetry, my music and aesthetics, my intuition, my laughter, my crying, my running and walking, my dancing and my sitting quietly in the park. I am my meditation, whether that meditation is discursive explorations of reasoning and free associative logic, or imaginative journeying through inner landscapes, or the zazen practice of sitting still and quieting the monkey mind. For me, language is something that I play with, in the same way a musician might play his instrument, setting aside all the theory and "right" ways of making music, breaking all the rules in order to give his own soul-song a chance to breathe and speak. To be able to play, to act creatively and discover or make new meaning, I need the freedom of allowing myself not to take language so seriously all the time. I need the freedom to say whatever occurs to me, without worrying if it's always precisely and exactly what I mean, to explore what sounds good and what evokes suggestive or provocative images and ideas, even if it doesn't say something "true." This is what allows me to write poems and stories about gods and goddesses that still hold meaning and power for me, even if I do not know what I believe exactly about deity or the truth of others' beliefs. By playing with language and allowing myself to explore, I learn what it is these words mean for me.

Where It Gets Me

It gets me right here. The other night in meditation, I posed the question--to Caer in whatever form she felt like showing up, or to the universe in general, or to my own subconscious--why I don't seem to experience personal deity any more. The answer came back that it was simply because, at some point, I decided I didn't need personal deity anymore, that this focus on mystic transcendence or whathaveyou was more valuable or more real or simply more meaningful to me. But this was a choice I made, based on what I believed about the universe, and not necessarily some revelation of inherent universal truth. It was the name I chose for my own spiritual path, and to some extent I have been working with that name and making it my own ever since. That doesn't mean this approach is any worse than relating to divinity through personal deity or deities....and it's certainly not a matter of whether or not one "needs" gods or God to grow or love or evolve or connect. I don't think gods, or even a conscious connection with what I call Spirit, is necessary for these things. But that doesn't mean, either, that having a spiritual life that includes ideas about Spirit and deity is worse or more damaging, or prevents people from connecting, growing or appreciating reality, anymore than having relationships with family, friends and so on prevents me from realizing the unity and interconnection at the heart of all our uniqueness.

So in the end, I continue to question myself and others about these subjects. Sometimes I'm surprised that I've been worrying this same bone for more than three years now; other times it just amuses me how some things are ingrained no matter what kinds of other revelations we might have. It is not that I feel my spiritual life is somehow lacking or that I'm not making progress. It's that I am curious about these experiences of personal deity as experiences, as things that others have experienced. In a way, I want to see if I can choose differently, choose a new way of approaching Spirit, precisely because then I will know to some extent that I do indeed have the capacity to choose freely and truly as a creative, free individual. If I have such experiences of my own, I will understand the experiences of others better and the language they use to speak about them. Perhaps, if it is true that not everyone can wield the power and limit of language effectively without slaying the reality it means to express, then I might have some other gift to offer, speaking or writing about these ideas and experiences in ways that are meaningful for others and articulate things they themselves have not yet learned to say. I can only ever talk deeply and meaningful about my own experiences, in the end, but I can strive to shape and work with language in ways that illuminate and communicate meaning and truth, rather than obscuring and detracting from it. And if this effort can help to honor and praise Spirit, in whatever form, then that's what I will work at until my bones ache and my tongue and fingertips are sore.


  1. All I can come up with to say is that I'm happy you have others you can talk to about it - truly happy for you.

  2. I feel like a mother her daughter's wedding, "I told myself I wasn't going to cry," except before reading through the above post I said, "I told myself I wasn't going to comment." But who can resist? I just wanted to make sure I clarify that I in no way object to the use of certain words, only because as you mention, the words have only as much power as we can give them (for the most part). My concern is that far too many people throw around terms like "God" and "gods" assuming an implied connection with those terms, almost a forced connection out of respect for the tradition of the term itself. So usually, when somebody talks to me about "God," "gods," "holy experiences," etc., I get a bit agitated because I feel like the person using those words with me does not even have a good grasp of their own experience simply because they have relied on other people's language, other people's interpretations of the world before allowing themselves privilege of interpretation/experience.

    I always think back to the scene in the movie Lost in Translation, where the woman visits a temple and watches the monks for a bit. Later on she starts crying to her friend about how she saw all this and didn't feel anything. This pretty much sums up my experience with others relating their own experiences to me, not because their experiences were lacking substance, but because it seems that the way in which they connected with those experiences, during and afterwards with language, were, in a sense, shallow. Now who am I to say such a thing? Well, nobody really, but that's just how I feel. I think there is a deep connection with the language that we use and the depth of the experience, both during and afterwards. In that way, each experience, while being concentrated in a moment, has the ability to grow after that moment through language, providing us deeper insight and newer experiences and so on and so forth. But far too often, people don't dig deeply enough, they just scratch at the surface or stop when they hit a rock or whatever. And so, I think that language, or at least how we have habitualized our use of language, can keep us from digging and digging because we already pre-associate depth with a word or term before understanding where that depth stems from.

    So in the end, I only "object" when I feel that the words people throw around lack substance and depth, genuine depth. And perhaps it is just my self-centered opinion, but I feel like I have a good sense of being able to feel out or smell depth in what a person has to say, in who a person is. And my agitation simply stems from the refusal of most people to spend a little time away from traditions and away from accepted forms of thought, and just play a little bit on ones own with ideas, words, experience, without the intrusion of a given set of ideas or system of beliefs.

    And for the record of records I am not an agnostic.

  3. Thanks for giving in to the urge to comment, Raymond. :) I knew full well that I couldn't really capture your side of the discussion, and since you don't have a convenient blog post I can link to (ahem), I was at a loss. But now people can get a taste of your perspective. Good, good. :)

    By the way, when will you be getting around to starting up a blog? ;)

  4. Hi Ali,

    Just wanted to say thanks for a beautiful post. I'm new here, but reading through some of your old posts are really helping me feel at home. Great food for thought for my own poetic journey.


  5. I'll leave all the good blogging to folks like yourself, that way I won't bring down the quality of the blogging world with my silly comments about life. Good post though...Deliddle would be proud.

  6. I need to read and re-read and re-re-read this post, Ali... but I already know I love it.

    Do I always love your posts? Feels like it. But this one I love more than usual. And if I were ever to compile a book on the best of the Pagan blogosphere, I would absolutely want this post in it. Because this is the kind of conversation we need to be having with one another--over beer, or mead, or Woodchucks, or even over a slushy from a 7-11.

    And it's also kickass writing. "he was the broken-hearted god I met in dream: sitting quietly in an empty corner sipping his beer and watching the careless violence of love and connection bloom and shred to dust under dancing feet..."?

    You rock!

  7. Yes, this is an excellent post, and articulates some of what's been happening for me on the deities vs deity front (though I too have gone from the many to the one, like Cat, and am currently calling myself a polymorphist, with the view that the Divine has one substance and many forms). Thanks!

  8. Finn,

    Thanks for visiting! It's rather serendipitous that you would leave a comment just now--I hopped on over to your site and found a lot there that seems particularly relevant to some of my interests lately. Now you and a few of the blogs you link to are in my feed reader. :) I really look forward to reading you, and I hope you continue to visit and read here, as well, as I'm sure you (like all my readers ;) have lots of wonderful insight and experiences to share!

  9. Cat, Thank you. :) As always, your praise means a whole helluva lot to me, since your writing speaks powerfully to me as well. I was actually just joking with Jeff about how this is at least the second or third time that something you wrote in your blog was the final shove that pushed me to go and write a "post I've been meaning to get to but haven't found the time or motivation yet." Since so much of my own self-knowledge and growth on this path has come from writing, this makes your blog a really influential source of inspiration for me, since it so often provokes me into writing myself. :) So thank you doubly!

  10. Yewtree, I'm glad I'm not alone in this uncertainty, anyway. Sometimes I wonder if others are trying to puff up their experiences of polytheistic deities (or just never had a powerful connection with monotheism and so don't have much to compare it to), and other times I'm convinced that I'm just tone-deaf when it comes to the gods. ;) But either way, I figure the best I can do and how I can help contribute meaningfully to the conversation is to be honest and try to share as openly and genuinely as possible. I don't know where it'll get me years from now, but I'm optimistic. :)

  11. Have to say that a few months ago I came face to face, very unexpectedly I might reinforce, with Cernunos. It surprised me so much that I just burst into tears, utterly overwhelmed by his strength, beauty and awe inspiring peacefulness.
    I mention this because whilst my head has been considering deity for many years and I have thus intellectualised deity, this was the first time I had actually come face to face with it/him. The power of my heart in terms of contemplating deity now overides the common sense of my thoughts regarding deity. So amazing!

  12. Ali, -- like Ray, I've succumbed to the temptation to comment. :-) We've talked a lot about this offline, and I'm planning my own post on this topic, but I wanted to say a couple of things here...

    It sounds kind of strange to hear you talk about my "views" on polytheism, since my opinions are based so much on personal experience rather than theory. It's like talking about my "views" on the difference between red and green. :-) And this leaves me at a disadvantage when I'm trying to explain my "views" to others; unless they can "see the colors" too, there's no common experience to build on. I wish the gods would just talk to everyone, everywhere, but they don't seem to force themselves on folks much. Still (in my experience anyway), they always come if you pester them long enough, so I'm 100% positive you're going to contact one eventually. (Listen to me talking like I'm some goddam guru! How do you put up with me?!)

    It's interesting, what you say about believing in the ecology of spirit, but not knowing how the gods fit in to that. It seems to me that the difference between a fairy and a god is one of degree rather than kind; I don't know what their respective roles are in the spiritual ecology, but they both participate in it. (Notice I'm carefully using a small-g "god", I'm not talking about the big-G "God". I feel like big-G God doesn't participate in the spiritual ecology; big-G God might *be* the spiritual ecology...)

    I really liked what you had to say about word meaning, too. Word meaning is something that really fascinates me, because it's an area where self, mind, and society come together in a very small slice of experience. I do think it's important to cultivate the ability to set words aside and let the experience simply be what it is, without trying to put it in a little box. At the same time, words are essential to our very humanity; it's our nature to create models of experience and play with them in language or mathematics. I think living in that tension between language and the world-as-it-is is our doom -- and our gift. :-)

  13. Amethyst, What's really funny is that only a day or so after I wrote this, I had a rather strange experience myself that involve Cernunnos. During meditation in the park one evening, suddenly it was as though he was quite literally sitting beside me--so literal, in fact, that for a moment I thought the other person I was with had gotten up and moved. It's certainly the first time I've felt any kind of "presence" in association with Celtic deities... but it wasn't an experience of power or awe or anything that I might connect with godness... or at least, not exactly.

    So I'm still pondering and meditating. I totally agree that direct experiences of divinity completely overwhelm our usual rationalities and carefully constructed theories... it's happened to me before, in fact, though only with the monotheistic God. On the other hand, once we have these experiences, I think it's fruitful--both for ourselves and for others--to try to understand what such experiences mean and what they say about the world, and to try to communicate our new understanding so that it doesn't remain "just in our hearts."

  14. Jeff, Well, maybe I should talk about your "ideas" of polytheism, then? Seems to me that if you're talking about colors, "view" is a very good word for it, though. ;) And I might say your "experiences" of polytheism, but then that sounds a bit like I'm aspiring to have your experiences, when really I'm working to cultivate my own.

    Regardless, your views of polytheism (for interest, taking at face value a god's self-identifying itself as such in meditation, or the importance of believing gods are not merely archetypes or the subconscious) are not something I necessarily share--and I won't know for sure if I share these views or not until I have experiences of my own and must choose how to engage and respond.

  15. I loved reading this. And Raymond's clarifications.

    I can relate to so much of it - have attempted to articulate my own versions of these thoughts before - and now i'm thinking of them again, inspired by your post, but in that way I sometimes hold ideas before words start to cling to them so I can't add much - I simply wanted to 'tap into' the dialogue.

    Thank you.

  16. Erin, I'm really glad the writing and comments here have inspired you to contemplate your own ideas. :) And thanks for leaving your own comment--even if your thoughts are still in that amorphous shape, I truly believe it's always worthwhile to ponder these types of things and try to engage in an honest dialogue about them... if only so others don't feel like they're the only ones out there thinking and wondering. :)

  17. Thank you, Ali, for this blog! I just found it today and am happy I did. For a long time, I've been perusing the blogosphere looking for bloggers that were interested in the same questions I am. Your blog is a real treasure trove, and doesn't just satisfy my longing to find bloggers with similar concerns, but really challenges my thinking on the topics of deity, spirituality and paganism. Thank you so much... I look forward to reading more.

  18. Elizabeth, So glad you found your way here! :) It's nice to know that I'm not alone in these contemplations and questions, and that others out there are reading along and pondering their own journeys, too. I don't think I would be so inspired to write if it wasn't for people like you pausing in their daily routines, taking the time to say hello and make a connection. :) And of course, if you enjoy reading, share the love and tell your friends. ;) It sounds like shameless self-promotion, I know, but I really do believe in "the more, the merrier," and the wonderful exchange of ideas that can happen in the blogosphere. :)