I hate to admit it but I do feel some animosity toward hard polytheists. I feel as if they have stolen the gods (which of course belong neither to me nor to them, but to their own time and place).
The gods have meaning precisely because they are symbols, symbols of the power, the mystery of life, of nature, of the world. When the gods are conceived as supernatural people this meaning is lost.
A literal view of the gods has all the intellectual problems of the Christian gods (and I do mean gods, plural – Christians are only monotheists because they re-defined god, which for the ancient Greeks theo meant “deathless”). If the world is full of enlightened superbeings, why isn’t it more obvious? The gods as superbeings come off seeming un-god-like, small, weak and insignificant. Even if they do exist, I don’t see why we should care.
I just don’t get it, and that is the question that needs to be answered. Why do people want supernatural gods?
Are personified symbols to blame?
I don’t think people create or turn to supernatural beings because they have been befuddled by the use of personified symbols. It is not the symbol that is the cause, it is the need.
I think if religious naturalism can truly meet our instinctual needs, the needs religion traditionally addressed, then it will grow and supernaturalism will decrease; if not, then humans will continue to find new and ingenious ways to justify supernaturalism and supernaturalism will grow (with or without personified symbols).
I think there is good evidence that the rise of supernatural literalism in paganism and Christianity is not a return to traditional religion but is a reaction to our societal problems, our disconnected, fast-paced, de-humanized world (see Karen Armstrong’s book “The Case for God” and On Being’s (formally Speaking of Faith) interview with religious historian Martin Marty).
Is nature too hard to love?
Naturalistic earth/nature-centered religion faces a lot of challenges. For many people, nature is just not a suitable object of reverence; nature is just not god-like.
We are taught that nature is like a machine. It is an object without will, without purpose, and without consciousness (for many people, saying that nature has consciousness and we are it is not satisfying).
For many modern urbanites, nature is not really awe-inspiring. We do not feel fear and trembling in the face of the great power of nature. We rarely feel vulnerable in nature (unless we seek this out by putting ourselves in remote and dangerous situations). Our survival and happiness is seen as depending on human ingenuity or perhaps God’s will, but certainly not on the “will” of nature.
Many Christians feel it is inappropriate to express thanks and gratitude toward nature. Since nature has no will, it cannot really “give” us anything (they are of course strongly against any form of personification of nature, especially with religious connotations).
More important than being intellectually satisfying, religion needs to be emotionally satisfying. I wonder if nature can really fulfill our emotional needs without some level of personification. To call nature our Mother is to personify nature, to make an analogy between human mothers and the earth (see the discussion in response to Rua Lupa’s “Understanding word use and how science relates to myth and religion“).
What we stand to lose
Given our culture, I can understand why some people are very skeptical about using myth and mythic symbols in religious naturalism. Myth is a very powerful technique for “writing on the tablet of the heart” as David M. Carr puts it, for conveying meaning, values and even information so important we should never forget it.
Yet, the symbols and metaphors of myth are only meaningful if everyone understands what they are referring to. If everyone in our culture insists that myths and the characters in myths must be taken literally (so that myth is judged as true or false history/science, not as true or false metaphor), then we will not be able to use myth or mythic symbols, and I think our religion will be diminished for it.
Maggie Jay Lee lives in west Tennessee with her husband, cat and two
dogs. When she is not working as an environmental consultant, she likes to spend
her time enjoying nature, dancing and learning about this strange, beautiful world.
Maggie is a naturalistic pagan with a particular interest in ancient Greek religion.
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