Mere Words

I have always had a problem with the language of Spiritual Experience, and a great deal of my spiritual enquiry has been focussed on this dilemma of mine. I have written pages and pages in various journals and diaries (none of which I have ever been good at keeping) on my bafflement at the way people talk about spirituality. My biggest problem is that judging by the speech of others, I have rarely, if ever, had a legitimate Spiritual Experience. Of course, I don’t mean to say that I myself have never had what I would term a spiritual experience, merely that I have not, as yet, found in language a fully realized way of describing it.

The problem, as I see it, is manifold. First off, within Pagan and New Ages communities, Spiritual Experience is frequently referred to as a Communion with the Divine, however, I find myself questioning what the actual content of such a description is. For that phrase to properly carry meaning, we must first be capable, at the very least, of defining the Divine in concrete terms, if not, then, explicitly defining communion in an equally concrete way. Here, of course, the question schisms into a hundred, if not more, discrete questions which every discrete theology answers in frequently radically different ways. If one, however, attempts to step back and define the Divine so that it includes multiple theologies (I would here argue that it is impossible to define the Divine in a way that includes all theologies) one is left with a definition of the Divine that is so vague as to be useless. There is, of course, the retort that such an effort is futile, since the Divine is the Great Unknowable Source/Creator/Totality/Fullness/Whatever, and the truth of Communion with the Divine lies within this Mighty Unfathomable. However, such an response nullfies itself, as communion implies an intimacy which can only exist between beings comprehensible to each other. Once the Divine is removed from the realm of experience, the idea of communion with it becomes nonsensical. The Divine must be describable and present within the realm of experience. If it can be experienced, we must also be capable of describing said experience, and speaking of such a communion in proper, concrete terms.

I don’t mean to say that such a description would be easy, describing the experience of color is devilishly hard to do without relying on the names themselves. It is sufficient in casual speech to refer to a sunset as red, but it in describing the redness of the sunset one must resort to metaphor and analogy: poetry rushes in to attend to the subtle queerness of discrete experience. It seems to be, then, that the Divine, being, by necessity, as pervasive as color, should require a description as equally, if not substantially more, queer. I have to wonder, then, if such a queer description can claim the concreteness required to bring into sensibility the phrase, “Communion with the Divine,” and, if it cannot, are all attempts to uncover a proper spiritual discourse damned from the outset to failure?

Secondly, I feel that Pagans must be capable of dropping the dogma of the faiths which surround them. Paganism makes claims to a great historicity (which is a whole other discussion, though for my present purpose, I have no desire to dispute such claims), and as such, has a great breadth and depth of language to draw from. Why, then, do Pagans today continue to speak of the divine in the terms defined largely by early twentieth century Christian Evangelicals? The Personal Relationship with Jesus, it seems to me, has more often than not merely been mapped onto Artemis, Venus, Freya and a hundred other ancient gods the orignal settings of which would have frequently found such an idea not only antithetical, but blasphemous. Is Knowledge of Thor exactly analogous to Knowledge of Christ? It seems to me that we as not only Pagans, but Spiritual Explorers must confront such questions. And again, my previous critique of Divine Communion can be brought to bear here: how are these, now manifold, Divinities defined so that the experience of them is as discrete as the experience of color?

I realize that this reflection raises more questions than answers, and I really make no claims to direct Spiritual Knowledge. All I am trying to do is explore my own understandings and misunderstandings. Indeed, particularly within this question, I often feel like the misunderstanding is entirely on my end. I know that people have Spiritual Experiences and possess deep and abiding faiths which demonstrate themselves in their experience of the world. My dilemma arises when people begin speaking of such experiences and are then incapable of elucidating the foundations of their experience. I feel, then, that perhaps I am the one incapable of understanding a rather simple idea. However, I suspect that this idea, which many take as being quite simple and basic, is, in fact, incredibly complex and subtle. I suspect that Divine Communion is not a thing which we have the luxury of accepting on face value and that we must turn back upon it and dwell within it.

I argue that the Divine must, in order for it to even be accesible to us and experienced must be, in all its forms, Immanent and Present. In order for us to speak of Divinity as a thing which can know, it must be manifestly in our world, as much as color and light are manifestly present. The Divine cannot simultaneously be Unknowable and Experienced: it must be present within the realm of experience for it to be apprehensible at all. The Divine cannot be described as above or beyond. The Divine can only be entirely, indisputably, here.

This, then, is the task of those of us seekers, to uncover a means of speaking of the Divine within the realm of experience which adequately concretizes it. We can no longer afford to speak of the Divine in the language of our religio-philosophic forebears. Or, if we are, we must task ourselves within analyzing such language to uncover the moments wherein it is capable of describing the experience of the Divine in terms which reflect the unique experience of it, as much as a poet describes the experience of red within the sunset. We need to be Poet Philosophers & Artists of the Spiritual in order to apprehend, I suspect, the experience of the Divine.

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5 thoughts on “Mere Words

  1. Satiah says:

    While I cannot say I have answers for you I would like to share some of my thoughts and ideas about your post in hope that maybe we can both understand this better.

    “The Divine cannot simultaneously be Unknowable and Experienced”

    I was with you on that paragraph up until this point, but I also take Unknowable to mean we cannot completely know everything about something. If we could know everything about it, what would be so special? So worthy of aspiration? It’s like any art, for I do like your phrase “Artists of the Spiritual”. Getting to know about the Divine is a life long journey just like the study of any art, and expressing one’s knowledge of the divine equally needs an artists skill. If it were possible to know absolutely everything about dance, or music, or painting, and be able to use that knowledge, would we have life long students of art of any sort? Or would we have transient artists who learn it, play with it a while before abandoning it because there’s no more challenge, no more room for advancement or innovation?

    I also think in some ways Unknowable and Experienced go hand and hand. If one reads about dance but never watches it, just reads about it on paper, and never experiences it either through witness or attempt, what do they really know about dance? To me the Divine is truly unknowable with out experience of it.

    “Secondly, I feel that Pagans must be capable of dropping the dogma of the faiths which surround them. Paganism makes claims to a great historicity (which is a whole other discussion, though for my present purpose, I have no desire to dispute such claims), and as such, has a great breadth and depth of language to draw from. Why, then, do Pagans today continue to speak of the divine in the terms defined largely by early twentieth century Christian Evangelicals? ”

    I think the question that goes a long with this is. ‘What to replace it with?’ While it is slowly changing many Pagans are not born to parents who are Pagan, so when coming to Paganism in seriousness, and not just a passing rebellious phase, there’s this need to use language to make expressing one’s experiences sound valid and carry a sense of weight that the thoughts and experiences of mystics, theologians, and preachers of more established faiths have. I think if you were to look at the Pagans using that language, they’re pulling from what they know from before or what those around them in the community knew before. Or it’s emulating the more common contemporary religious writers in order to achieve the same end, more seriousness and weight given to Pagan religious dialogue. I think it’s also born out of a desire conscious or not to try to reconcile the new faith and old faith, or the faith of oneself to that of ones friends and family or community at large. I know when I was first trying to make my views and leanings known I tried to bridge that gap by essentially saying “Look you and I are not so different. See, I can describe my faith the way you describe yours, it’s just a matter of deity and practice.” Now it’s not the best way to do that but at the time I was still learning a lot and I was more concerned with seeking understanding and to minimize hostile reception. It’s not a good way, but it’s what I did. The problem is when using that language it starts to invade language used when speaking and describing it with others of roughly the same faith, either through habit of use or familiarity and then in turn others may use it. Which brings me back to my question to you.

    Very thoughtful post, there’s a lot to chew on, and I hope what I’ve shared gives you a little bit more to think about it.

    • eidolos says:

      There is a vast difference between unknowable and complex. Never would I make the claim that divinity is simple, in fact, I’ve implied throughout this post that the Divine is incredibly difficult to understand. My charge is that to fall back on terms such as unknowable is both lazy and nonsensical. We can’t afford to say refer to the Divine as some Great Unknowable Force in the universe, and then claim to know it, to experience it. Of course Spiritual Growth is life long endeavor, fraught with all the hardships and difficulties that others have endlessly enumerated. I am simply asserting that to claim that the Divine is Unknowable is to entrench it in a realm beyond Human Experience, and as Spirituality is an utterly Human Experience, such wording is honestly kind of stupid. What is the point of Spirituality if Divinity is not only vast and complex, but utterly alien and incomprehensible? In such a case one is better off worshiping a chair, which at least has some observable function in the world. Divinity must be firmly entrenched within the realm of Human Experience in order for us to have, pardon the grammar analogy, an object for our subjects’ actions to attach to.

      Also, the Great Unknowable God is an idea which has been used for centuries to prop up dangerous religious hierarchies. How much of high Catholic doctrine derives from such an idea? Aquinas and Anselm both appeal to such gods (with, in my opinion, ridiculous orthodoxy destroying results, but that’s another topic) and they are the great champions of Catholic thought.

      Of course, I’m also not trying to say that replacing the language is easy, merely that it’s necessary. We are not Christian. Our faiths are emphatically unlike the Christian faith. Why should we try to make ourselves appear to be something we’re not? This isn’t an issue merely of our own private discourse, but also the way we present ourselves to the world. Pagans have been fighting for the recognition of their own unique identities, it is entirely unhelpful to say that, “We’re just like you, only I say Thor instead of Jesus,” because when we say that, people are going to hear, “When I say Thor, I mean Jesus,” and that is simply not true. This is a matter of identity and pride.

      • Satiah says:

        I never said you were making it sound easy, I just wanted to see if you had any suggestions for replacing the language. In that I really agree with you but I’m not one for messing with language. I use what I read and hear because my interest lies more in the doing, be it writing rituals, hymns, prayers, or meditating, dancing, so on and so forth.

  2. […] the experience of color has been utilized as an analogy for Spiritual Experience on this project: once by me, and once by a commenter. I find the analogy quite fascinating. Color does not, in fact, […]

  3. […] were recently discussing Dion Fortune’s role in Modern Paganism in this regard. I think that one of the more destructive strategies of Modern Pagans striving for acceptance has been largely derived from her work. Within the […]

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