Saturday, January 7, 2012

Conception of God

God (said in a big booming voice)
How do you envision God?  As a witch, do you believe in God?  In Jesus?  How can you have multiple Gods?

I get these questions a lot and I imagine this will only increase as I meet more Christian seminary students.  While the community at PSR is open minded and welcoming to pagans, I imagine that there is still a lot of ignorance about pagan practices.  For most people in this country, pagans and witches means Wicca, which is one kind of paganism but it is not the one that I practice.  But let's not delve into the complicated mess of definitions and traditions (the pagan version of denominations).  The American Goddess Movement is still quite young and even among the believers, there are a lot of discussions about what means what.  I can, however, discuss my own personal approach to the divine.  I have found a beautiful metaphor that describes it perfectly.

Consider the ocean.  For any of you who are lucky to have lived in a coastal town, it isn't easy to imagine that we know the ocean.  Growing up in San Diego, I spent many childhood days playing at the foot of the Great Pacific Ocean.  As I learned how to spell and do long division, I also learned how to negotiate the fickle nature of the ocean, survive the rising tides and avoid the hidden dangers.

So it is easy to say I know the ocean.  But what I actually know is one small piece.  I have come to know the Pacific Ocean through half a dozen spots where it comes into contact with the land up and down the California Coast.  I know the ocean at its boundaries, its borders.  And even then, I only know THIS ocean and I only know it at THESE boundaries.

Every time I go to the ocean, even if I go to the very same beach, it is always a different ocean.  Each wave falls differently along the sand, making small but powerful changes in the shape of the land.  For me growing up in San Diego, the ocean was blue and relatively warm, playing along long flat beaches filled with sun worshiping beach-goers.  The ocean of my adulthood is a colder ocean, breaking against the picturesque rocks of the Northern California coast.  Up here the ocean is a grey and windy creature, with swirling and powerful tides.  Up here I sit far above the ocean's break, enjoying the view and the spray but rarely submerging myself in the water.

After many years, I have finally realized that God is like this.

The ocean is truly unknowable.  We can list facts and send boats out to gather bits and return.  But no human being will ever fully know the ocean.  It is simply too vast, constantly changing, and so very deep.  However, while the full ocean is unknowable, human beings from the beginning of time have had complex and important relationships with the ocean.  We know her in our own spaces, at the boundaries of where she meets the land upon which we live.

Each human being who reaches out into the void seeking the divine cannot ever expect to understand the wholeness of God / Goddess / Universe / Great Spirit / the All.  But in our little space, at the boundary between our short, incarnate existence and the vast eternity of divine energy, we find our face of God.  Like the ocean, it changes over time, waves shifting the shape of our lives as we adjust and grow in our relationship.  And while many people may gather at the same beach, but have different experiences of the ocean, so too may many people gather together in fellowship and yet remain separated by the different faces they see in God.

People can shape God as well, just as humans can shift the land where the ocean meets them.  We shape the stories and the perceptions, the expectations and visual imagery.  Over time this shaping can become powerful and deeply ingrained.  But they are still open to interpretation.

We need these interpretations.  The immensity of the divine energy is just too big to engage and feel the comfort and solace that religion offers. Having a personal relationship with God is only possible when God is squeezed down a bit, into a form that we can conceptualize having a personal relationship with.  So we humanize the divine energy.  Some religions are monotheistic, and give one face of God their full attention.  While others simply spread out the realms of symbolic control, creating multiple faces and personalities for us to engage.

Ganesh, Hindu God of Wisdom
Jesus is one face of God.  The son of God who came to save humanity, Jesus provides salvation and comfort.  He offers an example of a spiritual life and teaches peace and compassion.  This was the first face of God that I was taught as a child, and one I still value deeply.

Ganesh is another face of God.  The popular Hindu elephant God is a very old personality.  He offers strong protection, holds great wisdom, and blesses new endeavors.  Worshiped for thousands of years, the face of Ganesh has shifted many times through the years.  Today he has many incarnations existing simultaneously across India and the world.

Hecate, Goddess of Crossroads
The Goddess Hecate is another ancient face of God.  The Pre-Hellenic crone (wise woman) watches over the cross-roads and other places of transition.  As a goddess of transitions, she can provide guidance and support in births and death, both physical and metaphorical.  Hecate can support the stripping away of unwanted habits and bad situations, helping us to kill off the parts of ourselves that we wish to transform.

In Shintoism, the indigenous spiritual path of Japan, there is a belief in kami, which are the spirits that inhabit all things.  The spirit of the river and the spirit of the forest are just smaller pieces of the same bright divine energy.  Kami are physically situated in the space where their mountain or lake resides.  While I am neither Japanese or extensively trained in Shintoism, from my understanding kami aren't prayed to for favors so much as they are appeased and honored, respected as equally deserving of space and consideration when human beings are making plans about the way to use natural resources.

There are also some people who see light and spirit internally instead of reaching out for a divine external force.  Driven by their desire to fully mature into the best version of themselves, they are guided by their own higher selves, the bright spot of their soul.  I believe that this belief, the bright shining spot within each human being, is also a manifestation of divine spirit and completely equal to anything I have listed above.

In the end, I believe that divine energy is the sum of all of us, along with all the animals and the plants and the whole wide universe.  It is the spark of distant stars and the reproduction of the smallest bacteria. It is life and death and the shifting movement of existence here and everywhere, in this moment and in all moments before and after it.  I believe that this whole is greater than the sum of these little parts and that collectively, we are conscious.  I believe in a pattern, a tapestry of life in which we all play our part.  We can make choices in this, but we have a part to play and there are pieces in our lives that guide us.  And in all of this, different Gods are just convenient faces, ways to engage an unknowable energy.

The way I see it, God doesn't care or even acknowledge the differences in our practices.  Only human beings, with our limited sight and infinite distractions, could come up with a way to make such a small difference into a reason for centuries of war, dominance, and animosity.

A version of this article was also published on Witchvox