The HPedia: Deity

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In myth, a deity is typically portrayed as a figure of supernormal power and importance with some deep connection to the natural, cultural, or moral order.

Deity has been conceived in myriad ways.  Naturalistic concepts are admittedly less common than other kinds, but they have been known throughout history.

A classic depiction of the variety of views of deity in Contemporary Paganism can be found in Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest’s Pagan Deism: Three Views.  The essay presents views according to the three primary colors of red, blue, and yellow, more or less resembling hard polytheism, soft polytheism, and naturalism, respectively.  Cast as the three points of a triangle, the merging of colors between them illustrates the dynamic spectrum of beliefs available in Paganism.  In Bridger and Hergest’s model, Naturalistic Paganism would cluster near the yellow tip.

M. Jay Lee, in a post in the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism, provides a different breakdown of different views of deity in Paganism:

Here is how I would categorize the major positions on theism:

1) anti-theism – No gods period, symbolic or otherwise

2) symbolic theism – uses gods as symbols, metaphors, allegories for natural phenomena/forces, abstract concepts, unconscious drives etc

3) soft theism – views gods as a manifestation of a real (external) but somewhat nebulous higher power which is usually seen as leading us into some higher state of being (the particular gods/goddesses may be human-created metaphors but behind them is a real immortal power)

4) hard theism – the view that the gods (and other such beings like faeries and angels) really exist as literal, conscious, immortal super-beings.

Category 2 is the most typical mode for HP.  Categories 1 and 2 are generally compatible with Religious Naturalism.

Seemingly absent from this category scheme is a view of deity as a directly-experienced mental phenomenon, similar to a dream image.  The dream image is not necessarily “symbolic” of anything, but is a real, direct mental experience.  In the same fashion, deities appearing in the mind’s eye would not be symbolic either, but real as such (though without implying any kind of objective reality external to the individual mind).

See also “Day/Night Language.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

13 Comments on “The HPedia: Deity

  1. I think deity as “directly-experienced mental phenomenon” can still fit under symbolic theism, but in this case the “symbol” is created by the subconscious mind. I think a lot of the deeper meanings of the gods as symbols have their origin not in conscious contrivance but in subconscious illumination.

    • Does a dream image necessarily have to be symbolic of anything? Similarly, must a deity created by the unconscious need a symbolic meaning? That’s what I was getting at.

      • I have agree with B.T. I really appreciate that he included this fourth category of gods/deity as a psychological phenomenon in its own right. Talking about the gods as metaphors or symbols can be terribly reductive; it suggests that we can do away with the symbol and just talk about the literal; meaning, which I would argue is not possible with such numinous experiences. This is a subtlety that is lost in many Pagan discussions about the gods, and I think it accounts for much of the growing literalism among polytheists.

      • It seems to me that you guys are thinking of the term “symbol” in a very narrow sense, as in dove = peace – something consciously created, understood and to some extent agreed upon by humans. This is not what I mean to imply by the term symbolic theism. I am reminded of Paul Woodruff’s definition of reverence. He says that for something to be a proper ‘object’ of reverence it must be something which is not fully created, controlled or understood by humans. If the term symbol implies that which is not real, something reductive, maybe we need another term.

        I think if a dream image does not represent something, does not have something to say about the realities of life, then it probably is not a significant dream image. I agree that not all dream images are symbolic. Some dream images are probably just random firings of neurons (mental house cleaning), as opposed to being an attempt at communication between the subconscious mind and the conscious mind. Dreams (including waking dreams as in a trance) are a real, direct mental experience. It is something that happens to us. But that is because we are deaf, dumb and blind to the hidden processing of the subconscious mind.

        I don’t think I understand this category “mental/psychological theism”. It sounds like you are saying that mental theism is a belief in gods who exists only in the mind and are not representative of any external or internal realities, including forces, drives, desires, fears, relationships, and values (the juice of life). If mental gods don’t carry any meaning, then what meaning do they have? Are they just objects in the mind?

      • MJ wrote: “It seems to me that you guys are thinking of the term “symbol” in a very narrow sense, as in dove = peace – something consciously created, understood and to some extent agreed upon by humans.

        I think “symbolic” is good, so long as it is understood it “is not fully created, controlled or understood by humans.” I don’t think that is how most people think of symbols unfortunately.

        MJ wrote: “If mental gods don’t carry any meaning, then what meaning do they have? Are they just objects in the mind?”

        Speaking for myself, I am not saying that such experiences are not meaningful. I am just concerned about that meaning being reduced to a single proposition. I think some encounters in dreams or active imagination can be more like meeting a person than seeing a street sign. We can easily say what the meaning of a street sign is, but what is the meaning of an encounter with a person? Obviously, the encounter can be meaningful, but calling it “symbolic” can seem reductive.

  2. Not sure the article should start with reference to myth. I’d bring that in later. Maybe swap the first two paragraphs? As it stands it seems to frame deity entirely in terms of myth, and I am not sure that’s accurate.

  3. Also where does something like pantheism fit in here? If one worships the Earth, or the Cosmos, then is that conception of deity subsumed under one of the listed categories? It doesn’t seem to me that it does but perhaps I’m being dense.

  4. I do worship (although I don’t like to use that word) the Earth and Cosmos, and I do use the names, images and stories of mythic characters to represent my relationship with Earth/Cosmos. Does this mean I am practicing two forms of theism? If it does then our categories are too narrow. I think the problem is this word symbol.

    • On reflection, I think we should here limit the term theism to mythic conceptions of deities (by which I would also include Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit). In this case pantheists that do not include god and goddess language, images and/or stories would be non-theistic, and pantheists that use deity language, images and stories to represent various sacred qualities of Earth and Cosmos would be practicing a form of symbolic theism. Otherwise the pantheist that worships Earth and Cosmos would seem to be more of a non-anthropomorphic hard theists, which doesn’t seem right to me. I also think we should scrap “anti-theism” for the less pejorative “non-theism”.

      Bart’s comments raise lots of questions for me as to how to define deity. What is a non-mythic goddess? A goddess without a story? Do we need a different frame of reference to talk about our relationship to the “sacred”?

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