What if the universe doesn’t love you back?

– by B. T. Newberg

Most naturalists would probably agree that however much you may love the universe, it can’t love you back.  And yet, much of our language about it – and perhaps our feelings for it too – are built on an analogy to social relationships.

For example, we might speak of relating to the universe as to a friend, or symbolize the universe as a cosmic mother.  Since it is generally only humans with which we engage in such relationships, this is a form of anthropomorphism.*

Do you do this?  Is it an intentional part of your practice?

A Pagan characteristic?

I would wager that the vast majority of Pagan forms of naturalism anthropomorphize to some extent.  The language of deities, spirits, and ancestors is a prime example.  Gaianism is clear anthropomorphism as well.** Among published authors, Glenys Livingstone relates to Cosmic Creativity as a triple goddess, and Brendan Myers writes of humanizing the landscape as a confrontation with existential loneliness.

The language of magical energies might defy the pattern, since it sounds like a metaphor to the physical world, but arguably any talk of purely mental effects could be construed as anthropomorphic in some sense (see Richard Carrier’s views on the “supernatural”).  Perhaps the only Naturalistic Pagans free of anthropomorphism are those who carefully couch their language only in terms directly appropriate to nature, and respond with feelings of awe and wonder but not love.  For example, an article by Jonathan Blake carefully distinguishes between gratitude to the universe and gratitude for itRua Lupa also takes great care to avoid anthropomorphic language.

So, is anthropomorphism essential to specifically Pagan forms of naturalism?  Maybe, maybe not.  I don’t want to spark a fruitless who’s-Pagan-and-who’s-not debate here.  Since I think the term “Pagan” is a not a star but a constellation, it’s a matter of perspective.  All I want to suggest is that anthropomorphism might be particularly germaine to our community, and we should pay attention to it.

Neither do I wish to suggest that anthropomorphism is necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, I suspect it might be essential to most forms of Naturalistic Paganism, at least in a limited form.  To some extent, it may even be unavoidable in human cognition.

A matter of feeling?

Whether or not you anthropomorphize might come down to the feelings you treasure most in a spiritual practice.  Some speak of awe and wonder, others love and a sense of belonging.  The former feelings, compounded apparently from a mix of fear of curiosity, can be appropriately experienced in relation to nearly anything dangerous and grand, from a tiger to a pulsar.  The latter, on the other hand, are specifically social feelings, and depend on a certain degree of anthropomorphism.

The validation of feelings is particularly delicate in spirituality.  When theists vociferously assert the reality of their gods, I suspect what they’re really asserting is the validity of their social feelings toward them.  Our society has not yet reached a point where we can feel at ease relating socially to an entity we know is not actually social in nature.  It feels too much like an imaginary friend.  So people swear their gods are real to avoid the sense that they’re feelings are invalid.

Is anthropomorphism appropriate?

On the one hand, if we could learn to validate our feelings some other way instead – perhaps by accepting our anthropomorphism of the universe the way we accept the anthropomorphism of pets – we might be better off.

On the other hand, perhaps any anthropomorphism of the universe is too much.  If it obscures clear perception of the universe, or leads us into errors of thinking that take us down the wrong path, the harm might outweigh the good.

What do you think?

*Of course, it is also possible to have social relationships with animals, such as pets.  That might open up the possibility of zoomorphism.  On the other hand, even relationships with animals probably draw on cognitive modules evolved for human social interactions, so it might still be appropriate to speak of anthropomorphism.
**At least in its common spiritualized form.  The original Gaia Hypothesis proposed by Lovelock and Margulis only likens the planet to a self-regulating organism, without any stipulation of consciousness or the capacity for relationship.  It is, at most, a kind of biomorphism.

Next Sunday

Image of Donald RobertsonDiscover an ancient meditation that’s surprisingly modern.

The View from Above: A Stoic meditative practice, by Donald Robertson

Appearing Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Recent Work

Naturalistic Druidry: A retrospective, by WhiteHorse

What do Druid Naturalists do?  by WhiteHorse

Truth or compassion – which takes priority?  by B. T. Newberg

Participatory reverence, by Hypatia’s Girl

14 Comments on “What if the universe doesn’t love you back?

  1. When my fellow humans show me love — yes, it does happen occasionally — I suppose one could say that’s Gaia loving me back. But as a rule I don’t think of Gaia as a loving or caring about me. Rather, I see the Gaia image as a way of keeping certain powerful truths in mind, a way of shaping intentions. I think it’s imperative that we develop a romantic-erotic relationship to our planet and natural environment, so I find anthropomorphism entirely appropriate.

  2. Whenever I think about my relationship to the cosmos, I am careful to avoid assuming a interpersonal relationship. Rather, I hope to discover the true nature of my relationship to the cosmos, so I suppose you could say that I value wonder more than love. I value learning and discovery in my relationship with the cosmos. To fulfill my need for love, I look to beings who I know are capable of love (i.e. humans and other animals).

    Interesting question.

  3. Anthropomorphism may be a tool that helps us grasp certain components of our world/s. It must be a conscious process that earnestly seeks and is aware (to the best of one’s ability) and willing to discard such a tool when it becomes deluded. Maybe it sounds harsh; I don’t condone or judge anthropomorphism.

  4. That’s it. I’m outta here. What are you selling? Doubt? Fear? Why did you phrase it in the negative? What’s wrong with this way of stating the topic. WHAT IF YOU DISCOVERED THAT THE UNIVERSE LOVED YOU BACK? – T

  5. I thought more about my comment and I also want to add that us using anthropomorphism as a tool may also be a tool that other forms outside of ourselves (because it can’t be disproven) use with us. Plenty of examples appear in religious and spiritual texts/stories stating this too. Thanks.

  6. People may be prone to anthropomorphizing other living things, including not only pets but fish, insects, and plants, if they find themselves contemplating and admiring them. But I think there’s something to be gained by refraining from projecting ourselves on to other life forms. Instead, we can try to understand how other beings, although they lack consciousness, nonetheless have well-being, illness, responsiveness to dangers, and other life energies of their own kind.

  7. I believe what the author is saying is that he does not feel a life energy force in the universe or from the planet? However, the larger part of the essay is about language use, I think. It’s really a bit muddled.

    Anthropomorphism is necessary for good art. It conveys meaning. Well, giving none human things human characteristics and behaviors is necessary in written art for sure. Definitely in poetry so always in ritual. This may not be good art, but…. Gaia birth’s hope with each dawn :: humany metaphor thingy. Gaia is like a mother birthing hope into us with each down :: humany simile thing, but not as poignant. The science has nothing to do with the meaning or the passion of art, but I’m sure people know that the planet does not pop open a little box filled with ghosties and a shiny gem each morning. If we get too weird about expression eventually meaning gets difficult to express, after all none of us are walking down any paths on a spiritual journey (mostly), but we completely understood authorial intent.

    The original topic, does the universe love you back is excellent, but the writer deviates quickly from the topic to a strong belief in expressive usage. Communication is tough. Conveying meaning is exceedingly difficult, but making a stanch against poetic structures might not be the way to do it.

  8. Despite writing a column comprised mostly of stories about anthropomorphized entities, I try very hard, in my personal practice and interactions with the world, *not* to do so. It’s surprisingly difficult: I have only my human filters though which to understand the world, so sometimes it’s nigh impossible not to at least try to imagine how Gaia, the Cosmos, or any individual in it *would* behave if they behaved as we do.

    Often I tend to fall somewhere in between: my personal practice includes devotional songs and spoken forumalae not entirely unlike prayer, sung or spoken as though to entities who can hear and understand them, while at the same time always being aware that the entities in question–Sun, Moon, Mississippi River, &c–*don’t* hear or understand. Possibly a strange way to conduct a spiritual practice, but quite fulfilling for me.

    • >”my personal practice includes devotional songs and spoken forumalae not entirely unlike prayer, sung or spoken as though to entities who can hear and understand them, while at the same time always being aware that the entities in question–Sun, Moon, Mississippi River, &c–*don’t* hear or understand.”

      I have a similarly ambiguous practice. I greet the Sun out my bathroom window and the water in my shower with recitations of hymns to Indra from the Rig Veda. Anybody watching me would probably think I am anthropomorphizing these things, but I don’t think I am. I just find that I need to express praise and gratitude and my expressions of praise and gratitude feel more effective if I address them to a “Thou”. But I really don’t think anyone else is listening or will respond.

      • “I just find that I need to express praise and gratitude and my expressions of praise and gratitude feel more effective if I address them to a “Thou”.”

        I find this sentence of John’s to be very helpful. It gets at the root of not only current practice but also, I think, ancient and traditional religion. We humans know we are frail in comparison to the universe that we live in. We personalize this awareness and the gratitude and awe that go with it by making it a relationship between us and “Thou.”

      • We personalize this awareness and the gratitude and awe that go with it by making it a relationship between us and “Thou.”

        I get what you mean, but it doesn’t apply to everyone. For me, this personalization of the cosmos has been eroding over the years. I see it less and less as a person and do not feel the need to communicate with it or relate to it as such. I still feel gratitude and awe on occasion, but I don’t feel the need to express those feelings to any Thou.

        Any time I try to talk to the cosmos or non-living things (e.g. in ritual or prayer), it rings false for me. I will talk to animals and plants on occasion. Go figure.

  9. As a self-described animist,I own this criticism. I assume that nonhuman beings are alive. What’s exactly wrong with that, again?

    • Nothing wrong in assuming they’re alive (assuming you mean living things when you say “nonhuman beings”). It’s the assumption that non-human living beings have mental lives like ours that I would object to. I believe we share many aspects of consciousness with the non-human animals, but they have perspectives, instincts, and thoughts of their own. Relating to them as if they were human doesn’t honor their distinct identity.

  10. Pingback: DE NATURA DEORUM: “The Lord and Lady for the Non-Theist” by Rhys Chisnall | Humanistic Paganism

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