Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pantheism, Suffering & Satire

Reading Ronald Hutton's latest book, The Druids: A History the other night, I came across this passage:

In 1880 a scientist called John Eliot Howard lectured to the Philosophical Society of Great Britain that Druidry has consisted of pantheism, the unity of all nature with deity, which seemed to him 'the highest effort of the natural mind in religion'. [...] On the one hand, he suggested that, unlike Christianity, 'it had no remedial feature for the hour of adversity, no consolation against the darkness of the grave.' On the other, he admitted that he so far shared the Druids' attitudes that 'I should prefer the breezy air of the Wiltshire downs to the atmosphere of Westminster Abbey'.

Hutton, Druids, p. 88, emphasis added

This statement strikes me as very intriguing, in particular the comment about the "hour of adversity," for which Druidry in particular, and pantheism in general, seem to give no obvious comfort.

Strict pantheism is, I think, a difficult outlook to maintain. You find very few people--even Pagans--who are truly and purely pantheistic. Polytheism has its multiple gods, goddesses, elementals and other spirits, inhabiting a sacred natural world but also maintaining distinct personalities within it. A local river god, no matter how closely identified with the river, is not just the river, but conceived as "something more," as possessing some quality of character or personality, some human-like attributes with which we, as human beings, can communicate and interact. Certain monotheistic religions go to the other extreme, conceiving of deity in purely transcendent terms, inherently separate from the "created" world. Usually modern critiques of each of these belief systems focus on the extent to which they deny or imbue sacredness in the natural world. Examples from past cultures show us that polytheism can degenerate into petty bickering among fallible and narrowly anthropomorphized deities, whose capriciousness no longer points to the mysteries of a shifting natural environment but has become entirely self-referential and melodramatic. Likewise, religions based on transcendent conceptions of deity come to rely heavily on abstract revelation (often supposedly only available to religious or political leaders) rather than personal experience of a sacred world, and even the extreme view that nature is inherently "evil" or degraded and must be rejected and escaped.

Why, then, aren't there more people who are strict pantheists? Given the obvious drawbacks of identifying the Divine as somehow external to or beyond the "world"--and our increasing ability to discover awe and mystery within the material world itself through modern science--why shouldn't all reasonable people subscribe to a pantheist view, seeking the Holy in the natural world alone? I think the reason has something to do with the quote at the beginning of this post--the "hour of adversity" that each individual faces, whether through personal crisis or community conflict, or simply the fact that, no matter what your beliefs regarding the afterlife, your body itself will, inevitably, die and decay. This "darkness of the grave" is inescapable, and while other spiritualities allow an escape route--into a transcendent "heaven" or through the reincarnation as a new distinct being, "spirit," guide or even god--pantheism offers no such comfort. Indeed, pantheism embraces death and decay as essential aspects of the natural world, making no claims to a continued sense of "self" separate from the corpse that slowly disintegrates and rejoins the flux and flow of nature.

Pantheism sometimes seems to arise effortlessly in us, as the optimism and joy of a child playing in the green, sunlit field and relishing the "breezy air" as it rushes by, unconcerned with forms and names, in touch with the sacredness of life just as it is; but it can also be just as difficult to hold onto as the wind. When our easy optimism runs up against the violence, pain and suffering which is also a reality of nature, without a kind of "faith" in something beyond the immediacy of the painful moment, our spirituality may seem to abandon us altogether. This is an issue I brought up in response to Jeff Lilly's excellent post about the role of faith in Druidry. Many New Age and Pagan spiritual traditions today want to insist that faith is unnecessary, that it has no role and has been replaced, rightfully so, by one's direct experience of the sacred. New Agers in particular seem eager to insist that such experiences are always positive and full of "light and love," and that suffering is an illusion; but such an insistence can lead to unhealthy denial and repression, a willful disjoint from a reality that is not always loving and supportive.

Hutton argues that we know very little about who the "Druids" actually were, and that almost everything written or said about them has been more a reflection of historical trends within the society making the commentary. Druids-as-pantheists, for instance, was only one conception in a series, later giving way to the belief that the Druids were polytheists, and eventually opening up to a revival of Druidic religion in a modern form (which, as we all know, is widely varied in its conception of deity, among other things). But what if the Druids did have strong pantheistic leanings? Is there anything in the Celtic mythology and folk tradition that might address this problem of adversity, and which might be relevant to modern pantheists, animists, panentheists, and people who just find it difficult merely to maintain a blind belief in the eventual justification for their suffering?

I think there is, specifically: satire. Recently, Erik wrote an interesting post about the concept of "sacred play" and its role in various religious cultures, its personal relevance as well as its political implications. I've seen a great deal of satire in regards to modern politics (my favorite television show, The Daily Show, could not exist without it). I think it's no mere coincidence that satire seems to increase and become particularly potent in times when cynicism, doubt, uncertainty, fear, and violence are rampant, almost as if satire is rushing in to fill the sudden lacuna of "faith" in one's leaders and community. In Celtic mythology, there are numerous tales of bards performing satires against kings who have wronged them, causing blights and blemishes on the king's person and/or undermining his rule by composing amusing subversive verse which become wildly popular among the people. This use of satire to address (and redress) a lack of "faith" in political authority may also have some importance in the realm of spirituality.

After all, the crisis that a political satirist responds to is the possibility that there is no transcendent authority or power capable of correcting the course of a community, of protecting it from hardships and conflicts, external or internal. The satirist takes on the possibility that we really are just a jumble of individuals, that the supposed "leaders" are incompetent, ineffectual or even dangerous. What is left, without an assumed beneficent authority? Nothing but the immediate jumble of people themselves and the emergent patterns of their behavior. This is the same difficulty that pantheism faces--denying an external, transcendent deity or deities capable of influencing the world, what is left is the jumbled community of life itself, with its births and deaths, its food chain, symbioses and natural selection, its constant flux, its good days and its bad days. In coping with this conception of the world, satire can function spiritually in a way similar to its political function, by embracing a messy existence, by choosing affirmation of reality over the comforts of an imposed, inappropriate pattern. "Sacred play" can not only revel in the chaotic joviality, it can emphasize both creativity and humility in the face of seemingly desperate odds, and by doing so, it can transform those moments of adversity themselves into moments of sacredness. Erik quoted from Terry Pratchett's and Neil Gaiman's book, Good Omens, and I'll repeat that quote here:

“…God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players (i.e., everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”

The "God" of this passage seems strikingly similar to the satirized leaders who, if they are in control at all, seem ineffably obscure in their aims and not necessarily benevolent or trustworthy. And yet, the "other players" in the game--those left in the dark and unsure of the rules--find a certain camaraderie, comfort and kindness in realizing that they are all bumbling along together.


  1. A fascinating hypothesis!

    One thing to note -- though it is almost a side issue to the main thrust of your article -- and since I haven't read the book you're reading, I'm risking seriously exposing my ignorance here -- is that the ancient Druids were almost certainly not pantheists in the sense you use here. Caesar himself says quite explicitly that they believed in reincarnation, and that the ferocity and fearlessness of the Celts in battle could be ascribed to their belief that death was quite a temporary thing. Caesar is not always a reliable source, but in this case he squares with comparative evidence from other branches of Indo-European belief.

    But the point that satire can alleviate the times when the Universe is a Mean Mother is definitely well taken. It can take you out of yourself, for a time -- it introduces a layer of absurdity between yourself and your pain, and for a while the pain is almost happening to someone else. In that way it is related to the Eastern ideas of transcending suffering via the sublimation of the ego.

  2. Jeff, I'm glad at least some of this made sense (after I finished writing it, which took a long long time, I felt like things were still rather jumbled, but I figured I'd at least get the idea out there and let it grow into something coherent later on :).

    Your point about the Druids is well taken, and Hutton's book is largely about how various sources have portrayed Druids in vastly different ways, in part because there are so few reliable, verifiable records about them. For instance, even the view of reincarnation as recorded among ancient writers is contradictory. While Caesar and a few others claimed that Druids believed in a reincarnation of the soul within the same world, as human or animal (which was similar to the Pythagorean doctrine with which these writers were familiar), others (Valerius Maximus, Lucan and Pomponius) claimed that Druids believed in the continuing life of the soul "in a parallel world." It's no wonder, then, that views of what the Druids may have believed have been embellished or reinterpreted over time. The view of pantheism that I cited in the post was an idea circulating in the nineteenth century and was based, by its main proponent, on forgeries by Iolo Morganwg, with a little "green" flavor added in by the early Romantics (not so much a statement of "fact" about the Druids, as a reflection of the concerns and perspectives of British society in the 1800s).

    Still, I've always liked to approach comparative religious studies with an attitude that asks, "What if this were true? What would it take for me, as a human being, to believe these things and do these things?" I think that's a useful approach in understanding different religions from an "internal" perspective (which greatly supplements the "external" analytical perspective which can recognize patterns but tends to be a little too flabbergasted by human strangeness). I figure, if I can ask such questions about current religious systems or systems that have been well-recorded and understood... is this not just as valuable an approach when dealing with spiritual traditions that "might have been"? We can still learn about ourselves and our world by entering into such thought experiments, even if they prove to be merely day-dreams of a lost past.

    I feel like I wanted to clarify that more in the post (I agree that the actual Druids probably weren't pantheist in such a specific way)... but every time I tried to take a moment to explain, the essay got away from me. So thanks for mentioning it in your comment and allowing me to clarify. :)

    If you read Erik's post about "sacred play," he talks a bit about the Zen koan--which, to me, has always been a beautiful example of the transformative and ego-shattering power of nonsense. Nonsense is taken for granted these days as easy and mindless; I think both political and spiritual satire have a role to play in reminding ourselves that suffering, too, is part of the puzzle and should be considered a real obstacle, a true paradox, not merely a smudge on the glowing ball of light that many of us want to see, through rose-tinted glasses, as the world.

  3. Hi Ali,
    I'm pleased that I made somebody think with that post; Thalia needed Her due.
    Interesting spin you've put on the "sacred play" ball - it's always fun to see an extra perspective on something like this!

    Regarding pantheism and the "hour of adversity" - I can't speak to this historically, but most of the (little) pantheist writing I've seen on the subject stresses the joy of knowing that after death your elements are rejoined with the cosmos and that your body goes on to create new life... more than merely "the corpse that slowly disintegrates and rejoins the flux and flow of nature".

    And of course, what I love about Druidry is that it gives me a framework to express my largely naturalistic joy in the natural world *plus* adding in the Gods. :)

  4. Erik, Ain't the blogosphere grand? :) I had actually been thinking about writing a post on satire for a while, and then put it on the back-burner after you wrote about it, since I felt like you'd done such an excellent job and I didn't have much to add. Then reading that bit in Hutton sparked a whole new spin on it, so... there you have it.

    Interestingly, a friend of mine just lent me the DVD of The Fountain, which deals a lot with the idea of death from what I would consider a "pantheist" perspective... I was really blown away by it--it does a wonderful job of portraying that "hour of adversity," the strange human desire for "eternal life" in one form or another, and the final realization that "the joy of knowing that after death your elements are rejoined with the cosmos and that your body goes on to create new life" and "the corpse that slowly disintegrates and rejoins the flux and flow of nature" are, in the end, one and the same.

  5. Haven't seen that yet - but it sounds like I need to add it to the queue.

    My favorite afterlife movie to date is still "What Dreams May Come", just for the incredible visual beauty of it.

  6. I'm sorry to stumble on this mid-conversation, but I watched "The Fountain" very recently and was also taken with the ideas of it (enough so to post about it). A friend of mine once described human consciousness as "the universe knowing itself" -- and I think that's the most important insight into our existence I've ever received. After our time here has ended, our being returns back to the vastness of that universe. I can't conceive exactly what that experience will be like, but in letting go of self there may be a tremendous sense of peace and belonging, which is what I think Izzy experienced in the film.

  7. Here is an example of the "joy" part of a hardcore pantheistic approach to death.

    The article by these people that I read in last spring's UU World was in my mind when I wrote my first response, but I didn't realize they had a website.

  8. Erik, thanks for following up on that. :) Really interesting stuff. I'm reminded again of The Fountain--"death is the road to awe," and the idea of death as an act of creation.