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.