Theology From Experience

It seems to me that if we are to develop a theology, Polytheist or Pagan, it seems we need to start with the experiences of those who encounter the gods. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel, we’ve inherited a thousand years and more of theological discourse from polytheist cultures around the world and throughout history.

Gratitude to the ancestors, who walked these ways before us, and made our path easier thereby.

Still, we need to constantly re-connect our theories to our experiences, lest the two part ways as cease to be relevant to one another. What we think about our relationships with the gods, and how we communicate these thoughts to otherse, is important, but not as important as living those relationships. To get lost in a fascination with our words would be like becoming so fixated on the variety and price of an apple that we miss how the thing actually tastes.

So. To experience.

I experience contact with gods and spirits as dreamlike, often vague, encounters with multiple, individual beings. Sometimes, there’s little more than a sense of presence. Rarely, this presence is strong enough to crowd out any other awareness, but usually it’s just one thing among many of which I am aware. When there is more than the sense of presence, I usually experinece voices and images in my imagination.

The voices I hear in my imagination are different, not only from my own, but from each other. Certain appearanes coincide with one voice, but not with others. Further, the things each entity says are consistent, and constitute the signs of a personality unique to each entity. When I use ritual, or othwise focus my meditations with specific images or ideas, I get one voice/appearance consistently. Change the foci, and I consistently get a different voice/appearance.

This is enough to start constructing a theology. But it’s just my experience, and any theology which is to be useful for anyone besides me has to account for the experiences of others, as well. Which is where we start having problems. You see, not everyone experiences them as I do.

Some people have more concrete experiences, in which the sense of presence is as solid as with any embodied person. For them, the voices and appearances are always vivid and distinct. Even when these folks have to learn how to tell one being from another, they don’t have to learn to see a distinction between different beings, as I did.

Others have more abstract experiences. Some never experience more than that sense of presence, others never experience distinct voices or appearances. Many never experience much of anything, no matter how they ritualize, meditate, or what have you.

There are even those whose experiences seem to them to be encounters (some more concrete, some more abstract) with a single divine being, regardless of context.

You see the beginning of the theological challenge?

We cannot create an all-encompassing theology without deciding that some people’s experiences of the gods (or of God or Goddess, as you will) are wrong, or at least flawed. We can’t say that the gods are many, full stop, without denying the validity of those who experience encounters with the divine as encounters with a singular being. Similarly, we can’t say that there is one divine spirit, viewed as many beings through cultural lenses, without denying experienes like my own.

Arguments on that level are more damaging than they are useful, as they tend to alienate people faster than they generate useful insights. Besides, we really can’t know whether or not any of these experiences reflect what the gods actually are when we aren’t looking at them. My experiences do not tell me what the gods look like to each other, only what they look like to me.

I am mortal, thus limited, and I accept that my experience of the world is partial and somewhat flawed. So, too, must be my experience of the gods; I’m simply not big enough to see all that they are, or wise enough to comprehend everything they do. I can, at best, say what Dionysos looks and sounds like to me when He visits me. I can’t say what He does or should look or sound like to anyone else.

This isn’t a call to abandon judgement or critical thought about spiritual expereince. At the very least, I have a responsibility to consider whether or not someone else’s experience is relevant to my own practice, and whether or not I’d advise a thrid party to consider it. All I’m saying is that I don’t get to tell the gods how they show themselves to anyone else, nor am I privy to their plans for others, so it would probably be a bad idea to get into the business of telling people that their experiences are wrong.

Which puts a bit of a limit on theology. We cannot regard theology to be like physics, a process of uncovering genreal rules by which reality works, whether we like it or not. Theology would be a common language amongst those with similar-enough experiences for discussing the relationships we have with the gods and spirits. Statements in my theology about the gods of folks who have very different experiences than my own are, at best, how their gods look from where I’m standing.

We do our own religions and movements a disservice when we set out to explain other people’s experiences of the gods to them. Any theology we would create on the basis of declaring ourselves Right and others Wrong with regard to experiences that defy objective verification is at best weak, at worst hegemonic.

This post is inspired by, but not a direct response to, Rhyd Wildermuth’s latest column for The Wild Hunt.

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About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

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