This blog is devoted to the interfaith wisdom and spiritual practices derived from the ancient religions and philosophies of the Mediterranean. The perspective is that of a Unitarian Universalist psychotherapist, psychiatrist, and intern minister. I use the Mediterranean as a root metaphor of cosmopolitan ethics, spirituality and values.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
John Keats, La Belle
Dame sans Merci
Spring has returned! Ducks sing and the sedge is green. I have always cherished Keat's poem. It has sustained me through wintry blues and shivering thoughts. But like our cyclic seasons, I always open my heart to nature's annual restoration. The femme fatale of Keat's epigrammatic lyric is a fairy of sorts, one who stole his heart. The frank allure of a personal pantheism, particularly for me who usually personifies Nature as Goddess-like, is its capacity for supporting a rich emotional fabric of ideas and its poignant stories of Goddess as lover.
John Ruskin, the 18th century critic, coined the term, "pathetic fallacy", to deride the tendency of Romantic poets to ascribe human feelings to nature--the weeping willow cried. But, as I have often proposed, an emotional-intuitive personifying of nature and her herd of beings not only draws us closer to an ultimate unifying experience, but also helps us pastorally to fathom the ups and downs of relationships and fortune without devising an all-powerful and all-good deity. Life just sucks at times and life invites rejoicing at other moments. Spring follows winter and winter follows spring.
By striking down hierarchical notions of God, we enter a more level playing field, where all beings can aspire to tranquility, not by salvation through grace, but by salvation through effort, love and stillness. Perhaps, as the Jains believe, gods and goddesses are beings who through personal effort have achieved an enduring tranquility and so we emulate them. Maybe even Nature, herself, is temperamentally both balanced and active, having found that perfect, optimal and seasonal regulation of mood in a changing and chaotic realm of experience. Maybe, that is Divine Love.
Pantheism visits us with many different faces. Awareness of the great cosmic expanse, the mysteries of quantum fields, an appreciation of our utter dependence on this sustaining Earth. What all forms have in common is a very present, immanent relationship to the world and universe in which we are embedded. No transcendental person God, remote from our very core, our sinews and bones and minds, informs the pantheistic life.
Being an emotional and intuitive and relational person, I find that my deepest source of the Divine is like me--emotional and relational. Not some abstract force or energy field--although I am agnostic about whether physics will someday discover consciousness or affective charge as part and parcel of all constituents of our perplexing universe--but a person characterizes my concept of Spirit. A kind of all-pervasive soul with whom I can cry or rejoice or seek solace in or, in those exceedingly rare and special moments, become unified with. To be an authentic personal pantheist, I hold that each being in nature shares personhood, even apparently inanimate objects like the mossy stone, tripartite trunk, and the bursting rivulet caught in the image above.
To the many pantheists among us who decry personal ideas of God, yes, I do understand--but my peculiar sensibility to emotion and the poetic compels me to construct a personal pantheism. Or as the Presocratic philosopher, Xenophanes, states:
“The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black, While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair. Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
And could sculpture like men, then the horses would draw their gods Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”
Let each of us create the Divine in our own image and realize that we are created in the image of our own Divine.
Late Cypriot Ceramics from V. Karageorghis, "Ancient Art from Cyprus", The Cesnola Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC
As Unitarian Universalists, we view our theologies as a garden of diverse possibilities, from Orthodox Christianity to Neo-Paganism to Atheism. I recently preached on the origins of the Divine Feminine in the Unitarian branch of our denomination. Viewing the Divine as more nurturing than judgmental, I naturally sought for the moment when Unitarian Universalists adopted a maternal image of divine action.
The Unitarian and Transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker, out of mid 19th century Boston, wrote a prayer:
"Eternal One, I bathe my soul in
Transcendent God! Yet, ever
immanent in all that is, I flee to You, and seek repose and soothing in my
Mother’s breast. From all this dusty world, You will not lose a molecule of
earth or spark of light. Father and Mother of all things that are, I flee to
You, and in Your arms find rest; My God! I thank You for Your love."
Aside from The Shakti devotees of India, this prayer may be one of the earliest expression of God as characteristically feminine and nurturing rather than masculine and authoritarian image that we mostly subscribe to. It is no wonder that Parker lost his mom at age 12 and was in the throes of a radical shift in parenting style in Victorian New England where children learned through varied experience and reflection(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women) rather than through authoritative transmission of culture and ideas. That idea of the Mother Goddess, or the androgynous concept of God's action in the world, may have taken root in Victorian/Transcendentalist child-rearing practices of the era. We, Unitarian Universalists need to remember our history. Instead of flailing about in a web of uncertainty, we should covet the rich, prophetic and foreshadowing qualities of our theological traditions.
After a very dry early winter in California, the rain returns. The air is redolent of an emerging Mediterranean spring; moisture clings to the nose, a votive offering of aromatic herbs and shrubs. It is easy to be a pantheist in a Mediterranean climate. Nature is both gentle and fierce.
The three major monotheistic religions of the Near and Middle East, Judaism, Christianity and Islam little prepare us for a pantheist experience. The nature of God, transcendental and remote, pulls our meditations and prayers away from the manifest beauty of nature, unless we celebrate nature as the offspring of God's creation. But the Neoplatonic philosophers from Plotinus of Egypt to Iamblichus of Syria who flourished in the first centuries CE created a philosophy consonant with pantheism and informed the mystical strands of the three monotheistic religions: Christian mysticism, Sufism and Kabbalah.
For Neoplatonists, the universe is a progressive emanation from the One, to hen, that descends through layers and layers of being to our material world. Hardly a lonely universe! Salvation is a return to the One through contemplation. Contemplating the beauty of the universe or the harmonic composition in a work of art are paths to union with the One. Iamblichus describes the activities of theurgy, or divine-work, as multiple ways of returning to the One.
I would say that nature walking is high up there as a mode for salvation. Think about it--when we walk through a forest or by a lake, we progressively remove the complexities of of daily thoughts and gradually focus on the unifying experience of the gnarly tree, the aromatic shrubs and the multifarious colors that surround us. A simultaneous integration of diversity into unity. A return to the One.