What are the gods anyway?

With my recent struggles vis-à-vis deities it would seem unworthy if I didn’t spend at least one letter-G post for the Pagan Blog Project on the gods.  Part of my struggle is the lack of a conversation partner for a lot of these ideas; if ever there was a post on which I’d appreciate some criticism and thoughts from others, this is it (I’m looking at you, fellow PBP bloggers!).

A Superposition of States

I am not a scientist, but I do remember some of my physics lessons regarding matter as both a particle and a wave. The most common example of this, and of the weirdness that is quantum mechanics, is the double-slit experiment.  If you’re unfamiliar with this experiment and/or with the basics of a superposition of states (tl;dr: that matter, at the quantum level, exists in all theoretically possible states until observed, in which case the superposition collapses into a single, specific reality), this cartoon from Dr. Quantum may help out:

My view on deities is that they, like matter, exist in a superposition of states.

Transcendent vs. Immanent Gods

This is the debate:  are the gods separate, individual personalities that exist “out there” somewhere (i.e. transcendent) or are the within us and around us at all times permeating the world (i.e. immanent).

I know a lot of hard polytheists out there who fall into the transcendent camp.  Transcendence has a lot of fairly prominent historical relevancy; pretty much any mythology that describes a god living somewhere special and separate from our world in some way, like Olympus or Asgard, is describing deity in a transcendent way.

Immanence is a little harder to point to.  It’s easier when you look at cosmological structures like those of animists and pantheists.  These sort of philosophical ideas posit that there is a little piece of divinity within all living (and sometimes non-living) things or that the sum of the divinity of all living (and sometimes non-living) things together is god or makes up the gods respectively.  Regardless, in these worldviews, there is no separation between the natural and the supernatural; it’s all just one big connected thing.

The goddess Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the river Styx.
The goddess Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the river Styx. The scene was painted by Peter Paul Reubens around 1630/1635 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Things get real interesting, though, when you start to consider topics like the Greek heroes or the Christian idea of the Trinity.  Many of the Greek heroes have a certain immanence to them.  Some could be described as the agents through which the gods work in the world while others, like Achilles, weren’t really watched over by any specific god, if memory serves, but instead was granted a supernatural capability in his youth.  There is an “in-between” quality to these heroes that mixes certain ideas of transcendence and immanence.

The Trinity does so as well.  God the father is transcendent.  He sits in heaven looking down on the world.  Throughout the Old Testament, he speaks through the mouths of the prophets on earth, but he doesn’t really walk among that which he created after expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  God the son and the Holy Spirit, however, are different.  The son, i.e. Jesus, is a figure analogous to the Greek heroes in many ways:  he’s both mortal and supernatural; both somewhat immanent and transcendent.  The Holy Spirit, however, is a more immanent concept especially when it’s described to infuse a person or when a person can be said to feel it.

I’ve strayed from my point here a bit, but to sum all this up, even that which we think of as fairly cut and dried with respect to transcendent and immanent cosmological world views is a lot less so when you look at it more closely.

Sort of like how what we think of as solid matter behaves pretty weirdly when you examine it at the smallest of levels.

A Superposition of Deities

My answer to the debate posed at the top of the prior section is this:  the deities are both transcendent and immanent until we observe, measure, or interact with them in some way.  They exist, in other words, in a superposition of states, existing at the same time in all theoretical possible ways until we work with them at which time, their state collapses into the one that is most beneficial to us at that time.

I’d worry that this was a cop-out if science didn’t show us that this was the way that so much of what we think of as real behaved similarly.   Regardless, it allows me to see the gods as transcendent when it’s convenient to think of the mas such; when evoking them during a ceremony, for example.  But, at other times, it’s more important for me to see divinity not as distinct personalities separate from us but as a force within.  This is especially true during magical work.  If we suppose that there’s some sort of divine creative force within everything (including us) then it seems like it may be possible for us to use that force to actually create.  In other words, an immanent deific force is what makes magic possible (in my mind).

The Struggle Within

Is this the end of my thinking on the topic?  Certainly not.  I still struggle to decide if I think this is too superficial an understanding of deity.  Plus, I don’t have any sort of unverified personal gnosis that would help me to find at least personal connections between thoughts and reality.  In the end, though, my doubts about the nature of reality and whether my philosophical thinking about the nature of divinity is at all representative of it make the choice to believe as I do all that much more relevant to me.  It’s easier, I think, to choose not to believe due to lack of evidence than to do so in spite of that lack.

I also think that this struggle is connected to some of what I wrote about when discussing Eris and her role in my life.  If one seeks stability through instability — constancy through change — then struggle is an inherent part of the search.  It also occurs to me that reality of a superposition of states is also a form of stability through instability.

In the end, the idea of a superposition of deities is one that brings me stability now.  It allows me to hold internally conflicting worldviews over time, but to reconcile them in the moment.  And, I think that this benefits me specifically when working with members of other spiritual and philosophical communities because I can reconcile their worldview as simply another part of the complexity that I see in my own.

  • Lucía

    Wonderful article. I love the idea of Gods collapsing into whatever form is most adecuate for us at a given point.
    However, to me it all boils down to the idea that Gods cannot be understood from a single point of view. You migh approach Divinity with your brain, and you get science. You migh approach Divinity with your body, and you get art. You might approach Divinity with your soul, and you get ritual/religion. But none of those roads will take you to Divinity. They’ll take you to a “model” of Divinity adecuate for that aspect of your self. But that’s not Divinity, that’s like Macbeth for English learners whose vocabulary is 200 words.

    I want to think there is a way to approach Divinity as a whole human, mind, body and soul together. I have not found it but if I do, you’ll hear about it.
    Cheers,
    Lucía