By Don Frew
IMMANENCE, TRANSCENDENCE, AND THE DIVINE
Several years ago, I attended a North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) “Connect” in Las Vegas. The program was organized in three tracks, including one called “Caring for Creation.” As might be expected, all of the Pagans and indigenous people gravitated towards that track.
During one session, we were asked to form into pairs and share a “peak experience.” I paired up with a young Christian. While I was trying to figure out which of many experiences to share, he said “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a peak experience.” I was surprised, but kept that to myself. He went on to share the closest thing he had had to a peak experience: the feeling of the presence of God that he experiences in Sunday services. I shared the first powerful vision of the Goddess I had had, in which She spoke with me and confirmed that Wicca was the right path for me. He was a bit taken aback.
When time came to share our experiences with the group by telling our partner’s story, after the young man told mine, the session leader – a Christian minister – was clearly unsure of what to do with such an outlandish story. He stammered and said something like, “Well, I guess in interfaith work we should be willing to accept all kinds of personal narratives, no matter how strange they may seem to us.”
Then we heard a Native American woman’s story about transforming into a bear at an indigenous ceremony.
And so it went. The stories of the Christians were all tentative, questioning accounts of being inspired or feeling directed. They were stories of faith. The stories of the Pagans and indigenous people were all ones of direct, often tangible encounters with the Divine and the spiritual world. They were stories of experience.
Many years ago, Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell, “What do you believe?” Campbell answered, “I don’t need belief; I have experience.” At that NAINConnect, I suddenly understood what Campbell meant. All along, my Pagan and indigenous friends had just assumed that our Abrahamic fellows were having the same kind of experiences we had as a part of our daily lives. It was a shock to discover that they didn’t. It also finally gave me greater insight into “faith.”
I have never had “faith.” I still don’t. I have never understood what it means, except say, in the context of having ‘faith’ that the Sun will rise tomorrow, based on numerous personal experiences of it having already done so.
I know the Gods are real. I’ve spoken with Them. I’ve had physical interactions with Them. Almost all of the Pagans and indigenous people I know have had similar interactions with the world of Spirit … with the Ancestors, with the many spirits of Nature, with the Gods and Goddesses, with the Divine.
Nature Religions can be characterized by this intimate relationship with the Divine, as distinct from the so-called “revealed” religions. In our ceremonies – and even our day-to-day actions – we acknowledge and communicate with the Divine as it manifests as and through the natural world. That manifestation is often personified in forms with which we can communicate, the Ancestors, spirits of Nature, and/or the Gods and Goddesses mentioned above.
Stepping back a bit into my academic Religious Studies frame of mind, it seems to me that when a religious path focuses on the transcendence of the Divine, then the Divine is “out there,” far away. The space between the Divine and us is a gulf that needs to be bridged, and when that gulf isn’t bridged, then “faith” is needed to preserve a connection. When a religious path focuses on the immanence of the Divine, then the Divine is “right here,” inside us and all around us. There is no gulf. We speak to Nature and it speaks back. Every day and all the time.
In my experience, all religious paths recognize both transcendent and immanent aspects of the Divine; it’s just a question of where you focus your ceremonies, prayers, and rituals, and which aspect leads to an understanding of the other.
In the Pagan and Indigenous world, our ongoing relationship with a divinized natural world expresses itself in ways from the mundane to the philosophical. We often pay attention to dreams, omens, or meaningful coincidences. (There is saying: “Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is somebody trying to tell you something.”) Our relationship with Nature is reciprocal: She speaks to us through such coincidences, or through voices heard on the wind, or through a clearer voice in our ears. We may encourage such communications through forms of divination – Tarot, Astrology, and such – or through ceremonies aimed at facilitating more direct communications (up to and including possession by spirits of appropriate type, depending on one’s tradition of practice).
While most people engage the world in utilitarian ways through technology and science, which we also embrace, many of us add ancient methodologies of magic and spellcraft. Through “spells” we incorporate the more esoteric aspects of nature and the spirit world into practices that can be applied to daily needs. I know that “spells” conjures (if you’ll excuse the pun) images of candles, cauldrons, dolls, and pins (and it can include these); it is more often a few words spoken before undertaking a task or a small model or image of a desired outcome empowered by desire and will. I know a great three-word charm for opening stuck jars or doors that we use successfully around the house all the time. I don’t “believe” in it. I know from experience that it works.
From the mundane to the sublime, a deep understanding of the immanence of the Divine shapes our ethics and our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world.
I was on a panel convened by Dr. Gerald Barney at the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town where the topic was, “Is there a faith tradition such that if everyone on Earth suddenly adopted it, the human future on Earth would be assured?”
To me, this sounded like an invitation to proselytizing, and in my tradition proselytizing is expressly forbidden. However, in that context I felt able to share some of our insights, hoping that they might be meaningful and useful for the listeners in their own spiritual lives. My comments boiled down to sharing our awareness of the immanence of the Divine.
The Divine is manifest in, as, and through the natural world, I said. It is also manifest in the floor, in that table, in the air, in me, in you and you and you, in all of us. While most of us also recognize a transcendent aspect to Divinity, it is the presence of the Divine right here and now that provides day-to-day guidance. Most of the world’s religions recognize this immanence in some fashion or to some degree, but if we take it seriously – if we really believe it – then several approaches to the world and each other become obvious …
1) Just as in the natural world, diversity is to be valued and cultivated. If the Divine is at least as diverse as the manifestations of Nature, how can we do anything but respect and honor the differences between peoples and individuals, between races, genders, and sexual orientations?
2) All relationships with others – all others, animate and inanimate – are relationships with the Divine. While human relationships may have utilitarian aspects (e.g., Who’s taking out the garbage tonight?), we all agree that they should be fundamentally based on love and respect. This should characterize all of our relationships, with ourselves, with each other, with all life, with the planet itself.
3) Relationships, so as not to be abusive, should be balanced, involving both give and take. What can we give back, to others and to the planet, for all that we have been given (or have taken)?
4) We Witches have an ethic – “An it harm none, do what ye will” – which is older English for “Do what you believe is right, so long as no one is harmed by your actions,” remembering that for us, “no one” means yourself, others, and the Earth. Obviously, it is impossible to avoid all harm, but by conscientiously making the attempt, we can minimize the harm we do. This must range from avoiding physical violence to asking the tougher daily questions like: “What impact does my buying this jar of peanuts have on the economy of the area in which they were grown and on the lives of the people who grew them, and on everyone else involved in the stages from there to the jar in my hand?”
This focus on Divine immanence, and all that it implies for us – rather, all that it demands of us – is the primary insight that Pagans and indigenous people have to share with other spiritual traditions.