Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gods as Experiences, Not Explanations

This is part two of an ongoing series of posts on the nature of gods and spirits.

The stories of gods and spirits, contrary to the supposed "just so" purpose of mythology, were never meant as a literal explanation for experiences of the real world. The question of the existence of gods would not be one that would have interested our ancient ancestors since gods were a cultural framework of meaning for holistically understanding phenomenological experiences, rather than empirical accounts of those experiences.

In the empirical/scientific paradigm, human experience is dissected into disciplines and aspects such as psychological, cognitive, emotional, sociological, cultural, natural, biological, metaphorical, etc., but our ancestors, not having many of these conceptual categories, do not appear to have differentiated them so precisely.
A god, so considered--more specifically, a potent and powerful god, one with a history--constitutes the manner in which a group or family of stimuli of isomorphic motivational significance reveals itself to or grips the collective (communicated) imagination of a given culture. Such a representation is a peculiar mix (from the later empirical viewpoint) of psychological and sociological phenomena and objective "fact"--an undifferentiated mix of subject and object (of emotion and sensory experience), transpersonal in nature (as it is historically elaborated "construction" and shared imaginative experience). The primitive deity nonetheless serves as an accurate representation of the ground of being, however, because it is affect and subjectivity as well as pure object (before the two are properly distilled or separated)--because it is primordial experience, rather than the mere primordial thing. (Peterson, 113)

Gods and spirits allowed our ancestors to categorize experienced phenomena in meaningful ways by formulating stories to direct attention to, and enhance participation with, meaningful aspects of those experiences.
Far from dressing up a plain reality with layers of metaphor, or representing it, map-like, in the imagination, songs, stories and designs serve to conduct the attention of performers into the world, deeper and deeper, as one proceeds from outward appearances to an ever more intense poetic involvement. At its most intense, the boundaries between person and place, or self and the landscape, dissolve altogether. It is at this point that, as the people say, they become their ancestors, and discover the real meaning of things. (Ingold 56)
This is quite a different enterprise from trying to accurately capture the empirical nature of experience by removing human participation as far as possible. "Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomena" (Peterson 9.) Our ancestors did not make a clear distinction between literal and metaphorical concepts;
the 'physical' and 'literal' themselves were not what the 'physical' and 'literal' are to us. Rather, the phenomena themselves carried the sort of multiple significance which we today find only in symbols. Accordingly the issue, in a given case, between a literal and a symbolic interpretation, though it could be raised, had not the same sharpness as of contradictories." (Barfiled, 74)
After a storyteller had recited a sacred story or poem, or a priest or headman made a sacrifice, our ancestors would not ask "do we mean this literally or figuratively?" as they did not make this distinction as often or as definitively as we do today. They also probably didn't ask the question: "just what is a 'god' anyway?" since it was the immediate experience of gods that interested them, not their existential status. "The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive." (Peterson, 9) Thus while dealing with the question of the reality of gods in a modern context we must always keep in mind the difference in classifying and communicating experiences in ancient times verses now.
In mythtelling cultures, theorems that address the nature of the world are expressed in personified form. The grammatical statement made with personified elements is what we call a story. Where the languages of myth are displaced by those of mathematics, a different assumption is made. Even where we all know better, both the constants and the variables are treated as if they were dead. A grammatical statement made with depersonified, depersonalized elements is know by and large as an equation. We find them in music, abstract painting, and academic prose as well as mathematics. These are denatured forms of myths, in principle no better and in principle no worse. Tradition matters in both cases. But in both cases, who is doing the telling, and how, matters every bit as much. (Bringhurst, 104)
 Though the scientific worldview has indisputable explanatory and technological power, it is not an avenue to some kind of absolute truth. It is sometimes easy to forget that our modern separation of experiences into categories is artificial and
that the evolution of consciousness hitherto can best be understood as a more or less continuous progress from a vague but immediate awareness of the 'meaning' of phenomena towards an increasing preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. The earlier awareness involved experiencing the the phenomena as representations; the later preoccupation involves experiencing them, non-representionally, as objects in their own right, existing independently of human consciousness. (Barfield, 142)
An artificial and imagined distance is required to create the illusion of objectivity for the purpose of separating and examining experiences scientifically. "...whenever we attempt to explain this world conceptually, we seem to forget our participation within it. Striving to represent the world, we inevitable forfeit its direct presence." (Abram, 40-41) This distancing from immediate experience in favor of theoretical objects often causes us to forget that phenomenologically our immediate experience always remains an undifferentiated mass of the psychological, cognitive, emotional, sociological, cultural, natural, biological, and metaphorical "objects" we have created, and that "much of this mapping the world in the advance of our experience of it has meant the substitution of quantitative measures for the world's qualities" (Romanyshyn 51).
...it imagines a universe divided into living subjects and dead objects. There is no space for anything intermediate, ambiguous, and metaphorical.
This is a restrictive perspective and it has led us to believe that entities, other than human beings, taking on interior subjective qualities are merely "anthropomorphized" or "personified" objects, not really persons in the accepted meaning of that word. If we find persons elsewhere than living in human bodies, we conclude that these persons have be transferred from "in here" to "out there." We believe we have unconsciously put our experiences into them; they are merely fictional or imaginary. We have made them up just as the persons in our dreams are supposedly made up out of the experiences of our ego. We do not believe that imaginary persons could possibly be as they present themselves, as valid psychological subjects with wills and feelings like ours but not reducible to ours. (Hillman 1-2)
 In reality there is no true objectivity. "All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment" (Eagleton 120). The moment our carefully trained rational minds lose the limited focus afforded by our prefrotal cortex, the illusion of objectivity evaporates and we realize that we, like our ancestors, are always immersed in our experiences.
It is not a private, but a collective dimension--the common field or our lives and the other lives with which ours are entwined--and yet it is profoundly ambiguous and indeterminate, since our experience of this field is always relative to our situation within it. The life-world is thus the world as we organically experience it in its enigmatic multiplicity and open-endedness, prior to conceptually freezing it into a static space of "facts" -- prior, indeed to conceptualizing it in any complete fashion. (Abram, 40)
 Our ancestors, immersed in these worlds and in participation within them, sought to represent the powers they felt all about them in terms of a multitude of gods and spirits. These polytheistic entities arose out of our ancestors’ experiences and their relationship to those experiences. Thus gods and spirits were not inspired by human minds in search of distanced explanations of phenomena as separate from the human experience, but by human minds actively immersed within phenomena and trying to represent the phenomenology of human experiences
...the existence of religion--indeed, of any cultural path--results from a confluence of cognitive, behavioral, bodily, and ecological constraints that neither reside wholly within minds nor are recognizable in a world without minds. Theories of religion that concentrate on only one of these factors, however correct or insightful in part, can never be thorough or comprehensive (Atran 11).
Gods and spirits were born not just from the human mind, nor can they be found in a theoretical, empirical world removed from human minds and experience, but exist within a creative union of both the human mind and its experience of the outer world.

In the next post in this series I will consider why meaningful experiences are inevitably personified, made into gods and spirits, in polytheistic cultures.

Copyright 2011 by The Heretical Heathen


Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1997

Atran, Scott, In Gods We Trust, 2002

Barfield, Own, Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry, 1988

Bringhurst, Robert, The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, 2008

Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 2009

Hillman, James, Re-Visioning Psychology, 1992

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment, Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 2000

Peterson, Jordan B., Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, 1999

Romanyshyn, Robert D., Technology as Symptom and Dream, 1999


  1. This is a great post. I'm looking forward to the next one.

  2. Thanks, Mike. I hope you continue the enjoy the posts. The next one is the real lynch-pin of the research I've been doing the past couple of years. Look for it next month.