What is it that rules outside man’s self?: The gods as “other”

I recently had an online discussion with Rua Lupa following her guest post at Humanistic Paganism.  Her question was whether a truly humanistic paganism would not be better off without gods — or god-talk.  After much back-and-forth and the help of other contributors to the Comments discussion, I came to appreciate that (at least one of) Rua’s concerns with god-talk, even when it is intentionally metaphorical, is that it tempts us to project our own ideas onto the world, rather than connecting directly with What Is.  I think she has a valid concern.  In the process I came to realize that I use the term “god” not to feel closer to the world, but to remind me of its otherness.  And I think Rua and I both have the same goal, although we try to reach it in different ways.

In this post, I want to try to work out a little what I mean when I talk about “gods”.  And to start, let me quote from  another guest post at Humanist Paganism, this one by M. J. Lee:

“The gods are for me metaphors for nature, or more precisely the names, images and stories are metaphors, allegories and archetypes of our relationship with nature.  I see the gods – the names, images, stories – as the poetic encapsulation of our human experience, our relationship with the ineffable forces that shape human life.  While this makes the gods no thing, it does not make them nothing.  I see the gods as representing very real, powerful, even dangerous forces.  I believe the gods are real.  It doesn’t matter what we call them or don’t call them.  They are real and dangerous, and we will contend with them.  This for me is the message of the Bacchae.”

For me, too, “gods” are poetic expressions of my human experience of those ineffable forces that shape my life — both those internal to my personal psyche and those external to me.

It is interesting that M.J. found this to be the lesson of Euripides’ Bacchae.  The Bacchae is a play about Dionysus and the triumph of the forces of nature and irrationality over the forces of civilization and rationality, the triumph of those forces beyond our control over those within our control.  Gilbert Murray, the Cambridge Ritualist, came to the same conclusion about the Bacchae as M. J.  He stated:

“The lesson of the Bacchae is that of the Hippolytus in a stronger form.  Reason is great, but it is not everything. There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life. These things are Gods or forms of God: not fabulous immortal men, but ‘Things which Are,’ things utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his life to shreds without a break in their own serenity.”

This statement by Murray was quoted by Murray’s colleague, Jane Harrison, in her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, in the context of a discussion of Eros and Bacchus (Dionysus).  Harrison writes that “in ancient Greek religion these are the only real gods.”  Bacchus, she says, is the god of the “actual religion” (i.e., cultic god), while Eros is the god of “mystical dogma”, the two really being one and the same.  Note that Eros, here, is not the cupid-like “god of love”, but the primordial Eros Protogonos, the being who “gave impulse and rhythm to the dance of creation.”  And Bacchus is not the drunken “god of wine”; he is Dionysus, the dying-and-reviving god.

According to Harrison, these gods represent a real advance in religion, “not only beyond the old riddance of ghosts and sprites and demons, but also beyond the gracious and beautiful service of those magnified mortals, the Olympians.”  In other words, when Harrison talks about these “gods”, she is not talking about supernatural personifications, but something else …  something closer to the experience of life itself.  According to Harrison, the worship of Bacchus/Eros is “the worship of the real mysteries of life, of potencies (daimones) rather than personal gods (theoi); it is the worship of life itself in its supreme mysteries of ecstasy and love.”  After quoting Murray, she goes on: “It is these real gods, this life itself, that the Greeks, like most men were inwardly afraid to recognize and face.”

Harrison also quotes Robert Browning:

I saw that there are, first and above all,
The hidden forces, blind necessities,
Named Nature, but the thing’s self unconceived :
Then follow, — how dependent upon these,
We know not, how imposed above ourselves,
We well know, — what I name the gods, a power
Various or one; …”

Browning’s poem goes on:

…  for great and strong and good
Is there, and little, weak and bad there too,
Wisdom and folly : say, these make no God, —
What is it else that rules outside man’s self?

— Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book

That is the question: What is it that rules outside man’s self?  Murray’s answer is his “Things which Are”.  Harrison calls them potencies and daimones.  Browning names them the “hidden forces” and “blind necessities”.

Jung offer a similar conception of the gods, as the uncontrollable natural forces of our psyche:

“There are factors to be considered which are not under our control. Experience of the [archetypal] opposites has nothing whatever to do with intellectual insight or with empathy. It is more what we would call fate.  Such an experience can convince one person of the truth of Christ, another of the truth of Buddha, to the exclusion of all other evidence.”

Jung likens these factors not under our control to fate in their influence on out lives.  In Psyche and Symbol, Jung calls these uncontrollable natural forces of the unconscious to “acts of God”:

“[T]he will can control them only in part. It may be able to suppress them, but it cannot alter their nature, and what is suppressed comes up again in another place in altered form, but this time loaded with a resentment that makes the otherwise harmless natural impulse our enemy.”

Although Jung likens these forces to acts of “God” — with a capital “G” — he goes on to explain that a more apt comparison is to the Greek daimones, a term used by Harrison above:

“I should also like the term ‘God’ in the phrase ‘the will of God’ to be understood not so much in the Christian sense as in the sense intended by Diotima, when she said: ‘Eros, dear Socrates, is a mighty daemon.’ The Greek words daimon and daimonion express a determining power which comes upon man from outside, like providence or fate, though the ethical decision is left to man.”

In response to Rua’s post, M. J. wrote:

“The gods and myths are very powerful and useful symbols and metaphors. It may turn out that the supernaturalist baggage is too much and that we are better off inventing a new language to describe what we mean (as in the Brendan Myers’ Immensities), but regardless of what we call them, I think we need something like gods to encapsulate our values, emotions, and experiences of this ‘mysterium tremendum’ that is Nature.”

“Immensities” is a term used by Brendan Myer to refer to certain human experiences which are often surprising and unexpected and beyond our ability to understand or control.  He includes among his immensities natural phenomena, other people, and death.

Things which Are.  Potencies.  Daimones.  Hidden forces.  And blind necessities.  Nature.  Fate.  Immensities.  Mysterium Tremendum … Gods.  Whatever they are called, these experiences reminds us there is something fundamentally beyond our control that exerts influence on our lives.  They call us to humility and to an acknowledgment of otherness — to the recognition that the world is not an extension of my ego.  These terms evoke mystery and ineffability for the purpose of maintaining that sense of separation between us and the world.

For all the talk about connection and oneness in Neopagan and New Age talk, it is equally important to remember the difference, the separation, the otherness of the world.  We can encounter this otherness in nature, in other people, and even in our own psyche.  And it is here that I think I can find common ground with Rua, who fears that god-talk leads to anthropomorphizing which leads to anthropocentricism.  I agree that we need to maintain the experience of otherness in our encounter with the world … or it is no encounter at all.  And the gods help me do that.

When I speak of gods, I am not talking about using metaphors of my human relationships to explain my relationship to the world.  Rather, speaking of the earth or the thunderstorm as a god reminds me that these things are not human.  They are as wonderful and capricious and dangerous as the Greek gods seemed to the Greeks.  One of the lessons of Greek mythology was that human beings are not gods.  This is something which we often forget since Renaissance humanism brought the Greek gods down to earth so to speak.  And those heroes in the myth who forgot the separation of man from god were inevitably punished by Nemesis (fate).


18 thoughts on “What is it that rules outside man’s self?: The gods as “other”

  1. >Things which Are. Potencies. Daimones. Hidden forces. and blind necessities. Nature. Fate. Immensities. Mysterium Tremendum … Gods. Whatever they are called is called, these experiences reminds us there is something fundamentally beyond our control that exerts influence on our lives. They call us to humility and to an acknowledgment of otherness — to the recognition that the world is not an extension of my ego. These terms evoke mystery and ineffability for the purpose of maintaining that sense of separation between us and the world.
    For all the talk about connection and oneness in Neopagan and New Age talk, it is equally important to remember the difference, the separation, the otherness of the world.

    Great post! Excellent point here – the reminder of otherness. There is a sense in which we and the rest of the cosmos are one, insofar as we are all part of one seamless natural whole – the “big self.” But in another important sense we are separate – the relation of the “small self” to the whole. This reminds me of why many Eastern paths like Buddhism and Vedanta Hinduism speak not of Oneness but of “nonduality.” We and the universe are neither one nor not one. There is only nonduality.

    1. M.Jay (M.J.Lee)

      I want to let you know what a BIG fan I am of your blog. I really get a lot out of reading it and am honored to be quoted by you. I especially like your recent piece on D. H. Lawrence. I was not previously aware of his very inspiring proto-pagan writings. In that piece you described Lawrence as a vitalist. I really like that term. In many ways it is the desire to express/relate to the innate vitalism of nature that draws me to god language. In my experience (and I am not here thinking of Rua, but of folks at the World Pantheists Movement) those who hold a very strict naturalism and wish to strip away all taint of supernaturalism, all potential for misattribution, often lose this sense of vitalism or at least end up with a language too diminished to express it.

      Your words, “Whatever they are called is called, these experiences remind us there is something fundamentally beyond our control that exerts influence on our lives. They call us to humility and to an acknowledgment of otherness — to the recognition that the world is not an extension of my ego“ remind me of a passage from one of my favorite books, Paul Woodruff’s “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue.” He writes:

      “Reverence must stand in awe of something—something I will call the object of reverence. What could it be? Something that reminds us of human limitations, if we are to stay true to the concept of reverence with which we began. Therefore you must believe that there is one Something that satisfies at least one of the following conditions: it cannot be changed or controlled by human means, is not fully understood by human experts, was not created by human beings, and is transcendent. Such beliefs are the least you must have in order to be reverent.” (page 117)

      In other words the object of reverence must possess otherness – must possess its own vitalism, its own force of being, separate from the human ego. I keep thinking of the Iliad and Odyssey. Many scholars have remarked on how much of the action in the Iliad and Odyssey is doubly determined. It is explained both as a natural chain of causes and effects and as the work of the gods. Although I don’t believe there are conscious, willful superbeings controlling the fate of humans, still somehow I think that Homer’s double vision gets closer to the truth than a single objective account. More than we care to admit, human life is shaped by the will of nature in us (the unconscious agenda of the body as directed by the genes) and by that most mysterious thing, luck. Wonderful post, wonderful site!

      1. Thanks MJ! If it’s not already obvious, I am a fan of your contributions and comments too. Have you thought about starting a blog of your own?

        Thanks for reminding me of Woodruff’s book — it’s right on point I think. I also recently have been reading about the theologian Schleiermacher who had some similar ideas about religious feeling. I’m going to be posting about him in the future.

        I recently went back to your guest post at HP and followed the link to the Friesian website. I’ve barely scratched the surface there (there’s a lot there) but there are several interesting strands I’d like to follow. Thanks for that.

        1. Good point. Schleiermacher and later Rudolf Otto have contributed immensely to a naturalistic understanding of religion (even though I don’t think they were themselves naturalists) by calling attention to feelings. Their theories have been discredited (see especially Wayne Proudfoot’s Religious Experience, which is a great book in itself), but the problem mainly centers around their claim that the religious feeling is something completely unique, sui generis, and unable to be spoken of outside of religion (i.e. out of bounds for science). Once we fold their theory of religious feeling back into the common realm of the natural world and human nature, it becomes a powerful theory once again.

      2. M. Jay: Would you be interested in writing a guest post for me, on this top, or any other really. You know I am a big fan of your comments on this and other blogs and have been looking forward to when you start your own blog. Until then, I would like to give you a forum here for a longer piece.

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  10. Zoziau

    RE : “the world is not an extension of my ego”

    Maybe we are an extension of the ego of the World ? An expression of it ?

    I think that the feeling of “self” is just a necessity of evolution, a feeling needed to keep a organised item consistant : a stone, a table, a man, a tree, a fly of birds, a family, any define and consistant group of anything – proteins, atoms, bees, cells, animals, biotops… The Universe is I in this body, is You in yours, is It in the Earth… This feeling of “integrity”, this self, dissolves at death time (any type of death – destruction, end ot the storm, divorce, etc.), the same way the organization of the “item” is debuild, it fades into the Whole, until a new organisation is build, at any level…

    Thank you for this article…

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