John Michael Greer, in The Druidry Handbook, writes: “What are the gods?…Ask any three Druids and you’ll get at least six answers”.
Paganism in general, and Druidry in particular, has no specific theological stance on the existence and nature of deity. There are no creeds to recite, no doctrines to affirm. As a result, different Druids hold many different views about the nature of deity. There are polytheists, who believe in many gods, monotheists, who believe in one god, agnostic and atheist Druids who don’t relate to gods at all.
My own viewpoint shifts and changes with time, mood and experience. I try not to hold beliefs, as belief can too easily shift into a fundamentalist conviction of certainty. Sure, I have opinions, ideas, models, which can act as lenses through which to view the world, but I try not to hold on to them too tightly and to be open to new evidence, new experience.
I don’t believe in literal, personal, gods. For me, the idea of supernatural superhumans creating and/or controlling the forces of nature, answering prayers, occasionally doing miracles and the like, makes no sense. Pantheism would be the closest description to my own position. Influenced by the philosopher Spinoza, pantheism affirms that nature is all that exists, and that nature itself is divine. Spinoza wrote “deus, sive natura” (god, or nature) to reinforce the idea that what people may call a god is simply another word for the majestic wonder of nature.
In Living With Honour, Emma Restall-Orr writes: “For many Pagans, countless of the many gods are the forces of nature: the winds that race through the valley, the valley itself crafted by mud and rock and water, the ancient rivers that flow across and beneath the land, the woodland and meadows, the sun that holds our planet in thrall, and so on”.
The gods of Paganism, of our shared myths and tales, of ritual and song, of the ancestors and the land, are to me simply personifications of these forces of nature. Elsewhere, Restall-Orr writes how over time, “slowly the gods were coming to be represented in more human forms” as stories were crafted, told and retold, nature becoming anthropomorphised, a mirror to our own human condition and relationship with the wilder powers of land, sea and sky.
Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes that “in the ancient world, the gods were rarely regarded as supernatural beings with distinct personalities, living a totally separate metaphysical existence. Mythology was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience”. Experience, not belief, is central to Paganism, and to each individual Pagan’s relationship with the gods.
When I reflect on the named gods of myth and legend, I am “honouring and invoking their qualities, the virtues and powers they represent, in order to inspire my life and behaviour” as I wrote in my contribution to the anthology Godless Paganism. But I see these gods as symbols of nature, signifiers pointing beyond themselves, beyond the interplay of text and context, to that which is signified and which is, by experience, subjectively known.
My gods are the damp earth beneath my feet, the crashing waves of the ocean, the swift whisper of the wind. They are older than names, older than language, beyond us but intimately part of us as we are part of them. These gods do not need belief – they simply are. Like theologian Paul Tillich’s “god beyond god”, these gods do not exist – they are existence itself.
This is a non-literal view of the gods, of course, and would be no doubt seen by many of the more hard-edged polytheists as heresy (from the Greek αἵρεσις, meaning choice). Yet what could be more real than the powers of nature? Go for a barefoot walk across bracken uplands and you will be in no doubt as to the reality of the gods of thorn and rock, cooling stream and chilling wind.
Potmodernist theologian Mark C. Taylor, from whose work Erring I take the name of this blog, sketches the lines of a/theology, a point beyond theism and atheism, an “endless erring of signs, which issues in the radical relativity of meaning”. Perhaps the above can be seen as a poly-a/theism, each of the many gods being both an aspect of unified nature, and a symbolic representation of itself to itself, languaged through the inspired Awen.
What matters, at least for me, is not what anyone believes about that which lies beyond the horizon of the known, but how we live our lives, in relationship with all beings, human and non-human alike.
Armstrong, K. A Short History of Myth. Canongate, 2005.
Cronin, R. “Myth and Meaning: a Non-Literal Pagan View of Deity” in Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans (ed. John Halstead). Lulu, 2016.
Greer, J.M. The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. Weiser, 2006.
Restall-Orr, E. Living With Honour: a Pagan Ethics. O Books, 2007.
Restall-Orr, E. The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature. Moon Books, 2011.
Taylor, M.C. Erring: a Post-modern A/theology. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Tillich, P. The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, 1952.