(originally published on Ordgeþanc, on 12/04/2011)
It has been said that small-minded people talk about things, the mediocre talk about people, and the intelligent talk about ideas. I think that approaches to religion, to the gods, can be divided in the same way. Such a division need not imply a hierarchy of ways of approaching the gods going from lesser to greater, although that hierarchy is often implied, which I want to get back to later.
First, there are the “things” of religion: cult objects, “fetishes”, idols, visual symbols, descriptions and iconography of the gods’ appearances, parts of the physical world that are associated with specific gods such as mountains, rivers, and forests, and also living things such as specific animals or birds; in short, all of those ways in which divinity is approached through the senses.
Second, there are the “personalities”: specifically, the personalities of gods as we know them from myths, and with whom we identify, or whom we identify against; these are the ways that the gods are approached through the emotions.
Third, there are the “ideas”: theologies, mysticisms, or the web of concepts that might be associated with a particular god, and that form lines of conjunction and relation between gods; these are the ways that the gods are approached through the intellect.
Sensory experience being basic to our interaction with the world, the sensory part of religion is the first experience of the gods for most people: for instance, one might see lightening, hear thunder, see an oak tree, see the famous bronze figure of Þórr from Iceland and think “This is Þórr”.
Later on in the development of one’s religious understanding, one might identify the figure of Þórr in the myths as the reality of the god, and reject the reality of what is available to the senses, as if to say “That was merely a symbol or a reflection of the reality, but this is the real Þórr.” This is where most people stop.
Some people might go further, and come to a theological understanding of Þórr, wherein “Þórr” seems to be a concept or a web of concepts, e.g. Force, Protection, Warriorhood, etc. one might then reject the mythological “person” of Þórr as likewise a symbol of the reality of Þórr, which are these concepts; the idea of Þórr is seen as the ultimate reality, of which the sensory and emotive elements are mere shadows and reflections.
It seems to me that this progression from sensory to emotive to conceptual is not enough, and there must be another level of understanding that very few these days have reached.
For one thing, the rejection of the visible, audible, and tactile apprehension of the holy for the emotional apprehension, and the rejection of the emotional apprehension for the conceptual apprehension, seems to privilege ever greater abstraction. If a linear progression of further abstraction is the key to understanding the Holy, then we might say that each god, even taken as an abstract web of concepts, is symbolic of some other thing, something beyond gods, and that we may as well then dispense with the idea of gods altogether, and give idols, myths and theologies little or no credit for being about anything real. There exist such schools of thought today, and I think that that ground has been well-trodden, to the point that I have no interest in it as a direction of thought. I think there is another way, a more interesting way that does not result in the intellectual rejection of everything about our religion.
This is not to say that abstraction or intellectual understandings of our gods are going in the wrong direction; merely that they are incomplete. The problem lies in the rejection of the sensory for the emotive, the emotive for the conceptual. One who has reached the level of understanding gods as concepts must then make the full circle, and see that coming to know a god through the senses, through the emotions, and through the mind are all important: the idol, the mountain, the thunderstorm; the Þórr of the myths; the ideas and concepts associated with Þórr; all of these partake of the being of the god. Someone who has this insight can come back to the beginning, and see the idol, hear the myth, and know the concepts like they are new, and experience the presence of the god in all of these ways simultaneously.
There will always remain something of a god that is beyond knowledge, beyond human understanding, but experiencing gods in things, in personalities, and in ideas, all together and at the same time, gives a broader and deeper understanding than any one of these singly.