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Satire, Suffering and the Pantheist’s Dilemma

By Alison Leigh Lilly

In 1880 a scientist called John Eliot Howard lectured to the Philosophical Society of Great Britain that Druidry has consisted of pantheism, the unity of all nature with deity, which seemed to him ‘the highest effort of the natural mind in religion’. […] On the one hand, he suggested that, unlike Christianity, ‘it had no remedial feature for the hour of adversity, no consolation against the darkness of the grave.’ On the other, he admitted that he so far shared the Druids’ attitudes that ‘I should prefer the breezy air of the Wiltshire downs to the atmosphere of Westminster Abbey’.

— Hutton, The Druids: A History (emphasis mine)

Strict pantheism is, I think, a difficult outlook to maintain. You find only a few people — even among Pagans — who are truly and purely pantheistic. Polytheism has its multiple gods, goddesses, elementals and other spirits, inhabiting a sacred natural world but also maintaining distinct personalities within it. For polytheists, a local river god, no matter how closely identified with the river, is not just the river, but conceived as “something more,” as possessing some quality of character or personality, some human-like attributes with which we, as human beings, can communicate and interact. Certain monotheistic religions go to the other extreme, conceiving of deity in purely transcendent terms, inherently separate from the “created” world. Usually modern critiques of each of these belief systems focus on the extent to which they deny or imbue sacredness in the natural world. Examples from past cultures show us that polytheism can degenerate into petty bickering among fallible and narrowly anthropomorphized deities, whose capriciousness no longer points to the mysteries of a shifting natural environment but has become entirely self-referential and melodramatic. Likewise, religions based on transcendent conceptions of deity come to rely heavily on abstract revelation (often supposedly only available to religious or political leaders) rather than personal experience of a sacred world, and even the extreme view that nature is inherently “evil” or degraded and must be rejected and escaped.

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