Missing the point of metaphor

Metaphors aren’t false or true. They’re both at once. That’s the point of metaphor.

Ok, let me back up.

I recently started following John Halstead’s blog, and while so far I have only skimmed the surface of his suggestions for a new taxonomy of Paganism, it seems like he engages with “naturalistic” Pagans a lot. Just that term seems weird to me; are most forms of Paganism not natural enough? Apparently this is at least in part an attempt by some atheist Pagans to differentiate themselves from people who actually believe deities exist.

Sometimes these folks use pagan and sometimes they use Pagan. I’m going to continue to write Pagan with a capital P because it’s important to me as part of getting Paganism recognized as a “real” religion and not just a philosophical stance.

This matters because today John and Star are both talking about a post over at Humanistic Paganism that asks “Why do people want supernatural gods?” The author, M. J. Lee, describes herself as small-p pagan. She admits that she feels animosity toward hard polytheists, and spends the piece weighing the pros and cons of believing in gods, but ultimately she derides people who believe in real gods as being too literal.

Star is understandably angry about this and questions whether a creeping evangelical atheism is starting to claim the p/Pagan label. I don’t think so, but I can completely relate to how she’s feeling. Another post I skimmed over at The Allergic Pagan was engaging with a piece at Humanistic Paganism that was similarly questioning “god talk” in Paganism. I have been quietly annoyed by that approach ever since.

See, I have a loud and insistent internal voice of skepticism. And like most people in our community, I came out of a Christian background with a lot of assumptions about what it means to be a deity, and a lot of assumptions about how people and deities interact. (To quote House, “When you talk to God, that’s prayer. When God talks to you, it’s psychosis.”) I’ve spent a lot of time processing that, and I’m not going to be able to address it all here, but I’ll try to hit a few high points.

Deities don’t have to be omnipotent and omniscient to be deities. That’s a Christian and monotheist misconception. My deities are not. In fact, it’s important to me that Pagan stories describe the relationships between people and deities quite differently. I ended up finding that a very humanistic aspect of Paganism as a functionally polytheistic religion.

But more importantly, I’ve had direct experiences of deities. This is something I continue to struggle with because of that internal skepticism. When people talk about the Goddess telling them something, or Hestia asking them to do something, it’s easy to joke about that, to edge around my own discomfort by falling back on the overculture’s stereotypes and assumptions. But I don’t have that luxury any more. I can’t weigh the values of a humanistic Paganism with no “god talk” vs the values of thinking of deities as more than myths, because at least some of them have made themselves known to me directly.

As a result, I have to allow multiple perspectives to coexist in my head and heart simultaneously. I remain skeptical of each and every contact with deity; I do not take anything on faith. And at the same time, I continue to cultivate those relationships at the same time that I understand deities as myths, and metaphors, and more. I continue to work with other deities who may be “only” myths and metaphors, and I leave those questions open, with multiple possible answers coexisting within myself.

And from that perspective, it can be damned annoying to see someone question whether I am being overly literal because other forms of religious understanding are not “enough” for me. I’m not trying to define atheists out of Paganism. I will happily do ritual with people who think deities are “only” metaphors, as long as we can all agree on the basis for the ritual and our practices within it.

But to me, M. J. Hall’s piece doesn’t look like an attempt to understand Pagans who believe in deities from their own perspective. That’s a charitable interpretation, but she’s framing the question entirely within her own understanding rather than trying to cope with what are two potentially incommensurate frames. Similarly, The Allergic Pagan’s subtitle is “My search for the sensible transcendental.” But the transcendental isn’t always sensible, by its very nature. There is no opportunity for me to answer Hall’s question by saying, “Because I know them.” There is no place for me to describe the entirely un-sensible experience of having contact with deity.

And yes, Star is also understandably upset that some people are taking small-p pagan and running with it in a way that seems designed to justify each and every thing said by the fringe Christians who want to “fight the green dragon” and deride everything from Earth Day to recycling as bizarre “pagan” rituals. The folks trying to be “humanistic pagans” may not want to be recognized as engaging in religion at all; while I can respect that, it comes across to me as undermining all the work that has been done to get Paganism, big P, recognized as a “real” religion. The Pentacle Quest, for example, is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m not trying to be literalist or fundamentalist; since I have multiple perspectives within myself, I can certainly coexist with others who have other perspectives within the same religion, if we want. But Star is right that people who are aggressive about proselytizing a- or non-theistic understandings can seem to be trying to undermine and even deride religion, and it’s worth examining whether they are part of the same religion or of an allied philosophical movement or something else entirely.

I don’t know where M. J. Hall falls in all of that, and I’m not going to try to guess based on one snippet of writing. But what is clear to me is that she fundamentally misunderstands the idea of metaphor, and I think that’s part of the problem here. Her conclusion seems to be setting up people who believe in “real” deities as separate from people who believe in deities as metaphors. She even talks about “true or false metaphors.” That’s an incoherent phrase.

Metaphors aren’t true or false. They get their power from being both true and false, all at the same time. I don’t see deities as either “real,” powerful, interventionist beings or else “only” myths. I have seen, and continue to see, and to relate with, deities that partake of both, and may even shift back and forth. To me, this is the real challenge of being Pagan: existing in the midst of this complexity, of myths and metaphors and old stories and new stories and….

To quote my friend Hecate, it’s all real; it’s all metaphor; there’s always more. That’s where the magic happens.