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Theophany

If the dark time of the year is for dreaming and visioning, Imbolc is the ray of light that penetrates the dream, that stirs the vision in the mind's eye and the seed dormant in the womb of earth. In the course of a long meditation on Pagan Identity, I started reading Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick's A History of Pagan Europe. While some parts of their History disappoint, the introductory chapter is provocative — a short "must-read" for Pagans, or at least for the theologically-inclined among us.

In just a few paragraphs, Jones and Pennick place Paganism in the broad context of spiritual heritage:

"The Native American tradition, the tribal religions of Africa, the sophistication of Hindu belief and practice and the more recently revived Japanese tradition, Shinto, are widely acknowledged as the authentic native animistic traditions of their respective areas. In marked contrast, the European native tradition, from the massive civilisations of Greece and Rome to the barely documented tribal systems of the Picts, the Finns and others on the northern margin of the continent, has been seen as having been obliterated totally.

Next, the authors define their terms, arriving at this definition of Paganism:

"It is a belief which views the Earth and all material things as a theophany, an outpouring of the divine presence, which itself is usually personified in the figure of the Great Goddess and her consort, the God or masculine principle of Nature."

Theophany! Give me a new word and I'm as intent as the woodpecker on a suet cake in midwinter! It's a theologians' word. From the Greek theo (God) and phainein (to show forth). Abrahamic theologians (those who study Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) use it to describe historic spiritual/religious events, a surprising number of which involve the archangel Gabriel:

* Gabriel, from the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, with God present and speaking, gave Moses the Torah.
* Gabriel appeared to Mohammed, reciting to him "the word of God" (which became known as the Qu'ran, "the central theophany of Islam").
* Gabriel visited Mary (again accompanied by God) with the news that she, "the virgin," was going to give birth to the son of God.

A theological case has been made for the Qu'ran itself as "the central theophany of Islam" (The Qu'ran: Word of God) and for "the incarnation of Christ as being the ultimate theophany." (Rick Curtis, When God is One of Us)

For transcendant religions, theophany is an event, something that happens at a particular time to a particular human. For Pagans, theophany is a state of being, the continual outpouring of "the divine presence" into material existence. We could say that the universe is the central theophany of Paganism.

We do have other words that have similar meanings. My introduction to theophany hasn't opened up new theological territory so much as it has sent me re-examining assumptions and familiar words: immanence (the divine dwells in creation), pantheism (the creator and the creation are same; the creator doesn't exist outside creation), even panentheism (the divine both dwells in the creation and transcends it; Goddess is something greater than the sum of all her parts). For us, theophany isn't an event, no matter how historic. It's 24/7.

Consciously living the reality of a 24/7 theophany is a challenge, to say the least.

If Nature, the world, and all beings — and all things that come from these — are the constant and complex expression of Goddess, this means we have to own up to the fact, every moment, that what we abhor, dislike, fear, ignore, and disrespect is, like what we honor, love, and embrace, Her nature and a part of Her "divine presence."

Because I believe that the Goddess is alive in all of material existence, then for me her immanation includes some things I hate: IEDs — improvised explosive devices (that's military jargon for what's mangling soldiers and civilians in Iraq), defective o-rings on the space shuttle, AIDS, professional hatemongering, the disappearance of wild honeybees from the Midwest. She is the air we breathe, and the pollutants in it; She is the fire of our bright spirits, and also global warming; She is the water we drink, and the plastic "mermaids' tears" found in all earth's oceans; She comes from the mountains, and she comes from Chernobyl and from Bhopal.

Just in time for Imbolc, the journal Science publishes a study of the continuing damage from the Exxon Valdez (reported by Scientific American). Turns out the sea didn't wash away 25% of the oil per year, after all. The troubles are persisting, and some species are failing. It's hard to grasp that the Goddess is as fully alive in the oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez as she is in the animals and habitats damaged or destroyed by the spill. Harder still to grasp that She is the spill itself.

On a mythic level, we honor the Goddess as destroyer and destroyed, life-giver and death-bringer, mother and murderer. In practice, how do we figure out how to live with this reality? Does Pagan Religion provide signposts, credos, stories to help us here?

A first answer might be, "An ye harm none, do as ye will." But is it possible to do anything and not harm someone or something in the process? Even the Jains who sweep their paths to avoid stepping on bugs, even they must harm some delicate wings with their gentle brooms.

Here's something else we hear and say often: "Intention is everything." Is that truly a strong statement of faith or belief? It certainly excludes the magical and practical responsibilities beyond setting an intention. Is it truly useful to a Pagan practitioner, or has it become an expression we need to examine more closely?

As Pagans, we try to include ourselves in the cycles of life and death, but the connection can be painful: Patricia Monaghan recalls sitting stuck in auto traffic, feeling grief and guilt as she hears an Alaskan friend telling about the Valdez catastrophe. Mary Swander recognizes the severity of shunning in the Amish community, and the strength of acceptance and forgiveness. Susun Weed discusses making herbal allies, and acknowledges that plants can be both dangerous and healing.

Practicing Theophany as something we "preach" is a strenuous path in which choice and the web of connections, complicity and innocence, change and loss are constant elements of the divine, as we all are.

Bibliography

  • Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe. 1999 Barnes & Nobles Books.

Graphics Credits

  • woodpecker, courtesy of Emily Roesly.
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