What is a god?
Note: This post consists of a few excerpts from Ousia, a book that I am currently writing. These sections are not finished, but I felt an urgency to let these thoughts wander into the world now, in order to start a conversation (please comment any additions or clarifications you feel are necessary). One reservation I have regards the meaning of gods of a place/ specific natural features, which I don't feel I adequately addressed, though I'm also not sure I would call those gods as much as essences that may be communed with (similar to the essence of an individual person or a culture). For more on God/ gods and the future of religion, check out my interview with Suma Gowda here.
God (singular) is simply another name for Reality, so all humans must seek God as the restoration of the mind, the heart, and the body. God requires no worship, just practiced awakening. Awakening to oneness, we desire to alleviate all suffering. Awakening to consciousness, we fear no death. Awakening to possibility, we know no boundaries to self or world.
This God is the absolute, the unconditioned, the eternal. For such a Being to enter mortal consciousness, he/ she would have to become relativized, conditioned, and temporal. So the distinction between God and transcendent gods is simply an experiential inevitability.
Transcendent gods (plural) draw the soul into actualizing a particular set of possibilities. They hover past our reach, gaping wide a great divide between the fallen self and the essence of a principle. Gods create duality and distance, requiring worship, prostration, repentance, and sacrifice in order to reach them. In worship, the human empties herself to give place for a new essence.
Gods could be.
Yet gods are not created ex nihilo. They are found as essences and then actualized into fully-fleshed beings. They are parts of the whole (God), but are only successfully integrated into the whole once they’ve been emphasized through worship. Transcendent gods are temporal constructs, necessary for our time-bound lives. As embodiments of goals, utopias, ideals, they live in the ether of not-yet, enticing us from an unborn future.
But no one can reach a transcendent god. We must pin gods into the far-off heavens, but then the gods must condescend. Since there is nothing but the present and gods live in the future, we reach into the not-yet, trusting that the gods will condescend to lift us.
Once you become one with the Real, time will lose meaning and so will your gods. But as long as you experience time, your gods are necessary for you and your culture.
Of course, in order to posit a transcendent god towards which you may reach, you must first find ground from which you may stand. The ground of the Real is defined by two constants: possibility and unity. The gods you craft will be vital only if they root in this ground, allowing possibility to flourish in the worshippers (freedom) and emphasizing the unity of all livings (love). Guided by freedom and love, all gods are possible (and many are necessary).
These transcendent gods are always waxing and waning and growing and dying, as they are human-grown fruits who ripen and rot in their time. Always the soil of the Real beneath, but that ground is mostly invisible to we who forget to glance down, remember the origins of thought, language, selfhood.
Gods speak only after you craft them. And these speakings are constantly shifting.
Any god that can speak is not the God who gives reality to all livings in an ever-constant stream. The Real is mute. The Real is even blind, like the sightless sun who lends sight to all livings.
A god is not the Real, but a socially-conditioned container for the real. A vessel for our hopes, insecurities, ideals, a god will fill any container you offer. A large vessel will contain a large god. A small vessel will speak only small words and then the small-godded will feel compelled to proclaim, “I can do nothing about it! My god speaks, and I obey.”
I would like to illustrate the arbitrary nature of a god who speaks, through a practice that may strike you as heresy. You don’t have to proceed with this object lesson, though I believe you’ll find the exercise enlightening if you do.
Create a god. Close your eyes and imagine a particular set of qualities that feels important to you. What awakens in your mind and body?
When I performed this practice in early summer, a fire kindled in me. I felt a strong male energy, these words inscribing themselves on me: god of forests and wild things. I turned over some sounds in my mouth until I landed on this: Oko.
Tuning myself to this energy, I asked, “Oko, what shall I do today?”
I wrote down the replies: “Eat foods of strong essences. Raw vegetables, cooked grains. Cacao nibs instead of chocolate. Strong herbal teas. Nothing fatty or sleep-inducing. Run outside in the fresh air. Take off your shoes and place your bare feet on the earth. Touch the rough skinned bark of passing trees, sense their pulsing energy.”
I wore a reddish brown t-shirt, some green beads. I let my hair flow wild and wavy. I wrote those words on my right leg: “root me to the wild awake.” For the first time in a very long time, I went jogging. I did not feel strong. My body felt a little stiff, a little creaky. I could feel my last meal like a weight in my stomach. I wanted to pray, “Make me worthy of the wild.” But I know “worthy” can be a misleading word, an endless chase towards a state that never arrives.
Remember, gods are the ones who posit this divide. But they are also the ones who condescend to close the gap. I cannot be “worthy” of anything. But I can try to meet something greater than myself, again and again. I can try to reach a future ideal so as to realize the future is already here. Here is a pattern you may practice with your gods: widen the gap, close the gap. Alienation, then at-one-ment. Separation, then unity. Here is mine: Make me worthy of the wild. I am one with the wild.
I hold these words as I run, stop and walk, run, stop and walk. Then I walk back to the creek, where I remove my shoes and walk in the damp earth. From my pocket, I remove a small circle I wove with beeswax string, intending to hang the circle from a small branch. Instead I see a tree whose trunk is strangled with barbed wire that had begun to grow into the trunk, barbs that could not be extricated. I untwist the ends and link the circle around the barbed wire. Then I take out a small bag of cacao nibs and scatter a few by the tree trunk. I place my hand on the trunks of a few trees, feeling the wild pulse into me, each plant containing various concentrations of Oko.
Worthy of the wild. I am the wild.
If I let Oko speak to me every day, what kind of person would I become? A person like a healthy animal, mind cleansed by daily doses of wild air, purified of lethargic unreality and food that weakens the body. Perhaps my life’s mission would also be transfigured. You are here to rewild the world, Oko would command.
I would work for a world in which nature is tamed by the human, but not domesticated. The humans who worship with me would be lean, with bright eyes and animal hearts, living in cooperative communities. All plants speak, everything is alive, humans greet one another by pressing forehead to forehead and breathing in deep. They allow the wild to flourish within the boundaries of reciprocal relationship. They let dandelions, tall grasses, and other “weeds” grow, orchestrating them to thrive in a rambunctious symphony of life, rather than eliminating certain species for love of landscaping tidy & uniform deaths. They build homes that are permeable with the earth— made of clay and uncut stone, wide windows or countless doors, meant to continuously tumble the human into their healthy, under-cultivated gardens, where they harvest for daily meals, into the wilder woods beyond, where food may be foraged and animals speak with the silent meanings of inter-species presence. They drink their fermented wines, eat their wild weeds, and dance in the evenings to drums that pulse the rhythm of the one heartbeat.
Oko would reveal truths like: your violent, sexual films and media result from a repressed animality. So too your lethargy, your deception. You are not all animal (do not act like a lion or an ape), but your animal foundation must be allowed to flourish without fear or taming. He would reveal other truths like: you rape the earth because you hate the reality that her unnameable and untameable is your own extended body. You kill other animals for food because you would like to murder your own beastliness, your own undignified sex, defecation, death.
Each god reveals a repository of sacred scripture; each god contains a community in embryo.
What communities does your god create? What kind of human?
Find a phrase that describes your god, and recite that phrase in meditation or wear the words on your body. You can create a ritual for this god— a chant, liturgy, or dance. You can create a small altar where you offer the god daily gifts. Worship this god for at least a week, asking how you can embody their essence every day.
Do you feel the presence of the divine creature? If you worship well, the god will blink awake, revitalized by your wanting, renewed by your embodying.
Then you will find how strange this question sounds: does your god exist? For one who worships, a god is both separate from the human— containing a singular essence—and one with the human, requiring humanity in order to be actualized in space and time.
Everyone worships, but some worship with their wits awake. Others sleepwalk to the altar of their culture’s ideals.
Worship your fertility, sexuality, death. Worship your creativity, reason, bodily strength, weakness, and poverty. Worship all you find in the natural world, emptying those essences back into the world as you encounter them.
Then you will be both pagan and monotheist, both many-godded and one-hearted. Rejecting the vague holiness of so many "religious," you will become a stained-glass mosaic of every blinking color— fully embodied, fully alive, fully human. And thus, fully divine.
How do you see God and gods play in the world, in your life?
What does a relationship with God or gods look like?
What did I miss about these realities?