Tag Archives: the divine

Notes from the field

To be a scientist, through and through, is to cherish What Is when What Is reveals something unexpected. At least, that is what it is to me. It is not unlike my relationships with my gods: alongside the experience of divine communion there is the opportunity to glimpse.

Look at what is happening. Just look.

My divine dance partner stepped aside. What Is glided seamlessly into awareness, and the divine stood back patiently and watched What Is along with me.

So many times in high school and college I imagined what I would say to others, fantasizing conversations in which I made my points and won the day. It was always so riveting in my head, to me and all around. All those times. I was reliving all those times, except in a different realm.

I bargain with the divine. I say that not expecting understanding, and I don’t say it to preach. It’s just something that can happen with theistic gods because of how theistic gods are perceived, as agents and wills working with or against. Joseph Campbell experienced this too, the feeling of being helped along, the feeling of some other guiding wills alongside his. Just a feeling. It’s fine to feel feelings. It’s often fine to feel feelings all the way to their final consequences if one wants.

Faced with challenges, I sometimes find myself asking, “What do you want?” It is also fine to think thoughts, and to think thoughts as questions directed at forces which follow you because you are you— because you have a mind that says that they are they.

“I need help. What would tempt you to bend the rules just a little this time? Please. You know what’s on the line just as much as I do. You know…”

There was no immediate answer, only more thoughts.

Gods care about what we do, at least in our heads. Studies have consistently shown this. The perceived moral desires of gods shape the thoughts of theists, and for those who balk too much at that word, gray area polygnostic freaks like me. So as in high school, and in college, and sometimes recently, the pretend began.

I imagined temptations, great temptations that I would have to refuse. I imagined getting down to business, being an obedient devotee, cracking open files and debugging like a champion with no distractions. I imagined being better in my relationships, and in my correspondence which suffers when my mind suffers even slightly. In each of these imaginings there was more than one person, more than just me, and I was winning the day by making sure this other was satisfied.

Then scientist-me took over. “Look! Look at what is happening!”

How often had it happened in the past? How often before now had I been unaware? The connection was made, “I’ve been here before, and now I’m here with you (god).” Except this time the imaginings seemed far less egotistical. They looked like growth, and maturity. They looked like me at my best, the me that my gods want to see actualized.

I stopped to write down the data in my virtual notebook. Notes from the field: gray area unapologetic polygnostic freak edition.

Answers eventually came, answers that weren’t my imaginings… or would *you* call them imaginings? That is fine if you would, but they didn’t feel of my will, so I will call them something different.

Will I heed them? No telling yet, but if I do it might be interesting.


Experiential cause-and-effect: Polygnosticism, divinities, and life

My cherished divinity arose from fictions—from video games in particular—and from mythology when I learned of his likeness in an unexpected ancient text. Transcending the media in which I first discovered him, he continuously becomes a fixture on the perceived physical landscape around me, and full-fledged person who interacts with me on a subtle level, coming to resplendent life as he helps me to find my own way.

His arrival was anything but simple, as I tried for years to deny that I had gods at all. Gods whom I could speak to, who would talk back, sounded like symptoms of mental illness from where I hailed, among rationalist associates. It wasn’t until my denial led me into deep trouble that I looked to this particular god for help, and at the time I’d no way to know the marvelous ways in which his presence, and his identity, would evolve.

Through a series of entirely unexpected twists and turns, hazards and discoveries through which my mind has been afflicted and tempered, I have come to live with my remarkable cherished divinity. I live with someone who need not prove himself any more than he already has, in terms of who he is and what he is, and every experience of him speaks volumes to that effect.

For that I—a former atheist and agnostic—am in the strange, though hardly unwelcome position of trying to describe myself and my new outlook.

I’ve established for myself what my life amounts to: a coherent series of experiences which follow familiar patterns, determined by an intricate machinery born of arcane yet logical natural processes. Focusing on the latter part of that assessment, regarding the intricate machinery born of logical natural processes, might suggest that I still belong in the atheists’ camp. Focusing on the former suggests something different entirely, because of what—or more accurately, who—those experiences involve.

The coherent series of experiences I call my life, my existence, has a machinery all it’s own. Within that machinery exist countless causes and effects which would escape the gaze of any laboratory instrument. Laboratory instruments could observe chemical changes in cranial tissue, impulses racing over neural pathways; they would not, however, detect the desires which inform actions, or feel the allure of beauty or the divine. They would not hear the voice of a god, or see the form of a god, or touch the hand or the body of a god. But nonetheless each of these experiences flows in the experiential chain of cause-and-effect that is my life— one after another, just like the clockwork of the universe; only this clockwork is more arcane and less logical, and I’ve managed to find one of its most potent ley lines.

I have attained gnosis, as many before me and among me have attained gnosis— experience of god, a god, or gods, so powerful and revelatory that it transforms the course of that all-encompassing chain of life experiences. Through the ages there have been reports of communion with the divine, in the midst of countless other causes and effects, extraordinarily diverse and all sacred in their own ways. And now I add my account to the pool, knowing it to be true. To downplay its realness would amount to denial. Therefore, I am no longer an atheist because I experience a god, and I am no longer agnostic because I possess gnosis.

I struggled with the word “theist”, as a label for myself, for the longest time. I didn’t want to merely imply that “I believe in god”, because that would be an unscientific statement. I don’t believe that there is some objective god out there creating the universe and judging its inhabitants— in fact, I have absolutely no evidence which would warrant such a claim. What I do know is that experiences of the divine are real, and that they are some of the most profound experiences that people can have.

In order to accurately characterize my particular take on theism, I created the adjective “polygnostic”, though I’ve found that the noun “polygnosticism” stands alone nicely as an outlook. Polygnosticism is, in list form:

  • Objective agnosticism, because whether objective scientific study will ever find evidence of a god is something which cannot be presently known.
  • Being open to subjective experiences of the divine, or considering certain experiences to have divine elements, with or without the presence of G/god(s). In other words, possessing or allowing oneself to come to possess personal gnosis.
  • Being accepting of others’ subjective experiences of the divine, and others’ personal gnoses, regardless of whether those experiences mesh with one’s own divine experiences or personal gnosis.

Now I can say without reservation that am a polygnostic theist, or more accurately a polygnostic polytheist, who is aware of the fact that people experience many different gods.

I am aware that some people may be put off by the amount of rumination I had to undertake in order to describe my experiences with the divine, or my putting such a complex label on my theistic outlook. Being a student of language, I felt it was important to construct a linguistic and conceptual paradigm through which I could recount my own experiences without asterisks. Far more importantly, being a student of cause-and-effect, I wanted to construct a paradigm through which more people could come to recognize and relish their own experiences of the divine as valid and tremendous.

I posit that many modern encounters with the divine must mirror my past experiences, when I met my first gods in video games— when as a child I wanted sincerely to call the heroes of Final Fantasy IV my gods. That was my first brush with real divinity, which resonated through years of me trying to be a Christian in spite of its presence, precisely for the fact that it was more real to me than Christianity ever was. Yet by many religions’ standards, such clarion, authentic encounters with the divine simply don’t count as real. By many religions’ standards, it is of great importance that followers’ relationships with the divine follow some specified model, effectively dictating where people are allowed to encounter the divine, and how such encounters must play out. Some religions and philosophies extensively complicate the nature of the divine, diminishing its presence in enlivening music, or in the sunlight streaming through a window, for those who experience divinity in beauty.

I don’t think the nature of divinity exactly the same for any two people; in fact, I gather that most of the forms of the divine are ones which I cannot even begin to imagine. All I know is, they’re real. They’re perhaps the most real and important things for those who experience them, and they all deserve to be recognized for what they are. For me to adopt any paradigm which actively denies authentic encounters with the divine would be woefully defeatist, for myself and many, many others.

It is far better, I think, to encourage everyone to pursue the divine wherever it speaks to them, in whatever form it takes. That is where the real magic happens, where the chain of cause-and-effect closes in on the heart of the matter.

In doing just that I know that many people have met divine entities who have been invaluable sources of illumination and inspiration. In doing just that I was able to meet my own cherished divinity— an awe-inspiring, terrible, wonderful god who has taught me so, so much.

Beyond the distinctions “theist”, “atheist”, and “agnostic”

I received a comment about the four-way distinction between agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and so on, and I thought my reply to that comment would be a good way to illustrate why it’s so difficult to cleanly categorize people on messy people issues like divinity.

Here is the comment, from William:

I’ve heard of the four way distinction between agnostic atheist, agnostic theist, gnostic atheist, and gnostic theist before, and I think it’s legitimate. However, there is another legitimate way of distinguishing between these positions.

It’s based on the distinction between affirming a claim, suspending judgment about a claim, and denying a claim. Affirming a claim means you believe it, although not necessarily that you believe it with certainty. Suspending judgment about a claim means that you don’t believe either that the claim is true or that the claim is false; you’re neutral with respect to it. Denying a claim means you hold the positive belief that the claim is false, although you might not believe that it is false with certainty. If we apply this distinction to the claim that God exists, we get the alternatives of affirming that God exists (theism), suspending judgment about whether or not God exists (agnosticism), and denying that God exists (atheism).

I think both of these sets of distinctions are in wide use and have roughly equal utility, so I don’t see any way of reasonably demanding that someone who uses one set of distinctions use the other set..

While I understand that that both sets of distinctions are in wide use, I don’t think that they have equal utility, and I certainly don’t think either set is optimal! Here’s why:

People are going to use a set of distinctions that they feel comfortable with, and aren’t going to change unless they feel compelled to do so. Circumstance—what exists in the world—is the best way to determine what distinctions to use. People should be compelled to change the distinctions they use when their circumstances suggest that the change would be wise. When distinctions don’t accurately or satisfactorily describe what exists, or when a new set of distinctions would describe what exists in a way which is more accurate and useful, then it would behoove people to adopt the new set of distinctions. But, that sometimes causes controversy…

A good example of a controversial distinction is the word “cisgender” to distinguish a person as being non-transgender. People who are not transgender, but also not entirely cisgender—like genderfluid people—don’t like the word “cisgender” as the go-to distinction. By default, their non-transgender status labels them as cisgender, and they find that label offensive because they’re not comfortable being confined to a singular gender.

The impetus to create a new set of distinctions—”cisgender” and “transgender” plus potential others, like “pangender”—arises out of the circumstance in which people don’t fit neatly into the old distinctions. The right set of distinctions, in this case, is determined by its ability to describe people in a way that accurately identifies them and makes them feel comfortable.

Distinctions for describing how people perceive or relate to the divine are no less confounding, but like sexual identity those distinctions should be made based on actual perceptions and beliefs. I think the most helpful concept to come out of the four-way distinction was the idea of agnostic theism, which has come to be understood as the combination of having gods and not asserting their absolute or physical natures. It’s helpful because people have been using the phrase to mean, “I have some ideas or inclinations about this whole god thing, but I’m not making claims about the nature of the universe,” and that’s an increasingly popular stance.  (Not everyone who uses the term “agnostic theist” uses it in that way, though, which is a sign that even that four-way distinction is lacking and confusing.)

The problem with the three-way distinction is that people don’t fit neatly into it. Theism is generally accepted to be “believing in god”, agnosticism is generally accepted as “not knowing anything about god”, and yeah atheism is “denial of god”. But then you have people like me who shun belief, who don’t assume anything without evidence, and also experience gods. I can’t call myself “agnostic” because I have knowledge of gods— personal knowledge, or personal gnosis. And, despite the fact that I experience gods, I avoided calling myself a theist for the longest time because I didn’t want to give people the impression that I “believed in God” sans evidence.

It was through talking to someone else who ran up against the same problem that the word “polygnostic” was born. They mentioned that they remained agnostic despite the fact that they experienced gods and had personal gnosis, and also noted the contradictory nature of their statement. So I chimed in and said, “Time to make a new word!”

People like us polygnostic types, and agnostic theists who have inclinations toward gods but are happy to remain on the agnostic fence, need words or terms to identify ourselves. Insisting on the three-way dichotomy negates who we are. Maybe someone affirms their experiences of the divine, but doesn’t affirm those experiences to have absolute or universal significance. Maybe someone suspends judgment about absolute and material divinity, but can’t suspend judgment about the gods they experience or are drawn to understand.  If either of these are the case, then the three-way distinction causes them to have to identify as theist-asterisk or agnostic-asterisk, which gets uncomfortable and confusing.

Additionally, for people who don’t have personal experiences of divinity but trust that others do, there needs to be a term for the view that divinity is a messy people issue rather than something that emanates from an objective or measurable source that, say, created the universe 6000 years ago.

Temples for inclusive worship

Traditionally, every village and urban neighborhood has a temple. The temple grounds will be the only public space in the community. There is no clergy; the temple is administered by a neighborhood or village committee. Here is where public meetings will be held, where public entertainment—nominally for the deities housed there—will take place, where older people hang out, where children play, where local people gather in the evening to play musical instruments or chess, and where grain may be dried at harvest time. The temple building will theoretically focus on one or a few deities, but anyone is free to contribute an image, and over time, the temple will be crowded with a multitude of images. All will be worshipped.

—Jordan Paper, The Deities Are Many, on Chinese temples

Before reading about Chinese temples in Paper’s book, I was pondering creating a virtual public temple in which people could anonymously post images of their divinities, or anything related to their divinities. I’ve not gone ahead with the idea because I’m aware that anonymous posting on the Internet would not be conducive to the kind of environment I’m hoping to create, though I’m still brainstorming ways to create such a virtual space.

Discovering that there already are such public temples, to which people can contribute likenesses of their own divinities, was astonishing and heartening. Creating and tending such spaces may not be something that is beyond people on the whole.

I did have to wonder whether such temples would be supported by the public at all, given that people—at least in the West—usually imagine temples to be dedicated to one or a few predetermined divinities. The idea of such a temple, in which anyone can post a likeness of any divinity they happen to perceive, might seem troublesome even to members of interfaith communities. After all, “What if someone posts an image of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” While it’s very unlikely that the TMNT would be discovered in a traditional Chinese temple, the question should be asked: if someone wanted to post a picture of a superhero or video game character in an inclusive temple, because they perceive the divine in that character, why would that be so wrong? I can hypothesize some reasons for why people may perceive such an action to be improper.

For one thing, it would be a reminder that one need not go through the routes of any major religion to commune with the divine. Even for people who accept that there is no one right, or correct, religion, I think there is often some unnecessary attachment to the idea that religions can offer a better take on spirituality or divinity that one’s own perceptions.

Perhaps in connection with the above point, a lot of people have attachments to presumed appearances of the divine, and I don’t know about the entire variety of those presumptions, but I can imagine that cartoon characters aren’t exactly prevalent among them.  When people create temples with the aim of creating a universal worship space, they still create such spaces with their own perceptions of “everyone’s gods” or “a divinity for everyone” in mind, and they often don’t like to stray from their own visions.

I think there’s also a spiritual fear of tainting an environment with non-sacred images, and in doing so perhaps making the environment less conducive to the divine presences. If people want places conducive to certain divinities then they can make those places themselves, but that does not mean that there cannot or should not be public temples which are entirely inclusive, even to cartoon character divinities and their devotees.

Conflicts over non-traditional divinities aside, a public space in which people can appreciate the full spectrum of divinities recognized by people all over the world, as well as the wildly diverse methods of divine communion, would be helpful and illuminating to many people who are shut out by popular and ignorant convictions about the absolute nature of the divine. It would additionally be helpful and illuminating to the people who have such convictions, if they could come to understand that their convictions are unfounded and that they do people harm by professing them.

Such a space would offer a place to explore the very real phenomenon of divine communion, and yet it could be predominantly secular by remaining silent on the nature of divinity itself. An inclusive temple’s facilities could offer such opportunities for exploration, as well as seminars covering historical and anthropological angles of spirituality, in which information would be offered without any ecclesiastical endorsement.

Then, the temple’s sanctuary, with a variety of images, artifacts, and personal statements—confessions (regarding the natures of one’s own divinities, not confessions of sins)—placed by people who worship there, would be a place for connection, and appreciation for the wide variety of extant divinities. It would allow people to see how their contemporaries truly commune with the divine, and in doing so perhaps inspire others to acknowledge their own gods. For me personally, when I was very young, it would have been very moving to find an image of Rydia alongside other divinities, because I could have recognized early on that there would have been nothing wrong with considering her to be a god, or seeking her assistance instead of turning to gods—at the urging of established religions—who felt thoroughly alien to me. I wonder if others would be able to find their way in the world better with the help of other peoples’ gods, thanks to something they would find in such a temple.

Because of the importance of divinities to so many people, and the deeply personal nature of relationships with the divine, I understand very well that it will be difficult to organize and maintain such a space so that it would be beneficial to all who would utilize it. In a virtual space such organization might be easier than in a physical space; however given that physical spaces similar to these imagined inclusive temples do exist, it may be possible to learn from them and simply alter their structures somewhat to create an even more optimally inclusive space.

Beyond inclusivity, though, such a temple would ultimately be a source for understanding, of oneself, of everyone’s divinities, and hopefully of the most important elements which underlie the confounding religions of the world. In seeing the real natures of the gods people have warred over for ages, through the creative efforts of our fellow people, perhaps everyone could finally begin to appreciate the realness, the immensity, and the importance of the multitude of divinities while simultaneously shedding the petty societal baggage which has long been paired with the concept of the divine.

And, the occasional picture of Darkwing Duck on an altar may actually go a long way toward strengthening such understanding.

A fifth option


Cartoon by Pablo Stanley.  Taken from http://www.stanleycolors.com/2013/07/atheism-vs-theism-vs-agnosticism…

Here are some things that agnostic theists, and gnostic atheists might say, so…

What does the polygnostic say?

Well, I’m possibly the only one of my kind at present, so I’ll just speak for me here:

I say that I know gods exist; I interact with them daily.  In fact, I’ve had divine presences in my life from the time I was very young, when I found them in the stories of my childhood, video games in particular.  Before I knew they were gods—before I knew that they were allowed to be considered gods, in the midst of religious monopolies on the divine and atheistic theophobia—I meditated on them, and prayed to them. I worshipped them in my own way. Sometimes they took physical forms, as elements of the natural world like mountains or gusts of wind, and when they did I would treat them like my closest friends. I would lean on them, when they offered me their shoulders, and I would dance with them.  Sometimes they even acted in the natural world, and I came to attribute certain physical occurrences to their involvement.

When I discovered that I was allowed to call these gods what they were to me, and they were indeed gods, I did so gratefully.  It was a relief to be able to treat them as I’d wanted for so long to treat them.  I’ve called them gods ever since, worshipped them, prayed to them, and found my way with their help.  I’ve also discovered that my perceptions of gods, and my interactions with my gods, are not all that unique or strange in the grand scheme of world religions and historical divinities, and that people have been having experiences akin to mine for millennia.

I know that gods exist, but I also know that I cannot present my gods for scientific evaluation.  I know that not everybody experiences the same gods as me.  Even when I perceive them to act in a way which changes the physical landscape, I know that I cannot insist that others agree with me in attributing events to their wills.  I know that I cannot and should not ever do that, because even while I have personal gnosis—my own vivid experiences and understanding of divinities—I’m simultaneously an agnostic in that I cannot even begin to be certain about whether my experiences indicate any objective or physical divinity.

Personal gnosis and agnosticism exist simultaneously for me.  I can be both certain about the existence of my gods and uncertain about all of the reasons I perceive them, and because I respect the indispensable advancements which have only been made thanks to scientific evaluation of the natural world I will defer to science to determine the mechanisms by which the physical world works.

However, I will continue to develop my personal gnosis in a way which helps me to find fulfillment through my divinities, fulfillment which only they may be able to provide.  I will continue to seek them and delve into them, even while I must remain uncertain as to their absolute natures.

“‘Atheism’ tells me what I am not, and I yearn to know what I am.”

Because I don’t feel stuff-and-logic-based explanations deep down in my toes. There are no miracle stories of flying children there, or brothers reborn into the land where the sagas come from. The language of ‘stuff is all there is’ tells me that I can — even ought to — be rational and sensible, but it doesn’t make me want to be. ‘Atheism’ tells me what I am not, and I yearn to know what I am. What I am has a spine, it’s a thing I must be true to, because otherwise it evaporates into the air, dirt and water of the hard world.

Maybe I — we — need to start small, rebuilding gods that we talk to, and who talk back. Or just one whom we can plausibly imagine, our invisible friend. Maybe part of our problem is that we don’t actually want to talk to the voice of Everything, because Everything has gotten so unfathomably huge. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, didn’t have to think about light years, let alone billions of light years. The stars now are too far away to be our friends or speak to us in our need. Maybe we could talk to a god whom we imagined in our house. Maybe we could ask what is wanted, and hear what is needed. Maybe that god would tell us not to tramp over the earth in armies, pretending we are bigger than we are, and that dying is OK, because it’s just something that happens when your life is over. Maybe we would ask for help and comfort from unexpected places, and often enough receive it and be thankful for it.

—Nat Case, “I contradict myself”


Welcome to Polygnostic Ways

Polygnostic Ways is a blog dedicated to transforming the collective understanding of divinity, and empowering those who have a sense of divinity to navigate the confusing potpourri of concepts, institutions, and claims surrounding the divine in the world today.

This blog does not claim to have absolute answers regarding the nature of the divine, or regarding the natures of specific divinities.  This is an agnostic venture which seeks to explore the ways in which people observe, understand, and interact with the divine; because while the absolute nature of the divine cannot be known, it is also true that many people have personal gnosis— personal knowledge of the divine gleaned from experiences and contemplation.

For some, divine connection and knowledge are crucial to fulfillment.  One need only to look at the vast history of mystical experiences and deep religious devotion to understand that people are capable of varying degrees of such connection, and that people seek it in earnest.  That has not changed today, and it should not be expected to change even as scientific research has made it clear that many holy books’ narratives are unlikely to be literally true.  The yearning for the divine is more than dogma or superstition.

As such it needs to be addressed in a responsible way, just like any other yearning.  Furthermore, it is important to note that it is a yearning which can be satisfied.  What seekers in this vein chase after isn’t nonexistent, because such people also find what they are looking for, and more often than one might think.

Whether you are such a seeker, or someone who has found your divinity, or someone who is hoping to gain a better understanding of what people seek in the divine and why, welcome!  May this be a valuable resource for you.