The Economics of Immanence

We live in a beautiful, divine Cosmos. Modern Paganism is one of the few religions to make a point of valuing this world, for itself, rather than as an “illusion” or a testing ground for souls. Historically, I think this may actually be unique. While our ancient forbearers certainly had a this-worldly focus, there was also much that could be considered “transcendent” and “otherworldly” in the cosmologies of these older traditions. We make a mistake if we project our own ideology into the past.

Nearly every Paleopagan tradition that we know of divided the Cosmos into at least three Worlds, Upper, Middle and Lower. The relationship between these Worlds depended largely on the culture, but nearly all placed some kind of determinant agency on a realm that existed apart from the strictly material aspects of reality. While the manifest universe in which we dwell may have been considered valuable and holy, this holiness depended on some Outside in which our world was a partaker.

The question then becomes: what do we mean when we say “the world is holy”? If we simply worship “Nature” we are left with a confusing heap of different approaches, all of which begin to seem like shouting at our own psychological projections. The idea of “Nature” is largely a Romantic construct that depends on several metaphysical assumptions that must also be unlocked before we are actually speaking about anything intelligible rather than simply emotive.

Doing so is beyond the scope of what I really want to talk about, which is the more immediate origins of the idea of Immanence as it is conceived in Modern Paganism. It is important to remember the general background of the majority of us, and to contrast this with the people’s of the past, and indeed the rest of the world. Generally speaking, Modern Pagans come from middle to upper middle class backgrounds in industrialized, Western cultures. These cultures enjoy a very high standard of living compared with less “advanced” nations, and the lives of those living in them are generally free of the extreme privations of those living in the “developing” world. (The discussion of the ideology behind the words in quotes is, again, much too involved to enter into here.)

For most of human history, life, we must be frank, sucked. Life expectancy was incredibly short. Most people were either slaves, serfs, or soldiers. There was no such thing as “credit” for the majority of individuals. You either had the money for what you needed, or you went without. A plethora of diseases awaited you, and people died of maladies that today require a single visit to a doctor and a course of antibiotics. One could expect to die relatively young, with a great deal of pain, after a difficult struggle to survive.

We should remember this when we criticize the “otherworldly” religions of the past. These were not just arbitrary abstractions created to manipulate gullible populations. They were, in part, very honest responses to existence as most people experienced it. In this context, Gnostic hatred of materiality becomes a little more understandable.

It is uncertain exactly how Paleopagans viewed the relationship between the different realms of existence they conceived. This is mainly because many of these cultures were oral, and generally didn’t have time to sit around and philosophize about cosmology. The exception, of course, being Greece. And Plato could hardly be characterized as a philosopher of Immanence, at least in the sense we tend to use the term. Iamblichus, on the other hand, arguably could.

I would conjecture that most Paleopagans simply took their place in the Cosmos for granted. Somewhere in the middle. They were embedded in the thick of existence, and simply assumed a continuity between this world and the next.

Modern Pagans, however, do not and will never have this kind of relationship to the world. We have both Christianity and the Industrial Revolution between us and that world-view. The Romantic movement grew out of a response to the latter, and created the pastoral, somewhat saccharine concept we think of as “Nature.” (The answer to this was “nature red with tooth and claw” and the corruption of Darwinism to serve the needs of the industrial elite.)

What we have inherited, then, is a more refined sort of separation between “natural” and “unnatural.” Things human society creates are, from this perspective, inherently bad. The only “good” is the unspoiled, wide open fields and forests. Very few Modern Pagans talk about the divine being Immanent in a sewer drain, though this is what one would be led to if they took the idea of everything being holy to its logical conclusion.

We are embedded in a different set of contexts than Paleopagans, including Indigenous survivals that could be considered late examples of such. I feel it is important to recognize this, because failure to do so renders much of our theology meaningless. If we are simply regurgitating Romantic notions about “Nature,” that makes us an historical curiosity, not a living tradition.

I bring this up because it is quite likely that the socioeconomic context which created Modern Paganism is on its way out the door. The energy sources which power our technologies, which in turn provide our abnormally high standard of living, are running dry. As the people in control of the centralized systems of distribution play politics, it becomes increasingly unlikely that viable alternatives will be coming soon enough to stave off the collapse of industrial civilization.

What will a post-collapse Paganism look like? Will our theology adapt to the circumstances, or dig in its heels and become the kind of dogma we tend to shun? The latter possibility may seen unthinkable right now, but remember what happened to Neoplatonism when it met with Jewish Apocalyptic sects at the fall of Classical civilization. No one would have imagined then that a doctrine based on communal love and voluntary simplicity could become the Church of the Inquisition.

In later posts I will go deeper into the concept of Immanence. This post was mainly necessary as an acknowledgment of the context, which I have seen little of.

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