Considering Immanence

It is often the case that foundational ideas go unexamined, for the simple fact that looking too closely might mean major changes in the way people engage with a particular system. In the mundane world, for example, the entire edifice of the pseudo-science of “economics” would crumble if the majority of its practitioners were to come to a real understanding of the how the concepts they take to be axiomatic are actually informed by archaic, religiously inspired ideologies. The case with the concept of “Immanence” in the Pagan community is, I think, a good deal less severe. However, it is not a good idea to keep promoting a concept without exploring its full implications.

As a first step, I think it would be fruitful to look at how the concept is generally understood in the context of Modern Paganism. The term “Immanence” also appears in classical theism, but with a rather different implication than in our community. In classical theism, God Himself is a transcendent being. He is conceived of as larger than, more powerful than, more wise and compassionate than, any other being in the Cosmos. Yet He is also immanent in that He is close to us, and to an extent present in everything. It is important to point out that a doctrine espousing a totally transcendent God existing outside of an utterly corrupt material universe is very rare. There is a tension in Christianity on which is more important, but most accept that God is both transcendent and immanent. I bring this up because the manner in which immanence is presented in many Modern Pagan contexts could lead one to believe that all Christians are Manichean Gnostics. This latter belief was, in fact, considered heresy from the beginning.

The main contrast here is that, generally speaking in Modern Paganism, rather than a property of an essentially transcendent being, immanence is taken to be the entire story. It is often simply explained away as “everything is divine.”

Which leaves us with an interesting quandary: if “everything is divine”, why bother having a religion at all? Indeed, how does this statement, taken on its own, even have meaning? If I say that everything is purple, this is easily refuted by pointing out that my own skin is conspicuously not. The primary way to determine a quality is to note its absence.

This is not so much an issue of a bad idea as it is an oversimplification of a good one. The actual literature on the subject is a bit more detailed, and gives us the picture of the Cosmos, particularly “Nature,” as a complete being in and of Herself. Where the published matter on the subject fails is in determining how we could get “out of harmony” with this being, or even how anything ultimately harmful to Her could actually occur. It fails because many of the writers on the subject are opposed to hierarchy of any kind, seeing metaphysical hierarchy as a justification, in all cases, for oppressive political hierarchies.

But, if we are to actually address the problems of oppression and environmental degradation, we will need to understand that establishing a value of any kind necessarily involves a hierarchy. One cannot value something without devaluing that which would harm, degrade, or lessen that which they value. Otherwise, we are simply saying that it is a nice thing to have, but other people’s ideas of what is nice are also… nice. This leaves us with absolutely no room for any activism whatsoever. The values of the person who would put us all in jail for even caring about restoring wetlands or protecting a woman’s biological freedom are, if “everything is divine” just as much a holy prerogative as the desire to protect them. This is, of course, unacceptable to most if not all Pagans.

Of course, the concept of the Cosmos as a living entity is not new. It is, when you get right down to it, the conclusion that nearly every wisdom tradition has come to over time. It is the Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalah and the Buddha Nature in Vajrayana. What is new is the sociopolitical overlay. And what that lacks is what I would argue is the necessary polarity of transcendence against which immanence gains its meaning. Without that, we are left with a platitude that bites its own tail if followed to its logical end.

It’s really an example of how context creates meaning. Context transcends the particular words or symbols used in a communication. It determines their import, provides the ground from which their meaning is intended to grow. But those words and symbols, by virtue of being embedded in that context, are imbued with that meaning. Take them out, and they are just words, mere scribbles. The word “love” for instance means something very different in a letter to ones beloved than it does in a nationalist screed. But there are those, I suppose, who will say that it’s “good” no matter where it is.

If we understand the context of over-arching (ergo transcendent, since determinant and of greater importance than any single part) values, the idea that “everything is divine” becomes intelligible. It merely needs the caveat that we don’t always see that divinity, or don’t always honor it. We fail in this respect because we have lost the vision of the whole, or “the golden thread that leads you to the heart of Eleusis.” Without that vision, all our grand assertions are little more than words which, while they may make us feel good, do little to improve ourselves or the world we live in.

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