2.101 The Imagined God

The Choice Between Gaia and the
Father God

Sometime in the 1950s American poet Wallace Stevens was walking
with a young friend in a park in Hartford, Connecticut, where
the poet lived. They were quietly and intently discussing the
role of imagination in life and art. At one point the friend
formulated a question: “How are we to find truth in the
imagination, when we can so easily deceive ourselves by what
we imagine?” Stevens stopped and looked at him pointedly.
He assented that the risk of self-deception was real, but then
he added, “I think we have reached the point in our psychological
history where we cannot believe that anything is true, if we
ourselves have not imagined it.”

Stevens’s remark applies both to poetics and to life,
and especially to the issue of belief in some form of Divinity.
For most of us, we believe about God what we have been told to
believe in childhood. God is like Santa Claus, except that in
adulthood we come to understand that Santa Claus is a benevolent
fiction, and we continue to consider God as if it were not. The
essential point here is, parallel to Stevens’ tacit observation,
we invent what we believe. The act of believing is so powerful,
and so prepossessing, that it makes us forget that God is a product
of human imagination.

The Theopathic Question

To state that we imagine God or Divinity does not in any way
exclude that it exists for real, without needing to be invented
by mere mortals such as us. It both exists in and of itself,
and needs to be imagined. The mystical tradition of Sufism teaches
theopathy, “feeling for God, empathy for the Divine.” To
imagine God is a theopathic act. Feeling plays a huge role in
how we imagine God, but it can also distort the process. Mystical
theopathy offers an elegant lead into the process. It assumes
that the Divine feels a lack to which we respond. What if, independent
of us though it may be, the Divine needs us to imagine it? This
is the theopathic question.

If we are to imagine the Divine, how shall we do it? One answer
might be, “Playfully.” This is how another company
of mystics, the Himalayan seers, have imagined God since time
immemorial. The Sanskrit word Lila means “play, delight,
amusement.” Some of the oldest philosophical teachings
in the world tell us that the essence of the universe is divine
play. Not a test, not an ordeal, not a game of reward and punishment,
but play.

Obviously, there are various ways to imagine God. In our time,
since about 30 years ago, another option has emerged: God is
Gaia, the living planet. Nothing in human imagination (the species
psyche or collective unconscious of Jung, if you will) is new,
for its contents are ever recycling, endlessly permutating. The
option to imagine God as a Goddess embodied in the Earth has
become culturally accessible in the last 30 years, but it exists
timelessly in human imagination.

According to Dolores LaChapelle, doyenne of the deep ecology
movement, Gaia is a name used by the Greek poet Hesiod, so it
belongs to rather late, patriarchal poetics. She rejects the
G-word as a patriarchal contrivance, not ancient enough. This,
at least, was her view in the early 1980s, when debate over the
Gaia hypothesis was moving into high gear. It is sobering to
consider that the Muse of deep ecology does not accept the name “Gaia” for
theopathic practice.

Gaia Theory

And there are other blocks to theopathy with the Goddess, coming
from the originators of the Gaia hypothesis, biologist Lynn Margulis
and atmospheric scientist James Lovelock. These are professionals
who regard Gaia as a solid scientific theory. While Lovelock
admits that Gaia will inevitably acquire a religious dimension,
like it or not, Margulis sternly warns against “debilitating
biomysticism” and the “deification of the earth by
nature nuts.” Lovelock has tended to flirt with religious
and “New Age” speculations around Gaia theory, while
Margulis has keep her distance. It might be observed, however,
that Gaia theory is bigger than both of them. How the theopathic
imagination of Gaia will develop is ultimately not for them to
say, although their insights on the spiritual and mythological
dimensions of Gaia theory carry a premium value.

In his brilliant work on Goethe’s theory of perception,
The Wholeness of Nature, Henri Bortoft notes that “the
success of mechanical philosophy” from the time of Decartes
and Newton “was due as much to external and political reasons
as to its having been shown to be true by any internal scientific
method.” The dominant explanatory model of science at any
time is a reflection of the total psycho-social configuration
of that time. If Gaia theory succeeds, it will be in part because
global society becomes a kinder, more cooperative place. A symbiotic
society favors Gaia theory and, in turn, favors the imagination
of the Divine in the living planet. Inversely, the Goddess mystique
associated with Gaia fosters the sense for a symbiotic society.

Bortoft’s book comes recommended by Elisabet Sahtouris,
a leading exponent of Gaia theory who thinks in the direction
of theopathy. In her fascinating dialogue with Willis Harmon,
she says: “Life cannot be part of a cybernetic device,
or even part of a living being; life is the essence or process
of the whole living being.” This being so, what if imagination
is the faculty given to our species to access “the whole
living being,” the total planetary presence of Gaia?


Let it be noted that Lynn Margulis (in Slanted Truths) has
defined science as “a way of enhancing sensory experience
with other living organisms and the environment generally.” Speaking
as a “biomystic,” I can say that this is precisely
my definition of biomysticism! It is not the least bit “debilitating” to
enhance sensory experience by deepened rapport with nature. On
the contrary, the practice of biomysticism restores the palingenesis
of the ancient Mysteries: regeneration through rapturous surrender
to the life force. Bortoft explains that Goethe’s method
does not merely lead from one interpretation of nature (mechanistic)
to another (animistic). It is not an alternative explanation
at all: it is an alternative to explanation.

Goethe’s way of seeing activates a dormant faculty of
our species, which he called exakte sinnliche Phantasie, “exact
sensorial imagination.” His method of morphological perception
is classically alchemical, following the supreme rule of Hermetic

In all thine operations, let the Work be guided by nature,
according to the slow progression of metals in the bowels
of the Earth.
And in thine efforts, be guided in all ways by the true and
not the fantastic imagination.

Not to replace phenomena with an abstract model, but to go into
the intensive dimension of nature – this is an imaginative
act. This may well be the best way to encounter Gaia as the intelligent
Earth, the living biosphere, Divinity around and within us.

The Intensive Dimension

I wonder, as well, if there may be a way to apply Goethean criteria
to Stevens’ challenge: to believe something is true, knowing
we have invented it. I would say that this option to static acquired
beliefs – that is, beliefs that do not come to the individual
through a truth search, but are blindly adopted and never challenged – is
essential to the sustainability of the human world. Rather than
replace theopathy, feeling the Divine, with a belief system,
can we go deeper into the intensive dimension of Divinity, with
mind and emotions receptive to its response?

In that way we might
encounter something to believe, knowing that we ourselves have
truly, truthfully imagined it.

John Lash Sept 1, 2005 Flanders

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