Pattern and the Ineffable
I recently had a couple of house-guests from Sweden, very good people whom I'll refer to by their initials, M. & S. They were curious about my religion, and I was happy to discuss it. M. is working on a doctorate in engineering and, like many Europeans with a scientific background, is essentially an atheist - albeit, importantly, one who feels no need to evangelize.
M. shared something with me that I felt was essential: he said that, to him, nature is the most important thing, and that it is beyond our descriptions of it in disciplines like biology and physics. I agreed, and have been following the train of thought that sprang from that conversation, and finding its connection to my view of things.
Over several years, I have come to see existence as a vast, indescribably complex pattern, made up of other vast, indescribably complex patterns. By "indescribable" I do not mean "unknowable"; in fact, these patterns can be described ad infinitum, but never exhausted, never completely, finally defined. They are not the sorts of things that one can draw a circle around and say: "This is it, all of it." There is always something more.
These patterns, furthermore, constantly interact with one another in patterned ways on all scales: from the level of the smallest subatomic particles all the way out beyond the largest scale humanly imaginable.
What we tend to think of as the natural world is the level on which we can see those patterns of existence clearly, moving by something other than human volition. Yet, thinking of "nature" as a category distinct and separate from "culture" or "humanity" is misguided: those same patterns flow and interact in human societies, and even within individuals.
Myth can be seen as a kind of metaphoric or aesthetic understanding of these patterns. I do not mean either of those adjectives dismissively: myths are true in that they relay truth, and they do so concerning things that cannot be expressed better in any other way, due to the vastness, the inexhaustibility of those truths, their inability to be circumscribed or contained within human thought.
And here we come to what is, for me, the crucial point: the gods are these patterns. I do not mean this in any way that suggests a "just" or an "only," or as a definitive discovery of what the gods "really are". Both sides of the statement are equivalent: these patterns of existence are the gods.
This means that in their movement, in their patterned interaction, there is volition and purpose. The gods's deeds shaped Being in that time-before which is always happening; the patterns of existence create existence moment-by-moment. This is saying the same thing twice.
The manner of sensibility that creates art - the putting-together of sensation to show a whole, a reality and meaning that goes beyond the sensations to something larger and deeper - is the same manner of sensibility that myth speaks to. It is something that relies on the feeling of a connection between different things, thereby gaining a subtle intimation of the whole that is the nexus of those connections.
The almost word-associative attributes and connections that make up our descriptions and understandings of a god (oak-hammer-goat-thunder-red-iron-storm-wagon-battle, or spear-king-wise-army-horse-raven-noose-wolf-chant) are the putting-together of the parts of a pattern into a whole that is felt at a level deeper than the intellect. Similarly, the ascribing of personality to these patterns is not merely "personification," meant dismissively as an epiphenomenon of human psychological structure, but rather the noticing of a pattern.
Think: you have known someone whose personality reminded you of a meadow of flowers in Spring; or of the distant-but-nearing rumble of thunder as the sky darkens; or of a forest dying on the edge of a swamp; or of hard ice driven by a cruel wind. You yourself have embodied some of these patterns of personality, or any of several others.
At this point, those who are fond of describing the gods in terms of Jungian archetypes - and thereby saying things that I think Jung would not - might say: "See, the gods come from within you!" I would amend that statement, and thereby the implication: the gods come to you from within you. Your ability to "know" a god, to feel in any manner close to a god, is dependent on the recognition of a part of the same pattern within yourself. The implication is important: you yourself (or all of us as the "collective unconscious") are not the source of the gods. Rather, these patterns of existence that are gods extend throughout existence into you yourself. The myths that occurred "back then" also occur "out there" and right here, and within yourself. To know that - more to the point: to feel that in the core of your being, in the very heart of your heart - is to experience a hierophany, a self-showing of the Holy. When this happens, you must greet the gods who are there.