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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 science:

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







Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.