Choosing Metaphors: theistic language in non-theistic spiritual practice

Today’s article by guest writer Áine Órga


Metaphoric deities representing a faceless divine

My practice includes divinity, but “my divine is not deity”. My divinity is Cosmos, is existence. It is not a deity in the sense of a conscious or separate entity.

However, I do naturally lean towards utilising anthropomorphism in my rituals and devotionals, and generally in my day-to-day spirituality. The central example of this is my connecting to the Cosmos as Gaia. I take this concept of Gaia and break it into concepts that I can meditate on, dedicate words to, light candles for. Some of these are metaphors of physical phenomenon or abstract concepts, but with the most central or overarching of them I have tended to utilise the language of deity.

I do feel comfortable with using theistic language. For me, it adds meaning to my rituals and my feeling of connectedness with what I consider to be the divine. The strange thing about a naturalistic or pantheistic practice is that the theism evoked can be quite fluid. Because I utilise specific deity-like figures in a metaphoric context, I am left free to pick and choose my wording as I please.

Virgin and crone as aspects of the mother

For the last nine months, I’ve been using a goddess metaphor largely based on that outlined by Glenys Livingstone’s Pagaian Cosmology. She utilises the archetype of the triple goddess within the context of Gaian naturalism. In this model, the three aspect are maintained in their original balance with each as important as the other.

But for me, the virgin and crone aspects of the triple goddess have come to represent a yin-yang metaphor of light and dark, manifest and unmanifest. It represents to me the great paradox of our individuality and uniqueness, contrasted with our ultimate connectedness and sameness. The mother aspect has become more overarching to me, and the virgin and crone aspects have come to be the two forces acting within this one force of the mother or changing creative force, Gaia.

The terms “virgin” and “crone” have never sat particularly well with me, however, as the concept of the triple goddess in its usual form has never been particularly meaningful to me. But I find it difficult to find any better way of defining those forces.

At the moment, I am moving away from personifying them. As interesting as I find personal deities within the context of the theory of archetypes, I do feel slightly uncomfortable or dissatisfied with equating these archetypes with aspects of the overarching tendency of the Cosmos. In some way, perhaps, the Cosmos is just too big for me to feel comfortable personifying it.

From metaphors to archetypes

Despite a naturalistic-pantheistic view of the divine, and my possible moving away from the anthropomorphic triple goddess, I am fascinated by anthropomorphic deity, and it will always be an aspect of my practice.

Deity as archetypes is something I’m becoming increasingly interested in, and my next chunk of reading on my list is a whole heap of Jung. Archetypes are very strong concepts to me – I believe they have a very real potential to represent or tap into some extremely basic instincts and aspects of humanity and our connection to the divine.

I’m interested in incorporating these into my practice in a different way to simply using them as metaphors for physical phenomenon – perhaps as a means of self-analysis and exploration. I definitely want to experiment more with my perception of archetypes and of deity, and maybe break out of the mould of metaphor I’ve been using so far.

I think the fluid nature of my perception of the divine is very freeing and potentially exciting. It leaves me open to trying out completely new ways of thinking about and practicing my spirituality.


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aineorgaÁine Órga is a pantheist, Pagan, writer, and Tarot enthusiast. She has been blogging and making videos about her spiritual journey for several years on her website, Heart Story. Through her affiliated Etsy shop, she offers guidance and mentoring to help others build and develop their own personal spiritual practice.

This post was originally published on Áine’s website Heart Story and has been republished with permission.

5 thoughts on “Choosing Metaphors: theistic language in non-theistic spiritual practice”

  1. Very interesting Áine, thanks for allowing us to share your thoughts on this. I tend to think of what you describe as “deity practice” – something quite different from literal belief in deities, as you know – a conscious personification for purposes of relating to aspects of nature and life, and exploring ourselves as well.

    It’s fascinating to note several examples in books and architecture – right up until about the 1950s, that show this practice of personification of concepts was really extremely common. For example, throughout much of *American* history we can find statues and etchings of figures serving as personifications of justice, wisdom, etc. – not ancient gods but whole new figures created for this or that building or monument. The Statue of Liberty is a personification, as is Uncle Sam. This practice of personifying concepts and principles seems to have mysteriously gone away by the 1960s (perhaps in response to the literalist movement in American religion?).

    This may highlight the mindset of people’s understanding of the gods going back much further. How many ancient people actually understood the gods as you do? Many philosophers seem to speak in these ways. Will people eons from now think we worshiped “lady liberty” as a literal supernatural being? 🙂

    • A lot of my spirituality is steeped in metaphor in the very same way. I sometimes conceive of Gods or spirits (usually as a matter of scale more than anything) as images, not living beings. It’s more about making art or poetry than most theistic language.

  2. Thanks Áine. In relation to the question of personifying deity, it’s kind of interesting to take a conceptual journey from the West to East. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all personify God. Christianity is rife with personifications – angels, saints, Mary the Mother of God, etc. Judaism personifies God but limits other personifications. Islam is even more strict in limiting its personification, e.g. prohibiting the creation of images of the divinity.

    The religions of India are also rife with personifications, but there exists side by side a non-personifying idea of deity. The idea that is expressed by Aine, that personification is an aid for the approach, rather than a dogmatic understanding, of deity, is quite respectable in India. The Ramakrisna would ask people “Do you believe in a God with form or in a formless God?” Both were acceptable.

    The Buddha. At least as I would interpret what we know of him, attempted to get rid of all personifications of deity, but over time became personified as a deity to some extent, but never completely. The thangkas of Tibet and Nepal are filled with deities, but at least among the monks, it was recognized that these deifications were not to be taken literally.

    When we get to China, in Taoism we have a religion that is nearly completely un-personified. To the extent that the Tao is given a personality, it is as a female. At least twice the notion that the “Tao gives birth” is mentioned. But this is clearly meant to be a metaphor.

    I find this interesting, because I think literal personification is what many of us Naturalist find unsatisfactory about Christianity and the other religions of the Levant. I think Áine captures this well when she says “In some way, perhaps, the Cosmos is just too big for me to feel comfortable personifying it.” Personifying the universe just seems a bit childish in the end.

    But sometimes it is just the magnitude of the Cosmos that causes us to want to wrap it up in a metaphor. For instance, one may want to express thanks to the cosmos, or perhaps one is feeling very unhappy with one’s world and wants to curse it. Personify the cosmos can help us get out small minds around its vastness and allow us to express such human feelings. For a naturalist, though, I think it is always essential to remember that the personification is in one’s imagination and not the real world.

  3. Thanks from me also, Aine. If there isn’t a book on this subject, there ought to be.

    The tendency to personify the aspects of nature that scientists are at work on — evolution of the universe, DNA, etc. — is problematic for many scientists, who seem uncomfortable with emotional attachments to things that they are trying so hard to be objective about. Carl Sagan was such a good writer he could walk the thin line here. But mostly there’s a tension.

    Daniel, that’s a fascinating historical note on personification. I wonder if the surge of corporate capitalism has also contributed to its decline. So many personified advertising characters have perhaps squeezed the mystique out of it: Tony the Tiger, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, Colonel Sanders, among the older ones. All trademarked and pushed at us relentlessly. Santa and the Easter bunny seem to have hung on though.



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