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Reflecting on Two Articles on a Post-Christian Future

January 2, 2019 5 comments

Manny Tejeda-Moreno wrote an article, “Editorial: Douthat’s post-Christian future, a response” for The Wild Hunt, responding to a New York Times op-ed “The Return of Paganism”, an article written by Ross Douthat.  Rather than dig through both articles, I found things within Tejeda-Moreno’s article I felt were worth responding to. Tejeda-Moreno’s response to Douthat highlights things that I felt were worth exploring, as I have seen Pagan and polytheist communities struggle through the fourteen years I have on-and-off called myself a Pagan and have been a polytheist.

It is pretty clear Ross Douthat is not a part of any modern Pagan religion, and he has been an op-ed writer for several years. I am not shocked Tejeda-Moreno is dissatisfied with the article. Over the course of his life Douthat has been a Pentecostal and a Catholic and was educated at Harvard. He is not only writing from outside our communities essentially about us, as Tejeda-Moreno clearly points out, he is doing so poorly informed.

His lamentations that there may be more witches than members of the United Church of Christ should be evidence enough that he is mourning or at least ill at ease in the post-Christian future he sees on the horizon. I find this notion at odds, though, with those exercising levers of power and in the majority. The most prominent and numerous members in US society are some flavor of monotheist, predominantly Christian. Those who are not Christians in positions of power, such as political or academic settings, are often agnostic or atheist. All tend to default to some variation of ‘hierarchy of religion’ in which one’s personal flavor (Christian, atheist, or agnostic) is the summit of the hierarchy. Pagan and polytheist religions are often derided for their belief in ‘demons/delusions’, ‘outmoded ideas’, ‘dead gods’, and the like, treated more as curiosities than anything worthy of regard either in academia or in interfaith settings.

I echo Tejeda-Moreno’s disappointment with Douthat’s assertion that Paganism is “some civic cult with supernatural experimentation driven by secret societies of literati weaving post-Christian intellectualism into society.” Modern Pagan religions are neither that organized nor that well-developed. Even if we were, intellectualism or rationalism is not the main philosophy of a good number of Pagans or polytheists.  We certainly do not have the numbers for civic cultus, nor the structures which would make it relevant so far as I can see.

In the first place, modern Pagan religions do not even internally agree on what Paganism itself is. The term is so nebulous as to be unwieldy, effectively ending in some vague sense of ‘not Christian’. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are polytheist, believing in and worshiping many Gods. Some Pagans who use the word as their primary means of identification are atheist, believing that there are no Gods and worship nothing. Saying anything accurate when even basic and essential matters of theology are disagreed upon internal to specific religions within Paganism is almost impossible. For instance: Are Wiccans theist? If so, which Wiccans, if any, are theist and which, if any, are atheist?

Then there comes issues of who gets to decide who gets to be called Wiccan in the first place. Gatekeeping, who gets to do it, and who has the right to gatekeep specific Pagan religions are a series of ongoing issues in many Pagan and polytheist religions. Without these basic methods of organization decided, it matters little whether one says “Wiccans are theist” or “Wiccans are atheist” because the ground upon which the matter would rest shifts dependent on the practitioner and not the identifier itself.  The reason I go over words and their meanings so often in my posts is because of this ongoing problem.  There is a consistent need to reinforce what words mean because the language in Pagan communities is inconsistently applied and used.  I can get more to the core of what I am by using the word polytheist rather than Pagan because, where Pagan is a very mushy word, polytheist says what it is right on the tin.

I have a bone to pick with Tejeda-Moreno, and that is the same bone I have with everyone and anyone who uses the term ‘organized religion’ without including our own religions.  The term organized religion means what it says, “A structured system of faith or worship” though most associate it with monotheist religions.  Every single religion is organized or it is not a religion.  Were Tejeda-Moreno to have written something like “Christian religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” or “Monotheist religions have failed their faithful and the broader society in two ways” there would be less issue from me.  It’s still an over-generalization of centuries of history, but it would be more accurate than to just hand Christianity and other monotheist religions the phrase organized religion.

Further, setting up Paganism and organized religions as being against one another is nonsensical.  The “continued toleration of sexual abuse and misogyny exposes all the other moral failings” regardless of which religion it is in question, and Paganism is no more immune to this than Catholicism is.  Indeed, it is also true that “Individuals working to experience their authentic selves are deluged by moral pronouncements serving only to layer guilt and self-hatred” is equally applicable to the Pagan and polytheist communities.  Arguably, it is something that most faith communities engage in rather than the work of their religions’ callings.

The failure here is that Douthat fails to recognize that people should be free to believe in a religion that offers them meaning without ridicule.

I do not think that he fails to understand this so much as it is in his Catholic view that there are true and good religions and those that are not.  It’s also his mistake in assuming that we Pagans and polytheists only conceive as Gods belonging to Creation, and not able to be both immanent and transcendent, or one or the other.  His agreements with Steven Smith’s assessment of things rests on shaky ground as Smith commits pantheists and atheists to his view without even so much as bringing in contemporary Pagan or polytheist authors to his article while mischaracterizing those same religious movements.  In it, he ignores the lived religions of Pagans and polytheists and misses what immanent as well as transcendent Gods, Ancestors, and spirits do to the weltanschauung of the religions and people who believe in Them and worship Them.

Tejeda-Moreno continues:

He avoids a basic reality, as well: individuals are not turning away from organized religion. They are turning toward something that has meaning for them. It may be praxis, or it may be dogma; whatever the reason, they are invoking the fundamental human rights of thought, belief, and religion. Complaining about them as sinful distortions, or implying a divine force is preparing to act in retribution, is using fear in service of patriarchal oppression.

Again, I think Douthat isn’t avoiding a basic reality, but couching in terms familiar to himself and his religion.  Douthat’s point is made here in that regard, and it is a good one:

These descriptions are debatable, but suppose Smith is right. Is the combination of intellectual pantheism and a this-world-focused civil religion enough to declare the rebirth of paganism as a faith unto itself, rather than just a cultural tendency within a still-Christian order?

It seems to me that the answer is not quite, because this new religion would lack a clear cultic aspect, a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance. And that absence points to the essential weakness of a purely intellectualized pantheism: It invites its adherents to commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means that it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only sense of wonder from their spiritual lives but also, well, help.

Douthat goes on to say:

However, there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help, that do offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.

He’s not wrong in his assessment here.  One of the major appeals in Pagan and polytheist religions is that we have living relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that in some way invite us to share in co-creating with Them.  We are invited to appreciate the beauty of our Holy Powers, the Worlds we inhabit, and so much more. Our Holy Powers occupy many places simultaneously that we can appreciate on multiple levels, including that of devotion, aesthetic, beauty, joy, and more.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers at our altars and in our statues.  We build relationships with Them in places They hold in high regard.  We build relationships with Them in sacred places in nature or our cities.  We build relationships with our Holy Powers when we bear jewelry or tattoos of Their forms, symbols or Names.  We build relationships with Them when we lay down offerings at a tree, look out to the Sun’s or Moon’s rise, feel Them in the breeze.  We build relationships with Them in the grip of writing a poem, knitting a blanket, or making a piece of art.

Douthat goes on with ill-conceived generalized histrionics that are wrong, namely in regards to ancient Roman elites.  Polytheism, not pantheism was the norm.  He is also forming his argument on shaky foundations for what it would take to form a living pagan religion under his view:

To get a fully revived paganism in contemporary America, that’s what would have to happen again — the philosophers of pantheism and civil religion would need to build a religious bridge to the New Agers and neo-pagans, and together they would need to create a more fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order they discern.

His point here is wrong.  Pagans and polytheists do not need pantheists or outside civil religionists.  We have our own philosophers, and for those who wish to engage in civil religions there are ample examples to follow.  We need not partner with pantheists or civil religionists to create a fully realized cult of the immanent divine because we possess all the tools, ability, and functions to do so within our own religions.  We already have everything Douthat is pointing out here.

Likewise, Tejeda-Moreno is wrong.

Whether we are discussing Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan, individuals are not turning away from organized faiths; they are turning toward something more meaningful to them. Pagans are re-wilding their faith interactions to the immanent and the spiritual, and few things are more dangerous to what is “organized” than what is “wild”.

Individuals are turning away from monotheist religions, not organized ones.  They are turning towards something more meaningful to them, that is true, but it is not something that is not organized, only organized in a different fashion.  We are re-wilding our religions insofar as our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanently intertwined with the development of our religions.  What most who are coming into “Witchcraft, Heathenry, or any other practice broadly described as Pagan” are coming into is one where the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are immanent and transcendent, not bound by us, our morality, our politics, or our views.  The Gods are the Gods, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The Ancestors are the Ancestors, Their own, and we do not control Them.  The spirits are the spirits, Their own, and we do not control Them.

It is not us who are re-wilding our religions.  If our religions are wild it is because the Holy Powers are not in our control.  We talk with our Holy Powers, we seek Their guidance, and whether through divination, omens, inspiration, or other means They make Their desires and wills known.  This does not mean we have no bearing on our religion.  We do, because it is in relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that our religions are woven.  We can disagree with our Holy Powers, negotiate, ask, work with Them to different ends.  We can also agree with our Holy Powers, obey, negotiate, ask, do the work we are given.  We can have times where it is hard to know what They want, times where our lives are fallow, times where we are sure of what They want, and times where our lives are so full we are fit to burst.  These are lived relationships.

Ultimately, Mr. Douthat argues that the promises of Paganism are vacant. The rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect: “I don’t know how many of the witches who publicly hexed Brett Kavanaugh really expected it to work,” he writes. The same sentiment could be shared for those followers of the Christian god who prayed for hurricanes to turn away from the United States toward Mexico.

I think that this is fair on both sides.  So long as we are not living solid in our relationships with the Holy Powers, then I agree that “all the rituals and prayers lack meaning and effect”.  Without prayers bound in meaning, in relationship with our Holy Powers, they are merely words.  Perhaps the only effect they can carry is offense or disinterest. Without rituals made in relationship with our Holy Powers with clarity, discipline, and skill, it is so much empty action.  Without magic rooted in our worldviews crafted with discipline, and skill, again, it is empty action.

Rather than seeing, as Tejeda-Moreno does, that Douthat feels entitled to an explanation from Pagans and polytheists, I see that Douthat has fear of what we may bring to the table:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

I agree with Tejeda-Moreno that Douthat “avoids the obvious remedy to his dilemma” which, for monotheists is that they are not “living up to their origins, whether those be the promise of salvation, submission, or, even more simply, love.”  I also think it is more complex than Tejeda-Moreno’s conclusion.  The problem with monotheist religions and philosophies derived from them is they seek to eliminate all others.  Those who espouse arguments like the ‘evolution of religion’ or the ‘Kingdom of God’ wants its particular religion (or lack thereof) to get to the top so it can install its hegemony over all the others beneath it.  Paganism is not the boogeyman here, but neither is hypocrisy.

What is sitting in the background of monotheist religions is that when any attains power it then seeks to crush or convert any other religion.  Calls to the faithful to evangelize, to destroy the Pagans, to convert the masses of the world are still being made.  As Douthat says:

Until then, those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it — and who have a certain fear of what more immanent spirits have to offer us — should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.

What Douthat is afraid of is that we are going to be living in a post-Christian world and takes explicit comfort that a successor is not fully-formed to it yet.  After all, look at what the Christians did to the non-believers.  Why wouldn’t a Christian, having an understanding of the kinds of destruction such things brought, not be afraid of such things being brought down on them?  What Douthat and monotheists like him are afraid of is not just irrelevance, but that non-monotheist religions will make inroads, take up different power in different ways, and offer better futures than the one they’ve had the last two thousand or so years to build.  Their hegemony is slipping bit by bit, year by year.  They fear the loss of power.  They are afraid the futures we face without the hegemony of their religions and philosophies on our necks.  They are afraid of our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

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Where I Stand: Holding Tradition

November 10, 2015 1 comment

The fact of the matter is, that almost no one I disagree with will ever come into contact with me.  So why am I raising these issues at all?  Why write about holiness, the sacred, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc. for a larger polytheist audience?

I am a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, which means that I support anyone coming to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir into the Northern Tradition and Heathenry regardless of background, and that, on-the-whole, I’m more concerned with what happens to my little group of people and my little corner of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry.  My hamingja, and much of my personal concerns, are tied up with these people who are family to me.  That doesn’t mean that the wider Northern Tradition, Heathen, and polytheist communities don’t mean anything to me, but they are lower on the list, and most of them are not in my innangarð.

Yet, everything I write about here has come up in some fashion, whether it has been in working with folks who come for work, divination, or questions, interacting with folks at conventions, students, etc.  In some part I’m writing here so that there are polytheists out here saying “This is how I see it, and this is why this makes sense to me.” or “I disagree with this, and this is why.”  I would rather there not be an illusion of conformity or acceptance of an idea when there is not, especially when it is something I have had to talk about time and again with non-Pagans and Pagans alike, i.e. not all Odin-worshipers are racist, not all Pagans believe x, y, or z, there are some concrete beliefs to being a polytheist, and so on.

When I get into more heated discussions with folks in the larger Pagan communities, I do this in no small part because I am a Northern Tradition Pagan and a Heathen, and feel that my views and that of my co-religionists need to be presented.  This feeling is pronounced because I am a priest and shaman.  This means as much as I am a boundary crosser and an ambassador, helping folks to connect with our Gods, their Ancestors, and the vaettir, it is also my duty to present my religions straightforward, and present defense of the religion if needed, being a boundary keeper.

The questions of “Can’t the Gods defend Themselves?  Can’t They make Their displeasure known?” eventually do come up and need to be tackled.

Sure.  Our Gods are not helpless by any stretch, but that puts the full responsibility of keeping our traditions on the Gods, and not, as it should be, on ourselves.  It’s not about the Gods being able to defend this or that concept.  It is about the duty being on us, as worshipers, spiritual specialists, and laypeople, to engage in our religion in a way that is respectful, and keep our religious boundaries, communities, terminology, and connected ideas healthy.

I work with the idea of a teacup frequently as a container of ideas, the tea being the meaning of things and the teacup the word itself as a container of meaning.  The Gods I will liken to the kettle, water, and the leaves/herbs, the source of the tea itself.  They are poured into the teapot of religion to brew and be held, a defined form that gives the ability to transfer this meaning a bit more safe from being burned, yet still keep warmth, which we pour into our cups.  Some folks go right for the kettle and fill their cup right then and there.  You still get tea, but eventually, if you’re going to drink tea without burning yourself, it goes into a cup or you wait for the kettle to cool so you can drink straight from it.

I don’t imagine I will ever agree with the idea, let alone the acceptance of atheist Paganism in the Pagan community, but really, that’s not my call to make.  I’m not the Circle Police or the Pagan Police.  As much as people deride folks like Galina Krasskova, Tess Dawson, Sannion, and myself as part of the Piety Posse, do you folks honestly think I have any pull with folks who do not believe in Gods or theistic Pagans who accept atheist Pagan theological views as just as valid as their own?  I speak out because I feel the need to speak out, but I hold no illusions that my words hold any more sway than what others give them.  I certainly can’t stop you, but I also do not have to accept your views.  I hold the view of a polytheist, one in which the Gods are real, have agency and Being, and are not constructs/archetypes/etc. of human un/consciousness.  There’s nothing in atheism for me to find in common ground, religiously speaking.  We can meet at any number of other points, but I very-much doubt this is a place where we will find common ground, as the very grounding of our views is different in very powerful ways.  Further, any attempt by an atheist to co-opt religious language out of its meanings will not further dialogue with me at all.

I find myself on the opposite side of folks like John Halstead and B.T. Newburg more and more in no small part because the aesthetics of the religious communities I have called home for the last 11 years are being sought out by atheist Pagans, but not the substance.  The language which identifies me as a person within a set of religious communities and/or within a communal identity is being intentionally separated from the primary means by which that identifier is constructed: religious identity with concrete meaning in regards to belief in and worship of Gods.

My views are not simply matters of disagreement, but really, they are matters of course.  The course of logic that constructs my religious identity flows from the creation story of the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, flows from the cosmology, and flows from the Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen worldview, the worldview I live within.  These things are essential to the construction of the identity I have as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen.  When the meaning of words like sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and so on are affected, the meaning of my identifiers and associated communities are affected.  It’s about more than just me, though: these are part and parcel of how any religious community defines itself.  So not only am I personally invested to see that sacred, holiness, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and other words with religious meaning stay invested with that meaning, and how that plays out in my own life, I am also invested in how these words stay invested with meaning within my religious community, and how these words come to define and structure things within the Northern Tradition and Heathen communities.

Here is where I stand: as a Universalist-Tribalist Heathen, I have primary concern for the those within my innangarð, but that does not mean I ignore the things or people who are utgarð to my personal or more wider communities.  While my hamingja is not tied with those outside of my innangarð, it would be a disservice to the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, and my personal communities within them, to not speak out on the things I have.  It would be a disservice to fellow polytheists, too.  I hold the traditions I am within, as does everyone who is within these traditions.  Each person needs to decide for themselves whether it is incumbent on them to speak up, out, or to hold silence.  For myself, given the roles of shaman and priest that I serve in my communities, as an ambassador, boundary-crosser, and boundary-keeper, I find myself being called to speak more often than I am to be silent.

White Guilt is an Indulgence

March 30, 2015 29 comments

If you are classified as white in this country you live with the privilege of (at least) 400 years of racism and genocide. It doesn’t matter how you got here.

It does not matter that my great-grandfather came over from the Netherlands during WWI; he benefited from his skin color even though he could not speak or write a word of English. He benefited from systemic racism and genocide. I never asked for this, but I benefit from these as well.

My Ancestors were not barred from entry into this country because of racist quotas enacted by Congress. They never had to endure a blood quantum law to claim or be punished for who they were. They were not interned in camps during WWII. They were not killed for speaking out for their rights in the face of Jim Crow laws. They were not barred from practicing their religion after generations of genocide. I do not feel guilt for my Ancestors because they avoided these things, but whether or not I feel guilt, such feelings are immaterial to the issue of racial justice.

Guilt is an indulgence, especially when it inspires a lack of action and empathy.

Addressing problems of inequality, racism, colonialism, and genocide is not about white folks, white guilt, or white feelings. It is not about white people at all. I don’t care how bad you feel about your Ancestors’ actions. Gods know, if your Ancestors committed atrocities I want you to feel shame for it. If those feelings, or lack of feeling, gets in the way of you (and Them) actually making some sort of commitment to doing something, then it is an indulgence and a waste of time in regards to doing anything useful about racism and white privilege.

When hurt white feelings get in the way of equality, or especially, justice, that is not something People of Color or anyone concerned with justice in regards to inequality, racism, colonialism, etc. can afford. When the specter of that guilt arises and becomes a paralyzing thing that takes the focus off of People of Color, their problems, and the things that are actively killing them, it cannot be afforded. It is, in a word, derailing.

I don’t give a damn how you feel. I really don’t. If you lack the empathy to stand up for justice because your fucking feelings are hurt: Fuck. Right. Off.

White people do need to deal with our feelings, but not at the expense of justice or equality. It should not be the directive of folks to remind white people to deal with our feelings outside of the times and places where issues of justice, equality, etc. are being addressed. Our angst should not be aired during times of grief or moral outrage at the murder of black people by police. It is no different than walking into a funeral while a family is crying over a child’s casket, and screaming at them ‘Your crying makes me feel bad! I didn’t do this to you!’ You know what? You’re getting in the way of their need to grieve at that point. You’re an asshole. The funeral is not about or for you. Anyone, from the presiding minister to the family member on down to a complete stranger visiting in respect would be well within moral rights to ask or demand for you to get out.

This is why #alllivesmatter is either a cop-out or completely fucking tone-deaf. Not all the houses are on fire, and so, they do not deserve the fire hose equally. #blacklivesmatter is on-point and the topic at hand because black people are being systemically targeted by police, policing policies, jail time, jailing and fine procedures based on the color of their skin. They are dying because of this. The reason why our feelings as white people do not matter in this is because our fucking lives are not on the line for walking on the street while being black.

Blacks, as well as Native American and Hispanic peoples, are being killed in the United States far more than whites by police. In addition to this, because of jailing and fine procedures for minor traffic violations and misdemeanors in places like Ferguson, MO, they are now the leading victims of what has become the modern day debtor’s prison. Can’t pay your traffic ticket? Can’t pay your fines? You’re going to jail. What’s insidious about this is that there is financial incentive for counties and cities to do this, and that encourages these cities to increase incarceration.

You know what white people do not have to deal with? Being charged with 4 counts of destruction of city property due to bleeding on officer’s uniforms for having the shit beat out of them in a Ferguson, MO jail in 2009. Enough mewling about being judged based on the color of your skin; when white people get judged we might feel temporarily angry, guilty, shamed, or embarrassed. When black people get judged they get the shit knocked out of them and then charged with a crime because they’re getting their blood on officers’ uniforms.

So not only are People of Color far more likely to be targets for poverty, they are also more likely to be targeted by police for arrest. They are more likely to be jailed for their charges until trial if they can’t post bail, then fined for said charges, and then re-jailed assuming they or someone else could pay for bail in the first place. If they are successfully prosecuted they will pay fines on top of it, and may face being put into longer-term incarceration for failure to pay for these charges. That is, if they’re not simply killed outright by police. People of Color are, and have been for some time, targets in their own neighborhoods.

This is why it is so deeply disappointing to me that neither The Covenant of the Goddess nor The Troth got their collective shit together and did the right thing in supporting #blacklivesmatter and associated movements. Hells bells, why have no Pagan or polytheist organizations shouted out their support as allies for #Idlenomore either? It’s not as if these organizations are actually opposed to either of these justice movements! Right?

If we are indeed our deeds, then what are white people doing to help affect change? How fucking hard is it to say “I stand with black people for racial equality and justice!”? Did you really need fucking committees to decide on whether or not justice for all was something you stood for?

White guilt is an indulgence. If we are to be effective allies, it is on us to set it aside where it impedes action, and deal with it in our own time. #blacklivesmatter. Compared to those lives, our guilt is nothing. Step up or move aside, but don’t get in the way of justice.

Honesty and Truth; Self Identification and Communal Identity

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

I was reading a post by Aine Llewellyn on identification at Patheos.com and I thought about my own identity.

How did I come to know who and what I am?

I looked for something to identify with myself, a model or series of models to compare, contrast, follow, and reject. It necessitated looking at how others described themselves, seeing which words fit best. This is part of every person’s foundation. Self-identification and self-definition cannot happen in a bubble. While it is personal to some degree for much of our lives identity is communally developed.

Consensus reality is built with a standardized understanding of the world around us. Even with words that have their own continuum, words such as hot/cold, good/bad, etc. there must be a root knowledge of what is being described and compared for any meaning to be built. To understand hot we must understand ‘hotness’ just as we must understand cold by its ‘coldness’. We must also understand where those dividing lines are defined, even if it is relatively arbitrary. Without these foundations there is nothing for meaning, or identity to build on. These basic identifiers of reality then expand outward to more complex topics, such as religion.

If identity cannot be built in isolation how can identity take such as central role when only defined by oneself? If self-identification is all that matters what would the point of words, let alone consensus-based reality, matter?

I recognize that writing this post is, in and of itself, setting a healthy powder keg with ample matches nearby. To even address identity in so straightforward a manner can be viewed as threatening, confrontational, fundamentalist, or simply being a jerk. Or all of the above. It is not my intent, either in writing this or pointing out Aine Llewellyn’s post, to be antagonizing. It my intent to make some points on things I feel very strongly and develop constructive, needed dialogue.

If I cannot point to x, y, or z and discern x from y, y from z, and so on, what is the use of words? Words can, by their nature, restrict meaning, but it also gives us the means to sharing and understanding meaning with ourselves and with one another. In so doing it gives us the means to understanding, appreciating, and developing meaning itself.

Words like hot and cold exist on a spectrum, yet we can say that hot is not cold and cold is not hot; to say otherwise is to destroy the meaning of both words, and the concept for each completely falls apart. We can say where freezing is, where lukewarm (aka room temperature) is, and where the boiling point is for water, both in terms of scientific measurement, and in terms of common parlance. That is why I sincerely believe that exclusionary definitions must come into use, and be respected, in order that our words mean anything. If ‘Pagan’ is to mean anything substantive, at some point we must confess that hot does not equal cold, and thereby, cold does not equal hot. While pinpointing where that dividing line is may take some work on our part, it is a necessary thing.

I cannot, as a polytheist, animist, a priest of two Gods and a Northern Tradition shaman, walk into a Catholic Church and declare myself Catholic with any honesty or in truth. I do not believe, think, or have the worldview of a Catholic. As importantly, I do not attend Mass, believe in the Nicene Creed, or perform the sacraments, hold the Roman Catholic Church as my authority figure, or Jesus Christ as my Savior and YHVH as my God. For me to say “I am Catholic” would not be honest or true. I am not only ill-suited to being Catholic but it would be dishonest and untrue of me to identify as one.

I use the words ‘honest’ and ‘true’ because of their definition:
Honest: “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere”
True: “in accordance with fact or reality”

So one may be totally honest in the presentation of their feelings but untrue in what reality is. One may sincerely believe believe that a hot cup of tea is in fact cold, even while steam rises from it.

Would honoring St. Francis de Assisi, to the point of setting aside a shrine for him where I could commune with him and leave him offerings, make me a Catholic? Absolutely not. I would be a polytheist animist honoring the spirit of a man who deeply touched my life, whose namesake I took when I was Confirmed, and whose prayers I still enjoy.

To even try to breach this boundary would be an insult, if not a direct affront to myself, my Gods, many if not all of my Ancestors (polytheist and monotheist), many, if not all of the spirits I call friends and allies, and my Elders. It would equally be an insult to YHVH, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, devout Catholics, Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, and the Pope. In short, I would be honoring nothing and insulting everyone.

What of those Catholics (few, I imagine, given my experiences in the Church) who are in between the points of boundaries, such as those who think you can be Catholic and worship Gods? What of those Pagans who believe that the words ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ should mean whatever their user wishes them to mean? At some point there needs to be a consideration on whose voice matters, why, and for what reason their words should be recognized as honest or dishonest, true or untrue, valid or invalid.

A layperson in the Roman Catholic religion may make all the pronouncements on Church doctrine that they wish, and for all they may articulate their position well, with full citations from accepted Church sources, they will not be an authority within the Catholic Church. A layperson has no power to set theology, doctrine, or ways of conducting oneself within that religion. Few forms of Christianity exist which allows their laypeople to have this authority.

If one is truthfully and honestly identifying themselves as a Catholic then, according to the doctrine of the Church, you are placing yourself under its authority. If one is to truthfully and honestly self-identify as a Catholic you cannot be anything other than a Catholic who adheres to the beliefs of the Church. These are part of the rules laid out by the communal body of the Church through its doctrines and theology. These are the rules that one accepts, even if one disagrees with them and is seeking change within the Church, as part of being identified as a member of the Church. You can personally identify as a Catholic, going to Church, and believing as you will, even being fully polytheist, and your feelings may be completely honest and true in and of yourself, that you feel that way and identify as a Catholic. However, it will not be honest or truthful in regards tobeing Catholic.

A Pagan operating purely from personal gnosis alone will likely not be accepted as any kind of authority within reconstructionist circles no matter how fervent their beliefs or powerful their experiences. A reconstructionist Heathen will probably not be an authority figure within British Traditional Wicca. Pagan communities already practice discernment as to whose identification is accepted, who is an authority figure, and who is part of the community’s in-crowd. However, it is seen as rude and/or outwardly hostile when one tries to apply any rubric of discernment in determining who belongs to the larger Pagan community.

At this moment, one can truthfully and honestly identify themselves as Pagan regardless of personal theology. Among a great many, one of the differences between the Christian and Pagan communities is that Pagan communities each have their own standards as to who belongs. Some of these standards may be so lax as to be nonexistent. Some Pagan communities have no standards of belief and/or practice whatsoever, accepting all comers to the identification. Others, by contrast, are quite strict in their definition of who belongs to their particular community, while others’ boundaries are quite porous while still having a core of adherence required. In the case of Paganism, as it exists right now, the only way to identify a Pagan is to have one identify themselves.

In order for Pagan to gain more substantive meaning it needs to be become more exclusive. Why should Pagans embrace exclusionary statements? If there are 30,000 or so (and growing) denominations of Christianity, why not follow suit and embrace as many variations of ‘Pagan’ as come to the term?

Christianity as a whole discerns between itself and other religions in its namesake and its theological position. To be Christian is to follow Christ. That marks it as different from other monotheist religions as well. It is exclusionary in its very name, demarking itself from all other religions in that Christ, regardless of what denomination one follows, is the head of the religion and that one is a follower of Christ. There is no such thing in Paganism. There is no positive differentiation between Pagans and other faiths. We are defined by negative differentiation, by not being Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Shinto, etc. In other words, we are not even self-identified.

The Pagan identity is all but completely constructed outside of our communities. There is no absolute baseline for belief as the term is used today. There is not even a requirement for belief in a God or a Goddess, let alone Gods or Goddesses. Nor are there requirements for even a belief in a spirit, let alone spirits. If the word ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ communicates essentially nothing in terms of belief within our own communities, and communicates little to nothing of our beliefs when used by other religions as an identifier, what good is it as a description for any belief, let alone an umbrella of them?

By contrast, there is a profession of belief in declaring oneself a polytheist. It is simple and direct: the belief in many Gods. Individual groups within the polytheist communities may have different standards of belonging, belief, right action, right practice, ethics, etc. but the uniting factor is that belief is actually involved and it is in many Gods. This definition excludes atheists, monotheists, monists, and others, but that is what makes it an effective word: it does not say ‘the belief in Gods if you can believe in Them’, or ‘the absolute belief that the Gods are x, y, z, etc”, merely that one believes that many Gods exist.

If ‘Pagan’, ‘Paganism’, and related terms are to be of use they must be more than negatively outwardly-defined. They must be internally defined, and, more importantly, positively defined with a clear meaning.  

Thoughts on Pagan Apologetics

October 4, 2013 1 comment

*Note: I am going through my backlog of about 75 Drafts and publishing what I feel comfortable with publishing.  This draft was originally started 05-04-2011!

Some of this was taken from a Patheos.com post I commented on here.

Engaging people who are generally antithetical to your beliefs (or at least not in your ballpark), in my view, is healthy if taken in balance with understanding your own. My best friend of 15 years is going to college right now to become a minister, and he and I’s debates, conversations, and apologetics on both sides hones our abilities to argue our points, defend our faiths, and gain deeper understanding from the other. In his asking me questions, including two interviews for his classes, I am pushed to answer deep questions about my theology, my daily practice, and what it is I do as a Pagan priest and shaman. I also have to formulate arguments against age-old philosophers, evangelists, and his own professors of his faith as to why my faith is the way it is, is fine the way it is, and why I am not accepting Christianity as my path.

I know it’s not as if other religions who have been opposed to us so far are going to ‘up and accept us’, and indeed many simply may not for one reason or another. However, I feel that Pagans owe it to themselves to develop apologetics so we can at least defend our ways in public. Heck, I have had deep conversations with Christian Evangelicals who berated me for looking at Pagan books in Borders who, after conversation, had a much different understanding of what Pagans are, do, and how they should treat us in accordance with their own Scripture.

This is where I think I differ from Bishop Harber, in that knowing Scripture, and arguing our points from their own Holy Books can be beneficial. Many Christians don’t understand their own faith (certainly not all), much less ours, beyond shallow means. However, if they look to the Bible as an authoritative text, you can use it to bolster your argument if you have a good understanding of it. I don’t think quoting their text gives it authority over me or my argument, but I can see where the idea might come from. By legitimizing their text by using it in argument. To me, using their text means more than quoting passages, but also understanding where able what the passages might have meant to those who wrote them, historical context, and whether or not modern-day scholarship backs up claims from the text. So perhaps this is not an avenue that everyone can or should take. Also, if the person is approaching you from an emotional perspective, it may not matter how many verses you can quote back to them. I’ve heard the line “Even the Devil can quote Scripture” thrown in my face on more than one occasion. I just think of this as just one tool among many we can use. Depending on the situation at hand, it can be well or poorly suited to the task of defending our faith.

I also think any who call themselves priests, priestesses, shamans, etc. should build up these and other skills related to functioning as a priest/ess, shaman, etc. such as communication skills, leadership skills, some amount of scholarship (or at least a thorough understanding of pertinent texts), and practice of their faith. It does us no good to have people in leadership positions who don’t understand their own faith, and cannot defend it, much less talk about it. This can also put the community or communities they serve into a stronger standing by empowering the community to come together to debate theology, understand their paths better, and open up new avenues of communication.

This is where leadership roles must mean something.  It means that if you take on a titular role you need to know and be that role.  You don’t need to be extreme or the most studied individual, but you do need to know your spirituality and your spiritual practices.  In my case, I need to know why I use lore, archaeology, and primary sources as jumping off points in my spirituality and practice, and call it a reconstructionist-derived practice rather than a reconstructionist practice.  I need to know why there are parts of the lore that I won’t use in my practice or don’t have a place in my spirituality, such as Odin supposedly being from Troy in Snorri’s Prose Edda tale Gylfaginning.  Given that my Gods are many, I also need to know about how different pathways interplay.  Being that I and others in the groups I worship are polytheists, there’s also steps taken to assure that our Gods are pleased with the arrangement if we feel the urge to call to Gods from more than one Pantheon in a ritual.  We may be eclectic in our spiritual path together, but that does not excuse us from dialogue with the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, etc., and doing right by Them and/or the community.

The Gods, Ancestors, and Spirits Come First

October 4, 2013 8 comments

Note: This is a piece that has sat in my Draft folder for some time, and I figured that it was time to get it out into the world.  Fly free, belated words!

I am going to be speaking on shamanism come the next week at Michigan Paganfest.  The discussion is “Shamanism-History, Beliefs, Lore and More”, where I and my fellow Sacred Fire tenders will be talking on the forms of shamanism we are engaged in.  While it says “Jim will share his knowledge and experiences in an open discussion about the practice and path of Shamanism. You are encouraged to share your own experiences and knowledge, as well as, ask questions and seek greater understanding and insights to assist you in your own journey” Jim was kind enough to invite myself and Joy Wedmedyk to share in the discussion.

I like these kinds of workshops.  I enjoy genuine back-and-forth dialogue and digging into the meat of a topic, even if for a little while.  In thinking on this discussion, I look to my own traditions.  I won’t go overlong into what I’ll hash out in the coming week, but more into what it is pushing me to think about.  What is shamanism?  What is the history of shamanism within the context of my own path?  What are the beliefs I bring to the table as a shaman, and what are the beliefs of shamans in my path?  What lore is there to support or bring clarity to shamanism?  What is essential to being a shaman?

At the title above says, the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits come first.  They have to.  They gave us life, give us blessings each and every day, and walk alongside us.  There is nothing in this world untouched by Their hands.  It is essential to shamanism that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits come first.  They are our allies, our friends, our loved ones, our Fathers and Mothers, our eldest Ancestors.  They are what makes us a shaman: Their call, the insistent call that cannot be ignored, is what makes a shaman a shaman.  No course, no workshop, nothing we go through or engage in can make us a shaman without that call from our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.  Shamanism is an engagement, not a practice.  It is a calling in my tradition to sacrifice all else that I would have done and put the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits first, and to aid the communities I am in with engagement with Them.  It is setting aside personal ambitions to fulfill purpose that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits lay upon me.  It is to give over all that I am to further Their Work.  Even being a father has a place within my path as a shaman, and it is subordinate to that Work.  It serves the Work, as does everything in my life.  Even writing here serves It.

What is essential is that a shaman serves.  A shaman serves the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and in so doing, does serve their community.  They may serve their community in other ways, aside from keeping right relationship in their own lives, by performing required rituals, healings, divination, and so on.  They may do work, such as Sacred Fire tending, or teaching.  They may just sit down and listen to someone’s struggle.  They may do this after they die, which is probably what will happen to me when I pass over.  The point is that a shaman serves and that service extends to every area of existence.

What lore is there to support bring to clarity to shamanism?  Well, as few pieces of lore survive in our tradition there’s not much, as a good chunk of the lore we do have is more concerned with the Gods and Their families and conflicts, or mythological portrayals of kings and conquests.  What does survive suggests that there were spiritual specialists such as spákona and spámadr, female and male prophets, for instance.  However, as the lore that we have is fragmented, written down by Christians and absent of anything older than Iron Age, much of the lore contains terribly little in regards to a shaman’s practice.  Even the words that might frame the way that shaman does is absent of our language, and in any case much of my practice and that of my elders is spirit taught.  Lore is more of a map to cosmology, how the Gods have interacted with us and one another.  It is a springboard into engagement with the Holy Powers, as all of the lore that survives contains little to no religious instruction.  The lore serves, then, a secondary role to direct engagement.

What are the beliefs I bring to the table as a shaman, and what are the beliefs of shamans in my path?  We are hard polytheists.  The beliefs are that of people who engage with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits as beings unto Themselves.  They are Their own Being, Whole in and of Themselves.  They do not require us to worship Them to continue Their existence, nor do They need us to exist.  They are.  The Ancestors are the foundation of us all, from our blood Ancestors stretching back to the Elements Themselves.  The spirits are all around us, within us, even.  We consume spirits to survive; the lich, the physical body, is holy, and part of the soul, and so, when we eat an animal or plant, we are consuming a piece of Their soul.  Eventually when I die, my lich will be burnt or buried and become part of the world in a different way.  The Earth, Midgard, itself, is a Goddess.  There is nothing on, in, or beyond this planet untouched by the Gods.  There is nothing in my body or mind or soul that is not touched by the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits.  So, as it ends so it begins, and the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits come first.

Connecting With Christian Ancestors

March 21, 2013 12 comments

My thanks to Sannion who prompted this post with his own.

I have been working with my Ancestors pretty closely going on about four years now.  In that time a pair of ancient Ancestors, one a Disir, a powerful female Ancestors, and the other a Vater (German word meaning ‘father’ which I use in place of ‘alfar’ which can also mean ‘elf’) have come forward to guide me in my Work.  In the last two years my Catholic Ancestors have raised Their Voices and let Themselves be known much stronger than previous.  It seems now, in addition to speaking for my long-Dead Ancestors, that I must speak for and with the Catholic ones as well.

When They first began contacting me, it was a cacophony of voices, questions like “Why did you stop going to church?  Do you not like Fr. ___ anymore?” and “You can still pray with us, yes? (or ja?, dependent on the Ancestor)?” and many others.  Their Catholic identity was so strong and intrinsic to Their Being that They carried it over with some part of Them into Death.  If Their Catholicism is as deep, powerful, and purposeful a presence in Their life as Paganism is in mine, that it lasts well after They have crossed over, who am I to argue with Their spirits?

Part of engaging with the Ancestors is to encounter Them on Their own terms, regardless of how comfortable They make us,  but I take that only to a point.  That point for me is an abusive Ancestor who has been abusive towards myself and/or others that has refuted any attempts at reconciliation.  I do not have Ancestors who abused me while They lived, and for that, I am deeply grateful.  The point of working with our Ancestors is not to tear open old wounds unnecessarily, but where we can, to give comfort, healing, and connection to Them and to ourselves, the Worlds we live in, and the places They once lived.   In the case of an abusive Ancestor I advise contacting an older and/or closer Ancestor to you than that person.

I was deeply uncomfortable, especially at first, with the offerings my Catholic Ancestors wanted me to make.  They wanted me to go to church, to sing Them Catholic songs I had learned as a child, to read to Them from the Bible.  As with a lot of my Work I came to understand that really my comfort is secondary to doing what is right for my Ancestors.  For my Ancestors who still identify as Catholic, there is a profound peace, purpose, and love They find in the liturgy They have me read, in the songs I sing, in the love I show to Them by doing this.

There are certain things I will not do, such as attend church services where I directly participate in the Mass, i.e. taking Communion.  I would be lying to myself, my Ancestors, my Catholic Ancestors especially, and to Their God.  I would also be taking into my body the Body and Blood of Christ, and that I cannot do, for many theological reasons, chief among them being that I am Odin’s and so, I cannot proclaim the Catholic Mystery of Faith.  While I may go to a Mass for a family member, such as a funeral or a wedding, I cannot be part of it as my Catholic relatives will be.

What I do, instead, is do as my Ancestors have asked in concession.  I carry in my pocket a green Gideon New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs.  I may pray to the Ancestors out of it, sing from it, or, as They have had me do more recently, listen to Them with it.  I shut my eyes, letting the pages flow along my fingers until I hit a page and feel or ‘hear’ stop.  When this happens I let my fingers flow along the page until I feel or ‘hear’ stop again, and look at what the message from Them is.  It is especially helpful because it is a way my Catholic Ancestors feel comfortable with it, and it gives us a common connection.  I happen to find great beauty in the Psalms, especially 23.

I have also placed my First Communion rosary on the Ancestor Altar for Them, and a red Gideon New Testament like the one above, and keep it as I would anything else on the Ancestor Altar.  While I do not pray the rosary, given the Nicene Creed is part of it, it is there as a reminder, and a way of connection many of my Dead.  I need not pray the rosary to feel its influence in my life, particularly my Ancestors’ skull prayer beads, which brings me great comfort and connection.

The Catholic prayers I once prayed and sang, the many days I spent at prayer in church have had good effect on how I pray to my own Gods.  The process of learning to sing, clearly and in more-than-ordinary language, lends itself to the altered states of consciousness, the mindfulness I hope to achieve with Them.  I learned “Adeste Fideles”, otherwise known as “O Come All Ye Faithful” in first grade, and loved the Latin language.  I was required to know what I was singing, and why I was singing it.  To know not just the words that the Latin translated into, but what they meant to those I was singing them to, and for me, given I was singing solo.  Rote prayer has a power with me because it is what I grew on.  Intellectual investigation of the source materials for my religion, and constantly questioning was appreciated by my priests, and it is one of many things I carried with me into my Paganism.  An appreciation of spiritual gifts and mystic experiences was given to me at a young age, where I had an experience kneeling before the Tabernacle during one of my Confirmation classes.  I prayed for two hours, and experienced Christ in a deeply personal way, His Voice, His touch.  It is from these deep wells of learning, from then and more recently, that much of my devotional Work is culled from.

Working with my Catholic Ancestors is rebuilding a bridge between us I had long thought burnt to ash.  When I became a Pagan I spoke with Yahweh, explaining that my choice to follow the Goddess, then Brighid, was not to hurt Him or betray Him, but a following of my heart for what called me, and I recognized that the Voice was not His.  I thought in this I would have to cut most,  if not all ties to my Catholic family, Ancestors included.  I am deeply happy to be shown that is not the case.

The impassable wall that I feared I had built between myself and my family seems to be much less a solid wall than one with many gates, some shut to me, and others wide open.  Ancestor Work is one of those wide open gates, and there are Ancestors freely coming to many of my rituals, Catholic Ancestors and otherwise.  Sometimes we must be the ones to raise that gate and acknowledge our Ancestors.  Sometimes They will come to us and invite us to meet between, acknowledging us on our path, still extending love, and connecting with us.  It is, as with all things, Gebo.

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