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Limits of Language: Hooks and Fish

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

I am a hard polytheist and animist.  The Gods are real, individual beings.  The world is populated by spirits.  My Ancestors are as close as my blood relatives, reaching into the World itself, into Yggdrasil, the Elements and raw power of the Void, into the Gap Itself, if I look back far enough.  Many Gods are imminent, and some transcendent.  Some are local Gods, some with names and some with names we do not know, and more with names we may never speak.  The Gods can be our friends, our family, our lovers, distant acquaintances, terse partners, employers, and/or master/mistress, among roles and ways of being I am sure I have missed.  So can a great many spirits.  As for the spirits, They are part and parcel of everything around us.  We might call some spirits Gods , and some Gods might be called spirits, depending on how we view Them, and Their place in the world, universe, etc.  We may not even have terribly solid boundaries where one God ends and another begins, or on the other hand, may have very defined ones between Goddesses.

We all exist within the fabric of Wyrd, within Ma’at from the most infinitesimal piece of sand to the Gods, to the Universe Itself (which, in some religions is a God/dess/Being).

Is this monist?

Perhaps, at its core, I suppose it is.  The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines Monist as:

a : a view that there is only one kind of ultimate substance and b : the view that reality is one unitary organic whole with no independent parts.

I much prefer the b definition.  This idea is not that we are somehow one mass, blob, etc., but that we are threads of a great tapestry, and each of us is but a thread.  That while being individual, we are not independent.  That we are organically whole, together.

Really, though, what am I capturing by saying things this way?

Language is tricky.  When it comes to describing the Gods, spirits, and Ancestors, They are much like a fish wriggling in your hands: even as you take out the hook from a well-fought catch, it struggles to go back in the water where you must find it yet again¹.  In many ways language is insufficient, even in the hands of a poet, a writer, a lyricist, or a bard, to describe in full or even in part what it is to experience the Gods.  Language is the hook that gives us one fish, and it may fill us awhile with good food, but while that hook is bare it is an unused tool, and there are far more times where the fish fights us off or fools us that it has been hooked, when it merely eats the bait and swims off.  Language alone, whether written on a page, sung in front of a crowd, or whispered before an altar will not sustain.  It is the fish, not the hook, that provides the nourishment.  After all, sometimes we lose the hook, and sometimes the whole line, and sometimes the whole damned pole!

I still feel as I did in August with A Useful Teacup.  Boundaries are useful and necessary.  A hook is not a fish, after all, and no matter how many hooks one eats they will not provide nourishment.  Yet I find that monism is not wholly opposed to polytheism, but rather, it is part and parcel of it.

Monism within polytheism is nothing new, nor is animism.  Recognizing we are all part of an interdependent whole does not deny our Gods, our spirits, or our Ancestors, but puts us into our proper place within the Worlds.  The Worlds hang on Yggdrasil, and Yggdrasil came from the Gap.  All at first came from Atum who came from Nun.  We all come from a source, and it is often represented by, referred to, and is the Void, Darkness, Nothing, etc.  If anything, monism within polytheism is a challenge for us to live more in tune with the Worlds around us.  If we are all interdependent, are we doing our part in Wyrd, in Ma’at?

Bringing this idea into the current discussion on Paganism, I do not want to find another boat when so many will do.  I may not board the good ship Reconstructionist but I count myself as a hard polytheist and animist, a Northern Tradition Pagan, a Heathen, and a worshiper of many Gods beyond the Norse and German.  So, I am also very eclectic.  Yet, I look at it this way: salmon has sure been good to me in filling my belly, and so has tilapia and tuna.  I fish in many waters, but with the proper pole and bait for each.  The fish still come.  Sometimes I come back with nothing, and sometimes I come back with a fish story, and an accompanying fish.

Boundaries are still useful and necessary; it is hard going trying to salmon fish with a leaky boat.  Likewise, it is impossible to fish without risking getting wet.

 

 

¹Small wonder that Loki is associated with a salmon: a hardy fish that is hard to catch and a powerful swimmer who often outsmarts or outright beats the fisherman.  As with language, the understanding of Loki is evolving inside and outside of academic circles.  He is one God among many who are being discovered, thought about, and reexamined, and yet, consistently escapes consensus.

A Useful Teacup

August 22, 2012 17 comments

Boundaries are useful.  They mark out what is, what is not; what belongs, what does not belong.  Boundaries are, by their nature, discriminatory.  We do not want to live alongside bugs, animals, and other parts of our natural world, so we make houses.  If we lack the means or if we want to, we live in nature.

Utgarð, Innangarð.  There can be places between these boundaries, but sometimes there is a simple in/out binary that exists.  I would say there are few of these, but they exist.

I wish Pagans were more respectful of boundaries.  Take this to mean personal boundaries, such as being able to reject hugs, not get glitter-bombed at a convention, or getting ‘healed’ by a well-meaning but ignorant co-religionist.  Take this to mean between our  religions; I am not a follower of the Hellenic Gods therefore, I am not part of Hellenismos, as beautiful as this community may be.  They, likewise, are not Northern Tradition, Heathen, etc.  I respect this boundary by calling myself what I feel I am closest aligned with, and what my actual practice is aligned with.  Take this to mean ‘this is what makes a Pagan a Pagan’ and ‘this is what makes a non-Pagan a non-Pagan’.

An anonymous guest on The Wild Hunt asked of a poster there:

Yeah, how is all this labeling/limiting of Paganism (and others, too really) helping to create openness and understanding anyhow rather than just creating prejudices and misconceptions people got to work over?

This unwillingness to set boundaries is an issue in Paganism that needs to be resolved.  How useful is a teacup in a million pieces?  If the word Pagan, or Paganism has as much utility, how useful is it as a word?  Wiccan, or Northern Tradition are far more useful, (though I admit I get where Elizabeth Vongvisith is coming from in her irritation with the latter term) because they are functional.  They are words that have operational definitions within the Pagan religions’ umbrella.  Paganism, as a word and definition is so nebulous as to be almost completely unwieldy.  It is why I say Northern Tradition Pagan, or Heathen rather than just “I am a Pagan” most times.  They are intact teacups.  They hold the water of thought so that I can offer it to others.

The attitude of the poster assumes that openness is actually desirable, to whit Dver’s response was:

Who said the goal is always to create openness? At the expense of everything else? I’ve seen, for instance, many polytheist groups embrace openness and lose all their focus, intent and usefulness as they quickly filled with people of so many varying approaches that nothing could be agreed upon or accomplished. The “point” of paganism IMO is not to be concerned with making everyone feel welcome and included (which, as always, puts the emphasis on people and their feelings), the point is to worship the gods (emphasis on the divine). If being open doesn’t serve that, then it’s not going to be a primary goal, at least for some. Unsurprisingly, it is often the ones insisting on understanding who least understand this point of view.

Openness has usefulness, but so does limitation.  The negativity towards limiting the term Paganism, thus, increasing its actual functionality, is like saying “Well, I like my teacup in a million pieces.”  So how do we go about putting this teacup back together?

We start by limiting the definition of Paganism.  Perhaps to those who believe in Gods, Goddesses, spirits, etc.  Perhaps not.  Is Atheistic Paganism, for instance, a useful term?  If by Atheistic Paganism we mean ‘non-theistic’, that is, a person who believes in spiritual beings or in a form of deism or pantheism, perhaps that is functionally useful.  If we use the modern use of atheism, that is, a person without a belief in God(s) (usually included in this is a disbelief of the spiritual world), then I question how useful the term is.  Atheistic Paganism, as a straightforward term, muddies waters already fairly murky.  As a collection of religions we cannot agree yet on what the words Pagan and Paganism mean.  How much harder will it be to suss out Atheistic Pagans?  What of Humanist Pagans?

Brendan Myers, Ph.D., made this statement on Humanist Pagans as part of his guest blog post on The Wild Hunt:

Call it a case of observer bias on my part, but Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices, and they really don’t care about the “woo” anymore.  From what I have seen so far, Humanist Pagans tend to be uninterested in ritual, or energy work, or developing psychic powers…

But they love folklore and mythology, they love going to pagan festivals, and they subscribe to pagan moral values like the Wiccan Rede, and the Heroic Virtues. They’re perfectly happy to shout “Hail Thor!” with an upraised drinking horn. They don’t care whether the gods exist or do not exist: for as they see it, the existence of the gods is not what matters. Rather, what matters is the pursuit of a good and worthwhile life, and the flourishing of our social and environmental relations. They are a kind of pagan that perhaps has not been seen since classical Greece and Rome, and their place in the modern pagan movement may still be marginal and unclear, but they are a kind of pagan nonetheless.

My problem to begin with, is that he does not define what Humanistic Paganism even is in this passage.  Looking at the links provided at the end of his article, Humanist Paganism is as problematic a term as simply Pagan is.  It is nebulous as a term, and there is very little agreement on what it actually means (from what I have read) between various Humanist Pagans.  This quote from Humanistic Paganism especially irks me:

Humanism and Paganism are complementary.  While Humanism is well-adapted to address the latest intellectual and social issues, it lacks the kind of deep symbolic texture conducive to psychological fulfillment.  Paganism is positioned to fill that void, providing a field of symbolic imagery in which the modern individual can feel rooted and nourished.  Meanwhile, Paganism by itself is prone to superstition and factiousness.  Humanism, which embraces a vision of knowledge rooted in the five senses and verified through the scientific method, offers empirical inquiry as a means to sift the wheat from the chaff, as well as to mediate the varieties of Paganism without eradicating their differences.  Together, Humanism and Paganism keep in check and mutually nourish each other.  Humanism keeps Paganism true to the empirical world around us, while Paganism enriches Humanism with deep symbolic imagery.

What I read in this, is that Humanist Paganism seeks to appropriate the symbols, Gods, etc. of Paganism while lacking in belief in them, not living in Gebo with those Gods, symbols, power, etc.  All humans are susceptible to superstition and factiousness.  Humanism brings nothing to Paganism it did not already have.  I also do not see how Humanism nourishes Paganism in this relationship, so much as feeds off of it.    What wheat does Humanism hope to bring from the chaff of Paganism?  How can it keep the differences between traditions?  How does Humanism actually keep Paganism true to the empirical world around us, when even scientists, who are supposed to keep true to the empirical method, and follow the scientific method, with peer-reviewed and published papers may lead us astray or be intentionally dishonest?

Myers makes the point in his post that:

For those who struggle with anti-pagan prejudices and stereotypes, Humanist Paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just.

Actually, rather than using Humanist Paganism as a tool, I would think that Pagans can and should be able to show themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and enlightened people, should they choose to do so, with or without Humanism or Humanist leanings.  The Fourfold Path of Humanist Paganism is already greatly expounded on in Pagan traditions.  As with Atheist Paganism, as a term, does Humanist Paganism add anything meaningful to the already admittedly murky definition of Paganism?

This is where boundaries are deeply needed.  If the term Pagan is a shattered teacup, then what good does adding more shards to it do?  How are we ever to come to an understanding of a term if we are forever breaking the teacup so everyone can have their sliver?  What tea does it hold?

Am I saying that Humanist Pagans are not real Pagans?  I am not sure that is my call to make.  I am one person in the communities that make up this great umbrella.  But real in what sense?  If we go with the definition “A person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions” then I suppose Humanism works under that definition.

Then, however, there is the definition of humanism: “An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.”

No.  This does not work for me.  I do not believe that humans are the do-all, end-all.  I do not believe we should or do come before the Gods, spirits, or Ancestors.  We are anthropocentric enough in America, and the devastation that has done to our environment alone gives me pause if not active disdain in supporting anything that encourages it.

I would far rather that Pagans come together to decide what Pagan means to them, than to have more users of the word take its meaning completely away from anything to do with our Gods, spirits, and Ancestors.  I would even prefer that the term remain nebulous to include polytheists, pantheists, duotheists, and henotheists, than to completely lose any attachment to the Gods at all in the name of inclusion.  I would prefer to repair the teacup, or find a new one so that it is useful once more.

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