Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Pagan Theology

This morning I browsed some Pagan hospital and prison chaplaincy websites and very good and informative they are too. But from reading them I’m not sure what differences there may be between Pagans and Christians. Do we simply substitute the word ‘Gods’ for ‘God’ and have a different way of celebrating that nevertheless has the same outcome in mind? I feel a great resonance with my Christian peers and, much though I’d really like to be able to be a Christian just for their sense of community and their practical work, I find myself unable to be anything but Pagan. Yet there’s limited common philosophy between my way of being a chaplain and what I’ve read on other sites. Not one that I’ve seen describes any foundational philosophy for the manner in which they work.

This has caused some problems, particularly in the US where religion is taken very much more seriously than in the UK and where prisoners have a particularly hard time of it. A Pagan prisoner believed that sweat lodges were a foundational practice of “Wiccans, Druids, or other European-based pagan religions....” but since they are not, the authorities were able to take away what had become an important practice for this person, causing him suffering.

A Catholic decided he was also a Pagan – something that many Pagans are totally content with – but his Catholic chaplain couldn’t reconcile the two and the inmate suffered. Is the Catholic priest spitefully withholding a service and denying basic human rights? Or has Paganism offered something that in fact isn’t possible and based on no good premise?

Websites say things along the line that

Our faith should be one of harmony and balance, where (regardless of path followed) we should aim live in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings.

Where does this fit in with Paganisms stance on lack of dogma? How does it respond to our Pagan Ancestors, most of whom lived totally out of balance with their environment, clearing forests for argriculture and construction, manipulating animals and plants for a greater yeild? If it is true why is it true? If it’s true, why has no Pagan organisation very seriously discussed limiting ourselves to one child, maximum, as the single most effective act we can make towards living in harmony with the world as it is now? Just how strongly do we believe our beliefs? And where do those beliefs come from?

The concept of Pagan chaplaincy is established. Now we need some good solid foundations to work from, other than ‘It’s a human right’ and ‘It’s good to have official recognition.’ Many services come into being from these oppositional basis’ and there’s no harm in that. Now we need to start afresh with what we believe and why, mainly for ourselves. I still don’t really know why I should visit people who have behaved in ways that are in direct opposition to my theology, which is, admittedly, shared by a decreasing number of Pagans. It's one reason I don't ask what patients have experienced to be in hospital.

I believe in a Goddess, not as a symbol or idea but as a matter of fact Deity and thus I understand sexual crimes to be particularly heinous. I understand the natural world to be an expression of the Goddess and so I’m more than happy to spend time with people who find themselves incarcerated for getting in the way of bulldozers. Having some understanding of the use and abuse of power I take the abuse of power very seriously, so anyone who’s harmed someone who is weaker than them isn’t going to get much sympathy from me let alone empathy. I simply don’t understand the current Pagan chaplaincy standpoint that someone who has pulled the fingernails from a toddler or tortured his wheelchair-bound father must be served. It’s very patronising.

My belief is that, even if they are desperately ill, my fellow human is an equal. They’ve not temporarily wandered from some path or other and need to be treated like a lost lamb; their soul is their own and doesn’t require me to ‘save’ it, that’s their own job. Too often, I’m hearing old-fashioned Christian theology being expressed as Paganism, and it bothers me. I’m not sure when the idea that Pagan chaplains exist to ‘save’ anyone at all came into being and I’m uncomfortable with it. Pagans are responsible for our own souls, aren’t we? What are we saving each other from? Soul Death? Or what? It seems to me that this impulse is based in a need to save people from having to admit what they’ve done, that is, to struggle with their demons.
There are some things that are unforgivable in the human world, for good reason. If everything a Pagan does is ultimately fine then who cares what anyone gets up to? I don’t know the mind of the Goddess and so don’t know what she feels on the matter of forgiveness, but the natural world is very unforgiving indeed.

Complexity runs throughout all these debates and ultimately we’ll find a way of being a Pagan chaplain that suits our particular personality, just as every religious person does. But unless our chaplaincy encompasses more than ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was nice, because it’s my right’ we’re not really thinking very hard.


cern said...

Your thoughts about 'saving souls'.... how does that fit with the shamanic concept of psychopomp? Certainly it is different to the 'saving a soul' whilst the client is alive as is believed to be necessary in other religious traditions. But the concept of a departed soul being in need of some guidance in the otherworlds is certainly there.

I agree with your comments about historical Pagans not exactly being in harmony with nature. Perhaps that is something that needs to looked at specifically by the recon Pagan paths. But those who self identify as Pagan encompass a wider spectrum than just recons and the term 'New Religious Movement' is definitely an appropriate one for many within the Pagan community. The whole concept of individuality in following a Pagan path, including individual and personal responsibility of course, is one that opens the potential for legitimately incorporating practices and perspectives that might ordinarily be considered the province of Christianity. Indeed, if one is drawing ones inspiration for ones path from our modern world (including the modern natural and unnatural landscape) and from our life experiences, then living in our broadly (if nominally)Christian society will have an impact. each individual Pagan (even within Recon traditions) will have their own perspective on Pagan spirituality, which is one of the reasons it is potentially much more challenging to be a representative of the Pagan community (in whatever capacity) than of a spiritual tradition that incorporates dogma and doctrine. It is one of the reasons it is so hard to come up with a definition for Pagan and Paganism that is accepted by all (or even most) who self identify as Pagan.

Of course all that also makes it rather difficult for us to say what is NOT Paganism. That can make it difficult to identify behaviour that the majority of the Pagan community (and indeed the wider community) would find distasteful at the very least. With regard to Pagan hospital and prison 'visitors', that only becomes an issue if the Pagan we're visiting is insisting on our support, and possibly participation in something we find alien to our personal understanding of Pagan paths and Pagan spirituality.

So the dilemma becomes one of how to support the individuality of every Pagan whilst also identifying what doesn't constitute Pagan practice. For so long we've been saying what we're not as our means of defining our spiritual path.... not Satan worshipers, not baby sacrificers etc. We've struggled to identify a universal 'what we are' I think, because to do so would be to potentially create dogma that denied individual spiritual expression. When challenged to provide a definition we find ourselves using limiting phrases such as 'most....', 'many.....' and 'some....'. I'm not sure that is such a bad thing either. It might get up the noses of those who demand a 'black and white' answer. But it isn't too difficult to identify flaws in some of the 'black and white' answers they may had received from other faith groups.

With regard to foundational philosophies for the way Pagan 'chaplains' work, I would imagine that the only thing that could be identified would be the chaplains own personal code of ethics and a willingness to work WITH the institutions the clients are to be found in finding a mutually agreeable way of serving the needs of the client.

But I could be talking rubbish of course. :)



Clare Slaney said...

Thanks Mike for these thoughtful comments. Reading them, I'm reminded that some people in monotheistic religions tend to say of other people in their own groups "So and so isn't a Christian/ Muslim/ Jew because they don't do as I do": Pagans tend to do the opposite and of the two approaches I prefer the second! At the same time I'm reminded that without boundaries everything turns into mush.

Your last paragraph makes such good sense.

My understanding of what may happen to us after we die is this:
anything we think we know about death has enormous potential to be fantasy.
Pagans (and others) prepare for death and in doing so are prepared for what may happen there. We remain our own priests in death.
If there’s a benevolent deity then She receives us and all is well.
There’s not a malevolent force out there.

Other than that, I tend to be personally very lairy of concepts that suggest someone has to guide me ‘towards the light’ or something. To me, it speaks of a fundamental mistrust of really natural processes, very like messing about in childbirth. The less we do the more likely things are to go well. Perhaps, as in childbirth, a process of evolutionary action occurs? Perhaps a minority of us will not be born into the Otherworld as the majority are? Who knows the whys and wherefores of this? I tend to mistrust people who say they do know, and further, that they know how to control it.

Dolores Ashcroft Norwicki and Doreen Valiente write extensively on this subject BTW, and I find myself very comfortable with their opinions. Food for thought, eh, Mike?

cern said...

'At the same time I'm reminded that without boundaries everything turns into mush.'

And that really IS a concern. Rare as it is, there are people who build a kind of 'spiritual' practice around things such as murder and child abuse. I tend to think the Pagan community functions loosely within the 'norms' of society, both in a mundane sense and in their spirituality. Of course, deciding HOW loosely is another matter. :)

'My understanding of what may happen to us after we die is this:
anything we think we know about death has enormous potential to be fantasy.
Pagans (and others) prepare for death and in doing so are prepared for what may happen there. We remain our own priests in death.
If there’s a benevolent deity then She receives us and all is well.
There’s not a malevolent force out there.'

But then, that is your perspective. When working with someone else... a client, I would say their perspective is the important one and, I suppose if the individual Pagan chaplain feels that the perspective of their client is not something they can work with then they would possibly feel duty bound to find someone within the community for whom that clients perspective was not an issue.

The idea of malevolence, for me, isn't strictly an issue because, whilst I don't perceive malevolent intention, I DO perceive intention that might be at variance with that of a spirit body. Contained within the shamanic concept of soul loss is the idea that sometimes soul fragments are attractive to other 'entities' (be they unclaimed soul fragments, the souls of those who have departed and have not found their way on to their next destination or something else) and that the soul fragments may find themselves 'conned' into staying with those 'entities' rather than returning to the body. So from a shamanic perspective, the role of psychopomp could be considered to be quite important.

As you say, all this could be fantasy. But if we're putting the needs and beliefs of our client first, then we should really find a way of honouring their beliefs, either personally or by finding someone who CAN honour them personally. But maybe that is MY personal code of ethics creeping in there. :D

' Perhaps a minority of us will not be born into the Otherworld as the majority are? Who knows the whys and wherefores of this? I tend to mistrust people who say they do know, and further, that they know how to control it.'

Certainly, those who speak in terms of 'certainty' of what comes next and how it all works are not expressing any signs of recognising the possibility of their perspective being more fantasy than reality. But by the same token, if we dismiss their perspective as possibly being right, are we not falling into the same camp of 'certainty' where there is none? Again, if the client holds a perspective of that certainty I would find myself honour bound to try to accommodate that in some form or other.

'Dolores Ashcroft Norwicki and Doreen Valiente write extensively on this subject BTW, and I find myself very comfortable with their opinions.'

I have quite a lot of Valiente, but only one Ashcroft Norwicki. I'll have to dig out the Valiente stuff. I have various 'rites of passage' books including shamanicguide to death and dying, the Rites of passage Campanelli book and a particularly useful book 'Death and the Pagan' by Philip Wright and Carrie West. That last one is WELL worth having around. :)

'Food for thought, eh, Mike?'

Very much so. One thing that rings loud and clear through this is the issue of how to work with diversity. Not just in terms of paying lip-service to it, but by really working to serve a very diverse community. It's a challenge, but a noble one. :)



Clare Slaney said...

Hi Mike,

Like you, I find that Pagans are fairly ordinary people not inclined to do anything spectacularly bad. Because of the setting in which I work I’m likely to have come into contact with people who have done spectacularly bad things which is why I personally have a policy of not asking about their pasts. This wasn’t a problem until I met someone whom I suspected had done something that was at real odds with my morality. Ultimately, it’s either intuition or fantasy, and it made me question, again, why I do what I do.

My particular discomfort is with what I perceive as one of the new Pagan dogmas, which seems to be “We must help everyone.”

If, after meaningful debate based on firm foundations, this turns out to be true then I can live with it in much the same way as I would now: to hand it over to someone who can be more helpful than I, and to aim towards genuine personal growth (Rather than confusing personal growth with sacharine.)

In general, people who have very firm ideas of what they need have a supportive group around them who can facilitate that while they’re in hospital. The Pagans I meet in hospital tend to be very isolated indeed, have a general understanding of practice and we seldom do anything overtly Pagan. What they need, we’ve found, is to be *met authentically*; that is person to person, as equals, and I fear that some of the stuff I’ve read on the subject tends towards the patronizing –“Poor poor you, how awful,” - which creates an unhelpful distance. It also speaks to me of a lack of personal resilience.

Re Death. Your shamanic experience is far greater than my own. One of the old teachings is along the lines of “If you expect it, it’ll happen,” which is why it’s so important to plan our last great adventure. I’m absolutely with you re facilitating a live person in ways they’re familiar with, and I wonder what happens to the human personality after death? There’s much to be thought about concerning the processes of death, when I, Clare become I, Spirit or We or Us, but my instinct is that the very useful and beautiful acts we can perform at and after death are more to do with helping the living deal with chaos and pain, and the enormous Void that suddenly yawns in front of us.

Thanks for the book recommendations too. A late night reply resulted in me confusing Doreen Valiente with Dion Fortune, and Fortune’s book, “The Book of the Dead” (Weiser Books) is an excellent precursor to Dolores Ashcroft Norwicki’s “New Book of the Dead” (Aquarian)

It’s great to discuss and share; diversity and community depend on it!

cern said...

Heh, currently engaged in a fun discussion about chaplaincy on a Christian website in light of the National Secular Society demanding that funding for Chaplaincy be diverted into nursing and cleaners.

My ideas are rather different to NSS, but still suggest a re-think about what funding for peoples emotional and spiritual needs is actually spent on. :)

Man flu has been slowing the thought processes down a bit. Still struggling through it. But I'll get there. :)