Monday, 19 October 2009

I have learned two lessons in my life: first, there are no sufficient literary, psychological or historical answers to human tragedy, only moral ones. Second, just as despair can come to one another only from human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.

Elie Wiesel

I’ve entered the stage of what’s been called ‘Post-Paganism’, a moment of awareness that Paganism as it is practiced no longer satisfies or means anything much. Apart from Samhain, I haven’t ritually marked any festival for myself for years though I make a mental nod to calendar dates and natural symbols – the snowdrop, the hawthorn flower – as they appear. My understanding of Deity has changed too, but the genesis and the final cause of my stepping out from Pagan practice is the way that too many Pagans behave.

It doesn’t matter what sacred books we do or don’t refer to, somehow we manage to interpret life to miraculously concur with our personal worldview. So it is that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Pagans, Hindus and everyone else generally conforms to their country’s legislation and social mores. Pagans may ask for time off for religious holidays but this is more a stamp of individuality than a heartfelt yearning for religious obligation, or a passion to be with the Land at a particular point in our joint journey around the sun.

If one of our strengths is our lack of a holy book then a corresponding weakness is that we have no idea what it is that we should be doing or not doing, or why, other than feeling good about ourselves. What began with the weighty “Know Thyself” passing through “ . . . if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, then thou wilt never find it without thee” has become pure solipsism. People outside of ourselves exist only as extras in the great, consuming drama of our life. We don’t actually want community at all, other than as some kind of heightened social life.

Protestations of openness, love and honouring as you walk away from a partner into the arms of his friend don’t mean much, neither do Twitters about how strong and beautiful and loved you are as your family flails about in agony. We’ve exchanged Bitchcraft (though this maintains a strong presence) for ethereal non-committal. This isn’t based in a concept of respect for personal choice and trust that we will make good decisions if we are cherished: it seems to me to be fundamental laziness. I’ll light a candle for you as you struggle with your child’s decent into drug addiction but don’t expect much more from me other than affirmation via Facebook. There is no action or event that requires meaningful group introspection or discussion.

I’ve just begun an MA in Philosophy of Religion and whilst I’m amazed at the contortions that scholars have put themselves through over the centuries to anthropomorphise Deity they also have basis' from which to make decisions. This is why Jews and Christians beleive and live as they do, because they have particular understandings of their religions. What might a Pagan theology around voluntary euthanasia be, and why? Non-Pagans might also say ‘Because I wouldn’t allow my dog to suffer like that” but is there a particularly Pagan response? Are we simply romantic, ritualised atheists? Paganism has no morality in the widest sense of the word, our ethics come down to plant trees and save the world by meditating and not watching TV. We would never dream of discussing how many children a Pagan might consider having, even though human population is the single most urgent issue facing the planet, way beyond carbon footprints and coal burning power stations. We have no answers or even suggestions on how to approach the most important issues in human life because it might impinge on someone’s personal choice.

My relationship with Deity, mainly in the form of the Goddess, continues, it’s not that I’ve given up believing that seasons change or that the Ancestors exist; rather, I’ve lost respect for the triviality that masquerades as Paganism and don’t want to associate with it. Like many Pagans, Jews, Muslims and people from other religions, I’m content to simply be in the presence of Mystery rather than wrangle over whether He/She/It is wholly simple or everlasting. But for me, the everyday application of a religious belief has to be greater than doing exactly as you like and justifying it by wearing a cloak.


Ali said...

Thank you for writing this. I understand your frustration and feel it myself at times... In some ways, reading this kind of thing actually gives me hope. I've seen several people who feel themselves to be ex- or post-Pagans saying very similar things, and it makes me wonder if these are actually the growing pains of the community as we approach a time when real meaningful connection beyond justifying self-interest will become more and more an obvious priority, an inescapable responsibility. I hope so. I feel that I've only just joined the Pagan community, having started down this path less than five years ago... I would hate to think there's nothing more to it than play-acting and partying. :-/

Clare Slaney said...

Thanks for the comment, Ali. My understanding of Paganism involves a great deal more than play-acting and poetry! I think you're right when you describe the boredom as 'growing pains'. My growing pains have partly been helped by Christian theology - I'm learning what questions can be asked and in what manner. I hope that you can be as excited and freed by the questions that Paganism is in need of asking itself as I am.

WitchDoctorJoe said...

I have seen so many come to my Paganism for the freedom, only to abuse and ignore it.

I have seen ever flavor of socially unexceptionable behavior justified as my Paganism.

I have watched a tidal wave of pop culture 101 well up and crash down upon the beautiful children of my nature.

I have watched my precious Paganism become a substitution for religion.

My knowledge of Pagans who "pray" can be counted on one hand.

I have stretched forth my hand in assistance far beyond facebook affirmations, and the assisted were dumbfounded.

I share your pain and hold my Pagansim ever tighter.

kenneth said...

Your comments indicate to me that you were never really pagan in spirit and apparently never came to any real understanding of the Rede (or any of the other pagan codes of ethics).

Those who belong on this path and actually bother to do the deep personal work involved strive toward doing the right thing out of true understanding of cause and effect and our interconnectedness, not because we're afraid of our sky god or because we lean on some sort of scripture to substitute for thought.

So you've finally realized there's a generous share of loons and flakes drawn to our non-dogmatic religions, and that fact makes the whole enterprise invalid in your eyes. Is it frustrating sometimes? Absolutely, but if you have any magickal skills at all, you learn how to draw the right people into your sphere and nurture the right community.

Many newbies fancy that Wicca or paganism is just a Goddess-friendly, socially progressive version of Christianity. I expect fundamentalist Christians to deride us because we don't "tell" people how to be moral. It's terrifying that someone with these sorts of understandings could hold themselves out as "clergy" in our community. You might consider becoming Born Again and starting an "ex-witch" ministry. You'd be all the rage at least in the southern U.S.

Ali said...

I think, kenneth, that your response is a bit harsh. There is a lot to be said for comparative theological study that can challenge us to ask questions and seek deeper meaning. This is definitely not the same thing as "telling people how to be moral," but it's also not letting them off the hook just because they make certain claims, especially if their lifestyles and choices don't uphold those claims. Your claim to be concerned with interconnection, for instance, doesn't seem supported by your angry defensiveness and sarcasm...

In any case, perhaps expressing her frustrations and criticisms in this medium is precisely Clare's way of "drawing the right kind of people" to her. I certainly feel compelled to respond to your comments in a spirit of community, though I only just stumbled on this blog and barely even know the writer. I, too, am seeking to understand what it means to have a coherent and meaningfully ethical understanding of my spiritual path. I fear what the Pagan community would become if all such sincere seekers were asked to leave just because they were asking difficult questions.

arth frown said...

Kenneth you said 'pagan code of ethics' and then 'non-dogma' how can you how both at the same time. Surely dogma is a code?
'Absolutely, but if you have any magickal skills at all, you learn how to draw the right people into your sphere and nurture the right community.'

Personally I rather rely on my social skills than magic to attract the right kind of people to me.

kenneth said...

I don't have a problem with someone coming to an informed conclusion that paganism is not for them, or pointing out the problems and idiosyncracies of the pagan community or individual practicioners. There are people and movements in it that are begging for ridicule, and I'm often the among the first to do it.

What I do have a problem with is when someone claiming to have deep experience and credentials in our path turns and dismisses it for reasons which seem to indicate a profound misunderstanding of what we're about. That upsets me for a couple of reasons. It gives uninformed outsiders the impression that an authoritative pagan came and saw all there is to see and is in a position to proclaim the whole thing a hoax. Two, if the person really didn't grasp the core ideas of the religion, or didn't try, what business did they have ministering to others in it? I concede I don't know the whole story of her faith journey and there may be much more to it than was conveyed.

Paganism is not a path for everyone. It is not an easy path, or a comforting one. It doesn't offer anything in the way of "salvation" or sin or a get out of jail free card for sin. It doesn't have centuries of written work by professional theologists that can give you a ready answer for all of life's mysteries and hard spots.

It's insulting however to suggest that we have no foundation for moral or ethical understanding. The core of the Rede, our sole "commandment" if you will, is only eight words long. "An it harm none, do as ye will." It is however, as deep and nuanced and complete as the whole of Judaic law, or the Koran or the Gospels. It has profound moral implications for those who do the work to grow in understanding.

Fools and selfish libertines can certainly use it to justify their own actions, but that's hardly unique to paganism. Would it be fair game to suggest Abrahamic faiths have no moral basis because many of its followers found justification for slavery, genocide and terrorism? Much of what Ms. Slaney lays at the feet of paganism's failings are in fact problems in the society at large (lack of empathy, spiritual and emotional immaturity). We get our share of those people like everyone else, and more because we don't have a central authority or cathecism classes or formal baptisms. Anyone can claim to be pagan whether they are sincere or not, ignorant or informed, well or insane.

And yes, we do have substantive discussions on issues like family planning and euthanasia. We haven't found ultimate solutions anymore than Christians have. Yes, the Pope can issue authoritative decrees on such things, but it's clear there's no real consensus in the Christian world on what to believe or follow.

If our path isn't yours, no hard feelings and best wishes in your journey. All I ask is that you not decree "there's nothing there" because you didn't happen to find it or didn't look very hard.

arth frown said...

"An it harm none, do as ye will."
Which is a bit like love thy neighbour. How does that help those pagans serving in the army?
What are these "code of ethics"?
Perhaps Kenneth you could tell me what paganism is?

Clare Slaney said...

Kenneth, let me be clear: I love Paganism, it’s the majority of Pagans I’m tired of. Paganism has potential for a rich and contemplative approach to ethics, people like Emma Restall Orr and those involved with Cherry Hill Seminary have made some important inroads to the subject. Pagans in general are disinterested in the practical application of specifically Pagan ethics in their own lives.

My own belief is that, based on the fact that we are a species amongst species, we are essentially amoral and that this is nothing to feel guilty or worried or anxious about, it’s what the human animal, along with all other animals, is. To start with a fresh page and positively chose what we want to be and not be is a wonderful opportunity. Some Pagans have fashioned thoughtful, deep lives that benefit others as well as themselves. Most have not.

If you re-read my blog, you will see that it is the majority of Pagans that I am rejecting, not Paganism. There are growing numbers of us who have no further desire to expose ourselves to the things I’ve described or to the contempt that you’ve so amply demonstrated.