I’m having to immerse myself in Christian philosophy in order to get some idea of how to approach the philosophy of religion and so I try to attend as many Heythrop College open lectures as I can. What’s becoming clear is that the Christianity people in Heythrop practice is very different from the Christianity I’m used to. They discuss their god in tremendous depth, moving beyond sex and hellfire, beyond sweetness and light, into something far more reflective. They seem to use contemplation of their god as a way of meditating on their lives and way of being in the world. They, too, are distressed by the simplistic nonsense presented by so many of their peers.
I’m going to write the occasional reflection on what I learn from this course as a way of asking myself questions about Paganism and what it means for me to be Pagan. I’ll be using many other peoples' words and ideas and don’t want to pass them off as my own, and I’m also aware of the potential for knee jerk reaction if I say “St Augustine says this . . .” I’m sure St Augustine has said many things which I wouldn’t like, but if he’s said something I feel is useful how do I offer that without some Pagans immediately assuming I’ve become a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, or just rejecting the idea outright?
That’s their trip, I suppose. Too many of us have chosen Paganism because we see it as the best way to show defiance to Christianity.
Today’s lecture was about reading the “Signs of the Times,” observing what the world is communicating and deciding how we respond. The gospels and scriptures guide Christians but I wondered what our equivalents might be. I suppose the closest thing to a holy book we have is the earth itself, the whole nuanced, delicate biosphere. It offers both stability and innovation, the laws of nature can’t be changed but change is the only certainty for the earth and everything dependant on it.
The bible seems to me to be a collection of stories that people can use to justify anything they want, and so it is with out own myths and legends: CuCullain, the Caileach, Demeter and Persephone, Deidre and so on, as well as the more modern myths and legends of our contemporary elders who may in centuries become the Pagan equivalent of Talmudic and biblical characters.
(Did you know, by the way, that there’s an oral Torah?)
Paganism holds tolerance in high esteem for excellent reason, we’re all very aware of how intolerance affects our own lives, but I believe we now need to review what has certainly become a kind of dogma. Tolerance has drifted into relativism: your view of what’s happening in the world and how to deal with it is just fine and my view is just fine and everyone is entitled to their own view, their own truth including, presumably, Stalin. This manner of engaging is very superficial, its lazy acceptance requires no energy and little thoughtfulness, whereas a respectful, authentic meeting takes skill, focus, and will. It accepts the risk that everything might not always be comfortable, and that discomfort is worth it if something more valuable can be gained.
Reframing the problem as seeking understanding rather than truth, is helpful. Where people are certain of the truth we can begin to sense the beginning of a mob mentality. The Truth ™ is easy, and easy to beat other people up with, whereas understanding is collaborative, relational, mutable. How, then, to avoid the retreat into relativism?
“Whatever leads to a better love of God and humanity is a good understanding.”
My own understanding of human behaviour has lead to an increasing dislike of humanity. The sheer historical repetitiveness of it distresses me deeply so that for some years meaning has been difficult to discern, there seems no aspect of life that remains untouched by our individual and corporate stupidity. For me, this has meant retreat and if there were such a thing I’d happily enter a Pagan monastery to do exactly as I do now, but in the dedicated company of others on a similar path. As yet, there’s no room for focused community contemplation within Paganism. I’ve been so desperately moved during visits to monasteries, the rhythm of coming together and moving apart, of steady, mindful movement through the day, and can’t believe that Paganism isn’t capable of something as graceful and disciplined. As yet, however, we are not. As yet, we don't want it badly enough.
So my journey is one of how to make better understanding. “If I understand at all, I understand differently.” And it’s my belief that there are growing numbers of Pagans who want to do this too.