Thursday 22 October 2009

Interpretive Beings

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.


kenneth said...

For all of paganism's shortcomings as a movement, you have to remember that we've only been at this about 50 years in the modern sense, and probably 99% of the growth in it has happened in the past decade, or less.

Yes, Christianity has produced quite a body of work in their 2000 odd years, but our record still isn't bad in some respects. We've had our silly witch wars, but we've not yet slaughtered millions of each other over theological points or stolen any continents from their rightful owners. There is some very good and meaningful work being done in paganism if you know where to look. I've been to some intense fire circle workings and a Samhain that was every bit the equal of anything which has gone on in any monastery.

It may still be the exception rather than the rule, but it's also no accident. It happens by crafting events and communities which attract those willing to contribute and dissade the drunken idiots and drama queens.

Another point worth consideration is that Christian monasteries were not always places of idyllic contemplation. During the middle ages and later, many convents and abbeys were little more than frat houses and places of prostitution. I don't know that monasteries are a good model for pagans in any case. Our path calls for us to be fully in this world, not to withdraw from it and hope for the next.

It's understandble sometimes why people want to withdraw, but the pagan community isn't going to get any better if those with some experience and insight just hide from the problems.

Makarios said...

Some very interesting insights. I'll look forward to your future postings along these lines.

And don't worry about being mistaken for a Southern Baptist. I doubt that you would find too many of them quoting St. Augustine. Now, if you were to start quoting Spurgeon. . . .

Sophie Gail said...

When you decide to open a monastery, let me know. I, too, long for the contemplative life. Read Anathem by Neal Stephenson, inspired by The Clock of the Long Now. That's one interesting model

Metz said...

Hi, just stumbled on this blog, because i'm a pagan and also studying for a PhD - looking at the ethics of respect for faiths in the NHS. I'm particularly loking at issues around paganism in healthcare, and would love to talk at some time .

I appreciate how you feel looking for a philosophical edge, a need for searching into the definition of Pagan. I think it's probably why I ended up studying ethics, looking for rights and wrongs that hadn't sprung from a Christian upbringing.

AS Kenneth said, Christianity has had a long time to speculate and interrogate itself ... it's why there are so many flavours of Christianity as each group and individual has struggled to identify 'Truth'. The media driven society that forms of paganism currently exist in is a threat- demands for verification and a desire to distance ourselves from the very public bads - but it also provides us with a wonderful opportunity to link and discus with others that in earlier times we wouldn't even have known existed.

Please keep asking questions and searching for understanding.

Bo said...

You'll have to wait for my retreat centre, Clare!!

Trace Yulie said...

Thanks for this. I linked to your blog from the Cherry Hill site. I realize this conversation is not super-recent, but anyway...

I feel called to pursue a deeper, contemplative and more scholarly kind of paganism, and it's exciting to see others doing the same (although I do enjoy the occasional skyclad bonfire, too). I know exactly the feeling you are describing concerning the monastic tradition, a longing for that deeper connection. I think that time is coming for paganism. The existence of Cherry Hill points to that.

We are also seeing a new generation of children growing up in pagan traditions, with more resources than ever before. Instead of former Catholics and Baptists and so on as the majority of the pagan population, we are going to see something very different, I think, in the next twenty years as that generation matures. We need to be ready for that shift.

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with your call for greater engagement with others of faith - as Paganism has a great deal to share with, and learn from, those of other traditions.
I understand the yearning for the contemplative life - I've spent time in Christian and Buddhist monasteries myself, but still feel that need to re-engage with "lived reality".
I think that a wise saying to guide inter-faith is the advice not to compare "their worst with our best", which is so easy to do. We should recognise that there is so much of value in all traditions (and that human beings have often managed to f*ck it up spectacularly).
My own experience of inter-faith is that I have much more in common with people of faith - whether they may be Muslims, Jewish, Christian or Hindu, than I do with some of the most "out and proud pagans", who are vociferous in their campaign against what they perceive to be the wholesale appropriation of pagan holy days and holy sites by those Christians who seem bound to replay the role of inquisitor or witchfinder general (and that is not to say that there aren't a few who would embrace the role).
I salute you for the fundamental question of your blog - how to be clergy in a "religion" that repudiates such a point of view... A brave question to ask.