The Fall Equinox is upon us. It is giving us all an opportunity to focus on the question of balance, and I hope also on what Pagan religions generally offer the modern world that the dominant Western and Eastern faiths do not.
Peter Berger, the great sociologist of religions, divides the world’s major faith traditions into two categories, those monotheisms identifying in different ways with Abraham, and Hindu traditions as well as Buddhism which emerged from them. As a short hand he calls them the religions of Jerusalem and Benares, and I will as well.
What Jerusalem and Benares share is a common dissatisfaction with the world at a very deep level. Whether as an outcome of sin or through the illusions of the ego, suffering and injustice are basic features of the world and our ultimate release from these things requires our separation from the world. In one case salvation is the way out, in the other, enlightenment. Short of salvation or enlightenment ultimately there is only suffering, either for eternity or for endless incarnations. I realize I am writing very broadly and that the spiritual richness within both traditions has developed a great variety of interpretations of the basic situation facing us, but I do not think I am distorting their main themes.
Both also emphasize transcendence over immanence. The world is a place of illusion, deception, and a snare. We need to connect with what transcends it.
Pagan spirituality has had a transcendent dimension, but as a rule it is acknowledged within a context that equally honors the immanent. The world itself is an expression of the sacred and its major dimensions and processes can teach us about the sacred. In this very important respect Pagan traditions raise to priority what is at best a subordinate theme in the traditions of Jerusalem and Benares. This difference is symbolized most deeply by our emphasis on the feminine in its sacred aspect.
If the world is a reliable manifestation of the sacred then our spiritual task and challenge is to harmonize ourselves with it in all of its most basic dimensions. Within most NeoPagan traditions we see this insight most explicitly in our Wheel of the Year, with its recognition and honoring of life and death, night and day, male and female, all existing in a sacred balance.
Balance is the spiritual value in Pagan spirituality that is the equivalent of salvation in that of Jerusalem and enlightenment for Benares. And in the Wheel, balance is most perfectly represented with the equinoxes, the Sabbats of Mabon and Ostara.
As Ostara is balance tipping into growth, Mabon is balance tipping into decline. Those of us in the temperate zones are fortunate that our climate is roughly in keeping with the symbolism of the Wheel. Even here on the mild California coast hints of fall color are becoming visible even as the harvest is in full swing. Some of the best peaches I have tasted in a long time are finally emerging at the end of our unusually cool summer. But among the wild plants seed heads are formed or forming, preparing for the changes to come. But I do not really see much in the way of actual decline yet.
The Sabbats of balance, Mabon and Ostara, do not usually get as much attention as the great cross quarter ones, or the equinoxes, but at the deepest level I think they teach one of the most profound Pagan insights: that the good life is lived in balance.