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There is little people of genuine religious faith owe the Christianist Right, but one thing we do owe them is their bringing religion back into a prominent place for public discussion. Their attacks on evolution, stem cell research, sex education, physics, and science in general has brought some of the sharpest minds in modern science out hunting for religious quarry. And some are good shots.
Others like sawed off shotguns, and in their blasts intend to take out not only the Christianists, they also hope to score a killing blow against the superstitions they equate with religion in general. These more indiscriminate attacks force people with spiritual practices to re-think their tradition’s relationship with modern science.
Buddhism, insofar as it sticks to meditation, gets treated relatively gently, as it should. But theistic religious traditions get attacked indiscriminately. And we Pagans are theists. We are not monotheists, but we are theists nonetheless. While the scientific critics of Christianist excesses do not have us explicitly in their sites, most of their arguments, if true, are as valid against us as they are against their theocratic quarry.
So what might we have to contribute to this discussion? I think quite a lot. Our contribution will turn out to be both respectful of science and devastating to any religion’s claim to universal superiority, while arguing that what we do is not superstition, but instead perhaps the hioghest of human endaevors. I will begin by examining what would at first seem the strongest evidence that our practice are little more than cultural projections.
Deities and Cultural Diversity
Traditional Wicca has a primary pantheon of two major deities, the lord and Lady. In some She manifests in three guises: Mother, Maid, and Crone. The Lord is sometimes seen as the Oak King and the Holly King. We have a number of mythologies describing these deities’ relationships, and they are not internally consistent with one another at a logical level. Further, we often deal with other deities, primarily in the EuroPagan traditions, such as Brhide.
Compounding the confusion, other Pagan pantheons do not translate without remainder into ours, or into one another’s. For example, initially the Orixas (Orishas) in Candomble and Santeria seem to resemble the Greek and Roman deities. Oxum (Oshun) is the Orixa of feminine beauty and sexuality and seems remarkably close to the Roman Venus and Greek Aphrodite. But Venus was a lover of Mars, and Mars, while a God of war, was also a God of spring and other more pacific qualities. Ares, often connected with Aphrodite, was more narrowly associated with battle. Venus was sexually connected to Mars, as Aphrodite was to Ares, but Oxum was not so connected to Ogum, the Orixa of war and iron work. While Oxum is associated with fresh flowing water, Aphrodite is connected with the sea.
In short, there is no clear correspondence from one deity to another, or even in the relations between their major qualities. At most, some Wiccans might argue the female Orixas or Classical Venus and Aphrodite are aspects of the Goddess, the male deities aspects of the God. But this effort at categorization does not really take us very far and would probably not impress followers of Santeria, Candomble, or we presume, Classical Paganism.
All this incommensurable variety is enough to drive a person who loves neat categorizations crazy. The argument that all deities are simply cultural constructs, of no greater reality than the imaginations of their followers seems pretty well grounded. This, of course, is the argument of the radical secularists, who apply it to Christianity as well as other religions. At first take this debunking seems reasonable. But only at first take.
Many Pagan traditions, including traditional Wicca, are based on personal encounters with their deities. In my experience the Goddess is far more than a poetic metaphor or a cultural construct. She is quite real, beautifully and wonderfully so. She is also quite individual. To refer to another deity whom I have encountered, She is not the Celtic Goddess Brhide, or Brigid. Priestesses experience the Drawing Down of the Moon, whereupon the Goddess can enter into their body and mind, a personal connection inconceivable to secular thought. These kinds of relations are common in Pagan traditions. From Neo-Platonic Theurgy to incorporation of the Orixas and other spirits in the African diasporic religions, our knowledge that our deities are real is grounded in repeated and often overwhelmingly powerful personal encounter.
The cultural reductionists cannot address this common experience among Pagans, and I am told among some Christians, that our deities are quite real. In my experience they partake of a reality greater than my day to day reality. They are truly super human, but at the same time appear wedded to particular contexts, not in the sense that they do not cross over into other traditions, some do, but that we do not see the same deity independently discovered/encountered in very different cultures.
So how might we make sense of this?
Transcendence within Immanence
I want to suggest a way of understanding that honors the experiences of people in the midst of their different spiritual practices, recognizes the reality of the Sacred, and that we live within a universe that is most appropriately conceived of in terms of Thou rather than It. And at the same time, a perspective that honors modern science.
When considered together, Pagan religions decenter spiritual authority. There are multiple hierarchies, some very steep, especially among early city states and empires, some often very flat, as with hunting and gathering peoples. There is no point at which they all converge. Spiritual reality is not hierarchical in that sense. They do not tend to culminate in a single ultimate God, although many do describe everything as coming from an ultimate Source.
Nor is there any evidence that at one time Pagans worshipped a single deity and, afterwards, fell into spiritual confusion and worshipped many lesser beings. But this source is not a personality. The Roman Neo-Platonist Plotinus called it the One, Traditional Wiccans refer to it as the Dryghton.
What conception of ultimate Divinity might fit such a pluralistic spiritual reality? Some people have had what are termed mystical encounters with more fundamental or ultimate dimensions of What Is. I am one such. But to my knowledge all say the experience is not able to be adequately described by words. That fits my experience.
Like those before us, we are thrown back upon our experience and the metaphors available to us to try and make it sensible to others who have not had such experiences. But unlike the peoples of several thousand years ago, when the defining features of most contemporary religions were developed, we live in a world happily without kings and strict hierarchies of status. Not only that, we are aware of the serious abuses often committed by those claiming superior status. To say that my deity is superior to yours because S/He can beat your up impresses no one. Nor should it.
We also have a sense of what might be termed distributed authority where in modern democracies the people as a whole are the ultimate political power. Ecologies, science, the market economy, and the World Wide Web among other things, demonstrate to us that impressive order and intricate variety can arise in the absence of a central authority or directing hand. My argument will make explicit use of these modern metaphors, although the image that arises shares much in common with that employed by Pagan peoples before the rise of city states and empires, and that long survived them among many of the world’s tribal cultures.
Transcendence manifests in and through immanence. Or perhaps better, in the final analysis they cannot be clearly separated. Our world brings forth extraordinary variety, creativity, and beauty, each in its own way a manifestation of the Sacred. Different peoples have lived within this abundance, and in their spiritual practices each has tailored their conception of the Divine from out of their encounter with the sacred in their time and place. Because the Sacred is literally everywhere, there is no place from which we begin that can not lead us to the Divine. No place.
Sacred Performance Art
Religions are human creations, but they are not just human creations. They are the creative result of human beings encountering the More Than Human, and seeking to enter into better relationship with the Ultimate Context of existence. I use such awkward terminology to leave open what this Context really is beyond being, as many have said, good, loving, perfect, and beautiful. Many of these encounters may be mostly individual, and remain purely personal, important to the person having the experience, but not entering into society as a whole.
But others enable us to come together as a community to celebrate, honor, and potentially be transformed by that encounter. The result is the wonderful variety of religions that have arisen within the world. Each is a combination of the people and time of their originating as well as the dimension of the Sacred that is most fully reflected in that particular tradition.
The Gods, then, manifest through the relationships of human individuality interacting within the sacred matrix of All That Is. Just how a deity initially comes into existence, no one can know. Perhaps as an individual, perhaps a gestalt of individuals who have passed on, perhaps as the animate thought form of a culture taking on enough energy to become a genuine entity. Perhaps these energies are also connected with the energies of a place, of this particular land or perhaps the energy of the ocean or rivers. We probably cannot know. What we do know is that They are real, and that They are varied.
Religion, then, is Sacred Performance Art. It is the highest creation of the human species because it is in its religions that humans bring together all our capacities seeking relationship with and within the most inclusive context into which we can enter. For thousands of years our greatest art, music, dance, architecture, clothing, and more have been devoted to honoring this relationship. It has enabled many to put their personal struggles, pains, and fears within a greater context, where suffering can be redeemed, and blessings found in what those on the outside may term misfortune. It has opened many hearts, transformed many lives, healed many wounds.
Religion involves art because it focuses on what is beautiful as manifestations of and symbols for the Divine. This may be beauty in Nature, or it may be beauty created by human beings, or, more often, both. But beauty is central to religion. Even those religions that emphasize the severe and spare, such as the Shakers, do so because from their perspective lesser beauty distracts us from the greater Beauty that they identify with God.
Religion involves performance because religions are more than systems of thought. Religions are also forms of action. There possess sacred rituals, sacred times, and sacred relationships. All are honored in and through action as well as thought. Often we do this in community with others. Ritual is the essence of religious performance, and even the simplest and sparest religions set aside special times and places where people meet in fellowship and communion to honor and strengthen their relationship with the Sacred. Ritual is the most obvious form in which sacred performance art takes place.
And religion is sacred. Both performance and art are in service to the More Than Human. Performances must be connected with spiritual truths, else they simply become theater. Art must manifest or point to beauty that is permeated by the Sacred or else it becomes decoration or personal expression. There is nothing wrong with theater, decoration, or personal expression, but all are rooted in the cares ands concerns of our day to day largely taken for granted existence. Because their context is narrow, they are mundane.
The sacred, whatever else it may be, must be true at a deep level, a level far deeper than the worries and joys and concerns and plans of our day to day lives. It must be the truth revealed by concern for and contact with ultimate contexts. In doing so religion addresses the many levels and dimensions of our existence, helping put them into right relationship with one another and with All That Is.
Every living religion is a coming together of Plato’s Good, True, and Beautiful. Every living religion heals what secular modernity has torn asunder, situating the fragments of our lives in that context that gives them meaning beyond our own day to day concerns. Every religion is in this sense integral.
Secularism and Religion
The secular critique never penetrates to this level because it is centered on a much more shallow context. There is nothing beyond the manifestations of a culture, nothing more to this deity or that than between nodding one’s head to say “yes” or shaking one’s head in Bulgaria to say “yes.” Even here secularism has trouble with meaning, because meaning refers to internal states of awareness that may have correlations in the physical world, such as states of brain activation, but may no more be able to be reduced to that than a television show can be reduced to the state of activation of a TV set.
If the world has meaning and awareness, neither Richard Dawkins nor Steven Pinker’s methods are likely to unearth it. These methods have not been able to put their finger on awareness in human beings, where it is obvious it exists. And if awareness is universal, rather than some strange distillation of matter when it reaches a certain degree of complexity, then there seems no problem to suggesting its qualities may be emergent just as we see emergent phenomena within the material world and also in the natural world where matter and awareness come together in ecosystems, societies, and you the reader of this blog.
How religions can go bad, as in the degeneration of Christianity into Christianism, for some people, is a fascinating topic that will have to wait for another discussion.