Beliefnet
A Pagan's Blog

The abortion and the Bible thread has high lighted two issues where I think we Pagans have valuable insights for the spiritual community as a whole.  These are how we determine spiritual authority, and the issue of death.  This post offers some ruminations on the first issue, and another will discuss death.

Pagan spirituality long preceded written texts, sacred or otherwise.  


Early Pagan traditions were oral.  Even when they became literate, societies such as the Celts refused to write down sacred teachings.   Some scholars claim writing down the Odyssey helped kill the power of myths for the Greeks.  Taken literally the stories depicted Gods who were anything but divine in their behavior.  But they were never meant to be taken literally.   Transferring oral stories to written words took the life from them, and opened them to misinterpretation.

Two Greeks famous for their writings are important here.  Plato, one of Greece’s greatest writers, was himself very skeptical of its value for truly important issues.  In the Phaedrus Plato gives an account where the deity Toth offers the Egyptian King Thamus the gift of writing for his people.  The king gave many reasons why he thought it a bad idea, concluding “you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Unlike a teacher, the written word simply repeats itself when questioned what it means.  A person who did that would not understand what he said.  It is our ability to rephrase what we know in other ways that indicates we really understand what we are talking about.

Significantly, on two occasions Plato indicated that he never wrote down his most important teachings.  Those who say they know what he was teaching often argue among themselves, but how could they know?  Nor did Aristotle ever describe what he meant by what he regarded as our highest, semi-divine capacity: contemplation.  A hint that he knew words could not do it justice was when he wrote it characterized the awareness of the Gods.

For six years I studied intensely with a Brazilian shaman.  Those years were as demanding, maybe more so, than the years I spent getting a Ph.D. at Berkeley.  He told us he could tell us everything he knew that could be communicated in words in a weekend.  He also said it would be useless information.  He was right.  (I say this without implying I now know what he knew.)

I’ve seen some pretty passionate posts discussing abortion and the Bible by people who are 100% sure they know the meaning of a text they have never read in the original.  (Neither have I.)  There is nothing wrong with reading and learning from translations, or from texts we do not really understand.  I do it all the time.  In fact my definition of “a classic” is a text whose author gets smarter each time I read it.

But there is a world of difference between wrestling with a sacred book, learning from it, and applying it to my life, and assuming after I have read it that I know its real meaning.  This claim would be absurd with any complex text, let alone a when reading from a translation of something written thousands of years ago for readers in many respects quite unlike us .  To claim we understand THAT with certainty is Arrogance and Pride with capital letters.  And yet they have done so, the evidence being they ignored the passage I emphasized in the post to which they responded.

So what do we Pagans have as an alternative?

Fundamentally we are an oral and experiential tradition. We Wiccans have Books of Shadows, but they are more like ritual cookbooks that sacred texts along Biblical or even theological lines.   Similar texts dominate in Brazil among the African Diasporic traditions.  Dogma is not particularly important, compared to ritual and experience.  This also appears to have been the case in Rome.  

Wiccans and Pagans in general do not look to revelations of other people’s experiences with the sacred, especially revelations of long ago,  we look primarily to our own experience in ritual, on vision quests, or through other practices.  We also depend on the accumulated knowledge of our own spiritual communities to help us put what we have experienced into context.  This means that we can never be completely confident of our understanding.  What we know is ALWAYS provisional, it is ALWAYS open to revision.  Pagan practice, wherever and whenever it has existed, changes, and that is OK.

She changes everything She touches
And everything She touches, changes.

This is a feature, not a flaw. 

This is also true when reading a sacred text, but in that case its desirability is usually denied.  As soon as I explain a text in my own words, I interpret it.  To understand something is to make it yours, but as you are unique, so to some degree will be your understanding. So long as you do not understand, you repeat the formula, the quote.  To simply apply a directive need not involve understanding.  But as soon as you do understand you go to some degree some place different.  The author might think that by doing so you have successfully internalized its lesson, or not.  But interpretation and understanding are inseparable. 

I am not attacking sacred texts.  I am saying they are dangerous to read because when read carelessly or superficially. they can give their reader the impression he or she knows the Word of God when they really have only made contact with their own fantasies, confusions, and compulsions.  

We Pagans can be as mistaken as anyone when interpreting our encounters with the sacred, but whether we get it right or not, we usually do not demand others fall in line with quite the same assurance.  Partly that is because we emphasize practice and ritual over dogma, but partly it’s also because of the way texts are.  We know our experiences are beyond our power to do justice in words, but sacred texts, read superficially, are words claiming to have done the subject justice.  

There is something about texts that leads us away from the humility we need to even begin to understand the sacred.  Often I read something with only my ‘rational’ mind, even though experience of the sacred always extends beyond what we can describe in words. Everything seems to be there in black and white.  It’s meaning can seem ‘obvious,’ even though others reading the same passages will find alternative interpretations equally ‘obvious.’  And so the over confident reader risks the worst kind of idolatry, to mistake his or her understanding with the wisdom of Sacred.

Perhaps that is why Fundamentalist approaches so often focus on what they take to be divine commands.  Commands are reasonably obvious.  But as I think I demonstrated with my Bible and Abortion quote, even commands are not really so obvious once we try and apply them outside the confines of where and when they were made.

Giving us cautions about texts and greater confidence in our own experience are two of the gifts a Pagan approach to spirituality can give modern Americans.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus