08 April 2009

Crude Superstition

Previously, when talking about associations I mentioned a quote by Dion Fortune, where she says that "It is this lack of training which makes popular occultism so very apt to degenerate into the crudest superstition." Unfortunately, for many modern Neopagans and Mesopagans, this seems to encompass their entire approach to spirituality.

Deities are treated as mere abstractions or bowdlerized and simplified to the point of meaninglessness even--or perhaps especially--by those who claim to follow that path.

Spirituality is far more than standing around in a circle and chanting bad poetry together. Spirituality is more than something you do on the weekends with a couple of friends, or on Sundays in a Church. It is more than trying to cast spells or dance to raise power.

Spirituality is, in essence, an attempt to touch Mystery. To get in touch with the Divine presence. The word "Spirituality" comes from the word "Spirit," which derives from the latin spiritus -- "breath, spirit" -- which came from the word spirare -- "to breathe." In the Torah/Pentateuch YHVH Elohim "formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." (Genesis 2:7; see the parallel that, in the Northern Tradition, Odin gives man Önd, or "breath.")

So we see in spirituality--no matter what our culture--something vital, something that connects us with the very essence of being, the breath of life. It is something intrinsic to our being.

Similarly, theology--when properly done--is more than the literal interpretation of source texts, and more than the rote recital of pithy aphorisms without understanding or context. It is more than citing The Lore™ or any historical document and saying they believed it then, we should believe it now.

Theology is the philosophical side of what we do, it is the philosophical study of the nature of the Divine and of Religion. It comes from the Greek word theologos (one discoursing on the gods). It encompasses the discussion of ethics, the nature of the divine, and the nature of being.

Years ago I attended a seminar by some monks from the Society of St. John the Evangelist (wiki). In the course of this seminar, they asked us to consider "What is Baptism." One of the answers that we discussed is that "it is an attempt to connect with a Mystery." One of many in Christianity, actually, but one of the most significant sacraments. Like the symbolism of washing away impurities from one's hands before entering a Shinto shrine, the water symbolically washes away the individual's sin and welcomes them to the Church. It is a fundamental rite of initiation, whereby the individual leaves a Christian.

Yet many modern Neopagans and Mesopagans want their religion to be a weekend culture, not a spirituality. They want what spirituality they do find to be tame, predictable, or easily controlled with the right color of candle. They want their theology to be either as rigid and fundamentalist as protestantism, or so loose as to make statements like the Chaos Magician's "nothing is true, everything is permitted" almost look restrictive and resent any discussion of ethics or boundaries in a religious context...

Some resent authority and experience in any form, others will follow anyone who claims to be an authority, and we see an increase in people who believe the solution to all the world's problems comes from burning little slips of paper. To quote Zak Kramer in his essay on the Adolescence of the Pagan Community:

[T]he various Pagan communities are going through an ugly adolescence, and the decisions that current Pagans make about what our religion means to us, how it relates to the rest of the (non-Pagan) world, and how we transmit those convictions to neophytes will have a profound effect on Pagan religions in the future. I think it is a foregone conclusion that most won't survive in their present forms; the question is, what forms do we want them to take?

We see people declaring themselves to be a Goði or Gyðja, when as Svartesol puts it, they have not earned it. We see some Wiccan groups handing out 3rd degree initiations to people after 6 months if they can pay enough, and others who believe a handful of online-only classes with no supplementary reading and multiple-choice tests are sufficient for an initiation. We see people treating everything under the sun as real, no matter how much foolishness is involved, or worse, as real but toothless (it isn't really a chitinous vampiric insect, it's a fairy that is just misunderstood!)

We see the gods become nothing more than a table of abstract associations and a means to an end that works strictly in our service.

At the core of many Pagan religions is a rich, deep theology and an amazingly potent spiritual system. In stories of gods, giants, and demons we see a ancient people's attempts at defining--as put by H. R. Ellis-Davidson--the mysteries of inner reality. In the story of Coyote stealing the Water Monster's children we see an amazing story on ethics, conservation, teamwork, and an explanation on why we must die.

In stories of turning to stone we get lessons about navigation and about not staying up too late.

In the story of Óðinn sacrificing his eye, we see a story of sacrifice, the importance of wisdom and knowledge, and the cost of magic. We get an idea of the character of the god, and we see in him someone who will pay almost any price--and suffer any trial--in exchange for knowledge.

In late-period pieces that put Þórr in a dress, we see the importance of swallowing one's pride and of using the mind to overcome hurdles, as opposed to merely using brute force.

This is the most superficial analysis of these stories--they are all much deeper in nature--and we see a rich, deep symbolic and poetic language being used to relay these allegories. We have a true and rich mythology, and yet many people treat those myths as nothing more than shallow reflections, making one of two opposite errors: Either treating them as literal, or treating them as purely figurative.

Either way is bad theology.

We should be questioning, examining, and reflecting on them and seeing how what they say applies--and doesn't apply--to a modern world. Whether the god Þórr ever actually got into a dress and some spirit worker is relaying the actual story from what they saw, or if it is relayed by a god at some later date, or if it was made up by humans for entertainment and teaching purposes is irrelevant. Our stories are filled with potential and reflections on human existence, and we should be willing to threat them as philosophy and understand them both in the context of our own experiences and the context of human existence.

We can discuss these things, and we are starting to do so (see the Further Reading section at the end for some examples), but the adolescence of the Pagan communities is far far from over.

To end with a quote from Zak Kramer:

Will Pagans continue to primarily focus on superstition, seeking to impose their wills on the universe for their own, often self-gratifying, ends? Or, will we seek to be part of, and act with, the unfolding, evolving Cosmos, which is the manifestion of the Divine? Do the Gods serve us, or do we serve the Gods?

Further Reading

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post... you hit a lot of important issues on the head.

    I think theology gets dismissed by a lot of Pagans as being "too much work", even by Heathens who know we have "the religion with homework". Even as I've reached a period of clarity and increasing satisfaction, there is that small amount of discomfort as I shed old assumptions, even ones commonly assumed to be "correct" by different groups. There needs to be a balance between "I did this because it says so in The Lore (TM)" while heads are blank and hearts are empty, and "I do this because it feels right" without having reality checks in place.

    Sometimes my brain ties itself into pretzels ^^ I don't know everything, but I think things. I think about a lot of stuff.

    Not everyone is going to be the Pagan equivalent of a rabbi (although in my current training curriculum I hope to get there). But, understanding the whats, hows, and whys of things is important whether one is clergy or a layperson, and I would say *especially* if someone is clergy or claiming to be clergy there is an onus of responsibility to figure things out. And even then, we won't ever fully understand the Mystery. But we do need to understand more than getting together to chant bad poetry (ftw) or, in the case of my own religion, drink and party. It needs to be much more than a weekend culture. The Gods deserve better, and so do we.

    Anyway, thank you for your intelligent thoughts on this subject.