For those of you who don’t know; June has been deemed International Pagan Values Blogging Month. I’ve been planning a bunch of posts, but June has been pretty busy between military stuff and studying for the bar, so I’m only just now getting around to writing some of them. This is really my foundation post, though: the point is to set up a framework I can use to talk in more detail later about what is and is not a pagan value.
For Christmas last year my beautiful and sexy wife gave me a copy of Brendan Myers’s The Other Side Of Virtue. I was excited: the book had been at the top of my wish list, and I was eager to read it as soon as possible. I was beginning to seriously think of myself as a pagan without reservation, and I had been grappling with issues of morality and ethics fairly intensely for the previous half-year, both academically (I took a class on the philosophy of law), and on my own time (I read a ton of C. S. Lewis, in particular The Abolition Of Man, which I heartily recommend. In any case, I had questions of morality on my brain, and what looked to be a well-thought out, serious treatment of morality and ethics from a pagan point of view promised to be right up my alley.
I was seriously disappointed. I won’t go through a blow-by-blow of my problems with the book, because the big picture suffices: in The Other Side Of Virtue essentially starts with modern western liberal values and he attempts to retroactively justify them using pagan myth and tradition. While I applaud the general idea of asking some of the hard questions in a pagan context and adding pagan voices to the big debates out there, I think that Myers went about the whole thing the exact wrong way. He started with an a priori acceptance of modern liberal values and he constructed an argument for them in pagan terms, instead of starting with the mythology and philosophy of paganism and deriving values from those sources. What Myers writes is neither challenging nor transformative but merely philosophically sycophantic.
If pagan ethics are identical to mainstream liberal ethics, then morally speaking, paganism has nothing to offer us but a justification for what we wanted to do anyway. If having a religion looks exactly the same as not having a religion (thanks, Jack), then in a diverse and pluralist society where—like it or not—there is a religious marketplace, that religion will die because it ceases to serve a meaningful purpose. Certainly it will not be vital.
This problem is not somehow unique to paganism: in my experience it is a major problem in Christianity, too. One of the biggest problems I had with some of the Episcopal parishes we visited when I was looking for a Christian church home was that it seemed to me that far too many of them preached an unchallenging gospel that was in practice little more than a hearty stamp of approval of the values and behaviors already practiced by the congregants.
I am not trying to say that personal preferences and socially derived values should play no role in a person’s spiritual path. That would just be ludicrous; there needs to be a certain degree of interplay as your religion influences you even as it is influenced by you. But if we are just looking for a spiritual veneer to install over what we already believed anyway, then we are wasting our time.
Values have to come from somewhere—they have to have a source and a derivation. If we are doing what Myers models in The Other Side of Virtue, i.e. trying to fashion an essentially fictional religious/spiritual justification for our already-held values, then we are fooling ourselves into thinking our values are based on something other than what they are really based on. We misunderstand our spiritual tradition, our values, our religion, and ultimately ourselves.
The alternative then is to figure out what the source for our spiritual and religious values is, or should be, and try to work forward from there, without a preconceived notion of what the answers need to be when we’re finished (our own biases will inevitably creep in, which is a compelling argument for having this process go forward in community where we can check each other, criticize each other, inspire each other, and learn from each other—hopefully ultimately winnowing out the worst of our biases). As pagans, we do not have one single authoritative source. We look instead to mythology, the beliefs of our pagan ancestors, and to nature herself as the basis for our morals and values. At this point I do not necessarily want to suggest what those derived values are, but merely to suggest the framework we use to answer the question.
A prime example of this value-derivation in pagan community is the Nine Noble Virtues followed by some Germanic Reconstructionists. Although these nine virtues are not exlicitly spelled out anywhere in the Lore, modern Germanic pagans have gone back ot the sagas and eddas and found the application of a fairly consistent set of moral rinciples, and from that they have constructed the list of Nine. This is the kind of thing all pagans should be doing! We should be going back to our sources, seeing the values that are embodies in them or expressed by them, checking them against each other, and in the end identifying those values that are truly pagan values.
As we do this, we need to realize that it is entirely possible that we will derive spiritual and religious values that conflict with our other social, cultural, political, and civic values. This is bound to happen because these values are derived from different sources. It’s not a bad thing. It means we have to grapple with the inconsistency, and deal with the reality of being forced to weigh conflicting values against each other. We will find ourselves engaging in a mature, ongoing fluid process of moral reasoning. Sometimes there won’t be a conflict at all, and sometimes different sources can fill in the gaps left by their counterparts.
This process may also involve some rude awakenings as we begin to discover that some of our very favorite values are not really pagan values! That is not to say that they are not valuable, or that we should not hold them as guiding principles in our lives, but we may need to recognize that there are many valued that are held by pagans without themselves being pagan values, and that those values may actually conflict with their truly pagan counterparts. As I said, this may create some tension as we try to work out or simply live with the inconsistency, but if we actively engage in the process the result is an endgame of unmatched moral maturity.
Important addendum: Values From The Age Of Aquarius.