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Archive for April, 2009

I have been giving some thought to theology as of late. I know I think about and talk about religion all the time; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is giving thought to my own theology in a constructive way. Something more than “ZOMG I just don’t know what I believe.” The thing is, I am starting to actually figure out what I do believe, and I am starting to think about how to put all of the pieces together. So here goes:

My philosophical foundation is essentially Advaita Vedanta. I have read the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads and I am blown away by them. When I read from those texts, I feel like I am hearing the voice of God–not “god’ as in a divine being, but GOD, the entire universe, the ultimate divine reality that is all things and is beyond all things. I believe that everything is a part of this ultimate reality, but that in total it is something entirely beyond out conception. Nothing is like God, and so no analogy or metaphor could possibly do God justice. The differences we perceive, the identities we imagine ourselves as having, are all ultimately illusions. The world of sense objects and empirical data is basically an illusion, called maya. On one level, the creation of the universe as we know it was the creation of this illusion of separateness. Maya is practically necessary for us to function, but it is nevertheless illusory, and it can mislead us powerfully.

In the deepest parts of our own consciousness, we are one with everything, even the gods. But we spend most of our time identifying ourselves as the tips of the fingers, as entirely bound in the world of the five senses. When we dream we withdraw into our own consciousness, which is further back but still a world of deceptive distinction. In dreamless sleep we come closer to our essential oneness, which the Hindus call Atman, the Self that is all-self, the ultimate divine reality of Brahman.

From a practical standpoint, however, this knowledge or philosophy doesn’t do much. Maya is powerful, and it is difficult to even be sure of the Atman, much less to be able to fully identify with it. Because we are out on the branches, functioning in the practical maya-divided world of sense and identity, we need to be able to thing in those terms, even when we think about divinity. The Hindu Vedanta thinkers do this, but their gods are culturally alien to me. Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, and Shiva are extremely interesting, sure, but they are not compelling to me the same way that Zeus, Aphrodite, and Odin are. And furthermore, the gods I have had personal contact with are decidedly Western.

So instead of thinking about divinity in terms of Indian myth, I choose to think about it in terms of the mythology that is compelling and accessible to me, and as an American of Western European descent, that basically points the way to three clusters of myth-tradition: the Celtic/Arthurian, the Norse/Germanic, and the Greek/Classical. The former two are the mythologies of my genealogical ancestors, and the latter is the mythology of my cultural ancestors. These three mythologies are extremely powerful to me. Their gods have spoken to me. I believe that their stories point to the ultimate divine truth that unifies and unites all of reality and that fundamentally explains and gives meaning to my existence.

In these mythologies, I find inspiration, wisdom, a guide to behavior, and a tangible connection to divinity. These are the gods that speak to me, and so when I try to connect to the Ultimate, these gods are my mediators. Why do I need mythology and mediator gods? I guess I could theoretically do without them, but practically, that’s not what my brain is hard-wired to do. And I need something practical that can serve as a kind of stepping stone towards the ultimate.

Even so, belief in these mythologies doesn’t fully carve out a path of action, at least spiritually speaking. I need a set of spiritual practices to serve as a vehicle to take me through the triple-lens of these mythologies and ultimately back to the Divine Self that lies behind everything. For that, I think I have chosen Revival Druidry. Revival Druidry is flexible enough to accommodate the theology I have constructed, and it gives me practices that take me places spiritually that I want to go. I intend to start with the AODA’s first-year curriculum, which includes meditation, regular celebration of the seasons and the position of the sun, and care for the environment leading to an increased awareness of my place in the natural world. In addition, I will probably do some extensive work on poetry.

Vedanta is the philosophy, my three chosen mythologies are together the conceptual lens that I use to construct meaning, and Revival Druidry is the way I will put it all into action. At least… that’s the idea.

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It should be clear by now that I passionately believe that real spiritual/mystical experiences happen. People experience the presence of divinity. I don’t know for sure whether they are merely experiencing a neurological or psychological phenomenon, or whether they are actually contacting a real deity, or whether the distinction is meaningful. What I am sure of is that mystics throughout history have reported eerily similar phenomena and labeled them as divine contact.

Mormonism has taught since the days of Joseph Smith that such mystical experiences–jargonically termed “personal revelation”–are available to Mormons, basically on demand. Modern-day Mormon prophets have consistently promised that every earnest seeker who asks God for a personal confirmation of the truth of Mormonism and/or its components will receive it. The problem with these promises is that inasmuch as mystical experiences exist, that’s just not the way it works. No matter what your theology promises, God is not on tap. God is not predictable, as much as we would like it to be.

To reconcile the irreconcilable–theological promises about the availability of mystical experience and the unpredictable reality of mystical experience–Mormonism has lowered the bar on personal revelation. Mormons believe a priori that mystical experience is there for the asking, so when experience prove otherwise, experience must be wrong. Mormons tell each other things like “I think you have had personal revelation; you just don’t recognize it,” and they tell themselves stories about how subtle the Holy Ghost’s influence is.

But they’re wrong. They’re ridiculous, even. The real experience of the presence of God is not subtle. It is not difficult to discern. It is like a hurricane: massive, beyond control. Like a roller coaster, but you can’t really be certain that it is going to stay on the tracks. Real contact with God is total loss of sense of self, a total absorbtion into something so huge and so other that it can’t be described.

But like I said, that kind of thing is rare and unpredictable, and so it doesn’t really do a good job of fulfilling Mormonism’s promises about the availability of personal revelation. So, to make up for God’s failure to deliver on Mormonism’s promises (which can’t possibly be true because then Mormonism would be false, and Mormons assume that cannot be the case), Mormons recast completely mundane experiences as “personal revelation,” and thus save themselves from having to face the unfortunate disconnect between Mormon theology and the real experience of God.

What follows is a list of things that do not count as spiritual or mystical experiences, but that are often characterized as such in Mormon testimonies. They are in no particular order.

1. Negative Confirmations: These happen when I either want to do something or thought I should do something, and so I prayed for guidance, and God did not definitely tell me “no,” and afterward I felt an increased desire and/or obligation (as the case may be) to do the thing. But that’s not personal revelation; it’s what I wanted to do anyway. Silence from God can’t possibly be evidence of God’s influence in my life. The increased motivation post-prayer is just excitement or resignation in the absence of a contrary instruction from God, along the lines of “God didn’t say ‘no,’ so it is definitely the right thing to do, and it’s coincidentally what I wanted to do anyway! Hooray!

2. A Burning In The Bosom: Mormon scriptures describe prayers being answered by personal revelation in the form of a “burning in the bosom”: a warm sensation in the chest. This happens to Mormons, and it shouldn’t be a surprise at all, because it is basic Classical Conditioning at work. Let’s say that for my whole life I am told that I will feel a warm sensation when certain triggers happen (when I pray, when I read the scriptures, when I go to church, when I am with my family, whatever) and that this warm feeling is the Holy Ghost. When this warm feeling inevitably results, it is not the Holy Ghost at all. I have conditioned myself. I have spent my life looking for a particular sensation whenever the appropriate trigger is present, and eventually my body obliges my mind by producing said sensation. This makes me happy because it confirms my religion to me, and it is the thing I have been wanting to happen. Thus, my body learns that producing a warm feeling in response to certain triggers makes me happy. This is not called God. This is called Pavlov’s dog.

3. Intense Emotional Responses: When I watch a Church movie, I may indeed get choked up and emotional when something poignant and magical happens. But this isn’t personal revelation of the gospel truth being presented in the movie; this is my emotions being manipulated. TV shows and movies do this all the time. Filmmakers, directors, artists, composers, musicians, and writers can and do purposely arrange this stuff to tug at your heartstrings and make you feel certain emotions. And it happens in other situations, too (the kinds of legitimately emotional situations that these filmmakers are trying to artificially provoke): when I bear my testimony I might cry because I am sharing something deeply personal and emotional, so I have emotions when I talk about it. But that’s not the presence of God; that’s just having feelings.

4. Contentment And Happiness: Feeling generally happy and content about the spiritual tradition and related community that I have been brought up in is just normal. It’s a classic case of the grass looking greener on this side of the fence, and it results from a basic human complacency with the status quo. People are comfortable with what they know, and being comfortable feels pleasant. On the other side of the coin, converts to Mormonism may feel happy and content with their adopted faith tradition, but again, this comes from natural and expected feelings of gratitude and newfound belonging. Belonging feels good, whether it’s a church or a street gang. Being happy with your religion is a perfectly good reason to stick with your religion. But is isn’t a mystical message from God that your religion is the one true path, because pretty much everyone feels that way about their own religion.

5. “Impressions”: When I suddenly feel impressed to knock on a door, to approach someone on the street or a train, or to get up and bear my testimony, I may think something along the lines of the following: “hey, I just had a thought about doing that–I wonder if it was God telling me to do it. No, it was just a thought. Bt wait, what if I am talking myself into ignoring the Spirit? Is the Holy Ghost telling me to do this and I am just brushing it off? Why would I do that? Of course this was an impression; of course this was the Holy Ghost!” That is not personal revelation from God; that is a hilarious mind game you are playing with yourself.

6. Good Ideas: Sometimes, I suddenly have a great idea, out of nowhere. I might therefore want to attribute it to God, especially if it is related to church, religion, or my calling. But here’s the thing: people just have good ideas all the time.

All of these things are normal, basic humanity stuff. They happen to everyone. So the only way they come from God is if everything comes from God, and then we have to invent a new word for the mystical peak experiences that seem to be something wholly other, and from which these normal human life experiences are qualitatively distinct. And even then, if I have to concede that these things do come from God, they definitely don’t come from God in a “personal revelation that proves that the Church is true,” because they happen to everybody.

Even if I take Mormonism at its word and accept that feeling the presence of the Holy Ghost (i.e. the presence of God) is conclusive and unimpeachable proof that all of the Church’s truth claims are true–which I most certainly do not–these six types of experiences just don’t count.

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I want to start doing instead of just thinking about. I blame the internet and my weak will. But mostly I blame the internet.

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I have noticed that the use of special or religious names is pretty common among Neopagans. I am honestly curious as to why someone needs to call themself “Moonferret Starshine” or something Welsh or whatever instead of just using their real name. I’m not talking about internet handles or nicknames–those are a part of a pretty well-established internet tradition of anonymity. I’m talking about new religious or spiritual names that people use in real life in spiritual contexts.

I realize that Neopagans aren’t the only ones to do this: converts to Islam often take an Arabic name, and I think Hare Krishnas take new names, too. I believe Zen priests have a special Zen name, and I know for a fact that Mormons get a secret new name in the temple endowment ceremony that seems to serve no understandable function outside of the endowment ceremony itself. I have also known converts to Christianity from Islam who took a Western “Christian” name.

So maybe I am being unfair to Neopagans, since they’re just doing what everyone else does. But sometimes it just seems silly. Like LARPing. But I am willing to extend the question to other religious traditions who do this, as well. Why new names? What’s wrong with the old one?

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It occurred to me a few moments ago that I am getting very near to (or already at!) the threshold between thinking about paganism and actually practicing paganism.

In some ways that’s not really true: I’ve been pouring out regular libations, saying simple prayers, and making little sacrifices to the gods regularly for several months. But it has been in a very tentative way, sort of still uncommitted in the back of my mind. I want more, and I want to involve my family in it. I want a little more periodic ritual, a little more family celebration to intertwine with my private devotions (which could stand to be improved a bit, too).

I need to be careful about diving in over my head, as I have a tendency to go overboard and then turn myself off as soon as I turned myself on. But I do feel like I am someplace, I don’t know, liminal right now, as I hover between different spiritual states.

May Day is coming up soon. Unfortunately it falls in the middle of my exam period, but I am thinking about using it as a kickoff point for studying AODA Druidry in earnest, and for committing to the more large-scale expressions of faith in my life at the same time. I am working on collecting information about the Eightfold Year/Wheel of the Year, and thinking about foods, traditions, ways to celebrate, ways to decorate. I’m not talking about specific ceremony and ritual (although I also intend to come up with some of that before too long, because I don’t know how enthusiastic I am about the ritual laid out in Greer’s Druidry Handbook), but the folk and family customs, the things that make a holiday feel like aholiday instead of just another day.

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In short, the problem with eclecticism is that it seems just too dang unprincipled to be viable.

I have written before about how I get to feel claustrophobic with boxed religion.  Although I was specifically talking about religions that present the whole package–theology, practice, etcetera–in one neatly-defined package with firm orthodoxy-borders all the way around it so that everything in the box is prescribed and everything outside the box is proscribed, I feel similarly about conceptual boxes on a smaller scale.  This is part of why I can’t go with a reconstructionist religion like Hellenismos or Asátrú.  Even having experienced intense mystical contact with gods from Greek mythology, a single flavor of paganism is just not sufficiently spiritually fulfilling.

The thing is, although I see the value in picking one direction and sticking with it, I genuinely feel spiritually moved by the Celtic and the Norse as well as the Greco-Roman.  Maybe it’s a heritage thing; my ancestors were Celts, Teutons, and Vikings, and my cultural ancestors are the Greeks and Romans.  I am a fusion of multiple strands of paganism, so it is only natural that I should feel some attachment to each of them.  And again, while I can see that there could be personal benefit in picking just one, I don’t think I am capable of doing that.  My connection to these three (at least) mythical-cultural traditions is not one that allows for picking and choosing.  It is sufficiently strong so that I would feel that I was denying a part of myself if I left one of them behind.

(Interesting: three traditions.  Possible Druidic significance?)

In short, while I acknowledge the probable spiritual benefits gained by embracing one tradition exclusively, it is vastly outweighed by the sense of deep personal spiritual connection that I feel to each of these three: they touch my heart, mind, and soul in a deep and primal way.  It’s basic economics of the soul, really: what I stand to gain by specializing  is worth less to me than what I stand to lose by specializing, so I choose not to specialize.

On the other hand, I look down on eclecticism.  I think of it as unprincipled, ridiculous.  If you can have three different mythic traditions, why not four?  Why not ten?  Why not all?  Why not just take whatever you want from whatever tradition you want?

The questions actually aren’t completely rhetorical.  I think it’s worth asking whether picking and choosing is a big deal, especially given that we’re going to pick and choose to a certain extent no matter what.  In the end, though their reasons may be subtle and complicated, everyone is going to choose the religious expression that most suits them.  I’m not Muslim after all, because on some level and for whatever reason, Islam does not suit me.  If not for some permutation of personal preference then we would have a much harder time picking a religion.  What metric would we use to decide what we believe, even if we stayed in the religious tradition we were born into?

But at the same time, I think that the idea of submission is incredibly important to religion.  One of the most religious utterances ever made is “not my will but thine be done.”  The ultimate spiritual experience is mystical union with the divine, where the self is swallowed up into somehting greater.  Self-denial, putting aside your own special narcisissm in favor of something greater and higher, is at the heart of religion and real spirituality.

If you’re just ordering whatever you want from the menu and cobbling together a religious gumbo from whatever concepts, practices, and gods suit your fancy, then you are really not worshipping a Deity at all, but in a twisted way you are actually worshipping yourself.  Real gods demand that we grow and change in order to worship and experience them.  Real religion has to be fundamentally transformative; otherwise it’s just a sociocultural phenomenon that serves no individual spiritual purpose.  And in order to be transformative, religion has to be demanding.  On a certain level, God is undamentally alien to humans, and in order to experience God, humans have to be willing to bend and be shaped to be able to meet God partway.  If you’re assembling some kind of a FrankenGod from a pile of divine characteristics, then all you have is an imaginary god born of individual fancy.  Your own fancy.  That’s what you are worshipping.

So how to reconcile this with the undeniable fact that people pick and choose when it comes to religion, and with my personal spiritual connection to multiple strands of paganism?  I don’t really know, but I feel like there’s a line between the extremes that can be walked.  If we recognize and embrace the tension between these competing religious metavalues or realities or whatever, then maybe there’s a way to navigate them and even benefit from them without being torn apart or thrown one way or the other.

Incidentally, Tony Lamb has a good post on the topic at the Association of Polytheist Traditions.

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Once again this year I am baffled by how big of a deal Mormons do not make out of Easter. It’s a total non-holiday, while by contrast in most of the rest of the Christian world it is the high point in the liturgical (or even semi-liturgical or not liturgical at all!) year. It is the culmination of at least forty days of preparation, prayer and fasting, and it is the most important holiday in the religion.

By contrast, in most Mormon wards you’ll get some resurrection-themed hymns and probably a talk or two about the Atonement, maybe, or about Jesus generally. And if you confront Mormons about this they’ll say they focus on the Atonement all year long, so they don’t need to go out of their way to make an even bigger deal about it just once a year. Which of course implies that the rest of Christianity is ignoring Jesus all year long except for one big day in the spring. And that is complete poppycock. What Mormons do not understand about Christianity is that there is a cycle, a rhythm to the year of worship, and the climax of all of it is Easter. It’s like the liturgical year is a song about Jesus, but Holy week is the Crescendo, the apex, the high point, the really cool part of the song where the horns come in and it blows you completely away!

What Mormons also don’t understand is that their caricature-ideas about mainstream Christianity is either completely inaccurate or nearly 200 years out of date.

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Good morning Weathercock: How did you fare last night?
Did the cold wind bite you, did you face up to the fright
When the leaves spin from October
and whip around your tail?
Did you shake from the blast, did you shiver through the gale?

Give us direction; the best of goodwill;
Put us in touch with fair winds.
Sing to us softly, hum evening’s song;
Tell us what the blacksmith has done for you.

Do you simply reflect changes in the patterns of the sky,
Or is it true to say the weather heeds the twinkle in your eye?
Do you fight the rush of winter; do you hold snowflakes at bay?
Do you lift the dawn sun from the fields and help him on his way?

Good morning Weathercock: make this day bright.
Put us in touch with your fair winds.
Sing to us softly, hum evening’s song.
Point the way to better days we can share with you.

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My feet relentlessly attack the pavement
And my aching knees stab in savage dissent.
The cerulean sky is languid, indulgent,
And the early spring air is soft and cool–
Much easier to breathe than the thin, winter cold.
A drum beat–a metronome–pours into my ears.

I struggle to keep up.

Suddenly, the acrid fanfare of the guitar cries
Like the peal of a naked, horny church bell,
And Jim Morrison’s passionate but unintelligible baritone
First barks and then slithers like a black snake
Insidiously into the spinning gears of the polyphonic clockwork.
The delicious, Dionysian danger of the music and the
Perfect pain of running are wrapped up
Into one overwhelming singularity:
It is the universe’s gift to me, and I throw myself into it.

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Our large apartment complex provides a limited number of garden plots during the summer to residents. We reserved one two summers ago, and the results were kind of sad. Most of our vegetables got pilfered–someone actually uprooted all of our broccoli–and a slug got to our radishes and ate them from the inside. Generally, we failed to maintain it enough, so it always had mad weeds.

Our total harvest when all was said and done was two inedibly hot radishes that survived the slug assault, and one nice red-yellow tomato that my one-year-old son threw on the concrete and smashed. I picked it up and ate it anyways, because I wasn’t going to have my whole harvest wasted. It was delicious. But it was also really sad.

Last summer we lived in New York City while I did an internship at a law firm, but this summer we will be staying in Maryland while I study for and take the bar exam. We won’t be moving to Chicago (where I have been hired by a law firm) until December–the bad economy is forcing a lot of law firms to defer start dates for first year associates–so we’ll be around. And I am thinking about gardening again.

As great as it would be to grow some vegetables and give it another try, I think that won’t really be prudent. I have no desire to work even harder only to have my harvest stolen. I have given some thoughts to growing an herb garden, though. I really like cooking with fresh herbs (it doesn’t help that all of ours are a bajillion years old and probably have long lost all of their savor), but buying fresh herbs is expensive, wasteful, and a pain in the ass. So a kitchen garden has a lot of appeal. Maybe since my bar class is in the afternoon, we can make a morning routine of taking the kids out to tend the patch.

There’s no real reason we couldn’t grow herbs inside. We get plenty of sun through our window. But historically that has not turned out really well. We forget to water them, and they die. and they come with aphids and stuff, and look all icky, and they are no fun to use.

I realize that my dream of being a farmer is probably a long way off if I can’t manage to keep herbs alive in my living room. Small steps for Kullervo.

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