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Archive for December, 2010

(from a recent post I put up at Burning at the Stake)

I’m definitely an unabashed tarot enthusiast, although I am not necessarily that experienced or that knowledgeable. My understanding of the nature of the tarot is that there’s nothing magic about it–the cards only have significance we give them. Their usefulness and power lies in their powerful symbolism and the resulting ability to cause us to think about things in new ways, to see new relationships between ideas and currents in our life, and and thus make connections that we might not have been able to make without them.

I think the symbolism of the tarot is, if not universal, at least close to universal, at least for people coming out of a western-civilization cultural context. The images in the Rifder-Waite deck are simple and poignant, and deal with archetypes, emotions, and values that embedded in our psyche.

Tarot cards are not primarily used to tell the future, but to evaluate the present (and by understanding the rpesent, to see where all of this is coming from and where it is probably going). When I do a tarot reading, the relationships between the cards in their various positions suggest relationships between ideas or experiences in the subject’s life. The connections themselves are as archetypical as the images on the cards, and as such they are universal enough to have some likelihood of sparking some sort of recognition of “aha” moment. In other words, by reading the cards and attaching their symbolic meanings to specific experiences, people, or ideas in your life, the relationships suggested by the position of the cards suggests relationships between those concrete experiential phenomena that you simply may not have considerd before. As such, there is a good possibility that seeing the “pieces” of your life arranged in a new way will give you insight into what is really going on in your life and in your mind.

Nothing magical or supernatural about it: nothing but psychology at work.

On the other hand, I do not necessarily discount the possibility that there may in fact be more involved than that. If I believe in a god or gods or some kind of cosmic unity, even a basic fundamental connectedness, then there is no reason why the will of God or the connections in the fundamentally connected universe couldn’t play out in what cards you draw and where you place them. Or in the conclusions and interpretations you give them.

I’ve done enough readings that were disturbingly spot-on that I think there is definitely something of value to the tarot. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of readings that just didn’t “click.” Probably more of the latter than the former. And if/when the tarot is emrely serving as an analytical lens, it stands to reason that there wil be at least as many “misses” as “hits.” But even the misses have value: by considering these symbols and relationships and concluding that what I am seeing in the cards at the moment is not relevant or instructive or providing me with insight, I still reap the benefits of having considered new possibilities. The fact that I ultimately chose to discount the possibility considered does not undermine the value of considering the possibility in the first place.

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There’s an excellent opinion piece at the New York Times by Sean Kelly on polytheism’s place in walking the road between Fanaticism and Nihilism.

Drawing heavily on Nietzche, Kelly discusses the waning role of objective, monotheist religious consensus in defining our social norms. We are quickly reaching the point where it is difficult for a rational, educated critically-thinking person to believe that a single, objectively knowable, unified supernatural moral order emanating from a single, all-powerful sovereign creator god is an unquestionably correct foundation to build society and give human existence meaning. Certainly we are past the point where a majority of people in our society can confidently claim that. On the most basic level, we are simply confronted too often with the reality of good people who believe different things to maintain the fantasy that there is only one true way to be good and right.

We are often cautioned by the religious that the alternative to monomorality is nihilism: if there is no sovereign god to set the rules, define meanings, reward the good and punish the evil, then there are no rules and there is no morality and we will have no choice but to descend into chaos and madness and a violent maelstrom of murder, cannibalism, rape and suicide until we are utterly annihilated.

And while the extremes of that scenario are unreasonably alarmist, I think the concern that nihilism is the alternative to monotheism is a legigimate concern. Particularly for a society that has held onto a dichotomy-worldview for centuries. When you have grown up believeing that the only alternative to the God of Israel os meaninglessness and despair, it is easy to slip into meaningless and despair when you lose the God of Israel. While this does not necessarily mean an orgy of destruction, it may mean depression and moral loss. While believeing in nothing may not mean you go on a killing spree, it is sort of easy to start justifying lesser immoral and even evil self-serving deeds.

So what’s the alternative?

Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

Kelly goes on to describe this way of life that finds meaning and fulfillment in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” polytheism, and I think he is not wrong. Melville may not have been describing the Olympians, but I think he was only a stone’s throw from them. When we sacralize the fundamental mysteries and values of human experience–which is what Melville was talking about and what I understand to be the essence of real paganism–it honestly does not matter if we name them or not.

I believe that the gods are real personalities that have some kind of existence of their own. But I think that reality is not actually very far removed from the pieces of human existence that those gods are related to. In other words, while I do not believe that Aphrodite is merely a metaphorical anthromorphization of human love, I do think there is a fundamental closeness and a fundamental union between Aphrodite the goddess and the emotional experiential phenomenon of love. There’s a blur at the edges where the real gives way to the super-real, and somewhere within those borders we find the gods.

And while I think that a person can find happiness and meaning in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” as things in themselves, I think that the desire to engage with those things in a sacred way, to relate to the things that are most important and give our existence meaning in a way that is transcendant, because those very things by their very natures straddle the line between immanent and transcendant. They seem weightier than other things. Human intuition senses enhanced meaning and wants to make contact with it in some kind of fitting way.

Thus, I believe that Melville’s polytheism is a road that eventually leads to some kind of real polytheism. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the New Age movement. It doesn’t even need to be connected with ancient paganism, although I suspect that at least connecting this new polytheism to the old polytheism, those gods of old that have held such power over our imaginations for so long despite the intellectual monopoly of monotheism, would yield an incredibly rich spiritual harvest, and might be the kind of thing that happens inevitably.

I think that this kind of Melvillian polytheism is probably developing spontaneously anyway. People increasingly identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and I think that identification has nothing to do with belief in a supernatural otherworld that exists in tandem with the physical world and everythign to do with an intuitive recognition that there is profound meaning and spiritual sustenance to be found in the fundamentals of human experience. Whether we worship a pantheon of gods or not, we as human beings experience the transcendent all the time. Life and death are everywhere, and I believe that there is an intuitive need to sacralize it somehow. Believing in the gods, engaging in spiritual practices and theology gives us a way to talk about that and a way to interact with it within a structure, and ultimately to develop a deeper connection to those things we feel that we feel; are important. But even without that structure, the fundamental recognition of meaning and fulfillment in basic human existence is still a thoroughly pagan experience.

As a side-note: Hrafnkell wrote some commentary on Kelly’s piece from a heathen perspective over on A Heathen’s Day. You should check it out.

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I am not a Christian. I don’t believe that I am guilty of sins, or that I need to be saved from hell. I don’t believe that Jesus was the unique incarnation of a monotheist god. And I don’t even necessarily think that Jesus was a great moral philosopher. I utterly reject the notion that Christianity is the One True Religion of the One True God, but I explicitly acknowledge the divinity of Jesus and the truth to be found in Christianity.

In the most basic sense, I have no reason not to acknowledge Jesus’s godhood. I believe in the deification of mortals. I believe Aeschylus, Herakles and Jim Morrison are gods, and there’s certainly not a limited number of spaces at the banquet table of gods that exist. Probably billions of people over a space of two thousand years have fervently believed in the divinity of Jesus. Why should I doubt them? What would motivate me to rule out one deified mortal and not another?

But more than that, I believe there is divine truth to be found specifically in Christianity. No question. And that’s not just me saying “yeah, yeah, there is divine truth everywhere so why not in Christianity too,” I’m saying that I believe that Christianity in particular speaks of the divine in ways that are important, compelling and sublime.

I believe Jesus was born, that Jesus was killed, and that Jesus lives again. The mysteries of Jesus teach us that God is real, that good overcomes evil, that God is always with us, and that death is not the end. We can argue the fundamentals of theology all day long, but those things are truths that are ready to be revealed to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Too many religions and traditions have taught us these exact same things for us not to think there is something to them.

So on the night that his birth is celebrated—and its no accident that it is celebrated not on anything resembling the actual date of his birth, but close to the Winter Solstice, a thin time of the year when darkness gathers and then finally gives way to the light of the sun—I say Hail Lord Jesus! Hail Emmanuel! Hail the Lamb, hail Savior, hail Son of David and Stem of Jesse! Hail the Newborn King! Hail, and Merry Christmas.

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1. Many Mormons decide to stay Mormon even after deciding that the Church is not “true.” Why didn’t you?

When I first started to seriously question the truth of Mormonism, I still believed that Christianity was true–in fact, my growing dissatisfaction with what I perceived as an extremely wide gulf between Mormonism and Biblical Christianity was one of the major factors in causing me to question my belief in and commitment to Mormonism.

I continued at that point to believe that Christianity was true, and so upon deciding (or beginning to decide) that Mormonism was not the true expression of Christianity, I proceeded to look for that instead. Whether that meant finding a different Christian denomination that was “true” or whether that meant simply finding a different Christian denomination where my understanding of Christian truth fit better than in Mormonism. In any case, as a believing Christian who was convinced that Mormonism was incompatible with true Christianity but was struggling to figure out what true Christianity really was, staying Mormon was not a viable option.

2. Then why didn’t you come back to Mormonism once you decided that there wasn’t a one true church or one true faith out there?

Unlike some former and dissenting Mormons who have active presences on the internet, I never felt like Mormonism was at the core of my identity. As a result, I did not necessarily have a total loss of everything when I lost Mormonism. I had the same values and was the same person whether I belonged to the Mormon Church or not, because my identity and values, and even most of my core intuitions about spirituality, were developed independently from Mormonism. I’m not really sure how I turned out that way, because I know it’s not what the Church wants and I know its not what my parents tried to instill. They did their best to try to raise me Mormon to the core, with a thoroughly Mormon sense of self. I don’t really begrudge them that–they were living out their religion the way they believed they should. But it just didn’t take.

Furthermore, Mormonism as a faith was simply never all that compelling to me. Mormon theology and the Mormon concept of God just never resonated with me the way other forms of spirituality did. I guess it’s my native religious language because it’s how I raised, but I never felt like it was my native spiritual language. So when I left Mormonism, I felt spiritually free in an amazing way. Even though I was still frustrated and still trying to figure out what I believed and how to express my spirituality, not having to subordinate my spiritual intuitions to the Church’s doctrines was amazingly liberating.

That’s not to say that being a Mormon had no appeal. I still feel “at home” when I go into a ward building or attend sacrament meeting services with my family. There’s a familiarity and a good feeling there that is comfortable and happy to me. Mormons are good people, and they’ll always be my people. But I have no desire to try to force my spirituality into the Mormon box, at all. And as nice as the social/cultural aspects of Mormonism are, they are more than balanced out by the extreme demands of time and effort that the Church places on its active members. Furthermore, to continue to attend despite not believing and not really participating on a spiritual level would have ramifications. People would know, and they would react. There would be talk. And attendance would be limited to just that–attendance. Fuller participation in Mormonism requires a member to be willing to affirmatively profess certain beliefs that I am not willing to affirmatively profess and live according to certain rules which I am not willing abide. The position of the honest, openly dissenting Mormon is not an easy one, and not one that is particularly appealing. Honestly, it’s better to just go to sacrament meeting when we visit my parents and enjoy myself completely a couple of times a year. Sort of how you might be happy to go back and visit your home town, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to move back.

Since I do not feel like my core identity is Mormon and since I do have affirmative spiritual intuitions and spiritual needs that are not compatible with Mormonism, being a Mormon simply is not something I am interested in. Although I do not believe that there is One True Church, I do have specific personal spiritual beliefs and intuitions that are decidedly un-Mormon. So just because I don’t think there is an objectively right answer when it comes to religion, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think therefore all choices are equally good. There might not be any one objectively, universally right answer, but that doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers, especially when it comes to my personal spiritual life.

For me, there might be more than one right answer, but Mormonism is not one of them.

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Some of my friends and I have started up a group blog called Burning At The Stake. It is intended to be “a place for heretics, dissidents, pagans, and true believers of every stripe to hang together so they don’t hang separately,” in other words, an anarchic commune of a blog with too many rulers and not enough rules where we talk about god and spirituality and anything else that strikes our fancy without taking ourselves too seriously, and without limiting the conversation to any sort of thematic perspective other than whatever we happen to bring to the table at the moment. I’m pretty excited about it, and I hope you will tune in and follow along.

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You may remember my recent post about the possibility of the State of Florida pardoning Jim Morrison for his indecent exposure conviction. Well, Florida officially pardoned Jim Morrison today. This is great news.

Here are Governor Crist’s comments on the topic, courtesy of the New York Times Arts Beat Blog.

Remarks by
GOVERNOR CHARLIE CRIST
to the Florida Board of Executive Clemency
Tallahassee, Florida

December 9, 2010

James Douglas Morrison – we know him as Jim Morrison – appealed the judgment and sentence he received after being convicted 40 years ago of two misdemeanors. However, he died before his appeal could be heard.

Because he us unable to state his case for clemency before this board today, I offer to do so for him.

The charges against Mr. Morrison stemmed from his alleged actions at a now-famous 1969 musical performance by The Doors in Miami. During the trial, the prosecution attempted to prove that Mr. Morrison indecently exposed himself, simulated indecent acts, and uttered profanities.

Mr. Morrison admitted to using some of the alleged profanity; however, he denied the other charges.

During the trial, some witnesses testified they saw the alleged acts for which he was charged; however, many others testified they observed the entire concert and never saw them. In fact, so many witnesses corroborated Mr. Morrison’s testimony that the judge eventually stopped the defense from presenting any more – because their collective testimony became, what is known in legal terms as, “cumulative testimony.”

Nevertheless, a jury convicted Mr. Morrison. The judge then sentenced him to six months of hard labor.

Much controversy surrounds this conviction, and not only because many witnesses testified they did not see Mr. Morrison expose himself.

Controversy also exists because Mr. Morrison was not arrested until four days after the concert. A case was brought against him only after newspaper articles recounted the alleged events at the concert, based on a complaint filed by an employee of the state attorney’s office who attended the concert.

In addition, Mr. Morrison may have been improperly prevented from presenting evidence of “community standards” of other rock performances of the era. Such testimony would have offered cultural context for the allegations against him.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Morrison himself did not exercise his right to remain silent. Instead, he forcefully denied the charge that he exposed himself on stage.

Mr. Morrison appealed his judgment and sentence; however, he died before the appeal was heard. His death prevented him from exercising his right to a direct appeal, a right given to every American by the United States Constitution. If his appeal had been heard, a reviewing court could have resolved the controversies surrounding his conviction.

In addition, at the time of Morrison’s death, a convicted defendant who died before his appeal was heard was entitled to have the conviction dismissed so that he was again presumed innocent. This doctrine, known as “abatement ab initio,” wiped the slate clean – as though the conviction had never taken place. A pardon corrects the fact that Mr. Morrison is now unable to take advantage of the presumption of innocence that is the cornerstone of the American criminal justice system.

The words of an appellate judge, penned a decade before Mr. Morrison’s trial, provide insight into the question before us today: When death prevents the accused from appealing his judgment, the conviction is “a nullity” and “[j]urisdiction to determine the issue of guilt or innocence is now assumed by the ultimate arbiter of human affairs.”

In this case, guilt or innocence is in God’s hands, not ours. That is why I ask my colleagues today to pardon Jim Morrison.

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