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Posts Tagged ‘Genealogy’

Last week I stumbled on a couple of Ask Me Anything threads that Lindsay Hansen Park did on Reddit last year and back in 2015. Lindsay is the executive director of Sunstone, a sometime poster at Feminist Mormon Housewives and the creator of the Year of Polygamy podcast. The AMA threads (here and here, in case you’re curious) were really fascinating. Reading what Lindsay had to say about expanding the definition of what it means to be Mormon and claiming a Mormon identity on her own terms really resonated with me, especially in light of the things I have been thinking and writing about for the past couple of weeks. Really compelling stuff that hit me in an unexpectedly close way.

So I decided to give the Year of Polygamy podcast a try. One of the facets about claiming a Mormon identity for me is taking ownership of all of what Mormonism means, including the ugly, dark and strange parts. For me, Mormonism isn’t just like a club I belonged to that I can walk out of and wash my hands of it. I was born into a Mormon family, was raised in the church, graduated seminary, served a mission, and married in the temple. Mormonism formed me in a deep way that I can’t just minimize or ignore. I decided that meant finding out more about Mormonism’s relationship (past and present) with polygamy.

In an one of the early podcast episodes, Lindsay encourages her (mostly Mormon or Mormon-adjacent) audience to look into their family history and see how much polygamy is there. That sounded interesting to me, so when I got home from work that night, I hopped onto the internet and started poking around on FamilySearch to see what I could find. Turns out it’s not actually that hard to figure out–there’s not a big scarlet P on the polygamists, but if you look for male ancestors in the second half of the 19th century and pay attention to how many marriages they had, the timing of those marriages, and the timing of children from those marriages, you can read the story between the lines. And, as it turns out, HOLY SHIT MY FAMILY TREE TURNS OUT TO BE JUST RIDDLED WITH POLYGAMISTS.

Virtually every ancestor on my maternal grandfather’s line since 1840 has been a polygamist or a descendant of polygamists. That’s crazy.

I mean, this should not have been a revelation for me. I know I have pioneer ancestors, which means I have plenty of ancestors in the right time, place and religion. But it’s not like my family brags about (or even ever talks about) their polygamist history. So for me, growing up, polygamy was a weird, embarrassing thing my church used to do a long time ago but stopped doing a long time ago and it’s tricky because it’s hard to understand why but it’s all sort of abstract and hypothetical or dry and historical.

But nope. It’s not really like that at all, is it? These people were my flesh and blood. Their DNA is swimming in mine. The experiences of these people (men, women, their children) living in and surviving polygamy shaped and formed my family and ultimately shaped and formed me in ways that are not obvious but are nevertheless there.

I’m not 100% sure how to unpack this all, but it just struck a nerve pretty deeply in a really raw, visceral way. Polygamy isn’t just some weird thing that the church I used to go to did back in the 1800’s. Polygamy turns out to be part of who I am–I am the descendant of sister wives and their children. It’s not someone else’s history; it’s mine. It’s pretty heavy.

Also, for the record, the Year of Polygamy podcast is pretty great and you should listen to it, especially if you are Mormon or Mormon-adjacent.

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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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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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As a little kid in elementary school, I was obsessed with Greek mythology.  In high school I branched out into Celtic and Arthurian lore, and then in college I fell in love with Vikings and Norse mythology, but the pattern is fairly consistent: for most of my life, myth and legend have resonated strongly and deeply with me, and I mostly haven’t known what to do about it.  To emphasize, this stuff has hit me deep, much more so than just cool stories.  I felt there was a transcendent truth to mythology–especially the mythology of my genealogical and cultural ancestors.

As a Mormon, the best reconciliation for this was that the world’s mythologies contain truth but in a corrupted form.  All nations in the world can trace their ancestry back to Adam and Eve, in other words to someone who knew the truth of the gospel, and thus their religion and lore contained bits and fragments of Eternal Truth.  This is a decent attempt at reconciliation, but never really flew for me, especially since myth and legend worked its magic on me on a deep, primal level that Mormonism never could reach.

C. S. Lewis attempted a similar reconciliation in Miracles by claiming that these myths, especially inasmuch as they had parallels or thematic similarities to Christianity, were a kind of “good dream,” sent by God as a kind of mental preparation for the message of Jesus Christ.  This makes a lot of sense in the larger context of Lewis’s work, since he gives a lot of credit to the wisdom of our pagan ancestors and feels that it is applicable to Christianity.  More than once he claims that you can’t convert someone from atheism to Christianity, but that you have to learn to be a good pagan before you can learn to be a good Christian.  That works better for me than the Mormon version, but since I still have significant problems with Christianity, the need to reconcile the two sort of fades away over time.

Since leaving Mormonism and trying to figure out what I really do believe, I have gone back and forth because I have to reconcile a lot of different values, interests, and spiritual feelings that are not necessarily tied together in a neat package.  This came to a head last fall when I went to see Amon Amarth and Ensiferum in concert.  At the time I had been mentally committed to Christianity for awhile–I was doing my best to figure out how to proceed as a Christian even though progress was sort of slow and fumbling.  But I went to this overtly pagan heavy metal show, and it reached deep and struck those primal chords that are always compelled by myth and legend.  I walked away form the concert deeply confused and troubled, because here I was trying to be a Christian, when paganism is, at least spiritually speaking, so much more compelling to me.

So I was left muddled for a bit.  The viable options seemed like continuing on with (probably Episcopal) Christianity, AODA Druidry (still), and some kind of pagan reconstructionism.  The problem with all of them was that I had different reasons to find them all compelling to different extents, but none of them had provided me with an experience that was sufficiently Dionysian to make me want to commit spiritually.  Even my romance with mythology was not concrete or well-formed enough to compel me to some kind of spiritual action and/or commitment.  It was just another inconsistent piece of the puzzle–something that seemed really important but I didn’t know what to do with it.

In particular, the concert left me thinking about Ásatrú and Germanic neopagan reconstructionism generally.  There was something there that reached me spiritually, but for some reason, I couldn’t get my head into a place where I felt comfortable saying “this is my spiritual path.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that 1. it just seemed too much like LARPing, and I wanted to have a real, relevant spiritual direction, not to play Viking, and 2. as compelling as I found it, I just… didn’t really believe in the existence of the Norse gods.

Then a series of epiphanies hapened, that have resulted in monumental change in the way I think about religion.  First, my wife and I watched Battlestar Galactica through again, starting with the miniseries.  The human refugees in the show believe in the “Lords of Kobol,” which, at least in the reimagined series, are the Greek gods–they actually pray to Athena, Zeus, and Ares, and it doesn’t seem strange.  What I am saying is that thei belief in the Greek gods did not seem anachronistic.  It opened my eyes to a kind of ongoing universality to those gods–as a western person, the Greek gods are so embedded in my heritage that it was plausible to see the Colonial survivors believe in them and worship them without it seeming inconsistent or like they were playing Ancient Greek.

In particular I was struck by one scene, in the miniseries, where Starbuck quietly prays to idols of Athena and Aphrodite.  There was something so genuine and authentic about it, and so spiritual and intimate, that it really touched me, and set wheels in motion–maybe the Greek gods have a relevance to me that–as cool as I think they are–the Norse gods don’t?  It made me curious, at least, to look into it more, which led to my next powerful epiphany.

I was on the subway reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and listening to my iPod.  For the most part, Hamilton is kind of dry, but when I came to the chapter on Dionysus, there was something about the writing that seemed, I don’t know, different somehow.  Out of nowhere, the book grew vivid, compelling, vibrant, and relevant to me.  And then my iPod–on shuffle–started to play the Passacaglia from Battlestar Galactica’s soundtrack.  The combination of the two did something to me.  It was like it moved me into another state of consciousness, almost a trance.  I felt a closeness to Dionysus, I felt his reality.  I could tell you what he smells like, even.  I can feel in my mind what it is like to be in the presence of this god and physically touch him.  It was amazing.  It left my head reeling.

For the next several months I just kind of let that stew.  It was important to me, but I wasn’t sure what t do about it.  I started pouring out libations to Dionysus, and even to some of the other Greek gods, and it seemed fitting and proper. But I wasn’t engaged in any actual practice other than that, and putting together a playlist of songs (including the Passacaglia) that were particularly evocative of divinity in general and of Dionysus in specific.

The next, and perhaps the most significant event happened months later, about five or six weeks ago.  Iw as studying for a Tax exam and I was letting myself get distracted.  My experience with Dionysus had me looking a little more into Hellenic polytheism, mostly courtesy of executivepagan‘s blogroll, and I was thinking about the involvement of the gods in my life, what gods seemed more real than others, and what gods wereparticularly relevant to me.  I was thinking about war gods actually.  I’m an infantryman in the Army National Guard, and so warfare is a significant factor in my life.  The main war gods of the Greeks were Ares, not a very well-liked or sympathetic god, and Athena, who despite the fact that I am a law student and part-time soldier, just doesn’t seem real or accessible to me.  I was reading about Aphrodite, who I had had in mind recently in terms of love, romance, and sex in my relationship with my beautiful and sexy wife, and I came across something interesting: there is a warlike aspect to Aphrodite.  Some of her names include “well-armed,” “warlike,” and “bringer of victory.”  The more I thought about this aspect of Aphrodite, the more excited I became.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing.  My excitement built and built, overflowing the boundaries into a kind of rolling epiphany, and from there it kept exploding inside me until it was full-blown euphoria.  I felt the presence of a goddess.  It was like being high, and it wasn’t fleeting or momentary; it lasted for hours before it finally subsided.  It was like falling in love with a deity–it felt so warm and my pulse was racing and it was all I could think about.  It was classical mystical euphoria–the paradigmatic experience of divinity.  It was the thing I had been waiting for, and it happened to me.

So there I am.  The way forward is not necessarily obvious to me: I can think of a lot of different possible ramifications for these experiences, and I intend to write a post about them later.  But I have had vivid spiritual experiences with these gods, this wasn’t the kind of “spiritual experience” I had grown so skeptical of because of my history with Mormonism.  I wasn’t trying to provoke these; I wasn’t dead set on feeling something, looking for any emotional condition that I could ascribe a spiritual dimension to.  These came almost out of nowhere.  These were surprises that I was neither looking for nor expecting.

The end result is that I not only believe in god, but I believe in gods.

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