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Posts Tagged ‘Heritage’

I’m about two-thirds of the way through William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, and few things in the world could make me happer. It’s not my favorite of Faulkner’s novels by any stretch (obviously I like Absalom, Absalom! best, but I also have an immense love for The Reivers, The Sound and the Fury and A Light in August), but just reading anything at all by Faulkner makes me feel comforted and at home. I get lost in it and I resent having to come back out. Reading Faulkner is like holding your head underwater, except instead of water it’s the human experience filtered through the complicated, painful and exquisitely beautiful legacy of the South, deeply rooted in place, and written in hypnotic prose that tastes like river water, blood and a humid summer twilight. And unlike water, you can breathe it. It’s not easy to breathe–it’s heady–but you can breathe it. And it’s insidiously addictive.

I started reading books generally in a more disciplined fashion about two years ago when I began picking up westerns. My rule is that I read no more than one fiction and one non-fiction book at a time (short stories and short story collections don’t count), and I finish the one (or intentionally decide to not finish it, which I have done a number of times) before I pick up the next. This keeps me from meandering through the first thirty pages of book after book with no direction and no sense of satisfaction and never finishing or appreciating anything. It’s been a good system, and as a result I very well may have read probably more books in the last two years than in the ten before that–certainly better books.

Like I said, I started with westerns and enjoyed them immensely, but via Cormac McCarthy I wound up transitioning from westerns to my true love, the Southern literary tradition. Simultaneously, I transitioned from westerns to Civil War obsession, which is deeply and inseparably related to Southern literature, but is a topic for another day. I like McCarthy’s westerns quite a bit (although I think I may prefer All The Pretty Horses to Blood Meridian), but his early East Tennessee novels (Outer Dark, Suttree and The Orchard Keeper; I have not yet read Child of God) captured me and held me under a spell the way the cowboy books don’t. Maybe it’s because I was raised in East Tennessee. Maybe it’s just because they’re good books. Probably both, but for me they are also ghost-haunted and harrowing, and they capture perfectly the stillness and terror and the deep longing I have for those wooded hills. I have ancestors who crawled out of those mountains more than a century ago, and I feel them wriggling in my blood: when I read McCarthy, they are roused and they answer.

But McCarthy also put me in a mood to go back and re-read Absalom, Absalom!, which I had not read since high school, and I was done. It was finished. Since then I have been working my way determinedly through the Southern canon and having an honest to God hard time trying to figure out why I would want to bother reading anything else.

I read nearly everything Flannery O’Connor wrote with grotesque and gleeful abandon. I read James Dickey’s Deliverance while every muscle in my body was tense for nearly the entire read (I had to stop periodically to relax and breathe). I mourned for the loss of William Gay just days after I finished Provinces of Night. I’m slowly working my way through Shelby Foote’s Civil War. I’ve read Carson McCullers and James Agee.

And today I’m reading Intruder. I’m not sure what’s next; I have deliberated re-reading Suttree, but I have a long list of what I want to read and a big bag of used books sitting on a shelf downstairs. And all too often, with whatever I am reading, I just wish I was reading Faulkner instead.

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As I mentioned earlier this year, I am officiating at my sister-in-law’s wedding. To this end, I have written a nice, broadly nonsectarian spiritual-but-not-religious ceremony (from which I will post excerpts probably after the wedding), and I have done a bit of work to look the part. I bought a black suit (I needed a new suit anyway, as I am in a suit-wearing career), and even a clergy shirt with a tab collar (from Mercy Robes–great people to deal with by the way).

I’m not going to lie; I look smashing in my clerical duds, but I used the phrase “look the part” intentionally above. In my black suit and clergy collar, I don’t feel like a cleric; I feel like I am wearing a cleric’s costume. And I don’t want to feel like that, because all silliness aside, I take this kind of thing seriously. I’m not going to be playing a priest on TV; I am a priest. I don’t need an organization to validate my faith or my earnestness in acting in the name of the gods, and even if I did, I’ve got that in the bag.

What’s missing from the equation is my faith. Now, the wedding is not about me, and to my knowledge, nobody at this wedding shares my spiritual leanings to even the remotest degree. But if I’m going to perform the ceremony, my authority comes from my gods, whether I name them by name or not.

So to tack a short ending on a long story, I talked my mother into making me a clerical stole to wear over my black suit, in plain white, with peacock feathers for Hera, the goddess of marriage. I will be in her service when I perform this wedding, and I want to show it. But subtly, and tastefully. Because it’s not my wedding, after all. But if anybody asks, I’ll not hesitate to tell them: peacock feathers are a symbol of Hera, the goddess of marriage. But it doesn’t need to go further than that. The gods are a part of all of our cultural heritage, whether we call ourselves pagans or not.

So here’s my stole. It was sweet of my mother to make it for me, and on insanely short notice. She is both talented and skilled. The picture quality s not fantastic, but I will post a picture of me all dressed up soon.

Thanks, Mom.

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Note: This is another post for International Pagan Values Month.

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

I have been thinking about the post I wrote yesterday on sources for pagan values, and I have realized (partly because of a conversation that I had about the post with my brother) that there is at least one big gaping hole in my presentation. In a nutshell, my thesis was that as pagans we should be looking to nature and the pagan past–mythology in particular–for our values and not just taking western liberal values and looking for a pagan justification for them. While I do think that we should be looking for authentic sources for our values, and I do think that just adopting western liberal values and inventing a pagan justification for them creates a morally meaningless religion, I presented the two options as a false dichotomy. My assumption was that if pagans have values that do not come from nature or mythology, they must simply be spouting out liberal pop culture values. While I think that is in fact what Brendan Myers does in The Other Side Of Virtue, it is not fair to accuse all pagans of doing the same. The problem that dawned on my shortly after writing my post is that I left out a major and significant source for the majority of pagans: the Age of Aquarius!

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Aquarius! Aquarius!

Okay, so the song is more than a little over the top. I kid because I love. But in all seriousness, when we talk about modern paganism, we’re including a lot of people who self-identify as pagans that are heavily (if not primarily) influenced by the 20th-century New Age movement. Whether or not it was that way from the beginning, Wicca has pretty much adopted New Ageism whole-cloth, and even though it makes the Reconstructionists’ heads asplode, Wiccans are by far the most numerous of the self-identifying pagans. In any case, the New Age movement has its own set of values, a utopian vision of a world of peace, free love, spiritual connectedness, and enlightenment (and probably also vegetarianism): the Age of Aquarius. And because so much of neopaganism draws on New Age sources, these Aquarian values are held by so many neopagans that they go virtually unquestioned outside of Reconstructionist circles.

I’m not really talking about whether Aquarian Utopianism should be a source for pagans to derive their moral values from; I’m saying that it is in fact such a source. Not for all pagans, no, but it is prominent enough that it deserves mention and a seat at the table. And when we are talking about “pagan values,” their prominence among pagans and New Ageism’s influence on neopaganism generally is such that it is not unreasonable to say that Aquarian values are pagan values.

Aquarian values are not ancient, the way our pagan heritage and our mythology are (and they’re definitely not ur-primoridal the way nature it elf is), but that does not make them somehow invalid. As John Michael Greer is usually quick to point out, the age of a spiritual tradition has nothing to do with its valididty; a functional, productive religion is functional and productive whether it is a billion years old or was invented last week. They have not yet stood the test of time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t. And for us, the only thing that matters really is whether they work.

The trick is that we as pagans need to be at once mindful that the New Age Aquarian vision is a major source of our collective values, and simultaneously mindful that it is not our only source of values. It is not the be-all end-all; there should not be an automatic presumption of Aquarianism. The easy mistake that I think a lot of pagans make is simply to buy into Aquarian values whole cloth without really thinking about what they are doing. The lessons we get from nature, from mythology, and from our pagan past may completely contradict what Aquarian New Ageism teaches us, and although I do think that a reasonable neopagan could conclude that in such a situation, Aquarianism trumps its opponents, I don’t think that’s the kind of decision one can make responsibly without thinking it thorugh and realizing what one is doing.

If we do add Aquarian ideals to the mix of mythology, heritage, and nature, then the result is a pretty diverse set of sources from which we can derive our values. This is a situation that invites careful thought, deliberate scrutiny, and difficult weighing. It also means that different pagans are going to come up with different answers. Paganism is pretty diverse, so that won’t really change anything–hells, look around at the pagan values blog carnival I linked to at the top and you’ll see evrything under the sun represented–but if we’re all going to come under the same umbrella, we need to have some kind of common ground, especially in critical areas like moral reasoning. If we can at least acknowledge the sources for our moral values, then we are in a much better position to think critically about them ourselves and discuss them with each other and with non-pagans in a principled and productive way. And if despite our differing conclusions, we actually do share a common set of moral sources, then we have more common ground than we otherwise might think we do.

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

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Two stories, both of which I have told before:

1. Last fall, I had a kind of spiritual upset after seeing Amon Amarth and Ensiferum in concert at Jaxx in Northern Virginia. I realized that the Christianity I had been flirting with didn’t really punch all of the spiritual buttons that I felt needed to be pushed. There was (and is) something about mythology and my ancestry and heritage that boils in my blood–something that means more than a hobby-interest. Something there resonates as Truth and Meaning. Anyway, I was in this frame of mind, and thinking about Asatru again, and the Norse gods (even listening to Ravencast), and kind of wishing I could have an experience with the Norse gods. One day, on the way to school, I got on the Metro and there was this smallish white-bearded old man with a fedora and an eyepatch. I am sorry to report that was too chicken to approach him and ask him if he was the All-Father. I thought it was just silly at the time: “haha, a guy that looks just like Odin, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if that wasn’t a brush with something bigger. Right there, on the red line on the DC Metro.

2. Last November, when I first started thinking seriously about Hellenic polytheism, I was reading about Dionysus in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and listening to the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack, when I had this intense spiritual epiphany. All of a sudden, it all seemed so real. Dionysus was suddenly incredibly vivid, and incredibly significant. The total effect was a bit overwhelming and incredibly powerful. I had this sensation of Dionysus’s massive divine presence, something holy but out of control, like a spiritual hurricane.

So in other words, I have arguably had two different encounters with gods on the red line. I wonder if there is something special about the Metro. It is, after all, a place between worlds: the subway is its own little environment that moves between other environments–different neighborhoods, even different states in the DC area. It is a liminal place, a world between worlds, a halfway world that exists in different worlds while also maintaining its own existence. It is more than a vehicle, because it is like a room that you can move around in, like a place as much as it is a thing. I wonder if the liminal nature of the Metro makes it into a place where gods can more easily come through and enter the world of humans? Or perhaps it is that the Metro puts my mind into a liminal state, which makes it more receptive to the gods and their emissaries. I wonder if it’s just me, or if other people have had significant divine or spiritual encounters on trains or subways?

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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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