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Posts Tagged ‘Hierarchy’

In a previous post I talked about my troubles with boxed religion.  My conclusions were somewhat contradictory, but I think they boil down to this: I want to feel like what I am doing is valid and legitimate, and I want some kind of structure to help me know how to practice my spirituality.  I hunger for the divine in a way that necessitates some action, some drawing closer on my part.  Navel-gazing and thinkin’ ’bout gods by itself just isn’t going to do the trick–I need a practical element to my spirituality.

So the question becomes, how do I get those things–practical spirituality and a feeling of legitimacy and validity–without also having to deal with the suffocation, claustrophobia, mental revision, and inevitable shame and embarassment that seem to be inescapable by-products of boxed religion.

One thing I know for relatively certain, is that my personal theology doesn’t appear to match any currently existing and widespread theology, so no complete boxed religion will do–no matter which one I pick I will wind up feeling the need to change what I believe in order ot be orthodox.  I know I shouldn’t, but that’s not the issue.  I will.  So then, where do I get the things I am craving out of religion?  How do I practice a religion that’s out of the box but still stay focused, on track (even if the track meanders and changes), and maybe most importantly for me, feels valid and legitimate?

One possible route that I have been seriously considering is the Ancient Order of Druids in America.  The AODA’s spiritual practices don’t involve a specific theology, although they have theological implications: they are earth-centered, they skew strongly towards some kind of (neo)pagan approach, they are meditative and contemplative, and they tend to favor some ostensibly new age stuff like magic, divination, etcetera.  There appears to be a strong tendency toward Celtic paganism (no surprise there; we’re talking Druidry after all), but with an openness to different “flavors,” even if it means going (shudder) eclectic.

The thing is, I have been interested in the AODA for a long time, but I have recognized that it onvolves in some ways a spiritual skeleton, a kind of box with nothing in it.  While I have no doubt that you could practice Revival Druidry without any further theological baggage, and int he process develop a strong earth-centered green spirituality of your own, I have always felt that I wanted something more to fill the box with.  I wanted some kind of mystical component, a catalyst even, that had specific theological and spiritual implications to flesh out the practical skeleton of the AODA’s approach.  From that perspective, I have everything I need to begin.  Granted, it still means cobbling things together a bit, and I admit that the spiritual experiences I have had do not necessarily point directly toward Druidry (it’s not even one of the implications I mentioned in my last post).  At the same time, Revival Druidry is completely compatible with what I have been doing so far.

So I want to go through a list of advantages and disadvantages of choosing Revival Druidry as a spiritual path.  I will start with the advantages.

First, Druidry is green.  It is earth-centered.  It is a spiritual practice that recognizes the power of the earth, has roots in the living earth, and draws strength form protecting nature and the environment.  I haven’t necessarily shared this before, but I have long felt a spiritual connection to the earth.  I feel recharged (and less crazy) by being outside.  I think there is wisdom and balance to be gained by being more connected to the natural world, and that is an aspect of spiritual existence that I feel compelled to explore.  Maybe I will go into more detail in a future post, but suffice it to say for now that this is important enough for me to make it actually be a big problem with Hellenic Recon Polytheism, which is not connected ot the earth enough for my tastes.

Second, Druidry provides a box, but not a claustrophobic one.  Even though the kind of Druidry I want to practice is connected to an organization, the organization does not claim special authority to dictate to me what I should and should not be doing, and what is acceptable for me to practice.  The is partly due to a general neopagan norm of live and let live, but it also has specific roots for the AODA in Anglican latitudinarianism, as the AODA’s historical roots go back not to ancient druids, but openly and honestly back to the Druid revivalists of several centuries ago, most of whom started out as Anglicans in the midst of a growing trend toward Latitudinarianism–an allowance within Anglicanism to admit diverse theologies but come together in practice.  So Revival Druidry provides direction but is not forceful.  And the Anglican connection, which comes out in a lot of other practices, especially in the AODA’s meditative approach, doesn’t make me cry either.

Third, as a kind of corollary to the second above, Revival Druidry is a big enough box to contain all of the disparate spiritual elements I have swirling around in my head and heart.  It certainly can accomodate all of the different kinds of western mythology that I feel drawn towards–Greek, Celtic, and Norse.  In fact, it is a context that will allow me to move around and through those three diffferent mythic and polytheistic contexts as my personal theology continues to grow, develop, and solidify.  (Hmm–three is a number that is significant and sacred in Druidry) Druidry is also definitely expansive enough to encomepass a cosmology that is based on the Baghavad Gita.  But better still, Revival Druidry’s box is big enough to account for all of the different possible ramifications of my spiritual experiences.  Revival Druidry is compatible with a green, mystical Anglican Christianity if that’s where I ultimately end up (and if I end up Christian, I highly suspect that that’s the kind of Christian I will be), and certainly with the male/female archetypical divinities that I might be dealing with (DruidCraft–the fusion of Revival Druidry and Wicca–is already fairly established and has a major advicate in the form of Philip Carr-Gomm, one of the most important voices in modern Druidry and the head of the British Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids).  Moreover, practicing Revival Druidry in no way excludes the practices that have so far become important in my paganism: prayer, libations, and small sacrifices to the gods.

Fourth, Revival Druidry practice involves things I want to be doing anyway.  Seasonal celebrations, meditation, poetry, music, divination.  It wraps all of these together in a whole, centers it all on environmental spirituality, and interlaces the whole thing with a healthy respect for the gods and a default polytheistic worldview.  There’s a lot of good juju in that box, really.  I might be on to something here after all.

On the other hand, I have some concerns with the AODA as an organization and with Revival Druidry as practice that I feel I need to address and think about.

First, the AODA is an organization that is in the process of rebuilding.  There are not a lot of members, and that means not a lot of community support.  The flip side to this is that it being a part of the movement means being able to help build something with a lot of great potential.  A connected oncern is the place of John Michael Greer at the head of the organization.  Don’t get me wrong-I think Greer is absolutely awesome, a prophetic voice who deserves more attention than he gets.  But is the AODA just Greer’s fan club, or can it be an organization that stands on his two feet without him?  The AODA’s not a personality cult, and Greer doesn’t really play that part, but is it basically the same thing for practical purposes?  Of course, on the other hand, practicing AODA-style Revival Druidry doesn’t actually mean I have to be a part of any organization whatsoever, so the organizational concerns may be a moot point.

Second, I don’t know how comfortable I actually am with the idea of calling myself a “druid.”  I am convinced by Greer’s rationale that, as descendants of the Druid Revival, modern Druids have every right to claim the name–not because they are descended from ancient paleopagan Druids, but because they are descended from mesopagan revivalists who called themselves “Druids.”  The term Druid has been used to refer to revivalists for three hundred years now, and (in Greer’s words) it is easier than calling the movement “British Universalist Post-Anglican Latitudinarian Pantheist Neo-Pythagorean Nature Spirituality.”  Nevertheless, the idea of calling myself a Druid seems, well, kind of silly.  Again, maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill.  I am in charge of how I label myself, after all.  I can practice Druidry and even join the AODA and call myself whatever I want.  Maybe I would be the most compfortable thinking of myself as a Pagan who practices Druidry, or something like that.  Or maybe thinking of it in terms of “Revival Druid” instead of just “Druid” would seem less ludicrous and more intellectually honest.  Semantic niceties aside, the way I label myself and the way I construct my own identity is really important to me.

Third, Revival Druidry has a lot of New Age ideas built in, and I am suspicious of New Ageism.  I don’t think I really believe in “magick,” or feel like it is an important or even desired part of my spiritual life.  I don’t believe in auras or moving energy around at will.  I think a lot of that stuff is kind of flaky gobbledygook, and by entering a movement full of that kind of thing, I risk being associated with it or being seen myself as a New Ager, or alternately getting frustrated and fed up with what I see as flaky, non-valid spiritual beliefs and practices.  Nevertheless, this is not a concern that is unique to Revival Druidry, but is one that I will face everywhere in the Neo-Pagan world.  Perhaps if I was content to be a hardcore Reconstructionist, or was happy to act and practice in total solitude, I wouldn’t have to worry about it.  But I am not and I don’t necessarily.  So as long as I think of myself in terms of paganism, New Age is always going to be on the radar, whether I am involved with Revival Druidry or not.

Fourth, the big one, is that athough it may be the perfect box for me, it’s still a box.  This is really my problem, not Druidry’s problem, but the chances of me pushing myself towards whatever passes for Orthodoxy in Revival Druid circles despite my contrary beliefs, intuitions, and desired practices, is really high.  Orthodoxy is basically bred into me–I grew up Mormon after all, and it is really hard to root out that kind of thinking, especially when it is more of a knee-jerk inclination anyway.  I naturally lean towards obsessive orthodoxy in whatever I do, regardless of whether it actually makesme happy or bears any kind of fruit in my life.  But this is going to be a problem wherever I go, no matter what direction I decide on, probably even if I make up my own spiritual direction whole-cloth.

So, what does all of this mean?  Honestly, I think my reasons to practice Revival druidry outweigh my reasons not to.  And when it comes down to brass tacks, Druidry is something that has attracted me for a long time.  I have hesitated before, but never because I thought I might be unsatisfied with Druidry.  I either felt held back because of a hesitation to move in any spiritual direction without some kind of mystical catalyst to hang it all on, or I have held back because I thought I might need to set Druidry aside in favor of some other Orthodoxy.  And now both of those reasons have evaporated: I have had a decidedly pagan mystical encounter with the gods, and I have recognized that Revival Druidry will fit almost any spiritual direction I have a reaosnable chance of ultimately settling down on, assuming I can keep my Orthodoxy reflex in check.  In fact, practicing Revival Druidry may wind up being the perfect cure for said reflex, assuming I don’t wind up jerking my knee towards orthodoxy in Druidry itself.

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One of the major issues I perpetually grapple with as I figure out what I believe is a concept I have come to call “boxed religion.” By boxed religion, I mean religion where all the pieces are handed to you as if you have bought it in a complete set, with everything included in the box. The religion gives you a holy book, a way to understand it, a set of appropriate spiritual practices, a set of answers for all of your questions, a definable bunch of things you are supposed to be doing, thinking, and feeling as a member. Mormonism is a paradigmatic example of boxed religion: it is a complete package, with a program for everything, and a clearly-defined path of spiritual progression for the new convert as well as the longtime member, clear expectations, and a limited set of practices and doctrines, all made legitimate by the stamp of approval of the regulating hierarchy.

There’s something simple about boxed religion. You can throw yourself right into it headfirst; you don’t have to think about whether some doctrine or practice is appropriate for you, or if it fits, or if it brings you closer to god. If they seem wrong or unproductive, it’s you who is the problem, and needs to be brought into line.

Most major world religions aren’t as boxed as this, I think. But there’s a spectrum with coercive hierarchical NRMs like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses at one end, and the spiritual-but-not-religious dude who pretty much does whatever seems right to him at the other.

It may seem obvious to most people that religion-in-a-box isn’t going to work for everyone. But here’s the thing: I was raised with boxed religion. For me, boxed religion–something that probably seems extreme to most people–is the norm, and departures from the model of boxed religion feel less legitimate and less valid. I’m used to being told what I am supposed to do, spiritually speaking. Without a checklist of things I am supposed to be going to be right with God, I flounder. I don’t know what to do. I don’t do anything, actually. And then I blog about how confused I am.

At the same time, I have been seriously burned by boxed religion and I have had to face the fact that boxed religion, as much as I feel like I can’t function without it, is never going to work for me. When I start to embrace religion that comes more or less out of a box, I start to feel foolish, like I am playacting or LARPing. Only boxed religion seems like it should be valid and legitimate, but boxed religion feels horribly, horribly wrong. I inevitably wind up submitting too much, and trying to change my beliefs to bring them in line with what comes out of the box in an exercise of trained deference to religious hierarchy, no matter how shaky its authoritative claim on me is. And then I feel like I have compromised myself, and I wind up really uncomfortable with the corner I have painted myself into spiritually.

And when it comes down to it, I have a hard time keeping myself from looking for boxed religion. What do I do when I have some spiritual experiences with Greek gods? Decide that I am going to practice Hellenismos, and let my religion be wholly dictated to me by ancient Greek people and modern people who want to emulate them. And it feels wrong. So I run away from it, and almost run away from the gods altogether, after I have finally had the kind of spiritual experiences I have been yearning for.

What’s the answer here? Honestly, I think I have to deal with my issues here. My gut wants to look to other people to lend legitimacy to my spiritual life. But there’s something broken about that. The fact that some dude thinks I should be doing X has nothing to do with whether doing X will really bring me closer to the divine.

On the other hand, I have a nagging feeling that there actually is something to submitting yourself to something greater, and I think tradition should not be lightly thrown away, even if I don’t give it the total, supreme deference that I used to feel like I should give Revelation From God Through His Living Prophet. The problem with that attitude in paganism generally, however, is that–all wishful fiction aside–there isn’t really much in the way of tradition to fall back on.

I need spiritual practices and a source for something like beliefs and theology, I need to feel like my spiritual life is valid and legitimate, and I think that submission to something outside of yourself–even if it is nothing but the will of the divine–is actually an important part of religious life. But boxed religion, which gives me all of those things, inevitably fails meet my spiritual needs. So what do I do?

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So, based on my experience with Dionysus, I started looking into Hellenic Reconstructionism as a possible spiritual avenue. I realized that a vague spiritual closeness to one particular god could have a number of other possible interpretations and could signal the beginning of a lot of different things, but taking it on its face seemed the simplest, at least while I was just feeling things out.

So I started poking around a bit on Reconstructionist blogs, sites, and forums. It was fruitful in a sense, because a discussion on a Hellenic Recon forum is what provoked my intense experience with Aphrodite. But moving from that point forward, Hellenic Reconstructionism seemed like a dead end, and it still does.

Part of it is a basic head-space issue. When I try to think of myself as a Hellenic Reconstructionist or a member of the religion “Hellenismos,” it just doesn’t click right. It seems foolish, even–the idea of me as a Hellenic Recon, not the idea of Hellenic Recon itself. I started looking into Sponde (which is a great site that seems to have sadly and suddenly disappeared), and reading Tim Alexander’s forum a lot, with the end result being that is just didn’t all feel right. In fact, I started to even waver in how I felt about the gods: trying to force myself into a Reconstructionist mold was actually pushing me away from the divine, not propelling me towards it.

When I realized it, I almost breathed a sigh of relief. I was getting to that same place I always get, when I wake up one morning and decide that everything I thought was so great last night is now stupid and even embarrassing. And that’s not acceptable: if Reconstructionism makes me embarrassed about my gods–gods whose presence I believe I have really felt–then regardless of the arguments for it, Reconstructionism is not for me.

Although I have had powerful experiences with gods who were worshipped by the ancient Greeks, I don’t necessarily feel like that means that I am bound to worship them or think about them the way the ancient Greeks did. In fact, I feel that there’s no particular reason at all to draw that conclusion except for lack of any other viable spiritual avenue.

This is not to say that I think the religious practices of the ancients are irrelevant or worthless: at the moment my spiritual life consists primarily of prayer, libations, and small sacrifices of barleycorns and wine to the gods. Those are practices that the ancients most certainly would recognize if they walked into my living room or kitchen today. But I can’t see myself identifying as a true Recon for a number of reasons (partly a gut thing, and partly because I’m not sure the Greek Myth paradigm punches all of the spiritual buttons that I feel like need to be punched in order to be fulfilled, but more on that in a future post), and I certainly have no interest in drawing the borders of my spiritual beliefs and practices in the range that is generally considered acceptable to Reconstructionists.

So the gods are in, but Hellenismos is out. What does that mean for me? I have indicated that I have a hunger for the divine that I want to fill, and I have an intuition that appropriate spiritual practice is an extremely important part of what I am after. So where do I get those practices? Do I look outside myself at all for the limits of my belief, or do I shoot completely from the hip, accepting the consequences and dealing with the likelihood that in the end my beliefs will be an undisciplined pile of incomprehensible, substanceless mish-mash? Or is that really true, or is it just the Mormon in me still thinking that religion is only legitimate if its borders are clearly defined and its beliefs and practices are clearly prescribed by a hierarchical authority? These are the questions that try my soul. Not as an academic exercise, but as real things for me to consider as I try to move forward spiritually.

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1. I think religious institutions, especially centralized, hierarchical ones, are either inherently oppressive and abusive or else so open and prone to abuse that human nature nevertheless makes abuse and oppression inevitable.

2. I have a hard time feeling like religious belief is valid without the stamp of approval from an authoritative religious hierarchy.

Thank you, Mormonism.

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