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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’

I referred to myself as a pagan in conversation with my beautiful and sexy wife a few days ago (we were talking about piddly, meaningless stuff like the meaning of life), and she recognized the significance: it was a casual but meaningful declaration of spiritual identity of the kind that I have not been able to make in years.

It wasn’t just a slip, either. I have been thinking about this and I came to an important realization. One of the issues I have been grappling with in the background of my mind is if at the end of the day I basically think that religion and spirituality are highly subjective and have more to do with assigning meaning to human existence than they do with making objective truth-claims about the universe, why shouldn’t I have just stayed Mormon? Wouldn’t it have been easier, after all, for me to just figure out how to reconcile the religion I was raised with than to try to blaze a completely new spiritual trail? My gut rebels against the idea of staying Mormon, but why? I think Mormonism’s truth-claims are bogus, but that’s not really the issue for me (except it kind of is, because Mormonism spends a lot of time and spiritual effort insisting that its truth claims are literal truth). I have problems with the Church as an institution, but a lot of liberal and New Order Mormons figure out ways to deal with that, and the insistence of the orthodox believer notwithstanding, my relationship with the organizational church should not really affect how I feel about the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, right?

So why do I feel like remaining Mormon, or going back to Mormonism, would just be unacceptable? I think it is because I never really internalized Mormonism in the first place. Sure, I internalized some ways of thinking about religion because I didn’t know any better–some cultural transmission from my parent subculture is inevitable–but in a spiritual sense, I was always torn and doubtful about Mormonism and I was always drawn to mythology, the gods, and the spiritual power of the wild places of the earth. As a little kid I was obsessed with mythology. As a young adolescent I stayed awake all night with my best friend on Boy Scout camp-outs talking about Beltaine. As a teenager I flat-out just wanted to be a druid. As a young adult I was absolutely enthralled by Joseph Campbell, the Arthurian romances, Celtic myth, and the cosmic and spiritual significance of poetry and literature.

Yes, when I was nineteen, I “got a testimony” and went on a mission, and began to live a fairly orthodox Mormon life. But let’s not give my conversion too much credit. The coercive pressure from my family was immense-it was made clear to me that being an adult meant setting aside childish things like entertaining the possibility of paganism, and taking Mormonism seriously as the One True Religion. People I trusted and relied on made it absolutely clear that there was no viable moral alternative, that anything less than fully getting with the program meant personal weakness, laziness, and a lack of integrity. So I did what I was supposed to.

But the pagan inside me did not sleep too soundly. As a young adult I was captured by the power of Norse myth, by the dynamic majesty of romantic-era classical music (I discovered Sibelius, and it was love), and ultimately by the brutal, mythic energy of heavy metal.

On top of this, I have noticed a clear pattern in my life: when I have lived out of touch with nature, I have been depressed, unbalanced, and extremely mentally unhealthy. Proximity and involvement with the natural world are simply things I need for spiritual wholeness. And I have consistently had feelings about love, the feminine, and sex that have been reverent, passionate, and worshipful.

The point is, I have been a pagan all along. It doesn’t matter that I went to sacrament meeting every week. It doesn’t matter that I spent two years as a missionary trying to convert people to Mormonism. Mormonism never really fit. My mother and I had countless discussions and arguments about religion and point of view: in her mind the right thing to do was to completely internalize Mormonism, and subvert your entire mind to it, to relinquish all non-Mormon thought as something unwelcome and alien. I always wanted to take the point of view of an outsider, because I always was an outsider.

I was a pagan, and I always have been.

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This one isn’t about Jesus at all, but as it’s kind of a continuation of my last post, and I’m feeling silly, well… hey, I don’t have to justify the names of my own blog posts to anyone.

Like I’ve said before, although I haven’t been blogging, I have been continuing to think things through and to engage in conversation with people about my standard topics of life, the universe, and everything.  In particular, I have had some interesting discussions with my brother (who comments here periodically under the nom de plume Racticas), who is a grad student in religious studies.  One of the idea sets we’ve been tossing around lately is Neopaganism.

When talking paganism, the issue of polytheism naturally comes up.  Polytheism is definitely an idea that has to be accomodated rather than assimilated, because as western people we come into the picture with a fairly heavy bias towards monotheism.  My Mormon background gets periodically accused of a polytheistic bent by some Evangelical critics, but even as an ex-Mormon, I don’t think the accusation is appropriate.  Although Mormonism posits a comparatively limited God, believes that the members of the Godhead (father, son, and holy ghost) are completely distinct in substance, and accepts the possibility (or even necessity) of the existence of other gods coequal to, subordinate to, or even superior to Our Heavenly Father, in practice Mormonism is still thoroughly monotheistic.  The existence of other gods is an academic possibility for Mormons, and the only god they deal with and the only god who has ultimate power over this world is God the Father.

I go into detail about the Mormon perspective because it’s my background and thus informs where I am now, and accusations to the contrary notwithstanding, my background, and thus my default position, is monotheistic.  And I bring all of this up in order to admit my preexisting bias when I then explain why I don’t believe in literal polytheism.

Which brings me to my point: I don’t believe in literal polytheism.  I have enough trouble accepting the existence of one personal god; the idea of many personal gods seems even less plausible.  As figures of myth, the gods and goddesses of ancient people seem much more plausible to me as either metaphors of the human condition or as metaphoric personifications of different aspects of the transcendent divine, i.e. Masks of God.  I simply do not believe, however, that there are a bunch of real literal distinct divine beings living on Mount Olympus or in Asgard or another dimension or a spiritual plane or something.  I just don’t buy it.

Now that’s not to say that I think the gods and goddesses of myth (including Jesus and the Father) are useless things.  If there is a real transecndent divinity, I am inclined to think it impossible to deal with it directly in any kind of meaningful way.  Thus, we may need personifications and metaphors to be able to approach the divine in a way that our psyches can handle.  In other words, we may be putting the masks on God because otherwise God is so far outside of our experience and existence that the unmasked God would be meaningless, inaccessible, and incomprehensible to us.  I think of it like this: if a two-dimensional being existed, it could never comprehend us in our fullness as three-dimensional beings.  The best it could do would be to imagine a two-dimensional representation of us, but even then it could never be a complete representation.  Being two-dimensional the best it could do was approximate a certain aspect, slice, or facet (or simplified agglomeration of several aspects) of our three-dimensional reality.  If God exists at all outside our psyches, then so it is with God.

At its heart, this is what Christianity is all about–God become man so that man can relate to God.  Its the essence of Hinduism as well, where all things, the gods and goddesses especially, are merely aspects of Brahman.

Alternately, if “God” is just something in our heads, something embedded in the human psyche, then I still think that anthropomorphized representations of God or gods are the best way for us to make sense of it.  This is the Joseph Campbell route.  We make sense of existence primarily by metaphor and symbol, and that includes conceptualizing symbolic and metaphorical gods.

The moral of my story is that if I were to be a pagan of any stripe, I couldn’t be a strict, literal polytheist.  And even if I were to have a mystical encounter with a god or gods, I would still strongly suspect that I had merely put a mask on something otherwise completely transcendent and incomprehensible so that I could comprehend it, as opposed to thinking that whatever god I had encountered had a real, literal, separate and distinct existence of its own.  Unless it told me it did and struck me with lighning for being an unbeliever or something.  I have a pragmatic streak, as well: at my house, people who didn’t believe in Santa Claus didn’t get presents from him.

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