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Posts Tagged ‘LARP’

I have noticed that the use of special or religious names is pretty common among Neopagans. I am honestly curious as to why someone needs to call themself “Moonferret Starshine” or something Welsh or whatever instead of just using their real name. I’m not talking about internet handles or nicknames–those are a part of a pretty well-established internet tradition of anonymity. I’m talking about new religious or spiritual names that people use in real life in spiritual contexts.

I realize that Neopagans aren’t the only ones to do this: converts to Islam often take an Arabic name, and I think Hare Krishnas take new names, too. I believe Zen priests have a special Zen name, and I know for a fact that Mormons get a secret new name in the temple endowment ceremony that seems to serve no understandable function outside of the endowment ceremony itself. I have also known converts to Christianity from Islam who took a Western “Christian” name.

So maybe I am being unfair to Neopagans, since they’re just doing what everyone else does. But sometimes it just seems silly. Like LARPing. But I am willing to extend the question to other religious traditions who do this, as well. Why new names? What’s wrong with the old one?

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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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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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