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Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time. None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and ‘sweet reasonableness’ of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted.

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

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Fall of Adam

I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:

Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.

Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.

Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).

So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).

So then that brings us to evolution.

I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?

I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.

The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?

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No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by that word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol — cross or crescent or whatever — that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach a man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral codes and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.

from an interview with Jean Stein in 1958

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Paganism is about honoring the fundamental aspects of authentic human experience. It’s about looking at the parts of existence that are terrifying and overwhelming and trying to figure out what they mean: things like birth, death, sex, war, love, art, and even the powerful, capricious, and unpredictable forces of the natural world. The gods give rise to these essential facets of human experience (and/or are themselves born from them), and to deny one or more of the gods because there is no place in your life or your worldview or your schema for the things they represent is to deny a fundamental part of who you are.

War is a part of being human. It may be ugly, brutal, and horrifying, but it is omnipresent. To be truly human is to know war. To reject Ares because you reject war is to reject a part of what it means to be you. And to reject Ares because you reject war means also rejecting warlike aspects of many of the other gods as well: Athena, Aphrodite, Zeus, Dionyus just off the top of my head.

Who would Ares be without war? A god of mental conflict? A god of physical exertion? We already have those gods. Ares is a god of a lot of things, and there are a lot of lenses through which to view Ares, but he is primarily a god of war. Trying to edit the war out of Ares is like trying to edit the sex out of Aphrodite. I don’t know what you’re left with, but it isn’t the real deal. That kind of selective approach to the gods is apparently pretty popular among neopagans, but I honestly don’t think it’s a road that is going to take you anywhere worth being.

Think about it: the soldier knows both war and peace, but the pacifist tries to know only peace. The pacifist is rejecting an entire part of human existence because it does not suit him or her. Whether that’s a thing worth doing, or a thing we should be doing, is not actually the issue. But I would maintain that trying to edit human existence to remove the bits we don’t like is just not what any kind of real paganism is about. Christianity does that, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Not paganism.

I also don’t think, with regards to Ares, that it’s a question of whether violence is necessary or justified, but merely whether it is an essential facet of human existence. Violence IS. War IS. We can play at quasi-Christianity if we want and imagine a utopia where violence no longer exists, but even in Christianity that requires massive divine intervention. The overwhelming, unanimous weight of human history tells us in no uncertain terms and with no exceptions that war and violence are fundamentally a part of the human condition.

Whether or not this reality is morally acceptable is a question that is, in my opinion, not even on paganism’s radar. Violence is a part of human reality, and paganism is about how we honor and respond to human reality. The ethics of paganism ask not whether a violent society is morally acceptable, but instead ask “given that violence and war exist as a part of the human condition, how do you respond virtuously?”

Look to the epics, the philosophers, and the myths. Look to the maxims. Tell me what the answer is. The world is violent–we honor that when we honor Ares. The question is how you respond with virtue when presented with that violence, whether you’re a kid in the hall at school getting beaten up by bullies, a young man who just got his draft notice, or a parent whose family is threatened.

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My top five favorite books of all time, in alphabetical order by author:

1. Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes: A dark carnival comes to a fictionalized Waukegan in a timeless October, bringing nightmares. It is a story about childhood and growing up, fathers and sons, friendship, and the good and evil in every one of us.

2. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!: Unimaginably rich and mythic, a magnum opus about the South, chronicling Thomas Sutpen’s obsessive but doomed struggle to found–“tore violently a plantation”–an aristocratic dynasty in Mississippi before, during and after the Civil War, and about the destruction brought down on his bloodline and the land they inhabit as judgment that ripples through place and generations as a result. In the end, it is relentlessly a book about the dark places we should not go but that we ultimately cannot resist.

3. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: Lewis’s re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche is the most true book about God that I have ever read. It is the story of an ugly queen whose beautiful sister is taken from her by a god, and who unintentionally enacts her revenge on everyone around her by taking just as ruthlessly, until at last she is finally forced to come to terms with the true nature of herself and the Divine.

4. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove: An epic, episodic novel about a pair of grizzled ex-Texas Rangers and the men and boys they lead on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, for no reason at all, more or less, other than to be the first to be there. It is a powerful and poignant story about manhood, friendship, obligation, women, cattle and death. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.

5. Jack Schaefer, Shane: A short but intense novel from a young boy’s perspective about a dark gunfighter who drifts into a Wyoming range war between farmers and an unscrupulous cattle baron. Shane is a cracking, fast-paced novel about courage, love, commitment, manhood and true strength.

6. T. H. White, The Once And Future King: A lush and quirky but immensely powerful retelling of the entire Arthurian legend. In a sense, there is nothing that this book is not about. If I had to give a boy only one book to live their life after, it would not be the Bible. It would be this book.

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Mormons have no shortage of sexual sins they can commit: pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, extramarital sex, unwholesome thoughts, and even depending on who you ask, possibly oral sex, anal sex, and anything else but vaginal intercourse, even between a married couple.  If you’re not married, anything sexual at all is a sin.  Making out too heavily might even be a sexual sin.  The justification for all of these proscriptions is that in the Mormon worldview, sex is a critically important gift given by Heavenly Father to serve the goals of cementing family relationships and providing bodies for Heavenly Father’s spirit children.  As it is so intimately connected with bringing about Heavenly Father’s work and glory, it is treated with the utmost seriousness, and for Mormonism that usually means “a lot of rules.”  Mormonism isn’t anti-sex the way some segments of Christianity have traditionally been, since Mormonism does not hod that the body is evil but a necessary component in Heavenly Father’s plan.  Nevertheless, sex in Mormonism is pretty tightly straitjacketed.

Part of the process of leaving Mormonism for me was figuring out what my values are, and what behaviors I think are okay and what are not, independently of Mormon teachings.  I was lucky in that I always had a strong internal sense of moral reasoning: my personal values were informed by my Mormonism, but they were never dependent upon my Mormonism.  They were sufficiently independent that, with Mormonism gone, my core values essentially remained strong and intact.

What went out the window, however, were all of the rules.  As a non-Mormon, I have absolutely no reason to follow a bunch of restrictive and often arbitrary commandments.

In terms of sex, leaving Mormonism (retaining my principles but feeling free to discard the rules) had very little immediate practical impact.  One of the values I hold most highly is marital fidelity, and I am married to a beautiful and sexy woman.  Most of Mormonism’s sexual rules either did not apply to me as a married person (like “no premarital sex”), I paid little enough attention to anyway (like old guidance from Church leadership about not having oral sex), or were redundant as rules since I was going to behave consistently with them anyway because of my own core values (“no extramarital sex”).  In practical terms, our sex life got a little bit better when we left Mormonism because we could let go of some guilt and repression that had crowded our sexual psyches on the fringes, but for the most part our sex life was already pretty good.

But what applies directly to me is not the only thing worth considering.  First, morality in general is a topic that interests me and that I have visited before on a number of occasions as a part of the process of figuring out my values, where they come from, what they mean, how they interact with each other, and so on.  So the question is theoretically interesting.  Second, on a practical level, I know a fair number of postmormons whose value systems did not survive Mormonism as intact as mine did. In general, they were better Mormons than I was, and as such they had completely internalized Mormon values as their values.  As a result, having jettisoned the Mormonism, their whole house of cards has come crumbling down, and they have been left picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what their values and morals really are, from square one.  Because I am in a position to provide guidance and help to people close to me, it is more than worth thinking the issues through so that I can provide meaningful insight.  Third, the question comes up periodically around the post-Mormon blog-o-sphere, so I feel like it’s worth addressing.  Finally, and most importantly, I have kids.  Two of them! They’re five years old and three years old right now, and they’re growing up fast.  Since leaving Mormonism, the question of what do I teach my kids has weighed heavily on me, especially regarding sex.  I know what my values are, and my position as a happily married guy means I don’t have to stretch my values very far to figure out what to do in almost any situation in which I am reasonably going to find myself.  But my kids won’t necessarily have that luxury.  For that reason alone I wanted to figure out what the deal really is about sexuality, without a handy dogma to give me simple and convenient (if often harmful and self-destructive) answers.

The realization just came to me one day–and this is going to be kind of anticlimactic now because I’ve got all this buildup for what is going to be disappointingly little payoff–that there is no reason for there to be special moral rules for sex at all.  Period.  Sexual ethics are not a special case for ethics.  The usual rules apply.  And it is that simple.

What do I mean about the usual rules?  Basic human ethics and basic human decency.  Don’t hurt people.  Don’t betray people.  Don’t demean, degrade, or belittle people.  Treat people with respect.  Love thy neighbor as thyself. Basic, more-or-less universal moral principles found in almost every religion or ethical system, when applied to sex, produce the correct results.  Cheating on my wife is not morally reprehensible because it violates the special rule of “don’t cheat on your wife” or “confine all sexual behavior to the marriage-bed,” but because it is a personal betrayal of an intimate relationship, a violation of serious promises.  It is wrong because it hurts my wife.  There doesn’t need to be a special rule, because hurting my wife is already wrong (credit is admittedly due here to C. S. Lewis who kind of talks about this a bit in Mere Christianity).  Degrading myself sexually is bad for the same reasons as degrading myself any other way.  There doesn’t need to be a special rule.

The only special consideration with sex–and it is a serious one–is that we need to be cognizant of the fact that, for whatever reason, sex is an area in which human beings are particularly vulnerable, and so it is a moral setting that invites particular care.  Sexual betrayal hurts a lot more than garden-variety betrayal.  Sexual self-degradation leaves us feeling more degraded than garden-variety self-degradation, and so on.  But the increased potential for serious injury does not mean we need a whole new set of specific rules to deal with morality in a sexual context.  It just means we need to be extra-serious about following the moral principles we already have.

So the question is not “is premarital sex acceptable?” because that would be a special rule for sex and it would be nonsense.  The question is “is it okay to hurt myself and others?”  And the answer is no.  Having sex with your girlfriend, fiancee, or even a casual encounter may be perfectly okay–wonderful and good even–assuming that you are not carelessly hurting yourself or the other person (people?).  Even extramarital sex might be just fine if the context is completely consensual (though I would advise being pretty fucking careful about it, because people could very well think they’re going to be okay with something that turns out to be an emotional disaster, and generally the potential for pain is so high and the possibility that your spouse is saying yes but meaning no is so significant that you probably just should not go there).  Since sex is not a special case, the question of moral appropriateness simply does not pertain to the sexual act itself, but to the interpersonal relationships that contextualize the act.  Its not the deed you do that is right or wrong, but the way it affects yourself and other people, and that is realistically always going to be a case-by-case determination.

That said, it would not be unreasonable for a person to set sexual boundaries that are a bit far back away from the edge of the cliff of pain, because the vulnerability and the potential for catastrophic injury is so high.  Nevertheless we need to keep in mind that the boundaries you set do not in and of themselves have moral significance.  It’s not a sin to cross the safety-zone boundaries you might have reasonably set for yourself; it’s a sin to hurt people.  You’re staying on the safe side so as not to run risks, but that’s pragmatic, not moral.

Why is sex an area where we are s vulnerable and so easily hurt?  I personally think it is because sex lies at the very core of the bundle of experiences that make us truly human.  Sex is a part of the universal human experience, and it is intimately bound up with things like birth, death, and family.  These constants transcend the particulars of society and culture and lie at the heart of who we are as human beings.  When we are close to birth, close to death, or expressing our sexuality, we are in touch with soemthing mystical and primal, and we are the closest to who we really are that we ever get.  These are intensely powerful places, and they are also places where we are intensely vulnerable.  Figuring out what these things mean and what to do about them is what religion and spirituality are really about, because these things are what we are really about.  This is the essential heart of human existence, and as such it is delicate and should be treated with the utmost care.  Even so, our basic, universal moral principles should be sufficiently applicable that there is no need for specialized rules.

The moralists among us may not like the sound of the moral rule I am proposing we fall back on when it comes to sex, which basically boils down to “hurting people is wrong,” and the flip side, “if it does not hurt people, it isn’t wrong.”  But honestly, that’s a knee-jerk reaction, because as a moral rule it is simply true.  Actions have consequences, and if we act in a way that hurts other people, we need a pretty damn good justification for it or we are in the wrong.  That necessarily means that if our actions do not have negative consequences for other people or ourselves, then our actions are morally permissible–even morally laudable.  This is not unrestrained permissiveness.  It does mean a lot of freedom and individual accountability, but that’s just a reality of being a morally mature human being.

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There’s an excellent opinion piece at the New York Times by Sean Kelly on polytheism’s place in walking the road between Fanaticism and Nihilism.

Drawing heavily on Nietzche, Kelly discusses the waning role of objective, monotheist religious consensus in defining our social norms. We are quickly reaching the point where it is difficult for a rational, educated critically-thinking person to believe that a single, objectively knowable, unified supernatural moral order emanating from a single, all-powerful sovereign creator god is an unquestionably correct foundation to build society and give human existence meaning. Certainly we are past the point where a majority of people in our society can confidently claim that. On the most basic level, we are simply confronted too often with the reality of good people who believe different things to maintain the fantasy that there is only one true way to be good and right.

We are often cautioned by the religious that the alternative to monomorality is nihilism: if there is no sovereign god to set the rules, define meanings, reward the good and punish the evil, then there are no rules and there is no morality and we will have no choice but to descend into chaos and madness and a violent maelstrom of murder, cannibalism, rape and suicide until we are utterly annihilated.

And while the extremes of that scenario are unreasonably alarmist, I think the concern that nihilism is the alternative to monotheism is a legigimate concern. Particularly for a society that has held onto a dichotomy-worldview for centuries. When you have grown up believeing that the only alternative to the God of Israel os meaninglessness and despair, it is easy to slip into meaningless and despair when you lose the God of Israel. While this does not necessarily mean an orgy of destruction, it may mean depression and moral loss. While believeing in nothing may not mean you go on a killing spree, it is sort of easy to start justifying lesser immoral and even evil self-serving deeds.

So what’s the alternative?

Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

Kelly goes on to describe this way of life that finds meaning and fulfillment in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” polytheism, and I think he is not wrong. Melville may not have been describing the Olympians, but I think he was only a stone’s throw from them. When we sacralize the fundamental mysteries and values of human experience–which is what Melville was talking about and what I understand to be the essence of real paganism–it honestly does not matter if we name them or not.

I believe that the gods are real personalities that have some kind of existence of their own. But I think that reality is not actually very far removed from the pieces of human existence that those gods are related to. In other words, while I do not believe that Aphrodite is merely a metaphorical anthromorphization of human love, I do think there is a fundamental closeness and a fundamental union between Aphrodite the goddess and the emotional experiential phenomenon of love. There’s a blur at the edges where the real gives way to the super-real, and somewhere within those borders we find the gods.

And while I think that a person can find happiness and meaning in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” as things in themselves, I think that the desire to engage with those things in a sacred way, to relate to the things that are most important and give our existence meaning in a way that is transcendant, because those very things by their very natures straddle the line between immanent and transcendant. They seem weightier than other things. Human intuition senses enhanced meaning and wants to make contact with it in some kind of fitting way.

Thus, I believe that Melville’s polytheism is a road that eventually leads to some kind of real polytheism. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the New Age movement. It doesn’t even need to be connected with ancient paganism, although I suspect that at least connecting this new polytheism to the old polytheism, those gods of old that have held such power over our imaginations for so long despite the intellectual monopoly of monotheism, would yield an incredibly rich spiritual harvest, and might be the kind of thing that happens inevitably.

I think that this kind of Melvillian polytheism is probably developing spontaneously anyway. People increasingly identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and I think that identification has nothing to do with belief in a supernatural otherworld that exists in tandem with the physical world and everythign to do with an intuitive recognition that there is profound meaning and spiritual sustenance to be found in the fundamentals of human experience. Whether we worship a pantheon of gods or not, we as human beings experience the transcendent all the time. Life and death are everywhere, and I believe that there is an intuitive need to sacralize it somehow. Believing in the gods, engaging in spiritual practices and theology gives us a way to talk about that and a way to interact with it within a structure, and ultimately to develop a deeper connection to those things we feel that we feel; are important. But even without that structure, the fundamental recognition of meaning and fulfillment in basic human existence is still a thoroughly pagan experience.

As a side-note: Hrafnkell wrote some commentary on Kelly’s piece from a heathen perspective over on A Heathen’s Day. You should check it out.

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I believe in the Hellenic gods.  I have personally experienced their presence and their effect on my life.  I think that worshipping an honoring them in a traditional way makes sense.  I pray to Zeus, to Hermes, to Ares, to Aphrodite, to Hera, Athena, Dionysus, Artemis, Hestia and the other Olympians.  And I believe that I should also be finding ways to honor Pan, the nymphs, and the other immediate, present land-spirits.  I think that Euripides’s The Bacchae is one of the most intense, meaningful, and wise pieces of literature ever composed.  I believe that classical ethics and the Golden Mean remain–as they always have been–the best and most reliable guide for human behavior.

I have a strong pull towards personal mysticism and inner work: I have a strong desire to explore the landscape of the unconscious.  I think there is immense truth to the work of Jung.  Somehow, rock and roll, Dionysus, the Holy Grail, Jim Morrison, and snakes are all tied up in this.  And probably tarot, too.  I believe that there is something to be accomplished, some Great Work, some journey.  A journey outward into the literal Wilderness that is also a journey inward into the Wilderness of the human psyche.  There’s something there that wants to be discovered.

I believe that the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads, taken together, are an unsurpassed work of spiritual genius.  Reading them is like drinking light and wisdom.  I think that the philosophy of Vedanta comes the closest of any human philosophy to explaining the universe as we are situated in it.  If there is such thing as enlightenment–and I have to believe that there is–then the path outlined in the Gita has to be the way to find it.

So what does that add up to?  I don’t cast spells, or do any magic(k), or even really believe that other people who claim to are actually doing anything.  I don’t celebrate the wheel of the year.  I’ve tried, and it just didn’t click like I thought it was going to–it always seems like it should be relevant and emaningful and important to me but I never am able to make it be anything other than awkward and ill-fitting, like an outfit that looked great on the mannequin but just fits me terribly.  I think.  Or maybe I was somehow doing it wrong.  I don’t believe in assembling a homemade pantheon of gods that I “work with.”  I don’t think “working with” gods is a very good term at all, if nothing else because it fundamentally  misunderstands our relationship to them and in a terrible act of hubris tries to convert them into tools for our use.  I do divinations with tarot–and have often had uncanny insights–but sometimes I think the randomness of drawing cards causes me to miss the power and symbolism that the tarot has as a whole and in all of its parts.  I believe in right and wrong, but I don’t believe that we need salvation from sin.  I’m not sure if I believe in literal reincarnation, or literal life after death (I don’t deny either one: I just don’t know).  I’m inclined to agree on a philosophical level with the revival Druids, but when it comes down to specifics, none of what they do really reaches out and grabs me.  I’m not an ecofeminist.  I’m not a pacifist.  I’m not politically very liberal. 

I don’t feel much in common with most people who get included in the boader umbrella of “paganism” or neo-paganism; I don’t even think that the broader umbrella is a meaningful category because it includes too many things that have nothing in common other than being-clumped-together-into-the-category.  I’m not a Christian, but I have no fundamental problem with or hostility against Christianity.

So what, then?  What am I?  How do these pieces fit together?  How do I move forward, given all of this?  What’s the next step for me, spiritually?  Who am I and what does this all mean?  What does it mean for me as a father, a husband, a lawyer, a brother, a human being?  How do I keep myself from getting pulled away into tangents and driven off-course and away from things I hold sacred by the countless diversions and slippery slopes and spectra of meaning and practice that all of these disparate threads seem to be tied to?

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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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For those of you who don’t know; June has been deemed International Pagan Values Blogging Month. I’ve been planning a bunch of posts, but June has been pretty busy between military stuff and studying for the bar, so I’m only just now getting around to writing some of them. This is really my foundation post, though: the point is to set up a framework I can use to talk in more detail later about what is and is not a pagan value.

For Christmas last year my beautiful and sexy wife gave me a copy of Brendan Myers’s The Other Side Of Virtue. I was excited: the book had been at the top of my wish list, and I was eager to read it as soon as possible. I was beginning to seriously think of myself as a pagan without reservation, and I had been grappling with issues of morality and ethics fairly intensely for the previous half-year, both academically (I took a class on the philosophy of law), and on my own time (I read a ton of C. S. Lewis, in particular The Abolition Of Man, which I heartily recommend. In any case, I had questions of morality on my brain, and what looked to be a well-thought out, serious treatment of morality and ethics from a pagan point of view promised to be right up my alley.

I was seriously disappointed. I won’t go through a blow-by-blow of my problems with the book, because the big picture suffices: in The Other Side Of Virtue essentially starts with modern western liberal values and he attempts to retroactively justify them using pagan myth and tradition. While I applaud the general idea of asking some of the hard questions in a pagan context and adding pagan voices to the big debates out there, I think that Myers went about the whole thing the exact wrong way. He started with an a priori acceptance of modern liberal values and he constructed an argument for them in pagan terms, instead of starting with the mythology and philosophy of paganism and deriving values from those sources. What Myers writes is neither challenging nor transformative but merely philosophically sycophantic.

If pagan ethics are identical to mainstream liberal ethics, then morally speaking, paganism has nothing to offer us but a justification for what we wanted to do anyway. If having a religion looks exactly the same as not having a religion (thanks, Jack), then in a diverse and pluralist society where—like it or not—there is a religious marketplace, that religion will die because it ceases to serve a meaningful purpose. Certainly it will not be vital.

This problem is not somehow unique to paganism: in my experience it is a major problem in Christianity, too. One of the biggest problems I had with some of the Episcopal parishes we visited when I was looking for a Christian church home was that it seemed to me that far too many of them preached an unchallenging gospel that was in practice little more than a hearty stamp of approval of the values and behaviors already practiced by the congregants.

I am not trying to say that personal preferences and socially derived values should play no role in a person’s spiritual path. That would just be ludicrous; there needs to be a certain degree of interplay as your religion influences you even as it is influenced by you. But if we are just looking for a spiritual veneer to install over what we already believed anyway, then we are wasting our time.

Values have to come from somewhere—they have to have a source and a derivation. If we are doing what Myers models in The Other Side of Virtue, i.e. trying to fashion an essentially fictional religious/spiritual justification for our already-held values, then we are fooling ourselves into thinking our values are based on something other than what they are really based on. We misunderstand our spiritual tradition, our values, our religion, and ultimately ourselves.

The alternative then is to figure out what the source for our spiritual and religious values is, or should be, and try to work forward from there, without a preconceived notion of what the answers need to be when we’re finished (our own biases will inevitably creep in, which is a compelling argument for having this process go forward in community where we can check each other, criticize each other, inspire each other, and learn from each other—hopefully ultimately winnowing out the worst of our biases). As pagans, we do not have one single authoritative source. We look instead to mythology, the beliefs of our pagan ancestors, and to nature herself as the basis for our morals and values. At this point I do not necessarily want to suggest what those derived values are, but merely to suggest the framework we use to answer the question.

A prime example of this value-derivation in pagan community is the Nine Noble Virtues followed by some Germanic Reconstructionists. Although these nine virtues are not exlicitly spelled out anywhere in the Lore, modern Germanic pagans have gone back ot the sagas and eddas and found the application of a fairly consistent set of moral rinciples, and from that they have constructed the list of Nine. This is the kind of thing all pagans should be doing! We should be going back to our sources, seeing the values that are embodies in them or expressed by them, checking them against each other, and in the end identifying those values that are truly pagan values.

As we do this, we need to realize that it is entirely possible that we will derive spiritual and religious values that conflict with our other social, cultural, political, and civic values. This is bound to happen because these values are derived from different sources. It’s not a bad thing. It means we have to grapple with the inconsistency, and deal with the reality of being forced to weigh conflicting values against each other. We will find ourselves engaging in a mature, ongoing fluid process of moral reasoning. Sometimes there won’t be a conflict at all, and sometimes different sources can fill in the gaps left by their counterparts.

This process may also involve some rude awakenings as we begin to discover that some of our very favorite values are not really pagan values! That is not to say that they are not valuable, or that we should not hold them as guiding principles in our lives, but we may need to recognize that there are many valued that are held by pagans without themselves being pagan values, and that those values may actually conflict with their truly pagan counterparts. As I said, this may create some tension as we try to work out or simply live with the inconsistency, but if we actively engage in the process the result is an endgame of unmatched moral maturity.

Important addendum: Values From The Age Of Aquarius.

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