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Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Hat tip to Gundek.

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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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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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I came across a pretty cool essay on Jim Morrison and Dionysus, and the pagan spiritual implications of Morrison’s life, music, philosophy, and his unique and fascinating madness. It gets a little closer to what I was trying to write a few days ago about the Lizard King. With all due respect and entirely without permission, I am reprinting it here in entirety:

THE CULT OF THE LIZARD KING
by Delia Morgan

I. The Rock God:

Jim Morrison–rock star, poet, prophet, electric shaman, and god incarnate. The lead singer of the 1960’s acid rock band known as The Doors, Jim Morrison identified himself very strongly with Dionysos. The Doors were the first group to really do rock concerts as ritual, as a means of taking the audience on a psycho-religious trip. They took their name from Aldous Huxley’s quote (here paraphrased) that “When the Doors of perception are cleansed, we will see things as they truly are–infinite.” Morrison described their mission in terms of trying to “Break On Through” to a bigger reality: “There are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between are the Doors.”

Morrison, with his “Greek God” beauty, his fiery passion and dark mysterious persona, has been considered a Dionysos incarnate. He certainly tried to bring something like shamanism and Greek drama to rock music and to the stage; he tried to shock people out of their complacency and into a terrifying and liberating ecstasy. Since his death at a young age in 1971, a cult has grown around him; many people, myself included, sense his presence as a guiding force, build altars to him, etc. There was even a “First Church of the Doors” at one time.

Morrison himself was, by all accounts, a man as brilliant as he was daring. At a young age he had read extensively on shamanism and ancient mythology, including James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” (much of which is about Dionysos); he was also quite taken with Friedrich Nietzsche’s passionate vision of Dionysos as portrayed in “The Birth of Tragedy.” One of the last books he had been reading before his death was Jane Ellen Harrison’s voluminous and challenging “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion” which is also mostly about Dionysos. It seems to me that Morrison let himself be completely possessed by Dionysos, until the man and the god were irrevocably merged; he carried the torch of his mythic Dionysian vision all the way to his death.

Unfortunately, most people never quite ‘got’ what he was trying to do at the time, which was religion. Rock critics called him pretentious for taking himself so seriously; few of them knew enough about myth and religion to put the pieces together. Ray Manzarek’s recent book “Light My Fire” is a personal history of the Doors, and also talks about Morrison as Dionysos.

Here are just a few quotes from Morrison’s songs and poetry where the dark and Dionysian mystic slips through:

“I call upon the dark hidden gods of the blood…”

“Where is the wine we were promised, the new wine…?”

“We could plan a murder, or start a religion…”

“I promised I would drown myself in mystic heated wine…”

“Let us reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages;
celebrate symbols from deep elder forests…”

“I am a guide to the labyrinth.”

II. Perspectives on the Morrisonian mythos:

Some perceptive authors and music critics at the time caught on to the Dionysian element in Morrison’s philosophy and in his performances; others have come to realize this in retrospect. (Still others never caught on, and can’t understand what all the fuss is about.)

The following excerpt from a Doors website makes explicit the Doors’ connection to Pagan spiritual sentiment:

http://www.elektra.com/rock_club/doors/bio.html

During the late 1960′s bands sang of love and peace while acid was passed out. But for The Doors it was different. The nights belonged to Pan and Dionysus, the gods of revelry and rebirth, and the songs invoked their potent passions–the Oedipal nightmare of “The End,” the breathless gallop of “Not to Touch the Earth,” the doom of “Hyacinth House,” the ecstasy of “Light My Fire,” the dark uneasy undertones of “Can’t See Your Face in My Mind,” and the alluring loss of consciousness in “Crystal Ship.” And as with Dionysus, The Doors willingly offered themselves as a sacrifice to be torn apart, to bleed, to die, to be reborn for yet another night in another town.

The pagan/Dionysian theme is expanded upon by Danny Sugerman in the following excerpts from the introduction to the famous biography of Jim Morrison, titled “No One Here Gets Out Alive.”

http://www.thedoors.com/beta/mythos.htm

DOORS MYTHOS
by Danny Sugerman

“Though the favorites of the gods die young, they also live eternally in the company of gods.”
– Fredrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

An account of initiation into the mysteries of the goddess Isis survives in only one in-person account, an ancient text that translated reads: “I approached the frontier of death, I saw the threshold of Persephone, I journeyed through all the elements and came back, I saw at midnight the sun, sparkling in white light, I came close to the gods of the upper and the netherworld and adored them near at hand. ” This all happened at night. With music and dance and performance. The concert as ritual, as initiation. The spell cast. Extraordinary elements were loosed that have resided in the ether for hundreds of thousands of years, dormant within us all, requiring only an awakening.

Of course, psychedelic drugs as well as alcohol could encourage the unfolding of events. A Greek musicologist gives his description of a Bacchic initiation as catharsis: “This is the purpose of Bacchic initiation, that the depressive anxiety of people, produced by their state of life, or some misfortune, be cleared away through melodies and dances of the ritual.”

There is a strange tantalizing fascination evoked by fragments of ancient pagan mysteries: the darkness and the light, the agony and the ecstasy, the sacrifice and bliss, the wine and the ear of grain (hallucinogenic fungi). For the ancients it was enough to know there were doors to a secret dimension that might open for those who earnestly sought them. Such hopes and needs have not gone away with time. Jim Morrison knew this. Morrison was the first rock star I know of to speak of the mythic implications and archetypal powers of rock ‘n’ roll, about the ritualistic properties of the rock concert. For doing so, the press called him a pretentious asshole: “Don’t take yourself so seriously, Morrison, it’s just rock ‘n’ roll and you’re just a rock singer.”

Jim knew they were wrong, but he didn’t argue. He also knew when the critics insulted him they demeaned his audience. Jim knew that music is magic, performance is worship, and he knew rhythm can set you free. Jim was too aware of the historical relevance of rhythm and music in ritual for those transforming Doors concerts to have been accidental.

From his favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jim took solace and encouragement in the admonition to “say yes to life.” I never believed that Jim was on a death trip as so many have claimed, and to this day still find it difficult to judge the way he chose to live and die. Jim chose intensity over longevity, to be, as Nietzsche said, “one who does not negate,” who does not say no, who dares to create himself. Jim also must have been braced to read the following Nietzsche quote: “Saying yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems; the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types-this is what I call Dionysian, that is what I understood as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to get rid of terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous effect by its vehement discharge, but in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity. “

It was Jim’s insatiable thirst for life that killed him, not any love of death.

III. Morrison Today

Why, among all stars in that infamous rock-n-roll heaven, is Jim Morrison uniquely qualified as an avatar of Dionysos? It’s no doubt true that various worthy and charismatic figures in rock-n-roll have gained something of a fanatical cult following. Visions of Elvis, etc. One recent translation of Euripedes’ play “The Bacchae” even put Elvis on the cover. But, really, it should have been Jim.

Morrison was, as far as I know of, the first or only rock performer to actually identify with Dionysos, and to express (sometimes subtly) the stated intent of trying to bring back the old pagan religions. He was also the only one to do serious research on the cult of Dionysos, and to attempt to recreate the cathartic experience of Greek tragedy as a ritual on the stage. He forged a connection between shamanism and Dionysiac cult: the shaman, by going on a spirit journey, could heal the tribe; then the rock performer, by making the presence of Dionysos manifest, and by bringing the audience with him, could create a healing breakthrough for both himself and the spectators/participants. He was brilliant, and possibly mad.

He was also the performer who (in my view) best expressed the enigmatic, mysterious qualities of Dionysos himself – the paradoxical juxtaposition of sweetness and violence, ecstasy and agony, deep masculinity and androgynous beauty, orgasmic chaos and graceful precision. Etc., etc.

I have no doubt that the spirit of Dionysos permeated the world of rock music in the 60′s, and even somewhat today. But it remains that Jim Morrison alone gave himself to Dionysos, entirely and without reservation, to the very end; and all for the purpose of bringing back Dionysian religion to a world without a clue.

And since his death, he has become a real and guiding presence for many devotees; in other words – a god. Doors fans have built altars and web shrines, conducted rituals in his honor and written poems about their spiritual encounters with Jim. He was certainly a powerful force in my own pagan awakening. This point came home to me, in many ways over the years; I’ll relate one.

One evening, I was sitting on the couch reading Jane Ellen Harrison’s “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion,” a book which deals extensively with the religion of Dionysos. I was at the section where she describes how the dead hero becomes transformed into a god. I got very excited, and was scribbling notes in the margins, about how I saw this process of heroic deification as applying to Jim Morrison. (Snakes figured largely into this process, as they did in the cult of Dionysos; and Doors fans know all about Jim and “the ancient snake.”)

Suddenly, for no reason, I had a strong urge to turn on the television. (I almost never watched it; my roommate did.) When I did so, there was a program about the history of rock music, and they were doing a short segment on Jim Morrison. Then they interviewed the Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, on the subject of Jim’s death and/or possible continued existence. Ray said (paraphrased): “Jim isn’t here on earth anymore. Dionysos returned to Olympus, and he’s sitting up there laughing at us.”

This statement, coming right after my reading the same idea in Harrison’s book (and my relating it to Morrison), seemed like a remarkable coincidence to me at the time. I’m sure it was Jim who prompted me to turn the TV on at that moment. A few years later, I learned that (according to Jim’s girlfriend, Wiccan priestess Patricia Kennealy) that Harrison’s book on Greek religion was the very same one that Jim was reading just before he left for Paris, where he died a few months later.

===================================================

“Calling on the Gods…
Cobra on my left, leopard on my right…”
- Jim Morrison, from the album “The Soft Parade”

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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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My initial reason for leaving Mormonism was because it conflicted with Christianity (at least the way I understood Christianity). So somewhat naturally, my assumption on the way out of Mormonism was that really finding God was just a matter of figuring out which Christian denomination I belonged in. The questions I was asking and trying to figure out were still sort of narrow Christian theological questions about soteriology, ecclesiology, and so on: what points of Christian doctrine were non-negotiable for me, and what points were less important. I spent about a half a year investigating different flavors of Christianity without feeling that “click”–that sense of coming home that I was waiting for.  Something more than an intellectual affinity that would enable me to adopt a new identity as a Christian. Christianity as a religion held a lot of appeal (and still does!), but there was something deeply visceral that I needed but that was just missing. There was a sense of “aha!–this is it!” that just was not happening with Christianity. Eventually, I started to question whether Christianity was the right direction for me at all, and I started looking elsewhere.

For the most part, that’s been the story of my post-Mormon life: back and forth between Christianity and “vaguely searching.” I like Christian liturgy, Christian prayer, I like theology, hymns, churches and cathedrals, Christian philosophy, the Bible, the whole nine yards. But it just doesn’t click. I’m not sure what’s actually supposed to happen that makes me say “there, that’s it; now I am a Christian,” but it never happens. Its like there’s a Christianity neuron in my brain that just isn’t firing. I like Christianity a lot, but I neither believe Christianity nor am able to commit to Christianity. That’s the thing. So I dive into Christianity again and again–at least in my head–hoping that this time that click in my head will happen and I will realize what it feels like to be a Christian, but it keeps not happening.  So I look around in, at, and under other things: Hinduism, New Age gobbledygook, Atheism, LaVeyan Satanism, Zen, Revival Druidry, Asatru, whatever. But the click doesn’t happen in those places either, and then I can’t shake Christianity’s powerful hold on me, so I wander back and throw myself in, but the click still doesn’t happen.

I understand Christianity conceptually. I have read the Bible. But it just isn’t relevant to me on the deep, personal level that I feel like it should, like I need it to in order to get me to a place where I am willing to say “I am a Christian; this I believe.”  The Bible connects to me as a cultural relic, a powerful one even, that is fundamental to the history of western civilization.  But as God’s Word, it just doesn’t resonate the right way.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my wife about religion and our different outlooks on the universe, and I told her that I really wish I could somehow make Christianity work for me, because it would be so much easier. And she said, simply but incisively, “but it doesn’t.” And there it was. No matter how much I like Christianity, no matter how much I love every word C. S. Lewis wrote, no matter how much I like Episcopal services and liturgy, no matter how much I think the Bible is amazing, Christianity just doesn’t work for me. The click I need to happen just… doesn’t happen.

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Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.

Bring back the Greek gods

Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.

By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.

Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.

At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.

Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.

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Pluralism in a normative sense (as opposed to pluralism as a matter of description which is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion) means valuing subjectivity over objectivity by declaring all cultural viewpoints (including religious viewpoints as a facet of culture) equally and fundamentally valid. The problems with this popular viewpoint-framework include first, that pluralism is itself a value that undermines all other values, and second, that it generally fails to be subject to its own scrutiny.

The value of pluralism is not somehow self-evident, regardless of whether it is treated as such. Even if it can be justified by rhetoric or evidence, pluralism is itself a value. The problem is that it is a value that undermines all other values. If I ascribe to pluralism, I cannot at the same time hold any other values, because that would be an assertion that those values were somehow true or the best or the most valid, which is inconsistent with pluralism. In fact, under the rubric of pluralism, there is no need to hold any other values at all: if all values are equally valid then no value supersedes another, and all values are thus also equally invalid. Pluralism, in its admirable desire for fairness and equity, swallows up everything else.

Furthermore, in practice, pluralism generally fails to live up to its own mandate. Most pluralists reject exclusivist or fundamentalist viewpoints. In other words, to the pluralist, all viewpoints are equally valid except for when they undermine pluralism itself. Thus all viewpoints actually aren’t equally valid because no viewpoint other than pluralism can ever be valid, since any statement of value necessarily implies the non-validity of contradictory values. Thus, under the rubric of pluralism, no value is valid because all values other than pluralism denigrate other values by not recognizing their equal worth and validity. But that is not even true: in fact, under the rubric of pluralism, no value is valid at all, not even pluralism, because rejecting say, Fundamentalist Christianity in the name of pluralism means recognizing that the pluralism is more valid than Fundamentalist Christianity, a situation that is impossible under pluralism.

Thus pluralism is undesirable as a stance because it not only undermines all other values, but in practice, pluralism even undermines itself. It is subjectivity taken to the logical, but absurd end. This end means the inability to make moral judgments of any kind, because it results in the rejection of all Ought principles. Even if not taken to the extreme, pluralism undermines strong Ought principles conceptually and thus undermines all moral imperatives, i.e., all statements of Should.

This lies at the heart of my unease with liberalism, at least liberalism as commonly articulated in America today. Liberalism is all passion but no principle. Certainly liberals have articulated a significant number of values couched in moral terms, and many liberals are extremely passionate about these values. But the problem is that liberalism includes and embraces pluralism as not just a value, but as a fundamental premise, and so liberalism fails to be able to articulate reasons for its values without rejecting a premise that it is unwilling to reject.

American conservatives, by contrast, get the force for their Ought statements from their belief in Christianity, pragmatism, or market economics. I may not agree with their Ought statements, or even acknowledge the validity of their sources, but they are articulating policies based on principles that are at least alleged to be objective. If you acknowledge even the possible validity of the source and the derivation of the Ought, then their Should-conclusions have a great deal of moral force. I’m not entirely sure about the source of libertarians’ Ought-principles.

Now, to be fair, many people are proponents of the same causes as liberals without being liberals in the sense that I am using it. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury is socially progressive but theologically conservative. His Ought-principles, whether they are true or misguided, come from a set of objective moral standards. Ditto for my friend Bryant: as a faithful Mormon, he believes in absolute morality and objective values, but he concludes that those values—that set of Ought-principles—lead him basically to the same Should-imperatives that liberals advocate.

However, people like Bryant occupy a perilous place in the American left. Because their moral reasoning is based on objective standards, by definition they reject full cultural pluralism, which means they are treated with suspicion by fellow-liberals. It’s not always easy being both religious and a Democrat in the United States: conservatives think that your Progressive politics is a betrayal of your religion (because you derive a different set of Ought-principles from what is ostensibly the same source), and too many liberals think that your objective values are the antithesis of pluralism and thus inherently invalid (and since pluralism is fundamental to liberalism, your objective values are the antithesis of liberalism even if you advocate the same set of policy goals; the feeling is that you happen by lucky coincidence to advocate the same policy goals in one particular instance, but since you reject pluralism you can’t really be counted on).

Yes, I know that political reality means that Democratic candidates have to use religious talk to get elected. But it is also true that they suffer derision and scorn from liberals when they do. This is because for the kind of liberal I am talking about, anything that even potentially undermines pluralism is the mark of the enemy.

Next: Religious Choices And Their Values

Go back to the Introduction and Index

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Reading most everything readily available by C. S. Lewis has made drastic changes to my outlook and thinking. While I find Lewis challenging, I also find his ideas compelling and persuasive. As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning that while Lewis was certainly a Christian, the Christianity that he articulated and believed was extremely unorthodox. If Evangelicals and Mormons took the time to actually read Lewis and consider his viewpoint, their love affair with his work would come to a tragic and untimely end. Instead, they generally read Lewis through dogmatic blinders, recruiting him as an apologist for their cause even though what he really said was completely heretical by Mormon and Evangelical standards.

But that’s just my soapbox and it does not bear directly on the issue at hand.

Before I proceed, I want to at least try to define the terms I will be using so as to alleviate confusion. I’m going to talk about a dichotomy between two term clusters that represent ideas about truth and value. On the one hand, I am talking about “soft” subjective values, values that are relative to the individual and are thus immanent—necessarily tied to person and context and most importantly to an individual human mind—as opposed to transcendent. This “soft” approach to truth and value will be contrasted with the “hard” approach of the objective, absolute, and transcendent. By “objective” I mean that these truths or values or moral principles exist independent of individual perspective. Context is significant without question: by “absolute” I do not mean that these principles ought to be applied the same way to every circumstance, but that as principles they exist as absolutes and are not subject to revision based on preference or perspective. These truths, etc., are thus transcendent in that if they exist at all they must exist apart from and beyond human minds and human experience, and they remain the same although human understanding of them may change. Thus, if they exist, they exist by virtue of something other than human thought and experience.

C. S. Lewis eloquently articulates the difference between these thought concepts and their ramifications in his book The Abolition of Man. One of Lewis’s most cogent points in the book (which is short, and well worth reading) is a model of moral reasoning which I call the “Is-Ought-Should” model. In this model, moral imperatives can be expressed as a statement of fact (“is”), a statement of principle (“ought”), and a conclusion in the form of a direction to act (“should”). For example, let’s say I see someone experiencing extreme suffering—that’s the “is”—and I take as a moral principle that suffering ought to be alleviated—that’s the “ought”—then I should help the suffering person. The Should follows from the Is and Ought, and thus when you weaken Ought, you likewise weaken should. Furthermore, Ought principles do not simply exist as observable phenomena the way Is statements do. They have to have some source. Therefore, the less authoritative the source of the Ought principle, the less compelling the principle itself, ad thus the less force stands behind the moral directive. This is the most important point: if the source of the Ought statement has no practical claim on me, then ultimately I have no compelling reason to follow a moral directive. Furthermore, this is a mater of degree: the weaker the source of the Ought, the weaker my reason to act morally. The stronger the source of the Ought, the stronger my reason to act morally. An Ought with no source is not an Ought at all: it’s a bare assertion backed by nothing.

Ought statements can have a number of sources, ranging from completely subjective—personal preference is the very weakest, most subjective possible source, excepting perhaps the even more subjective momentary whim—to the category of completely objective sources, i.e. sources that exist independent of human experience, whether we are talking about principles that flow from God as the source of the universe, or principles that are simply coded into reality the way laws of physics—or spiritual laws like karma if such a thing exists—are. Lewis himself does not assert a source for objective moral law in The Abolition of Man, but rather he attempts to show by inference that such laws do exist objectively because of their universal acceptance, and thus Lewis implies that objective moral law exists, and therefore necessarily has an objective transcendent source.

In any case, the conclusion remains that the weaker and more subjective the source of the Ought, the less compelling the Should, and the less claim that morality has on the individual. Alternately, without addressing the issue of source, the more subjective the Ought, the weaker the Should.

The problem with people who reject objective, transcendent moral values, says Lewis, is that all too often they want to hold on to moral statements and moral assertions. The result is that they go from Is to Should without passing through Ought. They want to say that you should help the suffering person without articulating a reason why suffering ought to be alleviated, or at least without articulating a compelling source for the Ought. In other words, they want to tell you to act according to a moral standard without giving you any kind of compelling reason, and then they invariably act all surprised and concerned when you don’t.

Why does any of this matter? Essentially, it is an issue of moral reasoning and moral judgment. If Should is undermined by a weak or nonexistent Ought, then we lose the ability to make moral judgments at all—we can’t criticize ourselves or others for acting immorally when we can’t articulate in a compelling sense why our/their actions are immoral. Likewise we lose the ability to speak of morality in prescriptive terms: we can hardly propose a virtuous course of action for ourselves or others if we can’t give a compelling reason why.

This is a problem with all ethical systems that do not involve an absolute, transcendent source for morality: they fail to give a compelling reason to the most basic human question: “Why?” Most non-absolute ethical systems, like Kant’s categorical imperative taken on its face, are really only descriptive of ethics. Kant can say that we should act only on that maxim which we can, at the same time, will to be a universal law, but without appealing to a transcendent source for that principle, he can’t tell us why we should bother. If that is indeed a description of morality, it is a description only. It may explain how a moral or ethical person acts, but it does not give a good reason why any given person should act that way.

Utilitarianism—the idea that at any given juncture we should take the action that provides the most good to the most people—encounters the same problem. Setting aside the massive problems with determining what course of action actually achieves that good, especially when it leaves the realm of the individual and is applied to public policy situations, and even setting aside fundamental problems with “what is good,” Utilitarianism still reaches a dead end when it comes to the question of why. It tells us how we should act, or it tells us how a moral or ethical person does act, but it does not give us a reason to act that way.

Pragmatism is no different. In fact, I might argue that pragmatism really just means utilitarianism or naked self-interest, which means pragmatism is a troublesome guide in that it can be difficult to identify what course of action is indeed the most pragmatic, especially in complex situations. Even if pragmatism is functional, it still fails to adequately answer the question of why. ‘Because it works” is a kind of answer, but it is not a satisfactory answer. It doesn’t really give a basis for making confident moral judgments, and since it is essentially sourceless, it fails to give truly compelling reasons for any given course of action.

If sourceless morality is all we have, then we may as well admit it, and stop pretending that our moral judgments are weightier than they are. If morality really does have an objective source, then we should be earnestly trying to figure out what it is.

Next: The Problem With Pluralism

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I’m taking a class on Jurisprudence this semester in law school, and it is unquestionably the most interesting class I have.  Jurisprudence is the philosophy of law, and the class is taught by a professor from the philosophy department at the main campus, as opposed to a law professor.  All things considered, this is a good thing.  I have generally found the academic study of law to be tedious, although I am interested in actually practicing law.  But this is really a philosophy class, so it’s fun.

An issue that keeps coming up–a core issue in jurisprudence, really, almost a given–is the existence of morality.  This isn’t an ethics class, so we don;t really spend a lot of time talking about what morality is, where it comes from, etcetera, but whenever we talk about morality, those kinds of questions become preeminent in my mind.

Actually, this isn’t just about my Jurisprudence class.  I think about the existence of morality all the time, and for me, it has become my core theological problem.  I spend a lot of time grappling with what I think is the very real possibility that nothing means anything, that morality is a purely human invention, that there’s nothing behind it but arbitrary preference.  That morality does not exist as anything other than a social construct, and thus has no implications for anything other than society (and, well, psychology to the extent that psychology is informed by sociology).  Simply put, if values and morals are culturally relative, then they do not really exist at all.  Thus, the gaping abyss.  I do not buy Utilitarianism.  I do not buy Kant’s categorical imperative (because why should I act only on that maxim which I can at the same time will to be a universal law? ).  They are toothless.  They are inventions.  They have no real weight.  We have to assume them in argument, because they don’t hold in virtue of themselves.

What I am getting at is this: if there is not actually a universal ultimate morality that exists outside of human beings and the human mind, then there is no real morality at all.  If morality or values are not absolute, then morality and values cannot exist.  Any argument to the contrary is, in my frank opinion, complete bullshit.  Morals and values invented by human beings are utterly arbitrary.  Even if they are practical, there is still no pressing reason for any individual to follow them.

So there I am, staring into the gaping abyss, wondering what is going to save me from complete nihilism.  And I’ve got nothing.

C. S. Lewis’s inference of ultimate morality from general human consensus and a universal existence of “ought” is not unreasonable, but it does not convince me.  I think you can rationally infer that since most people think that, say, torture is wrong, then it’s likely that there may actually be an absolute moral principle behind it.  But it’s not a slam-dunk.  Consensus may be compelling, but the consensus can still be wrong.

So there are either absolute values, or there is nothing but the abyss.  I would prefer absolute values, but where are they?  Where do they come from?  And if they aren’t really there… then it’s the abyss, and the abyss is terrifying.  It is total nihilism.  It is nothing at all, but it swallows up everything else.  There is no meaning, there is no truth, there is nothing.  There is nothing, and it is absolutely terrifying.

The easy answer would be “God,” and if I had an easier time believing in God, I would just say that.  but I don’t; I have a hard time believing in God.  My confidence that God exists is actually less than my confidence that Lewis’s argument from consensus is correct.  If I was sure of God, then I could easily see God as the creator of the universe and thus the source of everything–including truth, value, and morality.

Maybe this is really why I can’t leave religion alone, why I can’t just not worry about it.  I have to worry about it, because this abyss is looming open in front of me.

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