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Posts Tagged ‘Semantics’

I was navigating through my WordPress dashboard and once again I noticed the list of unfinished drafts sitting there. The familiar twinge of guilt came, followed by the old, habitual “You’ll get to it eventually” lie that I tell myself. It’s time I faced the truth: I am probably never going to finish writing those posts. That being said, there is no reason that the unposted ideas should simply die.

Therefore I have decided to do them all in one go, as “stubs.” A list of rough ideas for posts I never got around to actually writing and that I probably never will write, alsong with any bits of them that I think are particularly worth sharing.

So without further ado:

Are Wiccans Really Pagan?: After the hubub following the Parliament of World Religions, this is sort of a dead horse. My opinion is that labels are mostly just semantic, but they do matter because they influence how we think about things, how we generalize, and thus how we interpret the world. Despite the fact a Hellenic polytheist may pay lip service to some of the same gods as a Wiccan, I do not think that Wicca and Reconstructionist Polytheism are even in the same category of religions. The term “earth-based” gets bandied about a lot, but I think it’s bullshit rhetoric. What does it even mean to be “earth-based,” and what makes a religion “earth-based?” In what way is your religion (or mine, or anyone else’s) “earth-based?” It has been taken for granted by most that all of the disparate religions and spiritual paths that congregate under the broad umbrella of “Neopaganism” actually belong together, but it is my opinion that they do not. I think that Neopaganism as a conceptual category is a net negative: by thinking of all of these religions as related, it causes people to treat them as if they are related, and it pushes their adherents to practice them as if they are related, and in the end, I think that is bad for everyone involved. I think that a Hellenic polytheist without a neopagan background has a lot more in common with a Hindu than he or she does with most Wiccans or neo-druids.

BYU vs. The Bakkhai: Last year, Brigham Young University canceled a performance of Euripides’ The Bakkhai, because it had “adult material.” I think that’s lame for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is a kind of religious censorship. The Bakkhai, as originally conceived and performed, was a part of the Dionysian theater festival. It wasn’t entertainment; it was religion. By not allowing the Bakkhai because of its content, BYU actually censored the exprsssion of another religion. BYU is a Mormon university, so I guess it can do that if it wants, but it’s the kind of thing that strikes me as a petty and desperate form of ideological control. The best part about it is that one of the central messages of the Bakkhai is that by denying the place of Dionysus–by denying the wildness and the transgressory reveler within us–we give rise to tragedy. Our Dionysian natures will have their expression whether we want them to or not. We either drink the wine and dance with the maenads in a controlled and ultimately harmess expression of our untamed natures, or we try to deny them, and subject ourselves to savage backlash. And that is exactly what BYU has done, and exactly what Mormonism does: by trying to deny the Natural Man completely, Mormonism only invites him to come back and haunt us in far darker and more destructive ways.

Rolling Stone Is Kind Of Lame: I subscribed to Rolling Stone because I am a music enthusiast and because it was inexpensive, but usually I find myself irritated and disappointed by every issue. As long as the magazine sticks to music, it’s decent (although sometimes unnecessarily snide and nasty, as they were with the Taylor Swift cover story), but every time it ventures into politics and society, it does so ridiculously. News Flash, Rolling Stone: knee-jerk partisan support for the Democratic Party platform is not rock and roll rebellion.

I May Be A Civilian But I Will Never Be Civilized: My end of term of service date with the National Guard came and went, which means I am no longer even an active reservist. Getting out at that time was practical and prudent, but not a day goes by that I don’t wish I was back in. I had some bad times in the Army, but I had some incredible times, too, and for the last three years, being in the Army has made me happy. My heart aches to be a soldier again., and if I can figure out a way to make it happen, I will.

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Wicca-derived modern neopagan slang terms like “newbie” and “getting thwapped” have absolutely no place in even moderately reconstructionist pagan religions.

“Newbie” is a term implying resentment towards beginners. It’s appropriate in something like online gaming, where beginners can be annoying and in the way. Whether or not it’s appropriate in Wicca or other witchcraft practice is none of my business, since I’m not a Wiccan or any other kind of witch. But in [recon] polytheist faiths, that kind of attitude towards new believers makes no sense whatsoever. We should be embracing, welcoming, and guiding new believers, not resenting them and being annoyed at them. Why on earth would we want to discourage people from coming back around to the gods of their ancestors? Sure, just like new believers in any faith, their (our) heads are probably full of leftover ideas from wherever they came from, but the response there should be gentle (or firm, as the case may be) correction, not personal resentment. Direct your ire toward the religion(s) that gave them unhelpful ideas, not toward them for having them. New believers are not in the way; they are an essential part of a living, thriving faith community.

“Being thwapped” is a flippant and disrespectful term for a powerful and sacred revelatory mystical experience. It stems from an casual attitude towards the gods that is born from neopagan beliefs about the nature of divinity that have no place in a truly polytheistic (or any kind of true theistic) faith. But even if you believe that the gods are mere psychological archetypes, they still are potent and powerful archetypes that should be honored and respected. Being casual about them is dangerously disrespectful, if you believe they actually exist in any real sense.

Between the lore we have from the ancients and analogous modern living polytheist faiths we have plenty of vocabulary–specialized, tested, specific vocabulary that properly expresses what we are trying to say the way we should be saying it. Relying on modern neopagan slang to define our spiritual lives essentially allows modern neopaganism to set the terms, and it undermines many of the core concepts of our faiths.

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The question of whether Mormons can be considered Christian is fairly central to interfaith dialogue, and is significant enough to have garnered national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign. It comes up every now and then on Tim’s most excellent blog, and as an ex-Mormon non-Christian who is nevertheless widely read and confident in his basic grasp of the world of religion and religious belief, I thought I would take a stab at untangling some of the mess. Fundamentally, the question and ensuing argument is an issue of semantics/framing: both sides are talking about something different when they talk about whether Mormons are Christians, and both sides feel like they have something extremely important–but again, totally different–at stake with regards to the answer. the resolution to the dispute is probably not as simple as forcing one or both sides to re-frame their dialogue, since the way it is framed is not arbitrary. But an awareness of the semantic mismatch and an understanding of why it matters to both sides would go a long way into at least setting the issue aside and reducing its potential for causing a ruckus.

From the individual Mormon’s perspective, I think there is a pathological fear of being misunderstood. I believe that a large number of Mormons, fed on Mormon historical accounts of mistreatment in the early days of the church and anecdotal hostility since then, fear that they will be discriminated against or that they will encounter hostility because of misinformation about Mormonism that has been perpetuated. In other words, a significant number of Mormons believe that 1) they face potential or present persecution, because of 2) lies, misinformation, and twisted truth about their religion. Thus, if they could get people to accurately understand who they are and what they were about, they would not be in danger. I think there’s also a belief that a large number of potential converts to the Church refuse to consider Mormonism as an option because of misinformation about it: indeed that the single biggest obstacle to the missionary effort is misunderstandings about the Church.

So, for the Mormon, it is important to promote accurate, descriptive picture of their religion for their safety and for the success of their missionary program. This is underscored and reinforced in the individual Mormon’s mind by the Church’s intensive and explicit public relations efforts over the last three or so decades. If the Church itself has been engaged so desperately in promoting a positive image, then it must be not only important and beneficial, but God’s intention for His Church.

So when the Mormon encounters a conservative Christian that says “Mormons are not Christians,” alarm bells go off. The Mormon, in this encounter, wants first and foremost to be descriptively understood: he wants to correct misunderstandings because he believes misunderstandings lead to persecution and prevent the missionaries from touching the hearts of the people they contact and teach. The Mormon believes, descriptively, that he is a Christian: in fact, he believes that his Church is actually the Church established by Jesus Christ, and from a dictionary/encyclopedia-standpoint, that makes Mormons Christians. To say otherwise is to spread damaging lies such as that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ, share Christian values, or believe in the Bible. And if those lies get (further) spread, individual Mormons will be persecuted because they are misunderstood and the missionaries will not be able to reach the people who are looking for the Truth.

(Lurking here is the presumption that if Mormons were correctly understood that they would not be persecuted except at the hands of the truly evil, and that the missionaries would be able to teach and baptize exponentially more people).

This also means–and this is crucial–that when the Mormon confronts someone who still insists that Mormons are not Christians despite being exposed to an accurate description, the Mormon is likely to conclude that the person is being aggressively dishonest, and intentionally slandering the Church.

Now, there may be some people out there like that, but most of them are well-known heads of countercult ministries, or pissed-off ex-Mormons who (whether they are justified or not), are angry enough to lash out by saying anything bad about the Church that they can. whether or not it is true (though they are usually not also conservative Evangelicals, so they are not really relevant to the topic). But most theologically conservative Christians who insist on the non-Christianity of Mormonism despite an accurate picture of what the Church believes and teaches do not do so because of an evil motive. There is a misunderstanding here, because when the Mormon and the Evangelical talk about the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, they are not really talking about the same thing. The Mormons are talking about “Christianity” from a descriptive, historical, and sociological point of view, whereas the Evangelical is talking about “Christianity” from a theological point of view. I shall attempt to explain.

Conservative Protestants, as a general rule, do not believe that denomination matters. They do not believe that salvation is found in the Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or in their Evangelical Free Congregation. Conservative Protestants believe salvation is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ too, but they believe that the road to that salvation (or exaltation, whatever, semantics) is only available through the Church’s teachings and sacraments. To a conservative Protestant, a denomination has other meanings, but very few if any would try to claim that any one denomination is the “one true church,” because the one true church is Christianity, in other words, those followers of Jesus who have embraced his gospel and have found salvation through faith on his name. Mormons (and other exclusive denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more often than not, the Roman Catholic Church) do not fit into this category because their understanding about the nature of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation are radically different: just the claim that it can only be found in fullness in one organization is enough to completely disqualify Mormonism.

In other words, Mormons don’t understand why Evangelicals won’t acknowledge Mormonism’s Christianity because Mormons do not realize what is at stake. Evangelicals do not think of themselves as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Nondenominationals, at least not in terms of their primary spiritual identity. They may recognize that as a matter of history they are members of a specific denomination (if they are) and that they have been designated “Protestant,” but their primary way of thinking about themselves religiously is as a Christian. Again, to a conservative Protestant, specific denomination does not matter. What matters is whether you are a Christian. This means a Protestant is free to move between denominations as much as he wants without worrying about it, as long as the denominations are teaching Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of “a religion about Jesus,” but in the theologically significant sense of “the way to Jesus.” Mormons may talk about and believe important things about Jesus, enough for sociologists and librarians to categorize them as Christians, but what they teach and believe about Jesus is significantly different enough to make it a different religion than the one that conservative Protestants are practicing. I know of no Mormon that would dispute this. What the Mormon thus fails to understand is that the conservative Protestant calls his religion “Christianity.”

So when the Evangelical meets a Mormon who claims that Mormonism is Christian, the Evangelical hears the Mormon claiming that they have the same religion. That is flat-out not true, and it’s obvious by even a fairly cursory examination. So the Evangelical concludes that the Mormon is trying to be deceptive: trying to claim to be theologically compatible so as to lure converts into a religious organization that is actually an entirely different animal. It looks like a bait-and-switch, using the Evangelical’s faith as the bait. Understandably, this irks the Evangelical. Furthermore, the Evangelical is justifiably concerned about his friends and family and assorted loved ones: as conservative Protestants they operate in a religious environment where, provided the denomination is Christian (in the Protestant theological sense), one is free to switch from denomination to denomination without necessarily jeopardizing one’s salvation. When the Mormon Church claims to be Christian and insists that Evangelicals agree that it is, the Mormon Church creates a situation wherein Evangelicals may be lured into something they never meant to get involved in. And with Mormonism’s “milk-before-meat” missionary policy, it is not an unreasonable fear. And eternal salvation is at stake.

The Mormon may ask, “why do the Evangelicals get to decide what Christian means? Why can’t they just call their religion something else? Then there wouldn’t be a problem.” But that’s a particularly disingenous claim from a Church that sets a great store by the name of their religion. Like Mormons, conservative Protestants believe their religion is the one true religion. However, unlike Mormons, Protestants do not set theological significance by the organizational boundaries of a denomination. So the conservative Protestant’s religion is not the same thing as his denomination. He may be categorized historically as a Protestant, but he, like the Mormon, believes that he is in fact a true follower of Jesus Christ, a designation which he shares with people who have a common understanding of doctrine and practice, and since they believe they are the only true followers of Jesus Christ, they call their religion “Christianity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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