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Posts Tagged ‘Society’

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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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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Instead of putting up a bunch of tedious posts about political issues that I feel the need to get off my chest, I’m just going to boil them down to little pearls of wisdom and put them all in one post, so if politics makes you retch, like it does me, you can safely and conveniently ignore all of it.

Religious Gay Marriage Alarmism:

No, legalizing gay marriage will not force churches to stop preaching that homosexuality is a sin or start performing gay marriage, for the same reason that the Civil Rights Act didn’t stop churches from preaching white supremacy or refusing to perform interracial marriage.

Freedom of Religion at Ground Zero:

I can be staunchly against the Ground Zero Mosque but still believe in freedom of religion for the same reason that I can be staunchly against you telling my four-year old son that Santa Claus is not real but still believe in freedom of speech.

X-Treme Presidents:

President Obama is not a communist for the same reason that President Bush was not a fascist.  Stop being fucking ridiculous.  When you wrap up your legitimate criticism in paranoid rhetoric, nobody takes you seriously except the other paranoid whackjobs who already agree with you.

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Homeric Hymn 8 to Ares (translated by Evelyn-White):

Ares, exceeding in strength, chariot-rider, golden-helmed, doughty in heart, shield-bearer, Saviour of cities, harnessed in bronze, strong of arm, unwearying, mighty with the spear, O defender of Olympos, father of warlike Nike, ally of Themis, stern governor of the rebellious, leader of the righteous men, sceptred King of manliness, who whirl your fiery sphere among the planets in their sevenfold courses through the aither wherein your blazing steeds ever bear you above the third firmament of heaven; hear me, helper of men, giver of dauntless youth! Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death.

I have been praying to Ares quite a bit lately. This is not a result of some personal mystical experience or powerful gnosis I have had. It’s just a growing understanding of the role that he plays in the human experience and in my life in particular. Ares gets painted in a pretty negative light in Homer, and Ares represents some powerful facets of humanity that are in extreme disfavor in modern liberal western society. But I think that by ignoring or downplaying Ares and the things that he represents, we have done ourselves a terrible disservice.

Ares is a god of war, and war is a part of being human. There has always been war, and there will always be war. Real paganism means dealing on a sacred level with the world as it really is: acknowledging and honoring all of the parts of human existence. War is violent and terrible, but it is part of who we are. By rejecting war entirely, we reject a part of humanity. I realize that this is a statement with strong implications, so I am willing to spell them out: I believe that real Paganism is completely incompatible with pacifism.

I utterly reject the notion that there are “different ways to be a warrior.” Social reformers and crusaders for justice are laudable and praiseworthy, and the struggles they face may well be like war, in a metaphorical sense, but it’s not war. They are warriors, metaphorically, not warriors, period. Ares is not the god of metaphorical wars; he is the god of physical violence, of blood and battle. Ares has no place for pacifists, and while he is also a god of strength and endurance and surely has respect for anyone who exhibits those characteristics, no matter the context, metaphorical warriors are not truly his.

Ares is also a god of manliness, of masculinity. As I said, he is a god of strength, power, and endurance, of mastery and skill. He is a god of those characteristics that men should exemplify at their finest. is a god of properly-channeled aggression, a god that knows anger but knows how to control his anger and save his wrath for the right time and the right place: thus there is nothing unusual about asking the god of war and anger for aid help to “abide within the harmless laws of peace.” Ares is not about being out of control. The experience of being out of control is the realm of his brother, Dionysus.

Ares is a god of courage. Fear and panic may be his children, but he expects us to act with strength and decisiveness even when we are faced with them. He does not expect us to be fearless, but he expects us to do what we have to do anyway.

Ares is a lover and protector of women. He makes women happy and women make him happy: Ares and Aphrodite are lovers for a reason, and their children include Harmony as well as Fear and Panic. While Dionysus teaches us that there is a place for exceptional individuals, unusual circumstances, and value in turning convention on its head, especially when it comes to gender expectations, that’s not what Ares is about. Ares shows us that there are expectations for manly behavior, that there are divine norms–not rigid, inflexible norms, but norms nonetheless–for how a pagan man is supposed to act.

I worship Ares: I pour libations to him, I make offerings to him, I sing his hymns. He inspires me to act with strength and courage, to be decisive, and to be bold. He is a god who is truly worthy of worship–so much more than the hateful, spiteful, unworthy portrayal that we see in the Iliad–and in worshipping him I find fulfillment.

Hail terrible, warlike Ares! Hail bronze-armed, spear-wielding stormer of cities who rallies fighting men and leads them to battle! Hail murderous, manslaying, bloody-handed Ares! Hail Ares the switft, the strong, and the violent! Hal abundant Ares, feasted by women! Hear my prayers and accept my offerings!

(Note: Over at Aspis of Ares, Pete Helms tackles some of this stuff unsurprisingly well)

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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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On the one hand, I’m sure it looks like I’m going ’round and ’round in circles with God and religion, retreading the same ground and getting nowhere. Sometimes I wonder if that is in fact what is going on, and if I can ever be satisfied and happy. Most of the time, though, I am pretty sure that I am slowly, carefully refining the issues, figuring out really what is at stake and what I think, and what decisions I really have to make.

At the moment, I think I have my religious question basically boiled down to the following ideas:

I’m inclined to think that there is a god, even though I have my doubts. I do not think that god is completely knowable by human beings. I also do not necessarily think that getting some (or even a lot of) things wrong about god is as big of a deal as human beings historically tend to. I’m not sure if god is personal or impersonal, or if god is maybe impersonal but with facets that can be personal-ish. Maybe. In any case, atheism does not suit me. I want both a religious identity and a path for spiritual development. Thus, I want a religion.

I really like a lot of things about Christianity. I find Christian theology appealing. I like the liturgy, the hymns, the architecture, the ritual, the idea of church, the liturgical year, the resurrection. I like C. S. Lewis, a lot. When I read C. S. Lewis, I want to be a Christian. Theoretically, I like the Bible, even though my attempts at reading it over the last two years have been most unsatisfactory.  I’m attached to Christianity as a religion, and am extremely bothered by the idea of giving it up entirely.  I even sometimes entertain the notion of going to seminary and becoming an Episcopal priest someday.

Unfortunately, despite everything I’ve just said, I don’t think I actually believe (in) Christianity. I like the idea of Jesus Christ as God incarnate quite a bit, but I don’t seem to actually believe that it it is so. I like the idea of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ’s supreme sacrifice, but I’m not sure I’m really all that worried about my sins, I find the idea of hell implausible, I don’t necessarily feel like I am in need of salvation (I feel plenty of wretched, just not necessarily wretched because of my sins or sinful nature) and I’m not convinced that this supreme sacrifice in fact happened. I think that the resurrection is plausible, but I don’t necessarily think that it means the whole package of Christianity is true.

I think I actually believe something a whole lot more like Vedanta, like the ideas expressed in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita about Brahman and everything, the world and people and you and me and God, all being really the same thing. I’m not culturally Indian, so Hinduism as a religion has no appeal to me whatsoever, and all of the New Religious Movements that have spun off from Hinduism in the west are, well, New Religious Movements. Pretty much they are to Hinduism what Mormonism is to Christianity (and Soka Gakkai is to Buddhism), and I am not interested in that at all. I’ve already done aa quasi-cult, thanks. I’m not really in the market for another one.

So I would prefer to read the Bible because I prefer the idea of reading the Bible, but in reality I find the Gita and the Upanishads so much more meaningful.

Also, I find various flavors of Paganism (neo and otherwise) extremely appealing: Asatru, Druidry, the Greek Gods, etc. I feel like all of that would dovetail a whole lot better with the Bhagavad Gita than it would the Bible. I’m European, not Indian, so actually becoming a Hindu is not interesting at all to me, but I think that the philosophy underlying Hinduism and tying it together can easily be applied to any Indo-European mythology.  I think that AODA Druidry as spiritual practice, Vedanta as philosophy, and European myth as a corpus of spiritual literature is an extremely reasonable combination, and probably a hell of a lot closer to what I actually believe than Chistianity ever will be.

But, Christianity is more appealing for some reason.  And for a lot of reasons, Vedanta+Druidry+Mythology, although it might actually be what I believe, is extremely unappealing.  There’s a lack of clear religious identity, for one.  There’s no Christmas.  Druidry as spiritual practice sometimes seems shallow and empty to me–it is missing the millennia of tradition that Christianity has.  There are the social and cultural problems with identifying as an odd religion.  Treading a new path means missing out on the guidance of people who have gone before.  There’s the worry that I’m really just cherry-picking the things I like.  There are issues about the source of morality and the source of values (that I am exploring in another series of posts).  And in my head, Vedanta+Druidry+Mythology just doesn’t have the same, I don’t know, pow! that Christianity has.  And it doesn’t have C. S. Lewis.

So I know what I probably believe, but it doesn’t happen to be the same thing as what I would like to believe.  But my desire to believe Christianity is subtly undermined by the things I actually do believe.  I’m not sure how to resolve this painlessly–there may simply be no painless resolution–but I think it is extremely important that I have arrived at (or at least I’m getting closer to) the central question in my search for God.

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