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Posts Tagged ‘Symbol’

(from a recent post I put up at Burning at the Stake)

I’m definitely an unabashed tarot enthusiast, although I am not necessarily that experienced or that knowledgeable. My understanding of the nature of the tarot is that there’s nothing magic about it–the cards only have significance we give them. Their usefulness and power lies in their powerful symbolism and the resulting ability to cause us to think about things in new ways, to see new relationships between ideas and currents in our life, and and thus make connections that we might not have been able to make without them.

I think the symbolism of the tarot is, if not universal, at least close to universal, at least for people coming out of a western-civilization cultural context. The images in the Rifder-Waite deck are simple and poignant, and deal with archetypes, emotions, and values that embedded in our psyche.

Tarot cards are not primarily used to tell the future, but to evaluate the present (and by understanding the rpesent, to see where all of this is coming from and where it is probably going). When I do a tarot reading, the relationships between the cards in their various positions suggest relationships between ideas or experiences in the subject’s life. The connections themselves are as archetypical as the images on the cards, and as such they are universal enough to have some likelihood of sparking some sort of recognition of “aha” moment. In other words, by reading the cards and attaching their symbolic meanings to specific experiences, people, or ideas in your life, the relationships suggested by the position of the cards suggests relationships between those concrete experiential phenomena that you simply may not have considerd before. As such, there is a good possibility that seeing the “pieces” of your life arranged in a new way will give you insight into what is really going on in your life and in your mind.

Nothing magical or supernatural about it: nothing but psychology at work.

On the other hand, I do not necessarily discount the possibility that there may in fact be more involved than that. If I believe in a god or gods or some kind of cosmic unity, even a basic fundamental connectedness, then there is no reason why the will of God or the connections in the fundamentally connected universe couldn’t play out in what cards you draw and where you place them. Or in the conclusions and interpretations you give them.

I’ve done enough readings that were disturbingly spot-on that I think there is definitely something of value to the tarot. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of readings that just didn’t “click.” Probably more of the latter than the former. And if/when the tarot is emrely serving as an analytical lens, it stands to reason that there wil be at least as many “misses” as “hits.” But even the misses have value: by considering these symbols and relationships and concluding that what I am seeing in the cards at the moment is not relevant or instructive or providing me with insight, I still reap the benefits of having considered new possibilities. The fact that I ultimately chose to discount the possibility considered does not undermine the value of considering the possibility in the first place.

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I have been giving some thought to theology as of late. I know I think about and talk about religion all the time; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is giving thought to my own theology in a constructive way. Something more than “ZOMG I just don’t know what I believe.” The thing is, I am starting to actually figure out what I do believe, and I am starting to think about how to put all of the pieces together. So here goes:

My philosophical foundation is essentially Advaita Vedanta. I have read the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads and I am blown away by them. When I read from those texts, I feel like I am hearing the voice of God–not “god’ as in a divine being, but GOD, the entire universe, the ultimate divine reality that is all things and is beyond all things. I believe that everything is a part of this ultimate reality, but that in total it is something entirely beyond out conception. Nothing is like God, and so no analogy or metaphor could possibly do God justice. The differences we perceive, the identities we imagine ourselves as having, are all ultimately illusions. The world of sense objects and empirical data is basically an illusion, called maya. On one level, the creation of the universe as we know it was the creation of this illusion of separateness. Maya is practically necessary for us to function, but it is nevertheless illusory, and it can mislead us powerfully.

In the deepest parts of our own consciousness, we are one with everything, even the gods. But we spend most of our time identifying ourselves as the tips of the fingers, as entirely bound in the world of the five senses. When we dream we withdraw into our own consciousness, which is further back but still a world of deceptive distinction. In dreamless sleep we come closer to our essential oneness, which the Hindus call Atman, the Self that is all-self, the ultimate divine reality of Brahman.

From a practical standpoint, however, this knowledge or philosophy doesn’t do much. Maya is powerful, and it is difficult to even be sure of the Atman, much less to be able to fully identify with it. Because we are out on the branches, functioning in the practical maya-divided world of sense and identity, we need to be able to thing in those terms, even when we think about divinity. The Hindu Vedanta thinkers do this, but their gods are culturally alien to me. Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, and Shiva are extremely interesting, sure, but they are not compelling to me the same way that Zeus, Aphrodite, and Odin are. And furthermore, the gods I have had personal contact with are decidedly Western.

So instead of thinking about divinity in terms of Indian myth, I choose to think about it in terms of the mythology that is compelling and accessible to me, and as an American of Western European descent, that basically points the way to three clusters of myth-tradition: the Celtic/Arthurian, the Norse/Germanic, and the Greek/Classical. The former two are the mythologies of my genealogical ancestors, and the latter is the mythology of my cultural ancestors. These three mythologies are extremely powerful to me. Their gods have spoken to me. I believe that their stories point to the ultimate divine truth that unifies and unites all of reality and that fundamentally explains and gives meaning to my existence.

In these mythologies, I find inspiration, wisdom, a guide to behavior, and a tangible connection to divinity. These are the gods that speak to me, and so when I try to connect to the Ultimate, these gods are my mediators. Why do I need mythology and mediator gods? I guess I could theoretically do without them, but practically, that’s not what my brain is hard-wired to do. And I need something practical that can serve as a kind of stepping stone towards the ultimate.

Even so, belief in these mythologies doesn’t fully carve out a path of action, at least spiritually speaking. I need a set of spiritual practices to serve as a vehicle to take me through the triple-lens of these mythologies and ultimately back to the Divine Self that lies behind everything. For that, I think I have chosen Revival Druidry. Revival Druidry is flexible enough to accommodate the theology I have constructed, and it gives me practices that take me places spiritually that I want to go. I intend to start with the AODA’s first-year curriculum, which includes meditation, regular celebration of the seasons and the position of the sun, and care for the environment leading to an increased awareness of my place in the natural world. In addition, I will probably do some extensive work on poetry.

Vedanta is the philosophy, my three chosen mythologies are together the conceptual lens that I use to construct meaning, and Revival Druidry is the way I will put it all into action. At least… that’s the idea.

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In response to the post wherein I declared my newly developed polytheism, some people understandably asked something along the lines of “Okay, you say you believe in gods.  But what do you mean by that?  How literally do you believe that?”  And it’s a fair question–one I intended to write about anyway.  To what extend to I believe in these gods, and to what extent to I believe that they are separate, distinct individual gods?

I don’t believe that Dionysus, Aphrodite, and other hypothetical gods actually live bodily on the top of Mount Olympus in Greece from whence they literally created the universe and currently control natural phenomena.  I am not an idiot.  I want to talk about other possibilities.

I am open to the possibility that these gods no not exist at all outside my head.  I’m not eager to believe that it is flat-out mental illness, but I am definitely open to the possibility that I am talking about psychological archetypes–either universal ones that transcend my individual experience or personal ones that are completely local to my own psyche.  Human beings think and reason in symbol and metaphor anyway, and I have no problem with the possibility that I am encountering symbolic representations of aspects of my own psyche or aspects of a universal human psyche if such a thing exists.

I am also open to the possibility–in fact, I actually believe–that these gods are actual spiritual beings that have independent existence beyond the borders of the individual human mind.  Nevertheless, I would still insist that the gods’ involvement in the natural world is largely metaphorical, but that such an arrangement is only natural since humans make sense of the world primarily in metaphor.  If I say “I believe that Odin made the world out of the broken parts of dead Ymir,” I think that is not necessarily inconsistent with the scientific explanation for the origin of the universe.  Again, I am talking about metaphor and the way we make meaning out of what we perceive.  And I also feel like there is more than one way to understand “the world”–it doesn’t have to be the natural world at all.  We inhabit a “world” that is composed by our own psychology, perception, and experience.  While I do not think that Odin carved out the natural world out of Ymir’s bones, I am interested in the possibility that Odin carved out a psychic, psychological, and/or mythic landscape in exactly that way.  It is still the creation of the world, just not meaning the planet.

If this seems vague and ill-defined, that’s because it probably is ill-defined.  Like I said, my understanding of the gods is still in the early stages of development.

In the end, I think that when dealing with religion it is important, on the one hand, to remember that your gods might all be completely fictional, but on the other hand, that they might in fact be real.  The former keeps you from being a fundamentalist (and a good self-check: are your religious convictions overriding your basic human compassion? because if they are, then you’ve gone too far over the edge, buddy), and the latter keeps you from being a secular humanist.  Not that being a secular humanist is the end of the world, but that there’s just no point in bothering with religion in the first place if you’re going to be certain that it’s all messed up.

The thing is, I believe in the existence of divinity.  I think that the divine is real, and I hunger for it.  I acknowledge the possibility that it’s all in my head, but because I am not a fundamentalist, whether there is in fact an ultimate reality to Divinity or it is all in my head is actually irrelevant, because I am going to act the same way with regard to it either way.  But for the record, I believe that there is a divine reality that transcends individual human experience.

In terms of hard polytheism (i.e., the gods, whatever they are, exist independently and in a fully distinct fashion from each other) versus soft polytheism (i.e., the gods are different facets or manifestations of a greater divine reality), my answer is that I genuinely think that the latter is more likely, as ultimately my cosmological picture is formed by the conception of Maya and Brahman in the Baghavad Gita.  However, that requires some more elaboration, because I am definitely not saying that the gods are simply masks of one true god (although since I have only personally experienced one male and one female god, I might actually be dealing with a Wiccan-style fertility dualism, but more about that later).  If this model of godhood holds, then I am only claiming that the gods are parts of the same divine whole to the same extent that human beings are all also part of that same divine whole.  And with gods as with humans, the compelling illusion of Maya–the deceptive illusion of separateness that enables us to function in the world of sense objects while also blinding us to our essential oneness–applies to the gods as well as to humans.  And that means that, like us, although they are facets of a greater whole, they act for the most part as if they are separate and distinct, if interrelated.

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My problem when dealing with the existence of God isn’t about logic or reason, it’s about experience.  All my life I have been taught that you can talk to God through prayer like you can talk to a person, and that God will answer.  But I haven’t seen it happen in my life.  I’ve never felt like there was someone “on the other line,” and I’ve never felt answers to my prayers that were more than near-imperceptible subtleties, or “confirmations” of what I wanted to do anyway.

I was thinking, though… one of my issues is that I’m expecting God to reply to me in the same way that I speak to him, i.e. with words or something approximate.  I wonder is, assuming the existence of God, my expectation isn’t a tad unrealistic.

I mean, we’re talking about God here, right?  We’re talking about something that’s too big to wrap our minds around, and I’m expecting it to use human language?  I’m a law student with some linguistics background; I should know as well as anyone that human language is not really a very perfect method of communication.  Why would God resort to an imperfect and highly problematic method of communication when he ahs all existence to work with?  He’s not limited the way we are, so why should he restrict himself to the limits we’re subject to?

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say, and symbol can speak so much louder than words.  They may be  problematic in their own way, and harder to understand, but they can carry so much more meaning, and deeper, multileveled meaning, than words can.

Maybe that’s the problem with scripture- you have someone trying to hammer concepts into words that aren’t really made to be expressed in words.  Anyway, my point is that God isn;t a person, so why should I expect God to communicate with me the way a person does?

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