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Posts Tagged ‘Utopia’

I have this whole list of things I am struggling with spiritually right now. It’s a thing I do maybe every six months when my level of frustration about God and church and spirituality starts to bubble over and I lose my grip on my ability to articulate just what exactly is the problem. Because it’s never just one problem, it’s always a bunch of interconnected problems so the one-sentence answer is never really sufficient. So I try to write it all down, chart it all out, and explain it, first and foremost to myself, but also to anyone else who is trying to come alongside me and finding me frustrating. Inevitably, the list/chart/diagram/equation is completely different from what it was when I did the same thing six months earlier. I definitely have a sense of a moving target. Someone less charitable might say that I am always looking for something to be dissatisfied about, but being dissatisfied feels bad, so I am definitely not being dissatisfied on purpose.

So right now I have a new list, and at the top it says BELONGING/INTEGRATION. I don’t know that this is the most important thing on my list, but it’s arbitrarily first, so I’m going to write about it first. It also clearly connects to my previous post, about embracing my identity as a Mormon despite my non-membership and non-belief. And, of course, it’s two different things, and could certainly be two entries on the list. Sorry; this is just gonna have to be the way it is.

Deep in my gut, I feel like knowing God and following Jesus is something that should be done in deep community. This is probably partially baggage from my Mormon upbringing–I first learned about God in tight-knit Mormon spaces, as a part of a community of believers with a strong, discrete cultural identity. So, by default, that’s what it feels like how knowing God and following Jesus should be shaped.

My problem is that I don’t really have that, and I might have to make peace with the idea of never really having that.

In the past few years of so, during which I have been sort of evangelical or at least I have existed in various states of evangelical-adjacency, one thing has been crystal clear to me: evangelicals are not my people. Everything about evangelicals and evangelical culture and evangelical expressions of worship and spirituality feels like petting the cat backwards. And it’s not just a matter of unfamiliarity or newness. I have put in the time and effort, and it always feels 100% wrong. Setting aside my theological problems with evangelicalism (I will write a post about them later, but it boils down to Matthew 7:16), the whole endeavor just does not fit me right. I never feel at home.

This ill-fittingness isn’t just in evangelical churches; it’s in all evangelical spaces. I have many lovely evangelical friends with whom I love spending time and being in community, but as soon as you get more than about three of them in a group together, the air changes and I can’t breathe anymore.

I could certainly go and look for community in non-evangelical churches, but to be honest, my community bandwidth is pretty full already. My wife and I put hospitality at the top of our list of values, and we have a lot of people in our lives. And, as I alluded above, despite my dissatisfaction and difficulty with evangelical spaces, we do have a lot of community with evangelical people. So the idea of making space for a whole additional community of church people is pretty daunting, especially since church people are not exactly on my new friends wish list.

And more importantly, I have no particular reason to think that I will fully fit into any community of believers because I am coming to realize that I will never be able to be just one thing, spiritually. I can’t fully be one with my Methodist congregation (not that I have one, or am planning to; it’s just an example) because I have discovered that I still have a big part of me that has a Mormon identity. And I have some part of me that has a pagan identity, too. And probably another spiritual identity or two. I’m not going to be able to fully become part of a community because I will always be fractured. I belong too many places, so I will never really belong in any of them. In being true to myself and trying to know God with all of me, follow Jesus with all of me, I have to let go of the idea that I will be able to do that in deep community with others, because, in the wise words of Rocket Raccoon, “Ain’t no thing like me, except me!”

And that’s how we get to Integration. I am discovering that one of the biggest obstacles I have to knowing God deeply is knowing him with all of my pieces, and that means collecting them and honoring and acknowledging all of them. And that places limits on the extent to which I can truly know God in community.

I will admit that this makes me sad. It is a thing I have to mourn. I miss it. The Mormon idea of Zion, the utopian vision of a people who are deeply in community with each other and with God, of one heart and one mind with no poor among them, is an idea that is deeply embedded in my psyche. But I don’t know that I am able to be of one heart and one mind with anyone. It’s certainly not going to happen at church.

On the other hand, I had lunch today with Pastor Lura Groen, and she said that there are more people like me, with fragmented spiritual identities and messes of baggage, than I realize, and that for people like me, building a deep community can mean constructing a support system from people who are a part of or on the fringes of different groups and circles–a person or two here and a person or two there. So maybe there is still a Zion for me, even if it doesn’t look like the image of Zion that I have in my head.

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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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Note: This is another post for International Pagan Values Month.

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

I have been thinking about the post I wrote yesterday on sources for pagan values, and I have realized (partly because of a conversation that I had about the post with my brother) that there is at least one big gaping hole in my presentation. In a nutshell, my thesis was that as pagans we should be looking to nature and the pagan past–mythology in particular–for our values and not just taking western liberal values and looking for a pagan justification for them. While I do think that we should be looking for authentic sources for our values, and I do think that just adopting western liberal values and inventing a pagan justification for them creates a morally meaningless religion, I presented the two options as a false dichotomy. My assumption was that if pagans have values that do not come from nature or mythology, they must simply be spouting out liberal pop culture values. While I think that is in fact what Brendan Myers does in The Other Side Of Virtue, it is not fair to accuse all pagans of doing the same. The problem that dawned on my shortly after writing my post is that I left out a major and significant source for the majority of pagans: the Age of Aquarius!

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Aquarius! Aquarius!

Okay, so the song is more than a little over the top. I kid because I love. But in all seriousness, when we talk about modern paganism, we’re including a lot of people who self-identify as pagans that are heavily (if not primarily) influenced by the 20th-century New Age movement. Whether or not it was that way from the beginning, Wicca has pretty much adopted New Ageism whole-cloth, and even though it makes the Reconstructionists’ heads asplode, Wiccans are by far the most numerous of the self-identifying pagans. In any case, the New Age movement has its own set of values, a utopian vision of a world of peace, free love, spiritual connectedness, and enlightenment (and probably also vegetarianism): the Age of Aquarius. And because so much of neopaganism draws on New Age sources, these Aquarian values are held by so many neopagans that they go virtually unquestioned outside of Reconstructionist circles.

I’m not really talking about whether Aquarian Utopianism should be a source for pagans to derive their moral values from; I’m saying that it is in fact such a source. Not for all pagans, no, but it is prominent enough that it deserves mention and a seat at the table. And when we are talking about “pagan values,” their prominence among pagans and New Ageism’s influence on neopaganism generally is such that it is not unreasonable to say that Aquarian values are pagan values.

Aquarian values are not ancient, the way our pagan heritage and our mythology are (and they’re definitely not ur-primoridal the way nature it elf is), but that does not make them somehow invalid. As John Michael Greer is usually quick to point out, the age of a spiritual tradition has nothing to do with its valididty; a functional, productive religion is functional and productive whether it is a billion years old or was invented last week. They have not yet stood the test of time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t. And for us, the only thing that matters really is whether they work.

The trick is that we as pagans need to be at once mindful that the New Age Aquarian vision is a major source of our collective values, and simultaneously mindful that it is not our only source of values. It is not the be-all end-all; there should not be an automatic presumption of Aquarianism. The easy mistake that I think a lot of pagans make is simply to buy into Aquarian values whole cloth without really thinking about what they are doing. The lessons we get from nature, from mythology, and from our pagan past may completely contradict what Aquarian New Ageism teaches us, and although I do think that a reasonable neopagan could conclude that in such a situation, Aquarianism trumps its opponents, I don’t think that’s the kind of decision one can make responsibly without thinking it thorugh and realizing what one is doing.

If we do add Aquarian ideals to the mix of mythology, heritage, and nature, then the result is a pretty diverse set of sources from which we can derive our values. This is a situation that invites careful thought, deliberate scrutiny, and difficult weighing. It also means that different pagans are going to come up with different answers. Paganism is pretty diverse, so that won’t really change anything–hells, look around at the pagan values blog carnival I linked to at the top and you’ll see evrything under the sun represented–but if we’re all going to come under the same umbrella, we need to have some kind of common ground, especially in critical areas like moral reasoning. If we can at least acknowledge the sources for our moral values, then we are in a much better position to think critically about them ourselves and discuss them with each other and with non-pagans in a principled and productive way. And if despite our differing conclusions, we actually do share a common set of moral sources, then we have more common ground than we otherwise might think we do.

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

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