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Archive for the ‘Points to Ponder’ Category

I am taking a very long way round in expressing my recent thinking on ‘pop-up gods’, to coin a bad phrase. There are certainly as many ways to experience and engage with one’s spirituality, or religion, as there are people. My own took a fateful turn when I invited the Ancestors to work intimately with me during initiation, and again when I moved to this green island of madmen and poets. You see, one winter I took a drive…

In far western Mayo, on a blustery gray day, I ventured to Achille Island. The bleak expanse of rock, jagged and forlorn, was desolate, cold, and mostly uninhabited. Standing on a remote pebble beach, a bracing wind in my face, I felt the mighty power of the Atlantic. I marveled at the hardy souls, human and other-than-human, who call that place home and love it with a fierce passion. The Cailleach reigns supreme in winter, and feeling the inhospitable landscape around me as an embodiment of her, I shivered. And then I remembered …. all the stories when the hero meets the hag.

The hero is often out on a great adventure, and often seeking kingship, when he encounters an old woman in need of help or seeking a favor. Occasionally the favor is sexual, and occasionally explicitly so. For those who reject or spurn the old woman, disaster befalls, but for those who willingly and gladly give what she asks, they discover, to their amazement, a young and beautiful woman who bestows upon them the greatest gift a warrior hero could ask for: sovereignty.

Standing on Achille, in the fierceness of winter, I understood that for a King or Queen to rule justly and rightly they needed to love the land in ALL her aspects. If they wouldn’t lay down their body for the blighted winter, they did not deserve the lush spring. I scrambled then to search out folklorists who had studied the Cailleach in folklore, and Professor Gearóid Ó Crualaoich’s book, The Book of The Cailleach; Stories of the Wise-Woman healer, beats them all! In it, he discusses the role of Irish oral tradition, as both therapeutic and literary, and he exuberantly delves into the history, displacement, and reinterpretation of the Autonomous Female — the Land.

At this point, a part of my brain screeched to a halt. Wait! That’s just anthropomorphizing a natural phenomena. *Just*. Can you see my Western centric world view at play? I took a Great Power…the rich and luscious consciousness that my head rests upon, and denigrated Her to the position of *just* a natural phenomena. Oh, how I weep to remember it. How lost and human centric to imagine the complex Being I live upon is *just* a piece of dirt! I imagine somewhere in my body a liver cell, right now, is thinking the same thing about me.

It was at this point that I began to hungrily search out connection between other myths and folklore and the bountiful, conscious non-human persons that populate the land around me. My first was Áine, Crom Dubh, and Eithne…fitting, as Lughnasadh is a special Gate for me. Even then, it took until this year, living as I do now by fields of barley, to hear for myself the wonderful story of Eithne, the grain. How beautiful that at sometime, someone lovingly listened as this sacred non-human person shared her story. Her blowing yellow tresses have now been cut…she is deep within the earth with Crom, and a remnant of her sacred body rests on my altar.

Lest I neglect Áine (how could I), many of my dear friends have felt the touch of her kiss at Lough Gur and seen her gentle dancing feet. Her swelling belly undulates the lands of southern Limerick with a dance of dream, sexuality, and fertility. She is the autonomous female of that place, and she alone determines which persons, human and other than, thrive and flourish upon her. I adore her, and she holds my heart close…. yet…… she is not here, on my ridge, where Mór Muman spreads her skirt wide. In this BlackWater valley Great Munster has a different face.

Oh…and back home in Austin…who could not love Quick Silver of the water, the great Power of Barton Springs. She is lively and laughing, a white flash with long silver hair. Her arms reach out to hold you and her youthful face is glowing.. Yet, she is not here. I reach my long arm of awareness toward her and the Great Lady Tejas, and I can…touch them. But why? Yes, I love them. Yes, I wish them well. Yes, I feel bound to them. Yet, why would I ask them to come here, to help me here?

There are some Great, Old Powers that are outside of earthen borders. They exist in a darkness so black, a space so cold, that their consciousness is as my pre-frontal cortex must seem to my big toenail. They are larger than one continent or another, one atmosphere or another, one galaxy or another. In all of these lesser spirits, is consciousness. My word…. what type of person is Mars, our neighbor??

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When I try to tease apart my own cultural bias, my very Western bias, about many topics, religion not the least of these, I find myself on an unmarked path in a dense forest. My understanding of what deity is, even knowing the word “deity”, is part of the clearly defined Western path through this forest of knowing. I try to imagine a different world view, my own had I been born before the rise of Rome and the enlightenment. I look around and attempt to experience my world with older eyes. David Abram writes eloquently and thoroughly on the experience of our sensual world in his phenomenal work, Spell of the Sensuous. In this book, as opposed to his second work, he presents for the hungry reader an intelligent discussion of how literacy impacts the human animal, how indigenous populations that remain pre-or-illiterate engage with their living environments, and how oral culture shapes and shifts our perceptions of non-human persons.

When I open myself to this way of Being, what I experience is immediacy and consciousness. Suddenly every object around me is a power, a pair of eyes observing me. It ceases to be ‘only’ other mammals; or birds; or amphibians. Instead, I am now greeted by the sensation of observance from the mighty trees, the unyielding brambles, the luminous Moon, the flowing Milky Way, and the Great Winds. The Waters that fall from the sky, wondrously alive, interact with my being. The planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe….suddenly have consciousness.

In the light of all this intelligence, all this consciousness…. what is a *god*? The concept loses shape and meaning. All of the seen and unseen is imbued to my perceptual field with a breath previously unknown by me. |f my understanding of deity is of a being more powerful or knowledgeable than myself, well…. my white blood cells are clearly god, as is the moss that covers the rock in my garden. These powers have strength and knowing so different from my own, so vast in their understanding and ability, that I rarely come close in my struggle for meaning. Do I, a human person, alone define ‘power’? Do I alone define knowledge? I find myself back in the forest, tempted to walk on the clear path of Western bias in a human centric knowing.

But I resist, as I hope most pagans do who desire to return to a different way of knowing and being in the living world. Our western constructs are failing us as a species. Part of knowing myself, in all my parts, is understanding how my neural pathways are shaped by culture; how the marvelous universe of my brain organizes and categorizes information sent to it from my limited sensory organs. To deconstruct, and rebuild with intention, is a mighty work. It is a worthy work, and necessary to walking a truly pagan path through the forest, as opposed to the same Western path decorated with pagan paraphernalia. I do not wish to be seen as a Witch because I wear Stevie Nicks skirts (which I don’t), or strand upon strand of silver jewelry (which I don’t), or because I have pentagrams tattooed on my skin (which I don’t). Likewise, I do not want to be a pagan who interacts with the world around me using the same lenses my culture and wider society gave me, with nothing more than a pagan film overlaid: western religion wearing pagan clothing. I have to ask myself…. am I interacting with and viewing the Morrigan the same way I was taught to interact with and view Jesus?

Of course, that line of thought is only religious and doesn’t begin to delve into the subtle human centric discourse of the wider Western culture, let alone secular concepts that are restricted to western societies, such as human rights, individualism, freedom of expression, etc. For myself, this rabbit hole has led to a fairly straight forward non-theistic animism, and to re-examine cultural mythologies and folklore (namely Irish mythology) in this light.

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In my last post I started talking about worldview, but actually slipped into focusing on just one: a christian worldview. We can hold many worldviews, and move between them based on situation. In fact, ‘worldview’ has often been compared to a lens which alters the way we view life and how we perceive the world we live in. There are a variety of worldviews, as there are a variety of lenses for my camera, some of them are: Christian worldview, postmodern worldview, secular humanist worldview, new age worldview, etc. A broader concept is bias, and particularly when thinking about religion – a western bias; our very understanding of the word religion shows this. The word religion has a very close association with the development of Western culture. Benson Saler, an anthropologist, is quoted as saying, “the practitioners of a mostly Western profession (anthropology) employ a Western category (religion), conceptualized as a component of a larger Western category (culture), to achieve their professional goal of coming to understand what is meaningful and important for non-Western peoples.”

I think this bias, in part, arises from the unclear etymology of the word religion. From the Latin religio , some scholars believe it stems from leig, “to bind”, while others think the root meant “to reread” or to “be careful”. (1) It was certainly a cultic term associated with the careful performance of ritual obligations. The word eventually came to refer to sincere worship and to distinguish between monastic and laity life. Of course today, in the modern era, with our increased exposure to practices and beliefs different from christianity, we use the world to refer to various traditions of the world.

I hope you can see how our western centric worldview colors and shapes the way we view even secular ideas (as I mention in my first post on this topic), but particularly religious or spiritual ones. Even if we have managed to scrub clean our cultural exposure to a Christian worldview (which I doubt), we are still using a western biased term to discuss many pre-western cultural practices and experiences. There are many scholars out there writing on the topic and value of a pagan theology and religious study (my dear friend Christine Hoff Kraemer being one of them) and I recommend seeking them out.

Having outlined my thinking on a western centric worldview, I turn toward indigenous ‘pagan’ practice and what it means for modern pagans looking backward through the lens of the west (and hope to god I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew).

….more to come.

1. Kessler, Gary E., Studying Religion; An Introduction Through Cases, 2008

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For some time now I have been pondering the influence within paganism of the western centric worldview. No doubt other minds have pondered this very thing, and written about it. The sure knowledge that pagan scholars (or any scholar for that matter) have grappled with this topic (or any other that might rumble in my brain) has created a sort of lethargy in expressing my own views. Why add to the noise of the cultural milieu? I know this is silly thinking….

As with any thought you try to contort into a coherent one, you need a beginning. My beginning was living in Ireland, and then looking back over the water (as it were) at the way U.S. pagans take localized deity forms and transplant or interact with them on other continents. [bias warning: This tendency has always irked me because it feels like the “daddy god” syndrome I dislike in Christianity – “You are a floating up there ever present caretaker that loves me and desires to communicate with me wherever, whatever, I am.”] In fact, let me take a moment to express why this irks me. It seems the height of nonsense (and arrogance) to imagine that a being more complex or vast than myself would have the slightest interest in listening every time any of the several billion there are of us currently on this planet needs a parking place or has a headache. I don’t always listen to my partner, and he is only one person who is intimately important to me, and often located in the same room! Now, back to the point. Here in Ireland it is clear to see how modern pagans take a personal god or pantheon and then interact with them in much the same way Christians interact with their god. Why this became so clear to me while living here on this land is for another post.

So, this coddled, narcissistic [my bias showing] view that some complex, powerful being is paying attention to every little whim of humanity smacked of foolishness from the beginning. It irritated me within Christianity for both religious and political reasons. It is incredibly human centric and is at the core of the western-centric worldview: a term I first heard in a comparative religions class. Most people reading this will know that the idea of worldview arose from the word “Weltanschauung” and was a concept fundamental to German philosophy. It is understood as “the fundamental cognitive, affective, and evaluative presuppositions a group of people make about the nature of things, and which they use to order their lives.” You can see how understanding a particular religion’s, or culture’s, worldview is imperative for scholars studying them comparatively. It is equally as important to identify your own worldview when engaging in ANY study – whether that be the sciences (both hard and soft), philosophy, or religion. In fact, I think the great work of the 21st century may be untangling our sciences from the grip of a western-centric worldview.

If we take just a moment to consider what has shaped our fundamental views, which include such seeming secular things as human rights, rationality, individuality, freedom, separation of church and state, etc, we find very quickly several factions of Christianity. This one religion, along with strong helpings of Greek philosophy, has utterly shaped our perceptions, and the way we view our world. Since most pagans I know were brought up within a western society, none of us has escaped this conditioning. The tangled web of our western worldview utterly influences our current understandings, and practice, of a neo-pagan religion which originated pre-western society (unless you are a Hellenist).
Now to my pondering. A few of the underlying tenets of Christianity that I see shaping western worldview are:

  • There is something called “truth”, and usually just one of it, i.e., THE Truth.
  • The human race is a special creation of a personal, loving god. Which means that humans have a purpose for being alive and this personal god is active in each and every one of our lives.

(I’m a mother, and this notion of being active in every human life makes me tired on a whole new level!)

I am not finished pondering (not by a long shot), but I will close this post here. If paganism is to become a growing and robust religious movement we must grapple with the issue of worldview, and not on a superficial level. Unless I still believe in a human centric universe, why in the world would I cling to the notion that some god form (or as I prefer to call them, incorporeal persons) is attentive to my every whim and is portable, like a pop-up tent? In a community of non-human and human persons, what makes the human so damn special?

I propose that the human is only special if we are still living, moving, and having our being within a western-centric worldview which is shaped by Christianity and its belief that the human race has a purpose and is a special creation.

…..more to come.

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