Monday, January 13, 2014

The problem with being as good as...

Years ago, when I was a baby Pagan living in the Big City, I was introduced to the local public coven. Every town above a certain size has one, that open its arms, welcomes everyone and dispels the myths about Witches coven. And they are usually run by the Media Witch, who gives interviews usually around Halloween. I've met the Media Witches in a couple of towns, and my local one was a real fluff bunny.

Not to say Media Witch was a bad person herself – her habitual pot use was legendary. Beyond that, she was pretty much Garden variety Wicca, which was handed down to her by her Grand Poobah, who became a Patron Saint after she died.

The coven had the typical politics and internal scandals present in any group of people, but overall was small potatoes. The interesting thing was watching the way she interacted with media any time she was Publicity Witch. One thing I consistently noticed, and has been repeated by several others I've seen, is the idea I call As Good As.

The comparison between Wicca and Christianity often came up, e.g. We don't believe in the devil, he's a Christian invention; We believe in a creator God; We have a Golden Rule; We believe in an afterlife; etc.

Later I happened to be at a meeting of a National Pagan Organization that will remained unnamed, where I heard much the same kind of discussion when it came to interdenominational work with the major religions. In this meeting they were discussing how effective it could be to have Pagan representatives on panels of many faiths. I couldn't take and stood up and addressed the group.

I have a habit of speaking my mind, and I have made some enemies. I'm not going to go into dialogue about what was said, rather I'm going to dispel some myths the Pagan community operates under, and hopefully make some salient points.

First point: You are not mainstream. You never will be. Make peace with it, because the rest of the world sees what you do as either a hobby, a pastime, a sin or foolishness. They generally don't believe in Witches or magic, and they certainly don't think there are any genuine witches left. What you are doing, in their minds, is a form of cosplay that the renaissance fair crowd is calling religion.

Second point: You are a minority religion. You will not have the clout or numbers that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists have. You are on the fringe, and you are not going to be anything but an oddity. Make peace with this point too.

Third point: You won't be taken seriously, at Your faith seems to be a joke – who would honestly adopt the word “witch” to describe themselves? That's like saying you are and assassin, a sorcerer, or an alien. You must eat babies or poison crops. And you must be very naiive.

I contend that trying to draw parallels with the Big Boy religions of the Book serves not only to confuse the audience (“So if you are so like Christianity, why not be Christian?”), but it seems obvious that the speaker is trying to ride on the coattails of those religions.

Which is exactly what is happening.

Another problem here has to do with language. Words can be weapons, and thinking tactically, you have to gain control of the intellectual high ground. Most people think of the mainstream religions as the definitions of right and wrong, virtue and values. To come in from another direction and say that one rejects these concepts creates a problem. If you refuse Christianity (or Islam or Buddha) then what's to stop you from being a child-molesting, axe-murderer? This kind of question shows how much people frame the idea of morality in the terms of religion.

This is an area where the modern Pagan movement often fails.

We agree certain things that are important in the discussion of virtue, e.g. compassion, charity, brotherly love, are important, but we fail to define these things differently than our counterparts in other faiths.

For example, as Pagans, why should we exercise charity? Why would I show compassion? The Christians are commanded to do so because of the love that Jesus showed by dying for their sins, so they “pay it forward”. We could argue about the form that charity takes, but ultimately the act of charity is rooted in a sense of debt for the charity they have received.

Historically, Pagans have been very bad at charity – despite some more recent, infrequent changes. They rarely can raise enough money to keep their own covens going, much less help out other Pagans or even strangers. There's resistance to chipping in is rooted deeply, and I'm not sure where it lies. Maybe a concern of seeming too like the mainstream churches that use charity as a way to prosleytize? I suspect that this probably the case...

So it's easier to claim poverty than butch up and give something to improve the community. It's easier to claim poverty than to put trust into self-appointed leaders to spend your money well. We let our Pagan kin starve or lose homes of suffer medical problems because we're broke, but buy statues and incense and jewelry that would make a whore blush.

And that's just ourselves. We can't be bothered to do anything for the larger, non-Pagan community we live in.

The ironic thing is that where it's useful to point at the major faiths, like trying to gain acceptance on their backs, the Pagan community has few problems with pointing to them as an example. When it comes to putting money where one's mouth is, they distance themselves from the Christians and generally look like a herd of selfish cats.

So here's a solution. Stop buying junk at the metaphysical shop, and feed a starving kid. Or donate to a medical group doing work in Central America. Or donate to a soup kitchen, give an hour of time at the hospital with crack babies. Help people, and yes, wear a pentacle while doing it. Don't make a fuss about your faith, just do good stuff, however you define it.

This is how you dispel the myth of witches being silly, self-centered people – by not ACTING like silly self-centered people. Because frankly, if we want to be taken seriously as a community, we need to start acting seriously as a community. We need to be engaged in making our world better, not because we have a mandate, but because we want to live in a better world.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Re: Polytheism: How hard do you like it?

In a recent entry on her blog, Morpheus Ravenna explores the question about hard polythesim and her answers to questions about it. This entry isn't designed to specifically critique her exposition, although I think it is lacking in depth at a few points, but rather to answer the question for myself.

I'd also like to point out that we Morriganists are not the only ones looking at this question, but Norse Heathens do too. Galina Krasskova comes to mind as one who also posits hard polytheism, and we might do well not to have to re-invent the wheel, but look at the work others have done as well, whether we agree with it all or not.

The problem isn't one of ontology, as Ravenna mentions, but one of epistemology. For the benefit of those just coming to these terms, ontology is the study of existence, what “is”; and epistemology is the study of knowledge – how do we know what “is”. To me the arguments about the Gods are something that logic and rhetoric are necessarily going to fail at. We can make analogies to ecology or physics in matters of scale, but ultimately the sciences are designed from the beginning to use objective evidence, or better empirical evidence, to study empirically verifiable facts of nature. Then lens of science is very good at the physical, tangible, repeatable and verifiable, but divinity stands apart from this. Likewise the experience of divinity stands apart from empirical testing.

The problem here is this: is an analogy from physics or ecology or whatever a good map to try to explore relationships between the divine and us? I propose the answer is no, because the “map” is drawn for different terrain than we are exploring. A topographical map of the Andes does not help me explore the sea bottom of the Atlantic. I might learn a little of mapmaking in the process, but ultimately the areas are too different to be of use.

Philosophy may help a little. Our question is an epistemological one: how do we “know” the nature of the Gods, and are they truly real, and are they truly singular agents? And much more importantly to this discussion, is personal gnosis a valid way of “knowing”?

Simple coincidence of experience, such as I see a tree with green leaves and white flowers, is usually good enough to establish agreement when dealing with the physical facts of nature, because we have inherent trust of our senses. We then verify with another agent who trusts his senses- you see the tree with green leaves and white flowers too, therefore it must be “real”. The basis of any claim is empirical, so the evidence for the claim is empirical. Easy.

With a gnostic experience, the entire event takes place within consciousness, and cannot be referred to outside of that consciousness except by analogy. Dreams are a good example – are dreams “real”? Well if we set our “real” threshold as “did the experience happen”, then yes. If we set the threshold to “is there physical evidence to support the claim of existence” then the question gets dicey – electromagnetic signals may be measured during the dream, but those signals are not going to verify the existence of talking caterpillars, no matter what the claimant says.

Ancients were less troubled by empirical data, and dreams and gnosis was a critical part of their approach to the world as one of meaningful relationships, and more importantly the value of meaning. The Gods spoke to us, even if none but us could hear, and we knew it was them because the message was meaningful. It didn't matter if it came from a bit of undigested meat, or a psychotropic drug, or the voice of Zeus, the meaning was what one held onto, was “proof”.

As modern primitives – folks who look back at ancient religion, our argument for gnosis can't be rooted in an epistemology that works for modern post industrial science. We chose this path because it has meaning, something outside of the “proof” based systems of most.

Parenthetically, I laugh at the fundamentalist Christians who hold up examples of miracles of Christ in modern days to testify the existence of their God and Savior. Faith is an internally transforming process, not a sideshow, and depends upon work and attention to one's internal world. The snake-oil salesmen notwithstanding, anyone who bases faith on parlor tricks is truly fooling himself, and I'm pretty sue the Nazarean didn't mean for that to be the basis of faith. I'm also pretty sure he didn't say he was Jehovah either.

Back to our discussion – we can also take a warning from the previous paragraph. Our gnosis is OUR OWN gnosis. No one can digest your dinner for you, or dream your dreams. We can discuss and share stories about the experience, but these are pale reflections in a dark mirror. And this is why we often hear “That's not MY experience with” fill in the blank. Of course not. What I prefer to hear is “This is what I took from the experience”, a more meaning-driven assessment of gnosis, and more like how our ancient ancestors looked at the world around them.

If we want to talk with the old Gods, we need to speak their language.

And back to polytheism. I don't really care how anyone in the soft poly, universalist, archetypicalist, or monist views address the Gods. Their gnosis has led them to that conclusion, mine has led me to mine. My Goddess is singular, conscious, full of agency, rooted in the land, and present in my life, because I have asked Her to be. I do not care if there's a model that matches the structure of the Gods, because I do not need it. I have been shown directly that She is not the same as any other Goddess, or God, now or throughout history. I have asked, and clearly had it explained to me.

So my advice is: ask your Gods. You might be surprised at the answer.

And in matters of contradiction; contradictions are signs of failing of logic in misapplication or misidentification. Since we are dealing not with things-as-they-are but the appearance of things i.e. we cannot directly share gnosis, only impressions drawn from gnosis that fit language well enough to share, then contradiction is inevitable. Call it the signature of the Gods – the experience defies language and in many ways is far deeper than anything you can package neatly with language.

To me, that is far more valuable.