Every month, the Animist Blog Carnival (organized by the devoted Heather Awen) gathers together essays and blog posts on a particular theme from writers all over the world who are exploring animism as an aspect of their spiritual lives. If you consider yourself an animist, you can join in! It’s super-easy: just share your reflections, thoughts and experiences on the month’s chosen theme on your own blog or website, and then email a link to your post to Heather (or that month’s ABC host).
And now’s a great time to get involved. The theme for this month’s ABC is Animism and Religion, and Heather shares a list of thought-provoking prompts over on her blog to get you started, including:
How do you mix animism with the religious tradition you belong to?
Have you ever left a religion because it was not compatible with animism?
Share a personal animistic experience that you had during a religious ritual or ceremony.
Imagine a future animistic religion (50, 300, 1000, 5000 years from now): What are they doing and why? How did it happen? How are radioactive waste sites, GMO fields, poisonous rivers, and Climate Chaos handled? What about technology? (Sci-fi fantasy writers and poets, go for it!)
These are just a few, so if you’re stumped, head on over to Heather’s blog for more. The deadline to submit your writing is November 28, 2013. You can find out more about the Animist Blog Carnival and how to participate, look at future themes and read past contributions by clicking here.
Theology is a tricky thing. It’s no coincidence that the history of religion is just as full of heretics and apostates as it is of saints and theologians. Sometimes, it’s almost impossible to tell which is which.
Imagine, for instance, the human body. Laid out on the table, splayed open, its skin peeled back, its heart exposed and raw. What does this valve do here? Well, nothing now. And this webbing of veins and arteries, furry with capillaries, rooted in flesh, wrapped around bone — now they are all limp with the loss of blood, deadly still and pale on the autopsy table. We imagine that when this body was alive, it quivered and thumped with the rushing pulse of life. We imagine that when this dead heart quickened at the sight of its beloved, a great deal might have happened within these dried up vessels.
This is the dilemma of theology, too. We want so very much to understand our gods, to know them intimately, to see how they work in our lives. It is tempting to dissect, to analyze, to categorize. And sometimes, it is necessary, even beneficial. We are categorizing creatures, we human beings. We pick out patterns as a matter of survival. When it comes to our gods, we reach for them not only with our prayers and offerings, but with our reason and our intellects — we would know them with our whole selves, in all their parts, in part so that we might know our own selves better in all our parts. The challenge is to delve into theology without killing its subject, to try our hand at analysis and critical thinking without pretending that the numinous divine is a dead thing that will hold still beneath our careful knives. Theology is not dissection. It is much more gruesome than that; it is vivisection.
For the natural polytheist, whose gods arise in and from the natural material world, this challenge is not even always a metaphor. Our gods not only have transcendent eyes and metaphysical hands. They have antlers and feathers, hooves and scales, fangs and horns and wings and fins and claws. They are in the lands we strip for veins of precious ore. They are in the waters we poison.
Natural polytheism has an intimate perspective on the uneasy tension between science and religion that plays out in much of modern culture. We have seen the harm that religion can do when it remains wilfully ignorant of science, stubbornly clinging to antiquated stories about man’s privileged place above a wild and dangerous nature. And we have seen the damage that science can do when it rejects the awe and reverence of religion, plunging forward with its drill bits and lab tests, reducing the world to a clean, neat set of variables to be controlled and manipulated. We know the history of exploitation and grisly experimentation that lies behind the scientific knowledge that we take for granted today, the many mistakes and missteps from which we had to learn hard lessons. But we also know the kind of future that lies ahead if we shy away from science in the face of a warming planet and the ever-creeping sludge of pollution.
How do we reconcile this tension?
For me, this is where ecology comes in. Ecology is a science of systems; but more than that, it is a science of living systems. Ecology bubbles over with messy, amazing life. It is a science so full of life that it sweeps even inanimate beings up in its wake. Take, for instance, biogeochemical cycles — the spiraling dance of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and other life-giving substances through the environment — cycles that not only make life on the planet possible, but that incorporate life itself into their most basic processes. Unhindered, these cycles are self-organizing and self-sustaining.
For many Pagans and polytheists, the earth itself is a goddess: the Earth Mother, Mama Ge, the great Gaia who captured Lovelock’s heart. The science of ecology is, in one sense, a study of the Earth Mother’s anatomy, her systems and their parts. The tundra, the grassland, the forest, the ocean — the water cycle, the patterns of climate, the shifting pressures of tectonic plates — her biomes and ecosystems do not exist in isolation from each other, but work together and influence one another as part of a living whole. This is not a warm-fuzzy new age philosophy. This is a scientific fact, acknowledged by ecologists all over the world.
For the natural polytheist who finds her gods in the rivers and mountains, in the deep-rooted giants looming above the canopy and in the tiny creatures that move beneath them, ecology gives us a glimpse into a kind of living anatomy of the divine, a theology of physical as well as spiritual life.
The challenge is not to reconcile the conflict between religion and science by reducing one to the other, but to hold them in tension in a way that sings. Can we see our gods on the operating table and do the work of analysis with humility and gratitude? Can we see our gods in the wending river and mourn the pollution that flows from upstream, and act to stop it? Can we embrace the best of science and the best of religion, and bear the weight of both?
I think the answer is yes. And I think the worldview articulated by natural (or what I sometimes call, ecological) polytheism can help us.
I spent a lot of time this past year asking myself that question. After a week-long drive across the country, through mountains and forests and farmlands and deserts, I found myself celebrating Imbolc last year on the opposite side of the continent from where I’d lived all my life. I was in an entirely new place, with snow-covered mountains looming on every horizon beyond an unfamiliar city skyline. At dusk, I saw the sun sink into another ocean for the first time.
I’ve written before about the sense of exile many of us feel these days, trying to honor our ancestors in a multicultural world, embracing diversity while trying to reconnect with our roots, living in a land that both is and isn’t ours, in which we are both conquerors and wanderers. That sense of disconnection was especially intense for me this past year.
But it also inspired me to get my hands dirty. To get the earth of this new place under my fingernails. To let its rain soak into my skin. To breathe in its cedar-scented breezes, and sit for a while in its sunlight. I spent a lot of time this year, especially the first few months, missing my old stomping grounds. But the only way I knew to get grounded was to make like a tree, and dig in.
So I studied. I grabbed a handful of books on the ecology and natural history of the area at the local bookstore. I left them scattered around the house, reading snippets now and then over breakfast or just before bed. I’d flip through the indices or table of contents until something caught my eye, and then I’d head over to google to see if I could find out more. I asked a lot of questions, and I did a lot of really bad sketching and diagramming.
I also signed up with the local city parks department, and after more than a hundred hours of training, I became a volunteer naturalist, teaching programs on plants, animals and natural history, tromping through urban green spaces and talking with strangers, some who’d lived here longer than I’d been alive. But if I wanted to meet the spirit of this new place I called home, I needed to get to know its people, too. I needed to ground in human community as well as the more-than-human one. (This may sound obvious to lots of you, but for an introvert like me, it was a challenging lesson.)
During this whole time, my spiritual practice played second fiddle to my more mundane activities. Life was full and busy, with so much to learn and so many things to do. I still felt rooted in my Druidry, but it had become more like a stable foundation than an unfamiliar path that begged to be explored. Like a tree in springtime, my energy was pouring into all these fresh new shoots and buds I was trying to grow. I knew eventually autumn and winter would come around again, and it would again be time to let some of that new growth die back and put my energy into growing my roots again, digging even deeper so that they would be strong and sturdy enough to support me and I wouldn’t topple over with the first strong wind. But for the time being, I felt like my task was to learn how to be a Druid in the World.
One thing, though, is that when you’re barreling along full-speed, it can be hard to hit the breaks or change direction. Little questions start to nag at you.
Like that question — what is ecological polytheism? That was the question that I knew I’d eventually have to answer. There was something going on in the root-webbed dark, some new kind of way of being Pagan that was starting to take shape for me. I tried to answer this question, or at least articulate it, in a coupleof posts over on No Unsacred Place, and they became two of the most popular posts on the blog. I wasn’t the only one interested in asking these kinds of questions, it seemed. Lots of other people were wondering the same thing. What is natural polytheism? How does ecology inform my theology? How can I bring science and religion into conversation for a more grounded and earth-centered Paganism?
Around the same time I started asking these questions more consciously, a new goddess entered my life. A goddess of wilderness and wildness. A goddess I’d known when I was a child in the dreamlike way that children do, but I’d lost sight of her as I grew up and left the woods and fields for libraries and university lecture halls and coffee house poetry nights. Suddenly she was back in full force, and she was urging me to move in a new way.
So it’s time to pick up my walking stick and start down that path again, exploring this new place that’s calling. It’s time to see yet again what the wisdom of dark places has to teach me. My gods are telling me this year is going to be a year of steady work, humility and dedication. It’s a year of water and earth, dark, heavy things that linger close to the land, that make their way down in between the rocks and the tree roots. It’s not going to be glamorous or polished or refined. It’s going to be messy and wild and tangled and rough. But the journey is on, and adventure is calling…
A Journey from A to Z
This year, my hope is to blog each week about some topic related to the question, “What is natural (or ecological) polytheism?”
These posts will fall into three main categories (which, because I am a Druid after all and I like triads, I’ve roughly corresponded to the three realms of sky, land and sea). Those categories are:
The first category is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: I’ll be exploring ideas and concepts from ecology, and how they inform or connect with my spiritual path as a nature-loving, tree-hugging dirt-worshipper. The second category, Activities, will include posts about my practices, rituals and other attempts to “walk my talk”; in other words, what it is that I actually do to turn my ideas about ecological polytheism into a thriving spiritual practice. The third and final category, Companions, will be about the guides and guardians I meet along the way. Some of them will be your typical gods and goddesses, but there will also be the plants and animals who share the land with me, not to mention the land itself and the rivers, mountains, forests and all sorts of other beings who shape and make the land what it is.
If you’re a regular reader here, you probably know that I tend to blog in fits and starts, some months cranking out a ridiculous number of posts, other months hardly blogging at all. I’ve decided to join in the Pagan Blog Project in the hopes that the structure and community support will encourage me to write more regularly. (This is part of the lesson in steady, consistent work that I have to learn this year.) Last year, nearly 450 bloggers participated — including yours truly, though I got a late start and petered out after letter G…. This year, we’ll see. But I figure if I can hold on for a year, next year will be even easier, and after three years, I might just have one entry per category per letter, which would make a rather nice “Glossary of Natural Polytheism,” don’t you think?
But there I go being all fire and air again. So I’m making no promises, except the promise to try to stick close to water and earth and the root-webbed dark, no matter how messy and muddy it gets me.
Well, I’m still working my way through Daniel Meeter’s new book, Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes To Hell)? and sharing my reactions and responses to his ideas from my own non-Christian perspective as a polytheistic Druid. Last time, I gave a quick overview of the book, along with a point-by-point response to his first few chapters. We were pretty much on the same page (no pun intended) for a while there. But then, things started to get a little tricky…
You see, at first Meeter seems to be all about the diversity and plurality of religious traditions, and the reasons he gives for wanting to be Christian are all about ritualistic, aesthetic and mythopoetic appeal: Are the stories of the Bible meaningful to you? Are you inspired by Jesus’s example of a spirit-infused life? Do the practices and rituals of Christian community help you feel more connected to spirit? If so, great! Climb on board the Christian Express. If not? That’s cool, too. All religions cultivate soul and spiritual relationship in one way or another, so go find one that helps you do that in the best, most meaningful and fulfilling way possible.
Meeter gives Christianity a bit of a soft sell, emphasizing all of the ways that being a Christian can help you get your head right and find a more meaningful way of living. But what he doesn’t do is justify, or even articulate, some of the foundational ontological beliefs on which he’s based his arguments. (Hint #1 that you are a mainstream religion: you don’t have to begin your “why be a [member of this religion]” book with an explanation of your religion’s most basic tenets and practices.) As a polytheist and a Druid and a tree-hugging dirt-worshipping deep-ecology type, these assumptions kept insinuating themselves quietly into my awareness like the creeping music underlying a peaceful suburban scene in a David Lynch movie. And they swelled to a crescendo in “Chapter 7: To Be A Human Being.”
Don’t get me wrong. Meeter seems like a very nice guy. He reassures readers:
I am not saying that non-Christians are not human beings or that Jews and Muslims and Buddhists are not human beings. I am not saying this even about atheists and Red Sox fans. I am not saying that Christians are the only human beings, or even that we are better human beings. But what I am saying is that this is why we are Christian, to be human beings, or maybe I should say a certain kind of human being, the kind that reflects a particular image of God. And the kind of God we enjoy and glorify affects the kind of human beings we are.
Fair enough, Dan. (Can I call you Dan?) I’m all for the loving, supportive, caregiver god that you describe in this chapter — he sounds charming. But you’ve missed a few of the more subtle implications of this kind of belief, implications that lead you to make some pretty audacious, unscientific claims about the natural world and the nature of being human. Since the kind of god we worship affects the kind of human beings we are, let’s see if we can’t find out a bit more about your god by looking at the kind of human he inspires.
Allow me to illustrate by way of a parable of my own. You may call this parable “The Gardener in the Oasis.” Or maybe “The Wonders of Ham Radio.”
Imagine There’s No Heaven….
Suppose you live in a desert, in a tiny little oasis only about ten meters in diameter. Your oasis has a couple trees that give you fruit and nuts, and a small wellspring from which clean water flows. You cannot leave this oasis, for the desert stretches out around you on all sides, perfectly flat and featureless as far as the eye can see. You were born in this oasis, and you have never been beyond it, so you have no way of knowing how large the desert is. In fact, it doesn’t even occur to you that the desert has an end to it. For you, the desert is just the background against which your existence takes shape. You think to yourself: How lucky it is that I am in this oasis, this special place where life is possible, when the rest of existence is harsh and lifeless. You can see around you in all directions, a full 360º circle. You think to yourself: How special I must be, for God to have made this perfect little oasis for me right in the middle of this desert. How special I am, for God to have put me in the center of the universe.
But all is not well. Something is wrong. The days in your oasis are too hot, despite the shade, and at night it is too cold. The trees cannot provide enough food on their own, so you use the water to create a small garden so that you can grow your own food. You think to yourself: Look how God has given me stewardship of this oasis. Without me, this garden would have no water and it would die. Without me, the trees would have no reason to bear fruit, their fruit would fall to the ground and die. How special I must be to be given such an important role in this oasis.
One day you notice a figure far out on the horizon where the sky meets the dry, harsh, empty land. The figure is tiny; it seems to be shaped like you, but it is so small that you have trouble seeing it. Because you have never left your oasis, because you have never walked through the emptiness of the desert and watched your oasis recede into the distance, you do not understand the concept of perspective or vanishing points. It does not occur to you that the figure on the horizon might be the same size as you, only very far away. You think to yourself: How great I am, that God made me so much bigger than this other creature.
Your stomach grumbles, reminding you that all is not well. In the wellspring, you see the reflection of your face and you can see how the hunger pains make you grimace. You think to yourself: If I am so special and so great, and yet I suffer this way, something must be wrong. If I could only live up to the greatness that God has made for me, surely then I would not be hungry or cold… or lonely. You think to yourself: Look how the figure on the horizon is so small, it does not even have a face with which to grimace. It is so small that it does not feel the absence of its greatness. It does not feel pain the way I do. In this way, too, God has made me special, so that I might know that something is wrong and work to make things right.
To pass the time, and because you are lonely, you begin doing little experiments in your garden oasis. You learn how to build a radio (stick with me here) that lets you listen to invisible, inaudible patterns of electromagnetic energy in the air. You think to yourself: Boy am I something.
When you listen to your radio, at first all you seem to hear is static. But then, you begin to notice patterns in the noise. You think to yourself: No, this cannot be a pattern from out there beyond the oasis, for the universe is deserted and lifeless chaos except for my place here. It must be that, in my specialness and greatness, I am simply projecting my own patterns into chaos and seeing my reflection there the way I see my reflection in water. How arrogant that is of me! You think to yourself: Or perhaps I am the reflection and God is the pattern, and I am to God the way the reflection in the wellspring is to me. In that case, perhaps I can accept that the patterns coming from beyond my oasis garden are real, but they are simply expressions of God’s greatness. And in being able to see these patterns, I too am special and great, the way God made me.
But then the patterns begin to change. They start to sound like words, and the words say, “I can see something on the horizon. It is so small. It looks almost like me.” You think to yourself: That does not sound like God. For God made me to be great and special, and God knows just how big I am, I am the biggest thing here — except for the trees, which serve me and feed me, so I am greater than they are, too, in my own special way.
You use your radio to ask, “Who are you?”
And the words say, “So you can talk? Hello! We have been trying to reach you for a long time! There once was someone who lived in the oasis who would talk to us, but she is gone now. She must have died. Who are you?”
You say to the radio, “I am the special one that God has made to rule over this place, the only place of life and comfort in the whole universe. There was no one here before me, and there will be no one here after me.”
The words say, “I see. You are like us. You live and die, like us, and cannot remember what came before you or know what will come after you. That is okay. Now that you have a radio, we can talk to each other.”
You think to yourself: I know this tiny creature must be wrong about there being someone here before me — for surely, I am special and great, or God would not have made this special place for me. Perhaps in the same way I see my reflection in water, this tiny being saw its reflection here and mistook it for another small being like itself. If it could truly see things as I do, it would see how large I actually am. How special I must be, since I am able to distinguish reality from reflections.
You say to the radio, “Tiny being, if you could see me as I really am, you would see how big I am, and how we are not alike at all. I see that you have a body, arms and legs, and a head as I do, yes, but because your eyes are so small, you can only see other small things like yourself. You only think we are alike because you do not have the greatness of vision that I do.”
The words from the radio say, “Perhaps you are right. Tell us how large and great you are, for we would like to hear.”
You say to the radio, “I am so great that the sun shines for me so that I might be warm, and the night cools me so that I might rest, and the earth gives water for me so that I might refresh myself and quench my thirst. Because I am so great, I dispense water to the ground to make things grow, for without me there would be no garden and the trees would have no purpose for their fruit. Without me, there would be no wellspring here, for this is the only water in the entire universe and God put this water here to nourish me. But God told me to be like him, and so as God gives me water so do I give water to everything else. For I am very special and very great, but my greatness comes from being like God.”
The words from the radio say, “You sound truly great and amazing. But we are somewhat confused. Where we live, there is a great deal of water. It falls from the sky all the time, and it falls on everyone equally, both those who are great and those who are small.”
You say, “You must be mistaken about where the water comes from because you are so small. Surely, the small sprouts in my garden think that water comes from the sky when I water them, because they are too small to see that I have drawn the water from the well. But I water my plants all alike, for I never know which will grow and which will not. For I am like God, and God gives me water even though something is wrong and sometimes I am not great as God made me, but God does this so that I might grow and become great and special as I was truly meant to be.”
The words say, “Maybe you are right. We do often feel very small indeed, for here there is also a great body of water that we call an ocean. It stretches from horizon to horizon, so that half of all that we see is water, and half is land. The ocean washes ashore in huge waves and it makes a ceaseless mighty roar.”
You say, “Ah! Yes, of course. You are so tiny that a wellspring would indeed look huge to you, and its ripples would overwhelm you like giant waves. Because you are so small, you cannot see that it is only a very small amount of water in the endless lifeless desert that is the universe.”
The words from the radio say, “But the universe does not seem lifeless to us. On land, where the rain falls from the sky, there are many plants and animals and the world is teeming with life. And in the ocean, there are creatures called fish that live and breathe underwater, and they are so plentiful that we are never without food and never hungry.”
The words from the radio disturb you. You think to yourself: These tiny creatures admit to being small, and so of course they would be too tiny to grimace with pain or experience hunger the way I do. It is because I am so big and so great that I need so much to satisfy my hunger and thirst. But what do they mean that there are beings that live in water? It is impossible to live and breathe underwater. These tiny beings feed on death itself, but do not know it. How sad that God would let them die this way. How merciful of God to spare them from the knowledge that they feed on death and so must die themselves.
“Are you there?” the words from the radio ask.
You say, “Yes, I am here. Can you not still see me at the center of the universe? Surely you cannot doubt that I am still here, for I am at the center of everything. But maybe you are so small that you forget that I am at the center, maybe your minds are too small to hold onto the idea of how great I am.”
The words say, “Oh no, that is not why. It is because, from where we are, it looks as if we are at the center of the universe. You are just a tiny figure on the distant horizon, and we appear to ourselves to be the biggest things around. But we know that we are not, because we have used our radio to talk to others, and we have learned from them that all beings experience the universe as if they were at its center.”
You find yourself trembling. You say to the radio, “Of course you are not at the center of the universe! How arrogant of you to presume such a thing! You are tiny and at the very edge of existence. You are lucky that God allows you to exist at all, for you disturb me and I do not like to talk to you! You are only here because something is wrong, you are here to test my faith. But I will not be fooled, and when I am once again great and special as God made me to be, there will be no more need of you and you will be destroyed!”
You throw your radio down and break it, so that the words cannot harass you any longer.
But the tiny figure on the horizon remains. From time to time, you look up to see that it is still there.
Finally, you rebuild your radio. “Hello?” you ask, somewhat meekly.
“Hello!” the words from the radio greet you. “We missed you! We are glad you have decided to talk to us again.”
You say, “Can I ask you a question?”
The words say, “Certainly! We love to share our stories with others. What would you like to ask us?”
You say, “You know that you are small, and you said that even though it looks like you are at the center of the universe, you know that you are not, and that no one else is at the center of the universe either, though it might appear to them that way.”
“But what is the purpose of life, if no one is at the center of the universe? What is the meaning of life, if you know that you are only tiny creatures and you do not have another, greater being around which to organize your life?”
The words on the radio are silent for a long time. Finally, the answer comes: “We cannot tell you what the meaning of your life is, if that is what you are asking. But we have discovered that there is a great deal of joy in sharing our stories with others, as we have shared our story with you. When we share our stories with each other, we are not as lonely and we do not feel as lost, for we know that there are others out there who know us and recognize us by our stories.”
You think to yourself: How can that be enough? I have been telling my story to these tiny creatures all this time, but I still feel frightened and alone.
But your thoughts are interrupted as the words continue, “Even more importantly, we have learned that when we hear the stories of others, we can glimpse how the world looks from their perspective. Somehow, this makes us feel less alone, knowing that just as we are known by others, others are known by us as well, and in that way we are all connected. For we have discovered that there is a great joy and beauty in learning how to listen.”
That might seem like an odd question for a Pagan Druid to be asking, but it’s the title of a new book by Daniel Meeter that caught my eye.* I like to take up these challenges every now and then, in part because remembering the religious tradition that I came from helps to remind me why I left, and what lessons or insights of value I want to hold onto and carry with me into the future, even if I no longer call myself a Christian. After all, I remember being a Christian. In fact I was, if I may say so, a really fantastic Christian. I Christianed the hell out of that shit. So what happened? It’s a long story (with a few twists and turns). Suffice it to say, I’m in a different place in my life now, and that place gives me a different perspective on the purpose of the spiritual life and the assumptions we bring to it. That’s why I wanted to read Meeter’s book. To stretch my muscles a bit, to remember what it’s like to think about the world differently, and to keep my interfaith work bilingual and useful.
So, did Meeter’s book live up to its title? In lots of ways, yes. Meeter gives a robust run-down of reasons to check out Christianity, or to stick with it if you’re on the fence. Chapter by chapter, he outlines some of the benefits that he believes the religion of Christianity has to offer (while noting that lots of other religions can provide them as well). His style of writing is conversational, inquisitive and non-confrontational. Sometimes so much so that it can be hard to pin down exactly what it is that he believes, and how he grapples with apparent contradictions or inconsistencies. But he makes no pretense at giving complete answers or thorough theological arguments (and he includes a list of interesting books for readers who are intrigued enough to want to follow up on questions that the book raises).
Meeter divides up his text into chapters, each devoted to exploring one reason why someone might want to be a Christian. Since I’m not a Christian, and quite content and secure in my religious identity, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to approach each of these chapters by asking two questions: What insights into Christianity can I learn from this chapter? and Where does this reason fall short for me, personally?
What’s up with Hell?
Throughout most of his book, Meeter devotes one chapter to each of his seventeen reasons for being Christian — but when it comes to hell, he has a lot to say, so it gets two. You could probably guess from the title that Meeter holds to the belief that nobody goes to hell, and he’s well aware that for centuries, fear of hell has been a motivating factor in convincing folks to make the safer bet (Pascal’s Wager, anyone?). Without the fear of eternal damnation, what reason could you possibly have for wanting to be Christian?
Meeter’s Insight — For Meeter, believing that there isn’t a hell after all is itself an awesome reason to be a Christian. He points out that having to believe in a cruel, sadistic God who gets off on torturing people for eternity has been a huge stumbling block for people who otherwise find the Christian message of love and forgiveness really appealing. He wants to “clear the path to the front door” for those folks, and he does so by exploring the history of the Doctrine of Hell and its lack of support in the Old and New Testaments. He says, “It’s good news for you good-hearted and kindly people who believed that conventional views of hell are biblical, and therefore true, but wished they weren’t. […] It might be reasonable to believe in hell, but it’s not biblical, and that’s the best reason not to believe it.” (emphasis added)
Why I’m Not Convinced — I was raised not believing in hell in any case, taught that hell was a “state of mind” rather than an actual place people went after they died, so I’m with Meeter up to a point. Where he loses me is his emphasis on biblical accuracy and inerrancy as the test for spiritual truth. Fact is, I can’t think of a worse reason to believe something than merely because the Bible says so. (Seriously, have you read that thing?) I might agree with him that believing in a literal hell is not all that reasonable, and that it stems from a belief in the disconnection between the body and the soul instead of a worldview that sees body and soul as co-emergent and interpenetrating. But as soon as he starts arguing that we should put aside “reasonable” beliefs because they’re not biblical, he’s made a huge misstep. It doesn’t much help his case that he goes on to assert that “everyone already knows” that people are “special” and above other animals, so he won’t bother making a case for his assertion. (Still, kudos for trying to make people feel better that their pets won’t go to hell without them.)
To Be Spiritual
I’m a word nerd, so when Meeter starts getting technical in this chapter about the difference between “soul” and “spirit,” I geek out. (However, if you want a fascinating and thorough exploration of the question, check out Bill Plotkin’s approach in his book, Soulcraft.)
Meeter’s Insight — “The purpose of Christianity is not only the worship of God, but the restoration of humanity. […] Christians believe that the restoration of humanity requires a healthy spirituality, and a healthy spirituality requires the cultivation of the soul.” Meeter takes some time to point out that the cultivation of the soul is pretty much the raison d’être for all religions, and that different religions have different ways of approaching this work. “If you want to learn the practices that help connect your soul to God as Jesus connected with God,” he says, “then you would be a Christian.” And he goes on to explain that engaging in these practices, taking Jesus as your example, is also likely to lead you to engage with the world as Jesus engaged with the world.
Why I’m Not Convinced — Actually, I’m pretty much on board with Meeter here. I think he makes a very important point when he notes that picking and choosing practices from different traditions and cultures can quickly become problematic. Not only can it be hard to “get beyond yourself” without a cohesive, supportive community to challenge you and push you beyond your comfort zone, but it’s also a slippery slope into cultural misappropriation (something Meeter doesn’t mention). The reason I’m not a Christian? Firstly, the Christian community I used to belong to didn’t do a very good job of supporting the cultivation of soul through practices of love, so I had to look elsewhere whether I liked it or not. Secondly, practices from other religious traditions — specifically those that were grounded in reverence for the natural world and engagement with the mysteries of the earth, like Druidry — called to me much more deeply and powerfully than the example set by Jesus (who had always been most intriguing to me anyway when he was spitting in the dirt and talking about lilies in the field).
To be continued….
Hopefully this gives you a taste of Meeter’s approach, some of his insights and some of the weak spots of his arguments. I’ve broken up the rest of the chapters into a series of blog posts, and at the risk of boring you, I’ll be sharing those throughout the rest of the month (in part to keep this blog chugging along while I finish my novel… squeee!). So stay tuned….
* Yes, I received a review copy of this book for free (through SpeakEasy). Although I know you dear readers trust my intellectual and ethical integrity enough to know I would never give a positive review of a book in exchange for financial perks, I am legally obligated to remind you that bloggers are a shady bunch who need to be held to higher standards than print media, who review books all the time without having to point out that they’ve been provided with copies of those books in order to do their jobs.
My last post has generated some fantastic conversation both in the Meadowsweet Commons and elsewhere online. I’m still sweltering at my parents’ house and will be traveling home again this weekend, so although I’m in the middle of composing a response exploring some of the ideas readers and commenters have shared, that post probably won’t be up for another few days at least.
In the meantime, I wanted to highlight some of the many insightful comments my last post has inspired.
First, both Pheadra and Freeman have stopped by to clarify their thoughts and take me (kindly) to task for approaching a light-hearted Twitter conversation far too seriously. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve turned a more serious, contemplative eye on a bit of harmless fun (and, despite the groans of readers everywhere, it probably won’t be the last!), but I hope they’ll forgive the mutual misunderstanding if only for the fact that it’s helped to provoke some really interesting conversations.*
I never said (nor did Isaac) that competence without sincerity was a goal. Other commentors have shared stories of how when their competence was infused with sincerity, their achievements soared. It is a marvelous goal. But as someone said, sometimes you’re tired. Sometimes you got asked to do something at the last minute. Sometimes what you’re doing is just not your thing. But if you have skill, whether it is in dance, theater, ritual, whatever, you have a much better chance to soar above the circumstances. Sincere people might get lucky, rise above their skill level, and soar, too. But the competent have the edge.
I have a lot more experience of public ritual that suffered from lack of planning and practice than I do of performances by polished ritualists who lacked commitment. It really seems to me that leadership in Pagan circles is generally not so externally rewarding that people remain in those roles after a loss of faith.
You can read the full text of their comments here and here.
Other readers also shared their thoughts about how they approach spiritual work and the experiences they’ve had of rituals in a variety of contexts.
Salena shares her own story as a dancer and a Pagan:
This article kept me thinking about my history with dance. I’ve always been a competent dancer, but for many years I lacked the sincerity. But after I converted to paganism and was able to find joy in my body in ways I hadn’t before, I became a much better dancer. For all the years I lacked sincerity, teachers and everyone kept telling me how I was competent, but that my lack of sincerity made me uninteresting to watch. Which I think is true. I tried for a long time to fake sincerity: I tried to lengthen my fingers to make it look like I wanted to dance to the ends of my extremities, but people could always tell, because people can read your mind through your body language. I could never give a convincing emotional performance, no matter my level of competence, because I was insincere.
On the other hand, I was in school with a lot of really sincere dancers with very little training and technical competence, and they were always very moving to watch.
Midnyte Hierax points to the necessary relationship between sincerity and competence (what I’ve been calling, in this context, integrity):
Group ritual takes equal parts competence and sincerity to be beneficial to the greatest number of participants. The leader should know how to manage energy flow and group dynamics; speakers should know how to manage vocabulary, eye contact, volume, and inflection even if they’re reading from a script; non-speaking members should know how to focus their own will and intent on the purpose of the working and how to stay out of the way of the active participants. All of these things working in concert increases the strength of the ritual, whatever its goal. All of these things take practice, hard work, experience, and determination to master. When a working group reaches a high level of competency, it is generally plain to see their sincerity in every ritual they do because they would not have gotten to the level of competency they’re at without sincere devotion to their faith and practices.
David M. shares his insights into how the purpose of ritual determines where we place our priorities:
The purpose of ritual is key here. Ritual can be all about community cohesion and that is a lovely thing. Or, it can be about performance and that can be fine too. If ritual is about making change there is a different dynamic. Competence and sincerity are necessary but not sufficient. To be successful, the leader and helpers must be able to invoke Spirit directly into the work. The elders or newbies who can accomplish this deserve respect and usually receive it because people can tell the difference.
In a similar vein, Cat Chapin-Bishop draws on her experience of silent worship in a Quaker context to explore the difference between pleasing performance and transformative power:
To my mind, the key understanding here is that ritual is not entirely a performance. In fact, what my time among Quakers is teaching me is that ritual is best when it is not a performance at all, at least for me, and that treating my interactions with the gods as a craft rather than a relationship is harmful to the power and Truth of what I experience when I approach them. […] To script an encounter with the gods is to risk writing Them out of the script; if there can be no surprises, then we cannot be surprised by the sacred. And while that might yield a pleasant evening, it won’t deepen me in my spiritual journey.
Again, I don’t say that ritual power is incompatible with performance or competence… but an undue emphasis on those elements of leadership can lead us to over-focus on the outward elements of a ritual encounter. In the end, it is what is happening inside the celebrants, not how lovely a ritual is for the eyes and the ears, that matters most.
Cat’s comment is well worth reading in full, as there’s just too much good stuff to quote here. You can find it here in the Meadowsweet Commons.
Elsewhere online, Thorn Coyle shares some very similar reflections, particularly on the need for leaders to take risks and push themselves beyond their comfort zones even if that means disappointing others:
We should all be working toward both sincerity and competence. Sometimes we also need to take the big risks outside our comfort zones to make a different level of magic happen. With all our skill and training, that may end up looking like incompetence. It might disappoint or piss people off, people who have grown used to a certain level of work from us.
Leaders need to risk failure in order to keep sincere. Otherwise, we end up polishing veneer. Taking big risks when you are in a leadership role – whether leading a grove or coven or even a tradition – can feel very hard because we tend to not want our leaders to fail in any way (or worse, we are waiting for them to fail, so we can feel superior). No one likes to fail, most of us have some level of risk aversion, and I think this can become heightened when someone has been in leadership for awhile. It is how people and movements become brittle.
The really effective leaders continue to self-examine, to practice their craft, to study, to pray, to connect, and to take risks.
There is so much more to say on this topic, and it’s one that I think lies at the very heart of not just Pagan leadership, but also Pagan spirituality in general.
What do we emphasize in our rituals and spiritual work, and why? How do different forms of ritual shape our approach to these questions? How do we choose our leaders, and just as importantly, how do we support them in ways that allow them to continue to grow, explore and take risks?
What are your thoughts on the relationship between sincerity, competence, and integrity?
*I’ll also add quickly that, since I was upfront about the context of the Twitter conversation and reproduced it in its entirety in my original post, I think that while there may have been some misunderstanding and bungled communication on the part of both Phaedra and myself, the accusation that I misrepresented anyone is somewhat unfair. (I trust readers to decide for themselves, and a few of them did chime in that they thought I’d misunderstood Phaedra’s point.) Anyone familiar with Twitter knows the format and the context, or lack of it, in which 140-character-long tweets get traded. The brief exchange I had with Phaedra sparked some further thoughts for me that, after a few days, I decided to explore in more detail in a blog post. What happens on Twitter, unlike Vegas, does not necessarily have to stay on Twitter. I’m glad that Phaedra and Freeman both took the opportunity to expand on their thoughts beyond 140 characters in the Meadowsweet Commons, and it turns out that, as is so often the case, we actually agree on more than we disagree. Still, there is some intriguing subtlety to those points where we disagree, and that’s what I’ll be exploring further in later posts.
July 6th Update: This post has inspired some really wonderful feedback and conversation in the community! (Thank you, everyone who has shared their thoughts here!) I’ve highlighted some of the best observations and insights in a follow-up post, including Phaedra’s clarification in response. Please check it out here.
It began when Phaedra Bonewits (@PhaedraBonewits) shared a quote on Twitter from her late husband, the renowned Druid and founder of ADF, Isaac Bonewits:
“Sincerity does not equal competence.”
So much food for thought captured in such a simple statement. So much hinted at about the struggles of a contemporary fledgling religious movement trying to find its feet, learning to count its fingers and toes, testing its limits and working to cultivate a sense of excellence and integrity worth passing on to the next generation.
When I read that quote, I’d just returned from my first time attending an OBOD ritual (a solstice celebration in my new home of Seattle), and my head and heart were full of impressions and vague notions about how different it had been from the ADF rituals I’d attended in Pittsburgh. The ADF rituals had been elaborate, long, beautiful and moving, but the priests who led them had been…. how to put it politely? Somewhat haughty. (When I told them that, though I wasn’t a member of ADF, I’d been practicing Druidry for several years and I celebrated the seasonal holidays regularly with my husband and four step-kids, the chilly response practically dripped with tight-lipped “ur doing it wrong” as the priestess kindly explained that ADF rituals weren’t usually very “kid-friendly.”) Not a big deal. I tend to be an introvert and even a little anti-social sometimes. I didn’t feel the need to be best friends with the members of the local grove in order to appreciate and support their dedication and hard work, or to attend their public rituals (though I never did bring the kids along).
But what a contrast to the OBOD solstice celebration! To be honest, I’d never really been all that moved by the OBOD approach to ritual when I’d read the outlines and scripts in the past. They tended to be very “Wiccanesque,” and these days that’s enough to earn quite a bit of scorn from certain corners of the Pagan community. But I was at least as familiar with the simple, rather straightforward approach of OBOD ritual as I’d been with the ADF liturgical structure, and I was itching to connect with some local Druids in my new city. I was surprised when I found myself reveling in the very simplicity that I’d worried might make the experience boring or leave me feeling unmoved. One of the ritual leaders held an infant in a sling around his neck, bouncing her occasionally to quiet her gurgles. A woman nestled a tiny dog in the crook of her arm. A few young people in somewhat elaborate and gorgeously-designed robes could hardly hold onto their seriousness as an officiant walked around the circle, smearing wet fingers across everyone’s foreheads in blessing, messing up even the most carefully applied make-up. And through it all, the sun filtered down through the oak trees and filled the circle with warmth and presence. Despite moments of clumsiness (and the resulting giggles and guffaws), the ritual shone with deep sincerity. I found myself eagerly looking forward to the next time the group got together, and wondering if maybe it would be worth it after all to return to the Bardic lessons I’d lost interest in years ago.
Despite my qualms with how OBOD might be organized on a national and international level, the experience I had at the OBOD ritual was one of loving, supportive spiritual community, perhaps the closest I’ve come to experiencing that kind of connection since leaving the church of my childhood. It served as a reminder to me that, even as we stumble forward crafting new rituals and traditions for ourselves, sharing a deep commitment and sincerity with each other can open us up to grace: the grace of discovering intimacy even in the midst of imperfection.
It was with that in mind that I replied to Phaedra’s tweet with:
OTOH, sincerity can at least redeem incompetence. I’m not sure competence can make up for insincerity. Your thoughts?
I have to admit — that sends shivers down my spine. In a society so riddled with marketing and manipulation… // …the thought of someone insincere leading a rite makes it difficult for me to establish trust/openness to the experience. // For me, competency might be necessary, but NOT sufficient. // Sincerity is absolutely necessary, and can even be sufficient depending on the circumstances.
While I was offline traveling for a few days, the conversation unfolded still further. Phaedranoted:
Context is important. I’ve seen actors give great “technical” performances when their hearts weren’t in it. Competence wins. // Perhaps important, too, to consider that while competence & sincerity can comfortably co-exist, they are not interchangeable.
Hah! Good point 🙂 An ex of mine used to say, “Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made!”
Catching up on this conversation, I quickly found myself with that old familiar sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I can’t speak for other Pagans, but I’ve heard enough conversion stories in our community to know that many of us left the Abrahamic traditions we’d been raised in precisely because we were fed up with insincerity and hypocrisy, and with religious leaders “going through the motions” with adept professionalism but without embodying the values they preached from the pulpit. And here were Pagan leaders not only admitting to the very same, but actually encouraging it.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of room for “fake it until you make it” in a diverse and growing religious movement still trying to find its sea legs and having to come face to face with the really tough questions about life, the universe and everything. An essential part of such spiritual work is “deep play,” in which we experiment with self-identity and community boundaries, exploring our relationships with each other, with ourselves and with the gods.
But deep play is only “deep” if it is sincere. Sincerity is, when you get right down to it, perhaps the most important part of such spiritual work. It’s the opposite of cynicism or calculated self-possession. It’s in the rich soil of sincerity that true meaningfulness can be nurtured and cultivated. It’s from this rich soil, too, that competency can find nourishment and encouragement — when our work is rooted in passionate care and a sense of integrity, its true transformative power can come to fruition. Competency is all well and good, but if its roots are shallow, it rarely rises above the level of passable entertainment.
And that’s where I differ from Phaedra in how I view the purpose of ritual. I don’t expect it to entertain me. I don’t worry too much if the ritual experience is tedious. Some of the most challenging spiritual exercises — from sitting in silent meditation to studying theological texts to practicing simple mindfulness on a daily basis — can be excruciatingly tedious, mind-bogglingly boring, at least on the surface. They take discipline and patience as well as competency. This is no less true of community rituals, where fostering authentic connection with others can be a painstaking process of negotiation and exploration that makes pulling teeth seem like a day at the amusement park. But simply because something might be tedious doesn’t mean it can’t bear fruit.
An emphasis on competency over sincerity is antithetical to my spiritual path as one of sacred embodiment and immanence. To say that insincerity can be effectively masked, that ritual participants can be convincingly and ethically fooled so long as the priest or ritual leader is competent enough — is to draw a hard and fast line between inner experience and outer appearance, and to say that the one has no real affect on the other. It takes the sometimes useful “fake it until you make it” and shrugs off the second half, leaving us only with the advice to get better at “faking it.” But to what end?
The process of cultivating real integrity is sometimes messy and sometimes ugly. Fostering community is not about learning to be a good actor or an appreciative audience, but about learning how to take the messiness and clumsiness and ugliness in stride and discover the beauty within all the chaos. It’s about learning to recognize the grace of intimacy and the power of integrity, when inner experience and outer appearance are brought into more authentic communication with each other.
I can’t help but wonder if this is why elders and leaders in our community are sometimes not very well respected, and why those who are sometimes choose to step down out of the spotlight.
Have our leaders become so focused on the outer appearance of competence, professionalism and legitimacy that they’ve foregone the difficult, messy work of authenticity and integrity? Are they overly concerned with putting on a good show, capturing the attention of the media and the mainstream? Are they too afraid of seeming tedious, irrelevant or — gods forbid! — “fluffy”?
In general, I don’t think so. I think there are still many, many leaders and elders in our community who are deeply committed and deeply grounded in a sense of sincerity which lends meaningfulness and power to their work. But I do think we run the risk of allowing these devoted people to go undervalued and unappreciated if we’re not careful. So we also have to ask ourselves: are we willing to speak up and speak out in praise of the messiness and clumsiness of real community? Are we willing to set aside our need to be entertained and embrace the tediousness of fruitful spiritual work?
How do you value sincerity, integrity and competence in your own spiritual path? When was the last time you let yourself be messy and human in front of a fellow Pagan?