The second installment of my UU-Pagan series, The Mystery of the Many: In Silence and Song, goes live today over on the Patheos CUUPS blog! In it, I tackle a topic I've long been pondering: how polytheistic mysticism differs from the ways we usually talk about the divine mystery and the purpose of spiritual community in a mostly-monotheistic Western culture. My lived experience of progressive values leads me to the conclusion that it is not a unity of agreement that we are seeking, but the freedom to disagree in a multitude of astounding and beautiful ways, each seeking our own paths. How do we cultivate spiritual community in the face of this diversity? I think UU offers some surprising alternative approaches....
I'm sure a lot of Pagans have said this, but for me discovering Paganism and Druidry was never really about leaving something behind: it was about coming home to myself. From a very early age, I have always cared deeply about the natural world, and I've seen the powers and forces of nature and the many non-human beings who share the planet with us as expressions of the divine. I've also always loved music, poetry and storytelling -- and art and creativity in general -- and see them as vital practices for connecting authentically with the heart of my spirituality. All of that was true when I was Catholic, and it's still true now. I also know lots of Christians who feel the same way, and many of those Christians share very similar spiritual practices -- meditation, divination, chanting and breathwork, etc. So what exactly is the difference between me and them?
The bleakness of Douglas Adams' novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, is its critique of our willingness to treat the gods like vending machines, here to serve our needs. The god who can't serve us is as useless and incomprehensible to us as a Coke machine with an "Out of Order" sign taped to it. It's no coincidence that Adams portrays the gods as vagabonds who have to sleep in an abandoned train station, while the villains of the book are comfortably middle-class characters who use money to buy the luxury of ignoring "all the mess." Does mortality offer the gods a way out?
I try to answer an intriguing question put forward in an essay by Sionnach Gorm: "How do we, as devout polytheists, reconcile the historic reality that our ancestors (at some point in the 5th-6th century CE and with no evidence of coercion) chose to turn to a god of bells and tonsures, of monks and scriptures, of Rome and the Papacy? Why would they 'abandon' the gods of their ancestors, and choose this newfangled Christ and his missionaries?"
In light of recent events and discussions, I wanted to share this essay as a robust defense of the sacred value of art, poetry and satire within both our theological explorations and our political discourse. It is my view that ambivalence itself can be sacred, for it opens us to authentic experiences of others which may be unexpected or challenging, and so we can appreciate this ambivalence and the art forms that express it as powerful and meaningful aspects of our relationship with the numinous, and with each other.
Druidic author Emma Restall Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of Western philosophy. In her latest work, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, she presents a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature's inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. Although the book is a challenging read, the thoughtful reader will find much to ponder in her systematic treatment of a modern animistic perspective on concepts of self, soul, community, individuality and consciousness.
What is anthropocentrism? Turns out, there is no single, simple answer to this question. (Just among the nearly fifty books on environmental ethics and deep ecology that I have, only one actually offers a definition of the term, despite almost all of them referring to it in their discussions. As with many words, its meaning often has to be teased out and inferred from context.) In my earlier post I hinted at the beginnings of a definition when I referred to an approach to ritual that "takes for granted a worldview in which humans are the only measure of what is real." The question of how our idea of "the real" and our practical responses to it (for instance, through ritual activity) influence our underlying values and where we locate (or create) meaning is a complex conversation in its own right, and it is in this particular theological meadow that I'll do much of my lingering and bee-gazing in the following posts. But for now, it's probably more helpful to sketch out a basic definition, one we can use as a kind of measure against which we can hold up more complex, fidgety ideas later in the conversation...
On the same day I published "Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mists," Irish animist Traci Laird also shared a piece in which she confronted the issue of anthropocentrism in modern Western Paganism more directly. She points out, very rightly I think, that "the belief that human-persons are the most significant species on the planet, plays out within paganism in subtle and tricky ways." The response to our two posts has been incredibly varied, with writers across the Pagan blogosphere grappling with notions of anthropocentrism that range so widely at times it seems they're hardly talking about the same thing at all. The more responses and reactions I read over the past couple weeks, the more I realized that the issue of anthropocentrism in Paganism is incredibly complex and at times very confusing. Subtle and tricky ain't the half of it! And so I wanted to spend some time teasing apart some of these ideas about anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism in Pagan ritual and theology.
My gods are not tame. They do not always come when they are called. This is not a failure of ritual or a weakness of belief. It is the nature of my gods. I would no more expect a god to "show up" in my ritual space than I would expect to be able to call a mountain into my living room. That is simply not the nature of mountains. If I want to meet a mountain, I am the one who must move. Because I do not believe that humans are the only beings with agency in the world, I do not expect my gods to express their agency in the same ways that human beings do. There are gods who forever remain elusive, whose identities shift with the landscape, the seasons and the stars. And there are gods so intimate that they are never really absent at all, and meeting them is not a matter of inviting their presence but rather of quieting my own expectations and learning how to listen. There are gods whose presence looms like a mountain range on the horizon, and gods with(in) whom I walk with grace, my footsteps just one more melody in the great pattern of their being. What does hospitality look like to a mountain? How does a forest speak its mind? What does it mean to invoke a god of mist and sea on a mist-strewn shore?
What were you expecting? A tame goddess who can be bribed with easy offerings? A pleasant springtime girl who asks for nothing but your adoration in return? An owl-feathered maiden of the forest to indulge your taste for the exotic and the dark? Were you hoping for a bedtime story with a moral at the end? Blodeuwedd's story isn't over. It is on-going. It is forever unfolding in every moment, in every place where nature and culture conflict and comingle, in every breath that weaves us as human animals into the more-than-human world. It would be too easy to approach Blodeuwedd through mythology and ritual alone, to disconnect her from the messy, erotic, death-riddled real world of broom blossoms and barred owls.