Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From "Talking With the Spirits" - Doctrinal Disagreements: the Right Way(s) of Approaching Deity

Within modern Paganism we frequently find that theological discourse begins from one of two extreme positions. The most common is the idea that there is no “right” or “wrong” when serving the Gods. The only sin is intolerance: the only blasphemy is to accuse another of blaspheming. If someone wants to serve hamburgers to a Hindu deity or dedicate their mixed martial arts training studio to a peace-loving God like Kwan Yin, it is not our place to criticize them. So long as nobody gets hurt, anything goes. (This, of course, leads to the thorny question of “what constitutes ‘gets hurt’” – but frequently that issue is ducked altogether, or answered with platitudes about how everyone has life lessons to learn and we shouldn’t interfere with someone else’s path).

Often this approach is rooted in a belief that the Gods are merely symbols or tools by which we may better understand ourselves. Abstractions cannot be offended or take umbrage at blasphemers: if rituals are merely psychodrama, their value lies solely in what they can do for the participants, not what they offer to the Divine. When the question is not “how can we serve the Gods?” but “how can the Gods serve us?” there is little need for doctrinal purity or ritual protocol. There is also in many cases a conscious rejection of rigid doctrines that assign unbelievers to eternal torment and damnation. If we are going to reject our natal religion and create a new one, we might as well start by jettisoning the most problematic issues with our old faith. There have certainly been many atrocities committed by people who were convinced they were doing God’s will. And to outsiders (and many insiders) the motivations for spiritual conflict can seem trivial and even silly.

But while this approach may be useful for conflict avoidance, it can be unsatisfying for those seeking a greater rigor in their spiritual life. If your present spiritual path is no better than any other and no more likely to bring you closer to the Divine, then why waste time traveling on it? Some have sought and found structure in living faiths. They become initiates in African Traditional Religions and master every detail of their tradition’s practices; they memorize pages of Sanskrit and do pujas that would impress a Mumbai Brahmin; they become Thelemites who can tell you what Aleister Crowley had for supper the evening he wrote a poem that sheds light on an obscure line in one of his Class B publications. Others collect volumes of scholarly texts on history, archaeology and related disciplines in an effort to recreate the religion of their ancestors with the most painstaking accuracy possible.

This kind of dedication is laudable and can definitely help a seeker to better understand their Gods and their faith. But it can also become an end in itself rather than a means toward developing a deeper spiritual relationship with the Divine. Those who take a more casual approach to their faith are scorned as “fluffy bunnies” or “culture vultures” who are merely playacting. Devotion is measured not by how much an adherent loves the Gods, or how important a role They play in the worshipper’s life, but by how much knowledge devotees accrue concerning the traditional ways They were served, and how slavishly they recreate ancient rituals.

The possibility of a middle path is all too often minimized or ignored altogether. What if we accepted that the Gods are real and that They can be offended by our actions? But what if we also accepted that the rules of Divine/human engagement are written and enacted not as universal Truths but as individual and community guidelines? We stumble when we say that all spiritual paths are equal and any convenient way of approaching the Divine is as good as any other. But we also stumble when we attempt to create overarching “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” which apply beyond our immediate circles.