Monday, January 23, 2012

Philosophy and Praxis III: Belief and Reality

In response to my earlier post, Brother Christopher wrote:

I don't think that it is the cheap grace is the grace of new agers. I think the cheap grace is the grace of dominionists and fundamentalists. When all you need is some "magic words" like "I welcome Christ into my heart" and suddently you're filled with his love, and all your sins, past, present and future are forgiven? And so this justifies acts of violence, of murder, because you are forgiven? that is a cheap grace if I have ever heard one.
I am not at all sure that Dominionists and Christian Fundamentalists are looking for "cheap grace." Those spiritual paths are actually pretty onerous. You're expected to tithe, to attend church regularly, to witness to the unsaved and (at least in the case of the Dominionists) to work toward creating a Christian kingdom in the here-and-now. In fact, I might argue that part of the reason these traditions have expanded so rapidly is not despite their rigor but because of it. Those who follow these paths can't help but feel engaged with Divinity in their daily lives. It's difficult to be a "Sunday Christian" when you're an active part of a congregation that is engaged in direct outreach to ensure that true believers get control of local government offices and reshape things in a more God-fearing fashion .

Nor are they claiming that their salvation allows them to commit random acts of violence and murder. What we call "harassment" and "violence" they see as protecting their community and their families against evil. When you sincerely believe that your interpretation of Christianity is the only hope of avoiding eternal damnation, you are likely to take whatever steps you see necessary to make sure your children don't end up in Hell.  When you are fighting a spiritual war, you sometimes have to engage the enemy in unpleasant ways.  I'm not trying to justify blowing up abortion clinics, beating homosexuals or trying to run Pagans out of town. But I am saying that there's more going on here than "I'm saved so I can bash all the fags I want with no worries." They don't think they are breaking God's laws and need forgiveness: rather, they believe they are following them and deserve praise.

As far as the frequent public humiliations of fundie leaders who have fallen into temptation, that doesn't prove that they are all hypocrites. Instead of concentrating on their greatest failures, you might want to look at their many quiet success stories.  (I'd also be interested in hearing the internal monologues of those public sinners: I strongly suspect Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, etc. engaged in self-flagellation that would do a medieval penitent proud). 

No, a new ager doesn't have to profess a believe in Christ, God, Mohammed, Allah, Moses or anything else. He is a new ager, not a Christian, Muslim or Jew. They have to believe in a different set of values, powers and ideals, which are not necessarily in accord with these other sects. They also don't believe in grace either, so it's not really a question of free or cheap to them. While Mr. Klienwachter's words are very easy to misinterpret, that is more inline with the ascension or lightworkers "grace." A viewpoint where you stop struggling with life because you are no longer fighting life but moving with it. It doesn't mean that you won't encounter difficulties or challenges, but they stop being so difficult in your mind. It may not materialize 7 figure checks, but you may just suddenly realize your unhealthy pattern of impulse spending and poor money management and but a stop to it.
The problem is that many of the New Agers I have encountered seem to be proud of believing in everything. They will happily mix and match junk science with junk theology, throw in a healthy dollop of "shamanic wisdom" from whatever Little Brown People are in fashion this season, sprinkle it with a few affirmations about universal unconditional love and clinch the deal with some strip-mined crystals. Yet none of these beliefs seem to result in any kind of changes that benefit the realities which the rest of us poor benighted souls have chosen to inhabit. They find truth in everything, yet commit to nothing at all.

I'll happily admit that positive thinking can help us make the best of a bad situation: it's less helpful in making that situation disappear.  An upbeat attitude is an important asset in fighting cancer or recovering from a sexual assault, but it doesn't guarantee that those things will never happen to you. At its worst the "Law of Attraction" and similar rot become an excuse to blame the victim. If you got sick, it is because you chose sickness; if you are poor, it is because you have chosen poverty; if you are victimized it is because you chose to be a victim. This is not a philosophy by which the weak can become empowered, but a philosophy which helps the powerful feel good about themselves and absolves them of responsibility for their fellows.

I live a few hundred meters from a busy four-lane highway.  Traffic goes down that road whether or not I believe in it. I can dress in black, then stand on the double yellow line and repeat affirmations that I am invulnerable, that I am only energy, that there is nothing which can hurt me unless I let it hurt me. But that oncoming 18-wheeler is still going to turn me into pavement pizza if I don't get out of the way.   And if I get hit by a drunk driver when I'm crossing the street to go to the supermarket, it doesn't mean I chose to be a quadriplegic: it means that alcohol and SUVs are a lousy combination. Claiming our power is important but so is recognizing the limitations which come with incarnation.

Philosophy and Praxis II: Belief and Actions

In a comment to Galina's post, RedLadyMoon asked:

I liked this, a lot. Thank you for sharing. I want to ask though because I do not understand, how can you love deity without believing? I understand that they are in existence whether we believe in them or not. I also understand that there are many "right" ways of believing or no wrong ways. I guess my questions comes from the problem of what your definition of belief is. Or anybody's for that matter. I'm fairly new at being pagan so excuse me while I try to pick through what you've said and what I'm trying to say. I don't think I'm trying to argue the point of your post but I'm trying to understand it better. The whole time while writing this I'm frowning while trying to put my thoughts here coherently.
The first thing I'd note is that there are many wrong ways of believing. We are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.  If I believe the Druids celebrated Samhain with pumpkins carved into jack-o-lanterns and offered potatoes to their Threefold Goddess, the best available evidence suggests that I am mistaken. Unless I can point to some evidence that those New World crops arrived in Ireland some 2,000 years earlier than everyone else believes, I've made a blunder which shows my ignorance of history and archaeology.

(Note that I said "ignorance," not "stupidity." Ignorance is curable. If I talk to someone knowledgeable, I can easily correct my mistake. If, on the other hand, I insist that all academics are fascists and we don't really know much about the Druids so my belief is just as good as anyone else's, I have fallen into the Abyss of Willful Stupidity - a chasm from which only a very few escape).

It is also possible to have beliefs which can get us into a great deal of trouble. If I believe that I am a Highly Evolved Person and needn't trouble myself with the laws of mundane society, I might soon find myself in the custody of unsmiling men with badges who disagree with me. If I believe that there is nothing of value to be learned from Religion X or Political Philosophy Y I have ensured that I, at least, will learn nothing of value therefrom. If I believe that I am going to win the lottery and plan my budget accordingly, I may find myself fending off creditors if my prediction is wrong.  If we define a belief as "something which we hold to be true and which shapes our way of dealing with the world," then it becomes clear that beliefs are very important indeed and deserve due consideration and thought.

But it's also clear that our beliefs can change from minute to minute based on internal and external circumstances. I believe I have a loving marriage until I argue with my partner, when I believe that I am unappreciated and trapped in a dysfunctional relationship ... a belief which persists until we kiss and make up a few minutes later.  I believe I am a capable professional, until one of my business decisions doesn't work out as planned, whereupon I believe I am utterly incompetent and should find a more suitable line of work. And so I might draw a distinction between the beliefs of the instant and the beliefs which shape my life on the long-term.  I would call the former "belief" and the latter "faith," but others might differ.  (I'd be especially interested in hearing what Galina has to say on this).

As to how you can love a deity without believing: you can behave as if you believe even in those moments when you doubt. And you can believe in a way that changes your life and your actions.  A lot of "worshippers of Gaia" show their love by wearing pentagrams and putting ecologically correct bumper stickers on their car. How many are willing to forego using a car and rely on public transportation or a bicycle instead? How many are willing to live with minimal (or no) air conditioning and heating during uncomfortably warm/cold periods? How many are willing to take the fight to polluters and animal abusers by direct action ala Earth First! or the Animal Liberation Front? These are real sacrifices with real costs, but they are far more effective than simply mouthing "green" slogans.  And as belief shapes actions, these actions will shape belief: they will bring you closer to your Deity and help you to establish a closer and more productive relationship.  Within a Protestant Christian context works are useful primarily as a sign of one's belief: within a Pagan theology beliefs are useful only insofar as they influence your works.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Philosophy and Praxis I: Belief and Existence

Galina Krasskova recently posted an excellent article on belief and what it means to be a "believing" polytheist.  This is one of those thorny theological issues which requires attention, but which is often overlooked.  If we're going to restore our ancestral traditions or create a new spirituality for a new age, we're going to have to explore what it means to believe and what role that belief should play in our religious practices.

Most of us who practice Neopaganism, Heathenry, New Age movements, Earth Spirituality and the like arrived as converts.  If we grew up in a majority Christian culture, the issue of "faith" is foregrounded. According to many Christian thinkers, what we do is less important than what we believe. Salvation is based on faith, not works: we cannot attain the Kingdom of Heaven by good deeds but only by believing in Christ. 

(I should make it clear that most Christian theologians will quickly point out that belief should lead the faithful to practice good works, and that belief involves more than reciting a few rote words and then going about business as usual. But those works are important only as a sign of belief, not as a thing in themselves).

I've heard New Agers say "it doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you believe something." When I told them I believe in sacrificing infants to Baal, they quit talking with me. My take-away from that is that it does matter what you believe, especially if you are trying to seduce New Agers. Those looking to get laid at the Esalen Institute are advised to keep this in mind.  Those who have less libidinous motives may wish to consider Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoffer's teachings on "cheap grace."
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like a cheapjack's wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! And the essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be, if it were not cheap?
. . . In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. . .
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.
What these New Agers were looking for is grace which isn't even cheap: it's absolutely free.  You don't have to profess faith in Christ or declare him your personal savior. You don't have to make a pilgrimage to Mecca or the Ganges: you don't have to be circumcised,  become a vegetarian or give all you have to the poor.  According to New Age writer Roy E. Klienwachter:
You are not a victim of circumstances; you are creating them. I think this is the one most important message that New Age has to offer. It is also my truth that we are not here to learn anything, but to experience everything physical. This is an important concept because it is contrary to what you have been taught. If you come from knowingness, what is there to learn; there is nothing. The only thing left is to experience. I go into much more detail in the book. This awareness alone can make a huge difference into how you live your life.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong with what you already believe. Your thoughts are simply a sign post or step in your evolution and spiritual awareness. Your physical world, the universe and the after life are your own manifestations of what you believe and they are unique. No two people think or believe exactly the same no matter what you have been taught. All of us filter information and reformulate it into what works for us in the moment.
This (and other variants of the "Law of Attraction") isn't just faith without works, it's faith without reality.  There are no Gods to obey, no sins to be forgiven, no sufferers needing to be comforted. There is only what you believe, and what you believe is perfectly OK.  It's solipsism for groups, a bunch of "spiritually evolved" types living within their own shells and manifesting abundance.  And for all its positive affirmations, it is at heart as nihilistic as Tuscon shooter Jared Loughner's question to Gabby Giffords, "What is government if words have no meaning?"

The Gods of pre-Christian Europe, like the kami of Shintoism and the lwa and orishas of African Diaspora spirituality, are immanent in this world. They are not distant entities which concern themselves only with those who "believe" in them: for them tangible works are more important than an intangible faith or a nebulous belief.  Odin, Ogou, Ares and other warrior Gods prefer a brave atheist to a devout coward: Kwan Yin prefers the kind-hearted infidel to the cruel believer. They are concerned with individuals fulfilling their rightful roles in the Grand Scheme of Things, a scheme in which They are intimately involved. One serves Them not by reciting prayers or interior monologues (although these can be invaluable tools for establishing contact with Them and ascertaining Their will).  Rather, one serves Them by acting in accordance with Their expectations and following Their example.  They are not part of the reality we create: we are the manifestation of Their reality.  They do not materialize or disintegrate with our belief any more than seven-figure checks appear in our bank account after we visualize prosperity. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pastoralism and Herding

Camels helped Arabian nomads cross the harsh deserts of the Middle East and northern Africa: their rich trade caravans spread silk, spices, language and religion throughout much of the world. Horses changed the face of agriculture, transport and especially warfare: mounted cavalry played an important role in campaigns from the earliest days of history to the advent of the petroleum age. Yaks provided transport over rugged Himalayan passes: herders throughout the cold, inaccessible Tibetan plateau rely on their meat and milk for sustenance, their wool and skins for warmth, and their dung for fuel. Many lands which offer only marginal farming opportunities can be home to large herds of grazing animals, and to those who domesticate them.

Pastoral social units tend to be considerably smaller than those found in an agricultural state and are closer in size to a typical hunter-gatherer clan. Settling into permanent villages is difficult when your life revolves around following the herd animals to various grazing grounds. Part of all of the population lives a nomadic or semi-nomadic existence, traveling with the flocks and watching over them as the seasons change. They must protect their livestock from predators, including raiders from other clans. Feuds over grazing areas and rustling are not uncommon: despite the idyllic picture painted in pastoral poetry and art, violence is an ever-present threat in the lives of most herders.

Many pastoralists have used their skill at arms not only to protect their herds but also to garner tribute from their neighbors. While their land may not be suitable for extensive farming, they can always acquire tools, vegetables and other valuable items. This may be taken in raids or it may be given in exchange for protection against other herding clans. For centuries the Xiongnu rode out of the steppes of north Central Asia to raid Chinese settlements: in 370 a branch of the Xiongnu crossed the Volga River and entered Europe, where they would become legendary as the Huns. 800 years later a Mongolian herder named Temujin would unite the feuding tribes and make himself known to the world as Genghis Khan. Coming to Kiev in 1246, six years after the Mongols had sacked it, Papal envoy and Franciscan friar Giovanni de Plano Carpini wrote:
They attacked Russia, where they made great havoc, destroying cities and fortresses and slaughtering men; and they laid siege to Kiev, the capital of Russia; after they had besieged the city for a long time, they took it and put the inhabitants to death. When we were journeying through that land we came across countless skulls and bones of dead men lying about on the ground. Kiev had been a very large and thickly populated town, but now it has been reduced almost to nothing, for there are at the present time scarce two hundred houses there and the inhabitants are kept in complete slavery.
In a pastoral society, the more land you control, the larger the herd you can raise and the greater your wealth. Those who would steal your lambs or take your cattle to their fields must be driven away. Those who would take away your grazing rights must be stopped: those who are not strong enough to defend their own rights will lose them. Your herds are your property and your responsibility and you have absolute control over their lives and their deaths. And at least some of the Gods who have inspired pastoral societies have taken a similar view toward their followers.

Many of the patriarchs of Judaism were shepherds, most notably Abraham, Moses and David. The Jewish G-d demanded that His people worship only Him and forbade them to wander into pastures controlled by other Gods. Later Christians identified Jesus as the "Good Shepherd:" bishops in many denominations still carry a shepherd's crook as a sign of their rulership over their flock. And in the Arabian Desert a herdsman named Muhammad received a vision and a message which he was to carry to the world. Many Deities have demanded tribute: these Gods stand out for their stern insistence that They and They alone be worshipped.

The Gods of these religions care greatly for the sheep they have earmarked: while the God of the Jews is content to look over the affairs of His tribe, the others work aggressively to expand Their holdings and build up wealth in followers and worshippers. This is not to say They are evil, although many would blithely dismiss them as such. While there has been a great deal of evil done in the names of Christ and Allah we should not forget that there have been many good deeds done as well. But if we are to understand Their motivations, we may wish to look to the fields, deserts and mangers where They first reached out to humanity.

These Monotheist religions incorporated many different societies and cultures. Their missionaries spread their message by word and by sword, through compassion and through conquest. The Huns and Mongols, who showed little interest in the religions of their foes and who were more interested in plunder than proselytizing, were able to create large empires but had much less success in keeping them for more than a few generations. The followers of the One God, by contrast, showed a remarkable staying power. The Christianization of Europe and the Islamization of much of Asia and Africa took place over centuries, but once those lands were claimed they stayed under their pastoral yoke: churches and mosques stand like watchtowers in their streets to this day. Not until over 1,000 years after the conversion of Constantine and Muhammad's meeting with Jiv'reel would they find themselves faced with a real threat – a Scientific Revolution which shook the very underpinnings of their faith.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

From "Talking With The Spirits" - Dialogue, Disagreement and Proselytizing

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. … A man’s opinion on tram cars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything. Gilbert K. Chesterton
Many who have come to their new spiritual path from Christianity – and Neopaganism is by and large a religion of converts – have a great distaste for anything which smacks of proselytizing. To them, saying "I am right and you are wrong" is akin to proclaiming "If you don't repent you're going to burn in hell." Those who disagree with someone else's spiritual beliefs, or even ask too many uncomfortable questions, are scorned as intolerant "fundies." "Acceptance of opinions" and "tolerance of diversity" are all-important, even if couched in smug, condescending passive-aggression. Discussion is reduced to bland platitudes about how we are all special snowflakes and everything we say and believe should be cherished as valuable. Instead of honest and critical discussion we get pats on the head and gold stars for our effort.

Discussion involves an exchange of ideas and discourse about their ramifications. It may get intense, even heated at times, but this is fine so long as everyone remains respectful and the questions focus on ideas rather than individuals. Smiling, nodding and saying "everyone's truths are true for them and every belief is just as good as every other belief" is not interfaith discussion. Rather, it is a way of avoiding questions about the substance and foundation of your beliefs and about the level of your commitment. Instead of sparking conversation, it shuts it down or reduces it to polite superficialities.

Disagreement need not involve proselytizing. It may actually be a good way of establishing boundaries and setting forth the differences between your respective beliefs. No Orthodox rabbi will accept that G-d has a son or that the Q'uran is an improved version of the Torah. That doesn't mean that he cannot have cordial relations with local Christian or Muslim leaders, or that they cannot engage in honest and sincere dialogue about each other's beliefs. They might wish to understand each other so they could help defuse difficulties between their congregations. They might check in when they've heard some inflammatory "fact" on the Internet ("So could you explain 'jihad' for me, Iman? Then maybe I can shut this putz up once and for all.") Or they might just be curious: if you're spiritually inclined enough to become a professional clergyman, chances are you're interested in talking shop with others in the industry.

This kind of discourse has been going on between representatives of mainstream religious denominations for centuries. They are not afraid to ask each other tough questions, nor do they expect their colleagues to agree with them on every theological point. They are quite capable of engaging in dialogue without the specter of conversion raising its ugly head: they can find value in other religions without feeling the need to become adherents, and can recognize that value without denigrating their own faith. There are certainly groups within these faiths that are skeptical of and even openly hostile to ecumenical efforts. But as their communities and neighborhoods grow more diverse, they have become increasingly marginalized.

At a cursory glance Neo-paganism would appear considerably more tolerant than many of these traditions. Yet a look at the demographics of American Neo-paganism suggest we may have a long way to go. As a movement, American Neo-paganism remains overwhelmingly white, college-educated, middle-class and politically liberal. There is less political, economic and ethnic diversity at an average Pagan gathering than at a typical mosque. All too often "tolerance" has been extended only to people who do not challenge preconceptions, make waves in the community, or insist on "playing the race card" by pointing out uncomfortable facts. If we are going to engage with gnosis in our greater community, we will need to learn how to deal with theological differences. We are going to have to move beyond tolerance into inclusion. Instead of the bland sameness of a "melting pot" where all beliefs are boiled down into an inoffensive mush, we are going to have to recognize the value of diversity and difference. And if we are going to learn how to deal with the beliefs of others, we must first figure out for ourselves just what it is that we believe.