Saturday, 20 August 2011

Labels, identities and causing offence

More than one twitter user appeared offended/confused about me when I 'follow friday'ed some Christians as well as some Pagans. Apparently real Pagans wouldn't follow Christians. This kind of anti-Christian nonsense really pisses me off, regardless of my faith or labels. Other people, from what I've observed, rush to prove their Pagan status under these kinds of doubts. I just stated that I'm not far enough along the path to be sure of labels. But even if I was, and even if I left the Church, I'd still follow the awesome, open-minded Christians whose feeds and blogs I enjoy so much. Like Soul Liberty Faith. You have to read the blog of this incredible woman whose unconditional friendship with local Pagans has lost her the support of her fellow Christians. This is someone who is embodying the open interfaith spirit that I long to see more of in our divided world. Why are Pagans so desperate to decry all Christians that they miss or ignore wonderful exceptions like this? Yes, there are some nasty, bigoted, cruel and exclusive Christians out there. Newsflash: there are a lot of Pagans out there who are very similar in their attitudes. I'm not accusing the tweeters who were confused about my religious identity of that. But I have already observed a lot of it, in my few short months in the Pagan community. And if I have to prove my religious purity to be part of a religion, whether it's Christianity or a Pagan path, then I don't want to be part of that religion. I've already had quite enough of the 'prove you're one of us' attitude from the more conservative Christians. I don't want to join a new faith and find I have to prove my 'Pagan-ness' there, too. I really don't care who's offended that I worship Jesus as well as Arianrhod. I haven't worked out my beliefs yet, and I don't honestly know how to square Christianity with my polytheistic beliefs. And they are polytheistic - I don't even have a Wiccan-style 'all gods are one god' belief to fall back on. The gods are many and that's why they're the gods, to me. I think the reason I (quite suddenly) believe this is that I met some deities who are in no way, shape or form anything like Jesus (or Yahweh, but I don't think I've ever met him). Deity is far too complex to be one, for me. There is probably one source of power or life that humans and gods alike emerge from. But increasingly, there's going to be absolutely no way that I can say the 'I believe in one god' line in the Christian creed.

Which brings me to the other problem of labels I've had this week. Someone very close to me, an atheist of all things, accused me of not knowing what I believe and lying to people by calling myself a Christian. She is so upset about it that, although I know these are her insecurities and not mine, it's made me go back to worrying about deceiving people in church about my beliefs. It is a core aspect of my values that honesty is one of the most important things in a community. It's one of the things I value most about myself - I am honest to the point of stupidity. For now, my conclusion is that I need to take some more time off church (at least in my official choirgirl role - I can visit sometimes) and use the time wisely to keep working on my beliefs. I'm studying and experiencing things all the time (more later on the land spirits/local deities here in Scotland). That's definitely helping me to sort out my own beliefs. Equally, though, my lifetime of experiences as an aspiring mystic and interfaith theologist is helping immensely. Paganism is the path I'm moving towards, but the Divine is far, far bigger than one path. I've always believed that God is bigger than Christianity. That belief continues to sustain me now. Whatever else changes in my life, the Divine is constant. My lifelong aim is to experience more of the Divine. That has not changed. Those of you who think Neo-Paganism has all the answers, remember how many hundreds of other spiritual paths also have a part of the truth, and some have done for thousands of years, from Zoroastrianism to Zen Buddhism. We will never understand everything about the Divine. Let's learn from those who mistakenly think that they do, and be humble.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Expressions of Community

On Sunday I went to my first Pagan Pride event. The only event of its kind in the UK, it happens to be held in the town where I currently live, which is convenient! I wasn't sure whether I should go to this, but everyone was talking about it so positively that I thought I'd give it a go. It was brilliant! The sense I came away with was community within which I can be solitary. I'm not talking about solitary practice, exactly (in fact I met members of the British Druid Order and am thinking of getting involved in a local grove's open rituals). I mean the kind of solitary where I walk my own path (and let's face it - my path is particularly individual!) while also being part of something bigger. I don't feel this in the Christian community. There's too much 'we should all believe exactly the same' rubbish. The heterodoxy of Paganism, the multiplicity and plurality of 'many wells, one river', is very appealing indeed (and very in tune with my Gnostic theology). And I met some great people, and bought a few lovely things (my new wooden owl has pride of place on my working altar), and heard some interesting talks and some fab storytelling and a couple of great bands, and generally had a lovely, very peaceful day. And the park where it was held gave me two Y-shaped sticks and a pine cone.

Meanwhile, riots have been raging across London for the past three nights, and last night they moved to other cities including my current town, as well as into parts of London that are minutes from where I used to live. I've lived in several areas of London over the years, and I grew up there, so it really is my home town and I love it. It's terrible to see shops and homes that I used to walk past every day going up in flames or being smashed to pieces. I'm stuck in bed today (as happens about once a week), but I've lit an orange candle for Brigid on my bedside table, and I'm going to try to keep it lit today. She feels like the goddess to call upon here - goddess of fire, goddess of peace. If you pray, please pray for the UK today. If you live here, do something to get involved - follow @riotcleanup on twitter for how you can help with the cleanup of the post-riot mess, or see the ukcleanup blog for inspiring images of communities working together on this. And watch twitter generally for emerging possibilities of how we as communities can help stop this madness. We are the problem. We are also the answer.

Podcast News
I am working on putting together the podcast I've been meaning to do for at least a year, since I discovered sociology podcasts and religion podcasts, and thought "Hey, someone should do a sociology of religion podcast... Oh." The BBC does a podcast along these lines, called Beyond Belief, but it's very theoretical and cerebral. I want to do something more accessible, more rooted in people's practice and beliefs in action. I'm writing about it here because I'm working on my 'words have power' approach - I need to do more of what I say I will do. (I'm notorious for making promises I don't keep, and that's not good enough).

So. This will be a 'society and religion' podcast from a reasonably Pagan perspective, but also not limited to one religion. I don't want it to be just me talking, though, because I don't really know very much. If you happen to know anyone of any religion who might be interested in talking to me, either just about their religious practice, or in relation to a topic (like debates around the role of religion in society today), then please let them know about this. And since I'm new to the Pagan path, I'd particularly like Pagan co-hosts, especially for more Paganism-themed shows. (No, I don't exactly know why I'm doing it from a slightly Pagan perspective, rather than a general one or a Christian one - although it's related to the idea of Paganism valuing plurality of belief, as I mentioned above. We'll see if more of an answer emerges!) If you want to contact me, it's @sophiacandle on twitter or sophia8catherine at gmail dot com by e-mail, or comment here. Get involved - I want YOU! [Pointing meaningfully.]

Right. I'm going back to not coping with my life, which I do so well! At least I have cats around me. Cats solve all problems. Them, and gardening. And chocolate.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Closets and Churches and Belief Frameworks, Oh My

I had an interesting and very useful conversation with the curate from my church at the end of last week. We talked about Paganism and Christianity. She says there's no problem with continuing go to our church and continuing to take communion (which was hugely reassuring, not least because I find communion the most meaningful part of the service). She is completely comfortable with my mix of beliefs, and thinks that if it makes sense to me, it's no bad thing. We did talk about how, while I'm not planning to tell the whole church that I'm exploring Christo-Paganism, there may also be occasional times when I don't want to deceive, like when I'm in an intimate group belief discussion, such as the monthly Bible study I go to. She suggests framing my beliefs in a way that won't confuse or upset those who need Christianity to be Christianity, which is very sensible indeed.

How to frame, though - that's the question. Mentioning polytheism is probably out - most people I go to Bible study with would not be able to cope with that. On some level, though, I'm a pantheist or panentheist, and always have been, and that's not so confusing for most people. I'm still deciding whether, in church, I'm worshipping the ultimate force behind the divinity that is the universe, or merely a tribal god called YHWH who, some thousands of years ago, told his worshippers to prioritise worship of him and put other gods second ('You shall have no other gods before me'). At some point I have to work that out, although instinctively I feel that I worship a god-man who died and was reborn, rather than the Jewish tribal god which was the way which he particularly related to divinity while he was on earth. I'm not too bothered at the moment, really. In the end, in all my worship and mystical practice, I'm worshipping deity, an expression of the Divine.

It's handy that I'm moving on to Water Week in the Witch's Primer exercises. The focus is all on beliefs. I shall make some deity grids. Or possibly Venn diagrams.

As an aside, I told the curate I couldn't say the Creed at the moment (which was basically code for "I can't in good conscience say 'I believe in one God'"). She said, "So write your own..." ! We talked about how there have been so many Christian creeds over the years, that coming up with personal creeds to say quietly during the main one is probably nothing new. I'll write something this week. "I believe in the one great Divine, the source of all deities..." Ah, the aspiring mystic within me will be kept happy this week.

Meanwhile, I'm having a lovely summer off church, and thoroughly enjoying it. When I'm back from my holiday, in August, I'm planning to visit a few local churches for the purpose of my research (I need to identify churches that might be willing to participate in ethnography, which involves me observing what they do in a lot of detail). That should be very interesting. Especially if I bring The Wife, who wants to experience a mega-church of the mega-happy-clappy type. For an atheist, she's far too excited by religion. It's a bit disturbing.

Lammas? Lughnasadh? Yeah. That.

My local Pagan network and I went up a big hill to a stone circle for a ritual yesterday. A very big hill indeed. Despite what I said on Inciting a Riot the other week (!), I was really keen to join the group for this trip - mainly because the group leader was absolutely lovely, and consulted me about whether I'd be able to come before she advertised the trip. This is actually one of the more easily-accessible sites in the Peak District, the exceptionally hilly, very beautiful stretch of countryside near where I live. The rest of the group went on to an even more demanding site later!

The ritual itself was short but lovely. I called a corner, which was terrifying for my first group ritual (but I'm practising doing things I find scary. So there). It turned out to be a bit of a Lammas ritual. Some delicious cider was shared! I really enjoyed it, but it got me thinking. I understand that a lot of English Pagans are keen on using Anglo-Saxon names for the sabbats. For me, though, the trouble is not just that we don't have any evidence that these names were used pre-Christianity, but also that I simply can't relate to the English myths around the sabbats, at least not at the moment. Oak kings and holly kings, and John Barleycorn cut down so he can be reborn, is all lovely imagery, but for some reason is nothing that I can personally connect with. The ambiguity of the paradoxical Welsh and Irish myths that hearken to lost pre-history and ancient beliefs and customs, though - that works for me. I love how Lugh Lamfada can be seen as a sun or a grain god but is also not nearly that simple or easily reduced. Maybe that works for me because, in a belief system based on ancient Pagan customs that developed thousands of miles away from Ireland, another sun god is just as paradoxical in his is-he-isn't-he symbolism. (Like Lleu Llaw Gyffes, he too will die and be reborn as the wheel turns, albeit in a less intuitive order - Yeshua is born at Midwinter, then dies and rises in the Spring.) But maybe it also works for me for ancestral reasons, or maybe it's just because I'm a big one for stories and paradoxes as doorways to the mystical. Over at Pantheon, a devotee of Lugh tells us more about his myth and family. The richness of that myth is incredible, with generations and shifting ways of life encapsulated in a deceptively simple tale of sacrifice and plenty, death and rebirth.

So when I hear English Pagans talking about how we've inherited all the lore/terminology we need from the Anglo-Saxons, probably in reaction against an American fondness for all things Celtic, I also wonder whether reclaiming our own ancient roots and ancient terminology isn't also part of what makes Paganism the wonderful mix of traditions it is. My mother's family only left Ireland a generation ago, but that's not really the point. There's increasing archeological and even genetic evidence that Irish and British people are essentially one race, with far more intermixing between Celts and Anglo-Saxons than we once thought. And it's all about spiritual ancestry anyway - and mine is a mixed bag! So I'll go with Lughnasadh (or Gwyl Awst when I'm celebrating my Welsh side), in preference to Lammas. But I wish you a happy first summer harvest festival, whichever expression of the season you celebrate. Personally, I'm also celebrating the Christian season of Trinity at the moment. Now there's a confusing mix of personal traditions. :)

Oh, and as a result of my trip up the hill, I am now extremely sunburnt. Summer has finally realised it was due. My very Anglo-Irish skin tones were not expecting this.