Friday, 18 May 2012

Myths That Bring Down Empires

The Freedom from Religion Foundation recently called on liberal Roman Catholics to leave the church. You're deluded if you think you can change the church from within, they claimed. More than that: when you're a member of an oppressive institution, you need to think about whose side you are on. I have some sympathy with that view.

So EJ Dionne responded with the reasons why he isn't quitting the church. He essentially seems to believe that Jesus taught a message of liberation that the church needs to hear from within. I agree.

Then, over at Meadowsweet and Myrrh, the wonderful Alison Leigh Lilly wrote about her journey away from the Catholic church, before she became a Druid, and how she could no longer live with the structures of a church in which she is considered structurally, cosmically unequal to the men in power (along with many other interesting reasons for leaving - the post is worth reading). There are things I agree with there too.

In short, I'm confused.

I like to think of myself as an aspiring social reformer (although I'm rubbish at it), and I like to think of Jesus as one, too. I also think Jesus would recognise very little that goes on in our churches if he were here to see them now.* I believe, with Dionne, that the Gospel is a call to liberation. While there are many examples of the churches' poor record on social justice, there have also been great examples of those who heard Jesus' liberatory call and put it into action. The Quakers have spoken out against slavery and war for centuries, and it was Catholics who developed the liberation theology which pushed the church in Latin America to put human rights back on their agenda. Those are two examples of individuals and groups who have tried to turn the tanker of Christianity and, to some extent, succeeded. There are many more examples of failure, of course.

When I thought I would be a faithful, church-going Christian forever, and even briefly considered becoming a deacon (a sort of unpaid assistant priest - I've always been ambitious), I was well aware that I would be trying to turn a tanker. I spent ten years in the LGBT Christian movement, believing that my active presence in the church as a gay/bisexual woman (in a stable, committed relationship) was all that was needed for my acceptance. And I've seen that happen. Friends of mine - let's call them Steven and Paul - attended a church for many years where the minister initially believed that same-sex relationships were sinful. That minister recently conducted their wedding. He talked at the ceremony about they had changed his view on same-sex relationships. That kind of change of attitude through personal connection is only possible on a small scale: one person at a time. And yet... that's how I try to change the world. One person at a time.

There is a movement in the churches called emergent Christianity. (I am a little bit in love with Peter Rollins, one of the leaders of the movement.) This movement involves ordinary people re-defining Christian faith and the church. To some extent this movement is happening outside the churches, but it is happening in community. There are also amazing individuals out there who challenge the church in ways that catch society's attention, like Symon Hill (who I met at Greenbelt, an emergent festival). Symon's a lifelong anti-war activist and Quaker who recently walked 160 miles in repentance for his former homophobia. These people are a minority, but I believe they still make a difference. I think they have more effect working as part of, not against, the churches. Christians mostly don't listen to outsiders who critique their positions. They often do listen to other Christians.

So what does this all mean for me? I'm having a definite shift in my thinking at the moment. My spirituality is increasingly becoming more embodied, 'nature'-focused and mystical - it always was to some extent, but that's becoming my main focus now. In the past, I've always been drawn to formal, ritualisitic churches where Communion and the other sacraments are at the centre - this itself is embodied worship. The 'high' Anglican churches have worked well for me, for that reason - their congregations are generally liberal and their worship is formal. But they are slowly dying (it's a long story), and the conservative evangelical wing of the Anglican church is in the ascendancy. The institution of the Church of England is becoming something that I no longer believe I can help to change. That probably wouldn't be the case if I still believed in Christianity in the way I used to, but changes in belief have highlighted the issues I already have with it. I'm now an outsider, and I've already lost my right to speak truth to power in that church as a result.

I don't think I have the right to comment on whether or not liberal Catholics should leave their church. I don't think those who stay are 'enablers', as the Freedom from Religion Foundation put it (although I recognise that there's a debate to be had about that), but I do think it's important that people leave or stay in religions for the right reasons. If they can be committed enough to work towards change, being realistic about the fact that they are a minority without a great deal of influence, then maybe people like the American nuns, the committed liberals, can create this generation's version of liberation theology. Alternatively, maybe in the process of leaving, some of them will become this generation's George Fox, the reformer who left his church to form the Quakers.

In the end, I think it might be all about the mythology. (Isn't everything?) All religious/spiritual outcomes are founded on the myths that underpin your faith. Do you believe Jesus was a conservative or a liberal? (Research suggests you probably believe he was exactly what you are.) I think he was a radical revolutionary, but that's just my interpretation. But whatever it looked like at first, the Jesus myth was strong enough to bring down an empire and build another one. I don't know if the liberal Catholics have myths strong enough to bring down the empire of the pope, but no one would have predicted that a carpenter's son from an insignificant outpost of the Roman Empire would have been able to inspire everything that Christianity has achieved - good and bad.

And these might not always be sacred myths. As I said to Alison Leigh Lilly in response to her post, my spirituality draws on the oddest of mythical sources. I mentioned the final scene of 'Angel', the spin-off series from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', that to me symbolises speaking truth to power more than any biblical or European ancient myth. (Although a lot of those speak to me of that too!) For a long time I've been trying to find/create a form of spirituality that truly embodies justice, wisdom, support for the oppressed, and a limitless love of life in all its forms, built on a narrative that tells my story. I think I'm getting there, slowly.

Whatever choices I make about my church, I remain committed to the importance of faith and community. I hope that, whether the liberal Catholics leave or stay, they find communities that help them to express their faith and spirituality. One of my core beliefs is that spirituality is formed and developed in community, and that it reflects and impacts on society. I have myths that speak of that, too.

What myths underpin your spiritual path?

*Wow. A non-Christian statement if ever I made one...!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Beltane, Apparently. One Year On...

Well, Cat encouraged me to reflect, so here I am (while avoiding work, too - a double achievement!)

As I said on Twitter this morning, I fail to connect with Beltane. It seems to me that everyone loves this one, while I seem to connect with the less obvious ones (like Imbolc). Admittedly, I'm saying this after only about a year of proper Pagan practice, so I've only 'done' Beltane twice now, and I'm sure I'll come to connect with it later. But right now I'm looking out of the window at a wet, cold landscape, and it doesn't really feel like the beginning of summer. That hardly matters, though. Things are happening out there, and I love my view from the window and across the allotments - I can see birds (LOTS of birds), the neighbourhood cats, and the changes in the land reflected in the little rows of gardens, including mine. In the past couple of weeks I've been delighted to see two herons and a duck hanging around outside my window. I never would have noticed them a year ago.

I started thinking of myself as properly Pagan around Beltane last year, so I suppose I've done a year - although, as I keep saying, I also think of my spiritual journey as an unbroken line, with this as a new but not unexpected stage on the journey. But anyway, it wouldn't be a bad idea to start reflecting on where I am after a year. I keep asking myself what I've achieved. I think it's the wrong question. This is about spiritual process, not reaching levels - no one's going to give me a certificate for any of this. (Except maybe OBOD. Heh.) In my spiritual process this year, I've done everything from learning how to connect with land spirits to working with gods to learning how to do some magic to starting to notice the cycles of the land around me more (with delight). I've started a podcast - part of my life's work of helping other people to tell their stories (see also my PhD!) - and we have seven great episodes so far. I'm connecting with myth and learning to work with altered states of consciousness. I'm really enjoying the OBOD bardic grade, even though I always have an "Aaagh, too New Agey!" moment when I first read about what I'm meant to be doing this month on the course (I always 'come round' to most of it). I'm developing a daily spiritual practice that probably looks nothing like anyone else's, and I wouldn't be happy if it did look like theirs. Big things and little things, although I'm not sure which is which. Things have happened. I've changed. But have I changed 'enough'? I don't honestly feel like I've achieved very much. I don't know if that matters, though.

I'm really struggling with the healing emphasis that I see very strongly around me in the Pagan community. Not because it's a bad thing - it's wonderful. But I have reservations about the way it's approached and talked about by many Pagans. Too many of them don't seem to see the normative ideologies inherent in their philosophies of healing - by which I mean the socially constructed ideas about what is 'normal'. Which, believe it or not, we mainly inherit from Christianity. I've written about this in other places, so I won't go on about it, but why am I mentioning this now? Because I can't go to rituals or spend much time outside or do much 'practice' at the moment - and, as much as I'm working on learning how to be myself more authentically, I still feel almost guilty about that. And yet, when I feel like that, I think I'm still thinking from Christian frameworks. There will not be a heaven and I will not have a perfect body there. I have a different body that reflects the wonderful diversity of life, right now. OK, so right now the rain is causing me screaming-level pain, but that's not always the case. I have to be really creative about how to connect with the world, when other people wouldn't think twice about going for a walk, and I value that. I wouldn't have noticed the duck and herons in my neighbourhood if I was able to wander out into the countryside. But the land is right here, too. I'm not limited. I just have a different perspective from you.

I'm not someone who is going to do a lot of 'achieving' or 'doing' in my life. I'm far better at *being*. This is something I've been trying to accept about myself for a long, long time. Every since I heard the Christian myth of Martha and Mary, which still inspires me. In the tale, Martha is rushing around trying to serve her guests, who include Jesus. Mary, her sister, is sitting with Jesus and listening to him. Martha eventually gets really angry and says to Jesus, "Tell my sister to help me serve the guests." He (essentially) says, "Martha, why are you rushing around trying to *do* all the time? Mary has made a better choice." I think of my little, insignificant activities as Mary-stuff: meditation, or sitting in the garden, or doing little bits of gardening that I can manage, or my daily spiritual practice which has to be fairly short and simple and so has to be meaningful. I could try to force myself to do Martha-stuff, but would I really gain anything? My perspective, as it is, is just as worthwhile as anyone else's.

There's a lot that I still need to reflect on. I haven't figured out how possible it is to mix Christianity with my Pagan path (although the Christianity is refusing to go away). I can't always work out what to do with the OBOD course, when the emphasis of it starts to feel like a different kind of Druidry from what I want to work with (but it's always extremely useful anyway). I don't know what direction to move in next, with my learning and experience (but stuff always starts turning up - like the Druid Animal Oracle I randomly started to work with, and am loving). So, in the coming year, I'm going to start listening to my intuition, my guides and my gods - and screw what everyone else thinks. I am myself, and my journey is mine, and my perspective is always going to be a bit foreign to everyone else. But I can't be authentically myself by worrying about what everyone else thinks all the time.

Happy Beltane! And now I really should go and do some work. I have a PhD to pretend to be doing...! And later on, I will go outside, and share in the mysteries of the land in the little stretch of it behind my house. Even if only briefly. And with painkillers. And wine. :D