Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tensions in Spirituality, Rationality and Humility

How do I resolve the many tensions and contradictions in my beliefs and approach to life?

There are times (which I often write about here) when I feel totally disconnected from the Pagan community, especially here in Britain. (Sometimes I feel like I connect better with American Pagans - although stick me in the US face-to-face with a group of real people and we'll see if that harmony lasts. I doubt it - I'm a contrary little bugger!) There's a lot that I don't accept that other Pagans do. I suspect this is about several things, but especially my commitment to rationality. I've come really late to Paganism, compared with most people I know. I was, and remain, a skeptic about many things. A rational approach to religion was always my thing, or at least it has been for the past few years. I'm addicted to theology and sociology of religion (I want to know what gods, spirituality and religious communities are actually like, and why). I love myth, but I always seem to want to know how much of it is 'true' (as if that was even the point). Tell me that quantum physics has proven magic and the very least I'll do is roll my eyes at you - talk about The Secret and I will bite your head off. I don't have a lot of time for homeopathy or astrology (although I'm happy to respect the beliefs of those who do). The list could go on and on.

I also believe in many things that would make me an extremely rubbish atheist. I believe in magic, and I increasingly practice something that might be called that (although Wiccans might not recognise it as such - I don't know). I believe in gods and spirits of the land. I'm starting to work with my ancestors, slowly, but with sudden moments of clarity in which they are absolutely there. I believe that when my father talks about angels, he's referring to a reality that I might name or conceive of differently, but which exists nonetheless (and I believe that he's a shaman, and I'm not going to begin to try and explain why). I believe in divination (not in a 'telling the future' sense, but in the 'uncovering my own insight' way) and in journeying to other places to meet other -- well, others. I believe in what I experience when I read the Gaelic myths, or lie on the ground in the forest, or light the candles at my deity shrine, or cast a circle OBOD-style, or greet the four directions in the morning, or call out to land, sea and sky. I believe there is a spiritual world beyond my words and understanding, and that it is right here, always. Even when I'm too distracted because I've lost my keys to be aware of it.

And I believe in other things too, even though I'm not talking about them much at the moment. I looked at my Celtic cross this morning and thought about putting it on. My beliefs from that side of things lie dormant at the moment, but I believe that there will be a season for that again.  

I believe.

The tension lies between seeing everything as socially constructed, which I do, and also believing that there's a spiritual reality that we shape our social constructions around, even though I'd often prefer not to believe that. (It would certainly make my research into the sociology of religion a lot more straightforward if I didn't.)

At the moment, this tension is still driving me batty. I'll be reading a book on healthcare in the ancient world. I'll come across a passage on Asclepius written from a Christian viewpoint, or there will be a chapter dismissing magic as a pre-religious phenomenon that only stupid primitive people would be involved with. Then I'll get intensely annoyed with the academic world and/or wonder if I'm the biggest idiot in the universe and should just get back on the comfy road to atheism that I was headed along a couple of years ago. Or I'll be talking to atheists and want to defend spirituality and magic and even things I don't believe in at all, despite them thinking I'm crazy. Or I'll be talking to Pagans and want to defend secularist, rationalist or even atheistic perspectives. I suspect that resolving these tensions will take me a long time. Or maybe they'll be around forever, and I'll have much to learn from the contradictions.

My commitment to rationality is something I'm very proud of, but it also has the potential to be a bad thing - not in itself, but because I'm so unswerving in that commitment. Humility is a really important virtue, and it's one that I seriously lack - I often think my views are better and more reasonable than other people's. This is a problem. More than that, my experiment about 18 months ago, when I decided to act as if everything were true (for a limited time!) and see what happened, opened up a whole new perspective on the spiritual world to me that I'm very happy to have discovered. Being open to things has led me to some very positive experiences - I'm never going to be entirely uncritical about alternative healing practices, but, for example, I've had some reiki recently that had an actual, measurable effect (from my own perspective) on my energy and pain levels, and I don't want to be so closed off to possibilities that I'm a walking plank of wood. On the other hand, I really need rationality, and I do not want my brains to start dribbling out of my ears in the hope that I might have a few more spiritual experiences that way. But I can't forget how I felt when I read Signe Pike's 'Faery Tale' and went 'Shit. I think something is actually speaking to me here', despite the very loud protests of my rational brain. (The social theorist Weber would call it 're-enchantment'. See? That was my rational brain, not my spiritual one. I need both.)

In particular, I don't want to impose my beliefs - about anything - on anyone else. My tendency to want to do that is a legacy of my evangelical Christian past. Last night, some Druid friends and I were talking about the way that we all see one Pagan concept very differently. Somehow the conversation briefly got onto the gods, and to what extent we can know that any of the gods/heroes in the British and Gaelic myths are anything more than a story. I said a few things about scholarship (some scholars think that there are clear traces of ancient gods in the myths), but I think we were mainly in agreement that there's ultimately very, very little we can know about what ancient Britons and Gaels believed. That, I think, is where faith comes in - balanced with rationality about where my (current) beliefs come from. The social construction of my belief in the gods has a number of sources, and I'm not too proud to admit it. In part, I believe in these gods because other people do - without past Neo-Pagans deciding they were going to worship Brighid or the Morrigan, or even Athena or Freya, I would never have approached any of the gods - they'd have remained nothing but old stories, like they are to most people. In part, I believe in them because (some) scholarship agrees that there were ancient gods worshiped by my ancestors who might have been called something similar to some of the names above. And in part, I believe in them because when I called them, they answered. (Technically I believe some of them called me first, but that's going back to muddy waters!) But in the end, faith is the key. I believe in these gods because I believe in these gods.* The point - which someone made last night - is that we can't impose that faith on other people. They have their own concepts of god(s), based on their own faith. And for me, that's one of the wonders of the Pagan community. It could even be one of the wonders of the religious community, if we could all get our heads around our many differences. Not even in a 'we're all going to the same place' way - just in a 'how amazing is our diversity?' way.

I'm not used to being humble about any of what I believe - whether that's rationality, social constructionism, or that the trees in my local woods are as aware of me as I am of them. The legacy of my evangelical Christian background is the need to make sure that my beliefs, and everyone's else, are right. But there's no 'right' in faith (and I've a feeling we're not in church anymore, Toto).

We were also talking last night about how we have no idea if the ancient Druids even existed (thanks, Ronald Hutton!), that 'Celtic' is a misnomer and an anachronism that doesn't really describe anything at all, and lots of other lovely factual things of the kind that keep my rational brain thinking, and therefore happy - although sometimes longing for simpler answers. The pursuit of real history in Druidry (and Paganism in general) is an awesome thing, even though it leads people to very different conclusions. But even with that quest, it's too easy to impose our conclusions on other people. History is a social construction too, especially in periods from which we're seriously lacking records. But modern Paganism does have a history - it started 60 (or so) years ago and our communities are living it and making it now. When I read Emma Restall Orr's writing or listen to the Faith, Fern and Compass podcast, I see modern Pagan history and mythology unfolding right now, founded on recent inspiration that draws on new perspectives about ancient ideas. (Socially constructed ideas? Of course - everything is socially constructed.) I find that really exciting. That kind of current creativity, shaping communities and faiths and spiritual paths, was totally lacking in my Christian practice, where everything has already been done, dusted and written down. New ideas inspired by ancient possibilities - you could call that the early history of a lot of religions. And that's the answer I'm giving to myself when my rational brain starts going "A religion based on ideas invented 60 years ago? Come on."** It's not as romantic as the answer I want. But then, sometimes the answers you want are much less interesting than the ones you get.

I like the idea that we can be humble about our beliefs and, by extension, accepting of each other. I think Paganism has something really special with its diversity of faiths and perspectives, and that I can learn a lot from them. And if I can also learn not to feel either superior or inferior to people whose beliefs I don't share or whose experiences I haven't had, I'll be getting somewhere. When I next slip back into 'if it's not in a book by someone with a PhD I'm not listening!' mode, I shall be trying to remember that.

And now I have to get back to this book on healthcare in the ancient Near East before they find my dusty skeleton in the library still clinging on to what's left of it. (Oh look, a chapter on Asclepius.)

*I believe in other spiritual realities and metaphors too, like Sophia as an archetype of enlightenment and Mary as her avatar. But this is a Pagan post. Mostly :D
**That's a big tension for Paganism - what's old and what's new? And I think it's a great, really creative tension, full of possibilities.

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