Thursday, February 5, 2009

Quaker Pagan Postmodernism

On Postmodernism. Because I began my undergraduate career in the 1990s, I'm a child of postmodernism. My undergraduate and graduate research were under a woman who was educated by a professor who was educated by Umberto Eco. My prof. told me that made me Eco's intellectual great-granddaughter. Cool! More directly, I am influenced by my father's doctoral work in history that utilized a postmodernist methodology and by my own doctoral work in feminist methodology which relied strongly on standpoint theory.

I find standpoint theory to be a valuable tool of what some might call Third Wave feminism inasmuch as my generation is deeply concerned not only with the naming of oppressions but in the cross-listing of them. So we have people who need not only to tell their stories as members of marginalized races, genders, cultures, sexualities, abilities, religions, etc. but people who need to tell how their membership in a wide range of identities uniquely affects their development as human beings and their relationships to others. In this way, we use storytelling as a corrective for the oppression of labels. That's where all those hyphens come in with people in my generation. I'm a liberal-Anglo-Protestant-rural-Northeastern-Tennessee-born-New Yorker who is college educated, able-bodied, and a mother of three. I'm middle-class but married to a man with a blue-collar job (although he is middle-class in background). I'm an animal loving-story-writer. I'm a green-feminist-crunchy granola earth mama with strong socialist sympathies. And I could go on and on (as each of us can) and then start telling you how each of these little words affects the others. How does being raised a liberal Protestant great-granddaughter of a British suffragist affect my standing as an animal rights activist? How does being culturally middle-class and white affect me as a pacifist, as the wife of a truck driver, as a teacher? How do I tell my story without the hyphens? Don't tell me that you are gay or straight or black or white or evangelical or atheist. Give me a thousand different adjectives and tell me how they love and fight with each other. Give me a saga. Give me angst and conflict. Give me details! Now that's a story!

This insistence upon a complex and fluid narrative means that I must reject the meta narrative. And that's my postmodernism. Postmodernism isn't, as I understand it, necessarily a rejection of Ultimate Reality: it is a rejection of the human capacity to define it. It isn't some kind of cop-out moral relativism. I don't believe that anything goes. I acknowledge that there are bad answers and better answers. No, I don't reject Reality. I'm just saying we ain't smart enough to keep hold of it. Sure, sometimes we get blown away by a brilliant revelation but the moment we try to express it in words, art, or dance or muffins, we find that we didn't really get it quite right. Reality, whatever it is, is messy as hell. The best we can do is create an increasingly complex and meandering facsimile of reality. *shrug* Such a philosophy is a clusterf@ck pain in the ass but it leaves fewer of us on the margins of what has long constituted the definition of the Real and the Central in our culture. From the position of standpoint theory, no other person can tell another's story; each must tell his/her own and therefore, the storyteller, whatever their marginalized background in relationship to power, is their own center. (And this is why I am so deeply attracted to the idea of the Light within each soul. The Light may be constant but the soul is not. We're all a bunch of warped prisms and not a single one of us is straight enough to define the Vision for the rest of the party.

That said, I learned my postmodernism from idealists who came of age during the late 1960s. There really was no way that this idealism wasn't going to rub off on me and so it would not be completely honest for me to deny my own idealistic beliefs. At some point, when you push my intellectual process, you'll hit my core beliefs in an ultimate right and wrong that exists regardless of one's particular standpoint. Whatever our diverse backgrounds, I believe, in my heart of hearts, that we are all called to agape. We may be too diverse for modernist notions to adequately describe us but I believe that we are still bound together by obligations of love and service.

My belief in both radical difference and ultimate obligations of love also means that service requires deep humility. In the context of radical diversity, one cannot assume that one's spiritual perspective is ascendant. We can't go around enforcing our answers onto those in need of our help. This means that a religious morality just ain't going to fly. In short, and from an explicitly feminist perspective, this means that religious perspectives on family and sexual relationships are no more than intolerance. I think it is telling that when I said the word "Evangelicals" my husband thought I said, "Evil Genitals." Well, that has unfortunately been the great message of Abrahamic cultural teaching, that somehow sexuality is at the heart of evil (as if Jesus was some kind of sex-obsessed prude). I don't think this can be the point of the evangelical movement and I see evidence that lots of evangelicals would agree with me on that point. Sadly, when the public hears "religion" and "morality" they are thinking about prudes who want to control what everyone does with their party equipment.

So basically, I reject the notion of religious morality while I judge ethics as essential for spiritual development. But aren't they the same? No. I don't think so. Practically speaking, I approach the issue of morality and ethics by splitting the two. Morality refers to the codes of behavior maintained by a society. Ethics refers to the system and/or process one utilizes to determine moral behavior. As far as I can tell, all human behaviors (even those determined by biology) are influenced by culture. Morality is that which a culture believes is right and wrong. Because cultures change, morality cannot be linked to any notion of that which is ultimately right. Ethics, on the other hand, I understand as a method whereby one determines right relationship and right action. Ethics is therefore both situational and constant. It is situational in the sense that one must apply an ethical standard to each individual situation but it is constant in the sense that within each and every situation, the goals remain the same- to act as agents of Love. In this way, the sex act itself is not morally wrong but one must judge the ethical impact of the sex act within each situation with each individual involved. My mother explained sexual ethics to me when she explained homosexuality to me when I was in elementary school. "Being gay is just another way of loving somebody and as long as you aren't hurting somebody, loving somebody is never wrong." Compare this to the Pagan Rede: "Do what you will shall be the whole of the law- so long as you harm none."

Morality gives us answers. It says this thing or that thing is wrong no matter what. Morality demands simple obedience. Ethics, on the other hand, calls us to active intellectual engagement in the pursuit of good. An ethical person asks questions. How do I act in a manner that best preserves the dignity, autonomy, and health of both the other individual and myself? In this situation, with this other creature (human, animal, etc.) how can I be the most loving?

Love is key. The morality of the modernist world doesn't help me love. Its focus on right and wrong as products of obedience or disobedience to a set of (someone else's) Realities asks me to judge myself and others. Ethics calls me not to judgement but to discernment. The ethical process itself requires intellectual engagement and compassion. It requires that one understand oneself in the I/Thou relationship in which one can no longer objectify the Other.

I make the critical point here that the Christian method and message cannot be (and indeed never accurately was) found in so-called Christian morality. In the end, (surprise, surprise) my Pagan ethics are exactly the same as my Christian ethics. That commandment that meant so much to me as a Christian, "Do unto others as you would have done unto you" is the same as "Do what you will shall be the whole of the law- except that you harm none." There is no mistake here. I would never have accepted any commandment that violated that primary commandment. As it turns out, in most, if not all major world religions, one can find similar commandments. As President Obama said yesterday at the prayer breakfast, much harm has been done in the name of faith but we can do better. The commandment to do no harm and to love one another unconditionally is an ancient human commandment obeyed across faiths.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Wow Hystery,

So much explained with clarity and power such as your image " The Light may be constant but the soul is not. We're all a bunch of warped prisms and not a single one of us is straight enough to define the Vision for the rest of the party."

Thankfully, we don't have to rely on our own flawed human definitions but instead we can open to the Eternal Light.

I would agree Love is the universal Center of ethics--if (and that is a huge "if") we all explain love's characteristics--demonstrating compassion, honesty, purity, patience, humility, simplicity, etc.

The reason I urge such a caution is because, like the word "God," "love" in English means almost anything and is used to justify, sincerely, many wrong acts. We humans ("warped prisms") are so given to self-deception and misguidance. Consider that one of the saints of love, Bernard of C., known for his great writings and sermons on Christian love was also one of the main instigators of the Crusades!

And in my own time since the 60's I have seen "altruistic love" used to defend the very worst of actions. One famous religious writer even wrote that dropping the atom bomb could be an act of love! Another said nuclear weapons were God's gift to America, of course, meant for good and for a loving purpose!

And individuals have tried to persuade me lying to others "to help them" is loving, stealing can be good, sex outside of a life-long covenant is loving, etc. Even suicide supposedly can be a loving act. Love is an all-purpose term.

So I would say the perennial guides such as the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on Mount, the love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, the Sevenfold Path of Buddhism, etc.
are needed to show we humans where real Love starts (as opposed to natural kinship, general courtesy, and group ethnocentricism).

I would agree that "do no harm" is a good ethical beginning. However, is not love so much more?

For love means being the "Good Samaritan," actively caring for those "others"--the poor of other nations, illegal aliens, even our worst enemies, forgiving those who hurt us and our families, reaching out to those outside of us, even including the whole world.

It irritates and grieves me every time I see a sign on a car which says "God bless America."

How self-centered of us. How about God bless those in dire need in Somalia and Haiti? How about God bless the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Taliban...
as Jesus said to do in the Sermon on the Mount to bless our enemies.

If so, then we begin to walk in the true Light.

Actually, your post has me brimming with much more to say, but I figure I better take my wife's advice. She always tells me to give her the short version, or at least the main points first;-)

Later, if you like, I can respond to some of your other key points.

In the Light,


Hystery said...

Daniel, your comments and thoughts are always welcome. I find that in response to your comments, I realize how vaguely I used the term Love. It is really in the same category as the use of "God." Unforgivably lazy really. I know what I mean by it (for the most part) but the language and the history of the language does get in my way! I so adore language but am acutely aware of how our words abuse our meaning. If I were a painter or a dancer maybe I'd do a better job expressing myself. Perhaps I'll have to write another post just about Love and what I mean and don't mean by that word "Love." Maybe I mean Agape and not Love. Our English is so limited. How can so great a concept only have just one little syllable to stand for so many things?

No matter. I am drawn to Friends because it is what they do rather than the pretty words they choose that defines what they mean by Love.

I also find that in the writing of this blog, I am picking my way home. I am deconstucting and analyzing the thoughts that will not leave me be. Sometimes I feel that if I consider my thoughts long enough, perhaps I'll find my way. But that doesn't seem to be right. Amazing how each word, when long-considered, is a vast territory. Sometimes I find myself jealous of those who are in unity with their faith. My brain is alienated from my heart.