Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pagan Values: Toward a Peaceable Kingdom

As this is Pagan Values Month, I thought I should comment on my own pagan values.  I often comment on thea/ology and non-theism and ruminate endlessly on philosophical matters, but rarely do I write about how all of that affects me at a practical level.  That omission is peculiar since in many ways Paganism is a very practical thing for me, a kind of every day thing that operates at seemingly mundane levels.  My paganism affects me far more when I am sweeping the floor than when I am philosophizing about divinity and immortality.  In this post, I'll explore one way in which I live out my values.

(Special note:  I am not saying that all people, or all Pagans, or all Quakers, or all pacifists, or all vegans need to share these views.  What I describe here is very specific to my own feelings.) 

I'm a vegan and a pacifist.  I see both these things as not merely directly related to my paganism, but as requirements of my paganism.  There are, of course, high and lofty interconnected secular ethical arguments for these decisions, but the ethical arguments are secondary.  In fact, they were an afterthought.  I don't eat animals because I love them and I love them because they have souls and I know they have souls because I am a pagan.  And I'm a pagan because I know that every living thing has a soul.  Simple as that.  Ask me to eat a cow or a pig and you might as well be asking me to eat a dog.  In fact, I have a pet pig.  She smells oddly like maple syrup and still I'm never tempted to eat her.

Perhaps vegetarianism was always in the cards for me.  From infancy, there were always animals I would not eat because my parents had already decided that many animals were off the menu either because to consume them seemed unnecessary and absurd or because to consume them seemed unusually cruel.  As a twelve year old, I decided to stop eating all red meat.  I certainly could have given you a number of sound environmental, ethical, and health-related reasons for this decision, but whenever asked about it, I have always had to say that honestly, it was because I looked into a cow's eyes one day and realized that I could not seek that animal's death.  So cows and pigs and all other mammals were off my menu.  When I was a bit older, I also removed birds and fish, and when I was eighteen, I became a vegan.

That decision followed a trip to the Farm Sanctuary near my home.  While the guides there provided me with compelling information calculated to encourage veganism, it was the experience of being close to animals that changed my practice.  I had been able to ignore the agricultural practices that gave me my vegetarian luxuries of eggs, milk, and cheese.  Since I was not eating the flesh, I could ignore that death is required for the mass production of these luxuries of animal products.  The information about agribusiness was revolting, but it wasn't really what pushed me into veganism.  Blame it on a beakless chicken and her similarly mutilated, but very much alive and engaging barnyard companions.  In that moment, I was in relationship with her with the power to touch her, to look at her and allow her to touch and look at me.  How then could I walk away from her and have an egg salad sandwich?  I knew too much.  More importantly, I knew that "chicken" could no longer be a generalized term.  There is no more "chicken" for me.  There is this particular chicken and that specific chicken.  They are not interchangeable.  They are individuals in my thinking.

This belief that I am in relationship to the world and that I meet other species as individuals to be honored rather than as collective species to be exploited has always been at the heart of my paganism.  It has informed my daily choices and my politics, my lifestyle and my parenting.  There is perhaps no convincing rational reason why I should view animals in this way, but neither is there any convincing rational reason why I should not.  Many have tried to convince me that I am flawed, misguided, delusional, or even selfish in my refusal to harm other creatures.  As I don't see how the deaths of soldiers and civilians can be justified even for such goals as "Victory" or "Lasting Peace" or "Our Way of Life", I also can't see killing this cow or that pig or this chicken even for goals of "environmentalism".  My morality always starts with the integrity of a relationship between individuals and with the belief that I do not have more right than s/he who gazes at back at me to decide that her/his suffering or death is required.

In contemplating the tendency in many historical books to explain away the deaths of individuals, communities, or entire civilizations as necessary for "progress" or "peace" or "prosperity", Howard Zinn wrote:

"If there are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not essential to hold to the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves? We can all decide to give up something of ours, but do we have the right to throw into the pyre the children of others, or even our own children, for a progress which is not nearly as clear or present as sickness or health, life or death?"

But do I really need to apply this kind of ethical thinking to the lives of non-human creatures?  I feel that I do.  If I feel the presence- the intense and spiritual reality of another being, whether or not they are human, then I can't ignore my responsibility to care for them and seek their preservation.  When it comes right down to it, I find that I am always focused on the individual, and I can't bring myself to stomach the idea that I have ordered the death of another being.  Other environmentalists have tried to reason with me that my veganism is somehow less virtuous than whatever choices and practices they utilize.  Perhaps, in some cases, they may be right, but it boils down to this:  I know my own heart.

I come by my tender-heart honestly.  I was raised by people who did not squash bugs.  I, therefore, became a person who does not squash bugs.  We catch mosquitoes and flies and release them outside.  We help spiders if we find them in dangerous areas in the home (such as in a sink).  I'm careful when cleaning not to disturb active spiders' webs. We talk to bugs in our house.  I even recall on one occasion hearing my grandmother comment that she had grown concerned about an ant who failed to appear on her counter as had been its custom.  I am mindful when sweeping, or shoveling, or raking.  I watch where I step.  My students have seen me making my way slowly across the quad stopping to pick up worms on the sidewalk so that others do not tread on them.

In considering this attitude toward bugs, I realized that I believe that I see them as individuals with souls deserving of compassion and respect.  This is not surprising in a family in which children are reminded to be gentle with insects with expressions like "She's more afraid of you than you are of her," or "He has as much right to be here as we do," or simply, "Spiders are our friends." 

When I tell you that I feel the same way about plants and have difficulty gardening or enjoying cut flowers or Christmas trees and that I have friends of the branched persuasion, you will see the obvious difficulties in this position.  Human beings, of necessity, must bring death to other living things or we cannot survive.  I may not eat animals or kill bugs, but plants die to sustain me along with insects killed by the agricultural process.  I am not unaware of the necessity of a certain degree of hypocrisy in my life.  Despite my efforts at living a green and peaceful life, my very existence as a citizen of the western world with all its pollution, abuses, and imbalances is a killing influence in the natural world.  Of course it bothers me, but my goal has been, if not perfection, at least that I could feel that I have tried as hard as ever I could to live gently.  When I screw up (and I do this often either out of laziness or ignorance or even lazy ignorance), I ask for forgiveness and try again.

I do not argue therefore, that one should attempt to kill nothing nor do I think it my place to condemn those who live differently than I choose to live.  I tell you that my beliefs are pagan not because I believe they are universal or even common to Pagans, but because I feel, and have always felt, that it was evidence of my paganism, of my emotional and spiritual connection to the world of natural spirits, that I find that I cannot willingly take life.  I feel that I have been asked not to, and I have been blessed with a personality and a situation in life that makes this a relatively easy goal for me to pursue.  Gosh, I'd be a real jackass if I ignored both the calling and the gift and went ahead and had a cheeseburger!

In the time since I began writing this blog post, I have escorted an ant out over my threshold.  I have been talking to flies trying to convince them to cooperate with my efforts to guide them out of my office in my net (the net my similarly tender-hearted husband bought for just this purpose).  I have welcomed a spider walking into my house.  I still feel sadness about individual bugs that I have accidentally harmed two or three decades ago.  Why am I like this?  Do I really like bugs all that much?  I like some of them very much.  Spiders for instance are quite fascinating and butterflies, dragonflies, and certain kinds of beetles are very pretty.   I know that some, like honeybees, are useful, but others, like houseflies and mosquitoes are clearly nuisances and disease carriers. I do not think of them as intelligent or emotional in any human or even mammalian sense.  I'd really rather not touch worms and centipedes if it can be helped and even the thought of maggots makes me want to gag.  It turns out that whether or not they are repulsive to me doesn't matter.  I still have just as strong an inclination to avoid damaging them.  It is my practice, as a Pagan, to let them live.

The pagan value behind my pagan practice of non-violence to insects and all other animals is also a Quaker value.  As far as possible I will be at peace with those around me and those around me include not just people like me.  They include people unlike me.  They also include other species, and not just those species most like ourselves in terms of behavior or intelligence.  They include not just species (and persons) that we have found or trained to be useful, appealing, or entertaining.  I must work toward peace with each individual I encounter.  The little fly now on my windowsill and the tiny spider in pursuit are also individuals. Though the spider may kill the fly, according to its nature, I will not kill either of them. I act according to my own nature.  I do not desire their death neither for fun nor human convenience.  I am not called to harm them.  I am called to listen and to observe.  I am called to hear the song and see the Light that shines in all creatures great and small, adorable, beautiful, fearsome, irksome, and even revolting.

Maybe it comes from my family's Christian Progressive background.  Perhaps I am trying to be "the mother heart" of God.  Perhaps if my eye is also on the sparrow (and the worm, the slug, the chicken, and the housefly) I might hasten the advent of the Peaceable Kingdom.  Or maybe I'm just a softie when it comes to critters.  In any case, I guess its worth it to me, and I guess I'll keep on doing this whatever others say.  Tonight, perhaps, I'll take a walk out toward the woods to talk to the fireflies.  You'd be amazed at how illuminating they can be.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Paganism as Spiritual Strategy

In this post, I aim to explore why I think I am a Pagan.  This post will not define Paganism or Neo-Paganism more generally.  These terms are very broad, and it is beyond my ability to express what is or is not a Pagan or Neo-Pagan experience.

1.  I am Pagan because I believe that the natural world is ensouled.  I can't define the soul or its capacity or limitations, but I experience it all around me.

2.  I believe that the Abrahamic religions do not have a corner on truth and that their most valuable messages evolved from far more ancient insights which continue to be available to all human beings whose minds and hearts are open.

3.   I believe that all thea/ological discourse about the sacred is just folks talking about something they'll never understand.  I can tell you what I think God/ess is all day and night.  I can be as clever and convincing as hell, but it still doesn't amount to a hill of beans.  The Ineffable will be what it will be regardless of my cheek.  We aren't going to expand or limit Divinity whatever we say, think, or believe.  However, when we limit our conceptualization of the Sacred to that which most closely resembles the powerful, the conventional, and the abusive in our society, then we limit who we are and what we might become, and that's a shame.

4.  So-- I believe that we should be mindful and creative with our theo/alogical language and musings to encourage ourselves to grow toward our potential.  I believe that when we speak of "God/dess" we are reflecting our best hopes for ourselves into the Cosmos.  When we dream of divinity, we can either sanctify all the meanness and injustice humanity has already mastered or we can sing out our human potential for brilliance, warmth, diversity, and love.

5.  Language may only be a construct, but what a construct!  What we build with our language is our choice.  I am Pagan because I am playful with spiritual language.  We need to remember that God is not male.  Nor is God white or European or human for that matter.  God is not even "God".  That word too is merely a construct, a symbol, a signifier. Learning to imagine the Divine in many forms, genders, cultures, species, relationships, and concepts reminds me that the Sacred is not one objective thing or person but is manifest in all life and in all times.  It helps me remember that I can find divinity in unexpected people and unexpected places.  It helps me look for the Sacred everywhere and in everybody.

That's about it, I guess.  My Paganism doesn't define whether I believe in God or Goddess or a singular or plural deity.  It doesn't tell me how I should worship or with whom.  Paganism is not what I believe.  It is what I do.  It is a strategy and a discipline.  It is not an answer to my questions about life and death or the nature of the Divine.  It is a pattern of thought and intent that encourages me to continue asking unanswerable questions.  It encourages me to play and think and wonder and to try as hard as ever I can to understand not the Cosmic Mystery, but maybe just the little bit that resides in me and which is mine to share.