Monday, June 28, 2010

Spirit Addict and God Genes

Check this out. The God Gene

Isn't the idea of a "God gene" interesting? And horrifying? If such a thing exists, then I must for sure have it and it is troubling to me. Problematic. Concerning. I'm not supposed to be so spiritual. I'm supposed to know better. Except when I'm supposed to know better than to buy into the idea that just because something "makes sense" it equals Truth. Except when I'm supposed to know better than to attribute that which exceeds human knowledge to some divine sky buddy. Except when I'm supposed to know better than to buy into simplistic jackass dismissals of profound religious experience. *sigh*

I can imagine Yoda right now, "The God gene is strong in this one, it is." (The fact that I use Star Wars to illustrate my spirituality is, I imagine, yet another of my problems).

In uncomfortable honesty I say that I've been struggling mightily with my spirituality. I carry it around like a mental illness and I try to laugh it off. There are times when I envy the orthodox because they do not seem rationalize their experiences, but as a member of a liberal community (spiritual liberals and intellectual liberals), I find that my form of religious experience is suspect even to myself. I treat my spirituality as one might treat an addiction. I cannot stop myself from it, and yet I am ashamed of the attraction. I crave spiritual writing,tarot, meditation, contemplation, prayer, sacred texts, holy images...and believe none of it.

The relief I experience when other Friends actually admit that they have an emotional, body-centered experience in meeting rather than just a vague sense of liberal satisfaction in the goodness of the universe or the potential of humanity or whatever is a profound relief to me. If I am mentally ill, at least I'd like some company.

Damn God genes. Blessed God genes.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Calvinists, Quakers, and Spiritualists. Oh My!: A Breathless Account of Local Religious History

If you ever watch Star Trek (and everyone should), then you know that one little change in history can have unexpected consequences (Ask Captain Kirk after he lost Edith Keeler). In history, we like to play with sci-fi scenarios but we call them historical counterfactuals (mostly because our students stop taking us seriously when we endlessly quote Klingon proverbs). Here's one (a counterfactual not a Klingon proverb): what might have happened if Calvinists hadn't so wretchedly committed to the idea of infant damnation?

As it turns out, I'm not going to entertain that counterfactual because I find it much more entertaining to tell you what happened because they did not abandon that notion. Wacky things happened. It led to Spiritualism and Paganism and Witchcraft and radical, wise-ass Quakers. It led to free thought and free love and communes of all kinds. So hurray for the doctrine of infant damnation! Without you, American history would not be worth my time.

(Note that this blog entry is grossly simplified because this is the kind of topic that flings me off in all kinds of tempting directions that will be of no interest to most human beings. Seriously, I've written hundreds of pages on this topic. Imagine how dull!)

There are (at least) two currents of religious thought in the U.S. by the early 19th century that interest me. We have Calvinism with which we are pretty well familiar. Miserable stuff. We also have more liberal traditions which, because they are liberal, are also diverse so it is difficult to lump them together. There were the deists, of course, about whom we hear so much in our history of the Revolutionary War and there were Unitarians who evolved from Calvinists and the Transcendentalists who evolved from Unitarians. There were the Friends who have a long history of annoying Calvinists and there were wild and crazy Baptists and Methodists too. By no means was there monolithic agreement on what it meant to be Christian in antebellum America.

Two very interesting things happened in the 1820s. The first was the schism between "Hicksites" and "Orthodox" Friends. I put these terms in quotation marks because neither group chose their own designation and both designations are not quite accurate. The "orthodox" Friends were actually decreasingly orthodox inasmuch as they were increasingly connected to the methods and values of American Protestant evangelicalism (See *3*) and the Hicksites, including Elias Hicks, thought it really cheeky of the "orthodox" to attempt to characterize them as all blind followers of Hicks as if they were all intentionally a bunch of wayward schismatics. They felt that they were being orthodox too. Indeed, except for the fact that the "Orthodox" had more power and money and numbers than the Hicksites, we might just as easily say that the "Orthodox" Friends were being schismatic and not the other way round. One could very easily argue that the Hicksites were reacting to increasing tensions created by wealthy and powerful urban Friends' desire to get cozy with the wealthy and powerful evangelical Protestants. So who was schismatic? It all depends on perspective.

In any case, in the early 1820s, Presbyterian minister, Eliphat Wheeler published a challenge to Quakers in the Christian Repository to which Friend Benjamin Ferris responded. These letters are published as the the Letters of Paul and Amicus and are over 500 pages long. They are well worth reading despite their length because they so excellently delineate the key differences between Calvinist and liberal Quaker religious thinking of that time period and address issues not only of predestination, infant damnation, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the sacraments of communion and baptism, atonement, and the role of clergy but also issues like slavery, colonialism, missionary work, bible societies, and comparative religious studies. The letters regarding "Hindoos" in India are most interesting and show important distinctions in Quaker and Calvinist approaches not merely to missionary efforts and colonialism but to attitudes regarding diversity and the value of non-Christian perspectives.

In reading Amicus, one is amazed at how very readily he might fit into a contemporary liberal Christian Quaker context. Amicus was clearly influenced by the emergent popular availability of scientific and philosophical works both secular and sacred. He obviously read widely and deeply (and he reminds me that I should watch less television and spend less time online). In fact, as I read him, I think, "Hey! I would have fit in with Friends even back in the day." But I would be premature in this assumption. The problem was that Amicus hadn't considered how much his thinking didn't fall in line with the most powerful Friends of that time whose thinking on many key issues was more in line with Paul. Such Friends were particularly distressed by the fact that Amicus was not clear about things like the divinity of Christ and they were a bit put out by his comfort level with other religious traditions.

By 1828 Friends had split in two. Not everyone who sided with the Hicksites was a rip roaring radical but lots of them were and those people continued to challenge the country's religious status quo with all their new-fangled ideas about social equality and diversity. Friends like Lucretia and James Mott, Martha Coffin Wright (read out of meeting for marrying a non-Friend), Mary Ann and Thomas M'Clintock, Amy and Isaac Post, Jane Hunt,Rhoda de Garmo and Daniel Anthony were among the more radical Friends. These were the folks who got themselves involved in such capricious activities as abolitionism and woman's rights. They worked with those crazy Methodists and Baptists I mentioned earlier who shared in their belief that it was high time Christians stop condemning everybody to Hell and start creating the Kingdom of God on Earth. Which brings me to...

The Burned-Over District. In 1825, New York State opened the Erie Canal and the commercial and cultural destiny of the entire nation was irrevocably altered. Indeed, I would say that the Civil War was won in 1825 (but that's a whole 'nother post which you'll never see here because I'm really not that interested in it.) Western New York went from backwater to bustling in a matter of months. Indeed, Rochester became the fastest growing city in the nation.

Folks from New England and Pennsylvania (Calvinists and Quakers)arrived in large numbers. Imagine sending off your son or daughter to the wilds of the west. (But, Mother! I'm going to Rochester, not Timbuktu. They have post offices and stores and churches there and everything!") Fathers and mothers didn't listen and they fussed and worried over the state of their kids' souls. As well they should have. There were far more bars and brothels in western New York than there were first. So they sent along itinerant preachers. Scores of them. Evangelists rained down on Central New York like a cloud of locusts. Of these, Charles Grandison Finney was the most popular and the most influential of the evangelical revivalists but he had lots of competition for the souls of Upstate New Yorkers.

Because there were few long-established centers of religious authority in the region, new religious and spiritual trends could develop relatively unmolested by established denominational hierarchies. Mormons, Shakers, Christian socialists, Millerites, Spiritualists, and many other groups either emerged from this transitional cultural milieu or moved there to escape more restrictive environments. In the developing urban centers of such places as Troy, Syracuse, Utica, and Rochester, the rapidly shifting population of working people, including many moving onto points even farther west, discouraged the development of a centralized societal authority and community-mindedness. While the old families, churches, and political parties of New England could command a certain amount of respect and compliance, there existed no such structures in New York State to prevent a proliferation of dissenting opinions and religious strategies. Into this environment, evangelical preachers of all stripes came to spread whatever word they believed the people most needed to hear. The people responded by the thousands to a multitude of spiritual leaders, lecturers, and innovators.

Meanwhile, a group of abolitionist, free thinking Hicksites who had grown too radical even for Hicksite tolerance levels were sharing meeting for worship at the Junius Ponds meeting house. Persons associated with this group were the Posts, M'Clintocks, Hunts and a young attender, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Lucretia Mott, on one of her frequent visits to sister, Martha Coffin Wright, was helpful in their organization and sympathetic to their aims but she never belonged to this group who would rename themselves Progressive Friends in the 1850s (with a young woman named Susan B. Anthony as one of their early clerks). This group of Friends, as loyal readers may recall, was also the group primarily responsible for organizing the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. They were also behind the emergence of Spiritualism as we shall see in *5*

1848, two young girls and their parents move from Rochester to a rented house in Newark, N.Y. where they begin to report hearing spectral rapping noises. They visit the Posts in Rochester where Amy and Isaac become convinced of the legitimacy of the rapping sounds and interpret them as a manifestation of the divine Spirit. Spiritualism spreads through the ultraist Quaker population in Upstate New York, then onto other strongholds of liberal Quaker population. Quaker meeting and Spiritualism share characteristics. In both there is a period of expectant, waiting worship sometimes punctuated by a ministry given by an individual who acts as a mouthpiece for the Spirit. In both, the ministry of women and girls is recognized and encouraged. The fundamental assumption is equality of souls. Both Hicksite Friends and Spiritualists react strongly against Calvinist teaching of predestination and infant damnation. In a time during which the death of loved ones (particularly children and women in childbirth) was relatively common, Spiritualism offered formerly Protestant believers an alternative view of afterlife. One's loved ones were not only well and well-loved in Divine care but could continue to communicate their love for those they left behind.

Friends were the first to attribute religious significance to modern Spiritualist manifestations. I believe one can still see their early imprint. Nineteenth-century Spiritualists were actively involved in the free-thought movement, in abolition, women's rights, and other human rights reform movements. When the Spirits spoke, they always seemed to side with the downtrodden. They were always champions of the lowly. It was not long before Spiritualism began to draw converts from the Protestant denominations. People, especially women, were weary of dark Calvinist sin-centered doctrine. As women had particular care of infants, children, the disabled, the dying, and even of the bodies of the dead, they were particularly motivated to take up a spiritual system that denied concepts like eternal damnation or the damnation of infants. Women also flocked to a faith that not only allowed, but encouraged female leadership and public speaking. As Spiritualism grew increasingly popular throughout the English-speaking world, audiences grew accustomed to seeing women public speakers address all the important and controversial topics of the day (often under Spirit trance). Free speech, free produce, free thought, free love: all were topics addressed by Spirit. The early American civil rights and Spiritualist movements were inextricably connected in these early years.

Over time, the Spiritualist movement evolves in various directions. Some of these directions are just silly and freakish (women pulling fully formed apparitions out of their what-nots) but others are significant. The Theosophical Movement grows out of Spiritualism and provides a popular forum for interfaith research and comparative religious studies. Theosophists combined American Spiritualism with an interest in Eastern philosophy and mysticism. The introduction of Buddhism and Hinduism to American religious liberals irrevocably changed the history of religions in the United States. Significantly for the human rights movement, leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage shifted their suffrage focus to serious criticism of phallocentric religion by the close of the nineteenth-century. As a result of her involvement in Spiritualism and Theosophy, Gage became a prototypical American Neo-Pagan and suggested that women should begin referring to the Goddess as well as to God in their systems of personal spirituality. Together, she and Stanton wrote extensively about their religious ideas. Their challenge to the patriarchal Christian Church was applauded by the more radical, intellectual members of the suffragist groups but drew condemnation from most including Susan B. Anthony who feared their radical spiritual position would alienate more conservative suffragists.

Susan B. Anthony has her way for awhile but over time, fragile thread by fragile thread, we weave a history of "alternative spirituality" in the United States. It is a parti-colored tapestry. The strands are not always clear. I've had to spend some time teasing out the connections, searching out private letters and rare quotations and references. Often I find an individual has a sense that they are evolving away from the religion of their youth in isolation but I do find that there are predictable references to certain movements, traditions and authors. One of the predictable references is to liberal Hicksite and Progressive Friends whose history is so neatly interwoven into the fabric of American religious liberalism.

Some may say that radical Friends lost their way. I don't think so. I think that the growth that resulted from the schism had significantly positive outcomes for humanity. I think that what happened here in the Burned-Over District was a manifestation of obedience to the Light that resulted in an elevation of the rights and dignity of the human being. I'm proud that I have inherited this crazy history. I recognize that it is not "Friends' History" writ large. Friends in Ohio or Kenya or even England might think this was just some peculiar or even perverted understanding of Quaker belief and practice. Progressive Friends' influence on the development of American Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, Freethought, and Atheism is atypical Friends' history. But it did happen. Friends invented American Spiritualism. Spiritualism morphed into Theosophy. Theosophy informed the beginning of American Paganism. All the above religious movements were intricately interwoven in the emergence of feminist spirituality and human rights activism. It may be a wacky Friends' history peculiar to this wacky place I call home, but it is Friends' history nevertheless. It did the world good, and I will not apologize for it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Since I began hanging with Quakers, I've found myself wonder whether or not I am a Christian.

So I found a whole mess of definitions. Here's the first:

–adjective 1. of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings: a Christian faith.

Um...actually, this one isn't particularly helpful since it is a wee bit vague. Let's move on to definiton #2

2. of, pertaining to, believing in, or belonging to the religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ: Spain is a Christian country.

Let's look at the evidence. I was born into a Christian family. I was baptized by my clergyman father. My family history includes several other Christian ministers including my Great Uncle George and my cousin Emily (a pioneering woman ordained as a Methodist at the turn of the century), and even Jonathan-Sinners-in-the-Hands-of-an-Angry-God-Edwards. I went to a Christian seminary (where I had a 4.0 average btw) and I have a personal library chock full of bibles, biblical commentaries, concordances, ecclesiastical histories etc. I went to Sunday School. I taught Sunday school. My mother and sister taught Sunday school too. I studied Christian theology and history in my spare time as a teenager. I studied it formally as an undergrad and in graduate school. I attended church at least once a week and sometimes as often as three times a week. I even married a man whose middle name is Christian, one of the prettiest masculine names ever if you ask me. I read my children bible stories and buy them images of Christ and Mary and take them frequently to places of Christian worship.

So maybe I am a Christian. Certainly I would maintain that I am culturally Christian. Let's move on. Here's definition #3.

3. of or pertaining to Christians: many Christian deaths in the Crusades.

OK. Distinctly unhelpful. #4,5,and 6 may be more helpful:

4. exhibiting a spirit proper to a follower of Jesus Christ; Christlike: She displayed true Christian charity.
5. decent; respectable: They gave him a good Christian burial.
6. human; not brutal; humane: Such behavior isn't Christian.

I still frequently use the term "Christian" to refer to behavior that I consider especially merciful, gentle, compassionate, peaceful and loving. In this sense, I try not to behave in a manner that is "unchristian." I try to imitate Christ as I understand him. This is why I am a pacifist. It is why I refuse to work in any endeavor that I cannot square with the notion that humans are meant to be servants to one another. Does this make me a Christian? Let's move on to definition #7.

7. a person who believes in Jesus Christ; adherent of Christianity.

Ah. This is where we run into problems. I do not believe in the special divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. But then neither did many of the first generations of Christians. I do not like to conflate the historical Jesus with the mythological/metaphorical Christ. I am much more likely to embrace an interpretation of Christ as an energy in which all human beings may partake which was exemplifed rather nicely by the "historical" Jesus (and then the historical Jesus is really a literary Jesus really but that's a whole 'nother issue for a whole 'nother blog entry).

So do I believe in Jesus Christ? Sort of. My belief lies somewhere in the range between liberal and radical interpretation. If you were to ask me to say that this metaphor has to be my primary metaphor of deep meaning, then all bets would be off.

How about this definition?
8. a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ: He died like a true Christian.

Couldn't a person who had never even heard of Jesus fit this definition? As I understand it, humility, compassion, and profound love for humanity are all very Christ-like. Very few Christians I have met are Christian according to this particular definition whereas a good many people who don't identify as Christian truly do fit under this category. I'm not sure I qualify for this definition. I think my recurring passionate desire to punch Sarah Palin in the face may exclude me.

And I'm a pagan. Surprise!

1. one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks.
2. a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
3. an irreligious or hedonistic person.
4. pertaining to the worship or worshipers of any religion that is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim.
5. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of pagans.
6. irreligious or hedonistic.
One who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, especially a worshiper of a polytheistic religion.
One who has no religion.
A non-Christian.
A hedonist.
A Neo-Pagan.

Huh. Interesting.
I am not a polytheist nor do I belong to any community of polytheists. I am not hedonistic. Do I have a religion? That's difficult. I don't suppose I do. I have a spirituality which is not, perhaps, the same thing. I'm not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew but on the other hand, I've established that I may be at least marginally and nominally Christian given my strong cultural background in Christianity. I would have a hard time justifying myself as a Pagan based on this definition but then this is not a definition written by Neo-Pagans.

Turns out that these days, definitions are not very helpful for describing where a soul belongs. Maybe they've never been very helpful.

Rooting Around for my Calling 2/ (an old post just now published)

Yesterday I traveled for almost two hours to deliver a speech on the relationship between women's spirituality and women's rights to a chapter of the American Association of University Women. The speech was well-received which pleased me considering that I had developed laryngitis after a week of the flu and had a much-diminished speaking voice. Still, after speaking in barely a whisper all day, I put on my nineteenth-century dress and bonnet, stood before them and managed to project that raspy voice across the room for the duration of the speech and then for the questions and conversation that followed. The event began at 6:00 and we finished up after 10:00. So I'm tired today and my throat hurts but...

There is something about speaking in front of groups that fills me up in ways that I cannot describe. I feel strange taking a check for the work because I feel they have already paid me. That a group of people will allow me in their midst, will hear me, will let me move them...I owe such a debt for this gift.

When I was little, I watched my father don his clerical robes before the service. As I watched him, I saw him transformed from "Daddy" to clergyman. The most impressive were the black robes with their rich fabric and black velvet trim that emphasized the sweep and flow of his gestures. As he stood before the congregation, I was enthralled by the force and beauty of his baritone voice which projected easily to the back pews. There were times when he spoke of God and raised one hand toward heaven just as a ray of light streamed down from the stained glass windows.

How could this be the same man who, when dressed in jeans and sweatshirts would be far more likely to ask me to pull his finger than to turn to God? It just was. People in our congregations were sometimes troubled when they realized that he was not a saint. Over the years, there was an accumulation of injury to my father's gentle soul perpetrated by those who thought the role of a minister is to a sacrificial lamb to be exploited and used up. There were few to feed him. Few to hold his spirit in the light and finally, he burned out. There is a special brutality reserved for country preachers by their congregations. Today my father, who calls himself an atheist, would tell me it was all just theater. It was all "bullshit", an act and nothing more.

But I don't buy it. When I was a baby, my father had a dream that changed his life. As he and my mother sat in church one Sunday, he turned to her and told her he had something important to tell her. "You're going to join the ministry." she said unexpectedly. He could not understand how she had known. Turns out that she too had a dream that night. From that point on, my parents and I moved from home to home so he could complete his M.Div. and then provide service to multiple country churches. Being a Methodist minister's kid is a bit like being an army brat. We moved around a lot. The bishop would call and we would move. It was not until I was older that my father became a Congregationalist and we were able to settle down. Even so, the church was at the heart of everything we did. Until it wasn't.

When my father left the church, it was life-altering for all of us. It was, in fact, a relief. All members of a clergyperson's family are pressed into service. No getting around that. It was good to have some fresh air, to say "f-u" to all the nastiness and vindictiveness of those churches. It was good to have the freedom to explore our spirituality away from the confines of even the limited orthodoxy of the liberal Protestant tradition.

It was also jarring in a way that I am just now beginning to explore. What does it mean to me that my father has rejected what he always described as "his calling"? Was it all some grand delusion in which my entire family, our congregations, and communities participated in for almost twenty years? And what of my calling? What of that? Am I deluded there too? or is there something More at play here

A Personal Genesis Narrative: Relationship between my Paganism and my Christianity

It has been noted by some (Daniel) that I come to Paganism from "a deep faith in the God of Jesus." The question put to me basically was how and why that happened.


Of course, as many already know, I was reared in a very liberal Protestant household, the daughter of a country minister. I was a small child when my father was in seminary and lived on campus at Colgate Rochester Divinity School and Crozier Theological Seminary. Dad graduated from Colgate Rochester the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.'s nephew graduated and the King family was in attendance. There is a very strong Civil Rights connection at that seminary. Additionally, Walter Rauschenbusch (the Social Gospel) was also at Colgate way back when. That's my genesis narrative.

Following seminary, my father served several rural communities as a Methodist minister before he switched to the Congregationalist Church (UCC) when I was a teenager. His final church, which he served just before I entered college, was a dysfunctional church. It was after a really painful and public experience there that we "left the church." At first blush, it would look like this was the painful experience that led me to a rejection of my faith. Let me say, however, that it wasn't quite as simple as that.

Throughout my father's ministry, he grew increasingly liberal (a neat trick when you start off as a long-haired anti-war protester). We always said that our family was doing a dance along the spectrum until we finally dropped off the left-most edge. He started off introducing inclusive language and feminism to his churches in the '70s and ended by marrying a lesbian couple in the '90s. In the end, what we believed was that the institutional church discourages Christianity. Our faith in Jesus was never tested. Our faith in the Church was destroyed.

There Really Isn't Much Difference Between Me as Christian and Me as Pagan
I Had A Way Leftist Christology to Begin With

So is this where the Paganism comes in? Well, almost. It is important to note that from the beginning of my religious education, I was surrounded by my father's academic experiences. I watched him doing his research with his concordances and his interpretations and as I aged, I began reading these books too. At age 13 I received my calling to ministry and throughout my teen years was reading his seminary books, histories, sermons and theologies. He had lots of unorthodox stuff too so I was early introduced to the Nag Hammadi Library and the idea of Gnosticism. Dad didn't dumb down his conversations with me so conversations with him might be about the historical critical method, ethics, the Priestly author, or Jesus' sexuality. Not ordinary Sunday school stuff. By the time I was an undergrad, I had a really unusual view of the church, of religion and its history. And on top of this, I spent lots of time studying religious history with a particular interest in the development of Protestantism in the United States.

I mention all this because the idea that I lost faith in the God of Jesus assumes a couple things that aren't exactly true. Because I was taught to view Jesus' God (or at least the God of the primitive Christians) as an historical composite of multiple ancient traditions upon which generations of believers from multiple cultures overlaid their own assumptions, values, and interpretations. In short, I believed that the God of the Bible was an invention. I challenge the notion that the Bible was any more inspired than any other spiritual narrative. This belief was strengthened by my seminary and graduate work in religion studies. Because I was trained from day 1 to doubt the perfection and superiority of the religion of my childhood, I never experienced a crisis of faith as I've heard many other Christian to Pagan converts have experienced. My love for Jesus is as strong today as it was in my childhood; more mature and complex perhaps, but just as strong.

I've Never Sacrificed a Goat

So why Pagan? First off, to be more accurate, I am Neo-Pagan. The distinction is important. Paganism was brutal (as was ancient Judaism if we are to believe that any of the Bible was historically based). I am a New Pagan and we don't go in for things like sacrifice of people or animals. In fact, most Neo-Pagans are more gentle than most Christians I know. Lots of pacifists and vegetarians. Lots of people who literally wouldn't hurt a fly. (Do what you will shall be the whole of the law so long as you harm none and all that jazz.)

Also, My methodology is standpoint theory and I'm a postmodern thinker (can't help it. I was an undergrad in the '90s! lol). I am intentionally creating a spirituality from historical and mythological sources. But those are only some of my ingredients. With other "Goddess women" and spiritual ecofeminists, I am also brewing this new spiritual tradition from social justice traditions (feminism, civil rights, gay rights, animal rights) as well as stuff like midwifery, "alternative" medicines, natural health, environmentalism, pacifism, and psychology. Because we are doing this so intentionally, this gives us a good bit of freedom to discard elements that are inappropriate to our time and condition and to reshape others. While there are some Pagans who are attempting to faithfully recreate a Pagan past, my understanding is that most Neo-Pagans are highly aware of the creative process of creating a new spirituality out of old metaphors. We really wouldn't go back to the Bronze and Iron Age Religions any more than most Christians would really want to go back to first century Palestine. On the other hand, we do tend to elevate (and this is a topic for another day) Neolithic prepatriarchal religions. Paganism most folks know is a degraded form of an earlier, more egalitarian period. The anthropological jury is still out on this theory but we know enough to indicate that as well as having nasty and brutal ancestors, we also have peaceful and gentle precursors. How much of the Goddess Religion is based on supportable evidence and how much is based on wishful invention is not something I want to address here, but if we're going to make up a Pagan past to emulate, that's the one I'm going for! (For readings in this feminist branch of Neo-Paganism look to Marija Gimbutas, Carol Christ, Charlene Spretnak, and Mary Daly.)

Quakers in Funky Pagan Clothing

But I can't speak for other Neo-Pagans. We're too diverse. I will say that Neo-Paganism is dramatically different from the classical Paganism most of us studied in high school. Pagans and Friends have a lot in common at the practical level. They share deep concern for environmental and social justice; they share profound respect for the individual's direct communion with the Divine; and they deemphasize or reject the power and importance of professional clergy.

I believe (and have always believed) that the Divine Energy is imminent and that there is, in truth, no difference between us and God/dess. I very comfortably integrate my Christian ethics into my Neo-Paganism because there is no conflict between the command to love unconditionally with my Neo-Pagan fascination with cultural difference and ecofeminism. Finally, I am a process theo/alogian which puts a different spin on my ideas of the relationships between the Divine and the Mundane (which are all intertwined, merged and certainly non-hierarchical).

The Gods are Me. I am the Gods. And the Force is Still With Me.

I speak of Hel and Hecate in the same way I speak of Job and Mary Magdalene. The psyche is peopled by characters who teach us what it is to be human. Just as I never took the Christian scriptures literally, I never take mythology literally. I recognize that these were stories told by ancient peoples with pre-scientific worldviews. Such views continue to be helpful despite their apparently irrational origins. Indeed, they are helpful because of their irrational origins. I play with myths the way an archetypal theorist does. I find also that as a woman, I benefited from work with feminine archetypes from the Virgin Mary to the chthonic crone goddesses. Exploration of the Dark Mysteries, the Female Mysteries, is what helped me through miscarriage, pregnancy, and clinical depression. In fact, I am certain that this spiritual perspective saved my life.

None of this play means that I worship any of these figures above the One. I may be a complex monotheism or a pantheist (or maybe a pan-en-theist? It really depends on my mood), but the Force is still with me. The Divine remains inscrutable, ineffable, or as my first religion studies prof. said, "God is not some cosmic bellhop." I don't mistake either Christ or Isis for the Divine any more than I mistake myself as Humanity.

I had this dream about flying...

I had dream once in which I was in my Dad's church and I discovered that I could fly. I rose up to the ceiling and realized that I must fly higher but could not find a door out. So I smashed the stained glass windows and soared into the sky. The Church could not contain me, but I never forget that it is there that I first took flight.

So I sing hymns every single day and read my Bible. I also play with my tarot deck, speak to the spirits of my ancestors and wear an image of the Serpent Goddess around my neck. I write and teach about the connections between Paganism (out of which comes Judaism and Christianity) and Neo-Paganism (which arises out of Christianity and Judaism.)I find no conflict in this. I reject any Paganism that undermines my belief in the fundamental teachings of Jesus and I reject any Christian message that undermines my belief that we all (people and animals and plants and rocks and trees)belong to Mother Earth and that we share both Soul and Body. Practically what this means is that I am called to Love. No changes there.

My crisis has nothing to do with an interruption or violent breech between the faith of my childhood and my spirituality as it is today. My crisis arises out of motherhood, out of the maturation of my ability to love to a point just this side of terror. What if it is all an illusion? What if my religious experiences (which led to all that academic study and debt) are all just products of seizures and wishful thinking? What if like good old Granny Weatherall, I'll just blink out, forever divorced from the Soul and souls I love and to whom I've dedicated my entire life? This is the worm that twists in my heart and subject of a future post.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Pistol Made of Toast

My mother-in-law warned me that boys are different from girls. "I never bought my boys guns," she said, "but they'd chew their toast into the shape of a pistol." Of course, I assumed that I would never have her problems. My boys would be perfect angels far more interested in Botticelli and Brahms than with bazookas. "Come read to us from the works of Emerson, Mother!" they would beg. "Can we please listen a little longer to the sonata?" Right. Not so much. Every day I listen to the sounds of starship battles and the clanging of imaginary swords. I hear the shrieks of the dying and the battle cries of enraged warriors on the great, bloody battlefield of my living room sofa. What happened?

I was raised as a pacifist and I am raising my children with the same values. We speak frankly and frequently about our concerns with interpersonal and international violence, and we challenge our children toward compassionate and creative problem-solving. Just this past week my son brought me great pride when he stood up, for the first time, to his great-grandparents' thoughtless patriotism out of his concern for America's involvement in the wars. I have made it very clear to my children that violence is unacceptable and that there is nothing honorable about warfare.

But I do not discourage my children from reading, talking about, or engaging in fantasy battles. Here's why:

For both kids and grown-ups, play (whether in acting out roles or experimenting with metaphors and symbolic thought through art and language) is an essential human process allowing us mental space to experiment with emotions and situations we may face physically and psychologically. Literary and mythical descriptions of violence help us learn to identify and deal with aggression, sorrow, and betrayal. Examples include epic battles and martyrdom in classical and spiritual literature as well as within children's literature. The utilization of these linguistic and artistic symbol forms should not be confused with the manifestation of these symbols. I would not want my kids to engage in actual sword fights against evil nor would I want them knocking over money changing tables and driving people out of temples. I would not want them to literally surrender their bodies for martyrdom, or to literally jump on a white horse to champion a lost cause... but I do want them to use this imagery to understand how one gathers up emotional energy for the "battles" they will inevitably face in life. I want them to use fantasy and play to practice with emotions involved in intellectual and emotional conflict. In this I think of my mother, a champion of the rights of sexually assaulted women and children. On her office wall is a picture she drew as a child in which she made herself a knight with a sword ready to slay the dragon. My mother is a pacifist, but make no mistake, she's a fighter too. She carries the dragon-slayer within her.

Another reason I've learned not to fuss overly much about play that uses violent imagery is that it seems to help my male children deal with their anger. Our son is much larger than an average child so we have been particularly careful to train him as a pacifist. We do not allow him to play with toy guns because we do not wish to support an industry that glorifies and institutionalizes violence. On the other hand, we don't interrupt their play with guns and swords they make with sticks. Talk about a losing battle! Just as my mother-in-law warned, I have learned that a piece of partly eaten toast, a funny-shaped rock, an index finger or an upside down toy dinosaur all make excellent toy guns. What's a pacifist mom to do? My boys are gentle as lambs yet they seem to gravitate toward this play.

I don't worry because the men who are raising them also played at these games when they were children and are now pacifists and feminists. Also, in watching them "play fight", I see them engaged not in violence but in restraint. I see them practicing verbal negotiation, muscular and emotional control, and even a kind of cooperative choreography as they carry out their "battles". They are learning how to withdraw and how to stop. They are learning how to control themselves. It takes a lot of effort to stage an epic sword fight complete with dramatic vocalizations and sound effects (what is it with boys and sound effects?!) and have no one get hurt in the slightest.

I see this play at work with my older son and his little brother. The five year old has no fear of "fighting" with the twelve year old. It is all a dance. The twelve year old has great control. He learned it from rough housing and playing with the older men in our family. Indeed, when boys play with older, more powerful men, they are not just learning about power; they are learning how to refrain from using it. Long ago I read how important it is for male children, who will one day occupy powerful bodies, to learn about restraint in the process of learning about their increasingly muscular and powerful bodies. Within a context of loving discipline and education, the adult demonstrates restraint in play and teaches the child the same. When they wrestle together, or play in sports and other physical competitions, the child is learning that body has power that is controllable. To quote Mr. Rogers who advocated that children physically express their anger through words and play in his song about anger, "I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop any time!". The body is a strange evolving creature, a constantly new challenge for a child who must become familiar with its sensations, emotions, and powers so that they can use them responsibly.

That is the point of play. People who will one day have the power to hurt or kill smaller, weaker, more vulnerable people, also need to have lots of practice understanding their bodies' and emotions so they will not be tempted to do so. When anger overwhelms my children (as it does all human beings at some time) I hope they will naturally fall back lessons learned in play and realize that they have choices. They have restraint and intellect as well as strength and speed. I hope that within those inevitable moments of violent temptation, their bodies' will recall lessons of restraint and control and give their brains just enough time to recall themselves to peace.

A Misfit's Thoughts on Bullying

When I was a little girl, I woke up almost every morning with a cold knot of dread in my stomach. I would then scan my body for any potential signs of illness. There was always a small hope that I would be sick enough to stay home and not have to face the other children and my teachers at school. I could look forward to a yearly bout of bronchitis and there were usually a couple "mental health" days that my parents gave me when I had been so hysterical with sadness the night before that they felt it best to keep me home and quiet for a day. Most of the time, however, if I felt just a little ill, my folks would say, "You can stay home if you think you are sick enough." They always left the decision to me knowing that my unyielding honesty would end the internal debate and I would go off to school. My heart raced and there would be a lump in my throat but I was not truly "sick." There was no way to get out of it.

I hated to leave home because whenever I did, I stopped being my parents' well-loved daughter. I stopped being the "bright" girl my uncles and grandparents loved and started being a monster. In school I was a "brain" and a "nerd". I was that obnoxious know-it-all girl who raised her hand to answer the questions and who used all the long words (probably just to show off). I was the "snob" that no one invited to their parties or allowed to sit at their lunch tables. I was the girl you spoke to only when you needed help with your homework.

My teachers didn't make it any easier. Seeing that I did well in school, they gave me separate lessons above my grade level and asked the other kids to try to catch up to me. If I scored any lower than a 95, I could expect my teacher to say in surprised disapproval, "What happened?" To please them, I studied from the time I got off the bus to the time I went to bed. On one standardized test given to our entire grade, my teacher offered a candy bar to anyone who could beat me. The guidance counselors gave my grades out without my permission to my peers who then found me and laughed at me. If someone misbehaved, they were forced to sit next to me so I could "be a good example." There were boy brains too but they had friends and received compliments and acknowledgment from the other kids and the teachers when they did well. Being a female brain disqualified me from girl status. I was terrified of the boys who, when they weren't ignoring me, were staring or making sexually suggestive statements to shock me. One boy asked if he could kiss me so he could collect lunch money from another boy who dared him to do something disgusting. On a couple of occasions, they threw things at me as I passed. The girls mostly kept their distance and though usually not cruel, felt it best to let me keep to myself.

And I did. I still do. The only time I leave my family is to teach classes or give public presentations. I am very hesitant about social gatherings. As an adult, I have attempted to locate places where it is safe to be myself, where the topics I love, and the stuff I know does not cause people to roll their eyes. It takes a great deal of emotional energy for me to go out amongst others. I was never, ever any good at pretending to be something I am not. I am an intellectual. I can't help it and I do not apologize. Even so, I'm been shamed for it so often that I prefer to keep it hidden at home.

There are some places one would expect someone like me to be safe. On the board of an interfaith group, I was told that my intellectual approach was "too masculine" and therefore considered aggressive to the other women (Other women who maligned my religious beliefs, sent emails that my scholarship which they had never read, was of poor quality, and that I was also a bad mother). My last bad school days memory comes from a doctoral seminar I attended when I was pregnant for my third child. Sitting at a conference table with other Ph.D students, I felt safe to fully engage as a person of intelligence until another doctoral student interrupted me and told me that when I spoke, she lost interest because I used words that were too big. In that moment, I shrank in shame and sat silently until the next break when I left the table and found a quiet room where I cried until it was time for the conference to break up for the day. No one came to find me. No one apologized. At another doctoral seminar, I gave a presentation about my plans to engage in Pagan scholarship. Later, a group of students provided a demonstration of "therapeutic" drama in which they pretended to stomp my scholarship to death and throw it out a pretend window. I sat there silently and watched as the group of student actors mimed beating my ideas to death and other students laughed. No one said a word in my defense.

And that brings me to the point. If I had witnessed something like that happening to someone else, I would have done something. Being the misfit, the monster in the midst of all the cool kids for so many years has made me aware of other people's pain. I can feel it like a live thing in the room with me. It is intolerable. I can't stand to see strong people exercise their strength and popularity against the weak or the marginalized. I won't stand for it and so I get myself into an awful lot of trouble. But it hurts me so much less to stand with someone than to witness their pain in silence that it is worth the effort.

In online discussion groups, I find that it is very common for people to attack and malign those who are different. Maybe it is because they can't see the pain in the other person's face. Quaker discussion forums aren't much better than other forums. The discourse is more outwardly polite. There isn't as much obvious name-calling (unless you know what to look for), but I'm often shocked by the anti-intellectualism, religious bigotry, classism, cruelties and snide nastiness of various little in-crowds of Friends.

I don't know what I am called to do about it. I could withdraw from the Quaker blogosphere but then they win (again) don't they? I know I must continue to challenge myself to be among people despite my distaste for their cruelties, and sadly, no group of people, no matter how noble their philosophical pedigree is immune from the bullies. Just as when I was a child, interactions with "Friends" sometimes leave me with a gut twisted in anxiety and tears in my eyes. Such is life.

The only thing worse than the bullying I've received for being different all my life is hearing someone later say that they witnessed the attack and felt it was wrong. And then I'd wonder, "Then why the hell didn't you say something at the time? Why did you let that person browbeat me, and misrepresent me to score points with their buddies? How could you stay silent as you watched me dissolve into tears of hurt and frustration?"

When I see someone being attacked, I say something. I don't care if you are on "my team" or not. If the game is unfair, I'm going call foul. I know how much it hurts to be singled out as today's sacrificial misfit. I can't address this to the bullies. The bullies don't know who they are so they aren't listening or perhaps their confidence in their personal beliefs makes them feel justified in their attacks. I don't know. I'm talking to the rest of you. You don't have to agree with someone's perspective to protect their dignity. Don't be a coward. We are called to serve the demands of justice, equality, and compassion. Take care of each other. Take care of the misfits. They are God's people too.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Paganism: A religion or a category of religions?

I submit that the term Pagan is more appropriately used as an umbrella term to describe a family of related religions than as a word to describe a singular religion. In this way, "Pagan" is parallel to "Abrahamic" rather than to "Christian."

1. If diversity and self-definition are so important to Pagans, is it really in our best interest to continue to pretend that we belong to the same religion? I think not. I think too much of our diversity is sacrificed in this strategy and I therefore suggest that we begin to acknowledge that "Paganism" may describe a family of loosely related religions but cannot be used to describe a singular religion without further marginalizing and compromising the religious experiences of Pagans whose beliefs are not recognized as normative or popular.

2. Secondly, emphasis on Paganism as a singular, though diverse religion may have unintended limiting consequences on further development of individuals' and groups interpretations of Pagan experience. For instance, already I have read that Pagans are earth-centered. (Many are not) or that Pagans cannot be pacifists (many are.) Drift toward orthodoxy is a danger in considering Paganism a religion rather than a family of multiple spiritual perspectives.

3. Finally, I am concerned that utilizing the term "Pagan" to describe a singular religion is an act of imperialism in that such use of the term assumes that practitioners of indigenous and/or ancient religions can be utilized and co-opted by Neo-Pagans with little or no regard for concerns of cultural context, history, or tradition.

Is "Pagan" parallel to "Abrahamic"?

Categorization of anything non-Abrahamic under the rubric “Pagan” is problematic inasmuch as it subsumes critical historical, cultural, and thea/ological differences under a definition of Paganism based not on who we are but on who we are not. Even more problematic is the assumption that Paganism is more than a category of religious perspectives but a religion itself. We have been defined against Abrahamic religion. I intentionally use the passive verb here to indicate definition by default. Although we have reclaimed a word used pejoratively to describe those who do not fit within the category of "Abrahamic" and that's fine. In fact, that's great. I have not given up on the idea that the word "Pagan" may very well indicate a commonality transcendent of specific religious categorization, but I do think we should stop saying that Paganism is a “religion” which assumes a common belief system, and come up with another, more careful term for what Paganism is and that acknowledges that it encompasses multiple religions. Paganism is a “_____”, comprised of multiple, diverse religions that often, but not always are characterized by “_____________”. I don’t have the words to fill in those blanks, btw. I’m still too early in the thinking stages and, as I’ve said, I’m just too unfamiliar with the depth of other Pagan spiritual perspectives to dare to fill in those blanks right now.

I suggest a shift from the use of the term Pagan to designate a singular religion to the use of the term to designate a family of religions. Abrahamic folks share historical and theological traditions. They are members of the same family of religions but not members of the same religion. In suggesting that the parallel term to Pagan is "Abrahamic", rather than Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, I am not looking to sacrifice solidarity but suggesting that we are more diverse than we have allowed and that those differences are more important than we have acknowledged.

If we were to look within just one of the Abrahamic religions, we see great diversity that already tests the cohesion indicated by the term "religion." Technically, Greek Orthodox, Southern Baptists, and liberal Christian Quakers are all “Christian” but they are practically so far apart in theology that it would be unreasonable for them to approach each other outside of a framework that immediately acknowledged those profound theological and historical differences. They do, at least, share a common emphasis on "Christ" although their definitions of that term vary dramatically. Do Pagans share at least one common definition that would place us all within one religion? I honestly don't think so although probably, we could subdivide several Pagan perspectives into a smaller handful of "religions". Perhaps, for instance, we might consider feminist, earth-centered Paganisms with historical roots in western Romanticism as a religion. If such were the case, then Kemetic Reconstructionists and Dianic Wiccans can coexist as Pagans much as Hasidic Jews and Roman Catholics share an Abrahamic identity without pretending they are in the same religion. Dianic Wiccans and ecofeminists, despite many differences in theory and practice might be classified in the same religion although of different denominations as are Roman Catholics and Baptists.

Who We Are or Who We Are Not

I am not Wiccan. This is a statement of fact but it is also often a defensive statement with all the snarly negativity that implies. There are lots of Wiccans and they have published, organized, and educated the non-Pagan public. As a result, "Paganism" in the popular media and public understanding is often synonymous with the most well-recognized and popular forms of Wicca. In my experience, this means that before anyone knows who I am, I have to explain who I am not. Sometimes, I find that folks won't believe me. They argue with me along these lines: "If you are Pagan, and Pagans are Wiccans, then you must be Wiccan. Further, if you disagree with what I understand to be Wiccan, then you must not be a Pagan." Irritating... but not Wiccans' least not entirely.

There are lots of times when I feel the urge to just give up. I'm so sick of being told that I'm not a Pagan that I've almost come to believe it. I know I am not alone. One can find a cautionary narrative in the history of first and second century Christianity. What we came to recognize as orthodox Christianity was no more than the outcome of a game of spiritual Survivor. Last person standing wins and the last person standing is the person with the most power and the best PR.

But Wiccans are NOT orthodox Christians. Every single Wiccan with whom I have worked or communicated would be horrified at the idea that they are seeking to create an orthodox Paganism. My Wiccan friends are not standing in for orthodox Christianity and I do not wish to play the role of the ill-fated Gnostics. However, I am concerned that although we lack the intention to repeat this scenario, an orthodoxy and orthopraxy may emerge not out of our intention to purge Paganism of difference but out of our unwillingness to honestly engage the differences-- thereby tacitly supporting the unquestioned philosophical supremacy of the most popular Pagan groups. I see casual statements about Paganism as a religion as well statements indicating a belief that one's personal beliefs are universal or nearly universal to Pagans generally evidence of this drift toward a popular orthodoxy.

I express this caution but I am not discouraged. Now is the time to ask the hard questions and to engage in the difficult discussions. Neo-Paganism is still in its infancy. Its admission into the world of ideas is still tentative. The academic world is just now beginning to take our scholars and our narratives seriously. We need not worry unduly that our inability to define Paganism as a religion is indicative of intolerance among us. We have always been more diverse than even we have acknowledged. We are simply emerging into that time in our history in which this discussion of "religion" became inevitable. As non-Pagan academics and thinkers become more and more aware of Paganism as a legitimate category of religious expression, we find that they are not yet clear on just how diverse we are. Too many of us remain unpublished, undocumented, unacknowledged (at times because of unequal access to publications and/or because solitary and isolated practitioners have a much harder time with networking). Therefore, those of us who don't fall nicely into the more popular categories can concede the success of better organized and publicized Paganisms and bow out, we can become defensive and bitter, or we can find a way to assert our right to the term within a more carefully defined and celebrated diversity.

Our ability to see differences and to develop a conversation based on those differences emerges as the internet brings solitary, isolated, and marginalized Pagans into contact with more organized, community-oriented Pagan groups. We are beginning to see which perspectives are privileged. We are beginning to see that some of our assumptions of what are Pagan "essentials" are not universal. I think that despite the discomfort of some of these conversations and confrontations, they are really to everyone's benefit. We are able to see, at the experiential level, the drama of our the-logical, philosophical, and practical differences. At times, the dissonance is jarring enough to promote questions: What does "Pagan" mean anyway? Who defines the term? Who frames the conversation? And more importantly, who is excluded from participation in that work? These can be uncomfortable and even saddening questions, particularly as we fear that the loss of the religious category might erode acknowledgment from the non-Pagan world, but I think the benefits outweigh the risks.

I see these questions and challenges not as a tragedy of disunity but as a more promising and honest context for promoting true and lasting relationships with each other based on mutual understanding and respect. While it is certainly more comfortable to believe that other "Pagans" are just like me, it isn't honest. I'd rather get to know other "Pagans" who do NOT share my religious beliefs, worldview, or assumptions as they are rather than imagine them as I'd like them to be. No true peace comes from gazing in the mirror and pretending you are the entire world.

So where do we even begin this conversation? Especially, how do those of us on the margins of Paganism/Neo-Paganism begin this conversation without coming off as merely angry with Wiccans for being more numerically successful than we are? This conversation cannot be about sour grapes. It has to be more than temper tantrums growing out of sense of being overlooked. The problem is not merely one of intrafaith dialog among other self-defined Pagans (although this is difficult enough), but identification in an interfaith world that continues to use "Pagan" inaccurately, dismissively, and pejoratively. The existence of a popular default hegemony of eclectic Wicca (which I see as imposed by non-Pagan popular media, publishing, and academic worlds still only providing token space and attention to Paganism despite our difference) silences meaningful and challenging interfaith discourse. In my interfaith work, I find that I end up having to both defend Wicca as “not Satanic” before I even get a chance to define my own in some ways very different spiritual path. It would be easier to avoid this defensive posture if we made it clear to non-Christians that though we maintain strong loving bonds with each other, we are not all members of the same religion any more than Muslims, Christians, and Jews are members of the same religion. Our ability to honor our differences without glossing over them or ignoring them could serve as a model for Abrahamic peoples whose differences have engulfed the world in wars for thousands of years. We can only have fruitful conversations when we are willing to meet others as they are rather than as we wish or imagine them to be. The hegemony of the popular is easier, but it is a poor substitute for true peace.

For related views, please see
The Great Tininess and Pagan Godspell

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