Sunday, February 27, 2011

I'm not nuts.

Looking again at the idea of mental illness as related to spiritual experience, I think that it is more likely that our culture is insane and that those individuals whose bodies continue to speak to them (in anxiety, in illness, in depression, pain, and fatigue) of the great, gaping, world-destroying unfulfilled need for love, balance, and relationship are the sane ones.

Sanity is merely a collectively agreed upon set of constructs. Guess who decides upon those construct? Not women. Not children. Not people of color. Not poor people nor queer people. Not peace lovers nor song writers nor daydreamers. Not the people who are outsiders, aged, eccentric, off-putting and wild. Only the parts of us that behave are allowed to participate in the nightmare construct of reality.

So I have come to believe that my faith that love and not might must prevail will only make make me more mad each day, and that madness is the only true sanity.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Defining My Non-Theism

You can put me in the category of those who have a mystical/experiential relationship with divinity but who doubt intellectually. I may be deluded by either my emotional or my intellectual perspectives. When they are directly contrary to each other, I tend to settle into the hope that my emotional connection is more real than my intellectual doubts since my intellectual doubts leave me hopeless. Also, because my emotional experiences are very direct and immediate and my intellectual process is so dependent upon second-hand intellectual traditions of systematic theorizing, (most of which I've also been trained to doubt as a feminist) I tend to remain fairly "faithful" even in the midst of the most agonizing doubts. I don't like this situation. It actually causes me physical pain at times, but it is what it is. I think we must first define theism before we define non-theism. It is not, as I understand the term, merely a word indicating belief in "god" but a particular kind of belief about a particular set of understandings about "god."  Wikipedia begins with: "Theism, in the broadest sense, is the belief that at least one deity exists.[1][2] In a more specific sense, theism refers to a doctrine concerning the nature of a monotheistic God and God's relationship to the universe.[3] Theism, in this specific sense, conceives of God as personal, present and active in the governance and organization of the world and the universe. The use of the word theism as indicating a particular doctrine of monotheism arose in the wake of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century to contrast with the then emerging deism that contended that God, though transcendent and supreme, did not intervene in the natural world and could be known rationally but not via revelation.[4]" I do not believe or disbelieve that an entity or group of entities created the universe or is/was playing any kind of directing role. That kind of knowledge is above my pay grade. It also seems fairly irrelevant to my needs and calling as a human being. I am here. The world is here. My curiosity about how we got here is greatly overshadowed by my desire to know what I'm supposed to do now that I'm here. So I put aside the question of a Creator God. My only argument would be that apart from process theo/alogy, the conceptualization of a Creator God has been very anthropocentric and arrogant regardless of theological tradition. Perhaps we can't help it. Of course human beings will be most concerned with our place in the cosmos and most passionate about our relationship with that which we experience as divine. Of course, we are limited by human experience and understanding and can therefore only conceive of "that which is" within the confines of our own human constructs.
February 25, 2011 9:51 AM
Continuing with these thoughts, I have to admit right away that what follows comes primarily from my sense and sensations as an emotional/mystical person and not so much as an intellect. I apologize therefore to those who will find the following thoughts pretty sloppy. I have come to feel that my direct experience of the Divine is best not defined as a direct experience of All that Is, but a direct experience of that part of All that Is that is most concerned with the human psyche/soul/demon/spirit. This is what I (sometimes) call Christ and experience as the Inward Light. It is the Source that is guiding me to become most fully realized *as a human being* and more specifically, *as a human being who is distinctly myself* Very simply, human beings are not superior to other creatures.  We do not need to feel that we are some pinnacle of Creation, but we do have our own human-ness to achieve. What does this human-ness look like?  It looks like a lot of things.  There's a great deal of wiggle room in what it means to be human, but in the end, I think all forms of human-ness will involve a great deal of compassion and thoughtfulness.  Very simply, and without speaking more on the great diversity of strategies we might employ to this end, I believe that humans are called to be humane. All of my struggles as a person have been to integrate my animal instincts and experiences (physical and mystical) in such a way that I continue to evolve toward that goal. My evolving toward that goal depends upon my openness to my relationship with that divine Presence that I understand as Christ Within. Others don't call it that. That's none of my business. We are all called to be Ourselves in our own way. I feel we help each other best in this process by being authentic and compassionate...and by refraining from arrogantly assuming that our experiences are normative. So....isn't that Presence, that Christ, that Light just another name for "God".  No.  Not for me.  It is a portion of that Ineffable Everything that many have called "God."  It is the part that is more personally human.  It is the part with which our species intersects and its values and demands are specific to our species.  It would make no sense for this Christ-like Presence to speak to wolves or mollusks or viruses.  They have their own calling.  They must evolve as they are called to evolve.  The Presence that I conceive as Christ/ Light is therefore a part of, but not the total of that which I might call "God/ddess" if I were inclined to use that language.  I believe that I am most responsible to that Greater Ineffable Process by sticking close to the Guide/Christ/Light that speaks most readily to me as a human soul.  I conclude this description with a note that I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the manifestation of "Christ" but I do believe that his ministry shows him to be one who was certainly leaning very close to the Light.
February 25, 2011 10:37 AM
Blogger I would also add that I tend to be very Spiritualist. This goes along with my sense that since I am a human being, I must lean most heavily on human ways of knowing. My connection to other human spirits (both alive and dead) has usually the most vibrant and real connection I have to the knowledge that I am, in fact, part of a greater Process than I can conceive from my own limited perspective. The love and guidance I receive from these human spirits is very important to me. Like the Spiritualist/Progressive Friends of the mid-19th century, I tend to see human spiritual understanding as a series of concentric circles. We have a more profound and intimate knowledge of that which is closest to us. Our family and friends, our communities, and our culture. As we move farther away toward the outermost circle which explains the very nature of "God", we really know nothing much at all. 
As a spiritual non-theist, I am not denying the existence of "God" but holding myself apart from that seeks to define, explain, or address the nature of "God".  I don't think we can do that.  I do think we can describe our spiritual experiences, but without any real hope of "knowing" that what we touch in those encounters is "the Almighty" or just a portion of the Almighty, or another Great Spirit, Concept, or Process that feels pretty Almighty relative to our limitation.  Even a grown-up human being seems pretty god-like to an infant.  I try to keep that in mind when I am reaching out into the spiritual realm.  
Most of our spiritual experience, I believe, come from more immediate and human sources. This does not mean that I reject the idea that there is nothing beyond our human senses and affiliations (or the Divine Processes and Beings that are most intimately associated with us), but that I feel that we have enough to do to learn the lessons we have to learn right here in our human bodies. We are spiritual crawlers at this point. Some day we will learn to walk and run and maybe some day to fly. When I watch my children dance and climb, I know that I loved them just as well when they could only creep. I have faith that despite my limited abilities, I am still loved. I don't know the Name of those who love me, but like an infant, I have learned to sense when they are close.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

And now, just because it is on my mind, my own little song of songs.

 I was just thinking of a song I often hum to myself or sing in the shower.  It certainly isn't my best work, (in fact it is pretty juvenile) but it is really hard to forget something once you set it to music.  I wrote the words when I was about sixteen just before I ventured into Paganism.  It is sung to the tune of O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  It is funny to see how I had not yet been informed by feminist theory challenging negative valuation of the earth.  It is also funny to see what a crush I had on Jesus at the time.  There's some definite sexual tension in these lyrics.  Who needs vampires?

 (Sung to the tune of O Come, O Come Emmanuel)

One evening as I walked into a glade,
beneath the beech trees and their gentle shade.
I thought I heard a voice of purest gold.
It said to me, "My child," and then behold!
The sky, the sky with lightning it did break.
There came a flood with angels in its wake.
As one came near she smiled a smile so soft.
I held her hand as I was born aloft.
No more did the earth my poor feet enslave.
My flight was swift.  My heart, it was brave.
And then, behold, I gazed into his face, a face so lovely it made my heart race.
So there I stood alone before my God.
I could but weep I could but only sob.
Far too beautiful for my eyes to see.
Oh, how could one so lovely still love me?
And then, I sighed.  Into his arms I flew.
"My child," he whispered, "I would die for you."

Boy, I miss that Jesus-as-Eternal-Lover faith I had when I was a teenage girl before I plunged into my matronly cares!  I suppose it still lingers with me.  I never was good at the whole "Lord Jesus" deal.  I was always too much of a feminist for that, but Jesus as archetypal male manifestation of human compassion?  Christ as the deep and sweet passion between divinity and humanity?  As the intersection between Death and Life and Sex and Spirit and Right Now and Forever?  Christ as the female Persephone?  As Tammuz?  As Balder?  Christ as Beloved?  As Lover?  I want the Teresa of Avila raptures.  Oh, yeah.  Sing me a Song of Songs and sign me up for that hieros gamos any day of the week.  I don't mind waiting for that Bridegroom.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Being Modern Artists of Quaker Faith and Practice

 The Peaceable Kingdom (1848) by Edward Hicks.  Albright-Knox gallery

 Gap from the "Tiny Town" series 2001/2006 by James Turrell
Light installation.  Albright-Knox
(photograph by Jim Bush)

I think of Friends' religious education the same way I think about education in general as both a college teacher and a home schooling mom.  I'm very, very liberal/progressive/leftist, but I think that before we dive into the modernist and postmodernist stuff, we have to start with the classics.  When I was a child, my father and I were walking through a modern art gallery.  This stuff looked nothing like the representational work from the Renaissance to the 19th century that we had just viewed together in the adjoining building!  Was this really "art"? 

Dad pointed out that there was a lot more going on in that gallery than random paint splashes on canvas.  To understand modern art, I needed to understand the history of art and the ideas modern artists were highlighting, accentuating, or challenging.  To the untrained observer, modern art might look like an anarchy of paint, but I should remember to ground my judgment in knowledge and recall that a truly excellent modern artist only broke the rules after they had learned all the rules of their craft and had a strong foundation in representational art and its history. Because they had that foundation and familiarity, they could break the rules in meaningful ways. Though clearly quite different from their predecessors, modern artists participate in a long tradition of evolving and dynamic artistic expression. 

As one who can be identified within the "non-theist", "universalist", and "pagan" manifestations of modern Quaker perspective, I might be considered one of the modern artists of Quaker faith and practice.  Among us, there many conversations about whether or not it is important for us to be grounded in Christ-centered perspectives or whether or not it is important to learn about Christian Quaker history.  I think it is clear to anyone who reads my blog that I do not feel that Friends must be Christian or even theist to be good Quakers.  In the end, I believe we should be judged by our fruits.  Our service and love, not our fancy theologies and philosophies, are what matter to those who need that love.  That which many call "God" remains ineffable.  We are called to serve, not to define.

But what does that mean for Friends?  Does that mean that anything goes?  No.  I don't think so.  In Quaker history, the individual comes to trust the Inward Light within a community of people who support each other  through collective discernment and gentle discipline.  We believe in continuing revelation and do not mistake our past for our God, but we also know that in coming to know the Light together, with patience, and over time, we are able to be a stronger force for love than we could ever be alone.  That strength of collective discernment and discipline is part of who we are.  When I became a Friend, I knew that I must ground myself in that tradition.  I knew that it was a process and discipline that would take me years (perhaps my whole life!) to learn, but that my contributions would be stronger if I submitted myself to that process.

I am hopeful that Christian Friends who feel uncomfortable with my presence among them will come to see me as a sister.  I am also hopeful that non-Christian Friends who feel resentful of Christian language will come to value the beautiful ways that Friends have lived their Christianity.   Quakers have a history worth learning and contemplating.  Friends were a peculiar people not just because of how they dressed and spoke, but because they were so bold in their understanding of Christ in their lives.  We may indeed be a theologically diverse group, but I feel that Friends like me who bring new thea/ological and philosophical ideas to the Quaker tradition show more skill in our service to the world if we remember to launch our avante garde spirituality from a solid foundational knowledge of Friends' historical origins in radical Christian spirituality.  We don't have to be Christian, but we should understand the history of Christianity, particularly as Friends have understood that term.  We should understand the metaphors, narratives, and historical context of those who went before us so that when it is our turn to add color to the canvas, even our boldest and most unorthodox strokes will come from a skilled hand.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fussing with my blog title

I like the blog title, "Plainly Pagan."  First of all, it utilizes alliteration which is one of my favorite little tricks.  I also like the play on words.  It bothers me to think that I might have to set this title aside and come up with something entirely different.  If this turns out to be the case, it is unfortunate.

My problem seems to be a problem of community.  Whatever labels I apply to myself in the privacy of my mind are just fine and dandy.  Whenever I struggle with the labels many friends, including many who comment on this blog, have told me that it doesn't much matter what I call myself.  But I think maybe it does matter.  Many years ago I decided to surrender the term Christian not because I had stopped believing as a Christian according to my own conscience, but because I realized that very few Christians shared my beliefs and that my use of the term was confusing to those with whom I wished to communicate.  I could have, as one of my professors wanted me to do, stay within the Christian framework and work to reform Christianity along with so many of my favorite feminist thinkers, but  I did not feel like struggling eternally with the basics of definition.  I wanted to believe as I believe with the freedom to move between the vocabularies of many faith systems and without the pull and drag of collective community expectations of Christian religious identity. 
Paganism seemed to offer that to me.  I loved the ability to utilize the broad range of mythologies and concepts found within ancient and modern Pagan narratives and philosophies.  I felt that being Pagan allowed me to build many rooms onto my Christian foundation.  I also liked this because it allowed me to continue believing and thinking as I had before as a liberal Christian without having to put up with sharing a label with fundamentalists.  It was a relief to no longer have to say to my progressive comrades, "I'm not that kind of Christian."  Saying I was a Pagan gave me, I thought, an immediate edge as one who self-identifies with a funkier, earthier, freedom-oriented spiritual tradition.  We could start talking more immediately about more interesting ideas than how crappy and limiting Christianity is.  I also relished the idea that people could tell right away that as a "Pagan" I am certain to be unlike the commercial variety of Christian.  Specifically, I am not a religious bigot.  Of course most Christians I have known are also not religious bigots, but try selling that line to non-Christians who are inundated with television images (sensationalized and simplified as the media is) of the wing-bat variety of "Christian" every time any kind of human rights becomes an issue.  It was a relief to be free of the dead weight of what passes for Christianity in this country (at least in the popular media and press).

 I was also certain that Pagan spirituality, like liberal Christian spirituality, was deeply concerned with ethics and of growing toward right relationship between peoples of different backgrounds and between humans and the rest of the living planet.  While I value Christian environmentalism, I felt that Pagans' more diverse spiritual vocabulary protected Pagans from some of the nastier traps orthodoxy sets up for thea/olgians and spiritual problem-solvers.

Here's what I hadn't counted on and which is becoming increasingly evident. 

1.  I was living in an ivory tower.  All my Pagan sources were academics and philosophers.  I knew that most Pagans are not academics.  I assumed that most Pagans were "just folks".  I also assumed that these folks, unlike most "just folks" Christians, were more motivated to research and study.  I was not prepared for the large amount of gross ignorance I have encountered among Pagans.  I am discouraged by sloppiness in research, thought, and communication I have found among Pagans and by the community's inability to address this problem in an organized, educationally responsible way.

2.  I was immersed in an educational environment that valued spiritual diversity.  I was pleased to find that the Pagan sources I read were analytical and thoughtful in their approach to other religious disciplines and beliefs.  Their criticisms grew out of this context.  I was horrified to find such a large number of Pagans outside of my foundational Pagan sources are religious bigots at least as aggressive as Christian bigots.  While I have occasionally encountered outright nastiness and ignorance from Christians regarding Paganism, most liberal Christians are at least polite and inquisitive about Paganism.  On the other hand, I have found that friendliness and patience toward Christians is atypical of Pagans who are far more likely, not just to stereotype, but to viciously stereotype Christians. 

3.  I had assumed that a focus on metaphors of immanence, embodiment, and the interconnection of Life gave Pagans an ethical base that would influence them to lean toward pacifism, human rights, and environmentalism.  I felt we could be guides to other spiritual and religious groups as they too developed metaphors of caring and cooperation from within their own traditions that would help us work together to sustain Life on this planet.  I did not expect that so many Pagans would show such contempt and/or disregard for issues of social justice, environmentalism, and peace or for interfaith cooperation.  I began to realize that the diversity of Paganism does not necessarily mean that Pagans will find more ways to talk about Peace, but that they can find more ways to justify war, violence, oppression, selfishness, and apathy. 

So it seems that I am back to where I was way back when I was still calling myself a Christian but having to listen to myself repeating, "I am not that kind of Christian."  I do not choose to justify my limitations with the word "faith".  I do not turn my religion into a tool to justify greed, hatefulness, intolerance, or sloppy thinking.  My relationship with Christianity and its foundational principles deepened when I no longer felt called to carry the label.  And now I must say, I am not that kind of Pagan either.   I'll wear this sword as long as I can, but I think, eventually, it too will have to be discarded.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Light of Christ and my Kids

Tonight at dinner, my children and I were discussing the history of pacifism among Friends.  My daughter worried about the draft and said she would like to move to England or to Canada.  My older son said he wants to stay here in Upstate NY and my baby said he wants to move to New York City when he is big. 
The idea of war frightened all of them.  My daughter is indignant when she speaks of war.  She feels that the draft is just another form of slavery.

In the course of that conversation, we turned to the subject of belief in Christ.  My daughter wanted to know if Friends had to believe in Jesus.  I told her that many Friends do not believe that Jesus was a specially divine being, but that most Friends do and that we recognize that Jesus has been the source of Friends' understanding of the Light that is in all people.  I also said that I feel that although many Friends, including us, are not Christian, we also believe that surely anything that conflicts with the love shown by Jesus is not of the Light and not something that Friends believe.

I told her that Friends believe that all people have a Seed or a Measure of that of God in them and that like any Seed, it only grows if we allow it to be warmed by the Light.  I said that some people allow their seed to shrivel while others open themselves to the Light and grow and grow in that Light.  I said that many Friends believe that Jesus was one who was very open to the Light and that the Light shone brightly in him.  He is an example of one who shows us how to be open to that Light which existed before him, surely showed itself through him during his life, and is with us to this day.

My daughter said that this made more sense to her.  She said she had thought that Christians only believed in Jesus because they were afraid God would be angry if they did not believe.  She had felt this was foolish, but she said it made much more sense to her to think that Christians love Jesus as an example of one who was full of Light and Love.  I said that we can think of him as an older brother and that we can look to him as an example of how to be loving in the world.

We talked about how young he was when he died and that many other people before and after him also were killed by angry and frightened people because they were true to their principles and because they defended the dignity of those who were less powerful in the world.  My daughter asked me if by standing up for women, minorities, and the environment she might be killed too.  At first, I was quietly frightened by her question, but I told her that I did not think so. I told her that I have stood for those things all my life and her grandparents before her have too. "We are stronger if we stand together than if we stand alone," I told her.  But I do not know.  I told her that she must learn to listen to the Spirit and answer her calling.

I'm glad we had that conversation.  My girl, as is typical of her, was more talkative and inquisitive than her brothers, but my boys were listening.  My older son was saddened by Jesus' early death and my littlest told me solemnly that he would be a Quaker even when he moved to New York City.  These children are my friends as well as my offspring.  They are my companions.  They know my fear for them, but they also know that I believe in their goodness and kindness.  I pray that we stand together.  I pray that we stand strong in our convictions.  I pray that we have courage to live up to the full Measure of the Light Within.  My children must live in difficult times.  Let them be wise.  Let them be strong.  Let them walk in the Light.

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...