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I’ve Moved!

So, about a month ago I migrated over to blogspot. I meant to cross post for a little while, but in all honesty, I’m just too lazy to do that. You can find my newest post here, and my blog itself now lives here. All my followers, please update your feeds to my new address!

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PantheaCon and Paganism, Part 1

Last week, Mallory, Teejay and I went to PantheaCon, and found it a profoundly un-positive experience. I don’t mean to say that we didn’t enjoy any of it, there were things which we very much enjoyed, and we are happy that we went, as it allowed us to experience things that we otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see. That said, a good deal of what we did see at PantheaCon was troubling and disconcerting.

After the fact, reading about other people’s PantheaCon experiences, the internet is atwitter with how positive and uplifting it was. It is incredibly difficult to find anyone willing to voice concern or dismay. And here I find myself torn, because I want to insert a caveat that I am not trying to discredit anyone’s positive experience of PantheaCon, and yet I feel like if people were willing to look objectively at the Pagan community as presented at PantheaCon, they would have had a significantly different experience. I have hesitating all week to speak about our experiences at PantheaCon because I simply can’t shake the sensation that any criticism will either be roundly ignored or shouted down. At the convention itself, I was amazed at how many people were absorbing what was being said entirely uncritically. There was one ritual in particular that I found deeply, deeply troubling and I remain uncertain how to treat the experience, and if I should write about it, naming names, or simply let it go unacknowledged.

I really did get the impression that a great number of people there were, to put it bluntly, drinking the Kool-Aid. There appeared to be very little critical thinking on display. I remember particularly a conversation I had wherein I mentioned how surprised I was how small the Wiccan presence at PantheaCon was. For as formative and important Wicca has been in American Paganism, I was disturbed that there was very little official Wiccan programming and that the three Wiccan organizations at the convention were all lumped together in one hospitality suite on the tenth floor. The person with who I had the conversation became incredibly defensive and said, essentially, that Wicca is no longer relevant to the Pagan experience. However, given the fact that some people claim Wicca to be one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, I really have to question that assertion. I also have to wonder what the actual demographics of those in attendance were, as I would be surprised if the majority were not some form of Wiccan.

I can only then surmise that the traditions on display were a result of fad, as much as anything. Wicca is hardly exciting at this point in time. As much as Wicca may still define the face of American Paganism, its role seems to be hardly acknowledged anymore. This is one of the reasons why I found it so troubling to see the programming focussing heavily on shamanism and African-Diasporic traditions. I honestly do not like to make accusations of cultural appropriation, as I think they are largely false and unfounded. Cultural appropriate is a tool of oppression and control, and I think that the way the charge of cultural appropriation is bandied about the Pagan community shows a remarkable lack of concern for the cultures being referenced. There is a difference between borrowing a technique from another culture, fully aware of what you are doing and citing your sources, and simply refusing to acknowledge that the techniques which you are using have a long and complicated history of use by another culture.

That being said, it disturbed me to see so much focus on the traditions of minorities when Mallory and I saw less than ten African Americans (there may have been more, but if so they didn’t make up a significant percentage of the attendees) and Teejay thinks he saw one Asian, maybe. Several of the African Americans which we did see were obviously presenters. It was odd as well that they only Latinos we saw were the hotel staff. Judging by PantheaCon, one is led to believe that Paganism is largely the religion of White People.  Those in attendance at PantheaCon didn’t even seem to represent the general demographic break down of the United States.

I’m not saying that we need to stick to White People traditions since we ourselves are all White People, simply that we need to be careful how we relate to the minorities within our community and ensure that we are engaging respectfully with their cultures. Having a series of events rotating around African-Diasporic traditions when there were very few African Americans in attendance really makes me question how comfortable we as a community make the minority groups we contain feel.

Now, PantheaCon did include a few nods to the minorities, with things like the Pagans of Color Caucus. Though, the official programming did not include T. Thorn Coyle’s panel on Pagans and Privilege, which was hosted by, yes that’s right, the Wiccans, in the Covenant of the Goddess suite, instead. I would love to know what was discussed there, but given how small the venue was I have had a hell of a time finding anyone who has actually discussed the proceedings.

I have a good deal more to talk about as a result of our PantheaCon adventure and I expect to have several weeks on content. I would apologize for being an ornery bastard, but it’s my nature. That said, I really do appreciate comments and responses. I write this stuff to generate dialogue and address issues which I view as important to the Pagan community. I am not trying to cause trouble, simply to highlight issues which I believe require further attention.

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Curious Antipathy: The Ongoing Struggle to Define Modern Paganism

Modern Pagan belief is largely founded on personal spiritual experience. Though there is, sadly, a great deal of infighting about what constitutes authentic experience, and near constant accusations of cultural appropriation, Modern Paganism marks a return of spiritual authority to the lay practitioner. Each Pagan has a unique and personal relationship not simply to the divine, but to discrete deities and spiritual beings. Paganism allows us not only to worship God as we choose, but to choose which Gods to worship. Essentially, Paganism is about building our own relationships with Divinity distinct of church structure. I am not, of course, saying, that everyone is therefore correct, no matter what they do, merely that Modern Paganism allows us much more spiritual freedom than many of us have ever experienced. There are still rights and wrongs, those concepts have simply been recontextualized.

From that basis, I find it baffling that so many of us spend so much energy trying to dismantle Christianity. We are all familiar with the various arguments against the authenticity of the Bible, with the historical malfeasance of the various churches and of the contemporary issues which many Christian faiths continue to struggle with or blatantly ignore. However, none of this says anything about the authenticity of the spiritual experience of Christians. How many of our source texts can evade the critiques which we level at the Bible? None. Not a single one. We talk about the lack of historic references to Jesus and the absence of archaeological evidence for the events depict in the Hebrew Testament, but how many trustworthy historical references and archaeological proofs are there for our own beliefs? Why do we require this kind of evidence from Christians, but not from ourselves?

I myself was raised in what I casually refer to as a cult. I personally understand the desire to distance ourselves as much as possible from Christianity. My experience was difficult and painful and I am still recovering from a lot of the trauma that I experienced. However, the reason why I eventually left that church had almost nothing to do with my personal struggle. The more I spoke to my fellow church members and to people of various faiths, the more I came to realize that my personal faith was simply not strong enough to justify my continued identification with that church. That itself was a traumatic experience. I had used that identification as a badge throughout much of my childhood. I hid behind it and used it to excuse my alienation from my classmates and peers and to disguise the things I found shameful about myself. That breakage was just as affecting as the religion itself. For years, I felt as though I had no solid identity. Eventually, this spurred me to do a great deal of personal reflection, and to figure out what I myself needed to foster and support my spirituality, my faith. I emerged from Christianity, and am emphatically not Christian, but that history had a profound effect on me and played a vital part in my spiritual development. While Christianity caused me profound pain, I know that without that experience I would not be the man I am today, a man that, for the most part, I am proud to be.

I think that we, as Pagans, need to accept our personal histories and understand the ways in which they continue to influence not only our personal progression, but also our progression as a culture. We need to resist the urge to attack the faiths with which we cohabitate. Of course, we feel persecution and alienation in contemporary culture largely as a result of the high saturation of Christian faiths in the Western World. That said, we do ourselves no favors by placing ourselves explicitly at odds with the people to whom we are trying to prove our authenticity, our equality. It is especially problematic when we, as a faith community, co-opt the strategies of the Atheist movement to attack our perceived enemies. We cannot require hard evidence of faith. We cannot demand proof which we ourselves cannot provide.

If we are willing to accept people who claim to have deep spiritual relationships with deities who have not been properly worshiped for close to a thousand years as speaking the truth, why do we refuse to recognize the deep spiritual relationships which Christians have with their God? We simply cannot denounce Christianity as false because it makes us uncomfortable.

The fear of Christian persecution has been built into the foundation of Modern Paganism. The Wiccan Rede reads as it does as an attempt to make Wiccans appear less threatening to their Christian neighbors. How many times do we hear random Pagans at Pagan events miscellaneously bad-mouthing Christians with little to no provocation? Our Christian antipathy frequently seems to be incorporated into Modern Pagan culture itself. That is problematic for so many reasons. Some of this, I believe, is a result of our continuing struggle to define our community identity. The simple question, “What is Paganism?” is notoriously hard to answer to everyone’s satisfactions and the current fuss brewing over at Patheos about polytheism versus nature worship is a good example of the constant back and forth bickering that has come to define the question. Pagansisms, and the plural there is intentional, are so varied from person to person, from practice to practice that any single rubric fails to account for all of the various forms of worship and theology that the Pagan community has incorporated into itself, or which have blossomed out of the occult and spiritual revivals of the first half of the twentieth century.

It is because of that difficulty that I suggest that many of us fall back on negative descriptions of ourselves. We are Pagan, and that means we are not Christian. Mallory and I have discussed this dilemma at some length, and she, quite rightly, asserts that people need something to define themselves against as a means of solidifying group identity. It is true that group identity is strongest in opposition, psychology has shown how deeply entrenched people become when challenged with an opposing idea, even casually. To a certain extent it makes sense that we look for things which differentiate us from the faith communities which surround us. The problem arrises, as I see it, when we solely define ourselves against other groups. Paganism cannot be defined negatively. Now, I know a lot of people have been doing a lot of work to produce positivist descriptions of Paganism, and yet it seems like a good deal of the community is content, in a practical sense, to simply identify as Non-Christian. There is, of course, the other pole of this wherein we end up saying things like “We’re just like you, only we worship the Goddess instead of the God.” Both of these definitions retain Christianity as the central term. Paganism is defined in relation to Christianity. These descriptions fall back on simple reductivism.

We simplify our identities to make them more palatable either to ourselves or to others. I firmly believe that if we are to continue to identify as a single community despite the broad variations which Modern Paganism contains that we need to do a lot of work as a community to build a coherent and cohesive definition. In doing so, however, we need to be willing to set aside our own identity defenses and end up in inter-community bickering, trying to establish ourselves as more Pagan than you. There is a large array of characteristics which combine and overlap to describe contemporary Pagan practice, and we need to be careful not to privilege anyone of those over the others. Doing so only leads to defensiveness and tension between different Pagans and Paganisms. We cannot reduce Paganism to Polytheism versus Monism, nor Nature Worship versus Deity Worship, nor thaumaturgy versus theurgy, nor any any other combination of polar relations.

Part of the difficulty in this discussion, I believe, is that may people see these polar relations as just that, polar and therefore incompatible. This dualistic relation, I do think, stems from the Christianity infused culture that Paganism has emerged from, at least in the United States. We as Pagans need to be able to release the dualistic world view of God against the Satan, of good against evil. At the very outset, Paganism has proposed a plurality of forces which act in the world with a variety of prerogatives none of which are necessarily good nor evil, nor even concerned with human activity. If we are willing to make that theological leap, why do we seem so hesitant to follow through with the appropriate ontological shift?

Hard and Soft Polytheism are not necessarily incompatible. Dionysus was worshipped across the Hellenistic World with a variety of guises and epithets, and yet each iteration still relates back to the same essential deity. Different regions, different villages would all have unique and idiosyncratic forms of worship and conception of Dionysus depending on the needs of the people, and yet, across these differences, the same God was being worshipped. We need to recognize that the Ancients’ relationships to their Gods was not as hard and fast and strictly defined as we would like. Our grade school mythology fails to describe the actual experience of these Gods and their relation to their devotees. Across cultures, the Ancients viewed their Gods as having profound control over their presentation and prerogative depending on the task at hand, on the social class of the supplicant, on the needs of society, and yet they still remained the same volitional beings, the same discrete Gods despite the variety of epithets with which they may be approached. We also seem to be properly terrified of admitting the role of syncretism in the Ancient World. The spread of Gods across Europe and Britannia should be sufficient to show that this was a strategy consistent with Ancient Worship which each culture had very little issue with. Would we really be willing to assert that the Isis worshipped in the British Isles is an entirely different being from the Isis of Ancient Egypt? What about the Isis cult of Rome? Are these not the same Goddess in different guises, in different aspects suited to the needs of the varied communities and cultures? Hard and Soft Polytheism begin to collapse into each other.

I recognize that I have provided very few strategies for moving forward and that, as it is, this sits as a rather harsh critique, and yet I feel like this is a necessary part of the greater conversation. Part of the difficulty with generating strategies is that it seems to me that we have a great deal of work to do both personally and as a community on coming to terms with the unique stresses that being Pagan in a domineeringly Christian culture has placed on us. A good deal of the time these stresses get ignored or externalized and the blame ends up getting passed around either within the Pagan community or pushed off onto our perceived foes. We need to be willing to do the work we need to do on ourselves before looking out into the community at large for all the answers.

Of course, not everyone wants to be part of the larger Pagan community, but those people need to respect the work that others our doing to build and foster the Pagan community, and if they are unwilling to do so, then they must simply keep themselves to themselves. We simply do not have the time nor resources to indulge in this petty sniping, these divisive and alienating more Pagan than Pagan arguments. We must be willing to approach the work of community building compassionately and intelligently, and foster understanding of our selves and our relations to others, as well as the roles which we play in the world at large. If Paganism is to survive as a community then we need to be willing to lay our personal issues aside and approach each other mindfully focussed toward the community, and finding that which makes us alike rather than that which makes us different. Only then will the community be able to serve broadly as a means of strength and support. Otherwise we are better off fracturing off into our own little schismatic factions and focussing our attention on our private affairs.

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Neoclassical Syncretism: A User’s Guide

At this beginning of this project I described myself as a Neoclassical Syncretist, and then briskly moved along without bother to properly explore what I meant by that. My interest in developing this idea as a practice has grown out of the deep wealth that we have in the Western Art History and Literary cannon that has been profoundly influenced by Classical Greek and Roman mythology and religion. For as powerful an effect that Christianity has had on Western creative production, the influence of Greek and Roman thought has been just as, if not more, profound. With my background in the arts, I had been immersed, from a very young age, in that tradition. Despite being raised in Christianity, I have travelled through my life with the presence of these Gods and concepts for the span of my living memory, and in many cases have felt much more kinship for the beings which have appeared in sideways references and allusions in the popular ephemera of my life than the concepts of the religion that I was raised in.

Syncretism has been a powerful force in religion almost certainly since its inception. I have spoken before of the strange ways in which the interactions of the cultures of Mediterranean led to fascinating blending and overlapping in the discrete traditions, and the difficulties inherent in trying to isolate and reconstruct particular belief systems. The impact of Greek thought on Egypt led to a radical reworking of the Egyptian religion, and vice-versa (consider the spread of Isis through Hellenistic Civilization). However, this in no way illegitimates the results as authentically Egyptian. Even before that, the Egyptian religion, generally viewed as an unchanging monolith (probably as a result of the power of the architectural remains) experience dramatic modifications over the course of Egyptian culture frequently tied to dynastic shifts. My method of Neoclassical Syncretism simply extends this procedure through to the modern era.

One of the great conundrums of Modern Paganism is lineage, as I have discussed before. We view ourselves, frequently, as competing with faiths which have extended in unbroken tradition back a thousand or more years and so feel the need to legitimate ourselves by making similar claims. Consider the claims of early Wicca, that it was merely the bringing into the light a religion which had existed for centuries hidden by a secretive sect of English witches. Despite the eventual debunking of those claims, many people to this day still assert that Wicca represents an ancient faith with just as much authentic lineage as Christianity. I do understand the necessity people feel to establish themselves on an unshakeable foundation, I just personally feel that this particular strategy in fundamentally flawed.

Part of the difficulty with accurately reconstructing the ancient Pagan faiths is that we have very little authentic first hand information on the actual practice and structure of those faiths. Most of what survives of Celtic and Norse tradition was recorded by Christian monks or Roman invaders. The struggle of reconstruction is to identify what elements of those writings are true depictions and what represents a Christian or Roman interpretation. Reconstruction is very much an art, and a very subtle and mindful one — it requires a great deal of familiarity with the concepts not only of the culture which one is trying to reconstruct, but also the concepts of the cultures whose lenses we are forced to look through. Reconstruction seeks to correct the distortion applied to the material by the invading cultures: like a plane of polarizing glass, it removes the wavelengths which obscure the desired image. Reconstruction avoids the problem of lineage by attempting to go back to the source and rebuild, as accurately as possible, now extinct belief systems from currently available data.

Neoclassical Syncretism, on the other hand, looks to the places where the traditions have been preserved. While it is true that as a spiritual system, the religions of the Classical Greece and Rome have died, they have continued to be developed in literature, art, and popular culture. Essentially, Neoclassical Syncretism is a way of approaching texts. With this strategy, the idea of holy text is reconfigured. This approach allows for new insights on traditional concepts by exploring the ways in which these concepts have been deployed through the arts, and the ways in which we as a culture have continued to build upon ancient cultures. While I myself am personally drawn to the fine arts and philosophy, this strategy works equally well with popular culture, and, when employed thoughtfully, can yield perfectly valuable insights into our relationships with the ancient gods.

Of course, I am not suggesting that this strategy be employed haphazardly. Like Reconstruction, it requires a strong understanding of the core concepts being explored, and the development of a sharp hermeneutic to cut away frivolous or inconsequential references. Not every reference will be of use, and many times the appearance of Classical Religions in subsequent culture betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts being deployed. By analyzing typically non-religious texts with an eye toward spirituality, Neoclassical Syncretism allows one to find connections with the divine spread throughout our culture.

As an example of the way this strategy may be realized, I recently read Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, a novella length retelling of the myth of Atlas and Herakles. The book itself is less than perfect, but it Jeanette Winterson’s handling of the interactions of the characters and their passage through into modernity is compelling, particularly the way in which Atlas conceives of himself and his relation to the world. Winterson explicitly preserves the strange dichotomy of Herakles, which the Greeks themsleves were never able to resolve to their own satisfaction: Herakles is emphatically simultaneously both human and divine, entirely and in equal measure. Herakles is a paradox. He himself does not understand his nature. He knows that he is more than human, though his relation to the divine is more problematic (is he more, is he less?). His own mortality is less than certain, he has been to Hell and back, quite literally, more times than bear mentioning, and yet quite probably can die, maybe. Herakles, by Winterson’s account, is simply emphatically other. His strength lies in his otherness, and the choice between the human and the divine is essentially his undoing.

After reading Weight, I returned to a book I had read much earlier this year, Grief Lessons, a collection of four of Euripedes’ plays recently translated by Anne Carson. Two of the four plays feature Herakles (the first being the eponymous Herakles), and the handling of Herakles there is just as stunningly ambiguous. Euripedes, filtered by Carson, builds up a Herakles who, while the greatest of all men, is bowed down and broken by the weight of the gods, by divine imperatives which he cannot comprehend and more often than not appear as mere catastrophe. Herakles is never given a moment of emotional stability, he swings through triumph, anguish, hope and hilarity and despair in just a few pages. Herakles is emphatically shredded by his nature. He does not have the luxury of semidivinity. He is fully divine and fully human, and because of that has earned the wrath of forces that he cannot understand or control. The Gods of Euripedes are frightening, not because of their power, but because of their prerogative. Herakles, the most powerful of men, the God trapped in flesh, cannot resist the divine, burgeoning within him and pressing down from outside.

Herakles represents an incredibly difficult relationship to the divine, and his struggle to fix himself at one point on his polarized nature is reflects that. Herakles’ nature emphatically “others” him, it queers him from the rest of society, from his peers. Herakles is made strange by divinity. Comparing these two texts allows us to see more clearly the ways in which Herakles works through his relationship to the divine.

Neoclassical Syncretism takes the first part of its name very seriously. Neoclassical here means that the work done is grounded heavily in traditions past. What differentiates it from simple modern eclecticism is both focus and scholarship. Theology is developed along lines of scholarship originating in the target culture. I apply Neoclassical Syncretism to Hellenistic Civilization, but it could just as easily be applied to Celtic or Germanic civilizations. Starting with an understanding of the parent culture, Neoclassical Syncretism moves forward examining texts spread throughout time, and assembles from them a growing theological/philosophical practice. Unlike Reconstruction, which has an end point in mind, the successful reconstruction of the target religion, Neoclassical Syncretism is entirely open ended.

Neoclassical Syncretism aims to provide a basic groundwork through which multiple personal experiences within a particular faith path can relate through their fundamental grounding in the same tradition and technique while still providing a great deal of room for personal expression and exploration. This approach thus removes the difficulty of unverified personal gnosis, as each practitioner will eventually establish a unique and idiosyncratic view of the parent tradition. Indeed, Neoclassical Syncretism prizes variation, as a plurality of voices provides more and more room for insight.

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Reflecting on Pagan Identity

It seems silly so late in that game to ask, “What is Paganism?” and yet, in my continuing interaction with the Pagan community I find that, honestly, I have very little idea of what Pagan actually means. The problem largely seems to be that we, as Pagans, have too many different ideas of what that actually means. Consider how many of us try to subsume Hinduism under the umbrella of Paganism, when Hindus themselves are largely disinterested with our attentions and frequently oppose the classification.

The most common generic definition of what classifies a Pagan religion is a non-Christian Earth based faith. However, that description includes faiths like Shinto, Hinduism, and potentially Buddhism which have long lasting traditions quite distinct from Modern Paganism, while at the same time excluding African Diasporic Traditions, like Candomblé and Vodou, and frequently leaving no place for Appalachian Conjure and Rootwork. Let’s not forget, either, how heavily Christianity influenced Modern Occultism. The Golden Dawn and its antecedents are positively dripping with references to Christianity. What exactly, then, is Paganism? Can we really exclude Christian influence from Paganism?

So, perhaps we introduce another definition. Paganism refers to belief systems which incorporate elements of magic into the core of the faith. Now we need to define magic. Simply said, magic is the manifestation of change in the world according to will. So, what does this definition produce? Now we seem to be able to exclude some of the problematic religions incorporated into the first definition, but have we sufficiently narrowed field to the point that we exclude the Judeo-Christian Faiths? I remain unconvinced. Attend a Catholic Mass and tell me that magic is not built into the very foundation of that ceremony.

I think that it has become apparent that we need to back off and approach this conundrum from another angle. So many of us Pagans have emerged from Christian Faiths, frequently as a result of trauma, and we seek to distance ourselves as thoroughly as we can from those traditions, while at the same time never really coming to terms with the ramifications of our conversion. I propose that Modern Paganism is, in fact, a spiritual revival movement beginning with the birth and subsequent rapid growth of Wicca in the 1940’s. Modern Paganism has progressed in a fairly straight line from the Occult Revival of the Victorian era. I do not believe that it is in anyway controversial to assert that Wicca is the touchstone of Modern Paganism. Wicca itself is a modified form of Golden Dawn teachings combined with various other traditional and fictitious English Hedgework and witchcraft teachings.

I, therefore, assert that Wicca is a heresy of the Golden Dawn. The basic foundation of Golden Dawn ritual is preserved wholly in Wicca. The great innovation of Wicca is to reorient the gender of the Godhead and place the feminine divine at the center of its ontological structure. The male is preserved as a divine consort, in relation to the feminine. This ontological shift is the springboard of Modern Pagan thought. It is precisely this shift, with the maintenance of Golden Dawn structure that shows Wicca to be precisely what it is, a Golden Dawn Heresy.

The Golden Dawn itself is a Christian Heresy. There can be no real doubt of that, any substantial exploration of Golden Dawn teaching reveals it to be a very strange mixture of Christianity, Egyptian mythology, and a rather messy port of John Dee’s Enochian. The roots of Modern Paganism are fundamentally intertwined with Christianity. It may be a bit of a stretch, but a good deal of Modern Paganism could be described as simply a Christian Heresy. The story of Modern Paganism is tangled and full apocryphal tales, but with a little research it is fairly easy to tease apart the strands.

Of course, I do not mean to say that we, as Pagans, are still essentially Christian. We are not. What I am saying is that our community has its roots in Christianity, and it has grown and developed out of a society that is heavily infused with the Christian worldview. Christianity, after all, can be viewed as simply a Jewish heresy, but it would be patently ridiculous to say that we are all, secretly, Jews.

I think that we, as Modern Pagans, tend to forget our roots. We forget and disguise our history to our detriment. Knowing where we came from helps us to understand who we are now, and to see where we have yet to explore. Paganism is growing tradition, still very much in a stage of flux and transformation. It is important that we hold on to our history, our true history: history that we can verify and source. Every faith, every tradition needs its mythology, but we must understand how mythology and history function separately of one another and learn how not to mistake one for the other.

Essentially, I suspect that the question, “What is Paganism?” is a question that we are very much in the process of answering. We are looking for our identity as a community, but in doing so, we must resist the urge to allow our personal history, our pain and transformation, from blinding us to the history of the community that we are building.

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Starting Again, a Month Later

Almost a month later, my husband and I are settling in to our new city. From what I’ve seen, thus far, I really like it here. Washington State is beautiful, and I constantly impressed with how lush and green everything is. I really get the feeling that if you leave something alone outside, after two weeks it will be covered with moss with a fern growing out of it. There’s a retaining wall directly behind our apartment, building, in fact, with a fern growing out of it which I have become strangely attached to. I have resisted the urge to name my little fern friend, but it makes me smile every time I pass it. I love little fern friend.

Of course, this transition has been a little strange and awkward. My husband and I are without reliable transportation, but that’s as much my fault and my laziness at getting my driver’s license renewed as anything else, and the weather has been pretty erratic as well. So, we’ve been spending a good deal of time sitting around the apartment. I have always had a difficult time establishing routines, and living as we do, it’s been difficult for me to keep track of the passage of time. All of which plays in to my ongoing difficulties establishing a spiritual practice.

Every morning I meditate for ten to fifteen minutes after taking shower and cleaning up for the day. That, as much as I hate to admit it, makes up the vast majority of my active spiritual practice. That said, the vast majority of intellectual life is caught up with spirituality, both my own and in the abstract, so I do feel as if I devote a good deal of my time to spiritual matters, even if actively spiritual pursuits make up a small portion of my day. However, even in saying that, I recognize that meditation simply isn’t enough.

Which is where my art making comes in. I have been incredibly hesitant to describe my creative pursuits as acts of worship. I suppose that my Christian Cult upbringing as tainted the idea of worship to me: I have a hard time giving myself over to something that I am told is holy. I do believe in divinity and the divine and I do view my art making as a way of connecting with those concepts, but worship, to me, carries so much baggage that I simply do not want to unpack. However, I also know that in order to grow, I need to confront the things that scare me. Worship, proper worship, not the fake for appearances performance that I engaged in in my youth, needs to be examined and experienced.

My art making is essentially an ecstatic state. When I am creating, I am buried in the act, and other concerns no longer bother me. When I am deep in the process, I will go all day without eating, all of my attention is focussed on the task at hand. On the surface, this should connect quite easily with my views toward worship and with the divine powers and ideas that I do connect most easily with. And yet… I am hesitant and, truth be told, afraid.

I do feel that proper worship is an ecstatic experience, a way of being that takes up the whole of one’s being. I have a very good friend who dances as a form of worship, and this makes perfect sense to me. Watching her dance, her entire comportment changes and there is nothing in her but the dancing. It’s a beautiful thing to see. I am really drawn to that kind of spiritual expression, to creation and creativity as the core of one’s spiritual practice. I suppose it is a means of worship which I view as preserving one’s innate being in relation to the divine. It seems to me that this kind of approach forces one to analyze and examine oneself and to transform one into a vessel of divine expression. The artist, the dancer is still always there, they are just there towards divinity. Worship, then, is an expression towards divinity, it is a way of being in that expression, ecstatically.

So, I have come to realize that I need to approach at least a portion of my art making as worship. I need to incorporate it into my daily practice and devote it to the powers that I feel in my life. I really have no idea what the final form of this work will take, or where it will lead me, but I need to allow myself to be in the act, to let it carry me where it will. I have no more excuses to hesitate, no more justification for my fear.

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The Being of Art

The same small handfull of themes and questions drive pretty much the entire content of this blog. While I have noticed that my ramblings on the theory of art have been by far the least read, I also have come to feel that they are the ones in which I have been able to express my concerns most clearly. Of course, even there, I find myself in a strangely paradoxical position.

I push the idea of art as pure surface. The apprehension of art is the apprehension of the self in apprehension. It’s a reflex. Art is art only in as much as it is perceived, and even then perceived in a fashion which allows it to function as art. Art sits, then, in a fundamental nothingness. Art is empty. The set of objects which we determine as art is necessarily an empty set. For art itself is not an object, but an object in perception perceived in such a way that art is brought into being.

I have spoken before that objects in perception are undoubtably objects. Having only our perceptions, all that we require for secure knowledge about objects is there continued coherent presentation within our perceptions. Art, however, does not present continually coherently, but flashes out and disappears from the object perceived. Art is an only occasionally present quality of objects. Art instead dwells in a kind of sympathetic perception towards art, not in the objects themselves.

I spoke previously of aesthetic arrest, of moments when the world perceives fails to align with our expectations so dramatically that it freezes us in perception. The artist, I then propose manipulates formal effects to produce such a freezing. The artist is the artist in act of producing an aesthetic reaction. The formal world produces, through chance formal relations, the necessary conditions for aesthetic arrest, the artist, recognizing those relations, skillfully manipulates them to produce the same result. Thus, the progression of art through human history: certain formal effects become institutionalized in the conception of art and over time saturate the societal expectation of art. Art is that which contains these particular elements.

For example, the Neoclassical Movement which dominated the French School prior to the emergence of Realism, Impressionism and the grand proliferation of movements which emerged during the end of the nineteenth century. Art was recognized as art only as long as it possessed the formal characteristics of Neoclassicism, spawning the Salon de Refusés. Certain artists began to feel that the formal elements of Neoclassicism so saturated the idea of art that they no longer necessarily produced the aesthetic reaction which truly elevates mere created form to art in the fullness of its meaning. The transformation of art through time marks the artists’ continual drive towards novelty.

The artist, purely devoted to art, seeks the queer, as previously discussed to turn perception back upon itself, hence art in the twentieth century’s continual obsession with Art History. Art twisted back into the history of its own ephemera in the endeavor to break the whole of its history back apart into moments of perception. What is Suprematism if not an attack on the idea of painting as art itself? The same can be said of Dadaism and sculpture. James Joyce is a novelist in as much as his novels are entirely unlike what preceded them, but reliant upon such precedents to function. The writing of Gertrude Stein is attacks the fundamentals of writing, but relies upon them at the same time.

So why my interest in art here? I am seeking to carve out realms of experience which are entirely related to the Subject, and reliant upon the Subject as Subject. Art seems to be the perfect example for discussing such realms. The being of art, I suggest, is particularly a kind of being in art. The Subject does not encounter art as art, but produces a mode of being in art through the apprehension of art in moments of aesthetic arrest. Art is undoubtably a made thing, it is tied back to the formal world, and yet the qualities which render it art are entirely distinct from the formal. The formal produces the necessary preconditions, but without the apprehension of the sympathetic Subject, the formal cannot produce art in the fullness of its meaning, merely the possibility of its being. The Being of Art is the The Being of the Subject in Art.

I believe that such realms of being, such as Being in Art, are vital to the understanding of the Subject and its relation to the world.

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I Am Not Born This Way

I have always hated the popular assertion that someone is born gay or straight, as if that is enough of a justification for one’s behavior. I understand the popularity of the phrase, being “born this way” allows people to side step the charge that they have a choice in the matter. When closed minded bigots yell at you for being gay, for acting gay, you respond that you were born that way, you don’t have a choice, you were made to be gay. But that’s really not true. I suppose the hidden attack in that position is that, “I was born gay, and you weren’t born Christian/Republican/Evil/a self-righteous prick, you learned that behavior.” Of course, that’s not true. We all learned to perform our sexualities as much as we learned to perform any other identity.

The issue at hand isn’t whether we are biologically determined to perform gayness, it’s whether we have the right the perform our sexuality as we choose. One could make a stronger claim that someone born into a religious family is born religious, since they would be raised from moment of birth in that frame. One isn’t born gay, by that reasoning, but becomes gay with the development of their sexuality: straight families spawn gay children.

That said, I knew from an early age that I was unlike the people around me. I knew that I was different. That was, to say the least, uncomfortable. But, I wasn’t gay. I didn’t know that I was gay until I was twelve or thirteen. What I felt before was a sense of alienation totally unconnected from my sexuality. I was a very intelligent, shy, emotional child. I thought too much and too quickly. Most of what I encountered didn’t make sense to me, nor could I understand why a lot of the adults in my life believed and said things that I could reason through and undermine as a seven year old. I was raised in a religious household, and yet I can at no time remember believing any of it. I quite emphatically remember my confusion at the way the people around me blindly repeated nonsense as if it were undoubtably true. Of course, I knew all the right words and all the answers, but it was more like playing make believe or something: rearranging words to make a kind of sense within a very particular frame. I knew the stories of Jesus and the apostles and all the prophets and their prophecies, but I think I had more faith in First Officer Spock. My burgeoning sexuality was just a coincidence.

I think when people remember feeling alienated as children, they tend to elide it with other traumas. Sadly, in contemporary society, one’s sexual development is a severe trauma for a lot of people. One’s sexuality suddenly leaps back and invades all the queerness, all the awkwardness, all the alienation that one has felt. People aren’t willing to simply be other, to be really basically queer, it was their gayness all along, hiding and showing itself just long enough to make other people uncomfortable, but not revealing itself fully until… well, trauma.

I am not gay because I was born this way. My birth in no way relieves me of responsibility. I am queer because I have embraced that as a part of myself and act accordingly. I own my queerness, I live in my queerness. Had I so decided, I could have owned my religious upbringing, I could have made that the whole of my being, and today I woud be living a very different life as a Jehovah’s Witness. I didn’t make that choice. I had every right to, but I chose something else. I chose to live my life as I saw fit. I chose to make sense of the world and of myself for myself. We all make choices, and that’s the right that needs to be defended.

I am not born this way, I am this way because I chose to be this way. I have worked long and hard to make myself into the man I am today, and I am fully aware of the missteps and struggles along the way, all of which make me even prouder of the times when I have succeeded. I am not born this way because I take full responsibility for being who I am. I worked with the resources I had to transform myself into someone who, despite my shortcomings, I am quite proud to be.

We all need to be able to say that we are who we are by choice, and know deep inside of ourselves that this is true. That’s the right we fight for. Not the right to be what we were born to be, but the right to be what we make of ourselves.

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Continuing Toward a New Ontology

As should be obvious by this point, I have been having a great deal of difficulty with the ongoing Ontology project. Mallory has repeatedly stressed to me a need to move past the fine details and begin working out the bigger picture, which I am now endeavoring to do.

So, allow me to briefly sum up the argument so far. The biggest feature of this project has been the assertion that the Subject is total and indivisible. It cannot be broken into its component features and retain the qualities which it possesses as a subject. Indeed, the Subject, once resolved, is no longer composed of constituent units, but is totalized into a single, coherent whole. In short, the Subject is irreducibly complex. Now, I recognize that term derives from the largely spurious Creation Science movement, and I am not using it in that context. Biology as a science has sufficiently explained the means and mechanisms through which complex structures develop from simpler antecedents. In this context, I use the term irreducible complexity to describe the resolved Subject as that emergent property which cannot reduced to the structures from which it resolves. Indeed, I think this is the only fashion in which a concept like irreducible complexity can be made sensible: as volta. The resolution of the Subject is the volta which transfigures the prior system into something radically different and new. The Subject is irreducibly complex because it is no longer the sum of its parts, but a new emergent being.

Of course, the emergent Subject is reliant upon its substrate: the physical structures are necessary preconditions for the emergence of the Subject. Indeed, when we speak about the sanctity of human life, is this not what we are speaking of? The reduction of this argument to mere cells has produced a cacophony of nonsense arguments and sophistry which are no longer attached to the underlying issue (why ban abortion and legalize capital punishment? The murder of political adversaries is just as egregious if it is the mere cells which we privilege. After all, we’re all made of the same stuff, full grown humans just have more of it than fetuses, so surely, by weight alone, killing an adult is worse than killed a kidney bean sized cluster of cells).

Prior to the emergence of the Subject, there is nothing that would sufficiently differentiate the human body from other complex physical systems. The human body varies from other objects only in scale. Solar systems, atoms and the human body are all of equal importance prior to the emergence of the Subject, due to their engagement within the same network of formal relations. The network itself determines all relations even as it is determined by the totality of its constituent units. Value is not an objective quality.

It would sound as though, at this point, that I am working toward a justification of the soul, or some other ethereal substance unique to human being. Well, after a fashion, I suppose I am. This uniqueness I have been calling the Subject. The reflexive, interior spaces which certain beings inhabit, the realm of the Subject, is what we seek to preserve in our honoring of human life. The emergence of the Subject radically alters the formal network relations. The Subject suddenly emerges as a locus of intent, previously unknown in the formal network. The Subject destroys the equality of objects.

The next important piece is the Subject/Object divide. Subjects are differentiated from objects by the aforementioned interiority. Subjects contain themselves within their subjectivity: subject withdraw into themselves, whereas objects are in relation only to the network in which they are entrenched. Subjects are in relation to themselves in reflexive unity with the network. The network itself is a necessary precondition for the emergence of the Subject, the action of the Subject is primordially reflexive. The reflexivity between Subject and object partially allows for the Subject’s self-recognition as Subject.

I had previously leveled a critique at this project, aiming to entrench it firmly in ontology, as ontology, differentiated from theology need not produce a morality. I have come to feel that I was incorrect in making this claim. While I still hold to the sharp distinction between ontology and theology, I do believe that already we have here the beginnings of a moral concern. If we are concerned with the Subject, our concern must then spread back to the necessary preconditions for the Subject’s resolution. The substrate and the network become vitally important, and both must be maintained in order to ensure the development and flourishing of the Subject.

As this project continues, I intend to further develop these themes, as well as return to the tangled concept of the soul and its complex intellectual history.

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Gladly Beyond Any Experience

In three weeks from today, my husband and I will be boarding a train and travelling across the country to a new home waiting for us in Washington State. While this adventure has been in the works for almost six months, it all fell together quite suddenly at the end of August, and only in the last week has it finally begun to feel real to me. I will be leaving Pittsburgh, the city that I was born in and lived in for twenty-nine years and travelling almost literally as far away from it as I can go without crossing an ocean. Oh, gods, the ocean. I have never even seen the Pacific Ocean. I imagine that it’s very much like the Atlantic (how different can it really be?), but still, I can only imagine. I am overflowing with anticipation and wonder.

I have gone on trips, before, of course. I have an uncle who lives in Colorado and in my teens my family would visit him semi-regularly. I always loved Colorado. Everything seemed more real there. Of course, it helped, I imagine, that we were up in the mountains surrounded not just by nature (I have a lot of nature here, too, Pittsburgh is very green), but enormous nature. No matter where we went, the sky was hugely there. The mountains dominate the horizon, and the trees! The trees were, well, everywhere and really big. I know that Washington and Colorado are very different, but it’s really the only reference I have. Going to visit my uncle always felt like an adventure, like there were new things, new realms of experience everywhere.

I know that in time that sense will fade, but I’m thrilled to have it for as long as it lasts as my husband and I establish ourselves in Washington. Routine, I think, abolishes wonder. Yet, I think it is this wonder that fills life with real meaning. As much as I have tired of Pittsburgh, and of living in a place that I have come to feel simply has nothing left to offer me, I do still try to detach myself from routine and just experience things. My husband and I go on adventures whenever we can, even if that really just means wandering around the park and playing with other people’s dogs, or going to a coffee shop and trying a lavender vanilla latté for the first time. These are small things, though, and I’m excited to have a whole new unfamiliar world of adventure. I want to hold on the that adventure for as long as I can.

Now, we are moving for serious reasons. My husband and I have family and friends on the west coast who are going through difficult times and they need familiar faces with them. We really don’t have too much tying us to Pittsburgh, and so we offered to go to them. When people ask me why we’re moving, that’s what I tell them, and it is the gods’ honest truth. I am told, then, that I’m such a good friend, such a caring person to just pack up and go, and yet, I feel a little disingenuous. I am moving at the behest of people that I care deeply for, and I would do anything in my power to alleviate their suffering, it is a delight to do so, and yet…

I am thrilled with the thought of all of the new things, of all of the opportunities, of the new worlds unfolding in front of me. I feel very selfish. I am in the process of applying to a graduate program in Northern California which, if all goes smoothly, will alter the course of my life entirely. I am moving not just out of a city, but out of an entire way of living, of being. More than anything else, I’m thrilled to have someone that I love so deeply that I did the one thing that I was certain I would never do, and married. My husband and I are travelling into an entirely new life together.

I am so excited to see how this change effects my art, my spirituality, my philosophy. I have been focussing a good deal, lately on the idea of wonder and its spiritual significance, which I can guarantee I will discuss in greater depth on this blog, and this whole adventure seems like a perfect opportunity to explore these ideas further. I feel so much like I am on the edge of a great transformation.

I am put in mind of one of my favorite poems:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

– e.e.cummings

Place and person are beautifully elided: a whole new adventure…

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