Tag Archives: identity

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and the absence of archaeological evidence for the events depict in the Hebrew Testament, but how many trustworthy historical references and archaeological proofs are there for our own beliefs?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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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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Poca Favilla Gran Fiamma Seconda

This past Saturday, Teejay and I got married. Of course, living where we do, our marriage is not recognized by the State. I have never been much concerned for the State’s interests in marriage, and it is entirely possible that given the option of having State recognition, I would still balk. After all, marriage, and love, are no longer instruments of state power as they once were, and I find something jarring at the idea that a marriage is only valid once it has been written down on a form and stamped and sealed and locked away in a filing cabinet in a judiciary somewhere. For me, marriage is a social bond, something that exists between those married, between their friends and family. It is a bond of emotion and love, of comfort and care, and the State can have no say in such intimate bonds. However, I am equally appalled at the number of people who would seek to invalidate those bonds through the power of the State. Despite the religious intent of such people, it seems as though they respect the power of their faith, of their god, less than the power of the State, as though only State can define marriage with any actual strength.

I have to laugh, since, as I was planning this post, I didn’t want to make it a rant about equal rights and bigotry, but I suppose for a man such as myself, such a thing would be impossible. I shall now, having briefly ranted, move promptly along.

Teejay and I had no officiate. We took a page from the Quakers and self united. Instead of vows, we read poetry to each other, and then invited those in attendance to read a poem or speak, to offer their blessings. The end result was quite lovely, though I admit that there was some hesitation once the ceremony was underway.

Teejay was too nervous to go first, and so I recited the poem I had chosen, a sonnet by Edna St.Vincent Millay.

Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
Than small white single poppies,—I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist,—with moonlight so.

Like him who day by day unto his draught
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink—and live—what has destroyed some men.

Teejay then read a Christina Rossetti poem.

I loved you first: but afterwards your love
    Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song
As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove.
    Which owes the other most? my love was long,
    And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong;
I loved and guessed at you, you construed me
And loved me for what might or might not be –
    Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong.
For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine;’
    With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
         For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine;’
         Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.
 The entire experience was very touching, and as our friends and family spoke both of us were on the edge of tears. Those who know me, know how rarely I cry, and how reserved I generally am, and so I admit being quite surprised at how powerfully affected I was.
And so now I am a married man, which doesn’t feel significantly different. I don’t ever really expect it to. We performed a ritual and signified our love to our friends and family, but that love was there, and strong, and such a thing like a ceremony cannot, I think, much alter such affection, merely name it and announce it with joy and happiness.
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Butch, Like a Drag Queen

Yesterday, Teejay and I went down to watch the parade and mill around at Pittsburgh’s Pride in the Streets celebration. Were it not for Teejay, I almost certainly would no have gone. I have always found the whole concept of Pride to be a little irksome. In the past, the few celebrations that I have attended always struck me as strangely forced and not nearly as inclusive as they pretend to be. A lot of my discomfort comes from my belief that there is no such thing as Gay Culture, and I have always found attempts to create such a culture to be incredibly off putting. What exactly binds the Gay Community together other than a sexual orientation and persistant discrimination? These aren’t really enough, in my mind, to build a culture around. It always seemed to me like Gay Culture reduced to a celebration of a particular body type (slight, effeminate, and pale, with a disturbingly toned body) and bad dance music, with a decent amount of alcoholism and substance abuse mixed in.

I have never really fit that mold. My body is not, nor never was the Gay Ideal that popular culture constantly reaffirms. I am tall, hairy, and far from toned. My Eastern European heritage is far too strong for me to ever look like the idealized gay man. Of course, I realized that I am not alone in this, and that there have arisen a lot of other gay cliques, and I do think that is the proper word, for those who do not fit in the ideal. Bears, daddies, chubs, otters and plenty more tags that I’m sure I’m unaware of have sprung up to round out the gay cohort. Again, however, each of those groups tend to be just as protective of their discrete identities and roles as the idealized gay body is, despite their claims for acceptance of difference and inclusivity. I am not, despite the shape of my flesh, a bear or otter or whatever other woodland creature is deemed to be the most empowering. My role and my sexuality are not determined by my appearance. While I can certainly adapt my appearance to portray a particular role, that is a game played only in particular circumstances that I can choose to apply to discard at my whim.

So, I brought all of this with me to Pride. Honestly, I was not mistaken with my assumptions, but what I experienced showed me that I, recognizing the limitations of of a phrase like “Gay Culture” needed to allow myself to see the people themselves, and the what each brought with them to the celebration. The thing that struck me, and that turned the whole experience into something strangely powerful and effecting, was that I was unlike everyone else there, and that everyone else was unlike everyone else. The only thing that bound the celebration together, at the end of the day, was that all of us were human, fighting for our rights, trying to live as we know we must.

The parade itself was still kind of disturbing. The first ten minutes of it were dominated by corporate sponsors (Highmark, PNC, Walgreens, Giant Eagle, and several others that I simply do not remember), and while I was happy to see so many businesses coming out in support of Gay Rights, I still had to wonder how many of these corporations also donate to other, less savory causes. Business is business, after all, and corporations have no problem supporting contradictory causes if they think it will increase their profit margin. I understand that events like this are incredibly difficult to fund, and that corporate sponsorship is necessary, but I would be more impressed and have more faith in these institutions good intentions if they did not insist on showing you over and over again how good their intentions are. True charity, true concern, is quiet and persistent.

The other thing that struck me about the parade was how many churches were marching in support. Five or six Presbyterian congregations and two or three Unitarian congregations (no one is surprised by that one, though) came through. It was reassuring to see such a surge of support from Christians, especially after running into a horrifying Christian Bigot spouting bile on a street corner in the center of Pride. The truly faithful and the truly righteous recognize the that their salvation is not incumbent upon the damnation of others, and will do what they can to help those in need love and live as well as they are able.

I have to admit, though, that my favorite parts of Pride were the strange contemporary dance troupe that performed immediately after the parade, and seeing an acquaintance performing drag street theater randomly throughout the crowd. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with drag, as I feel that it can have a tendency to reinforce retrograde gender and sexual stereotypes. I have long thought that drag requires serious, dare I say, queering in order to be relevant and useful. My acquaintance more than accomplishes that wonderful queering, as thus typified: upon hearing a girl call out, “You’re so pretty!” he shouted back, “You mean butch!”

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Mere Words

I have always had a problem with the language of Spiritual Experience, and a great deal of my spiritual enquiry has been focussed on this dilemma of mine. I have written pages and pages in various journals and diaries (none of which I have ever been good at keeping) on my bafflement at the way people talk about spirituality. My biggest problem is that judging by the speech of others, I have rarely, if ever, had a legitimate Spiritual Experience. Of course, I don’t mean to say that I myself have never had what I would term a spiritual experience, merely that I have not, as yet, found in language a fully realized way of describing it.

The problem, as I see it, is manifold. First off, within Pagan and New Ages communities, Spiritual Experience is frequently referred to as a Communion with the Divine, however, I find myself questioning what the actual content of such a description is. For that phrase to properly carry meaning, we must first be capable, at the very least, of defining the Divine in concrete terms, if not, then, explicitly defining communion in an equally concrete way. Here, of course, the question schisms into a hundred, if not more, discrete questions which every discrete theology answers in frequently radically different ways. If one, however, attempts to step back and define the Divine so that it includes multiple theologies (I would here argue that it is impossible to define the Divine in a way that includes all theologies) one is left with a definition of the Divine that is so vague as to be useless. There is, of course, the retort that such an effort is futile, since the Divine is the Great Unknowable Source/Creator/Totality/Fullness/Whatever, and the truth of Communion with the Divine lies within this Mighty Unfathomable. However, such an response nullfies itself, as communion implies an intimacy which can only exist between beings comprehensible to each other. Once the Divine is removed from the realm of experience, the idea of communion with it becomes nonsensical. The Divine must be describable and present within the realm of experience. If it can be experienced, we must also be capable of describing said experience, and speaking of such a communion in proper, concrete terms.

I don’t mean to say that such a description would be easy, describing the experience of color is devilishly hard to do without relying on the names themselves. It is sufficient in casual speech to refer to a sunset as red, but it in describing the redness of the sunset one must resort to metaphor and analogy: poetry rushes in to attend to the subtle queerness of discrete experience. It seems to be, then, that the Divine, being, by necessity, as pervasive as color, should require a description as equally, if not substantially more, queer. I have to wonder, then, if such a queer description can claim the concreteness required to bring into sensibility the phrase, “Communion with the Divine,” and, if it cannot, are all attempts to uncover a proper spiritual discourse damned from the outset to failure?

Secondly, I feel that Pagans must be capable of dropping the dogma of the faiths which surround them. Paganism makes claims to a great historicity (which is a whole other discussion, though for my present purpose, I have no desire to dispute such claims), and as such, has a great breadth and depth of language to draw from. Why, then, do Pagans today continue to speak of the divine in the terms defined largely by early twentieth century Christian Evangelicals? The Personal Relationship with Jesus, it seems to me, has more often than not merely been mapped onto Artemis, Venus, Freya and a hundred other ancient gods the orignal settings of which would have frequently found such an idea not only antithetical, but blasphemous. Is Knowledge of Thor exactly analogous to Knowledge of Christ? It seems to me that we as not only Pagans, but Spiritual Explorers must confront such questions. And again, my previous critique of Divine Communion can be brought to bear here: how are these, now manifold, Divinities defined so that the experience of them is as discrete as the experience of color?

I realize that this reflection raises more questions than answers, and I really make no claims to direct Spiritual Knowledge. All I am trying to do is explore my own understandings and misunderstandings. Indeed, particularly within this question, I often feel like the misunderstanding is entirely on my end. I know that people have Spiritual Experiences and possess deep and abiding faiths which demonstrate themselves in their experience of the world. My dilemma arises when people begin speaking of such experiences and are then incapable of elucidating the foundations of their experience. I feel, then, that perhaps I am the one incapable of understanding a rather simple idea. However, I suspect that this idea, which many take as being quite simple and basic, is, in fact, incredibly complex and subtle. I suspect that Divine Communion is not a thing which we have the luxury of accepting on face value and that we must turn back upon it and dwell within it.

I argue that the Divine must, in order for it to even be accesible to us and experienced must be, in all its forms, Immanent and Present. In order for us to speak of Divinity as a thing which can know, it must be manifestly in our world, as much as color and light are manifestly present. The Divine cannot simultaneously be Unknowable and Experienced: it must be present within the realm of experience for it to be apprehensible at all. The Divine cannot be described as above or beyond. The Divine can only be entirely, indisputably, here.

This, then, is the task of those of us seekers, to uncover a means of speaking of the Divine within the realm of experience which adequately concretizes it. We can no longer afford to speak of the Divine in the language of our religio-philosophic forebears. Or, if we are, we must task ourselves within analyzing such language to uncover the moments wherein it is capable of describing the experience of the Divine in terms which reflect the unique experience of it, as much as a poet describes the experience of red within the sunset. We need to be Poet Philosophers & Artists of the Spiritual in order to apprehend, I suspect, the experience of the Divine.

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