Tag Archives: religion

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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Towards a New Ontology, Part 3

Again, I present another digression before moving on with the discussion at hand. I apologize for the crawling pace at which this discussion is proceeding, but at nearly every step I encounter a more quandaries which I feel I must address before moving forward.

Before beginning this series, I emailed Emjay about it asking her permission as well as sending her a draft of the first post. The two of us do, I admit, rather ominously, have further plans involving this theory, but I thought that it was important for my own understanding of it to begin working through it and presenting it here. In that initial draft, I had a throw away line which I then excised before posting, about how I felt Emjay was irritated with me for my final hesitation. She clarified, saying that she was not irritated with me, simply confused.

She suggested to me the reasons for my balking, and I do believe that her analysis of my reaction was correct. Our ur-theology is terribly open ended. That was, of course, the intent. And yet… Emjay suggested that I am too uncomfortable with a theology that tolerates all moralities, including those which I, I feel justified in claiming, find to be reprehensible and destructive. I feel like part of our disagreement stems from our views on the purpose of theology. I personally feel that it is quite important to keep a sharp line between ontology and theology, as I feel that they have very particular domains.

Emjay and I have since engaged in a rather truncated discussion of the role of theology in morality (mostly do to both of our schedules and our erratic response time to emails).  She, scolded me for implying that theology plays a vital and formative role in morality. In a message to her I said, “Ontology shouldn’t produce morality, but theology should. Have we produced a theology or an ontology? I do think that the ontology is secure, but if the theology cannot function to produce a faith, then it kind of fails. Isn’t morality part of spirituality? Are they not somehow linked? I don’t mean to say that one must know god to have morals, I believe one can derive them entirely humanistically, but isn’t that still an appeal to transcendance, merely human rather than divine?” I am not comfortable quoting Emjay’s response here, as I haven’t asked her permission, but I will summarize her rebuttal. Her response was that morality is not linked to theology (and that such a position was dangerous, as it allows for religious culture warriors to claim to have the only true rights to morality) but culture. Further, such a position invalidates Humanist and secular moralities.

I certainly do not disagree that morality is a social function. It is in operation within the social sphere and has a strong component, perhaps, honestly, the strongest component, of social concern. However, I think that it is also important to recognize that theology serves a similar function, in its embedding within society. Here I think we see a parallel evolution, theology and morality grow alongside and influence the development of each other. I think it would be a mistake to sever all linkages between morality and theology. While one may not precede the other in origin, each inflect and disturb the other through their growth. Thus, theology and morality are organically linked in the roles they play not only within society but within each other. After the fact, however, or perhaps even during, theology is viewed as the dominant partner in the relationship. Retroactively the social forces which shaped morality are shifted in the domain of theology. Taboos previously established because of social factors become divine edicts. Thus, theology serves to reinforce and preserve moral codes. Religion acts conservatively, resisting social pressures and maintaining a particular moral code of conduct. While theology is flexible, I would argue that social and culture forces are much more protean, especially in the contemporary world. Therefore, the function of religion in the moral sphere is to resist cultural and social pull. So, theology is likely not the dominant player in a society’s moral development, but it certainly has a hand in the longevity of any particular morality.

So, religion, as the theological institution, becomes an institution of morality. I use the indefinite article quite purposefully here, as I see no reason why there cannot be manifold institutions of morality, or perhaps, more controversially, moral institutions. Religion has historically been viewed as the dominant moral institution, though it is by no means the only one. Platonism in its pure form is largely unconcerned with religion and spirituality, indeed, Plato’s writings have a largely secular focus, and yet Platonism has served as a moral institution for centuries in various forms. Stoicism as well, which stands directly opposed to the metaphysical, is a philosophical movement caught up entirely with morality. Again, a moral institution which derives its force not from appeals to divine transcendence, but from appeals to lived experience and rationality.

Modern Secular Humanism owes a great debt to Stoicism in particular, I feel, for its approaches to morality. Thus, Secular Humanism functions in the moral realm in a way quite similar to religion, merely with different derivations. In place of theology, Secular Humanist moralities derive from philosophy. I hold that neither is necessarily incompatible with the other. Theology first places authority in divinity, while philosophy privileges human reason. Neither need contradict the other. Difficulties emerge when particular theologies and philosophies denounce the privilege of their peers. A particular theology or philosophy may instantiate a flawed morality, but this does not contradict the functioning of morality within the class of institutions deemed moral, be they secular or religious.

Must morality be institutionalized, then? There is a great danger in answering yes to the question, as then morality is removed from the individual and implanted within the group. As such, there would be no individual accountability, all moral force is transferred to the group, for good or for ill. Thus, no single person is responsible for their actions, as their actions are merely reflections of the collective’s morality. One is moral or immoral in as much as the group is moral, and moral judgements can then only be made from outside that group, as each constituent actor would be acting in accordance with group morality, thus nullifying moral judgements as a class and defining them instead as forms of cultural warfare. I propose, then, that moral institutions serve not as the moral actors, but as libraries of morality. Moral institutions preserve and disseminate moral knowledge (which, of course, is heavily inflected by the social and cultural forces of the group in which such institutions are embedded). Moral knowledge is not, however, predicated on the presence of such institutions.

Morality, I suggest, is praxis. All that is absolutely necessary for the presence of morality is a theory from which it derives. The motion from theology to morality is exactly analogous to the motion from theory to praxis. The same motion, of course, occurs between philosophy and morality. Morality is the active practice of theology or philosophy within the social sphere. Therefore, the individual is entirely responsible as a moral actor. The individual is responsible for the derivation or acceptance of any theory or worldview presented, and thus responsible for the moral choices which proceed from that theory. Morality, while linked to society and institutions remains foremost within the individual and actions which that individual engages in in relation to others. Morality proceeds through the actions of the individual from the underlying theory.

I do not believe that I am mistaken in my desire to establish a strong link between theology and morality. Of course, the project which Emjay and I have engaged in is fundamentally different from the model I described above. We are not dealing with an organically developing theological/moral matrix. We are creating a theology out of whole cloth. What, then, is incumbent upon such a theology? How does such a theology relate to morality: how must it relate in order to preserve its position as theology, rather than drifting into mythology (which can still be immensely powerful, but differently so)? These are questions which I am still very much engaged with and as yet unable to answer to my satisfaction.

Thus, I have been very purposeful in this project in my selection of the term ontology: the study of being, emphatically not the study of god. So far this project has not even touched upon Divinity. Nearly every other essay I’ve written here references the Divine in some sense, and I am not decidedly not bringing that concept into play here. There simply is no room for it. This discussion rotates around the Subject. This discussion takes place before God, it precedes and anticipates Divinity, but it is emphatically not addressing the Divine. The Divine must relate to, must be of the Subject, and until the Subject there is no Divine. So, ontology, not theology. I am here merely defining the ground out of which a theology may emerge, and, eventually, I hope present why the theology which Emjay and I have developed progresses logically and consistently from this ground.

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