Toward a Progressive Pagan Culture
Creideamh a' Bhata Bhuidhe: The religion of the yellow stick. A Coll priest of former times was accustomed to drive recalcitrant natives to church by a smart application of his walking stick, those who yielded were thus said to come under “creideamh a' bhata bhuidhe.” Another version says Hector, son of Donald Maclean of Coll, was the one who applied the yellow stick. Hector was laird in 1715 and as the religion of the yellow stick was introduced into Rum in 1726, it is beyond dispute that Hector was the author, or propagator of it. He was dignified in appearance and stern in manners and could no doubt wield the yellow stick gracefully and with efficiency. - Dwelly's Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary
I was raised a Jehovah's Witness and forced by my parents to attend Kingdom Hall three times a week. So you'll understand if I confess a visceral reaction to the prospect of being beaten with a stick for the sake of piety. In fact, I still deliberately linger in bed on Sunday mornings, and it's been nearly thirty years since I had to attend a weekend service. But that's one of the lovely things about being Pagan, isn't it? We don't adhere to a rigid belief system, so we don't punish our members when they fail to think or do what such a system might dictate. Rather, the religious beliefs of Pagans are diverse, perhaps far more than members of mainstream religions. Around the circle at any given public ritual, we might have Dianic Wiccans, Celtic polytheists, Heathens and others, each nurturing an internal spiritual narrative unique to her needs.
Of course, that's precisely what faith is, an internal narrative about the way the universe works. In some religions, that narrative is externally prescribed, which helps to create unity among practitioners but also leaves them vulnerable to manipulation. In others, the individual is expected to function as his own guru, which helps to foster spiritual resilience but can leave him feeling isolated. However, in both cases, people of faith are receiving or creating sacred stories overlaid upon the unknown. No Christian actually knows if the serendipity in her life belongs to God or chance, no Wiccan is certain whether or not his magic is working, and no cartomancer can tell you why her efforts at divination are more than random but never wholly reliable.
Simply put, we tell stories to heaven, and sometimes we think heaven answers.
It's a great equalizer, this truth about spirituality, and it should encourage us to examine the narratives we cultivate. If there are no Gods, then the stories matter, because they inform our behavior in the world. If there are Gods, then the stories matter, because they empower our behavior in the world. Either way, what we believe about the universe is made manifest in our lives and the lives of others, so it's important that we remain conscious participants in that manifestation, that we are always thinking about our thinking.
For instance, we might ask ourselves why we believe a particular thing. Does it meet an emotional need? Fire the imagination? Help us connect with what we believe is a God, ancestor or spirit companion? These are all popular reasons among Pagans for cultivating internal spiritual narratives. We might also ask ourselves what our beliefs require of us. A psychological commitment that damages our mundane lives? A drain upon our financial resources? The sacrifice of an animal? These have their origins in those cultivated narratives. Finally, we might examine the intersections between what we believe and our value systems. Are we motivated to act on behalf of our fellow Pagans? Our fellow denizens of the Earth? The Earth itself? If not, why not, and how might our narratives be of more use?
It is perhaps somewhat radical to assert that human spiritual understanding is the result of human narrative, but it is, even when we're interpreting synchronicities, peak experiences and communion with the Divine. And because the intersection between the self and the universe is open for individual interpretation, it is never enough that we believe. Billions of people tell stories to heaven, and none of them knows whether or not heaven answers. What matters then, are the stories themselves and what they make of us. May they never drive us like a yellow stick to church. May they do more than serve our individual desires. May they be thoughtful and relevant to our lives, to each other and to the world. The Gods would want no less from their storytellers.
The Kalama Sutta
The people of Kalama asked the Buddha who to believe out of all the ascetics, sages, venerables, and holy ones who, like himself, passed through their town. They complained that they were confused by the many contradictions they discovered in what they heard. The Kalama Sutta is the Buddha's reply.
- Do not believe anything on mere hearsay.
- Do not believe in traditions merely because they are old and have been handed down for many generations and in many places.
- Do not believe anything on account of rumors or because people talk a great deal about it.
- Do not believe anything because you are shown the written testimony of some ancient sage.
- Do not believe in what you have fancied, thinking that, because it is extraordinary, it must have been inspired by a god or other wonderful being.
- Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor, or because the custom of many years inclines you to take it as true.
- Do not believe anything merely on the authority of your teachers and priests.
But, whatever, after thorough investigation and reflection, you find to agree with reason and experience, as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all and of the world at large, accept only that as true, and shape your life in accordance with it. The same text, said the Buddha, must be applied to his own teachings.
Do not accept any doctrine from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire.
Tapadh leibh airson a' leughadh, 's beannachd leibh,
(Thank you for reading, and bless you,)
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