All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.
For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means and how to experience it first hand involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
Religion as Sacred performance art
My first essays tried to establish two important points about Pagan religion, and to some degree religion in general. My third ties them together.
My first point was that Pagan religion’s truth is in its practice, and theology, the textual analysis of a religion and philosophical examination of its myths and rituals, is secondary. Philosophy initially developed out of thinking about Pagan experience and theology developed out of thinking about what sacred texts meant, texts reporting other people’s experience. The referent was no loner experience, it was someone’s written word.
Today because of the shortage of qualified teachers and groups, many people seeking to learn about our religion have little choice but to turn to texts and the net. But printed or pixilated mediums do not really fit the message. Pagans need to be sensitive to where printed words can lead us astray because they substitute other’s accounts as superior to our own experience and encourage theological silliness about ‘Wiccan duotheism’ and other such stuff.
Part II argued there is no logical way to categorize our and others’ Gods across traditions. However we can make sense of the enormous diversity of Pagan deities and spiritual experience if we regard them as emergent hubs in a network of relational awareness that, when experienced directly, is called the One or some similar concept. I am not claiming this is what the Gods really are. I am offering a human model of the more-than-human. But this model makes sense of a seemingly chaotic and millennia long record of experience and practice.
Biologists are increasingly suggesting we ourselves are more like super-organisms or even ecosystems, and so comprised out of our relations, rather than distinct organisms. These discoveries make the model I am suggesting more plausible because we would then be smaller hubs within the field of awareness.
From a Pagan perspective transcendence manifests primarily in and through immanence. Our world brings forth variety, creativity, and beauty, each a manifestation of the Sacred. A potentially unlimited number of religious traditions could develop and be successfully practiced. Different peoples living within this abundance reflect it in their spiritual practices honoring their understanding of the Divine in the context of their time and place.
Now to tie all this together.
Religion and spirituality
I want to make an important distinction between religion and spirituality, one that many people already use when they say they are spiritual but not religious. Our religions differ from our spirituality in providing contexts where we can come together to jointly celebrate the sacred, jointly invite It into greater presence in our lives, jointly share in honoring what speaks most deeply to us. In doing so we integrate as best we can our way of living with others with the Sacred.
Religions are human creations, and as such reflect their time and place. But they are not just human creations. They are the creative result of human beings encountering the More-Than-Human, and seeking with others to enter into better relationship with More –Than-Human powers and the Ultimate Context of existence. All who report experiencing this context have said it defies words, but those who try generally agree it is at least good, loving, perfect, and beautiful.
My religion is primarily Wiccan, and normally I celebrate it with other Witches. Even when I practice it alone, I know my religion includes a larger community. And this is good to know.
Contrast my religious practices with my relations with an entity I have long worked with in healing others. This being is an important part of my spiritual life and vital to my shamanic work, but he is not much a part of my religious life. In the way I use these terms my spiritual life also includes the deeper meanings I attach to my religious practices, meanings that need not be shared by other Pagans with whom I circle. They share my religion but have their own spiritual understandings.
Coming together as a community helps us remember the larger contexts of our mundane lives, helps us have a continual practice, and it may also be the case that rituals involving more people with compatible spiritual views strengthens encounters with the Gods. Links with that divine hub are strengthened. Certainly my own most powerful experiences of deities has been in the context of Wiccan or other religious rituals.
The take-away from all this is that our religion is something we do together to bring ourselves into closer connection with what is ultimate in our lives. Our spirituality includes more personal and solitary dimensions of our relations with the More-Than-Human, and the meanings we find in it. We and the Sacred are co-creators of viable religions. Religions require our creativity to exist.
This perspective argues that religion is sacred performance art. And lest anyone think I am making light of religion, my first term is “sacred.” It is performance art oriented towards the more-than-human and towards ultimate contexts of meaning, contexts that give deeper meaning to the rest of our lives. As such, performance and art trump theology, even the theological analysis I represented in my second essay.
Sacred Performance Art
Religion is sacred. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to the contrary, religion is humanity’s highest creation because it is through our religions that we bring together all our abilities to seek relationship with what we regard as ultimate. Religion has enabled many of us two leggeds to view our personal struggles, pains, and fears within a greater context, where suffering can be redeemed, and blessings found in what on the outside may appear misfortune. Religion has opened many hearts, transformed many lives, healed many wounds. For thousands of years our most beautiful art, music, dance, architecture, clothing, and more have been devoted to honoring this relationship.
Religion involves performance because religions are forms of community action, observance, honoring and celebration. They possess sacred rituals, sacred times, and sacred relationships, all of special significance to a community. All are honored in and through action in community with others as well as in our thoughts. Ritual is the essence of religious performance, a means by which all participants can shift their attention to a common focus. Even the simplest and sparest religions set aside special times and places where people meet in fellowship and communion to honor and strengthen their relationship with the Sacred. Ritual is the most obvious form in which sacred performance art takes place, the inspirational field that attracts and gives meaning to the rest.
Religion involves art because beauty is fundamental to the Sacred. This may be beauty in Nature, or it may be beauty created by human beings, or both together. It can manifest through music, art, architecture, poetry, and ritual which brings them all together. Even those religions that emphasize the severe and spare, such as the Shakers, do so because from their perspective lesser beauty distracts us from the greater Beauty that they identify with God.
In religion both performance and art serve the More-Than-Human. Performances must be connected with spiritual truths. Without this they become theater, which itself grew out of religion. Art must manifest or point to beauty that is permeated by the Sacred or else it tends to become decoration or personal expression.
There is nothing wrong with theater, decoration, or personal expression, but all are rooted in the cares and concerns of our day to day largely taken for granted existence. They are mundane in the sense that they exist within more bounded contexts of meaning.
I am in no sense putting down on the mundane. Embodied life often requires our focusing on bounded contexts. But these contexts take on deeper meaning when we remind ourselves of the most inclusive context in which they exist.
Taken in isolation mundane contexts can get out of harmony with one another, and become distorted, sometimes grievously so. (Nowhere worse than when mundane contexts push aside religious ones as religions become vehicles for acquiring power and wealth.) Religion helps remind us of this greater context, and occasionally enables us to play a conscious role in it. We do this through ritual and art.
At its best our religion and personal spirituality are in harmony, and our practice with others facilitates our entering moments, even extended ones, where the sacred expands to encompass all of life. The mundane then ceases to exist.
When basic stages and dimensions of life, such as births, hand-fastings and funerals, are honored religiously these constants of human existence are seen within a More-Than-Human context. I think one of the great realms of spiritual poverty in the modern world is our failure to honor these larger contexts in the lives of so many. About all that survives for most Americans is high school and university graduation ceremonies. When not observing these special moments, in religion we come together in common performances to evoke what we sense is absent in a completely mundane life. It is natural that we want to do this beautifully.
None of this is conceptual. It must be experienced. It is not a matter of theology.
The most magnificent building I have ever seen is the Duomo in Florence, Italy. It was built by people following a religion that annihilated Pagans through massive violence, suppressed religious liberty for over a millennia, and to my mind has a fundamentally wrong headed theological conception of what is highest. The first time I saw the Duomo none of that mattered. It still doesn’t.
I had been invited to participate in some graduate seminars at a university just outside Florence, Italy. They even paid my way. Afterwards I explored Florence and Tuscany for a few days before returning home. On the first day I took a bus to the old town, put my guide map in my pocket, and began wandering to see what might turn up spontaneously. I turned a corner and looked up. And up. And up. I was transfixed, stunned, awed. No photograph comes even close to capturing that moment though the one I linked to above is better than most. And it does not even show the dome.
The Duomo is architectural sacred performance art. Its purpose is to more strongly connect us to the Sacred. So is the Temple at Delphi. So is the Shinto gate at Itsukushima Shrine. They and other human creations to honor the Sacred possess a power, beauty, and connection with the more than human that transcends dogma. The Hagia Sophia became a mosque, switching the theology and religion it served but retaining its magnificence.
What is true about great architecture is equally true about great music. Some of the words of Handel’s Messiah are bloody, vicious, and morally objectionable. Only some Christians might find them beautiful. But the music, and particularly the Hallelujah Chorus, is something else again. Thinking much about the doctrinal meaning of the words separates us from the experience. I remember when years ago I and other Pagans in Seattle rewrote the words of our favorite holiday carols. (Happily, Deck the Halls did not need rewriting.) It was the music that could transport us, once we no longer stumbled over what the lyrics meant.
I think it is significant that often we can be moved by the spirit of the sacred music, poetry, art, architecture and ritual of a religion that is not our own, but be unmoved by its theology.
For Wiccans our Sabbats and Esbats are the core of our practice. Not our books. If you want to explore Wicca and lack an experienced teacher or group, try coming together to celebrate the Sabbats. Sabbats are the ritual and celebratory high points of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. They offer endless opportunities for artistic creation honoring the Sacred. Each Sabbat can be a meditation on and celebration of one dimension of our physical existence. We come together as a community and as we do we most appropriately seek to do so beautifully, truthfully, and in a good way. As sacred performances we hope our rituals will draw the attention and blessings of the More-Than-Human, and connect us more profoundly with the ultimate contexts of our lives. And in my experience coming together as a community adds to the likelihood that they will work in drawing divine attention.
Beltane focuses on the ritual dimensions of life at its most exuberant, with its future unfolding before it. It begs for the best performance art of which we are capable in its honor. Samhain focuses on the Sacred dimensions of the end of life, its final decline into death and that mystery from whence it will again emerge. Samhain also begs for the most beautiful and moving rituals of which we are capable. The same point applies to the other six Sabbats.
This and our other workings are the truth of our practice, and not articles about the Gods, not even this one.
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