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.
The Sacred Tapestry and variety in religion
This post started as a discussion of whether some Pagan traditions are more “privileged” than others. It rapidly became deeper than this.
When I first became a Pagan and began thinking about the deeper implications of my spiritual path, my first major insight was that since Spirit is everywhere, every spiritual tradition, including those made up from whole cloth, have the potential of carrying someone closer to harmony with the Sacred. For example, even if Gerald Gardner simply made up Gardnerian Wicca (which I do NOT believe), that the Gods come in our workings is all the proof I need that it is a valid path – at least for me.
Several major insights grew from this realization.
The most immediate of them healed my hostility towards Christianity as a spiritual path. We Pagans are very aware of the atrocities committed by people claiming to act for the church, holding positions of power within it, and slaughtering hundreds of thousands in Jesus’ name. But this sorry and continuing record demonstrates not that Jesus’ teachings are flawed, but that when organizations claim sole access to truth they become magnets for the power hungry and bigoted who can hide their brutality and depravity inside their claims to virtue. Those Christians seeking to practice Jesus’ teachings rather than treating his death as a get-out-of-jail-free card deserve as much recognition as any Pagan for following a genuine spiritual path.
That insight led to a second.
There is a fundamental tension between the power to control and the ultimately greater power of love that operates through attraction. Ultimately, Spirit is love and beauty, two words that in this regard are different aspects of the same thing. Our love of others is our recognition of their interior beauty. What is beautiful brings forth our love for it.
Different religious traditions describe this insight differently, but always praise the Ultimate as in harmony with kindness, care, love, and compassion. What they therefore share in common is setting our common preoccupation with our personal self within a larger context of beauty and care.
What they also share in common, though to widely different degrees, is an organizational structure to facilitate their celebration of the Sacred. There is a perpetual tension between genuine religion and the organizational institutions we create to facilitate our coming together.
The reason is because organizations increase power, and they always do so unequally. Organizational power separates the more powerful from the less powerful both within and outside the organization. It does so by establishing a hierarchy that can easily undermine how love manifests among human beings while magnifying our personal self’s sense of importance, especially if we are very high in the organization’s ranks or with regard to outsiders.
Organizations are often necessary. But when we create them we also create a force that attracts the opposite of love to it. Like fire, organization is a useful servant and terrible master. Highly organized religions like Christianity and Islam are particularly prone to degradation by organizational power.
My third insight was just as interesting to me.
I had initially been bothered by the wide variety of beliefs within my coven. It seemed very disorganized compared to what I had come to think of as religion, with a unifying dogma. But as I studied traditional Paganism I discovered this inner variety was the norm. I came to see that any attempt to say this particular set of beliefs constitutes a religion was doomed to failure either because it would fragment as soon as it was announced, or it would require organized power to enforce an orthodoxy, which leads directly to my point about organizations above.
If we are part of Spirit we should think long and hard about the nature of our individual creativity. To stick with our own broad tradition, Pagans have developed many ways of honoring the sacred and recognizing it through different myths, stories, and deities. Oshun is like Aphrodite, but She is not Aphrodite.
And we as individuals within a tradition then further develop different understandings. A tradition such as Gardnerian Wicca is unified around a common group of practices. But individual Gardnerians understand these practices in different ways. Over time Gardnerians differentiate and different groups accept or reject other groups' alternative ways of practicing our tradition. The same holds true not only for other Pagan traditions, it holds true for religions across the world. “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches, changes.”
Collectively it is as if Spirit is weaving a sacred tapestry where each of us is a thread of a different color, and the tapestry’s beauty reflects all the different threads from individuals and all the patterns they help weave from different religions. We are all of us threads in a tapestry of breathtaking beauty.
And this leads to a final rather more complex insight.
I have argued that at their core religions decenter our personal selves, situating them in a wider context of ultimate meaning we usually identify by terms such as sacred, love, beauty, peace, and harmony. To my mind what we are participating in when we enter into our religion exceeds our capacity to put into words. But because we practice together, we cannot help but try, and as we try, people disagree with one another. Indeed, modern philosophy originated in discussions of phenomena that cannot be encapsulated into words. Plato explicitly said he never wrote down his most important teachings, while his guiding myth of the cave said they could never be written down.
But in the process of discussing the nature of reality, we got philosophy, science, poetry, and much else. The effort was hardly wasted even if the ultimate goal is beyond our capacity fully to describe.
One of the central insights about spiritual reality that philosophers and theologians have arrived at is that it can be encompassed within about four categories: Spirit is radically distinct from the world (transcendental), immanent, and so within the world (pantheistic), both transcendent and within the world, (panentheistic), or nondual, as particularly in some meditative traditions. The latter two can incorporate the first two,
Insofar as we simply practice our religion with others we do not need to engage in this long discussion. But as soon as we seek to communicate our views to others we cannot help but enter into it. As we do we fall under the requirement to make sense or to give up efforts at co-mmunication. Of course we can simply proclaim our truth like those evangelists with bullhorns on street corners, but unless we can give others reasons for taking our proclamations seriously we are not entering into co-mmunication.
Some while back I was asked to review Joyce and River Higgenbotham’s ChristoPaganism. At the level of coherent theologies Christianity and Paganism have little in common and much in direct conflict. Jesus as spiritual teacher, even perhaps a divine one, can easily be incorporated into a Pagan worldview. And has been. But viewing Jesus as a unique son of God whose death and resurrection takes away sins so that salvation is possible have what seems to me an impossible task of incorporating a Pagan perspective as anything beyond error. I was tempted in my review to label ChristoPaganism a mish-mash.
But as I read their book I found cases of ChristoPagans describing personally powerful spiritual experiences that confirmed them in their path. Experiences seemingly as powerful as some of mine. If the Gods are not bothered by what seemed to me intellectual incoherence then I should be careful before getting my mental knickers into too much of a knot over it. A minimum of intellectual coherence is important for living in the world, but to adequately describe spiritual love and beauty is beyond the capacity of words. If there is heart, that may well be enough at the level of personal practice and even a religion of common celebration so long as people can agree on a framework to come together.
My recent arguments with Pagans in this space have had to do with how well I think they grasp their own traditions, not whether my tradition is better or more “privileged” than theirs. There is no Pagan tradition intrinsically better than another. There are those with more practitioners, there are those where people have a better understanding of the broader implications of their tradition, and within every one there are those who exemplify and practice its values better than others. But one tradition is not intrinsically better than another. However, within an immanent tradition those whose framework of care expands to embrace the world seem to me to have a deeper appreciation of the implications of their path than do those who do not. That is why at its base Paganism is and always will be a nature religion: it is a religion that sees the world itself as an expression of the Sacred.
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