Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Meditation on Sensory Experience

Sometimes I will press pause and let the ear buds fall away,
And emerge into raven squawks and sharp trills, 
and the low, melancholy cry of the morning dove.

I am jarred into the humming of bees,
the kiss of wind,
and the scent of wild, sweet anise.

Only after I am plunged back into reality, 
do I stop to pluck a shoot,
and chew the green, licorice stem between my teeth
and think,
"I am here. This is my hand."

But when suddenly confronted with the burden of realization,
I reel back from the responsibility
owed by one who acts in the world.

To truly BE HERE
 is to see here,
smell here,
taste here,
act here,
grow here,
suffer here,
die here.

But sometimes I would rather just
drift off on waves of sound
into thought-scapes,
where there is no
crunch of dirt beneath my feet,
or sound of arguing ravens,
or hum of bees,
or burden of action.

I am caught between the imaginary and the sensory.
But oh to glory in the sound a pine trees makes when the wind sweeps through it!

But so often the sensory world betrays me,
in the choppy drone of a SESNA overhead---the wheeze of an old car engine---the choking stink of exhaust---the bright BRIGHT sun on concrete---the screech of a child---the violent squeaking of breaks on tires ---

To be outside is to be assaulted by senses. 
I wish reality would, rather,
embrace me gently.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Obligatory Spirituality + Baking + Adulting Post

I am neither the first, nor will I be the last, to write about spirituality and baking. But since this blog is for myself and my own journey, I find it helpful to collect my thoughts on the subject, especially in light of my previous posts about embodied spirituality, and my constant battle with depression.

I recently baked bread.

There was one relatively unsuccessful attempt, followed by an absolute winner of a loaf.  While both were tasty, one loaf was heavy, dense, and chewy, while the other was light and fluffy. What made the difference, in the end? I contend that the variables separating my dud of a loaf from the beauty you see below are similar to those involved in living out a successful spiritual practice:

  1. Dedicated time and attention.
  2. Attention to the process, rather than the result.
  3. Patience.
(The same might be said of a successful blog post. But I digress.)

When I made the first, unsuccessful loaf, I did quite a few things wrong. First, I started at 9PM. I wanted bread, there was none in the house, and my sleep schedule was already off kilter, so I figured, "What the hell? Let's bake!" At the time, I was also marathon-re-watching a show (Hell on Wheels), and trying to fill up my time enough to distract me from the hard realities facing me this summer. I fiddled around with the recipe, experimenting without considering the consequences or truly paying attention to my choices. I was so focused on what I wanted (bread), that I allowed myself to believe that my slap-dash, hurried, bare-minimum work would get me to my goal that much more quickly. 
But it was too late at night, and the true summer heat hadn't struck yet, so the house was cold. The dough didn't rise - at least, it didn't rise quickly enough for my needs. So I tossed it into the oven and hoped for the best. 

When it came out, dense, chewy, and heavy, I was disappointed. But I still didn't care enough to stop and think about how much better it would have been if I'd taken the time to do it right. I simply slathered butter and jam on the chunky pieces I pulled off, and persisted in my willful avoidance of an increasingly stressful reality. 

My taxes wouldn't go through, multiple times, due to some obscure error.
I needed my taxes so that I could re-certify my payment plan, so as to avoid another $700 student loan payment.

I needed my taxes so that I could finish my FAFSA for my upcoming first year of PhD work, because I hadn't saved enough money while teaching, and would need to borrow again.

I had to find a doctor to get some obscure piece of paperwork signed off to satisfy the state of New Jersey that I wasn't disease-ridden and could live in college housing. 

There were lots of things that needed to be done, and starting any of these long, complicated processes seemed impossibly painful and tedious. 

Logistics, paperwork, the minutiae of living in a world with regulations and requirements and taxes... these are not my strong suits. Hell, some days just showering and putting pants on seem like unnecessary hoops to jump through. Depression will do that to you. 
Fast forward: I've sat down, done my best to fix my tax situation, and endured a great deal of frustration in order to do so.

I've worked through three chapters of my German for Reading Knowledge book. I've survived four essays by Charles Sanders Peirce, which, believe me, is a feat in itself. 

I wrote a blog post, connected with some old creative writing partners, and have collaboratively written at least fifteen new pages of creative work. 

And I baked bread. 

The successful loaf.
How did I manage to do all these things? And why am I celebrating? 

Ohh, good for you! You "got stuff done." 

But it's not just that. Once I stopped thinking about my summer goals of "getting stuff done," and focused instead on the first steps (and nothing beyond them), these tasks started to seem much more manageable. When I started to see my responsibilities as a set of (sometimes unpleasant, but ultimately manageable) steps, rather than looming specters to feel guilty about, I was able to get out of bed a little earlier, get out of my pajamas, and let my curiosity (rather than my hedonistic need to be entertained) drive my behavior. 

I stopped focusing on accomplishment, and started to think about the value of just doing

Instead of polarizing "fun stuff" (like Netflix marathons) on the one hand, and "hard stuff" (productivity) on the other, I started to think about how much more rewarding those seemingly painful tasks could actually be. 

"Real life" happens in the little, tedious, painful tasks, too, in those ugly tasks we Millennials often call "adulting." I think "adulting" feels so difficult because we have a deep sense of how limited our options are, and how poor the pay-offs can be. I have no illusions about how limited the academic job market is, especially for someone like me who intends to get a PhD in what my father calls "Thinkology."

 But when you don't care about pay-offs, when you aren't distracted by a shiny but intimidating idol of future success, the business of everyday life stops feeling like a set of chores and begin to feel, well, normal. 

Back to baking. 

There's something so normal, so basic, so unremarkable about baking bread - at least on the surface of things. 

The ingredients couldn't be more basic to the history of human food technology: water, flour, oil, salt, and the humble-yet-remarkable yeast. The technique is often inherited knowledge, passed down from parents to children (most often by mothers). Bread, aside from cheese and yogurt, is quite possibly one of the oldest processed foods. 

It involves all the senses: the sight and smell of awakening yeast, the tactile encounter with the sticky dough, the sound of the squishing dough when you punch it down, a taste-test here and there.

But if you're not paying attention - to the temperature of the water, the proportions of the ingredients, the temperature of the oven - you can easily screw up a fairly simple process. Anything worth doing - from taxes, to learning German, to developing a spiritual practice - requires the following:
  1. Dedicated time and attention.
  2. Attention to the process, rather than the result.
  3. Patience.
When I approached baking and showed this basic level of respect to the process, I didn't just get a 
good loaf of bread; I got a teacher.

My bread reminded of how worthwhile, how instructive, how illuminating simple, physical tasks can be. 

My bread reminded me how life works - both in the metaphorical sense, and also in the literal sense: life requires energy transfers from up and down the scale of complexity, and that transfer happens often in small, unremarkable steps (like yeast causing bread to rise). 

My bread reminded me that nourishment comes from somewhere, and that the most nourishing things are those which have unfolded and developed according to their own time scale - not mine. 

I think there's something very evocative in the idea of "our daily bread." It is an image of survival, and sustenance, and providence. But in the end, it's just an image. Real daily bread has to be baked, and baking requires work.

I often get distracted by my own idealistic image of a future PhD. I imagine doing the work, writing the thesis, getting the degree. But when I get caught up in the idea, when I "live in my head," as I often do, the ideal slowly transforms from a life-goal into an intimidating obligation. It is easier to idealize a thing when we aren't actively, consciously engaged in the real, engaged, complex physicality of the thing itself. Even during my master's degree work, I had this problem. I was detached from my own work, and did not truly allow myself to be engaged in it - transformed by it - and thus focused on the ideal goal to the extent that I failed to learn from the process, to appreciate the outcomes that came naturally.

Getting out of my head and into my body is one of the primary goals of my spiritual journey. In order to do so, though, I have to remember the lessons that my bread taught me: don't idealize the goal. Idealizing the goal makes it an abstract, and abstracts can be toyed with, enshrined, appreciated, but never truly lived.

"All knowledge is rumor until it is in the muscles." -- New Guinean Proverb

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Value of Thinking With the Land

My thinking has been profoundly and wonderfully shaped by a number of authors who deserve credit here. One is So Sinopoulos-Lloyd, whose article I mention below. Another is Lupa Greenwolf, whose frank, no-nonsense blog has me calling "YES!" every time I read it. Books relevant to the discussion below include: The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and Beyond Nature and Culture by Phillipe Descola.


It's five days until the Summer Solstice, and the weather is strangely and unseasonably cool here in the high desert of Southern California. It'll heat up soon, but for now, the high winds are cool. If I knew more about meteorology, perhaps I could say something more profound about this coming transition from 75 degrees Fahrenheit  to over 100 in less than a week.

The one constant, though, is the wind. She roars. She truly rules here.

A few days ago, I finally escaped my summer lethargy and wandered out into the undeveloped, public (for now) land close to my childhood home. The environment is chaparral, and very dry, dominated by squat, round junipers. I had planned to do a little gathering and maybe some solitary ritual after my hike, so I brought a small backpack with things I might need.

I crossed the field and climbed down into the wash, taking my time. This wasn't for exercise, I reminded myself, but for observation. There was a limited pallet of colors to enjoy, since the quick bloom of wildflowers had long since passed and there was not enough water to support anything but the hardiest of plants. I stopped to acknowledge how different the wild space was from my own yard; my parents maintain a green lawn, and the property is framed by soaring cottonwoods and some sad little pines, infested with bark beetle.

Down in the wash, I followed the tracks left by the distant memory of water, which had carved out a wide, sandy gully and exposed a low cliff-face soft enough for animals to burrow into. I wondered when the last time was that it had seen water. Probably not since the big floods I remembered from my teenage years, almost ten years ago now.

Overhead, I heard the call of a raven. The desert ravens are a ubiquitous presence here. If the wind rules, then the ravens are her viceroys. They ride the waves of the wind and soar higher than any other bird in the area, save for the falcons they greatly outnumber. Turning toward the raven's call, I watched as two danced and played on the rising wind. Drawn inexorably toward them, I climbed out of the wash and up a steep, conical hill, upward until I was nearly level with their dance. On the way, I found a raven's feather on the ground - evidence that this was a usual haunt of theirs, up here where the relentless wind wraps around the cone of the hill and shapes it until it is smooth.

I offered water from my canteen toward them on the wind, a gesture of goodwill. I'm not sure if they understood, but it was my way of reassuring them that I was a guest, not a trespasser.

The ravens soared around me and over me, buoyed on the wind that threatened to blow me down from my precarious seat. Suddenly, a new cry - not the low, croaking squawk of a raven, but the high-pitched, piercing call of a falcon. I could see it against the grey-blue sky, bigger and wider of wing-span than the ravens. The black-winged pair engaged the falcon in a spectacular dog-fight. I wondered about the term; I used it instinctively as the first association that came to mind was the stories my father told me about jet-aircraft combat. But the way dogs fight on the ground is nothing like the careful, sweeping, terrible dance in the sky that I witnessed that day.

The ravens escorted the falcon out of their territory, then returned. I knew they had seen me, that they were watching me. (I almost wrote that in the passive voice. We need to train ourselves, I think, to speak about our animal Kindred as agents.) That they recognized my presence. In so doing, I came into being, recognized and acknowledged by an Other.

I think, perhaps, that a different part of ourselves becomes present when non-humans see us. The land sees us, feels us pass, and we become a being moving through and across a body. The birds spy on us from overhead, and we become a large, lumbering mammal, too large to be prey, but too earth-bound to be predator. Rabbits scurry across our path, and we become a source of fright, a potential threat, whether we wish to be or not.

We become more than our minds, our associations, our affiliations at such times. We become members of a world that we shape, and which shapes us. We do not leave culture behind, but become part of a larger culture, an eco-culture, that speaks in a gestural and instinctual language, one that speaks only in intimate and sympathetic relation to the rocks, the sand, the swaying junipers, the lumbering beetles, and the rising wind.

A friend and colleague (such a sterile word for so important a person!) of mine recently published an article titled "Tracking as a Wayof Knowing," in Written River: Journal of Eco-Poetics.  This article expresses So's powerful engagement with the world and creative way of speaking to and about it. I am forever indebted to So for pointing me toward my own path of radical engagement, one I'm slowly trying to tread in my own way.

Though So makes a number of profound points in the article, I'd like to highlight a few lines from the conclusion:

"Seeing as the majority of beings on our planet (as well as the rest of the universe) are non-human, we can expect a limited view of reality if we aren’t welcoming efforts to soulfully relate to them. Let us see beyond the jaded (and polarizing) caricature of the nature-hippie who escapes from civilization to the forest. If the intention is not to leave but to enter, not to hide but to belong, relationship with the non-human brings back deep value to human community and enriches culture."

Tracking and nature-observation have value beyond pure aesthetic appreciation or nostalgic attempts at "escape" from an "unnatural" or "tainted" human world. In learning the languages of the other-than-human world, we become more human. We learn that our division between nature and culture is arbitrary, even illusory, because culture is not our mastery over the land and manipulation of it, but rather a complex set of tools that have emerged as a consequence of our speaking to and with it. The memory of these ancient conversations has waned within the post-industrial world, but it can be recovered.

Our modern cultural ways of knowing have become so abstracted from our life-ways, our experience-of-being-alive, that we wrongfully believe we can continue to think and speak and dream without reference to the world around us. Our economics have become abstract - blind to the lived realities and suffering of others. Our politics and even our talk of justice have become abstract - focused on language and intention rather than the lived experiences of struggling communities. Our philosophy has become as abstract as it was for medieval Scholastics - no one now asks, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" and yet so many philosophers now spend their time playing second-fiddle to the natural sciences, which themselves are becoming mere servants of the technology race, driven by abstracted visions of value and capital.

And the conditions which have enabled the human conversation with the phenomenal world are changing. According to an article from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, light pollution now makes the Milky Way invisible to most humans on the planet. And Karen Emslie at National Geographic writes that traditional calendars used by people in the Pamir Mountains of central Asia are losing their effectiveness as a consequence of Climate Change. This is one example of the ways in which human culture has developed in conversation with the local landscape, one tried-and-true method that has served humans for generation as they move in concert with their place of being.

Lest my call for thinking with the land seems overly romantic, my friend So reminds us that "In this view, feelings of solidarity, love, and belonging that traverse the boundaries of species and beyond are not luxuries or overly sentimentalized notions; they are functions of ecological interdependency and are integral to survival." I would argue that even the survival of post-industrial societies which believe themselves masters over, or independent of nature, also depend upon re-developing our ties of Kinship with the world around us, to bring our abstractions back down into conversation with the world as it breathes and speaks to us.

Nor is religion exempt from this call - even so-called "nature religions." How often do we speak about the "spirit" of a tree or animal, but fail to engage with the tree or animal itself? What wisdom can we learn from the spirit of a willow, an oak, a raven, or a cotton-tail, if we don't know anything about how these Kindred of ours actually live alongside us and other Beings? When we focus on "essences," for example, we again abstract the lived reality of our Kindred and extract them from the Web of Inter-Being that constitutes their - and our - existence. Is the "spirit of the raven" anything more than a carrier for our associations, when we ignore the relationship between the raven and the wind? Between the raven and the dead it scavenges? Between the raven and the mockingbird that chases it relentlessly, until the raven's greater wing-span takes it beyond the smaller bird's range? What do we learn from the abstract raven, when it speaks only as an image on a screen or paper, rather than as a soaring, breathing, relating Being that shares a world with us?

The view from the top of the hill was spectacular, While (as I mentioned) the colors were limited, the landscape of the high-desert foothills is stark and impressive. I currently live in a bowl-shaped valley, framed by the foothills and the San Gabriel mountains. The wind gets channeled through the valley and rushes down the hills, taking with it anything not tied down. Aside from those trees nurtured by human landscaping, the wind prevents anything taller than the squat, round juniper bushes which dot the landscape.

From my vantage point, I could see a rare mist roll in down over the hills across the valley. Around me I felt the shuddering, twitching celebration of a land animated by the wind. The atmosphere itself came alive with the petrichor scent of microorganisms in the soil, of leaves opening their pores, of the thirsty desert waking up and reaching out for the promise of moisture.

I descended the hill and back down into the wash. Had the wind carried a true rain storm, it would have been a dangerous place to be. I remembered the flash-flood warnings that came seasonally before the drought hit. But this was a gentle mist, just enough to bring relief to plants well-adapted to drought conditions.

The land held the memory of humans in the wash too. The tracks left by horses (both prints and manure) were accompanied by plastic bags caught on thorn bushes, of old, rusted cans heaped up and bottles of beer smashed against rocks.

In my solitary ritual, I addressed my Kindred of this land, and begged their forgiveness for years of trespass and disrespect. I addressed my ancestors and admonished them for their carelessness. Ancestors are difficult. We are here because of them, and their wisdom is ours to work with. But they were not always wise, or noble, or true. I tend to try to speak formally while doing ritual, as it feels appropriate, but I couldn't resist the thought that rose up out of my frustration, echoing sardonically in that country way typical of my rural community:

Ancestors - you done fucked up.

I returned home, dirty and covered in stickers, but more at peace than I had been for some time. Speaking with the land, or rather, being silent and letting the land speak to me, has become my own form of therapy. While medication for my anxiety and depression has absolutely helped me in the past, I know that I cannot be healthy when I lock myself in my room for days. Anxiety and depression are my constant companions, but their hold on me lessens when the trees show me how to bend with the wind, when the ravens show me how to soar and play in the roughest of gales, when the land itself presses back under my foot and whispers, I feel you. I know you are here. Tread where you will, but tread softly.

It is not simply "remembering" my Inter-Being with the world that brings me out of the haze of depression. While remembering is not purely mental (more on embodied cognition later), it is primarily that. In actually walking under a cottonwood alive and thrashing in the wind, in tracking the movement of a raven with my eyes, in feeling physically the land under my feet, I am physically re-woven into the world that grew me. I am the one being bodily re-membered by the world that is more than my worries and neuroses.

How could this world-around-me not be the source of all that is good, true, worthy, and meaningful? How could any abstract-presence, or abstract-value, or abstract-ideal ever have the power to do what the grass under my feet does?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A vision for pagan naturalism

One world, one wide branching extended kinship, one web of relations, sharing one world - no "otherworld," no spiritworld, no distant realm of uncertain effect or connection, no boundaries between ourselves and our kindreds except those we build, on earth or in our consciousnesses.

The spirits ARE the ants, the bees, the rocks and the trees. The ancestors sing to us still, through the soil their bones nourish and become, in the imprint their memories have left upon the land and ourselves. No gods but those who call to us on the wind, who pull us along to dance with them at the edge of chance and chaos, who sing to us from the depths of our own souls and from the heights of mountaintops.

Let us speak with many voices to and about this world to which we belong, by which we are made, and through which we experience ecstacy. Let us listen to the voices of the Kindreds as they speak for themselves, not attempting to look "behind" or "beyond" for meanings dependent upon stories foreign to the birds, but reading the stories the land itself offers up to those willing to listen and observe with an open heart.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Integrating Critical Lenses into Spirituality as a Naturalistic Pagan Goal

Let’s face it. I am a very young pagan, both in terms of my own age (26) and the number of years I have self-consciously identified as such (one, very eventful, year).

Needless to say, I’ve spent this last year soaking up any and all things pagan. I’ve gone to Pagan Pride, participated in and led rituals throughout the Wheel of the Year with my ADF Grove, read dozens of articles and books, set up altars, made offerings, meditated, carved and burned my own set of runes, collected knick-knacks and paraphernalia, and let my normally skeptical mind entertain some truly unfamiliar ideas.

But as a full year rounds and I return to the season wherein I began – late spring – I find that my path forward looks very different than I expected it to. It was after I attended my first formal ADF ritual at Imbolc in 2015 that I started to entertain pagan notions. Up to that point, I had spent years focused more on talking about belief than figuring out what I believed for myself. I often joked, “I study religion; I don’t do it.” That, too, was after giving up the Christian label out of a long and utterly uneventful turn away from the religion of my youth.

After Imbolc, I dove into pagan thought and practice with enthusiasm. I officially joined ADF and my Grove at our Mid-Summer ritual in 2015, an anniversary I just marked with my Grove by co-leading our early Mid-Summer rite at the beach.

During this past year, I’ve waded into the modern pagan ocean with both the excitement and sincerity of an insider, and the critical tools, healthy skepticism, and moderation of a scholarly outsider. This latter approach has not been well received by all with whom I have come into contact. Some of my questions may have been too bluntly stated. I have not, perhaps, managed to equally balance both of my approaches as I’ve sought to probe some of the depths I am so keen to encounter. (Even if I’ve only just made it out of the shallows.) While it may seem strange to others, for me, full encounter with any “depth” requires all my faculties – intuitive, emotive, critical, analytical, etc. In all honesty, I’ve never really separated these, or seen them as anything other than complementary. While others might exclude their critical lenses from their spiritual paths, perhaps out of a desire to preserve mystery, I cannot. Nor can I accept criticisms from others who suggest that my pagan path is less valid, or less sincere, as a consequence.  

It might be the academic in me, but my first and most powerful impulse is to understand. Lots of problems – including the miscommunications that tend to land me in hot water – seem to be caused by a lack of shared terms, a difference in framework, or a mismatch between fundamental assumptions. And while I wouldn’t argue that “everything will be better if we all just got on the same page” (since that smacks of orthodoxy), I’ve found that assuming commonality where there is none can cause a great deal of frustration.

My year of pagan searching has been full of miscommunications, unfortunate assumptions, and misread intentions – on my part and on others’. Alongside the discomfort and frustration, however, I’ve learned a great deal about myself, and about the enormous variety of perspectives and approaches that fall under the label “pagan” – some of which are, quite frankly, inherently contradictory. This has pushed me to be ever more careful when using the term “pagan,” and to be aware of settings where critical conversations – pushing for clarity, examining implications, challenging assumptions – are inappropriate or untimely. I’ve also learned that just understanding a disagreement, “framing the terms” correctly, does not inevitably lead to reconciliation or soothed feelings. This is my own bias, one I am trying to overcome.

I do see the critical lens as essential to my own Humanistic pagan path. I am encouraged to find that the many authors at Humanistic Paganism, and within Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans, seem to agree. Questioning, challenging, deconstructing, and engaging good scholarship will always be essential tools for those, like myself, who cannot accept a spiritual path that marginalizes our critical lenses. My own scholarship is predicated on the notion that such a division is unnecessary and even harmful.

The Late-Spring theme at Humanistic Paganism is “Challenges.” One of my challenges, going forward, is to clarify for myself and others how important it is to put our critical discourses – the natural sciences, social sciences, history, logic, anthropology, etc. – into a dynamic and mutually transforming relationship with our spirituality, our sense of call, our deepest feelings of encounter and kinship with the World and Others. This relationship, this integration, cannot only be for the good of the individual, in order to guide her personal spiritual journey. It must also offer up a way of seeing, of navigating both our deepest and most mundane life experiences, that leads to more just communities and a healthier world. It must transform our ways of thinking about ourselves, the world, and the role of religion for we Humanists who seek to cultivate a relationship with the world and all its Beings.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria? – With apologies to Stephen J. Gould
I don’t believe in Non-Overlapping Magisteria. NOMA is the view that science and religion speak about fundamentally different questions. In this view, “Bad Religion” tries to comment on what is within the scientific “magisterium,” and "Bad Science" does the opposite. This view follows the culturally-accepted paradigm that constructs religion as a “Not of this world” discourse; religion is devoted to a set of concerns about which science cannot speak. NOMA serves to neatly separate the two, to put them each in their own sandboxes and let them play by themselves, without interfering with each other’s operations, or claiming authority over each other’s sandboxes.

At first blush, NOMA seems to be a useful, perhaps even necessary, way of framing the situation. It certainly sets up safe-guards to prevent the kind of “boundary crossing” that we find objectionable; whether that’s Christians pushing the inherently oxymoronic "Creation Science," and trying to get Intelligent Design into classrooms, or evolutionary biologists claiming that religions are irrational relics of a pre-scientific age and belong in museums (Dawkins).

But as I’ve taught the study of religion for undergraduates, I’ve found that this sharp division does more than prevent unfortunate and misguided crossovers; it can help crystallize a view of religion as inherently disconnected from scientific insights and approaches. It assumes a definition of religion that really describes the main monotheisms. This limits the way we are able to think and speak about religion in public and in private. It reinforces an ideological distinction between “nature” (the domain of science), and “culture,” (the domain of religion and myth). It polarizes “subjectivity” and “objectivity,” as if these were two distinct domains.

“Religion” comes then to speak only about the “supernatural,” since the “Natural” is the domain of science. This division, David Abram reminds us in The Spell of the Sensuous, can be traced back “to the modern, civilized assumption that the natural world is largely determinate and mechanical, and that that which is regarded as mysterious, powerful, and beyond human ken must therefore be of some other, nonphysical realm above nature, ‘supernatural’” (Abram 8). Such a view precludes a kin-based, non-dualist understanding of non-human nature; a view which, I would argue, is widely held both among modern pagans and members of tribal cultures today.

French Anthropologist Philippe Descola’s foundational work, Beyond Nature and Culture, explores the way people from dozens of the world’s tribal cultures speak about and distinguish between what Western philosophy has deemed the separate realms of “nature” and “culture.” He finds, most importantly, that, overwhelmingly, they make no such distinction, at least not in the way we assume is “obvious” or “natural.”

Perhaps NOMA works for religions whose concerns are primarily “Not of this world.” But as a student of the history of religion and a humanistic pagan, my view is that religion, at its core, is fundamentally about this world. I've previously mentioned Graham Harvey’s book, Food, Sex, and Strangers: Redefining Religion as Everyday Life. In Harvey’s anthropological view, religion can be viewed as a kind of “inter-species etiquette,” a way of negotiating between and among the Beings alongside whom we experience daily life. If this, too, is religion, then certainly the natural and social sciences have insights to offer!

The goal, of course, is not to trample on or dismiss non-empirically verifiable beliefs, but rather to expand the conversation, include multiple voices, and speak more broadly and inclusively about human and non-human life, with all of their intricacies.

How can our spirituality help us?
I see Humanistic and Naturalistic Paganism as inherently integrative. Our spirituality integrates not only ways of seeing the world – critical and spiritual – but also integrates us into the world. It is a spirituality that builds deep connections between and among all the Beings with whom we share our breathing, dancing, changing planet, whirling through space. If there is a set of tools that offers us insight into those lives with whom we share a deep kinship, from our fellow primates and mammals all the way into the depths of the sea, then it is useful and essential to our spiritual path(s). We must heed what these tools teach us, whether the lesson is a humbling confirmation of the kinship of all life, or a startling reminder about the fragility of our ecosystems. 

By doing so, we also (re)claim religion as a fundamentally human endeavor, one that helps us speak to the depths and heights of our experiences. We refuse to act as if religion is irrelevant to the greater conversation about the future of our species and planet, about systems of injustice. And while the scientific method – for example – must continue to operate according to its own rules, we refuse the conventional yoking of scientific research with capitalist endeavors, as if science were justified only by its potential for profit. We lend our voices to those who argue for the inherent worth of understanding for its own sake, whether that understanding is scientific, humanistic, or philosophical. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Longing and Contradiction in (Re?)Creating Modern Paganism

Longing and Contradiction in (Re?)Creating Modern Paganism
The emergence of modern Paganism in the post-industrial West in the 20th and 21st centuries presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for those engaged in critical reflection on the nature of this movement, on its defining qualities, and on the specific character of pagan spirituality. The difficulties and opportunities I will describe are very much those I have personally come to identify. In engaging what I see as “difficulties” within the modern Pagan movement, I am not intending to be dismissive or judgmental. I am speaking as a Pagan who cares deeply about the issues I intend to discuss. Clarifying these complexities helps me make sense of my own experience, and I hope, may offer something to others.
I approach this set of issues first and foremost as a scholar of religion. I have studied religion for almost eight years, two of those as a teacher of undergraduates. I inhabit that strange, middle space between insider and outsider that complicates both the study of religion and the practice of it. In order to be organized in my discussion, I want to introduce three Orders of Meaning in the study of religion that I find helpful and use with my First Years. They are:
  1.   First Order: The immediate experience of individual religious people in the practice of their religion.
  2.  Second Order: The sustained, critical reflection of religious insiders on their own experience, and their attempt to express that reflection in organized ways to both insiders and outsiders. (Sometimes simply called “Theology.”
  3.  Third Order: The theoretical perspective of scholarly outsiders, seeking to describe and explain religious practices in non-religious (i.e. social-scientific) terms. 

Most pagans would agree that our First Order experiences (which later then come to be described as “pagan”) generally have some connection to a profound, transformative relationship with the world itself. Many modern Pagans have shifted our attentions from creedal religions of the dominant culture as a consequence of some kind of powerful encounter with the physical world around them, an appreciation for plants and animals, and a positive valuation of the material. It is these experiences that continue to fuel the reflective projects of pagans seeking to explain their experiences in ways that are clear, accessible, and engaging for both insiders and outsiders.
But religion is not simply “sheer experience.” Without symbolic systems, rituals, and cosmologies, these experiences could be characterized as “nature appreciation,” not “nature religion.” And so, recognizing this, modern Pagans look to pre-Christian, paleo-pagan sources for inspiration. We draw on ancient lifeways in order to express our experiences and structure our celebratory responses. We rightly recognize that the pre-Christian religions of our distant, European ancestors also shared this quality of radical engagement with, and positive valuation of, the world. In order to do this, we turn to historical scholarship in order to gather reliable information about what the paleo-pagans “actually did.”
Note that in speaking about modern Pagans, I am discussing the experiences of Euro-descended people who have little-to-no historically continuous connection to the ancient cultures to which they seek to connect. Primarily, these are the descendants of Christian European settler colonists who attempted to reproduce their home cultures in new land, but over time the culture of those colonies transformed and became something radically new. The situation is very different for those who inherited some form of cultural identity with nearly-continuous roots in the place where they still live - broadly, modern Europeans.
Here is where difficulty emerges. Historical scholarship is not a neutral guide to what paleo-pagans “really did,” nor can we totally grasp the complexity of paleo-pagan life and practice through historical scholarship alone. This is not only due to the problem of sources and the implicit biases of scholars, but also to the fact that, in most non-Christian, non-Islamic societies, religion is not a separable element one can detach from human life for its own, separate analysis. Religion, for much of human history, has been deeply interwoven with the other adaptive strategies humans have employed for responding to the realities of their environments. We might even go so far as to say that before Christianity and Islam, there was no such thing as religion; only lifeways which included various techniques for managing a community and structuring human and non-human encounters. Contrary to the creedal, abstract systems at the center of the monotheisms, these techniques would have no meaning apart from their relationship to other cultural modes of kinship, food production, power and prestige, etc. Not only can we not analyze paleo-Pagan religion, we cannot pull its wisdom (however profound) forward out of its context and imagine that it will fit neatly into our own. The wisdom of paleo-pagan religions (if we can call them that) was context-dependent.
The culturally and ecologically context-dependent nature of religion is, I would hope, something all pagans would readily acknowledge. The difficulty comes when we (I think rightly) draw on ancient sources, but then lack ways of making them part of our own cultural experience. One danger is that, in our hunger for systems of meaning which speak to our experience of worldly integration, we may ultimately become consumed with mimicking ancient cultural forms, which become abstract “systems of belief” to which we direct our ultimate attention.
This is not mere speculation; I have experienced this for myself. I have grown increasingly focused on the trappings of pagan practice, and with which "hearth culture" I should choose to structure my personal practice. In doing so, I find myself studying the lifeways of the ancient Greeks and Norse, more than I spend developing my relationship to the world around me. And yet there is no ancient Indo-European culture whose Gods and lifeways "call" to me. I feel no connection to any of these ancient people through my inherited culture (White, Protestant American), nor through my "blood," which I find a difficult concept in and of itself.
The claim of many Pagans and Wiccans is that the mythologies of ancient peoples carry "universal" themes that can be embraced by anyone, and integrated into one's celebration of life and the depth experiences thereof. While I would agree in principle that story-telling communicates Truth in many profound ways, I cannot submit to the level of homogenizing these stories, which are expressions of unique cultures, tied to their specific histories and bioregions, for my own spiritual development. Nor do I find that the truth of their wisdom can be so neatly abstracted. If I could not integrate the abstracted and infinitely reinterpreted stories produced by ancient Israelites and early-first century Judeans into my life in meaningful ways, because of distance of time and space, how am I expected to do so in the case of the Norse, with whom I share no cultural connection? Perhaps it is the poverty of the White American Protestant culture of my upbringing that disconnects me from the wealth of folk traditions that still exist in many parts of the Christianized world. But while unfortunate, I cannot apologize for or change this fact. Nor can I "skip over" this part of my own identity to go hunt for connections to a past which is so distant as to be almost irrelevant.
Longing and Contradiction
The reason I spend so much time pondering this situation is because I feel it speaks to a deep and important longing among modern Pagans. We admire the non-creedal, integrated, world-affirming lifeways of ancient paleo-Pagans and hope to (re)create that form of religion for ourselves, working past centuries of religious alienation produced by religions which insist that any experience of “depth” must be “Not of this World.” But the societies in which ancient paleo-pagan religions were practiced no longer exist; if we celebrate paleo-paganisms because of their seamless integration with daily life, natural systems, and cultural milieu, then the fact that we live in entirely different circumstances means that, even if we could recover these systems, we could not successfully integrate them into our own lives, which is the goal in the first place.
We cannot do as they did and expect to reproduce the same qualities that we uphold as admirable. Simply practicing as they practiced can create a new form of practical dogmatism: the symbols and practices themselves become the priority, rather than the orientation they are meant to produce and reinforce. Also, there is the problem that religion in ancient paleo-pagan cultures (as in many modern indigenous cultures) serves to reinforce socio-cultural systems and their norms; norms to which we may, as moderns, reject out of hand, e.g. patriarchy, execution of prisoners, veneration of the State, etc.
            But neither can modern Pagans build uncritically within our own, modern, post-industrial Western culture. We recognize that paleo-pagan religion was part and parcel of the social order, and served to reinforce socio-cultural systems and their norms; this is still the case in many indigenous religions today. We acknowledge that we do not want religion to serve this function for our own culture, as we’ve seen the dangerous ways in which extremist forms of Protestant Christianity have done so in American society and politics. There are also aspects of American culture, apart from Christianity, which most pagans find distasteful. So in our attempt to (re)create a form of religion that is integrated into life in the way of non-creedal, indigenous lifeways, we run into the problem of producing a system that emerges out of a cultural experience to which we may hold strident objections. We must start from where we are, but the reality of a pluralistic society historically dominated by Christianity means that we already exist in a complex (and often tense) relationship with the signs and systems that were here before us. 
Opportunities: Back to the Orders
So what is the solution? Create a protest driven sub-culture? This can compound on the problems above. How does this sub-culture interact with the dominant culture? How does it respond? How does it avoid the pitfalls of isolationism and escapism? How can modern Pagans integrate their “pagan lives” with their “regular lives” if the sub-culture stands insistently apart?
I am not sure how to answer any of the questions above. But if we are to look for resources to help us generate creative visions of modern Paganism that critically engage the issues above, we need look no farther than our own, modern context.
            The profound opportunity of modern paganism, especially humanistic, scholarly-engaged paganism, is that this movement is creating a conversation among religious "insiders" that spans all of the Orders of Meaning mentioned at the beginning of this post. We are self-consciously engaged in creating religion; and as much as we may want that to happen "naturally," in the way of all other religions of the past, our historical situation makes that approach highly unlikely. The very existence of the comparative study of religion as a field has made modern Paganism possible. The existence of modern Paganism as a site of resistance to prevailing cultural and moral norms gives it a critical stance that members would be wise to embrace. Even the rise of modern science, which has carved out an imaginative space in which moderns can reflect on their lives and world in non-Christian ways, has had a role to play.
Those engaged in reflecting on modern Pagan experiences (2nd Order work) would benefit from engagement with the 3rd Order scholarship in religion, because that scholarship allows for a broader view of the modern pagan project. It roots this project in the wider context of religion as a human activity. In understanding religion as human activity, we come to see better the ways in which it speaks to all parts of the human self, integrates into the fabric of human life, and gives voice to the full range of human experiences. By working consistently within this wider field of vision, we may hopefully avoid a tendency toward parochialism - not because our goal is a kind of Universalism, but because we refuse to focus on the details of localized symbol systems rather than the human-world relationship itself, which is at the core of our 1st Order experiences.  
Michael York writes, "Paganism is an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and nonempirical" (Pagan Theology, 161). By "polymorphic," he means "multiple forms." Any form a Pagan chooses to use to affirm this relationship, as long as it works for that person and helps to build community, is, I argue, a valid form of Paganism. I am not interested in arguing which forms/models/symbolic systems individual Pagans ought to use in order to do this. But I do argue that serious, 2nd Order work on the part of scholars like myself ought to consider the relationship to be our primary concern, and ought to ask whether our forms of expression are enabling or hindering that primary relationship.
For those engaged in 2nd Order work like myself, I would argue that we ought to ask ourselves not "What is the content of our religion?" (Polytheism? Animism? Pantheism?) but rather, "What kind of religion are we building?" "What orientation toward the world are we seeking to give shape and expression?"  For it is not the symbolic content that makes a practice pagan. For me, and I would think for many humanistic Pagans, paganism cannot only be the attempt to revive ancient paleo-pagan practice for modern people. As much as I honor that goal, it is not enough. I say this as a person who has done serious scholarly work in the past, and considers themselves a historian. For me, in order for Paganism to be a religion I can live, I must resist the temptation to turn it into yet one more historical pet-project. Historical and sociological research have dominated my academic life up unto this point; however, now that I am seriously pursuing 2nd Order work as a self-identified Pagan, I know that I have to shift gears. This is difficult for me, and represents a serious level of dedication. I once promised myself and others that I would never do theology, and here I am, about to enter a Philosophy and Theology program in order to engage these questions in a sustained and critical way. My hope is to engage emerging modern philosophies – like ecstatic naturalism and process philosophy – from a Pagan perspective, in order to see how these might help frame Pagan experience in ways that speak to the modern heart and mind.
As much as I value 2nd Order activity and intend to pursue it as an academic, it is important to note that this work is supplemental; it is not an exchange for the actual being and doing of Paganism. My speculative engagement with these philosophies ought to support that being and doing, not replace it. The problem with the abstract is not that it is abstract, but that it is divorced from lived experience. By engaging critical issues, we challenge ourselves to live more deeply, more authentically, and more thoughtfully as a consequence. Whether we honor the Aesir or the Goddess, meditate silently or pour out offerings, let our practice affirm our sacred relationship to this world and its many Beings – however we envision them.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Walking the Path: Public Shrine Project!

Today was yet another long one, with the morning devoted to finishing up a two-week dive into Christianity for my World Religions class, and the afternoon dedicated to spending a number of hours with my grabber-claw and trash bag, cleaning the garbage out of the stream running through the local park. You may remember this picture from several posts ago:
The sun was at that awkward, "always blinding no matter where you look even with sunglasses on" angle, but I managed to clear out a hefty bag's worth of junk. It amazes me that no matter how much I clean, one month later things go back to the way they were! Needless to say, my own attempts to connect with the nature spirits or "land wights" of my area require me to make the effort. I doubt I could approach them with any measure of respectability or worth if I didn't at least take the time to make amends for the disrespect of my human kin.

After cleaning, I sat for a little while with my shoes off in the water, enjoying the shade of my favorite tree; it has wonderfully complex, raised, concatenated roots, with deep little hollows beneath some of them. The sun had lowered to a different angle, and the light softened into a comfortable glow, with little glare. Given the amount of stray branches lying around - most of which were probably snapped off the trees and bushes by kids making rudimentary fishing poles to catch crawdads with - I realized that said wood was better used to erect an altar to the land wights, simple though it may be.

There is no "No Littering" sign in the park. There is no reminder to the humans who frequent it that the land they hold in common actually doesn't belong to them. There is no sense among the irresponsible teenagers who fling beer bottles into the stream that they have an obligation, as power-holders, to care for and honor the land that ultimately supports them. What better way to get people thinking than to leave behind a marker of some kind?

I used found wood. The ground even near the stream is thick, hard clay, so it couldn't be too complicated or heavy. I didn't have an offering with me - only some wild grasses and the grabber-claw I used to pick up trash. I erected the altar, called out to the land wights, and named my service as an offering to them. I left the grasses behind as another gift.

I've loved the idea of the Public Shrine Project ever since I read about it over at Gangleri's Grove. But because I spend so much time cleaning up left-behind crap, I've been anxious to create an altar that is made entirely out of found materials. I hope that this tiny, rudimentary altar is enough to honor the land wights, and to raise awareness of their presence.

featured: Trash Grabber-Claw