Evolution vs. Reconstruction

Recently I find myself increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated by reconstructionist Paganism. This is a bit of a turn-around for me from earlier years when I was very much impressed by the apparent scholarly acumen of people willing to dig into medieval and ancient history to retrieve bits of information about pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices that could be built upon anew. I still respect the scholarly enterprise of investigating the past, but I have become increasingly suspicious of certain aspects and implications of the reconstructionist enterprise.

First of all, the attitude of a good many reconstructionists seems to be to privilege the past over the present, to judge that those living in the good old days of medieval or ancient wherever were really in touch with spiritual truth whereas we moderns and post-moderns are sadly misguided creatures cut off from primal reality. And so, we must strive to emulate the wise ones of the past as much as possible. I see a major problem with this, in that we don't know enough about the past practitioners of Paganism to make such grand statements about their superiority. We have some of their traditions in fragmentary form; that is all we have. I enjoy those fragments of myth and belief and take inspiration from them, but it seems intellectually dishonest to assume that we today can know past traditions completely or how to follow them just as the past masters supposedly did.

I also note that in America, many modern followers of Paganism, at least Norse-Germanic Paganism/Asatru, interpret the Norse-Germanic traditions in ways that are suspiciously similar to American conservative views and values. I have commented on this many times before, so I will just give the short version, with just two key points: (1) emphasis on machismo, war and militarism, equating modern soldiers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan with Viking warriors or Odin's einherjar, and making this the most holy of holies, as if Odin and Thor were employees of the Pentagon; (2) interpreting medieval eddas, sagas and texts describing small-scale, pre-modern, pre-industrial communities through the lens of typically American conservative anti-government attitudes that prioritize rugged individualism and small-town living, and disdain modern government attempts to provide for collective welfare, as if Ayn Rand were the reincarnation of Freyja. This is a thoroughly American conservative version of Norse-Germanic lore, with some parallels in right-wing European thought, and is by no means the sole possible or self-evident interpretation that can be applied to Pagan traditions. It is not the "one true faith," in other words. I am not saying that this is not a viable interpretation for those with such conservative views and values, but it is an interpretation that rises out of a particular ideological viewpoint, and it should not be imposed on those of us who do not share such conservative ideology.

Reconstructionist Paganism, by prioritizing the world of the past over the society of the present time, lends itself to conservative political interpretation and manipulation, because the fundamental conservative impulse is to fear and hate the new and the modern. For those of us of more liberal or progressive ways of thinking, who believe that the society of today is better than the society of the past because there has been steady progress in such areas as human rights, respect for women, appreciation of cultural diversity, and the use of government programs to provide for human needs and to not simply leave the old, sick and disadvantaged to wither and die, strict Reconstructionism is a spiritual and political dead end. What we need is an open-ended Paganism that has affection and respect for traditions of the past, but realizes too that we live in a modern world and must not be bound and gagged by the ways of the past.

This means accepting that religions, like any other aspect of human life, will necessarily evolve over time. A great injury done to the Pagan traditions of Europe by the process of Christian domination is that they were not allowed to naturally evolve in a healthy manner. Therefore we are stuck with medieval tales and myths that do indeed feature a good bit of slashing and smashing with swords, spears and other medieval weapons, along with other aspects that speak to other areas of human endeavor, such as family, fertility, beauty, art, agriculture, love, laughter and mystical experience. If Christianity had not come along with its harsh and oppressive influence, how might the religions of Europe have further evolved?

This is an open question that no one can answer definitely, of course. It is hard enough to know what was but impossible to know what might have been. However, I see one analogy that we can at least consider: the case of Hinduism. The earliest forms of Hinduism, the Vedic traditions recorded in such texts as the Rig Veda, are something rather similar to European Paganism, which is why we can talk about Indo-European connections between pre-Christian Europe and early Hindu India. In the Vedas, we find nature-centered polytheism, veneration of ancestors, tales of war, animal sacrifice, gods of many functions.

If India had followed the same trajectory as Europe, and Hinduism the same sequence of events as Paganism, with Christianity coming in and freezing development of this religious tradition, this could have been the end of the story, and Hinduism would be associated with meat-eating, animal-sacrificing, wealth-loving, nature-worshipping warrior tribes. Hinduism however continued to evolve, most spectacularly in the period of the Upanishads. These were philosophical texts from the first millennium BCE that move Hinduism from simple polytheism and a somewhat materialistic view of life to ideas of karma, reincarnation and transcendence. Later came another stage of intense devotion of personalized deities, known as bhakti. All three of these stages still exist and are still respected as spiritual options within the larger fold of Hinduism.

Perhaps if Paganism had been allowed to evolve, it might have undergone some such further stages of development. Well, there is no time like the present. So, let's evolve! New horizons are waiting. You don't have to keep living in a thatched hut, sharpening your axe!

I find exactly this kind of open, progressive attitude among my Scandinavian and German Pagan friends. They are inspired by the Pagan traditions of the past, such as these can be known, but they are not prisoners of the past. They embrace the modern world, and this is also seen in their politics. They are grateful for modern government programs that can provide a better life and better security than in ancient or medieval times. They are not looking to retreat into the past but to build a better future. They have evolved. Can American Pagans do the same? I hope so.

The Barber, the Boss, the GP and Me

Another week has passed since I blogged, it’s been an unremarkable week I suppose. Calvin’s recovery has continued well and you’d never believe he had back surgery less than two weeks ago. We’re inevitably, I suppose, mainly back to that functional communication I talked about last time with the odd “watch your back” and “be careful” thrown in. He did, in an act of extreme trust, ask me to cut the mop of hair he’s been lovingly nurturing for some time, in an attempt to make it easier to keep clean whilst bathing is still disallowed and leaning over the bath is forbidden.

I don’t do haircuts, preferring to leave such things to skilled professionals but armed with some clippers from Argos I set about his head with shakier than usual hands and the kind of fake optimism I usually save for trips to casualty with the youngest child. “Yeah it’s looking great!” I said as he took on the appearance of a dog with sarcoptic mange. The haircut was naturally a family affair with the other two children looking on- a steely glare toward the middle child ensured she said nothing to alert Calvin to the possible catastrophe that his head was becoming; the youngest child could not be kept from pointing out how funny his brother looked. I got to the end of the haircut, sweating and trembling and it looked ok, ok enough that none of us are embarrassed to be seen with Cal- especially since he always wears a hat.

I spoke to my lovely boss this week, nothing major, just a friendly exchange but I did tell her I’d been signed off for another 12 weeks I didn’t have the guts to tell her that I’ll probably get signed off again when that ends. I often wonder what my lovely boss understands about how well or otherwise I am. I submit sick lines- all they say is “bipolar affective disorder” (though curiously my recent one says “acute bipolar affective disorder”) what does this actually tell someone about my condition?

Today for example, and all this past week, this has meant that for the most part I am ok, I am stable. But this week I have suffered the most agonising agitation and restlessness. I’m not talking about needing something to do to keep me occupied; I’m talking about a skin-crawling, muscle aching, stomach churning need for something I can’t identify. This has me pacing round the house most of the time, needing something but unable to focus on anything. I usually resort to Lorazepam to help, which it does for a bit but then I need to sleep off the effects of the Lorazepam. I have no idea what’s causing this recent development, maybe it’s just another of the little in-between episodes joys that bi-polar brings? I’m hoping the fantastic CPN can shed some light tomorrow- or at least persuade the wonderful GP to be less stingy with the Lorazepam prescription.

I’m sure the wonderful GP has good reasons for only ever giving me 14 Lorazepam at a time; in fact I know she does. But this means I have to keep going back to get more and I hate having to ask for such things, in fact contrary to what the staff at my GP practice must believe- I don’t like going to the doctor at all, for anything. I spend far too much time with my wonderful GP; I would quite like to go back to that rarely seen patient I was before all this happened.

Pagan Fundamentalism?

Warning: this blog entry will likely be offensive to some who read it.
Nonetheless, the subject matter is something I have deep feelings about and am eager to see how others feel about this.

When modern-day Pagan or neo-Pagan movements started forming some decades back, many of those involved were excited about creating a definite alternative to Christianity, which many European, Americans and others had come to feel was a seriously flawed religion that had had various negative impacts on western and indeed, world civilization. It was viewed as anti-natural, anti-female, anti-sexual, and intolerant and oppressive toward other forms of tradition and spirituality around the world. One form of Christianity that came in for particularly strong criticism was modern-day fundamentalist Christianity. There was a sense of optimism that we free-wheeling, open-minded, pluralistic, polytheistic worshippers of Pagan gods and goddesses would never succumb to the narrow-minded, closed-off, literalistic, authoritarian tendencies embraced by those we perceived as our Christian foes.

Well, after some decades of development, I detect signs that a kind of fundamentalism is creeping into Paganism. I see this happening at least in American Asatru/Heathenry, and I am wondering is this is an "only in America" phenomenon, or if it may be taking place in other regions too.

I see it in two areas above all. The first place I see it is in an aggressive conviction that the gods are REAL, that they are actual, eternal, living, supernatural beings who watch over us and may intervene in our world as they see fit. This point of view has no tolerance for other perspectives, such as the idea that the gods are psychic or psychological realities more than actual beings, or that they are archetypal symbols a la Jung, or that the gods of this or that tradition are but partial reflections of a larger spiritual reality, like the Brahman that transcends the various personal deities of polytheistic Hinduism, or the Buddha-Mind of certain schools of Buddhist philosophy. Having never met a god in person, nor seen any proof that the assertions by some Pagans that they REALLY have met their gods is anything more than a personal whim or fantasy or psychological quirk, I find myself uneasy with those who take the stance that Odin or Thor or whoever is REAL REAL REAL and if you deny it you are an idiot, a traitor, a loser or an apostate.

Another place I see this creeping fundamentalism is in the tendency to take old Pagan texts, such as Norse myths and sagas, as literal, perfect truth that can neither be questioned nor interpreted metaphorically. If the Eddas say that there are 640 doors in Valhalla, then by Gungnir, there are absolutely and only 640 doors. AND Valhalla is a real place, an actual physical place where warriors chop each other up every day and drink mead every night. AND every warrior who believes in Odin is really really going there. AND Ragnarok is really really going to happen. The world is going to end in a big battle, and so we must all prepare to fight to the death. Don't worry, it will be glorious!

Well, sorry folks, I ain't buying. The emphasis on the gods as literally physically REAL who are out there waiting for us is all too reminiscent of the fundie Christian belief that Jesus lord god is REAL and if you don't take JC as your personal savior, you are going to hell. I don't go for a Pagan equivalent of "I don't care if it rains or freezes, as long as I got my plasic Jesus" along the lines of "I don't care if I have to die in a war, as long as I got my hammer of Thor."

I'm sorry. I know this may be offensive to some who have a sincere desire to worship Freyja, Odin, Thor or others as personal gods. I accept that such an attitude and practice can be very fulfulling, just like a very emotional belief in the Virgin Mary or Saint Fill-in-the-blank may be very meaningful and satisying to many Catholics. I can't do it. I can't go down a road that I rejected long ago and pretend that the new road is different from the old road when it seems to me that it is really just the same road under a different name. Let me explain why.

I have a long history of spiritual exploration. In my teen years, reading books by such eminent thinkers as Carl Jung and Alan Watts opened my mind in ways that left me permanently unable to embrace any kind of narrow-minded creed that puts up road blocks and blinders for the sake of certainty and security. Rereading Alan Watts' autobiography "In My Own Way" recently stirred up renewed apprecation for what Watts and Jung gave me as a young man struggling to come to grips with the variety of religions that all seemed partially compelling to me and partially not. Thinking about the parallels between Christian and Hindu and Buddhist myths and beliefs as laid down by Watts, or the amazing proposition by Jung that we all share in a greater consciousness, unfortunately named with the somewhat pejorative term "collective UNconscious," my sense of religion was permanently altered. I became convinced that there can be no one true religion, only many versions of religious experience put into different words and symbols. I cannot say that one religious teaching or myth or holy man or mystic from one tradition is better than another any more than I can say that Bach is true and Beethoven is false. The reality is vast and words are limited. I accept readily the proposition that each religion has the capacity to carry us to a deeper view of reality beyond our narrow selves.

I see Odin, Thor, Freyr, Freyja as wonderful symbols of important, universal dimensions of reality. Odin on the tree like the Buddha under the tree or Christ on the cross: a symbol of mankind suffering through to wisdom and a glimpse of eternity. Thor with the hammer the eternal hero rising up again and again to quell disorder and injustice. Freyr the bountiful king and the lovesick suitor, with both roles well-known in world literature. Freyja like Aphrodite or Kali, a wild force of feminine nature. I love them all but I cannot see them as literal, real, actual beings who are going to be my personal savior.

I see something greater beyond, a greater spiritual reality that is the source and sum of all things, like the Tao or the Brahman or the interdependent ultimate reality of Buddhism, mirrored perhaps in the Wyrd or Orlog of Norse tradition. Think on this: the gods in Pagan myth are not supreme. There is always a greater order, a higher power of fate. We should be careful to not become the person who can't see the forest for the trees. Or the one who can't even see the tree because they are obsessed with one or two pretty leaves. I think religion should be something that impels us onward to the broadest possible vision of life, not a desperate search for security by clinging tightly to some new "ancient" dogma and shutting off the mind to larger issues of universal truth and meaning.

To lapse into narrow fundamentalism seems to me a terrible mistake, and I do see some of my American Pagan friends going down this road. I hope that in time something will move them to take a larger view. Otherwise, to be a Pagan would seem little different than being a fundamentalist Christian. You just change the names of the gods and the titles of the texts, but the attitude remains the same. After all, you don't even have to give up the fundie Christian belief in a future apocalypse; you just relabel it Ragnarok.

This can't be all that Paganism amounts to, trading in one narrow, literal belief-system for another.

What do you think?

Fixing One Curve, Starting Another

This past week has been another learning curve; I’ve learned lots about myself, my condition and my son.

Last Wednesday my eldest son (Calvin, 16) was admitted to hospital to have an operation – (“lower spinal fusion with instrumentation and autologous ileac grafts” according to the consent form). It’s as major an operation as it sounds but I knew he was in the hands of one of the best surgeons so I wasn’t worried about the success of the operation. I was worried about how both he and I would cope with the before and after bits though.

I needn’t have worried about Calvin, he did extremely well, told me he loved me when he came round and declared himself “officially hard as nails” between doses of morphine. Physio started without delay and it was gruelling and painful but he did so well he walked out of the hospital 5 days post-op.

I was staying in accommodation near the hospital so was on hand most of the day and into the evening for Calvin, fetching Yorkie bars, copies of the Guardian and drinks of water. We chatted, mainly about politics, a little about trains and a lot about things to do when he was better.

This time we spent together, though marred by the after effects of surgery, was precious time. In common with most mums and 16 year old boys, we don’t usually spend a lot of time talking to each other- our exchanges are mainly functional “can you go to the shop for milk?” “yeah” “are you going to school today?” “no” that kind of thing. The conversations we had as he lay in his hospital bed were special and cherished; I’ve learned more about my son in 5 days than I think I’ve learned in the previous 16 years.

To cut down on travelling (especially as I can’t drive at the moment) I stayed in accommodation provided by the family support centre. It was lovely but not quite lovely enough to stop me surviving on very little sleep, I went home on Saturday night to get a rest. Once I’d got over the maternal guilt I had a lovely evening at home and returned to the hospital on Sunday morning relieved but not surprised that Cal had survived the night without me.

It had been a stressful few days and I could feel myself losing my grip a bit. It’s so difficult to articulate how I was feeling. I was agitated, restless, tearful and maddeningly tired from lack of sleep. The final warning sign was waking at 4am on Monday. I decided it was in my best interests and Calvin’s for me to head home as who knew what was coming. I’d spent the whole time at the hospital feeling a bit unstable.

19 hours later I was still awake and generally just going loopy.

I managed to do something I never would have managed to do a few months ago- I recognised it and dealt with it (sleeping tablets), 191/2 hours after waking up I was fast asleep.

I’m still feeling unsettled now, still restless enough that Lorazepam seemed appropriate today. Part of the problem is my ongoing irritation at living on the knife edge that bipolar can be. The toxic stress is inescapable and I am furious at myself for not being able to deal with it.

Stress wise there is a lot going on around me- the country has ground to a halt thanks to snow, the children are off school and we’re generally all feeling a bit fed up of each other. I’ve been in this situation before and coped fine so is it any wonder I find myself furious at my inability to cope without Lorazepam and frequent trips through to the bedroom to hide.

My new medication seems to be working, though it’s difficult to tell. I know I have a full body tremor so bad that hugging me is like holding a frightened rabbit. Drugs to combat the tremor are useless (unless blurred vision is what you’re looking for) and I have to avoid doing anything in front of others that involves using my hands. I struggle to even walk down stairs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about acceptance and recovery lately, just thinking mind you, don’t think I’m far enough out of denial yet to blog about it.