Listening Is an Act of Dilation

This day is crushing me.

 

I’m overcaffeinated, hanging at the library while my son attends a class. My kids have been bickering for what seems like days on end and I am no Mary Poppins. My daughter’s bored and keeps interrupting my work.  I doodle and draw random arrows shooting at the margins of the page.

And this is random too but last night I went to the Madison Community Foundation dinner and heard Dan Rather give a keynote address on “philanthropy” and “community” and he mentioned the importance of being a good listener, in our communities and in the leaders we elect.

Which was a little strange, because today I planned to say something in here about listening as creative act. How it’s sacred, even, to listen fully to another being. How we’re co-creative not just with our gods and gardens, but with each other.

And how that gets lost too often here in the online world. It gets lost too often in general, because we’re trained by our education system and our sports heroes to zero in on weakness, on flaw. We object, deny, challenge. Christine Hoff Kraemer recently wrote about  the harmfulness of negative comments, but even at our best, it seems dialogue becomes a sport.

I suck at sports.

I don’t want to cancel debate team but shouldn’t there be other models of discourse too?

I was going to write about how listening is at its best a form of compassion, and then I was going to bring in Milan Kundera’s beautiful words on the subject:  how com-passion is “suffering with,” a radical empathy with another, much different from pity. He goes into this in The Unbearable Lightness of Beingdiscussing Tomas’s character. Which used to be my almost favorite book in the world. Then I got a little older and realized that Immortalityjust may be better, even without Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin.

And anyway the book is missing from the shelf.

I was going to write how, instead of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, I try to stretch myself into a gigantic diaphanous tympanic membrane every morning, just barely quivering against the surfaces of the day, trembling at the slightest fricative. Because I tremble.

Not that we shouldn’t call out bigotry, blindspots, assumption, privilege when we hear it or see it, but we may be failing each other if that is all we do. We can hear each other to our best selves. I’m convinced of this.

Listening is a creative act. This I believe. It is the poet’s first act, before pen ever touches paper. What I hear says a lot about who I am—what you read when you read my poem or my paragraph here says a lot about you and not maybe so much about me. In a strange transformation I don’t really understand, the poem becomes the mirror, the still pond. The poet becomes that non-paradox that is paradoxical only because our go go go yangsoaked extroverted culture doesn’t recognize active and interactive receptivity. In 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson “My Business is Circumference.” I see my work as dilation, opening.

If that sounds sexy, it’s supposed to.

As a mirror shows not just your face but whatever or whoever is behind you, over your shoulder, so active listening hears a comment and tries to suss out what is behind the words. Listening not so much for ulterior motive as for ghost. Mind, I’m not saying I do it well.

I was going to write all this, and it was going to be lyrical and pensive, persuasive and if I got lucky maybe even provocative. But…it’s summer. Humidity and heat, lawnmower drone. These days even the squirrels take some hours out just to hang, stretched out flat on a branch.

Maybe they’re listening too.

 

 

If you’re interested in thinking and learning more about sacred listening, try The Listening Center. I haven’t taken any classes but I did listen to one of her lectures. Good stuff. 

 

 

 

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On the Nature of Green(s)

Author’s note: This is what happens when you dive back into your old  college major after twenty years more or less away. It’s a bit heady, some weeks, the learning curve. Some weeks it’s all  I can do to stare out into the trees. 

 

Recently I’ve been thinking again about Greens.

I experience Green—or maybe it’s more accurate to say I’ve experienced multiple greens. I think we all do—though we don’t all talk about it, I guess. Some people don’t like to discuss greens. Others find it beside the point. Myself, I’m fascinated. Recently I was lucky enough to listen in on an assemblage of very smart people who were discussing the nature of greens. Since I haven’t really thought hard about Green in a long time—although I have had some more or less direct experiences—I listened eagerly to learn what I could.

“It think we can all agree Green is Green,” began the first. “It is essentially one color, with many variations.” He displayed paint sample cards from the hardware store to prove his point.

Another person waved her hands in the air, objecting, “Wait a minute. You simply cannot lump Lime, Seafoam, Pine, Kelly, Teal, and Olive—and those are only a few of the possibilities, remember— into one big amorphous Green. They may all be Greens, but they are distinct and separate shades. I do not experience them as unified—and I would never mix and match,” she added, as she sat down.

“I mix and match all the time,” said a man dressed in loosely flowing garments swirled with various shades. The other shrugged and thought to herself, perhaps he just doesn’t know better.  But she decided to keep that opinion to herself.

A couple came to the front at this point, and said that that Green is really a combination of blue and yellow, not one color at all but a blend, an eternal combination of two. “Think of it as a dance,” they said. “You can’t have one without the other.” And they explained that in all their thinking about Green, they focus on the blueness and yellowness, to different degrees at different times.

They were regarded doubtfully by some. “All right…” was the reply, “But I haven’t experienced this blue-and-yellow dance you speak of. Green doesn’t look like blue and yellow to me. It looks like Green. Green is—for me at least—one color.” “Or a multitude,” reminded the man in swirls. His friends nodded.

“Green is found in trees,” replied someone. “If you want to understand Green, look at leaves.” Someone else shook their head. “Green is more than trees. Walking in a forest doesn’t necessarily help us define Green.”

“I first encountered Green through Spock,” countered another. “I used to apologize for that, but I don’t any more. And, though

I no longer identify as a Trekkie…I’m still sort of fond of Leonard Nimoy.” “Who isn’t,” a voice answered.

A new person stood up. “I have looked closely, and there’s no difference between green and red. You all are discussing something that doesn’t exist.” The person next to them said, “Well, maybe you’re colorblind.” They turned and smiled down. “Maybe I’m Clear Sighted–I see more clearly than you do, who believe in Green.”

Another added, after a moment’s pause, “I think we need to break down our ideas about blue and yellow anyway—it’s a lot more complicated than our language allows for at this point.”

“And don’t forget,” a high voice in the back chimed in, “Painters through history have proved sometimes Green may have a bit of red or brown mixed in. It’s not as clear cut as blue and yellow.” Now an argument broke out as to whether shades of red and brown would really affect Green, whether Green could be diluted to the point of being non-Green. What if the paintings were really old, faded or damaged? Could they be trusted as sources? And not everyone was comfortable with blue any longer. Chairs were toppled in the fray but fortunately someone grabbed the mike and it made one of those awful electronic howls which hurt everyone’s ears and reminded them to find their seats once more.

“This is silly. There is an obvious answer. Green is defined by science. There is a range in the light spectrum commonly agreed on. That’s what we can and must rely on.”

Another woman from the front tiredly shook her head as though she had heard this line before. “No one is discounting science in this group. But in questions like this, that’s just another human construct. Who decides how to measure and where to draw the lines on that spectrum human scientists provide?”

A younger man stood up. “And that spectrum doesn’t explain my feelings when I see Green,” he argued. “I can’t and won’t try to separate how Green affects me from the nature of some abstract Green. Green is an interaction, for me.”

“We haven’t even taken synesthesia into account yet,” another said. “Green for me is the number 5 and a high soprano.”

Meanwhile back in a far corner a few people were whispering that teal was not really a Green at all and shouldn’t be counted. At which point, others jumped up shouting that teal is a Green, very definitely a Green, and they who love teal need to be respected. They had tattoos to prove it.

“Can we talk about capitalization?” someone asked.

At this point, I felt the need to escape the hall for a few moments and went to find a drink of water. The voices continued, but all I could hear now was the rise and fall of the general murmur through the doors. I stared out the window into the trees, wondering what I was missing.

 

 

Being Batty: Polytheism, Experience, and Monistic Reduction

Editor’s note: We are pleased to host this guest essay by Julian Betkowski, who will be presenting on “Polytheism and American Life” at the upcoming Polytheist Leadership Conference.  Readers are invited to approach this essay as part of ongoing conversations about the philosophical implications of Polytheism, which (here at Patheos Pagan) have recently included Gus diZerega’s “Polytheism, Emergence, and the One” and Christopher Scott Thompson’s “Polytheistic Monism.”


Certainly the mind-body problem is difficult enough that we should be suspicious of attempts to solve it with the concepts and methods developed to account for very different kinds of things. (Nagel, 2001, p. 42)

Thomas Nagel is a humanist philosopher specializing in Theory of Mind. His work has not been without controversy, yet he has substantially affected the ongoing conversations regarding consciousness and the experience of being. In his seminal 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” he explores the difficulties involved in understanding the experiences of different beings, and the problems that arise when attempt to reduce that experience to some other underlying feature. Nagel explains:

 I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours  that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (even though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat know what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life. (p. 438)

Whatever surface characteristics we share with bats, their way of being in the world is fundamentally different from our own. Their structural, physiological layout informs their relationship with the world in a way that is quite distinct and dissimilar to our own. Yet, it would seem strange to assert that because of these differences that they do not experience. Bats remain relatable enough that we are still capable of recognizing them as individual loci of experience. Nagel continues:

 But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. (p. 438)

If we are to consider the experience of a bat, we are faced with a powerful dilemma, while we can understand the bat as an experiencing being, are we really capable of understanding the contents or substance of that experience? The sensory perceptions of the bat, it appears, must be structured in a way that is quite removed from our own perceptual experience. Of course, we are capable of imaginatively reconstructing from our own experiences an idea of what it may be like to experience as we suspect a bat experiences, however:

 In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. (p. 439)

Our imagination is limited in that it can only insert our own point of view, modified, perhaps, through various permutations and expectations or assumptions about the experience of bats, into a hypothetical situation the resemblance of which to the actual situation of a bat remains unknown. The question is not, “What is it like to imagine to be a bat?” but “What is it like to be a bat?” There remains an essential bat experience that is distinct from any imaginary state of battiness. Our own imagination is limited by our experiences, and the materials that it has at hand to manipulate. Whatever permutations we may apply to our own sensory experiences, they will not necessarily tell us anything about the experience of a bat itself. If we are to understand the experience of bats, then:

 The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if only we knew what they were like. (p. 439)

We are only able to get so close to an understanding of the experience of bats before our own imaginative faculties fail us. In order to understand the being of a bat, we would need access to the experiences of a bat, and that data appears to be beyond our grasp.

 Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth proposition expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them. (p. 441)

The existence and apparent experiencing of bats informs us that there is, at least, some way of being in the world that remains beyond our comprehension. The experiences of a bat cannot be reduced to scientific data about its sensory apparatus or other details of its embodiment, nor can they be directly equated with our imaginative attempts to insert our own point of views into the experience of a bat. However incisive the nature of our inquisition into the experience of a bat, the bat remains forever distinct and dissimilar: its experience remains utterly its own.

In a more recent work, Mind and Cosmos (2012), Thomas Nagel further explores the dangers of reductionistic approaches to experience and consciousness. Throughout the work, he explores the general thesis that:

 Our existence presents us with the fact that somehow the world generates conscious beings capable of recognizing reasons for action and belief, distinguishing some necessary truths, and evaluating the evidence for alternative hypotheses about the natural order. We don’t know how this happens, but it is hard not to believe that there is some explanation of a systematic kind—an expanded account of the order of the world. (p. 31)

He consistently argues that consciousness cannot be accounted for by traditional physiological reduction, and that regardless of the physiological connections, they tell us nothing about the actual experience of conscious being. We are embedded in and formed out of the material of the world, and so therefore our understanding of the world itself must be capable of accounting for the undeniable presence of our consciousnesses and experiences. Consciousness and experience can be read as necessary qualities of the world itself. Further, even if the exact correlation between the physical state and mental state were uncovered, it would remain insufficient to account for the actual experience itself, without some further explanatory framework:

 Merely to identify a cause is not to provide a significant explanation, without some understanding of why the cause produces the effect. (p. 45)

Indeed, while it is true that we are all formed out of the same general matter as everything else in the universe, this does not tell us anything about the subjective qualities experienced and contained within the various specialized forms which that matter manifests. Any underlying similarity, in fact, tells us shockingly little about the manifold differences and variations that abound in the world around us, nor does it inform us as to the discrete experiences and subjective qualities of diverse beings. Despite our several similarities to bats, the direct knowledge of what it is like to be a bat remains beyond us.

While our consciousnesses and experiences undoubtedly occur within the world, and overlap with a great deal of other features and qualities of that world, we remain ever and always unique and distinct. There are features and elements of the world that remain beyond our grasp simply as a result as our nature as humans, and, it seems, that the inverse is also true, that there are qualities and understandings of human being that are only accessible through human experience. As Nagel observes in his 1974 essay:

 Members of radically different species may both understand the same physical events in objective terms, and this does not require that they understand the phenomenal forms in which those events appear to the sense of member of the other species. Thus it is a condition of their referring to a common reality that their more particular viewpoints are not part of the common reality that they both apprehend. (p. 445) [emphasis mine]

So enters Polytheism. Polytheism seeks to come to terms with a world full of experiencing beings, a world full of beings who are so unique and different that we have no expectation of being able to fully comprehend them or their viewpoints. Polytheism emerges from an innate respect for the uniqueness and profundity of individual experience, and recognizes its fundamental irreducibility not merely to its bare material substrate, but to other experiences in general. Polytheism treats all experience as unique and precious, and deserving of appreciation. Experiencing beings cannot be automatically equated with each other, nor can their experiences be homogenized into one comprehensible whole. There may even, in fact, be discrete elements the experiences of discrete beings that are utterly incompatible, and which cannot be reconciled. In a universe full of experiences, nothing can be reduced to one.

More simply stated, from the viewpoint of Polytheism, any potential oneness of the universe is simply not its most important defining feature, nor does that potential oneness necessarily reveal anything about the lived experience of the various beings that pervade the universe. From the view of Polytheism, it is important to allow experience to maintain its primacy, to speak for itself. The mystery of Polytheism springs from the great expanse of secret experience, from experience that is beyond us, and from our interaction with unique and idiosyncratic beings whose experience we recognize as special and profound. Polytheism is not just about encountering the world, but about the world encountering us, and the richness of that interplay and interaction. Polytheism does not seek to explain the world according to any single diagram, but remains open-ended and expansive, receptive to possibilities and uncertainties. Indeed, from this perspective, monism seems to entail a persistent disregard for experience, and shifts the focus away from the multitudinous variation of the universe toward some projected unity.

In an analyses of the flaws of the Perennial Philosophy, a form of monism popular in many forms of contemporary spiritualities, Transpersonal Theorist Jorge Ferrer employs the following story to illustrate the difficulties inherent in focusing only on similarities:

 The nature of this problem can be illustrated by the popular story of the woman who, observing her neighbor entering into an altered state of consciousness three consecutive days first with rum and water, then through fast breathing and water, and finally with nitrous oxide with water, concludes that the reason for his bizarre behaviors was the ingestion of water. The moral of the story, of course, is that what is essential or more explanatory in a set of phenomena is not necessarily what is most obviously common to them. (2002, p. 91)

The similarities that run through the universe simply may not be the most important defining characteristics of the universe, or the beings that compose it. Ferrer continues:

 Although it is certainly possible to find parallels across religious traditions, the key to the spiritually transforming power of a given tradition may lie in its own distinctive practices and understandings. (2002, p. 91-92)

If we are going to remain open to experience, then we need to be aware of the way that totalizing claims impact and affect our ability to understand and allow for the experiences of others. Even the assertion that everything is one potentially undermines and discounts the understandings of others whose experiences may lead them to differing conclusions. Polytheism seeks to avoid such claims simply by acknowledging the apparent diversity and variation not only in the world around us, but also in the real, lived experiences both of ourselves and other multitudinous others surrounding us.

I assert that we make a profound mistake when we attempt to apologize all points of view, all traditions, and all experiences. The profundity and richness of the universe is a result of the majesty and breadth of our differences. Polytheism seeks to embrace those differences exactly as they are presented to us. This is not to say, however, that under the aegis of Polytheism, anything goes, simply that Polytheism is more concerned with discrete experience, individual identity, and difference than with providing a single, all encompassing, explanatory model of the entire universe. Indeed, such models tend to ignore significant details that may, in fact, dramatically affect and inform our experience and understanding of the world around us.

I suspect that most Monists do not understand Monism as reductionistic, however it has been my intention to demonstrate how Monism can be read as a kind of reduction, particularly with regards to experience. Even if it is understood as structurally compatible with Polytheism, Monism still undermines and contradicts the general ethos of polytheistic thought. To those who would then assert that I am missing the point of Monism, I can only reply, then, that they are missing the point of Polytheism. It is not that I do not understand their position, simply that I do not find it very interesting or useful.

 

References:

Ferrer, J. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nagel, T. (2012). Mind & cosmos: Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat?. The Philosophical Review. 83,4, p. 435-450

“The New Face I Turn Up to You”

The windchime outside my window sings to the breeze. Lawnmowers drone. It’s a mazy, lazy day, this last day before the adventure of summer begins for my family. I should be productive, but I’m distracted by a poem I’ve had in my head for a few days now, Alice Walker’s “New Face.”  I’m not the hugest Walker fan out there—love The Color Purple and In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens but not every book, right? But this poem. This poem. It’s wise.

It’s wise to know we have twin and triple selves. We can, and we do. It’s wise to know we need the freedom to explore those multiple selves—to face them. That somehow, we can’t love fully and grow into ourselves if life locks us into a repeating pattern.

But there’s the rub. Because life sure does try its hardest to lock us in, shut us down, keep us traveling well-worn ruts. Maybe not “life”…when I look out at summer coming in, when I watch my kids grow into themselves, I see how in this universe creativity wells up and spills over. No, it’s something about the systems and societies we find ourselves in. A system wants to perpetuate itself, and it will use us (and use us up) to maintain.

Are you in healthy systems? Is it working for you? Is it working for your neighbor?

When I look at headlines, at news, at what is going on, I feel trapped, and fearful. Don’t you?

People talk about “imagination” and “creativity” as though these are qualities of childhood, somehow lost as we grow older. When I admit to people I am a writer (a poet, even!) I’ll hear a sigh in response, “It’s so wonderful that you are creative.” This is the same response that children get, on coloring a sky pink or green or a horse polka dotted, “What a great imagination you must have.” But imagination, creativity, are qualities we all have and can tap into, if we have the courage to do so. I find it’s mostly courage we lack, though we find excuses to explain it away in other terms.

I wonder if we have an ethical responsibility to develop creativity and imagination within ourselves, to encourage it in others. To be willing to see new faces in those we love. I’m talking about radical engagement. With each other. With life. Are. You. Happy.

I’m thinking again about that last post I wrote on ergodic literature. Paths not taken…voices not heard… Eventually, I hope these pieces I write will link into and between each other, forming a textual labyrinth, a maze of more than three dimensions. Any maze becomes a mirror, the better to see ourselves. And that makes me think of something I wanted to ask Wayland.

You were imprisoned and flew away on wings
of your own devising, like Daedalus.

There are similarities, yes.

Then what can you tell me of mazes?

I can tell you how the smith folds and hammers steel
over itself, again and again. The layers give strength.

Every once in a while it would be nice
to get a straight answer.

Straight lines are hard for us.

Layering. Curving back around. Digressions, diversions, paths, choices. Creating a maze. Creating amaze. This is how to stay sharp. To live awake to the world, you have to find your own happiness, choose your own way, accept your own power and responsibility. And when I write “you” I mean me, too. This is inviting the wound. We may have to find new faces for ourselves. That can be…awkward.

Once in my life I was too afraid to dare happiness. Maybe it is equally true to write, once upon a time I did not know myself. One time, I turned away from the proffered mirror. And for a while, all my gods deserted me. I swore then I would never again fear where life might take me.

If that sounds like a dare, it is. The same dare the Fool makes every time she steps off the cliff and trusts the path will meet her foot.

How better to enter summer?

 

 

A Theology of Trees and Fractals

June, and my yard is full of leaves again. I’ve been thinking about trees, about forests, dense and wild and other. It’s funny but I can’t think about forests without thinking about the branching paths we take through them, or maybe, the paths that lead us deep into the heartwood. Any forest is a labyrinth, a fractal pattern, complex at every level. Choose a path.

***

I’m reading a book from 1997 on ergodic literature, Cybertext by Espen J. Aarseth. “Ergodic” looks like the gods might be hiding in the text, but Aarseth states the word“derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” Unlike a traditional novel or movie, in ergodic literature, narrative is interrupted and the reader must make active choices when the paths fork. The easiest example might be Choose Your Own Adventure books, which I devoured as a kid. Interactive games are obvious examples. The Tarot deck is another. Ergodic literature is wildly fun, juicy, and completely intense all at once:

“you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed.”

Every day we wake up is Choose Your Own Adventure, wildwood, labyrinth, if we have the eyes to see. I live on the border of grassland and woodland, in Southern Wisconsin. Or: I live in deep forest, the same deep forest we all wander through, that most of us have forgotten. Choose your reality; both are true.

***

Trees catch the wind and give it voice. Words catch at thought. These words like twiggy fingers snag on ghosts and gods. I read over my journals and weave dream and shadow together, stitch that cloth to noon o’clock until everything is weightless, suspended in blue.

The house swings up through ash trees,
to hang in light-scalloped air and interstice,
a lacework net of leaf and gap exactly
like a well-told joke that dangles us
over the pit of the true strange…

***

Sometimes I think of myself as a guide of sorts—

A guide? You? Wayland laughs.
No, I think not—a translator, maybe.

***

Choose a path. We have three large and lyrical ash trees in our yard. Someday not too far off they will all three die from the emerald ash borers now found in Dane county. In one of them, we’ve started hanging bird houses, round little doors peeking out among the green, darts of color and touches of whimsy. I know a woman who tucks her poems into an old birdhouse in her garage. Sandwiched between generations and caring for multiple relatives, she has no time to revise or send work out into the world, and she has no space in her house to call her own. I look at my birdhouse tree, the multiple doorways. Maybe I will start to poke my poems into those apertures, just as I poke them into these essays. Maybe I will shred them and let the birds weave them into their nests, along with my hair and the straw I never spin into gold. Offerings.

***

…Just like a joke,
the crack of alarm gives way to laughter’s gasp.
No one told us this was the day
our possessions would go weightless,
our footsteps sound across suddenly taller floors.

***

Paper comes from trees. All the leafy, dream-soaked notebooks I have written my way through—are my words worth the death of the trees it took to house them? They’d better be.

Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level…

–Italo Calvino

(The gods are not even hiding.)

***

Is mine a theology of the Wildwood? Or is it a theology of poems? Of fractals?

Same thing. He’s reading over my shoulder.
Sometimes the Adventure chooses you.

***

“Work” and “path” may be how we locate our gods. Love is work. Poems are work. Living well is work. Asking the big questions and staying ready for the answers is work. Work worth doing. Halfway through the writing of this, I look up from my screen and realize how much of the art in my house features trees. Abstract, realistic, partial or completely representational, trees have been with me a long time, I guess.

 

In my parents’ house, the walls are covered with birds.

Why I Dislike “-Ist”s but Love Raven Kaldera

Over the past few years of teaching theology to Pagans, I’ve slowly stopped applying theological “-ist” labels to myself. My theology has evolved throughout my life and isn’t likely to stop. Moreover, at least in the Pagan movement (which tends to attract spiritual experimenters and explorers), having an evolving theology is the norm. When I teach theology, one of my students’ assignments is to go out into their communities and interview others about their beliefs and practices. Over the years, this assignment has produced a fairly clear portrait of contemporary Pagans as people whose beliefs are actively and self-consciously in process, not pinned down in a set of rigid doctrines that cannot be questioned. Even more exciting have been the opportunities to watch my students’ beliefs change as they encounter ideas and approaches that are new to them. When I put together some of my class materials into an introductory book on Pagan theologies, I called it Seeking the Mystery because no one system of thought can ever encompass the totality of our spiritual experiences or our evolving knowledge of divinity, however we understand She/He/It/Them. That necessary incompleteness is the mystery that keeps us engaged and ever open to revising our perspectives.

Accordingly, I tend to say things like “I have ***-istic beliefs and practices” rather than to say “I am a(n) ***-ist.” It feels more honest, and it also helps me avoid situations where potential co-religionists want me to produce my theological ID card, to make sure I’m a “real” -ist before they’ll listen to me speak or read my work. I’m also fairly private about my personal practice and my relationships with other-than-human persons; if I make no claim to embodying any particular theological viewpoint, I find, people tend to be a bit less inquisitive about the details. (That being said, I was interviewed under a different name in a recently published ethnography of modern polytheism. Any regular reader of this blog who is sufficiently curious will probably have no trouble identifying me there.)

When I teach, I do my best to downplay my personal beliefs, since my aim is to help students think critically and encounter texts and ideas with minimal bias from me. Here’s the secret truth, though: of the maybe two dozen books and essays we look at in my introductory theology class, my favorite is Raven Kaldera’s Dealing with Deities.

It’s not the most academic of the books–in fact, it may be one of the least. It doesn’t have footnotes, and it doesn’t make any claim to scholarly authority, nor does it attempt to lay out a doctrine for all Pagans or all polytheists. It’s based on experience and written conversationally, accessibly, engagingly, compassionately. And, frustratingly, when students come to my class, it’s rare that any of them have ever heard of it.

Although I’ve recommended Kaldera’s work in my books, here on this blog, over at the Harvard Pluralism Project site, on the Seeker channel here at Patheos, and elsewhere, Dealing with Deities is still much less well known than I think it deserves. Rather than writing a traditional review, however, I’d like to simply post a few excerpts, in the hopes that readers will be intrigued enough to pick up a copy and read more.

The conflict-avoidant pick-your-own-truth [approach] is great for personal spiritual practice if one intends to be an eternal solitary practitioner―and, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that path and many people are called to it―but truths (and I deliberately use the plural for this word) have always created conflicts. Fear of proposing any absolute doctrines―or even doctrines predicated on accepting specific beliefs for the moment because they seem to work―means that one does not dare to explore serious questions about how the Gods and the Universe functions. In the other direction, there are gaps in the meager surviving written records of the ancients that leave large holes in how those serious questions were seen in their faith[.…] Without comparing the divine inspiration of a great number of believers, we cannot begin to fill in those gaping holes. The assumption that the Gods no longer speak to human beings, and that they cannot understand the modern human situation, discounts the living faith experience of thousands of people.

So how do we begin to construct a theology that is authentic to our experiences, as polytheists, of how the Universe works? We can start by finding a middle ground, where we keep an open mind and are able to entertain the idea of change … and at the same time, we are on the lookout for corroborating information, whether from ancient or modern sources. We can also start by talking about our beliefs and experiences, and listening to each other even when we are disagreeing. (5)

 

At one point in the past, a group of archetypists rented my back field to do their ritual. They were polite and didn’t leave trash around, so I was fine with letting them have it. Out of courtesy, they invited me to attend, and gave me a copy of the ritual to peruse. As I read their very archetypist view of the Gods, complete with ordering them down to give various favors and conflating large groups of deities from different cultures who barely resembled each other, I wondered if I should attend. The voice from my patron deity came immediately: No. Surprised, I asked if this was offensive to Her and to other Gods. No, she said. They don’t know any better, so we don’t care. But you know better. From your mouth, those words would be an offense. (14)

 

Deities have aspects that are more human and less human. We sometimes refer to these as “higher” or “lower” aspects, but the value judgment inherent in those terms makes me reluctant to use them. These aspects are not better or worse than each other; they are solely about how personal and close to human, or how impersonal and close to the undifferentiated divine, an aspect of Deity may be.

Personal aspects―which always get pictured in my head as the little end of a stalactite―are the places where the Gods are closest to human. They argue, they fight, they make mistakes, they are short-sighted and do not access the full truth of their divine abilities. (Although when they err, they do that also on a grand scale.) They also love, with personal fervor as opposed to impersonal distance; they love each other in this way, and sometimes mortals as well.

This is not the kind of love that we think of as in “God loves me,” it is a deeply personal and passionate interest in someone, not a transpersonal “Yes, I love your divine spark gently from afar.” This is the kind of love offered when a God or Goddess comes to a worshiper and becomes an intimate companion who is always there for you when you need them, offering a shoulder to cry on without judgment for the justice of your pain. The shape of the relationship can still take many forms, which we will discuss in a further chapter, but the key is that you can feel their subjective attention, close up, and you give them yours as well.

As we move up the symbolic stalactite, the aspects become less personal―and less interested in you personally. The higher aspect of a given deity is more emotionally distant, more archetypal, still recognizably them, but less human and more godlike. One could imagine it as that deity’s “higher self”. From the perspective of this aspect, they may still love you, but it is your own higher self that they love, and that love is more impersonal, transpersonal, loving your divine spark rather than your human frailties. From this point, their main interactions with you will have the end-goal of your own self-improvement―bringing you closer to that higher self by any means necessary―and your use in the improvement of the world. From this point, they see high and far and do not make the mistakes that their more human aspects make.

It is hard to describe the qualitative feeling between a humanlike or more godlike aspect of the Divine; it may be one of those many situations common to these interactions where we can only give a frustrating “I know it when I feel it.” The quality of the interaction is very different, and the humanlike eye-to-eye intensity is replaced with a sense of overwhelming awe. The gulf between us and them seems much more uncrossable with a higher-self aspect, whereas we are often amazed at how close they seem when they come to us in a humanlike aspect. (37-38)

 

After all the discussing I’ve done so far about polytheism and the separateness of deities, now I have to talk about when the situation isn’t so clear. What happens when we follow the nature of deity upward past their less humanlike aspect?

What happens is that the Gods do, on that level, begin to blend together. They seem to blend by affinity―love goddesses together, death gods together―and yet they are more complex than that, so their blendings do not resemble our simplistic two-dimensional ideas about them. However, please keep in mind that at this level their interactions with human beings are extremely transpersonal, which means, also, impersonal. They are less likely to love you in a focused, individual way, and more likely to extend love toward your higher self, drawing it out instead of your emotions. They are also less likely to make contact with you in general.

Above this is what could be called the Architect of the Universe, although even to say that would imply more of a human consciousness than is actually there. We, with our meat-brains and mortal lives, have a terrible time conceiving of anything we can’t anthropomorphize in some way, and that includes the “highest”―or most transpersonal, anyway―level of Existence. This is not about some divine Father or Mother who is set over the other Gods. This is about their higher selves blending together, and the point just beyond that. It both is and is not separate from them and from us. Is that confusing? Of course it is. The further we get from humanness, the further we get from anything we can conceive of in human terms.

So let’s leave human terms, and stick to observations. The observed fact, in my experience, is that to the Architect of the Universe, we are motes of dust, and we get the attention given to motes of dust. The problem is that human beings often love the idea of getting personal attention from the Highest Form Of Existence, because our ego thinks that would be the best sort of attention―ironically, given that all the oldest transcendent religions have observed that the only way to get any closer to the Architect of the Universe is to give up ego entirely, as well as the need to get personal attention and all the rest of our human foibles. It’s the paradox of transcendence―the only way to get to the top of the mountain is to eventually lose all your reasons for getting there. (43)

 

Without a value judgment, [“going higher”] simply means moving into the realm where the Gods begin to blur and become less distinct, less human, less involved in our world, and less interested in us personally. While some people are called to work largely with these aspects―and perhaps with the point where they blur altogether―it is not the calling for everyone, or even most people. It doesn’t make one more evolved, either. It may just be about balance. Perhaps those who are legitimately called to a pantheistic, panentheistic, or even higher henotheistic relationship with the Gods are the people who tend to cut things up into little pieces too often, to refuse to see the forest for the trees, to concentrate on petty details instead of looking at the big picture. Perhaps those who are called to work with more specific aspects are the people who think big and vague, and forget their own humanness. Perhaps there are a multitude of reasons more subtle and personal than this, but each aimed at making someone more evolved through their relationship to the Gods. (48)

 

[T]he further you get down the path you’re supposed to walk, the more synchronicity and less randomness there will be in your life. Patterns begin to emerge that had not resolved before. It’s not mysterious―it’s a natural phenomenon, and our Gods are both cause and guides to the process. However, it also means that stepping onto the path―consciously or otherwise―and then stepping back off due to fear, poor judgment, or just being an imperfect human creature can bring a greater amount of chaos into our lives than we would have had otherwise. Once the synchronicity is turned up, even just a little bit, we can’t turn back. Is it worth it? In my experience, yes. It is worth every limit placed on our choices, because it brings us closer to the heart of reality.

In addition, some of us need to walk difficult patterns, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because our souls have specific lessons that must be learned, and our particular personalities guarantee that we won’t learn them the easy way. Sometimes it’s bigger than our own personal path―someone has to walk that road, because it is necessary to the Universe, and we unconsciously volunteer because of our choices, or we are actively chosen by the Holy Powers because we happen to be some combination of karmically available and best suited to survive the task. When this happens―when we are taken by the Holy Powers to walk a path that might not otherwise have been our own personal path―our thread, as it were, is tied to that of a larger and more impersonal one, and our own destiny is subsumed into that wider path. This can come at great cost to us, but we still have at least one choice left. We can do our best to figure out how that larger path is best walked, or we can give up and fail out. In a case like this, the hard parts aren’t necessarily because someone is doing it wrong. They may be endemic to the larger, more difficult road, and no one gets to the end of it without experiencing them.

That goes for the Gods, too. After all, don’t they have their myths with trials and pitfalls that they must endure? (121)