Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.

 

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Hail Eris!

The way things have been going lately, anyone would think that Eris had lobbed an apple pie into the middle of the Patheos Pagan channel. There are so many apple and apple pie related posts, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But let’s keep the discussion civil.

What Eris teaches us is that sometimes throwing all the pieces up in the air to see where they land is a good thing. It’s very uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it is necessary. At the moment, polytheists are going through a phase of throwing everything up in the air to see where it lands (or perhaps it’s an awkward adolescence). Let’s just take care that it doesn’t land on someone and squash them when the dust settles.

Confetti by Andreas Graulund

Throwing it all up in the air to see where it lands…
Confetti by Andreas Graulund on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

Metaphor and Analogy

Metaphors are sometimes useful. But there’s a difference between a metaphor and an analogy.

  • A metaphor is applicable to a situation but can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A classic metaphor is “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns). If you try to turn this into an analogy, it doesn’t work. Robert Burns is not saying that his love has thorns and a stem and the petals fall off. He is saying that his love evokes the same feelings as a red rose (beautiful, sensuous, smells nice). So those qualities of the rose are transferable to the experience of his love; the rest of the rose’s attributes are ignored.
  • An analogy is an exact mapping of one thing to another thing. For example, the solar system is often used as an analogy for atoms (it’s not exactly how atoms work, but it’s a good way to teach kids about atoms). The electrons orbit around the nucleus. The planets orbit around the sun. There’s a direct mapping of all the features of the two systems being compared.
I see John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods as a metaphor, not as an analogy.

What’s wrong with chocolate cake?

I am assuming that in John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods metaphor, the people selling chocolate cake were Wiccans and Wiccanish Pagans. I like chocolate cake and Wicca. I am not so keen on chocolate cake with not enough chocolate in it, but each to their own. This metaphor, however, implies that you can’t mix Wicca and polytheism (or maybe I am reading too much into it). That’s the problem with vague metaphors, they can mean all sorts of things that may not have been intended. I wouldn’t mix chocolate cake with apples – but you most definitely can mix polytheism and Wicca.

 

Many flavours are available

If my view of polytheism is different from yours, that’s a good thing – it means that more flavours of polytheism are available; and that’s helpful. Some people like apple pie with cinnamon; others like it with shortcrust pastry, or puff pastry, or less sugary; others still don’t even like apple pie; some people maintain that desserts are bad for you. There are many desserts available, and many flavours of polytheism (none of which are the One True Flavour).

None of us know objectively what the nature of the gods is; we only perceive them with our limited, local, and finite perspective. It is interesting to discuss their nature and how we interact with them, so that we can learn from each other’s perspectives. But we can’t be certain what the nature of the gods is.

We don’t all like the same flavours

The only way to discover whether one perspective is better than another is by observing its results in the world. If your perspective makes you feel closer to the gods, happy, fulfilled, and able to function effectively as a human being without harming others, then it is probably worth sharing. If your perspective makes you angry, bitter, jealous, and vengeful, then it probably isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.

And, here’s the rub: apple pie with cinnamon makes me say “Yuk!” but for someone else, it may be the only way to make apple pie. That’s just fine, as long as I don’t make them eat my recipe, and they don’t make me eat their recipe.

 


 

Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far

Various commenters have also pointed out that they are allergic to apple pie, or prefer rhubarb pie, or pear pie, or apple crumble.

Did I omit your apple / apple-pie post? Let me know in the comments.

 

Why Pagans don’t proselytise or evangelise

There are various different ways in which religions can try to attract new adherents and/or communicate with others.

Interfaith dialogue means providing other faiths/philosophies with information about your own religion or philosophy, and having a dialogue about how to co-exist peacefully. Some members of some faiths may participate in interfaith dialogue in the hope of making converts: I don’t think that should be our goal. I think it is dishonest and undermines the whole purpose of dialogue if the participants have an aim to convert each other. One can certainly enter dialogue with a willingness to entertain another perspective, but not to persuade others to join your own faith.

Interfaith is a bit of an awkward name for having a dialogue with atheists, humanists, and people who don’t adhere to any faith, but the same rule applies: we are not there to make converts; we are there to communicate with others and provide information about Paganism(s).

A deer in Holland. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow

A deer in Holland – too busy eating to evangelise any local cats. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Providing information to others who might be interested in Paganism (because they have a gods-shaped receptor, or a Nature-shaped receptor) but don’t know we exist. This type of communication doesn’t have a special name, but is certainly desirable. There are still people out there who have never heard of contemporary Paganism, or if they have heard of it, don’t have a clue about it.

Evangelism is telling other people they will be happier if they adhere to your faith. But we can’t prove that non-Pagans would be happier if they were Pagan – maybe they are perfectly happy as atheists or whatever – different people are wired differently – some people have a gods-shaped receptor, others have a God-shaped receptor, some don’t have a receptor for god(s). So I do not think that evangelism is a good idea. Where religions do evangelise, I suspect that they find that converts made through evangelism are often not very engaged, and fall by the wayside at the first sign of difficulty.

in any case, which Pagan deity would you evangelise  on behalf of? Cernunnos? As this Lolcat meme makes clear, the cats (who obviously worship Bast), would be pretty unimpressed. What about Woden? A well-known UK Heathen once turned up to a party with an amusing T-shirt reading “Woden’s Witnesses”.

Proselytising is (technically) where you tell people that they are doomed in some way if they don’t follow your faith. As Pagans don’t believe that our gods have an unpleasant fate prepared for non-believers, this is not an option open to us, nor would it be a desirable route to take. No-one should be persuaded to join a religion on the basis of some kind of threat, whether the threat is of suffering in this life or a hypothetical next life.

Pagans don’t actively seek converts because we believe that the realisation that you are a Pagan wells up from within, as a response to the beauty of Nature, the call of the Pagan deities, or a growing convergence with Pagan values and a Pagan world-view. We do not believe that it is “cosmically necessary” to be a Pagan – our gods want willing adherents, not forced ones, and they do not punish people who do not believe in them (ancient pagans also did not believe in punishment for non-believers).

Most Pagans feel that you cannot be converted to Paganism, because being a Pagan is not about the acceptance of a set of propositions or a creed, but a sense of connection with Nature, the old gods, the Earth, or the land. Instead, we call the realisation that we are Pagan a feeling of coming home.

In an excellent article for the Theologies of Immanence wiki, Judy Harrow wrote:

I’m a convert, and probably so are you. Very few of us were raised as Pagans. Most of us come to this religion in adulthood, by conscious choice. Some Pagan elders find satisfaction in welcoming newcomers to our community, helping them to find their way around. It’s good for all of us to reflect upon the process of change that most of us have experienced.

Among ourselves, we don’t call new Pagan affiliation “conversion” at all; we call it “homecoming.” The difference is not trivial. Remember, language shapes thought. Most religions expect conversion to be a transformative experience. They expect new adherents to think, behave, even speak differently, utterly renouncing their old ways. In contrast, we say “you don’t become a Pagan; you find out that there’s a name for what you already were, and a community of others who feel the same way.”

All we really expect from a new homecomer is a deep sigh of relief. Certainly we have our community mores and customs. However, instead of indoctrinating or re-socializing newcomers, we like to believe that they come to us because they find us already feeling and doing the very things that made them misfits in their previous faith communities. They find the home they never thought existed for them. That’s what it felt like for me, how about you?

It’s not that simple of course. Whoever comes home as an adult has left a previous home. Although it was less satisfactory, still there are aspects they’ll miss, and baggage they’ll carry along. And anybody who has ever moved house, even to a much better location, knows how disorienting, and how much work, it can be.

In the article, Judy goes on to point out that all processes of conversion (whether they are called that or not) involve a shift of perspective, a leaving-behind of a previous paradigm, a search for a new paradigm and a new community, and settling in to the new community.

A Pagan perspective on the Bible

I find it very odd when Pagans and atheists hold forth on the subject of a book they probably haven’t read. Quite often their perspective on it seems to be informed by evangelical or fundamentalist interpretations of the book, and they seem blissfully unaware that – whilst certain bits of the book, taken out of context by right-wing Christians, have been used to justify the perpetuation of slavery, the persecution of LGBT people, and all sorts of other horrors – there is much more to the Bible than the wilful and selective misinterpretation of it by right-wing Christians would suggest.

Recently, Jason Mankey posted a piece on why it is a good thing that Pagans don’t have a holy book. I quite agree that having a single holy book (especially one which is taken to be the literal word of God) is a very bad thing – but I can think of a number of people who are starting to regard “the” Book of Shadows as a holy book, thinking that you have to do the rituals in the way they are written, and that the theology implied in the rituals is definitive and normative. To many Pagans, all books are holy, not just one. Jason quite correctly critiques how right-wing Christians regard the Bible as inerrant and take it out of context – but there are plenty of Christians who don’t regard it as inerrant and spend ages researching the context in which the books of the Bible were written, sometimes to the point of being complete and utter nerds about it. Full credit to Jason for acknowledging the complexity and long development of the books of the Bible, but the reason we know all that stuff is mostly because liberal Christians went and did the research. He also interprets the word “prophet” as someone who is regarded as infallible. I would say that a prophet is anyone who speaks truth to power, and criticises the status quo. Like Amos and Micah.

Even more recently, Katrina Rasbold posted a piece refuting the ridiculous idea that Christians shouldn’t address God as Mother. But her interpretation of the Bible as absolutely riddled with patriarchy and misogyny is more than a little off. I agree that the New Testament is pretty patriarchal at times (all that stuff about the man being the head of the woman just as Christ is head of the Church) but there is also some pretty radical stuff about men and women, slave and freeman, Jew and Gentile, all being one in Christ.

One thing that ex-Christians often do is to continue the perspective that they were taught in the tradition they left. If the tradition that they left viewed the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and a single unified text, then they regard it as a completely erroneous single unified text. But the idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of God has been challenged and modified many times. The Orthodox Church has acknowledged since the 4th century that the creation story in Genesis is a metaphor. The Higher Criticism in the 19th century demonstrated the multiple authorship of the Bible, especially the first five books, which were traditionally attributed to Moses. The Higher Criticism is now largely forgotten, but modern fundamentalism was formulated in response to it, and at the time it was held to be a bigger threat to fundamentalist Christianity than the theory of evolution.

But modern Biblical criticism has shown that the Bible is a palimpsest of many different texts, coming from many different perspectives. Even texts that were written down at the same time have been shown to be the work of multiple authors, whose ideas were very different from each other. So any time we read the books in the Bible, we should bear in mind that it is the result of a tug of war between multiple perspectives. For example, the book of Genesis appears to have been compiled from the works of two different authors, known as the J author and the E author. They are called that because J uses the name Yahweh for God, and E uses the name El, or Elohim. Not only are their names for God different, but their theological perspectives are different. That’s why there are two creation stories in Genesis: one is J’s version, the other is E’s version. Similarly, David Doel (a Jungian analyst and Unitarian minister), in his book, That Glorious Liberty, has suggested that there were not one but two Pauls – the liberal one who wrote all the expansive mystical stuff in Corinthians, and a later imitator who wrote the less liberal stuff in some of the other writings attributed to Paul. Let’s face it, if you wanted your work accepted, the idea of attributing it to a much-admired leader was a very smart move. And some of the stuff that “nice Paul” says and does – like writing to the female leaders of various early churches – is very inconsistent with some of the more patriarchal stuff attributed to him. A Christian blogger, John Walker, even argues that the text about women not speaking in church has been mistranslated and misinterpreted.

I strongly recommend reading The Bible: The Biography by Karen Armstrong, which goes into just the right level of detail about the history and development of the books that we now refer to as the Bible. It should be remembered that “Bible” means library, and that it is a collection of books, not a single book.

If you read the Tanakh (the collection of books referred to by Christians as “The Old Testament”) as a sequence of evolving ideas about the divine, you can see that belief about the nature of God changes from the beginning to the end (remember that the books were written over several hundred years, and that they developed from oral traditions), and the emphasis on what is believed to please God also changes. At the beginning, Yahweh is seen as one god among many, with whom the Jewish people have a special relationship. Then he becomes seen as the supreme God, the Creator. Towards the end, he is seen as the only God. At the beginning, the way to please Yahweh was to offer him sacrifices; towards the end, it becomes more about people treating each other decently, and taking care of the poor (this is particularly noticeable in the books of Amos and Micah).

In between we have the Book of Job – an extended meditation on life’s unfairness, and how God can be a bit of a git sometimes; Ecclesiastes – a wistful little meditation on life’s ups and downs; the magnificent poetry of the Psalms; and the beautiful erotic poetry in The Song of Solomon (can’t see any misogyny in that text, no sirree). There are also the marvellous stories of David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi.

The Bible has inspired people to rise up against their oppressors and demand freedom and equality. It is full of rich stories and poetry and demands for equality. It has a lot of stories of strong female heroines. It is much more than a single book – it is a collection of stories. Therefore, we should stop reading it as a religious text, and read it as a classic work of our shared culture – the way we read Shakespeare or Milton.

I think it is also important to pay attention to Jewish interpretations of the text, not just swallow hook, line, and sinker the interpretations placed on it by Christians – for example, the Servant Song in Isaiah is not a prophecy of Christ, it’s a song about a particularly social-justice-loving king who was a contemporary of Isaiah.

And don’t forget that when the Bible was made available for people to read in their own language, it caused a massive shift in authority from the priesthood to the laity, who were now able to read and interpret the text for themselves. Sometimes their interpretations were really bad, but sometimes they were really good – it rather depended on their prior inclinations. But at least the book was now freed from the clutches of the Church, and available to the laity to read. The Jews, of course, have always had the freedom to read and interpret the Tanakh for themselves – and they really enjoy discussing the many different possible interpretations – but let’s not forget what it meant for people finally to be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.

The best bits of the Bible from a Pagan point of view

The creation story is really interesting, because what happened was that the monotheistic Hebrews basically cobbled together elements of creation stories from the cultures around them, and put a monotheistic spin on them, replacing any mention of other gods with Yahweh. In Eden: The Buried Treasure (2009), the author, Eve Wood-Langford, shows the sources of all these stories in earlier pagan texts from Mesopotamia, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. For instance, the story of the Flood was originally a story about Ishtar flooding the world because she lost her temper.

The gods were angry at mankind so they sent a flood to destroy him. The god Ea, warned Utnapishtim and instructed him to build an enormous boat to save himself, his family, and “the seed of all living things.” He does so, and the gods brought rain which caused the water to rise for many days. When the rains subsided, the boat landed on a mountain, and Utnapishtim set loose first a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven, which found land. The god[dess] Ishtar, created the rainbow and placed it in the sky, as a reminder to the gods and a pledge to [hu]mankind that there would be no more floods. See the text Epic of Gilgamesh: Sumerian Flood Myth.

Numerous other creation stories from the Middle East have a creator god, Marduk, making the Earth from the dismembered remains of a great serpent, Tiamat. In Sumerian mythology, Tiamat was the salt water, and her consort Apsu was the sweet water. In the book of Genesis, it says that the spirit of God divided the waters.

The story of Esther looks like another interesting retelling of a pagan myth. Esther and her uncle Mordecai  completely overcome a plot by Haman to kill all the Jews in Persia. It may be a coincidence, and I can’t find a pagan Sumerian story that mirrors the details of the Esther story, but the names Esther and Mordecai are very similar to Ishtar and Marduk. The story is celebrated in the festival of Purim, and Esther is the main protagonist of the story.

Esther is not the only strong feisty woman in the Tanakh – there are also Deborah, Naomi, Ruth, and Jael. Deborah was the only female judge mentioned in the Bible, and led a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera. In the same book, you can read the story of Jael, who spiked the enemy general in the head with a tent-peg. Hardly an image of the submissive and quiet type!

Then there’s Ruth and Naomi, who, even if they were not lesbians in the modern sense, were two women who loved each other so much that Ruth was prepared to follow Naomi into possible slavery in order to stay with her. This story is very inspiring for Christian lesbians, and Ruth’s vow is used in wedding ceremonies in the Anglican Church, and in same-sex weddings in liberal churches too.

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

And of course, David and Jonathan, who clearly loved each other very much.

“When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.” (1 Samuel 18:1-4)

And then there’s the marvellous extended love poem that is the Song of Songs / Song of Solomon, dripping with eroticism. As Wikipedia points out:

Scripturally, the Song of Songs is unique in that it makes no reference to “Law”, “Covenant” or to Yahweh, the God of Israel, nor does it teach or explore “wisdom” in the manner of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes (although it does have some affinities to Wisdom literature, as the ascription to Solomon suggests). Instead, it celebrates sexual love. It gives “the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy”. The two are in harmony, each desiring the other and rejoicing in sexual intimacy; the women (or “daughters”) of Jerusalem form a chorus to the lovers, functioning as an audience whose participation in the lovers’ erotic encounters facilitates the participation of the reader.

And the philosophical perspective of Ecclesiastes (Koheleth in Hebrew) is strikingly similar to that of contemporary Paganism – it’s all about cyclicity: the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

I also think that Amos and Micah deserve special mention for advocating people being nice to each other for a change, instead of focusing on sacrifices, ceremonies, and the outward forms of religion.

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.             (Amos 5: 21-24)

Amos spoke against the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor. His main themes of social justice, God’s omnipotence, and divine judgment became the basis of prophecy. Micah was a contemporary of Amos and said that the beautification of Jerusalem was financed by dishonest business practices, which impoverished the city’s citizens; he also emphasised social justice, and complained about houses being seized and sold by the oppressors (Micah 2). He emphasised that:

“what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”  (Micah 6:8)

Both of these prophets have been inspirational for Unitarians, Universalists, Unitarian Universalists, and Quakers, who are widely acknowledged to be pretty hot on social justice issues.

Then there are all the times when the apostle Paul quotes from pagan poets like Epimenedes and Aratus. That quote about “in whom we live, move and have our being” is from a pagan poet. Paul also quoted from a number of other classical pagan poets.

So, the next time you decide to do a little Pagan criticism of the Bible – at least read some of it first. And don’t assume that just because one bit of the Bible has something dodgy in it, that means all the rest of it is worthless. It is a library of different books by different authors, written at different times. Since we don’t take it literally (along with thousands, perhaps millions, of progressive and liberal Christians), we are free to enjoy it as literature. And it is – like any collection of literary texts – extraordinarily rich in meaning and symbolism.

You might be wondering why I care… well, I happen to like the Tanakh and think it is a fascinating record of a people’s relationship with their deity over centuries. I also think that a book that inspired Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, among many others, can’t be all bad. And I like the poetry and the stories in the book, and think that they are part of our culture, whether we like it or not, and that we should reclaim them from fundamentalists and appreciate them for what they are. There are even bits of the New Testament that I quite like, mainly the Sermon on the Mount – but I have to say I prefer Tolkien and Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Another reason why it matters is that every time you assert that the Bible is a book full of patriarchy, misogyny, justifications for slaughter, and condemnation of gay people, you are damaging the cause of progressive Christians and liberal Jews, by denying the validity of their liberal interpretations of the Bible. These people are on the same side as us: they want same-sex marriage, religious tolerance, and equality for women.

Some of my previous blogposts about the Bible:

A random sample of progressive Christians talking about gender:

Progressive Christians talking about the Bible:

And this is a poem I wrote about the Bible in 2009:

Craggy old book

Craggy old Bible
Wisdom, treasure, bitter delight
Poison and perfume

Tales of abduction
Rape and seduction, sorrow
and exile. Selah.

Darkness and light dance
on the face of the waters
calling my name.

Across the abyss
the words are inaudible
speaking mystery.

Pageant of prophets
madmen and sages, voices
cry in the desert.

not universal,
absurdly particular:
seventy faces.

opaque parables
they insinuate themselves
into your heart.

myriad stories
speak of relationship:
a god and a people

will they, won’t they love?
making up and breaking up
Yahweh and Israel

stormy lovers dance
through the deserts of Canaa:
prophets foretell doom

a star blazing forth
over the land: carpenter
reshapes his world

then in a garden
a man was betrayed
rejected cornerstone

locked in a kiss
for all time, Jesus, Judas
lover, beloved

a garbled message
spreading pentecostal fire
a new betrayal

words overwritten –
he said “love one another”
not “worship me”

 

Now the green blade rises: a Pagan perspective on Easter

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field (1889)

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field (1889)      Source: Wikipedia

From a Pagan perspective, the Easter story is one of many stories of dying and resurrecting deities. In these stories, the hero dies, descends to the underworld, and returns to the mortal world bringing some blessing or new knowledge.

Persephone is taken to the Underworld by force (though in earlier versions, it seems to have been voluntary), but returns every six months; Gilgamesh goes to the Faraway to try to find a herb of immportality to revive his friend (possibly lover) Enkidu; Orpheus goes to rescue Eurydice; Inanna descends to the underworld, though her reasons for doing so are unclear. Jesus goes there to rescue the souls of those trapped in Gehenna (this is referenced in the only letter of the Apostle Peter). In Christus Victor theology, which is prevalent among the Eastern Orthodox churches, Jesus “tramples down death by death” and because he is God, cannot be contained by death, and so transcends it. He then returns transformed into a being who can manifest as he chooses — by the Sea of Galilee, or on the road to Emmaus.

The mythical journey undergone by all these heroes and heroines is a descent into death and the underworld, returning transformed into something greater, and bringing back a gift for humanity. The hymn Now the green blade rises references this mythological and transformational aspect of the Easter story.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

The spiritual journey involves the same transformation — the death of the ego, the descent into the dark night of the soul, and the resurrection as the True Self. In Orthodox Christian theology, this transformation is called theosis, literally deification, making us divine. It’s not too hard to see an analogy with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. As James Martineau, the 19th century Unitarian theologian, said, “The Incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. Humanity is the susceptible organ of the Divine, and he bends into it to dwell there.”

In Orthodox churches, Easter is celebrated as a unified event, and is regarded as being in the present, the eternal Now. So on Easter Sunday, people greet each other with “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen) – because he is risen in their hearts and in the church which is his mystical body.

In the Eleusinian Mysteries, people witnessed the unfolding drama of the story of Persephone’s descent into the Underworld, and underwent a profound transformation or initiation as a result.

You can enjoy Easter on a mythical and mystical level. There’s no need to take it literally to enjoy the unfolding drama of the Mystery. We can witness the many stories of death and resurrection, and experience transformation ourselves, like participants in a mystery tradition.

Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine

Metaphors for religion are tricky things, especially when we try to stretch them and make them work too hard by trying to turn them into analogies. One very popular metaphor for explaining religious diversity is the idea that we are all walking different paths up the same mountain. However, many people are coming to believe (myself included) that we are in fact all walking up different mountains.

I had noted down the title of this post, and not got into writing it yet, when I saw that John Halstead has written an excellent post entitled which also suggests that we are in fact all walking up different mountains.

Moraine Lake, Rocky Mountains

Valley of the Ten Peaks and Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada.
Mountains from left to right: Tonsa (3057 m), Mount Perren (3051 m), Mount Allen (3310 m), Mount Tuzo (3246 m), Deltaform Mountain (3424 m), Neptuak Mountain (3233 m). Photo by Gorgo.

The title of my post is inspired by the saying in the kink community, “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK” – in other words, diversity is acknowledged and celebrated.

I wonder if we actually each have our very own mountain – not just a different mountain for each tradition and religion and denomination, but personal mountains. Maybe our mountains are on the same mountain range, or on the same continent; maybe they are on different continents. And of course continents move around as the tectonic plates shift; new mountain ranges are created, new continents formed. The Pagan continent (like the mythical Atlantis) was submerged for a while, but now it has re-emerged, and we can explore it again, with its polytheist mountain range, its monist mountain range, its pantheist mountain range, and other geological formations. The Pagan continent also has magic portals or bridges to the Quaker realm, the Unitarian Universalist realm, the Taoist realm, the Buddhist realm, the Hindu realm, etc, or maybe whole regions of CUUPs people and Quaker Pagans, and Jewitches. Of course, being a Pagan sacred landscape, there are no centres, or centres everywhere, and no periphery (unless you want a bit of liminality). And there’s nothing to stop you exploring the other continents, or even settling for a while on one of them, as long as the inhabitants are friendly.

Indeed, who’s to say we are all climbing up mountains? Maybe some of us are exploring lush valleys, hanging out in the forest, taking a dip in the ocean, building a beautiful eco-village, or whatever takes your fancy. You can define your own journey, you can walk (or run or hop whilst whistling Dixie) on a predefined path, or discover your own bit of the lush Pagan continent. There is room for all. If I choose to decorate my sacred landcape with shrines to Oðinn, Ishtar, Shiva, and Shakti, and P Sufenas Virius Lupus chooses to decorate eir bit of landscape with shrines to Antinous, and someone else decorates theirs with shrines to the NeoPlatonic Divine Source, that’s all good.

And if you don’t like this metaphor for Pagan religions, it’s only a metaphor, so pick another one, or invent your own.

A while back, I wrote a meditation on religions as trees in a forest, which also emphasises the diversity of religious responses to the world:

The trees and the forest, by Yvonne Aburrow

As we sit in the quiet of the evening, breathing softly, each with our own particular concerns, let us be aware of our common humanity. Each of us has our own hidden wellspring of joy, our own experience of sorrow, our unique perspective on deities and their relationship with the world.

Let us celebrate the diversity of dreams and visions.

Think of the trees in the woods: each grows into its individual shape to fit its particular place and the events that have shaped its growth, but each is recognisable as one of a species: oak, birch, holly, maple, yew, beech, hawthorn.

Religions are like that too: each has its own unique characteristics, shaped by place, culture and history; but all of them have their roots in the fertile soil of human experience, and all seek the living waters of divinity.

Let us honour the beauty and diversity of religions in the world, whilst loving and cherishing our own particular visions and traditions, recognising that we too are rooted in our common humanity, all seeking the nourishment of the endless outpouring of love and wisdom that we call by many names, all of them holy.

Wiccanate Privilege and Polytheist Wiccans

I was not going to wade into the “Wiccanate Privilege” debate, but having read most of the posts on it, it seemed to me that one angle had been missed, and there was potential for misunderstanding.

Some Wiccans seem to have misread or misheard “Wiccanate” as “Wiccan”. As I understand it, the problem as stated is that the Pagan book market is flooded with “Wicca 101” books, which means that a lot of Pagan discourse is couched in the language of Wicca 101 books, and there’s a set of assumptions out there in the public domain about what Pagans do, based on these books – that all Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wheel of the Year, that all Pagans think the deities are archetypes and expressions of a single underlying divine energy, that all Pagans do magic, and so on. And the complaint is that workshops at events are also based on these assumptions.

Whilst it is true that the market is flooded with these books, and that many people assume that Paganism means Wicca-lite, some of these assumptions are also problematic for Wiccans, especially Wiccans who don’t conform to general expectations and assumptions of what Wicca is about.

These 101 books often contain an assumption that you are a Wiccan if you have read one of these books and you do the rituals in them. If someone wants to identify as a Wiccan, but does not have access to a compatible coven and coven training, then who am I to stop them starting out on their own and doing what they can? That is why, in the UK, we refer to initiatory Wicca to distinguish it from the non-initiatory variety; and in North America, initiatory Wicca is referred to as British Traditional Wicca (this term does not really work in the UK, as various Cochrane-derived traditions are referred to as Traditional Witchcraft). There are also other forms of witchcraft, both initiatory and non-initiatory.

More problematic for me is the fact that books on Wicca often contain an assumption that Wicca is duotheistic; whereas most Wiccans I know are polytheists, pantheists, animists, or non-theists. But because it says in these books that we are duotheist, other polytheists often refuse to believe that a Wiccan can be a polytheist. But many Wiccans regard ‘the Lord and Lady’ as patron deities of the Craft, two among many; and many covens honour a different pair of deities as their coven patrons than the standard two, and honour a multitude of deities alongside them. I would really like never to hear “but you can’t be a polytheist if you’re a Wiccan” again. I have never heard it from a Wiccan, but I have heard it from polytheists.

Another problem is that books on Wicca are often heterocentric, and seem to have forgotten that the ultimate goal of the Wiccan mysteries (and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn before us) used to be seen as spiritual androgyny, or to put it in more Jungian terms, integration. So whilst one may perceive differentiated “male” and female” energies, there are energies of many genders, and (in my opinion) the ultimate divine source, which has no personality, both transcends and includes all genders.

Add to that the fact that these 101 books are often prescriptive about what Wicca involves, and you get the imposition of a set of norms which it is difficult to challenge in our particular culture (“but I saw it in a book so it must be true”) and assumptions from non-Wiccans that that is what Wicca is like. I often get asked by coveners to recommend a book about Wicca. It is really hard, because I disagree with most of the books out there. That is why I am writing one.

So, as a Wiccan and a polytheist, I think we should dismantle Wiccanate privilege as soon as possible. Let diversity flourish. If other Pagan traditions don’t want Wiccans representing them at interfaith events, then show up to interfaith events. Let’s not have Wicca-flavoured ritual at events. Let’s have devotional polytheism, liturgical Paganism, full-on Wiccan ritual, revived Eleusinian mysteries, Heathen blots, Druid rituals etc. And let’s not have assumptions about what Pagans believe – that way lies orthodoxy.

The ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ debate

(sorry if I have omitted your ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ post – please add it in the comments if you want it included)

UPDATE: Several people have asked me to define my terms better. The problem is that Wicca and witchcraft are very multivalent, especially in North America, and the terms used in the UK are a bit different. I am not trying to exclude anyone who wants to use the term Wicca.  I was just trying to make a distinction between different types of Wicca and witchcraft and the terms used for them in the UK and North America, not saying that one is better than another. If it works for you, great.

Also, for those who are new to this debate, I did not coin the term “Wiccanate”. John Halstead explains:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

If you build it, they will come

As Pagans, what do we hope to build?

Much of the current dialogue in the Pagan blogosphere is about carving out ways to explain and justify our personal experiences and beliefs in relation to other traditions, but without a clear vision of the place our own traditions and experiences might have in an ideal world. Will the Pagan movement become one tradition-heavy set of religions with several “fringes”? Will it split apart into competing factions? Or will we find a way to unite using some shared cultural language? What institutions will we build, or will we build institutions at all? What rights or recognition will we have in the larger society?

What does your Paganism look like in 50 years?

~ Christine Hoff Kraemer

John William Waterhouse - The Crystal Ball

John William Waterhouse – The Crystal Ball  (Wikipedia)

I have entitled this post “If you build it, they will come” because the kind of people who will join the Pagan movement of the future will be determined by the kinds of structures and traditions that we build now. If we build traditions and institutions that empower and enable people to develop and grow, then we will attract people who want that; if we build inclusive traditions where diversity is welcome, we will attract a wide range of people.

Unity and diversity

I have written about the issue of unity and diversity before (in The Pagan umbrella is leaking and The varieties of religious experience) and so has Christine (in Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron, or Must Pagans Be Polytheists?)

There are some key themes that unite Pagans and polytheists of various flavours, but we don’t have to agree on absolutely everything – where would be the need for different traditions if we agreed on everything? Not all Pagans agree that the environment is of paramount importance – but many do; those of us who do can work together on that issue. Other issues on which many Pagans agree (but not all) would be LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and freedom of religion. We might come together to work on projects around these issues, or we might participate in secular projects to further these aims; however, I do think it is worth bringing Pagan perspectives to the table on these issues, as we often have a different perspective that might be helpful.

In the future, I think that each of the current traditions might be strong and numerous enough to stand alone and only work with other Pagans and polytheists on selected projects. I don’t think that time has arrived yet. I think we still need “big tent Paganism”.  Those who don’t feel that we need it are of course entitled to their views, and to start building strong independent organisations for their particular path. There is room for more than one approach.

Building institutions

I would like to see visible Pagan temples and sanctuaries (we currently have only one in the UK – I know there are several in the USA). I don’t want to see building committees running these (because committees are the fastest way to kill spirituality), but I hope that they could be administered fairly and for all Pagans to use. I would also hope that all Pagans would use them responsibly. Many people say they don’t need a temple for their spiritual practices; however, practicising ritual as a group requires ritual space, and the weather is not going to be getting any better over the next few decades.

It would be difficult and expensive to get a permanent Pagan temple, and it would be difficult to know where the first one should be situated.  So I had an idea: the Pop-up Pagan Temple. It could be a yurt that is available for hire to Pagan groups around the country or region, to put up in parks (having agreed this with the local council).  Clearly it would need security to protect it, but it would not be up for more than a week in any one place, so the cost of that would not be prohibitive.

I am ambivalent about the notion of professional Pagan ministry. I think that a more educated community is a very good thing, and I very much applaud what Cherry Hill Seminary are doing. I am not sure that I want to see a clergy and congregation model developing. We need to think very hard about the dependencies created by the congregational model, and what gets projected onto ministers and leaders. However, many Pagan leaders put in a lot of unpaid hard work, and it would be good to see that acknowledged and fairly recompensed. It is a tricky issue, and one that the Pagan community needs to start discussing.

One very important institution is the Pagan Newswire Collective, a group of people dedicated to improving news coverage of Pagan issues and events. The Wild Hunt blog is also a very important resource.

Another vital organisation is Cherry Hill Seminary, which educates Pagan clergy in ritual, theology, practice, and ministry. We need a similar project in the UK.

The Centre for Pagan Studies in the UK is doing a great job at getting public recognition for Paganism. They have put up a blue plaque for Doreen Valiente (the first blue plaque to a Pagan, and the first on a council-owned residential building); and they will be putting up a blue plaque for Gerald Gardner on 13 June 2014.

Pagan organisations are also important (and too numerous to mention them all by name). I would like to see more co-operation and dialogue between different Pagan organisations. The main one in the UK is the Pagan Federation. Pagan Federation International is also doing sterling work to help fledgling Pagan movements in other countries.

Rights and recognition

I would like to see Pagan weddings become legally recognised in England and Wales. I would like to be able to practice Pagan rituals in public without fear of harassment. I would like to see public bodies acknowledging Pagan holidays in listings of holidays both secular and religious. (In the UK, many employers send round lists of holidays from various faiths, but Pagan holidays are often not listed.)  I would like to see a Pagan student society in every UK university, and a Pagan temple accessible to every Pagan who wants it. I would like to see Pagan traditions covered in education about religion (not indoctrinating children into it, just teaching them the facts about it). I would like Pagan traditions to be full participants in interfaith councils and bodies.

Paganism in 50 years’ time

I want to see a diverse, vibrant, and non-dogmatic group of polytheistic, pantheistic, and animist religions, firmly grounded and confident in our theology and practice, all having equal space in the ‘big tent’, and even more inclusive of gender and sexual diversity than they are now; a world where Pagan contributions to public debates are valued and respected; a world where it is safe for all Pagans to be open about being a Pagan.

Why interfaith is important – an interview with John Macintyre

Kinnoull Hill, Perth, Scotland, by Suomi Star

Kinnoull Hill, Perth, Scotland, by Suomi Star

Recently, after fourteen years of interfaith dialogue and sheer hard work, the Scottish Pagan Federation has been officially recognised as a member of the Scottish Interfaith Council. This is a really important development, and a tribute to the hard work and persistence of the Scottish Pagan Federation.

I interviewed John Macintyre, a good friend of mine, a former president of the Scottish Pagan Federation, and the person who is responsible for most of that patient process of dialogue, and asked him to explain why it is so important, and how it was achieved.

Yvonne: What exactly does being a member of the Scottish Interfaith Council entail for the Scottish Pagan Federation? What are the benefits?

John: It means that Paganism is now formally recognised by, and included within, the official, national, interfaith body of this beloved country.

In a sense, by this stage of Scottish PF’s long-standing interfaith programme, it could be argued that much of this particular achievement is symbolic. We’ve long been recognised as the representative body for Pagans by the Scottish Government, and consequently involved in a broad range of consultations and activities relating to hospital and prison chaplaincy, education, youth issue, the national census, equalities and other matters. We’ve had legal, Pagan, religious marriage in Scotland for almost ten years now. Religious discrimination against Pagans has been in rapid decline for almost twenty years now. The main benefit here is that the other faiths in Scotland have now accepted that we belong in SIFC, and even if not all of them are entirely comfortable with us, greater familiarity and the passage of time will take care of that.

Yvonne: This has obviously been a lengthy process. How come it took fourteen years?

John: Although Paganism has been reviving in Europe, in the West generally, for generations now, we are still a very small religion which quite a few people harbour grave misconceptions about. It takes time, quite a long time sometimes, to educate people. It also takes time, dialogue and, crucially, a fair amount of getting to know each other as human beings and working together on common projects, to dispel the grim negative stereotyping that Paganism has attracted for centuries.

Fourteen years is certainly a long time but we’ve actually been very fortunate in Scotland where, as far as I know, more progress has been made in this matter than in any other European country. The re-convening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, albeit with very limited powers, initiated a radical transformation in our civic culture. Perhaps because we had such a shameful record of religious sectarianism going back generations, politicians of all the main parties were determined to promote religious inclusion and respect for diversity. Although Pagans are only a small part of our multi-faith society, we certainly benefited from the change to more progressive official attitudes.

Yvonne: What kept you going?

John: Faith. Faith in our Gods and Goddesses, and in the whole Pagan complex of world views which certainly merits a place in our modern cultures. Faith in the general principle that if something is right and needs doing, you work at it until it’s done.

Yvonne: What would you say to those Pagans who feel that interfaith is a “waste of time”?

John: I’d say that they should look at what interfaith has achieved for Paganism in the last twenty years and perhaps change their minds.

Interfaith is not a threat, it doesn’t aim to change what Paganism is, still less to merge it into some kind of ‘one size fits all’ universal religion. It allows us to educate other faith groups and the wider society about the reality of modern Paganism, to challenge prejudice and negative stereotyping close to its sources, and to make a positive contribution as one of the many faith communities that make up our society.

I’m well aware that a few Pagans have always seen interfaith as a process in which we somehow sought the approval of the Christian Church. They were, and are, wrong. Such views usually went hand in hand with paranoia and negative stereotyping regarding Christians. They were, and are, wrong about that too. Such people often seemed to prefer moaning to each other about how much prejudice there was against Pagans rather than going out and doing something about it. That’s not only wrong, it’s cowardice.

Interestingly and encouragingly, it isn’t a question you hear very often nowadays. You and I both remember the time, twenty years or so ago, when it was a genuinely controversial topic in the community and we often had to defend our involvement. Things are very different now. I don’t think anyone’s raised it with me since the year 2000 CE.

Yvonne: What advice would you give to others trying to achieve a similar outcome with regard to other interfaith bodies?

John: Your strategy will be determined to a very large extent by the way religion in general, and interfaith in particular, fits in to the civic structures of your country. That’s inevitably going to differ a great deal from place to place. But the key to the whole thing is getting involved in whatever interfaith groups and networks are available, engaging in dialogue with other religious bodies to explain what modern Paganism is, and gradually building up goodwill, reciprocal understanding and respect wherever you can.

Even where another faith’s beliefs and attitudes are utterly different from those of Pagans, you’ll still find at least a few commonalities, the Golden Rule being a good example. Most of the people you’ll meet with will be thoroughly decent sorts, even if it takes a while for them to understand where you’re coming from. You may well encounter a certain amount of ignorance, prejudice and even insult, but you must never let it get to you and never let yourself be dragged down to that level.

Always remember that you represent the modern expression of a complex of ancient, honourable and profound religious traditions that provided the foundations of our modern Western world, and try to be worthy of that.

Yvonne: Many thanks for the detailed and thoughtful responses, congratulations and well done to you and to the Scottish Pagan Federation, and it’s really great to hear such a success story. Hard work, integrity, and faith really do achieve results in the end.

Here’s a video of John announcing the news of Scottish PF’s inclusion in the Scottish Interfaith Council at the 2013 Pagan Federation conference in Edinburgh:

Context is everything

The inner work and the outward sign

Viewed outside the context of their meaning and purpose, rituals can often look silly. When I first saw a CUUPs ritual online, I thought, why are they lighting a candle in a chalice? This was because I was viewing the ritual through a Wiccan lens, and in Wicca, a chalice represents water, and is used for drinking consecrated wine. Whereas if you view the lighting of a chalice through the lens of Unitarian and UU symbolism, it makes perfect sense. The chalice represents community, and sharing the wine with the laity, among other things; the flame represents inspiration, and connection with the Divine, among other things. It is a rich and complex symbol whose meanings are evolving all the time. So it is vital to view a symbol in its cultural context and find out what it means.

Similarly, a criticism often levelled at Judaism is that it has lots of nit-picky rules. One of these is that you can’t light fire on the Sabbath, so some Jews tape over the light in the fridge so that opening the door doesn’t turn on the light. To someone unaware of the context and the corresponding inner work, this looks a bit silly. Once you understand that the whole edifice of Jewish observant practice is all about remaining constantly aware of the presence of the Divine, and one’s relationship with it, the action of remaining observant even in such a tiny detail makes more sense. There is a prayer to accompany every action, so that the observant Jew remains in communion with the Divine at all times. Also, for this practice to make sense, you have to understand the deep affection in which the Sabbath is held in Judaism. It’s not like the dour Protestant Sabbath. First, on the Friday evening, when Sabbath begins, the lady of the house lights the Sabbath candles, which invites the presence of the Shekhinah. Then, on Friday night, the husband and wife make love, also inviting the presence of the Shekhinah. The whole family comes together for a meal and to spend time together. At the end of the Sabbath, the whole family sniffs a spice box, so that the loveliness of the Sabbath can be remembered for the rest of the week. In times of persecution, the Sabbath, taking place behind closed doors, would be an affirmation of Jewish identity and community, and the only time when you could be truly at peace.

Another example is the custom of covering the head, which is found in a number of different religions (and some Pagans have started wearing veils). This might look like oppression of women – and if it is enforced rather than voluntary, I think it is – but its original meaning was as a reminder that the Divine is always present (that’s why Jewish men wear a kippah).

I expect that some Pagan practices look a bit daft when viewed outside their context. The casting of the Wiccan circle, with its elaborate preparation, might look a bit over-the-top to outsiders; but in context, it makes perfect sense. The series of different actions prepare us for the inner work, stilling the mind and readying the body for an encounter with the mysteries. They also align us psychologically with the sacred directions; this alignment symbolises our connection with the universe. The thoroughness of the preparation also means that the circle feels like a safe space, which is important as rituals can sometimes be profoundly transformative. Another example which might look daft to outsiders is the Heathen practice of offering libations of mead. But of course, mead is a precious thing, and when making offerings to the deities, it is customary to offer something of value; and Heathens want to connect with their deities.

All of these practices  are aimed at cultivating our connection with the Divine; they are a reminder to live life in a sacred manner. Of course, some people practice the outer observances without managing to do the inner work, and this can lead to an over-emphasis on the rules at the expense of the inner work. Sometimes, when the practices have lost their inner meaning, and adherence to the tradition has become more important than the inner work, they need to be changed, and either a new religion results, or the existing religion is reformed. The prophet Amos criticised the practice of sacrifice, saying that God would prefer people to practice justice and righteousness instead –  so clearly the practice of sacrifice had lost its function of connecting with God, and become merely routine. Jesus criticised the rigid observance of Sabbath rules, and placed emphasis on being kind to people instead – so clearly, in his day, the Sabbath rules had lost their inner meaning. At the Reformation, Protestants criticised Catholic practices of praying to saints, and the concept of transubstantiation. They were viewing these practices through a rational lens and forgetting to look at their inner meaning, and the inner work that they represented.

Sound-bites

There is also a tendency to take sayings and quotations out of context. When Jesus formulated his version of the Golden Rule, he meant it to be a summation of the Law and the Prophets, not a replacement for them; he would have wanted it viewed in the context of Jewish practice and culture. When Gerald Gardner formulated the Wiccan Rede (“An it harm none, do what thou wilt”), he probably assumed that it would be taken in the context of the ritual which introduces it, and the whole body of Wiccan lore and practice. When Dávid Ferenc said, “We need not think alike to love alike”, he said it in a specific historical and cultural context, which needs to be understood in order to apply his saying effectively. Of course, these utterances are quotable out of context, but if we want to live by them, we need the whole body of lore and practice that goes with them, in order to implement them effectively. It’s all very well exhorting people to love one another, but then you need specific techniques to overcome things like projecting your shadow-side onto other people; the damage that can be caused by group dynamics (e.g. in-group versus out-group); and other aspects of human psychology.

The practice of taking quotes and practices out of context and applying them without regard to circumstances is one of the most damaging aspects of religion; and it is also one of the major causes of misunderstanding between religions. We need to look at the context of any practice, quote, or rule, and ask, what is the real reason behind this? If it is harmful, can it be reformulated in such a way as to restore the original intention (to remind us of our connection with the Divine), and remove the harmful aspect of the practice?