Creative Endarkenment: Embracing Silence

By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A cup of tea.
By Laurel F from Seattle, WA (Tea) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I have a friend who is at the start of a new relationship. We get together for coffee every once in a while so I can live vicariously through her. Yesterday I was impatiently sipping at my dark roast. “So…how was the date last night?”

She looked down as she poured her tea. “It was…”

“Not good?”

“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “Really good. Really good. Just…different. Than what I expected. What I know.”

“Okay girlfriend, you’re gonna have to explain,” I said, laughing and burning my tongue again.

She went on to tell me that when she had arrived at her date’s place, she was feeling really low. “Just down. Not feeling it. At all.” At first, her new honey had tried to suss out what was going on, asking her why she was upset, what she was feeling. “I couldn’t even find words,” she said. “I was just…down. You know? But then…he stopped asking. And he just…held me. There. On the couch. So I could curl up in the dark of him, in the silence, and move into the feeling.” She looked at me, eyes wide with the wonder of it. “And he just stayed there, with me, not saying anything, letting me feel however I needed to feel.”

She leaned back and sighed. “Oh my god it was incredible.”

***

Experience exists before we put it into words. Language is translation. Sometimes we jump to expression quickly, reflexively, as a way to navigate through life. As my friend experienced it the other night, silence can be a gift we give each other that allows us to more fully feel. A loving silence can nurture tentative growth which might freeze or fizzle under a barrage of questions and suggestions.

Mostly we move in the opposite direction. We do our best to push silence away with noise. We exist in a time, in a culture (in an election season) of blare and scare, of too many words. Incessant speech flattens and cheapens language. Without silence, we have no choice but to turn up the volume on what we say, in order to be heard.

Daring to hold silent and listen to experiences not our own, beliefs not our own, anger and pain not our own…this is scary stuff, agreed. Eat a good breakfast before you set out. But imagine, just for a moment,  if we waited an extra day or three before posting that meme or responding to that blog. Imagine if we could dare a few minutes of silent meditation before entering the fray.

As a place to start to consider for yourself the power of silence, may I suggest finding the nearest copy of Karina BlackHeart bookBlackHeart’s A Witch’s Book of Silence. (*note for my non-witchy readers: you don’t have to be a witch to read this book and distill some awesome peace and power from it. I promise.)

BlackHeart approaches silence from many perspectives—she explores her theme through many lenses but this passage speaks directly to our moment:

 In silence, we study words. We develop the capacity to choose our words with care, sifting and sorting them, measuring them for truth, honor and effectiveness. We learn to withhold negative, irresponsible speech, conserving the power of the word for more worthy endeavors.

“Conserving the power of the word for more worthy endeavors…” Doesn’t that sound…good?

Integrity involves knowing not only when to speak, but when to remain silent.

***

It’s important to note here that there are many flavors and versions of silence. I am specifically NOT talking about silence that is coerced, forced or threatened. Keeping secrets against one’s will, or to the harm of ourselves or another, cannot increase our power nor our integrity. There are times to break silence. There are times to support and act as witness to the breaking of silence.

Most of the time, though, we merely talk and talk to push silence and the scarier gifts it brings away. BlackHeart understands all too well why we fear silence and fill up the void with 24/7 news cycles, noise, chatter, with tell alls and listicles and grumpy cats and bullet points. Silence, she writes, has to do with

the powers of the north, the deep earth, the dark moon and death itself. We must be willing to name and openly confront our fear of these dark powers.

We recoil because what lies within and beyond them exists in the Mystery. Maps are useless. Check lists disintegrate. When we step off the well worn path without flashlight or trail guide, we are left to our own devices: Instinct, intuition, and the Wild Soul’s starlit vision.

There is no avoiding this truth: Silence is the path to the self. As Howard Thurman said,

 There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.

It takes courage to listen for that true guide. BlackHeart acknowledges this.

In silence we seek knowledge of our true will. In silence, we gather courage so we might dare utter that truth into being. In silence we await our words return to us made fully manifest.

To listen for the genuine in yourself is to learn to discern, there in the dark, the gleam of your own unique gifts and power. And this is to dare a radically creative life. Creative endarkenment exists in the cauldron of that silence that turns truth into being. Brainstorming, workshopping, sharing and publishing are all good and necessary parts of the creative life. But at heart, at root, at some point the creative soul closes the door and returns again to her own deep well.

And, in silence, the work begins once more.

 

mama owl

 

 

(Looks like I could be on to something here.)

 

 

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Creative Endarkenment: Pausing to Get Acquainted with Darkness

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

–Robert Frost

Lately, thanks in part to my colleague Yvonne’s excellent writing around embodied spirituality, I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment, endarkenment, and creativity, and how intertwined all these concepts are. I’ve even (finally) invented a phrase for how I ground my own work in the world: creative endarkenment. After all, creativity roots itself in the dark, no matter how small or large the idea…but before anyone can explore that truth, we have to get comfortable with the idea of darkness.

I belong squarely in Generation X, which means when I was in college many of us gathered and marched and
shouted and sang songs by the Indigo Girls in order to Take Back the Night. We petitioned and argued to install emergency phones and more lighting around the darkest spaces on campus. Back then, we thought if we lit up the shadows, rape culture would suffer a serious blow. And I remember wondering at the time if I was strange, in that darkness felt so much safer to me than being pinned and spotlit by the newly installed lights. Their glare made me so obviously single and alone as I walked back to my room through the Minnesota dark.

Maybe we were safer from some kinds of violence, I don’t know. But I do know we blamed the wrong thing. Darkness was never the root cause. Social media has proved convincingly that rape culture is all too happy to go public with acts of abusive power and violence.

And yet it isn’t any surprise we feared and blamed the dark. We grow up in a culture that assigns so many negative qualities to “darkness”—labels so many bad things “dark” and blames “darkness” for them: ignorance, fear, anger, violence, to name only the first few that spring to mind. And this has inevitable repercussions in a society that labels and separates people as “white” “black” and “brown.”

Now we wheel past the spring equinox into the season of light. We rake off our garden beds, poke seeds, pile on mulch and remember darkness can be kind, can be nurturing, and is certainly crucial. As Molly Meade (Remer) writes, “In darkness, things germinate and grow. The dark is a calm, holding, safe, welcoming place—we come from darkness and that is where we return.”
Light pushes always out against the dark…and yet any light source is eternally nestled within that deep embrace, no matter how bright it shines. We can feel this truth as threatening, if we are scared of the dark, of what lives in the shadows.

On the other hand, wisuper moon by Katrin Talbot 2015thout darkness, we are left with the glare of brutal interrogation and too rigid certainty. There remains no mystery to seek. It is impossible to imagine a fluid dreaming without darkness. And what would we be without dreams? What would it mean if our shapes could never shift?

Of course, dreams are not only happy cuddly things. The phrase “the dark night of the soul” resonates in the bone because it feels true. Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night” knows that just as there is room for light within the embrace of darkness, there is room for much else too. Our deep depressions, our sorrows, our angers, can take us to places that are psychically quite dark. As Carl Jung knew (and as our therapists tell us on a regular basis and we pay them for it), it is at times necessary to rest in the presence of such discomfort. To stop pushing the dark away long enough to listen to what lives there.

Fortunately, there are people to help us on the path. I had the pleasure and good fortune to interview Danica Swanson recently for a class assignment. You can find the entire interview posted at her blog, but today these words are in my mind:

Sacred endarkenment, to me, is a concept and a way of being that provides a necessary counterbalance to our culture’s over-emphasis on enlightenment, transcendence, “rising above,” and so on.  …  Despite popular belief, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean evil or negativity – in fact, dark places can be sources of great richness, alchemy, and incubation…

I was raised in a New Age family, and had experienced first-hand the failures of empathy and errors in perception that could result from a heavy emphasis on “positive thinking” and other forms of saccharine sweetness in spiritual work.  In a way, you could say my New Age upbringing primed me for a darker, more chthonic path.  Dogma can be just as oppressive when it’s presented as “love and light” as it can be when it shows up in less culturally sanctioned ways.

 

Swanson gets it right: too much positivity results in “failures of empathy” and “errors in perception” and that my friends gets us into a mess. Welcoming the dark with all its unknowns and locating the tender spots is necessary for any fruitful germination, including our own. In our fearful, angry moment of history  I can’t help thinking that it’s as good a time as any for us to face our own personal and cultural shadows, to begin to sit with our histories of violence, oppression, guilt, fear, resentment. To learn stillness.

That’s a big ask. And more than I can take on this morning. A good place to start might be just getting a little more comfortable sitting together, here in the dark.  Over the next few days and weeks, I want to explore the idea of endarkenment, to think about how and why we might want to wander out once in a while past the fire’s light and peer into the shadows. I hope you’ll join me.

fire in fall

 

 

 

 

Seeking the Mystery: Giveaway Results and Review Round-up

Firstly, congratulations to Jennifer L., who won the paperback copy of Seeking the MysteryEnjoy it!

To everyone else, thanks so much for entering the giveaway. Please check out the excerpts I’ve posted here, as well as the introduction and glossary. I hope you’ll considering buying your own copy!


My fellow bloggers have posted some great reviews and responses to the book. Here’s a round-up of current contributions:

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

John Beckett

David Dashifen Kees, Seeking the Mystery: An Excellent Interfaith Resource”

Molly Remer, “Thealogy in Practice: A Lesson from the Maiden” and “Thursday Theology: Matriarchal Myth or a New Story?”

Nimue Brown (1) (2)

Elinor Predota, “How a Valley in Scotland Changed My Theology,” “Stories of Gods and Mortals: Myth and Pagan Practice,” “The Ordinary, Everyday Occult Knowledge of Herbs, Flowers, and Beasts,” “The Material, the Sacred, and the Erotic,” and “A Sense of Responsibility to Place

Tara “Masery” Miller

Jen McConnel

Philipp Kessler

…and a nice shout-out about the book’s success from Jason Pitzl-Waters.

Thanks to everyone who helped me spread the word about the book sale last week! It was really exciting to hit the end of the day and see Seeking the Mystery ranked at #1 in Amazon’s Paganism and Theology categories — but more importantly, it looks like the book is starting lots of good conversations. 🙂

Virtue Ethics (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 5 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.


Excerpt from Chapter Five: Ethics and Justice

Neglected Virtues

Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue attempts to recontextualize some of the virtues that were valued by pre-Christian societies for contemporary Pagans. His work draws on Greek, Celtic, and Northern European cultures to recover traditional systems of ethics and their virtues. For example, in heroic literature, honor is defined as an inherently social quality. An honorable person is one who exhibits loyalty, honesty, reliability, and trustworthiness in his relationships with others. In Northern European traditions, the word for honor is “troth,” which is related to the English word “truth.” To be honorable suggests that one demonstrates integrity in all of one’s dealings. According to Myers, however, honor is something that is given to an honorable person, not a virtue that can be cultivated in a vacuum. It is tied up with reputation and with community respect.[i] In our highly individualistic Western culture, this virtue is rarely recognized, let alone cultivated. Busy, harried schedules lead many of us to routinely break commitments to friends, and the dependable structures of relationship that are necessary for sustainable community are slow to form. Our relative isolation from each other and narrow focus on our individual households means we have few opportunities to gain honor—and yet this virtue is central to many of the myths that contemporary Pagans value. How to cultivate such virtues within a wider culture that does not support them is one of the ongoing struggles of contemporary Paganism.

The contrast between Pagan values and mainstream Western values is particularly noticeable around issues of sexuality and the body. A person who is passionately physical and delights in loving sexuality can be seen as expressing important human qualities. Yet the words that were once used to positively describe this virtue—such as “lusty”—have a negative connotation in modern English. At times, neglected virtues can be reclaimed. The older meaning of “pride,” for example, has recently been revived by pride movements such as Gay Pride and Pagan Pride. In Western culture, “pride” is often synonymous with “hubris,” the arrogance that precedes a disastrous fall. But pride is more properly understood as the state of owning one’s self and identity without apology or shame. Although community is not as essential for the cultivation of pride as it is for honor, gathering with like-minded others makes taking pride in oneself a far easier task—and sustainable pride requires choosing friends who treat each other with respect.

Contemporary Pagan ethics are inherently pluralistic. Not all virtues can be expressed at the same time, and different virtues may even suggest different courses of action. Many Pagans are polytheists, and their gods express diverse strengths and virtues. The cultivation of these virtues can support multiple ways of being ethical. For example, a practitioner might cultivate creativity and fierce compassion in honor of Brighid, poet and healer, or clear thinking and communication in honor of Hermes, patron of orators and inventors. In some cases, Pagans seek to hold paradox by cultivating the capacity for virtues that superficially contradict. In Wicca’s “Charge of the Goddess,” the Goddess calls witches to have “beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.”[ii] According to the Charge, a virtuous person must be capable of a variety of qualities depending on context. A successful group leader, for example, sees his leadership as service to the group; he puts his own agenda partially aside in order to create a harmonious atmosphere and empower individuals to work together effectively. Good leadership requires humility. However, a good group leader also has a backbone, and he is willing to use the respect the group gives him to protect it when he must. A group member who becomes disruptive or even abusive must be held accountable for that behavior by the leader, who is supported by the group as a whole. A good leader must accept that power and be willing to use the authority he has been granted. Finding the balance between virtues—for every virtue also has a shadow side—is one of the challenges of virtue ethics. Unbalanced humility can become subservience; unbalanced power can become egotism and tyranny.

Virtue-based ethics make for a highly flexible ethical system. Based on principles rather than rules, virtue ethics can easily adjust to the particularities of situations: people, places, and times. To those who were raised in a rule-based system, where ethical decisions are often framed in black and white terms, virtue ethics can appear to lack a foundation, almost like having no ethics at all. If there are many ways of being ethical, how can a person choose between them? Even worse, isn’t it possible to mistake a vice for a virtue and end up tolerating destructive behavior? Yet virtue ethics are not entirely subjective or relativistic. Ultimately, all virtues are properly cultivated in community. Healthy religious communities have elders and ancestors who embody the virtues that they value. Virtuous behavior is modeled on the actions of these role models, and the virtuous behavior of members of the community is acknowledged and praised by other members. Life experience and time-tested community traditions help young people learn virtuous behavior.

It is nevertheless possible for both individuals and communities to hold up a “virtue” that is destructive. In our own culture, for example, the ability to accumulate individual wealth is often admired as a virtue, regardless of whether that wealth is used for the good of the community. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle differentiated false virtues from true with the concept of eudaimonia.[iii] Sometimes this term is translated as happiness, but a more accurate translation is “flourishing.” A thoroughly virtuous person can be recognized by the fact that they are flourishing on many levels. The term is an expression of spiritual, mental, and physical health, not simply of a passing emotion. (Some ancient philosophers believed that that spiritual health necessarily correlates with physical health and prosperity, but I disagree. It is certainly possible to actively choose poverty out of a spiritual calling and find that poverty freeing. A spiritually healthy poverty is part of a stable lifestyle, however; it does not involve racking up credit card bills that one cannot pay. Additionally, although poor physical health can have psychological or spiritual roots, illness is a natural part of human life. A spiritually healthy person may struggle with poor physical health, but she is able to face her health crises with compassion, grace, and humor. More than outward signs of material wealth or physical health, “flourishing” is best expressed by the joy and engaged sense of presence that a spiritually healthy person brings to her community.)

In contrast to this flourishing, the pursuit of false virtues brings only a shallow and passing happiness. According to virtue ethicists, the pursuit of material wealth or worldly power for reasons other than the health of the community does not result in flourishing, but rather a persistent sense of emptiness and a lifetime of regrets. The possession of personal virtue, however, is thought to foster alignment with the divine, peace of mind, and satisfaction regardless of whether virtuous behavior is consistently acknowledged by others or results in a clearly good outcome. When greed is held up as a virtue in community, the soul sickness and social injustice that result are signs that the community has lost its way. As we know from our own society, this sickness can be difficult to correct, particularly when those embracing the false virtue have gained positions of power and are no longer accountable to those around them. Virtue ethics function most effectively in small communities with a high degree of social accountability, as well as in the presence of experienced elders whose advice and wisdom are taken seriously. As contemporary Paganism moves through its adolescence as a religious movement, the need for fair-minded elders to stabilize scattered religious communities and help to ensure accountability grows ever greater.


[i] Brendan Myers, The Other Side of Virtue (Hants, UK: O Books, 2008), 44-50.

[ii] Doreen Valiente, “The Charge of the Goddess,” The Doreen Valiente Foundation. Available at http://doreenvaliente.org/2009/06/poem-the-charge-of-the-goddess/.

[iii] “Ethics,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Available at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/34560/Aristotle/254721/Ethics#toc254722.

The Multiple Soul (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 4 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.


Excerpt from Chapter Four: Life, Death, and the Human Body

The Multiple Soul

Pagans have a range of beliefs about the human soul that parallels their beliefs about divinity. Some Pagans see the soul and the body as being completely identified—the soul is the body and the body is the soul, in the same way that pantheists believe that God/dess is the world and the world is God/dess. Others share the common Western belief that the soul is influenced by the body, but is more than the body, and will continue on in altered form after the body’s death (similar to panentheists’ belief that God/dess is in the world, and the world is in God/dess, but God/dess is more than the world). A third view is that personhood exists only in the body, and that there is no spiritual substance we can meaningfully call a “soul” (similar to the nontheist position).

The theology of multiple souls is gaining prevalence in the Pagan community, however. In this model, human beings have multiple spiritual essences that serve different functions. This notion is found in a number of religious traditions. Scholar Claude Lecouteux describes its appearance in ancient and medieval Northern European religion, where people were thought to have three spirits. The fylgja was an individual’s double that also served as a protective guardian spirit; the hugr was the active force of the individual that carried his or her personality out into the world; and the hamr was an inner spiritual form that determined a person’s outward appearance, but was also capable of traveling outside the body.[i] In ancient Egyptian religion, a person was thought to have three souls (the ka, the ba, and the akh), as well as other spiritual components such as the heart and the name, each of which had different functions in life and in the afterlife.[ii] In the charming book The Traveller’s Guide to the Duat, Kemetic reconstructionist Kiya Nicoll details the preparation the parts of the human being must undergo for being separated at death, transformed, and reintegrated in the land of the dead. The body is carefully preserved and left behind in the living world, where its persistence supports the stable and happy existence of the deceased’s transformed and reassembled self.

A somewhat less complex multiple soul model can also be found in the Western ceremonial magick practiced by some contemporary Pagans. Many forms of ceremonial magick borrow from Jewish mysticism, where the three parts of the soul are known as nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Simply put, the nefesh is the animal self, the ruach is the human self, and the neshamah is the divine self that survives death. Craft teachers Victor and Cora Anderson derived a similar three-soul model from Hawaiian Huna, in which the animal self is Unihipili, the human self Uhane, and the divine self Aumakua. Their writings on the subject were published in a volume entitled Etheric Anatomy, and were also spread by Starhawk in The Spiral Dance, where she names the selves Younger Self, Talking Self, and Deep Self. In the Andersons’ model, the body is thought to be of the same substance as the selves, only made of denser matter. Fostering communication and cooperation between the selves (including the body) is necessary for spiritual health, as well as for the effective practice of magick.

In multiple-soul models, the souls have different fates after death. Pagans who also believe in reincarnation tend to identify the “divine” self as the part that reincarnates, not the “human” self (which holds the personality of a single lifetime) or the “animal” self, both of which may return to the earth after the death of the body. In some traditions, it is believed a traumatic death may cause the separation of the souls from the body to go awry, and the animal or human selves may remain stranded on the material plane as ghosts. These stranded souls are merely echoes of a person, however, as the divine part of the self has already moved on. This belief is similar to that in Chinese religion, where the p’o soul can become angered and transform into a demon if not properly treated after the body’s death.[iii] Some Pagans also embrace the spiritualist belief that after death, one or more parts of the soul travel in the spiritual realms for a time before incarnating into a new human body. Reincarnation beliefs influenced by Spiritualism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are common in the Pagan community, and they are often combined with images of the underworld or afterlife realms from ancient religions. For many contemporary Pagans, these realms are temporary resting places where the soul or souls review the life just lived and choose whether to return to earth.[iv]


[i] Claude Lecouteux, The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, trans. Jon E. Graham (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2009), 162-180.

[ii] William J. Murnane, “Taking It With You: The Problem of Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions, ed. Hiroshi Obayashi (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 35-48; see also Jeremy Naydler, Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996).

[iii] Judith A. Berling, “Death and Afterlife in Chinese Religions,” Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions, ed. Hiroshi Obayashi (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 182.

[iv] See Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ Bible (Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1981, 1984), II.115-134.

 

Myth and Tradition (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 2 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.


Excerpt from Chapter Two: Myth, Tradition, and Innovation

The foundation of contemporary Pagan theology is myth.

Given the colloquial use of the word “myth,” this statement may sound a bit strange. In Western culture, “myth” often means “a prevalent belief that isn’t true” (as in the popular television show Mythbusters, which tests common beliefs about the world with the scientific method). We also commonly speak of “mythology” when referring to stories of the goddesses, gods, and heroes of ancient cultures. This usage comes closer to the way “myth” is understood in contemporary Paganism, but it’s still somewhat off the mark. In mainstream society, myths are often taught as the quaint productions of premodern civilizations, with the understanding that if myths are still told in a modern context, they are preserved as part of cultural or ethnic heritage or, at most, because they convey important psychological truths. Contemporary Paganism, on the other hand, takes myths seriously as sacred stories that express values and suggest modes of behavior.

Some Pagans agree with comparative religion scholar Joseph Campbell, who presented myths as guiding individuals through stages of life and expressing truths that are universal to the human condition. Others experience myths as offering access to numinous powers and beings with whom seekers can develop relationships.  Although myths may appear to refer to a time in the distant past, they are often better understood as occurring in an eternal present, sometimes repeating over and over as part of a recurring cycle (for example, the Wiccan seasonal cycle known as the “Wheel of the Year”). Pagans often look to the myths of pre-Christian religious traditions (such as stories of Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, and Norse deities) and to those of living indigenous traditions for inspiration. Such traditions are often seen as having a more authentic connection to the earth, a particular piece of land, a people, or the divine. Other Pagans approach the religious myths of their childhood from a Pagan perspective, or create new sacred tales that, over time, begin to function as myths in their communities.

Pagans delight in narrative in general, and a story need not be old or from a foreign country to offer spiritual inspiration. When American religion scholar Sarah Pike studied Pagan festivals, she found that many Pagans located the beginnings of their spirituality in the fantasy or science fiction that they first read as children or young adults.[i] Speculative fiction of this kind tends to be idea-driven and to offer modes of behavior and relationship that are different from the mainstream. Fiction allows Pagans to imagine alternatives ways of relating to the land, to the divine, and to each other. One significant contemporary Pagan group, the Church of All Worlds, took its name directly from Stranger in a Strange Land, an influential science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein. The group’s emphasis on close personal bonding and sexual freedom reflects the values of the fictional religion that Heinlein imagined. In turn, the real-life Church of All Worlds has advocated for those values through the magazine Green Egg, which had a huge impact on the infant American Pagan movement of the 1970s.[ii] Pagans have also used fiction to spread their beliefs and practices throughout the Pagan community and beyond. Starhawk’s novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, for example, presents many of the practices of her real-life Reclaiming community as part of a futuristic dystopian narrative.

Narrative plays an important role in many of the world’s religions. Among Jews, the story of the Exodus is retold yearly at Passover as they imagine an era of peace and justice and a return to Jerusalem. Buddhists use jataka tales—stories of the Buddha’s many lives—to teach morality, as do Christians with stories of Jesus, the apostles, or the saints. Similarly, Native American stories of ancestors and animal spirits teach tribal values and traditions, as well as orienting listeners to the land on which they live. Pagans differ somewhat from these other religions in that they usually do not limit themselves to a single body of literature or tradition. There are some exceptions to this, particularly among those reconstructing ancient religions from historical texts and archeological study, but the majority of Pagans are at least somewhat eclectic. This tendency reflects Pagans’ emphasis on having a religious practice that feels personally meaningful, as well as their resistance to anything that smacks of dogmatism. The meaning of sacred stories is never fully fixed; story requires interpretation. Individual practitioners are often encouraged to feel out the meaning of a myth for themselves, and to seek the experiential truth—the mystery—at the heart of the tale.

Not all Pagans feel comfortable picking and choosing from many cultures, however. Some self-impose restrictions on their choice of material, feeling that completely unrestricted eclecticism lacks sufficient structure. To attempt to deepen their connection to a particular place, culture, deity, or group, Pagans will sometimes limit themselves to working with the myths of a single culture or the liturgical materials of a single Pagan tradition. Others are concerned with cultural appropriation, and they disapprove of taking stories and practices from other cultures out of their intended context. In those cases, Pagans may focus their work on the religious traditions of their ancestors, or on the traditions of communities with whom they have a meaningful relationship. Special care must be taken when approaching indigenous or minority religious communities who have been historically oppressed and may still be experiencing economic, social, and legal disadvantages.  For example, because of the genocidal history between Native Americans and white settlers, non-Native Pagans seeking training in Native religion must be sensitive to the concerns of traditional practitioners. While a sincere seeker who wants to contribute to the well-being of Native communities may be tentatively welcomed, some Native American peoples see whites as commodifying their spirituality and attempting to strip-mine their religion for exotic tidbits. Pagans seeking to become part of Native communities must first develop a basis for mutual trust.

Pagans employ myths in both collective and individual contexts. Myths form the basis of many group rituals. In Wicca, for example, practitioners celebrate the Wheel of the Year, which links the story of the dying and rising God and the Goddess who appears as Maiden, Mother, and Crone into the seasonal cycle. Birth, death, and fertility are celebrated in response to the waxing and waning sun and the cycle of planting, growth, harvest, and fallowness. Some groups put on ritual dramas to tell the seasonally linked tales of the gods, such as the myth of Persephone. In this myth, the seasons are related to the grief and celebration of Persephone’s mother Demeter. Demeter allows the earth to grow when Persephone returns from the underworld each year, but grieves and blights the land when her daughter descends to her husband Hades, lord of the dead. Such rituals help to connect participants with larger natural forces or with the gods themselves.

Individuals may also use myths to define their identities, create meaning around life events, or recover from trauma. Feminist Paganism has often used goddess myths for personal empowerment; women and men are encouraged to bring the virtues of various goddesses into their lives by telling their stories, honoring them in worship, and imitating their strengths. A woman seeking to become more independent in her life, for instance, might build an altar to Diana or Artemis and take up archery as a hobby while also applying for a promotion at her job.

Myths can also help individuals to turn adversity or trauma into spiritual growth. The popular myth of Inanna—another story of descent to the underworld—tells the harrowing tale of the goddess’s journey below, where she is systematically stripped of her symbols of power, then slain and hung as a naked corpse by her dark sister, Ereshkigal. But Inanna has planned ahead for the risky journey, and after three days and nights, her allies bargain with Ereshkigal, recover Inanna’s body, and return her to life. Inanna must send another to the underworld in her place, however. When she returns to the surface and finds that her husband Dumuzi is not mourning her death, she chooses him to replace her in the land of the dead.

Many individuals have used the myth of Inanna to deal with experiences of trauma, particularly trauma that resulted from voluntary actions. Ereshkigal is sometimes experienced as a stern taskmaster who oversees an ultimately transformative ordeal, and parallels can be drawn between Inanna’s resurrection and that of Jesus. Unlike in the Christian tradition, where scriptural stories are often read for ethical lessons, Pagans read myths as offering spiritual insight, not directly prescribing behavior. In the myth of Inanna, it is possible to read Inanna’s punishment of Dumuzi as “rightful revenge.” But contemporary Pagans may instead see it as a warning not to lash out against loved ones who do not understand the ordeal they have undergone. Common Pagan interpretations of the myth also include the transformative potential of vulnerability and the greater strength that can be built from having survived powerlessness.[iii]

Although Pagans do sometimes imitate their gods, as in the example of a woman devoting herself to Artemis in her quest for independence, gods are usually held up as exemplars of specific virtues rather than paragons of ethical behavior. As scholar Graham Harvey remarks about contemporary Heathenry, “Northern religion, Paganism, and other polytheistic traditions in general find meaning and value in the diverse ordinary lives of human beings. The deities introduce us to ourselves and do not only demand allegiance and worship” [my emphasis].[iv] Relationships with deity lead practitioners into deeper relationship with their humanity, rather than with a transcendent moral law. Although there is a certain amount of playful mockery around the issue of the gods and their ethics (for example, the bumper sticker “WWTD: What Would Thor Do?”), the gods are thought to hold great but context-specific wisdom. The fact that most Pagans honor multiple gods (either as individual personalities, or as aspects of a God/dess or a Goddess and a God) is consistent with contemporary Pagan virtue ethics, which stresses the cultivation of many virtues in a harmonious balance. A devotee of the Greek gods might honor Aphrodite as a goddess of beauty and sexual love, but Aphrodite lacks the virtues of fidelity and constancy. For a successful marriage or a harmonious household, Pagans might turn to Hera, who presides over weddings, or Hestia, goddess of the hearth. Even the ancient Greeks were sometimes critical of their gods, who could be petty and capricious; yet the imperfect gods still had their devotees, and their worship was at the center of a stable culture for hundreds of years. Contemporary Pagans seek to learn spiritual lessons from their myths, while nevertheless employing the sophisticated ethical thinking of Western philosophy. Some might even assert that human ethics—ethics that grow from being embodied and finite on the earth—are one of the gifts that Pagans offer back to their gods, whose perspective is not bound by a human sense of space or time.


[i] Sarah M. Pike, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 169–70.

[ii] See Chas Clifton, Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2006).

[iii] See Janet Munin, ed., Queen of the Great Below: An Anthology in Honor of Erishkegal (Biblioteca Alexandrina, 2010).

[iv] Graham Harvey, “Heathenism: A North European Pagan Tradition,” Paganism Today, ed. Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman (London: Thorsons, 1996) 51.

Seeking the Mystery Book Giveaway; Kindle Sale

Kindle Ebook $1 Sale

On Monday 7/1 and through the end of the business day today (7/2), Amazon.com will be offering the Kindle edition of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies for $0.99. It will be available at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. It’s now out in paperback too!

For those who have Pagan reading groups, I especially hope you’ll consider it as one of your selections. Each chapter ends with a  summary, discussion questions, and activities — great for groups and individuals alike.

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies[BUY NOW]

Want a preview? You can read the table of contents, introduction, and glossary here and reviews here. Look for chapter excerpts this week!


Seeking the Mystery Giveaway

Want an ENTIRELY FREE copy of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies? I’m doing a giveaway that you can enter through Monday 7/8/13. Continental US residents are eligible for a print copy; any winner living outside the US will receive a PDF. (Sorry, international shipping costs more than the book itself these days!)

To enter, do one or more of the following:

1. Sign up for the Patheos Pagan newsletter using the link at the top of the page, here:

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2. Subscribe to any Patheos Pagan blog using the link in the blog’s sidebar, which looks like this:

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3. Add an RSS feed for any Patheos Pagan blog to your blog reader (look for this symbol):

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After you’ve subscribed to the newsletter or a blog, send me an e-mail telling me what you subscribed to at ckraemer at patheos dot com! I’ll assign numbers to the entries and select a winner using a random number generator, then be in touch with you via e-mail. 🙂

Hard Polytheism (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 1 Excerpt)

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

On Monday 7/1 and through the end of the business day on Tuesday 7/2, Amazon.com will be offering the Kindle edition of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies for $0.99. It will be available at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. It’s now out in paperback too!

For those who have Pagan reading groups, I especially hope you’ll consider it as one of your selections. Each chapter ends with a  summary, discussion questions, and activities — great for groups and individuals alike.

[BUY NOW]

Want a preview? You can read the table of contents, introduction, and glossary here, reviews here, and an excerpt from Chapter One below.


Excerpt from Chapter One: Deity, Deities, and the Divine

Hard Polytheism

Hard polytheism is the view that the gods are objectively existing, independent personalities with whom human beings can have relationships. This theological position is somewhat unique in contemporary Paganism because it is the only belief around which groups of Pagans have strongly rallied. Interestingly, although conversations around hard polytheism are often framed in terms of belief, hard polytheists’ objections to soft polytheism are primarily about the way belief informs practice. For hard polytheists, soft polytheist practice—especially practice that approaches the gods as interchangeable archetypes—is both less effective and potentially disrespectful. Pagans will sometimes speak of rituals where the gods do not “show up”—no energy moves, no sense of connection or presence is felt, and the participants return home in much the same mental and emotional state in which they arrived. Hard polytheists believe that this undesirable state of affairs occurs because Pagans do not recognize the nature of the gods. Hard polytheists usually experience the gods as powerful presences with distinctive desires and behaviors, as well as historical ties to particular traditions, cultures, and lands. In order to connect with a goddess or a god and form relationship with them, hard polytheists will look at rituals from the deity’s native culture for guidance. When they ask a goddess or god to be present, they see themselves as calling someone very specific. Some use the metaphor of dialing a phone number to reach a friend: the ritual objects and the proper names and prayers are ways of ensuring one has the right number. Once a deity has been contacted, an ongoing relationship can be formed through prayer and ritual. This experiential relationship allows the practitioner to move beyond attempting to reconstruct an ancient religion using historical texts, and instead to create a practice that is oriented to the present.

Hard polytheists often see soft polytheists as “dialing a wrong number.” Soft polytheists may treat named deities such as Aphrodite and Ishtar as if they were interchangeable—both forms of an archetypal “love goddess.” To hard polytheists, this is disrespectful to the deities involved, a bit like treating two cousins as if they were the same person. A practice that does not take the deities seriously as individuals is thought to produce either weak results or none at all—or, in certain unhappy cases, a true “wrong number” where a mischievous spirit pretends to be the desired deity. Hard polytheists are also critical of soft polytheist practices that they see as self-indulgent or self-serving. Although hard polytheists do not necessarily see their deities as infallible, they regard them as sources of wisdom and inspiration who deserve devotion and service. They are concerned with the possibility that eclectic Pagans will pick and choose what appeals to them from ancient traditions while thoughtlessly rejecting anything that seems uncomfortable, or that they will make up their own traditions without being well-educated in existing ones. In their view, a soft polytheist practice may be too undisciplined to result in genuine connection with divine forces.

Hard polytheist practice contrasts strongly with the monotheism that is dominant in Western culture. As a result, hard polytheists can be actively hostile to monistic language in Paganism. Part of this may be due to a misunderstanding of monism. Hard polytheists are strongly opposed to the idea that “All gods are one God,” and they tend to equate this view with monism. Yet monism does not necessarily imply a belief in a unifying personal God. Rather, it can simply indicate a belief in a unifying divine substance. Some hard polytheists do espouse ideas that are compatible with monism. Raven Kaldera  is an outspoken advocate for hard polytheism in contemporary Paganism. In Dealing with Deities, he addresses the cross-cultural similarities between groups of gods and goddesses that some thinkers have identified as archetypes. Many polytheistic cultures, for example, have a “love goddess” of some kind. Kaldera speaks of these individual deities as sharing a divine energy current that unites them and gives them a family resemblance, while still remaining distinct personalities.[i] To draw an analogy on the human level, although a friend may be a member of a family or a citizen of a town, I don’t generally think of her as “one of the Joneses” or “a Bostonian”—I think of her as “Katherine” and as an individual. Ivo Dominguez,  Jr. expresses a similar idea in his book Spirit Speak, where he describes different levels of deity forms. For Dominguez, the named gods are also part of larger and more diffuse deity forms that unite them. Importantly, however, neither Kaldera nor Dominguez see these uniting energies as the primary focus of Pagan practice. Both take the reality of individual Pagan deities as seriously as they take the reality of individual human beings. Deities may partake in larger energies, but these writers believe that Pagans can relate to them as distinct.

For some hard polytheists, the distinction between hard and soft polytheism is primarily a difference in emphasis. In the creation myth told by Starhawk, for example, the Star Goddess gives birth to all the beings of the universe, of whom she is also part. A soft polytheist is likely to focus on the Star Goddess in this story as the common origin of all things. She may seem to be the most important deity, the oneness (or the nothingness) of which all the others are part. Yet it is not just the gods that remain a part of her, but also human beings, plants, and animals. A hard polytheist is more likely to see such a Goddess as somewhat distant and abstract, while her children—both gods and mortals—are closer to us and available for relationship. In general, hard polytheists who admit to monist underpinnings are likely to see their monism as irrelevant to their practice. The idea that there is an underlying spiritual substance to being may be an interesting metaphysical idea, but it has little impact on the everyday. (Alternatively, hard polytheists may see “divinity” as a quality shared by all deities, but deny that there is a unifying substance to being. Just as an apple and a stop sign are both “red,” but not of the same substance,  Aphrodite and Parvati might both be “love goddesses” and both “divine,” but not of the same substance. This is a non-monist position that nevertheless affirms an essential commonality among the gods.)

Hard polytheists tend to take the issue of belief much more seriously than other Pagans. Like other Pagans, they usually emphasize that their belief in the gods is based on their personal experiences of them. However, hard polytheists see belief as a necessary part of the passion and devotion that is part of a committed relationship with the gods. As Hellenic polytheist Sarah Kate Istra Winter writes,

I fear that paganism may not have the strength to last in the long-term if we ourselves do not firmly believe in our spiritual reality. You don’t see Christians following up a discussion of accepting Jesus into your heart with some caveat like “or if you don’t believe in Jesus, just imagine a similar loving entity or warm light.” Or “if you need the help of a saint and don’t like any of the ones you’ve read about, just invent a new saint in your mind that betters suits you, and contact them.” As if these things are all the same. Yes, I know that many Christians go in the opposite direction and become strictly orthodox, insisting on every detail of belief, and I also know that this is what many pagans are reacting to. But it’s time to stop reacting and start building a real, solid faith that will last – and for that you need, well, faith.[ii]

Although in this passage Winter emphasizes the necessity of belief for the Pagan movement as a whole, hard polytheist thinkers also acknowledge belief’s personal dimension. Even the most devoted Pagan will not always experience the gods in all their glory; not every ritual will produce awe, ecstasy, or divine terror. In those cases, belief can help to sustain a spiritually nurturing practice. As Heathen practitioner Galina Krasskova remarked to me, “Faith and practice support me when I can’t feel the gods.”

Perhaps because hard polytheists are more likely to acknowledge the necessity of believing in and understanding the nature of the gods, much of the innovative contemporary Pagan theology of the past two decades has come from a hard polytheist perspective. Druid John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods explores polytheism as an ethical as well as a metaphysical position. Greer spends much of his time attacking pre-twentieth century Christian theology, which may be frustrating for those who are aware that progressive Christian theology has already made these criticisms. But Greer does make a strong case for polytheism as an inherently pluralistic system in which religious tolerance and the celebration of diversity make sense. Since it is obvious from history that individuals and cultures experience the divine very differently, polytheism provides a system of thought that does not have to explain those differences away.

Other hard polytheists have focused on theoretical frameworks to support their devotional approaches, such as Northern tradition Pagan Raven Kaldera’s Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology. For Kaldera, theology is not abstract or based on speculation; “faith” is a matter of trust and ongoing relationship with the gods, based on the assurance of things experienced and the conviction of things seen. He also touches on archetypal and syncretistic experiences, which have often been considered evidence for soft polytheism. Contemporary Pagans sometimes interpret similarities between deities as evidence that they have encountered a universal archetype, rather than two separate beings.  These archetypal experiences seem supported by historical cases of syncretism, where deities originally from different cultures have been worshipped as the same deity.  To provide a more sophisticated hard polytheist explanation for these experiences, theologian P. Sufenas Virius Lupus uses process theology and the work of polytheistic philosopher Edward P. Butler.[iii] Lupus argues that deities change and evolve along with human beings, which allows new relationships to be formed among the gods over time. In turn, changes in the gods lead to changes in their relationships with humans. Lupus aims to help polytheist Pagans form deeper relationships with the gods by coming to a more consistent understanding of them.


[i] Raven Kaldera, Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology (Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press, 2012), 43.

[ii] Sarah Kate Istra Winter, Dwelling on the Threshold (CreateSpace, 2012), 21. Also available at A Forest Door, https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/the-gods-are-real/.

[iii] See P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, “Polytheology: Syncretism, Process Theology, and ‘Polyamorotheism,’” Patheos.com 2 Aug 2010, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Polytheology-Syncretism-Process-Theology-and-Polyamorotheism; and “PantheaCon 2012: Super-Syncretism! Creating Connection & Preserving Diversity,” Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous 31 Mar 2012, available at http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/pantheacon-2012-super-syncretism-creating-connection-preserving-diversity/. Expanded versions of these ideas are available in A Serpent Path Primer (Red Lotus Library, 2012).

Introductory Pagan Theology Book — $1 Kindle E-Book Sale, Plus Paperback Release!

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

All, I’m excited to announce that my book Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies is now available in paperback as well as an e-book edition! I hope this gives those of you who are using it in reading groups more options. 🙂

Additionally, Amazon.com will be offering the Kindle edition for $0.99 on Monday 7/1, then at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. Hooray for sales!

After watching the Pagan blogosphere explode this past month over theological issues, I feel ever more strongly that having a sophisticated theological vocabulary can only help both our intrafaith and our interfaith communication (especially as I watch writers misdefining key terms!). What is monism (because it’s not the same as monotheism!)? What about pantheism vs. panentheism? Dualism vs. duotheism? And how do these ideas describe and inform our practice?

Seeking the Mystery includes chapter summaries, discussion questions, and activities at the end of each chapter. I hope some of you will consider it as your next Pagan book club selection!

[Want a preview? You can read the table of contents, introduction, and glossary here. Also, thanks to John Beckett for updating his kind review on the occasion of the paperback release.]

Announcing Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

My new book, Seeking the Mystery, is now available from Amazon and B&N! The e-book edition can be read on any computer, smartphone, or e-reader (computers and smartphones will need free software to open the file). The entire Introduction is available to read through Amazon preview — just click on the book cover.

Will there be a print edition?

[EDIT July 2013]: Yes, there is now a paperback edition!


Seeking the Mystery

An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

by Christine Hoff Kraemer

Copyright: 2012
Publisher: Patheos Press

Going Beyond Pagan Practice

Contemporary Paganism focuses on practice, often neglecting theology. Yet belief and practice are intertwined. As the religious movement continues to grow, so does the need for intellectual frameworks for practice and ways of approaching the controversial question of belief.

In this book, Christine Hoff Kraemer asks central questions about the varieties of Pagan belief: Why is multiplicity so important to contemporary Pagan understanding of deities? How do Pagans experience divinity in nature? In what way can the human body be a sacred site? And what are “virtue ethics” for Pagans?

With an estimated 1.2 million Pagans in the United States and significant numbers elsewhere, Seeking the Mystery is important for Pagan self-understanding and also for non-Pagans who want to understand what their Pagan neighbors believe. This short introduction to Pagan theology—or better, theologies—is a valuable primer for students and practitioners alike.

Endorsements:

As contemporary Paganism puts down its roots in the fertile soil of the 21st century, Pagans are seeking to deepen their understanding of their chosen spiritual path and to explain it to others in shared language. Seeking the Mystery is an important new book that enables Pagans and others to explain contemporary Paganism in the language of theology. It is highly recommended for both theologians and religious practitioners of all faiths.
—Vivianne Crowley, Author of Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium

Grab a pen and start taking notes, because Seeking the Mystery is going to take you on a whirlwind course in Pagan theologies where you are guaranteed to learn something new. Pagans will find language and frameworks here to clarify their own perspectives; non-Pagans will be challenged to a deeper understanding of their own traditions through dialogue with Pagan beliefs.
—Sarah Whedon, Author of Birth on the Labyrinth Path: Sacred Embodiment in the Childbearing Year

An indispensable guide to the myriad varieties of experience, practice and belief among modern Pagans.  Kraemer deftly applies the language of theology without sacrificing the freshness and vitality of this often counter-cultural spiritual movement.
—Holli Emore, Executive Director, Cherry Hill Seminary

[Additional Reviews]


One minor note on the e-book: We wanted readers to be able to easily see the definitions for various key terms, but due to the limitations of the current software, that means the definitions ended up as footnotes. Welcome to the adolescence of e-books! ;> Hopefully future e-books will employ a more elegant solution.