Tag Archives: Paganism

Book review: When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown

When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown, Moon Books, 2014

When I picked up this book, I was interested in learning about Druidry with a eye to expanding my own practice  – how do other Druids, or at least one other Druid, relate to prayer? What might I use in creating a Druid prayer practice? Reading it, however, I found something with a much wider interest. Brown does speak from her own Druid perspective – indeed, one of the best aspects of the book is the way in which she shares her personal as well as research journey with the subject – but she also deals with a wide variety of possible approaches to deity. Of particular interest to me, and I suspect to other Quakers as well, is the combination she creates of space for atheist and rationalist perspectives while also addressing the possibility of religious experience including the irrational and inexplicable. For example, on page 43 she writes, “Sacredness is a condition of being that could belong to almost anything, and does not require deity.” As she explores different approaches to and forms of prayer, she always holds open the possibility that there will be no reply and that prayer may not work in the ways we hope for or want – while also demonstrating that this need not be a final block, that there are always other ways to look at things or alternative techniques to try. She not only suggests that she may be mistaken, but shows the reader in detail ways in which she changed her mind as she gained more knowledge and experience. This is a great gift, especially for those who may be experimenting in a similar way with this or another spiritual question.

Brown is also refreshingly upfront about the risks of prayer – what happens if your prayer is answered? This includes unintended consequences but also, less commonly addressed in religious literature, the social and personal aspects. If you say ‘hello’ to God (or Gods, or Goddess, or spirits – Brown’s Druidry is not committed on this) and something says ‘hello’ back, what are you going to make of it? Brown acknowledges that “few things would be more terrifying” (p37) but also addresses the many ways in which those responses might appear. Hearing a voice which says ‘hello’ is not the most common experience, although not entirely unknown. The Pagan communities which Brown is discussing don’t have the Quaker idea of listening together to have a shared experience of being spoken to or led to a specific action, and perhaps the book is slightly poorer, philosophically, for leaving out that possibility. On the other hand, Brown does come to three conclusions which are closely aligned with the Quaker perspective. One is about the importance of listening itself and the difficulty of that process: “the hardest thing to do in prayer is to sit in true silence and listen.” (p140) Another is about the ways in which, rather than changing the world, prayer and related practices can change us. She is direct about the need for the person prayer to be open to transformation: “If you aren’t willing to change then don’t pray. If you aren’t willing to be confused, frightened, overwhelmed or intimidated sometimes, don’t pray.” (p109)

The other way in which Brown reaches a Quaker-like conclusion is her focus on experiment and personal experience. Of her research method for the book, she says that as well as reading a lot and having conversations with other Druids on these topics: “If I wanted to understand, I was going to have to experiment, and pray, every day.” (p181) And when she talks about the ways in which the process has changed her, it is clear that she has had an experience of being helped and changed by prayer. For me, the most telling line in that discussion was on page 114, when she talks about the way her relationship to her work has changed: “I feel that I’m doing the work I need to be doing, bit by bit, and that certainty changes a lot of things for me.”

Of course, the similarities to my own perspective are only one aspect of the book’s usefulness. Although there are a few places where Brown comes close to describing something like Quaker worship – like this comment about improvisation in ritual: “In truly inspired improvisation, it can be hard to decide whether the prayer even comes from the person who voices it” (p136) – for the most part, her focus is on other forms. She explores Pagan ritual, intercessory prayer, and linguistic issues such as the tone in which we address our deities as well as philosophical and theological issues about to whom prayer is directed (and how we pray when we don’t have solid answers to this question) and the social and ethical aspects of prayer. And in the later sections, I also found some answers to my original questions – how do other Druids pray? Brown offers an extended discussion of two Druid prayer texts which are in common use in Britain, the Druid’s Vow or Druid’s Oath and the Druid’s Prayer or Gorsedd Prayer. As in much modern Druidry, her emphasis is on the reader developing skills to create their own relationship with, understanding of, and perhaps version of, these classic texts, rather than apologetics or finding ways to defend the existing tradition. 

I would recommend When a Pagan Prays to anyone wanting to think about the complexities of prayer, not just Pagans but those in any tradition considering their prayer life and wanting to develop it independently.

Christmas: cancelled, inevitable, every day, and/or stolen?

I gave this as a conference paper at the Multiple Religious Belonging conference, run jointly by the Centre for Research in Quaker Studies and the Hyphen Project and held online September-October 2020. I don’t always publish conference papers as such – they get recycled in various ways, as book chapters or sections of other projects – but this one is so specific to time and place, as well as hopefully having wider implications, that it seems appropriate to share it as a blog post. If you’re interested in Multiple Religious Belonging, a group from that conference are going to continue to meet every couple of months for the next year, and we’d welcome other people working on related topics to join us – contact me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk or Grace Milton directly for details.

Today, I’d like to use discussions about Christmas as an example of a complex religious situation, and look at the issues which arise from Christian, Quaker, Neo-Pagan, and wider social perspectives. It might not be immediately obvious that this complex religious situation involves multiple religious belonging. It does for me – I belong to all four of the communities, or perhaps layers of community, which I’ll be discussing in this paper, but I should start by outlining how I’m treating these four groups.

In this paper, I talk about Quakers – probably the best defined of the four groups, with some internal mechanisms for recording who belongs to a Quaker community or attends Quaker worship, and clearly described in a body of historical and sociological literature. I also talk about Christians, by which I mean people who, more or less loosely, belong to Christian churches – people with an active involvement in Christian practice, including those who might be ‘lapsed’ or otherwise regard it as a matter of culture rather than belief. I talk about Neo-Pagans, a broad term which – like ‘Christian’ – covers a lot of different groups, including Wiccans, Druids, eclectic Pagans, resconstructionists of various kinds, and so on. And I talk about the ‘wider society’ in which we live, the vaguest of the four groups but a significant one in this case – British society can be seen as Christian or secular, depending how you look at it, but I am thinking of people who are participating in British society who, Christian or not, have an involvement in Christmas practices because of their ubiquity. Almost everyone who buys food in British shops is going to see Christmas trees and mince pies, for example. A few people can be members of all four groups. A few more may be members of three – identifying as both Christian and Quaker, or Quaker and Pagan, or Christian and Pagan – and a lot will be both actively Christian or Quaker or Neo-Pagan and a member of wider British society.

I have been prompted in my consideration of Christmas as a complex religious situation initially by three discussions. The first is some recent social media discussions about whether Christmas is ‘cancelled’ or not – as things stand with coronavirus in the UK at the moment, it seems that the usual parties, visits to family homes, and other events traditional around Christmas are likely to be impossible or look very different, while church services are able to carry on in at least some form. For people for whom the social events are the main part of Christmas, it feels like it will be cancelled. For those who want to highlight the role of traditional Christian worship in Christmas, it’s important to say that it’s not cancelled.

The second is a longer-term discussion about the Quaker relationship to Christmas. For those who aren’t familiar with the Quaker tradition, in the early part of the movement – in the seventeenth century, beginning in the north of England and spreading fairly rapidly throughout the country and then internationally – Quakers rejected many things about the Christian church as they knew it at the time. They rejected set liturgy in favour of an open, silent waiting to be moved to preach. They rejected outward, physical rituals of baptism and communion, preferring to focus on inward experiences of the Holy Spirit. And they rejected the Christian liturgical year, saying that Christmas day, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday were days like any other. They had a passionate faith in Jesus, but what mattered to them was Jesus present within people, here and now – every day is Christmas day, and every day is Easter day, in this understanding.

However, by 1994 Janet Scott could write that this idea was “dying of neglect”: she observed that many Quakers in Britain, who are “involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas” and a lot ignore the message of Easter even as they keep some of the customs involved. (27.42) This is very much the case today, with British Quaker meetings commonly holding extra worship services on Christmas day, Christmas socials, and related activities. This gives rise to a continual tension in Quaker groups: many Quakers are aware that we officially don’t celebrate these things – and some of them will say so whenever Quaker-founded company Cadbury’s run an advertising campaign based on Easter chocolate, which is to say, every year – while at the same time, actually celebrating themselves in ways which are broadly in line with the behaviour of wider British society.

The third is another longer-term discussion, sometimes conducted in a scholarly way but more often the preserve of the light-hearted newspaper article or social media post, about the relationship between Christmas customs as we have them now in Britain and both ancient and modern Pagan customs. In December, I often see social media posts about, for example, the relationship between the astronomical event of the winter solstice, the Roman Pagan celebration of Mithras, and the date of Christmas. You may have seen these yourself and I don’t intend to debate the factual accuracy of any of these claims here. For one thing, there are too many – as well as the date of Christmas, the potential Pagan origins of the Christmas tree, of Santa Claus, and numerous other traditions are frequently discussed. What I’m interested in today is not whether these claims are historically true but the relationship created by the framing of the question – the way in which merely asking “is a Christmas tree really a Pagan tradition?” firstly sets up a relationship between two religions, understood as ‘Christianity’ and ‘Paganism’, and secondly suggests that a practice – cutting evergreen plant material to use as a decoration – ‘really’ belongs to only one.

The problem in the first part of the claim, as you probably spotted, is that Christianity and Paganism are not at all unified traditions. Christians of different branches of the church celebrate Christmas differently, not even all on the same date, and Paganism is a complex collection of surviving, revived, and newly invented religious traditions not all of which even mark the solstice. Obviously, the claim that tree-cutting ‘belongs’ to one or other of these complex communities is massively over-simplified.

But a puzzle remains – why does ordinary language about religion allow this sort of claim which is quickly shown to be inaccurate? are there better ways of discussing the moral questions which can be raised by this sort of claim? By the way, I actually don’t think the moral issues are very pressing in the case of Christians and Pagans in Britain today, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen this example for abstract discussion, over others where the harm is larger, the power relationships much more unequal, and colonial and other damaging histories much more recent. In order to think about how we might talk about these issues better, let me take a brief diversion into questions of analogy. I’ll then return to work back through my three situations with some new terminology in hand.

When people try to understand something complex, we often turn to analogy – think about how we talk about electricity moving through a wire as if it were like water flowing through a pipe, for example. It isn’t exactly how electricity works, but it’s close enough for many everyday conversations. In the same way, we’ve already thought during this conference about some of the ways we talk about religion. ‘Belonging’, ‘spiritual fluidity’, social identities. Sometimes people collapse religion with another category, like race or ethnicity – in Britain, we’ve seen this very clearly in popular understandings of Islam over the last decade or so. Religious communities are compared to other groups, which helps make sense of the ways in which they could ‘own’ something: the Christmas tree debate can sound a bit like two football clubs trading a player – as if the trees used to play for Pagans but signed up with Christians a while ago. 

I think a more productive approach might be to compare religious practices to the philosopher Wittgenstein’s idea of language-games. A language-game isn’t a whole natural language, like English or Welsh; in fact, the examples Wittgenstein gives tend to be very restricted. ‘Telling a joke’ is a language-game, for example, or giving directions using landmarks, or a system in which builders ask for and receive bricks and slabs. If we zoomed in on religious practices to the same level, we might well pick out ‘using evergreen plants for decoration’ or ‘gift giving’ and so on. I’ll call the results of this kind of analysis ‘religion-games’ – not to imply that they are fun or trivial, but to suggest they have many of the same features as language-games. They are rule-guided – we can do the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depending on whether we follow relevant rules established by our communities. And they are contextual – that is to say, the meaning of the plants or the gifts can vary depending on the religious and social setting, in the same way that telling a joke is a language-game which can perform multiple social functions depending on the context in which it’s done.

What would this approach say about each of my three situations? When we think about religion-games, it doesn’t seem so surprising if more than one religious tradition has the same or similar practices. We have the language-game of joke-telling in lots of different natural languages, and we can have a religion-game like decorating with evergreen plants in lots of different religions. We also have multiple communities which are making and agreeing – and often renegotiating – their rules for participating in religion-games. Actually, I think the rules for Christmas tree decoration aren’t now governed by any of the church groups, and they certainly aren’t governed by Pagans, even if they have a strong claim to tree-themed acts of worship; rather, they are embedded in and negotiated by a historically and culturally Christian society which sees itself mainly as secular. A narrow view of what religion is, often associated with Christianity, in which religion-games involving belief are emphasised at the expense of those which are more obviously about practice, enables this misunderstanding. So about the Christians and the Pagans, I can say: religion-games are sometimes shared between or move between religious traditions. Depending on other factors, such as the power relations between the two traditions, this may or may not be ethically problematic.

What about the Quakers who are trying to both play some religion-games associated with Christmas while also refraining from playing the religion-game of celebrating Christmas? I have two suggestions here. One is that we can build on the previous point – not only are some religion-games shared between traditions, but some individuals can play religion-games from more than one tradition. A thoughtful choosing of which Christmas traditions to engage in may be in line with the Quaker aim, of having your outward behaviour reflect your inward experience rather than letting society determine your actions, without reaching the totally anti-Christmas conclusion of the early Quakers. 

My second suggestion is that some ways of ‘not doing Christmas’ may be a move within the ‘celebrating Christmas’ religion-game. Let me give you a more specific example which makes this clearer. You might be aware of the tradition of ‘Christmas jumper day’. On Christmas jumper day in a workplace or other community, everyone wears their ugly or funny or otherwise Christmas-themed jumper. When my workplace held one, I considered my options and decided that one possible Quaker choice in the circumstances was to wear a plain grey jumper. At one level, I was participating – I specifically chose grey, because Quaker grey as a form of plain dress has a long history. Although I wear my grey jumper to work throughout the year, I also wear blue and black and other colours – I didn’t pick one at random on Christmas jumper day. I knew the rules and looked for a way to subvert them. The move of ‘not taking a move’ is known in other games, too – skipping a turn, not playing any cards, switching your Scrabble tiles rather than placing a word. A studied refusal to participate in something, whether it’s wearing grey on Christmas jumper day or not sending any Christmas cards or having a strict limit on the cost of presents, requires just as much awareness of the rules of the game as ordinary participation.

And finally, what about the claims that Christmas is cancelled? Some of the practices we associate with Christmas in Britain are certainly going to be heavily limited this year – pubs shut at 10pm and groups limited to six people, and so on. Worship services can continue with some modifications, but for many in what a recent Prime Minister called “a Christian country”, church services are not the most important of the religion-games. Gift-giving, tree-decorating, jumper-wearing, school nativity plays, and similar practices are the religion-games which form the heart of the British Christmas tradition today – and they are not simply associated with one religious tradition: derived from Christianity, influenced by or with the potential to become neo-Pagan, often crossing over into secular and consumerist spaces. An analysis of these practices as religion-games opens new vocabulary to discuss that complexity, but might also help us adjust them to the realities of pandemic life. By focusing on core elements and changing things which are circumstantial, the rules of games can be adjusted to suit different situations – think about wheelchair basketball, co-operative Scrabble, the Great British Bake Off filmed in a self-isolating bubble – and the same is true for our religion-games. 

Remembering Ancestors

The modern Pagan festival of Samhain, celebrated at the same time as Halloween, is often figured as a time of connection with and remembering those who have died – our ancestors, broadly understood. (This is a blog post about my personal modern practice, and I am not going to discuss whether this version is ancient or historically accurate or any of those things – a lot of the language in use now, like ‘veil between worlds’, may be Victorian rather than any older. On the other hand, the Victorians were four generations or more ago now, and eventually everything becomes ancient! This is also not a blogpost about the metaphysics of life after death, but about the experience of the living.)

In the Buddhist practice of Touching the Earth as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, there are considered to be three categories of ancestors – blood ancestors, those we probably think of first in the context of the English word ‘ancestor’, who are related to our physical form; spiritual ancestors, especially our teachers and those who have guided us in all sorts of ways; and land ancestors, the land itself and the people who have lived on it and worked with it before us. In those ideas, I think there’s something which resonates strongly with Pagan ideas about ancestors – not limited to our physical and legal families, but including people who inspired us, those who went before us in our work and the places we live.

(For those who still have my previous blog post in mind, would the Plum Village community/Community of Interbeing be comfortable with being included in this kind of interfaith thinking? I think so: the text of the Touching the Earth practice mentions Christ as well as Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ is supportive of multiple religious belonging, and my experience of attending their retreats and sangha meetings in the UK is that I as a Quaker Pagan have been welcome – I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2012, and although my level of involvement has varied over time, maintain some connection with the community.) 

So here are some of the paradoxes of multiple religious belonging in practice: as a Quaker I don’t celebrate specific times and seasons or use specific physical rituals, but aim to remember the key messages all year; as a Pagan I notice the physical changes in the world around me – at this time of year, in England, that means the shortening day length and the leaves changing colour and falling – and tie those to potentially ancient and often universal stories and ideas, like that there are some times when Otherworldly beings are more likely to visit; and as a Buddhist I might use the Five Earth Touchings at any time, to remember all my ancestors and connect with both those I love and those who make me suffer. What to do? I don’t have a neat theory, so I just try and do what I feel led to do at any particular time.

This year, I am remembering my ancestors, and I’ll probably light some candles. I am remembering my grandmother and my grandfather, and my great-grandparents (some of whom lived until I was old enough to remember them, so I have a tangible connection). I’ve thinking of my friends and loved ones whose blood ancestors are not their family, or whose blood ancestors have caused them pain in lots of ways. So I’m including with my ancestors the people who have stepped in when I needed help – the people who have mentored me, who welcomed me to their homes and encouraged me in my writing and my work and my life in all sorts of ways.

It may be a sign of the strength of the intergenerational communities that I’ve been part of that a significant number of those people influenced me strongly in the last years of their lives. Because of these connections, and the way I have needed to move to study and work, it has been my experience that often, when a very dear friend from a previous part of my life died, I haven’t any more been a member of the same Quaker community, haven’t had the overlapping circles of friends any more, and hence have sometimes felt I was mourning alone. So I’m remembering people who were kind and brave, who modelled ways to hold close to God’s guidance even in the most difficult times, who remembered to ask whether I was still writing, who were supportive and caring – sometimes just present, offering lifts to hospital or a meal and a chat – when my own life was very difficult.

Among my spiritual ancestors, I am remembering those who died in war and those who became conscientious objectors (and occasionally died anyway). Of course, Remembrance Day is coming soon, very closely linked to these themes but sometimes used to exalt military service and action at the expense of other responses to conflict; and people keep comparing the pandemic to a war, when (apart from lots of people dying when governments make bad decisions) I’m not sure that it’s comparable at all. 

I’m remembering going to the National Memorial Arboretum, where many of these people are honoured. It’s a very Druid place, with the dead remembered by living trees – although in some ways secular and in other ways, as British ‘secular’ cultural practices often are, deeply marked by Christian thinking and history. I am remembering the Shot at Dawn memorial there, which names 307 British soldiers who were executed in the complex circumstances of the First World War

I am thinking about what land ancestors might mean here. I live in Bournville, mainly built on green-field sites by a family who wanted to both care for and profit from their workers. I am remembering those who suffered for the chocolate trade and those who benefitted from it – of course, George Cadbury isn’t just a land ancestor to me, but a spiritual ancestor and maybe more something more direct, since he founded the organisation, Woodbrooke, which now employs me. Is there a sub-category needed for employment ancestors? If I made one, I might remember alongside the Cadbury family figures like Joseph Chamberlain and all the others who help with the founding of large and complex organisations like universities. 

As you can probably see from this meandering consideration, one of the things which attracts me to marking Samhain in this way is that it both steers my thoughts, helping me set aside time to remember the many interconnections between lives and the many people who have shaped my life even though history might not remember their names; and that it leaves things open, for me to focus on the issues which matter to me at the moment and able to draw my own conclusions. Who is on your mind at the moment? If you are marking Samhain – or Halloween, or one of the many related festivals – who are you remembering?

Converting to Christianity

Converting to Christianity has been on my mind lately – not for me personally; I’m culturally Christian and happy in a complex and theologically inclusive faith community – but because I’m writing a story set in a time and place when we don’t know how many people had or hadn’t converted. Conversion in historical settings is often described as if it were of a whole community at once – and perhaps sometimes it is. Conversion in historical settings is also often measured by the recorded actions of the ruling class. This has two problems. One is that the people doing the recording, later on, were themselves almost always Christians. The other is that just because the leader of your community has converted, it doesn’t mean that everyone has. (Even if the leader has converted in terms of actions, there’s still the issue of what they actually believe, but we have even less access to that.)

In the case of Europe – my story is set in Wales – we can put down some markers for the groups of people surrounding the right time and place. We know a fair amount about the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, with Constantine accepting it in 312 and Theodosius 1 making (Nicene) Christianity the state religion in 380. We know a little bit about missions to the British Isles, with Ireland converted around 430 and the first Christian king of the English, Ethelbert, converting in 597. What isn’t clear is to what extent the British people in Wales had converted to Christianity, and what their beliefs were in the gap between the Romans leaving (around 383) and the Saxons arriving (from 446, but starting on the eastern side of England). Some of them would have been Christian (and those who were would mainly have been Pelagians – followers of the ideas of Pelegius, who was excommunicated in 418). Some would have followed the Roman religion, especially if they arrived through the extensive movement of Roman soldiers around the empire. And some might still be following a local religion, now mixed with Roman elements but also retaining Celtic ones.

stone-1205248_1920

A stone Celtic cross, a symbol which emerged from this period of religious complexity. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

This ambiguity is attractive to me as a writer, because it gives me space to explore. I’m able to take a range of elements from the evidence – things which might have survived from the Roman period and things which might have begun by this time and be recorded later – to create a fictional society in which these multiple religious currents are meeting and mixing. Of course, historical fiction is always only partly about the past, and quite a lot about now. Finding a time in the past when multiple religions which interest me today where interacting in ways which were obviously complex and aren’t fully know also opens up a space for me to pose, in the past, the questions which I’m thinking about now.

For example, I’m interested in multiple religious belonging – why and how an individual might be part of more than one faith community – and in what it takes to be identified as part of a religion. When it is something the individual can identify for themselves, simply by stating it? When does it require community involvement, and what form does that take? Some religions have clear prescriptions about this, at least for some cases, but there are typically also cases of uncertainty as well. What are the actions which are considered characteristic of a faith in a particular time and place, and when does performing them mean you have joined or at least become associated with that religion? In this early period, baptism hadn’t yet taken up the role which it is given by later Christian communities, of acting as an entry ritual, determining who is and who is not part of the community. In exploring this complexity in fiction, characters can move in and out of different categories, with those around them – and perhaps even the characters themselves – unsure about where they fit.

Converting a person – and so even more a group of people – to Christianity can never have been simple. I’m not going to pass judgement on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to convert Britain to Christianity. There are later cases where it seems to me to be clearly bad, especially where Christianity was forced on people, used as an excuse to suppress local culture, and put to work to maintain oppressive social structures. There are other cases where people convert because they have found their right spiritual path, and that is, in general, obviously good. And there are lots of situations in between – where people convert because they think it will give them a better life, or because everyone around is converting, or because they are not so much moving from one faith to another as adding something to their religious lives. The extent to which pre-Christian British religion survived in Christianised forms is up for debate, but I think there’s enough evidence to say on the one hand that some pre-Christian British practises were adapted into Christian ones, and that this didn’t result in a long-standing, multi-generational Pagan tradition running alongside the public Christian religion.

One of the reasons I think the conversion of Britain isn’t directly comparable to some more recent cases of countries being converted is that Christianity didn’t arrive in Britain with an oppressive ruling class. It arrived through the Romans – who had invaded long ago by time they adopted Christianity, and who gave up trying to rule Britain soon afterwards. And it may also have arrived through independent routes; if Christianity came to some parts of Scotland, Wales, and England via Ireland, for example, that separates it from Roman involvement. It did pick up some Roman ways of structuring administration, and we have some evidence of bishops in Britain in the 300s (if Restitutus was indeed Bishop of London, for example). Instead, it seems that, in this period when few records were produced, that there would have been multiple religious traditions all common in the community, and people perhaps moving between them, combining them, and trying to work out what the relationships between them should be.

Fun times for writers who want also want to explore those things!

Enough for now

Life has run away with me. The seasons have turned, autumn is here, and I almost let September go by without writing a blog post.

an old storage heater has been opened - the red bricks are visible inside a beige case next to my blue sofa

Out with the old, in with the warmth

I like autumn. I like the sense of new beginnings, probably because I associate it with school years starting. I like picking up conkers. This year, I’ve had new heaters installed in my flat (the dramatic part, pictured above, was removed the old ones).

eight jars of various sizes, all with different coloured lids and filled with brown chutney, stand on a corner of a kitchen counter

Green tomato chutney.

I’ve had a horrible cold – the kind of thing we used to call ‘fresher’s flu’ – and have been obscurely glad that the growing season is coming to an end. Visits to the allotment down to once a week from twice a week; green tomatoes gathered in and made into chutney; soon the time of armchair gardening, when it rains and you stay at home and read seed catalogues, will be here.

a collection of objects on a shelf: a grey feather, a multi-coloured autumn leaf, four small conkers, a white stone, a green/terracotta clay Goddess image, a white and silver candle in a green saucer, in front of a black speaker

Nature table

In the midst of all this, I’ve found myself going back to one of the practices of my childhood: the nature table. It would be easy to big this up with long words (it’s mindful! it’s spiritual! it’s about connection with nature and gratitude and seasonal awareness!) but it for me it isn’t really motivated by any of those things. It’s an instinct: something interesting fell off a tree (or a bird, or came out the ground) so I’m going to take it home and look at it.

Enough for now.

Brwydro: battle, fight, combat, struggle

I remember sitting in the common room with a fellow Quaker Pagan theology PhD student. (I say ‘a’, perhaps ‘the other’!) Anyway, we were discussing theology, as you do when you’re a theology PhD student, and we were discussing whether Pagan and Quaker theologies can be compatible, as you do when you’re a Quaker Pagan theology student. Specially, my friend raised the question of whether it would be acceptable for a Quaker Pagan to worship Odin, given that Quakers are pacifists and Odin is, among other things, God of War.

“I quite like Odin,” I reflected. “Wisdom, words, fetching the runes, that kind of thing.”

“Indeed,” my friend agreed. “He scores a fair number of Jesus Points, too, what with the hanging on the tree bit.” (‘Jesus Points’ are awarded to a character based on how much they resemble Jesus. Other high scorers include Superman and Gandalf.) “But how do you deal with him being God of War, too?”

“I suppose I’ve always thought of it as a metaphorical war,” I said. “Like jihad – the inner struggle.”

I was reminded of this conversation when I read the dictionary entry for the Welsh word brwydro – the first three English words offered (battle, fight, combat) all admit of metaphorical meanings but can easily refer to physical violence, while the fourth (struggle) is much more likely to mean non-physical, or at least non-violent, endeavours.

I’m not entirely convinced by my own argument, by the way. There’s not a lot in Norse myth to suggest that anything expect actual real violence is intended by the discussions of war. But perhaps the acts of cross-cultural borrowing involved in creating this reading of Odin as a pacifist God of Jihad are illuminating for the modern world – or at least my interfaith-aware way of doing theology.

Reading Qf&p 26: God for me is…

This morning, our local Reading Quaker faith & practice group tried exercise 2B from this month’s Being Friends Together materials, which offers people the beginning of a sentence from chapter 26, Reflections and asks them to try and finish it in their own words. I chose ‘God for me is’, from the start of 26.38. As I was doing this, it occurred to me that I did something similar not long ago – in January last year, I expressed many of the same ideas in a poem I wrote to share with the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group. Rather than writing an analysis of this chapter (I have things to say about the structure created by the subheadings, but I’m not sure they’re all that interesting), it seems appropriate to share both of these pieces with you now.

God for me is… (July 2016)

Goddess for me is within us, alongside us, dancing in the depths of all things.

God for me is reaching out, helping hands, laughing, growing, sharing.

Goddess for me is positively feminine and masculine and nongendered.

God for me is found by imaginative contact with the inner world: lights, trees, seeds, ways.

Goddess for me is a nonexistent undeniable impossible reality.

How do I currently experience the Mystery? (January 2015)

Gone.

God got washed away by waves
of blistering Freudian fire
or crept out while I was reading
leaving me silence and this stone.

Hiding.

I turn the stone over.
Nothing there.
I turn the stone over.
Nothing there.
but something there
as my fingers glide like the sea
over and over the stone.

The Cailleach is the hills from Callanish.
You can’t find Her
by searching them.

Us.

The sweating crowds of us, settling
floating in a warm river
finding the mill-pond and the weir
and I am carried,
seeing here and there
a sweet wise hazel nut among us.

Flowing.

A moment of poetry or ministry
every cell shaking
with raw, electric leading
I call out “Goddess!” like a celandine
surprised by sunlight.

Here.

The soft-lipped pony, Epona, at my shoulder.
The dark-eyed Jesus who always sits
beside me, never opposite.
Hecate with Her three faces is here
on a railway bridge
when I am at a crossroads.

Not.

You turn because I’ve stopped walking
I now can’t see
the things I see
the story with truth
that’s not a true story.

I try to stand
still as a tree.

I is for Irreplaceability

Are some words or phrases irreplaceable in our language, in that it is impossible to express the same sense – or convey the same picture of the world – without using that specific expression? Some Wittgensteinians have argued that it is (n.b. I’m going to talk about the idea and not the references today; broadly speaking, this stuff comes out of the student’s notes published as Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Religious Belief, and is covered in a complex and technical literature in which I regard Cora Diamond as a slightly more readable guiding light).

What kind of thing might be irreplaceable in this way? Some examples might be religious uses of language which create very clear images of the way the world is: for example, if you’re describing a sensation experienced in prayer, you might be able to say, “It felt like God was watching over me”, and thereby capture something about the experience which is not captured by other, similar phrases. The picture created, of a God who is outside you and can watch, perhaps even has eyes, need not be regarded as ‘literal’ or even ‘true’ in order to be the most vivid and accurate representation of the way you felt in that moment. In fact, we know that language in such contexts isn’t taken in the same way that the same phrase would be in another setting; if someone else is said to be watching, the grammatically acceptable conversational responses are different.

One of the reasons that irreplaceability interests me as an idea is that it runs counter to another idea I hear quite frequently, namely, that everything can be ‘said in other words’ with just a bit of effort. Especially in the realm of spiritual experience, it is often argued that people are talking about the same thing but in different ways. This usually has an underlying element of monotheism or at least an assumption of reliable access to a single reality, and a motivation to bring people together and smooth over arguments. Sometimes it even dismisses language, especially if a concept like ‘experience’ is brought in to be primary. Irreplaceability, though, suggests that it’s not always possible to just re-phrase things in another way, and perhaps that ‘translating’ between the language of one religion and another might lose something, perhaps even more than is lost in ordinary translation between one natural language and another.

In fact, this view is so pervasive that I gave up asking Quakers which language they thought was irreplaceable, because when working at the intellectual level they insisted that it was all dispensable. However, I do from time to time – coming at the issue by a roundabout route – hear Quakers confess that there are certain key phrases without which they cannot explain Quakerism to others, for example. One of them is “that of God within” – usually followed by a disclaimer that the word ‘God’ could be replaced by some other noun, such as ‘good’, although as far as I can tell this is almost never done in conversation and the grammar of the phrase is very stable indeed.

For myself, I can pick out a few other phrases or words which I would regard as irreplaceable in my own spiritual vocabulary. I like to use terms which feel ‘plain’ to me in my writing – “God”, even when I’m aware that some readers will carry supernaturalist baggage with that word, and “the Light” as a picture of how God’s presence feels to me. Within the gendered structures of today’s society, the word “Goddess” – complete with a little bit of shock value in some settings – is vital to my understanding of the Divine. The image of the Spirit moving or flowing through a situation, and the idea of the Spirit guiding a community, seem to me to capture something which is part of my experience and not expressed in other phrases.

Are there terms which seem to you to be irreplaceable, to express something which cannot be put in other words?

Search terms: “pagan eschatology”

Wow, what a question! What would a pagan eschatology look like? For one thing, of course, if you ask three Pagans you’ll get five answers, a standard situation in religious communities with questions of this type. For another, I would expect it to depend on the particular type of Pagan you ask; some, drawing on ancient Egyptian material, for example, will have very clear ideas, while others will have very little if any idea. Reincarnation is a common idea – in 2003, Berger, Leach and Shaffer published a census of Pagans in the USA, and their data suggests that 75% of Pagans believe in reincarnation and only 4% reject it, with the others unsure or not answering the question (p47; you can consult this source on Google Books).

As I said in my previous post about eschatology, I’m a bit wary of the concept as a whole. There’s a kind of materialist re-phrasing of reincarnation, in which it’s the idea that the molecules which make up your body will continue and make up other things, living and not living, in the future. This is evidently true, and indeed is true during life as well as in death. However, I don’t think that this is the claim which most are making when they refer to reincarnation. The word is usually used in a stronger way, with an implication of the continued existence of the mind, soul, or consciousness – and here is the tangle, because this implies that such a thing exists separately from the body itself (a position we might call ‘dualist’ in some contexts). This seems to me to be very unlikely, and I do not accept it as the explanation for alleged cases of past life regression.

An alternative Pagan eschatology might focus on framing death as a melding back into the Earth or the Divine – for many Pagans, these will be the same thing. As in the interpretation of reincarnation given earlier, the attention is on the building blocks of the body entering the natural cycles of the universe and being re-used in new forms; at the level of metaphor, this is expressed as becoming one with the world after a temporary – illusory – separation. In the words of Z Budapest’s chant, “We all come from the Goddess and to her we shall return.”

B is for Belonging

What does it mean to belong to a religious community?

In 2014, my most popular post was about Quaker understandings of belonging, and our struggles with them. (If you didn’t read it, it was: Yearly Meeting considerations of membership.) In my post this Wednesday, I talked about the boundaries of religions, relating this to issues around appropriation and belonging. In this post, I want to make some general observations about two groups with which I am familiar: Quakers and Pagans.

Quakers in Britain have two official levels of belonging: attenders and members. There are also a number of visible variations on these: the very-long term attender who calls themselves a Quaker but is not in membership (sometimes even having resigned from membership) is one, and another is the member who almost never attends (sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes because they no longer wish to, but nevertheless feel part of the Quaker community – if they grew up in a Quaker family, for example). Being born into Quakerism is unusual (14% of the community in Britain, according to a recent survey). Being an ‘attender’ or a ‘member’ says little about how often you attend Quaker events, or whether other people in your life know you are a Quaker. Not being in membership does hold people back from serving in certain roles (except when someone finds a work-around for this or an appointing meeting decides to ignore it). There are thus many less formal ways of belonging to the Quaker community.

Pagans in Britain are a much more diverse and less organised group. No one organisation is in a position to administer membership for all Pagans, although some groups such as the Pagan Federation try to encourage all Pagans to support them. Where groups do have tightly controlled membership arrangements, it is often related to esoteric material – many Wiccan groups will have oath-bound material, for example, and OBOD has the correspondence course which is members-only. That said, OBOD don’t, to the best of my knowledge, have a procedure for removing members from their list, although they do stop sending the magazine if you stop paying. Here, a distinction between a ‘member’ and a ‘subscriber’ comes into play – while paying, you are both. Before paying, you are neither. After ceasing to pay, you may be a member (allowed to read the correspondence course material for which, after all, you have paid) but you are no longer a subscriber.

Quakers ask for money from their members, but don’t make payment a condition of membership in the first place, so there isn’t the same level of ‘subscription’. They might ask you to subscribe to certain claims – not theological ones but ethical ones, such as ‘war is wrong’. (They might. It’s not clear to what extent these questions are actually asked directly when someone is applying for membership.)

For myself, Quaker belonging is mainly about the community; about participating in waiting, listening worship with others, and working on issues which matter to the community. There are other aspects as well – the principle of listening worship, for example – but my belonging is focused on the community. On the other hand, my Pagan identity and my Druid membership are more focused on solitary spiritual development – on having a framework in which to practice (in the sense of play with, work on, get better at) things which help me to be grounded and connected. I like going to Pagan rituals and Druid gatherings sometimes, but if I never went again I’d still be very much a Druid. If I couldn’t go to a Quaker meeting at all, I’m not sure I’d still think of myself as a Quaker.

One of my ongoing interests in multiple religious belonging: cases where people are fully members of more than one religion at once. This can be by birth (where the parents are of two different faiths – for a detailed discussion of this see Susan Katz Miller’s book Being Both), or a position, like mine, evolved in adulthood – sometimes one religion is from childhood, sometimes a childhood position is abandoned and multiple new religions are adopted. I think that it’s especially interesting that some religious groups seem to be very open to this; Quakers, for example, who already have a large number of ‘seekers’ among them, people who have explored a variety of religious traditions in their lives, are generally (not always – remember that for any claim about Quakers, some Quaker will be trying to disprove it!) generally more supportive of those trying to practice multiple religious belonging than some other groups would be.