Tag Archives: Paganism

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.

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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.

Search terms: some quick hits

From time to time, it’s interesting to see how people arrive at my site – if it’s not from a Facebook link, it’s often from a search term. Here are some comments on some of the quirkier ones.

“quakerisms”

The plural here is curiously apt. Although it’s not standard usage at the moment, perhaps it should be. There are many words we can use to describe the varieties of Quakerism found in the world today: unprogrammed, semi-programmed, programmed; conservative, evangelical, quietest; liberal, liberal-Liberal, not actually liberal; Christian, rooted in Christianity, Christocentic, universalist, hypenated; pluralist, inclusive, diverse, exclusive, elitist; spiritual, humanist, religious; theist, atheist, non-theist, agnostic, gnostic; honest, transparent, open, silent, unknown, secret; clear, sure, uncertain, exploring, vague, confused, determined, open-minded… and maybe all of these at once. How many Quakerisms are there?

“quaker-friends church bloggers 2014”

I guess this person might have been looking for the Quaker Alphabet Bloggers, or perhaps they were just looking for Quaker or Friends Church bloggers in general. There are plenty of them about!

“what does buddha look like”

It was the tense of this query which caught my attention. This isn’t, apparently, a search for information about the historical figure known as the Buddha, but a question about what the Buddha looks like today. This might be about the way the Buddha is depicted in art today, but perhaps it’s a more mystical question. Would you recognise a Buddha if you met one? Would a Buddha introduce themselves as such, or is it more like meeting an angel, an experience you only understand in retrospect?

“wittgenstein space”

I’ve no idea what this searcher was seeking. On first reading, it sounds like a sci-fi premise: Wittgenstein in Space! He analyses the grammar of scientific spaceship jargon! He meets a race of aliens who claim to have a private language! He threatens crewmate Karl Popper with laser-poker!

However, I did once give a paper in which I used Wittgensteinian ideas to explore the ways that we interact with space, specifically with the space inside a Skyspace. If you’re interested, you can listen to the whole piece at the Go Inside To Greet The Light website. It’s officially called ‘wordless thought’, but I’m not sure that’s what it’s really about!

“pagan brigid upg”

UPG, or Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, is knowledge gained about a deity through a personal practice – meditation, prayer, divination, or similar. I’m fascinated by the processes and vocabulary which are growing up in the Pagan community around this, and especially by how they compare to Quaker processes for seeking and agreeing on ‘the will of God for us now’, but I haven’t yet written at length about them. Nor do I have particular UPG of my own about Brigid; in fact, I don’t especially feel the need of it, and one of the reasons I was drawn to Brigid in the early days of my Pagan exploration was that there’s enough material on her that it even appeared – a few mentions here and there – in my local library. For reviews of books and other resources about Brigid, I heartily recommend Brigit’s Sparkling Flame.

“brigid and the fox”

I see the confusion here! The Fox in my blog title refers to George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement. The story this search is looking for is about Brigid and an actual fox, or in some tellings a wolf: there’s a very short version here and a much longer one here. A charming tale about her power over nature, even if the fox does (usually) run away back to the woods at the end!