Tag Archives: Paganism

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.

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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!

A is for Appropriation

An ethical issue which keeps appearing in my work is about appropriation: the taking of an object, word, or practice by a cultural group who did not create it. There are many areas of life in which appropriation is possible – cultural appropriate, artistic appropriation, musical appropriation – but I am mainly concerned about religious appropriation. When I wrote about appropriation before, I was writing from my perspective as a member of the Neo-Pagan community; now I want to talk about some of the complex situations I have considered since.

There are some cases which, I think, are widely agreed to be appropriation among those who agree that it exists. (There are, of course, people who don’t think that it exists as a concept, or who insist on distinguishing between appropriation and misappropriation, not accepting that it is all morally problematic. I am not discussing these perspectives in this post because I think that the facts that a) ideas move between cultures and b) sometimes the use of one culture’s idea by another culture is harmful to the first culture have been demonstrated elsewhere, including by evidence which I provided/linked to in my previous post.) For example, the wearing of ‘Native American headdresses’, a very specific piece of ritual kit used by some, and only some, Native American groups, as fashion accessories, obviously degrades and damages Native American cultures, not least by lumping them all together and, frequently, treating them as historical rather than owned and practised by living people.

One of the aspects of that case is the power imbalance between the Native American groups involved and the white Americans who are wearing headdresses as a fashion. The specific history of relations between these two cultures in that place has irrevocably shaped any cultural interchange which happens now. In other cases, the use of cultural material by another group is accepted, even encouraged, by the people from whom it is taken, and this kind of sharing can be advantageous: although it could be interpreted in other ways, recent reports about the popularity of Korean cultural products, especially music and TV shows, in China could be read as this kind of story (especially if it is the case that Korea’s cultural popularity has been instrumental in producing a trade deal which is advantageous for Korea). The popularity of some American cultural products worldwide is clearly good for the USA; but MacDonald’s channels money in a way that the worldwide sale of dream catchers, an originally Ojibwe sacred item which has been taken up, made and sold by many other people, both Native and non-Native, American and non-American, as a ‘New Age’ fashion accessory.

In religious appropriation, then, what are we talking about? Sometimes it will be the same thing: objects, food, music. Sometimes images appear in inappropriate places: Buddha as a tattoo, Kali on a toilet seat. Sometimes it will be practices: yoga might be the classic example of this. Sometimes words, ideas, or stories move between cultures: terms like ‘karma’, originally part of Hindu and Buddhist religions, now circulate freely and detached from their context in Western discourse. The latter is especially a problem if, like me, you think that  the meaning of words is derived from their use in particular contexts. (A blog post later this year will deal with this idea in more detail.) A pattern I observe among Quakers is a push to use words which prove how inclusive we are. Using ‘Allah’, for example, in a list of names of God alongside Spirit, Light, Christ, and maybe some from other cultures (Inner Buddha Nature, Tao, and Krishna all appear in real examples) probably does not so much reflect the presence of Muslim-Quaker dual belongers in the community (although there are a few around) as it reflects a desire to demonstrate willingness to respect the religion of a group much denigrated in British mass media at present. The desire comes from a place of goodwill; but whether a Muslim, or even an Arabic-speaking Christian who might also use the word ‘Allah’, would really agree that it belonged in that list is another question.

Christians have some specific tangles around this issue. Setting aside the appropriation from other cultures, people seeking resources for a change to their tradition often go back and look for forgotten materials in their own history to appropriate for new purposes. This can be very effective – Christian feminist work on medieval women mystics might be an example – although there is still a moral dimension to ensuring that the past is represented as accurately as possible. However, because the Christian past includes material which is Jewish, there is also the complexity of interactions between the cultures. Christian persecution of Jews, Christian failures to recognise how Judaism has changed since the time of Jesus, and Christian cultural power in many of the places where Jews now live are all features of this landscape. For those working in Christian traditions and seeking to interpret the Bible now, the Jewish context of the documents is vitally important – but some apparently obvious ways to use this are problematic appropriations. For example, Christians holding Seders – read about this from a Jewish, interfaith family, Lutheran, or Anglican perspective.

What should we do about appropriation? I think we need to be aware of it, to name it and discuss it both within our religious communities and when relevant topics come up in the course of interfaith work. When considering whether to use material from another religion, whether it’s a single word or a book or a practice, we need to ask questions like: What do I stand to gain? What is my real motive – showing respect for the tradition, desire for the exotic, proving the superiority of my understanding? If I do this, what impression will I give to those who see and hear me? What hidden lesson might I be teaching alongside the message I intend to impart? What potential for damage to people and the relationships between people does this have?

Personal spiritual practices

There’s been some discussion recently on the Quaker Renewal Facebook group about spiritual practices beyond Meeting for Worship. It’s focussed a bit on spiritual direction, of which I have no experience, but knowing that I find such accounts from other people interesting I thought I would share with you some of my spiritual practices – as they are at the moment; my experience is that these things can, do, and need to shift and change through time.

My core communal spiritual practice is Meeting for Worship, followed by Meeting for Worship for Business (which includes committee meetings, Meetings for Clearness, and other related Quaker processes). I’m also happy to participate in a variety of Neo-Pagan rituals, Buddhist and other meditation or chanting groups, Bible study, church services, other Quaker practices like Appleseed or Experiment with Light, and so forth, but these tend to come and go as the opportunity arises rather than being core to my practices – I enjoy them but I don’t particularly miss them if I don’t go.

Over the past year or so, my core solitary spiritual practice has been a short period of meditation in the morning – typically ten or fifteen minutes, using a handy timer on my phone. I use this for all sorts of things. Often, it will be a recognisably Pagan, often Druid, visualisation meditation – visiting my Sacred Grove in the inner world, for example, or exploring a landscape or symbolic image. At other times, I might use a set of words, such as a Pagan chant, song from Taize, or Buddhist mantra. Sometimes I hold a focus object which is significant to me at the time – a leaf, a stone, an ornament. Sometimes I do Experiment with Light, sometimes I focus on the breath or on listening, and sometimes I just lie there. This practice is core in the sense that I miss it if I don’t do it – it’s not always practical, but it does seem to be beneficial when I can manage it. It’s my practice, since it’s warm and comfortable, to do my meditation in the morning before I get out of bed. This doesn’t work if I’ve been woken by an alarm, as I’ll just go back to sleep, but if I’ve woken naturally because I’ve slept enough it’s in fact the time when my mind is most alert and I am least likely to drift off. This is clearly a quirk of biology and YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

I have, at other times, tried other practices. Sometimes I have found the need to have more tactile stuff going on in order to keep my mind on the practice – at the moment, a meditation bell set to ring every three minutes or so during the time is enough, but I have used music, poetry, incense, candles, lectio divina, various divination systems (such as runes, ogham, and oracle cards), and movement, at different times. I find Scott Cunningham’s book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, John Pritchard’s book How to Pray: A Practical Handbook and Ginny Wall’s book Deepening the Life of the Spirit: Resources for Spiritual Practice to be useful, and go back to them when I feel stuck, although as you may have gathered from the rest of this post I also find inspiration in a lot of other places.

My other core practice, although it’s not as regular as morning meditation and weekly Meeting for Worship, is being outdoors. This can be walks in the countryside, strolls in the park, gardening, feeding the birds, tree-hugging, etc. It’s much more free-form, except when something arises from my meditation or my OBOD course which prompts me to something specific, but no less important for that.

Branches, mostly of oak, criss-cross the image, against a grey sky.

Tree image from a recent walk.