Friday, May 30, 2008


In my last entry, I talked about dealing with people who want to know “Do you believe in [G]od?” but I realize I did give an answer to the question itself, not the answer I would give if I weren’t being deliberately evasive, or just being a smart ass.
The simple answer, of course, is “no, I don’t believe in your Capital-G God.”
Or “I do not believe that the universe has or needs a king, a boss, an owner, a dictator, or a big daddy, or a chief disciplinarian.”
I really have a tough time with the idea of “belief,” anyway, and I have told people (sort of quoting Robert Anton Wilson) that I don’t believe anything. Which is true: I’m unwilling to regard any question as utterly settled, or to agree to any statement simply because of someone says it is true or because I am afraid of not believing it.
That seems to be what most people mean by believing.
But, as anyone whose read this must realize, I constantly refer to gods and spirits, and so on. So what’s that all about?
All I can say is that the gods I refer to are the one’s I know. I know them like I know the members of my family.
My upbringing and training is such that I feel a need to rationalize my experience, and I used to devote a lot of time to trying to explain what the gods were, how spirits or daimons or elves could exist, trying to resolve their existence with a sort of mechanistic idea of the universe.
But I can’t, and I’ve finally come to realize that it doesn’t really matter. Anything that has consequences is real and the gods have had great consequence in my life, whether they are understood to be webs of ether, powerful extraterrestrial time travelers, or fragments of my own mind, it doesn’t matter. Knowing them makes my life better and understanding the present colors my perception. Real religion, as the ancients understood, is not about what you believe, but about what you do.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I believe in more Gods than you do

In my former life as a defense attorney, I was once sitting court waiting to enter a pretty good plea deal for a client who had behaved stupidly, as is usually the case. My client, Jerry, was whispering excitedly to me of his latest experience: he had been Saved.
I don’t suppose it will come as any surprise that small-town Georgia boys facing third DUI charge often find Jesus between arrest and trial. Jerry’s sudden enthusiasm for church going was not knew, nor was what came next, the invitation to come to his church next Sunday.
“I’m not much of a churchgoer,” I said. As a small-town southern lawyer and a small-town southern newspaperman, I usually stay quietly in my broom closet. Of course, when you are a middle-aged white man from a known “good” family and hold socially important jobs like lawyer or editor, it’s not hard to pass as a good Christian: as long as I don’t do anything extraordinarily weird, it’s taken for granted that I am of the tribe.
(Once a woman whose grandchildren I had just extracted from the machinery of the State threw her arms around me in the courtroom shouting “you’re such a good Christian Man.” I just patted her on the shoulder.
(Of course, she KNEW I was a Christian because I had accomplished a good thing and brought justice. She KNEW that only a real Christian could do that or would even try.)
Anyway back in Judge Campbell’s crowded courtroom, Jerry and I exchanged a few more muttered phrases as he tried to probe the state of my soul. Finally, he fixed me with a solemn glare and asked “You DO believe in GOD, don’t you?”
Just at that point, the bailiff hollered “All rise,” and that was the end of that. Possibly, this proves that some god -- my buddy, Hermes? -- was paying attention. I took care of Jerry, but he left without further discussion, and also without further payment. In the end he stiffed me for about $500.
But what about Jerry’s question: do I believe in “God?”
Notice that it’s a trick question, because the word “God” is being used both an abstract concept of deity, and, at the same time, as a proper name, the name of the Christian God, in fact. If you answer “yes,” you seem to be affirming a very specific and Abrahamic idea of what deity can be. If you say “no,” you seem to be denying any spiritual or religious truth at all.
This is approximately the same question asked by the much-publicized poll of last year that concluded that some huge percentage Americans “ believe in God.” But in that poll, as someone commented at the time, the only alternative to "God" was "None of the Above."
There is no room any god that is less than the unchallenged boss of the universe. No room pagans, polytheists and other weird types.
I used to answer people like Jerry by saying things like “I believe in at least as many gods as you do.” That made me feel very clever, but just baffled the Jerrys of the world; sometimes it made them angry.
Because what they really mean when they asking you is “Are you afraid of what God is going to do to you if you don’t do right?” and “Do you believe that my God is the Big Boss, the one who’s going to come and justify all of the things that are important to me?”
And the only answer I can give them is “No.” So usually I don’t say anything at all.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Morality? What morality?

Continuing some thoughts spinning off from my correspondence with Kate, who was writing a term paper on Pagans and conversion. Again, Kate plans to publish the paper and I think she should (with a few reservations I have expressed), so I’m not trying to steal her thoughts. She can speak to herself.
But responding her thoughts focused my own thoughts on some topics – including the question of what constitutes Pagan “morality.”
This is an important question and one I’ve wrestled with a good bit.
To Kate’s question in her questionnaire “How do you [as a Pagan] decide what is moral behavior?” I first answered, “How do you know I do?”
That was too flippant, of course, but I don’t think I am unique among refugees from Christianity in having a somewhat uneasy relationship with the word “morality.” I have too often heard the word used to bludgeon people were doing naught but what comes – or ought to come – naturally.
That said, I think of myself as a “good” guy: that is, I think that, by and large, I treat other people as well or better than they deserve. In practice, I’m comfortable with the idea that good behavior is like Potter Stewart’s opinion of pornography: I know it when I see it.
But that’s not entirely satisfactory, because history, recent and ancient, is filled with people who were sure they know good from bad and, acting on their intuition, created horrors.
At one point, Kate suggested that the golden rule might justly represent the basis of most Pagans’ view of morality to outsiders. I replied as follows:

“ The Wiccan Rede is ‘An it harm none, do as thou wilt.’
“The Law of Thelema is ‘Do as Thou Wilt shall be the Whole of the Law; Love is the Law, Love under Will.’
“The law of three-fold return is simply that whatever you send returns thrice. If you will indulge my quoting myself, from my response to your survey:
“’ I don’t think the universe counts on its fingers, but obviously, if you make the world an uglier, harder place, then you live in an uglier, harder world; if you make the world a more beautiful and happy place, then you live in a more beautiful and happy place.’
“These are the principle sources of guidance I see used in by pagans.
“Xtians tend to think that the golden rule – ‘Do unto others as thou wouldst have others do unto you.’ – is uniquely Xtian, but actually it had been around in one form or another long before Yeshua cribbed it from Rabbi Hillel. Confucius had a version 500 years early: ‘Do not do to someone else that which you would not want done to you.’
“But Christian morality is inevitably a counsel of fear: instructions to helpless mortals as to what they must do to avoid angering their irresistible and bad-tempered god. The golden rule, even understood as rule of prudence, still emphasizes the individual’s dependence on the community.
“Modern pagan ‘morality’ as represented by the principles I’ve mentioned, is far more individualistic: it emphasizes the actor’s power to change the world s/he lives in, rather hir helplessness and dependence, either on gods or other people, and seeks its reasonable and prudent limits. It is aimed toward defining the most that an individual can do rather than curtailing his power.
“In this, modern Paganism is different from the religions of the Classical urban civilization, which emphasized duty to the community, but I think that is a necessary outcome of the means by which our ways have been transmitted: by occultists, outsiders and rebels. And I think this a good thing.”
I’m fairly happy with that as a beginning point for seeking a kernel of modern Pagan “morality” or ethics or what you would call it. But it’s only a beginning.

Friday, May 2, 2008

the Vision of Wholeness

I’m back, blogging again after giving up the effort 13 months ago in the face of complication, depression and technological cussedness. I think – I think – I will be blogging at least once a week, maybe more. I have a backlog of potential material.
This is largely inspired by a correspondence with a young lady named Kate who is writing a paper on Paganism for her college philosophy class. Her paper is quite good, she will undoubtedly publish it herself and I’m not trying to steal her thunder.
But, as often happens with me, trying to explain myself to other people, I came to understand more clearly just what I was thinking. So, although I am indebted for Kate for helping me clarify my thoughts, she is in no way to be blamed for any foolishness that maybe detected here in.
The question is this: are all the gods and goddesses but aspects of one central principle, or are they distinct entities existing within the multiverse along with the rest of us entities, phenomena and things.
The unity of the godhead is a widely held belief among Pagans and many others who would not be at all interested in calling themselves Pagans. It is, as I understand, a major line of thought in Hinduism.
It’s a tenable position and one that I adopted at one point in my explorations. However, I have come to reject it, mostly because it simply seems alien to my personal experience of the gods. To me the gods are in no sense abstract, but real, distinct, and, in Richard Eberhardt’s phrase, “as sensual as tears or dreams.”
(Not to the say that all the gods and goddesses don’t sometime bleed into each other, but then I think most human are blurrier around the edges than they imagine themselves to be. We are, after all, only a set of more or less high probabilities.)
Of course, it sort of attractive when one is among dominant monotheists to be able to say “I really am like you guys because all the gods are just one god.” It makes small talk less complicated.
But I think there is a real metaphysical experience that lies at the root of this feeling of the oneness of the gods and of oneness with the gods.
Anyone who has gone very far in any mystical practice will have had a vision of the wholeness of the universe/multiverse, which is very comforting. I believe this vision is that which is called Ain Soph Aur in Kabala, Brahaman in Hinduism, or the Tao of Lao-Tse. When mystics confuse this with their local war god, the monotheistic error arises.
As it happens, just after I started thinking about this, I watched an episode of “Battlestar Galactica” in which the sometimes-treacherous Gaius Balthar, now prophet of the “one god” told his follower “something loves me.” I understand what he means: I’ve had that feeling myself, and I think the ease with which people who have been raised to believe that there is either “God” or nothing confuse this vision with the local war god who operates the Abrahamic religions, accounts largely for the continued credibility of those churches.
But to my mind it is a mistake to understand this wholeness, however harmonious and comforting it may be, as “God” or “the Gods.” The gods are part of it, but so are you and I and so are the cockroaches and viruses and clouds of gas in space.
More importantly, this “wholeness” doesn’t DO anything, because every action and all of its consequences are already complete in it.
It may love you, but not anymore than it loves itself or your opposite. It may be some creator god staring at itself from each end of time, like Narcissus enthralled by its inflection. But it cannot be your guide or your companion or your protector or your lover. This is what the real gods are like.