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.

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