Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas, etc.

I have to admit that this post is in large part due to the conversations abounding in the polytheistic blogosphere; let it never be said that I will not jump on a band wagon when it is playing a tune I like!

So Christmas, Yuletide, the Holiday Season. Christian v Pagan, Religious v Secular, and all that hullabaloo. It`s been done, and likely better than I could surmise here. So I will take a different tack, and simply talk about why Christmas is important to me.

I suppose it bears a brief discussion of the religious aspects ( I know, I know, I said I wouldn't but what kind of polytheist blog woudl this be without a little religious content?). Christmas, for me, has never really been a religious holiday. My parents would probably both label themselves some kind of Christian, though I was raised in a rather agnostic household. Christmas in my home was not about creches, wise-men or infant demigods, but rather evergreens, decorations and family. Oddly enough, any sort of religious context would have been gleaned from the Christmas carols we sung at school, in the Christmas pageant, or in conversations I did not quite understand at the time, with school mates. No, Christmas has always been secular for me, and perhaps I am better able to continue the celebration of it, despite not adhering to the religious significance most others associate it with.

From the other aspect, as a Gaelic polytheist, the solstice is not something which tends to be marked. I understand this may strike some people as odd, as the vast majority of Pagans mark the solstices and equinoxes in some way or another. Heck, even a lot of Druids will mark the solar markers are important, and point to structures like New Grange and some other passage tombs, which do seem to have some correlation with the solar events, as proof that the pre-Christian Gaels did acknowledge them. My argument, would simply be that while the neolithic structures do (likely) correspond, they are neolithic, not Iron age. As such, there is nothing in any of the extant texts which show that the pre-Christian Gaels had any kind of celebrations or festivals pertaining to the solstices and equinoxes. This is often a major point of contention between a lot of modern Druids, Celtic polytheists and Reconstructionists, and gets back to the debate about whether or not sun worship or solar deities were a part of pre-Christian Celtic religion. Other than a few epithets, pertaining to shinning ones (which have a number of interpretations) and the earnest, but now highly doubted, Celticists of the late 19th century, there simply are no reliable sources which support the idea that the Celts were sun worshipers. Further, there is nothing in the existing folklore or festivals which bear any mention of celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes. The consensus is that the pre-Christian Gaelic calendar probably revolved around the cycle of the harvest and livestock, and this is reflected in the texts and folklore, via the so called "cross quarter days". As such, there is little religious content from my current beliefs either, and so I will wish people a Blessesed or Joyous Yuletide, but do not celebrate Yule either, though I can appreciate that what I have always associated Christmas with, is decidedly pre-Christian in origin.

But I digress. Christmas to me, has always been about decorations, music, feasting and family. However task of decorating our Christmas tree has always stood out in my mind as the quintessential Christmas memory. For almost all the years until I was in my late teens, we would harvest our own tree. This would involve getting up early, dressing myself and my two younger brothers in full snow regalia, piling into my father's pickup, and driving to a smallish town north of Toronto. We would arrive, pile out, and traipse through the parking lot, past the pre-cut trees lined up near a barn, and line up to hitch a ride on the wagon. Now the wagon was pulled either by two rather large Clydesdale's, or less enchantingly, a tractor. Needless to say we preferred getting the horses. We would then ride out, along with other families, through the tree farm, until we reached the section we wanted. Most of the time we would get spruce, the needles were fairly sharp, but they were a lot more manageable than pine, and held ornaments better than fir. We would systematically walk up and down the rows, seeking out that particular tree. Generally it was my father and mother doing the searching; my brothers and I would be running around, trying to pelt each other with snowballs. Eventually one tree would be chosen, and cut down using a bow-saw (my father owned a remarkably large assortment of tools). We would then carry it out to the wagon trail and await an empty cart. I should mention that b this point, what was pulling the wagon was secondary to what would get us back to the entrance, which had a bonfire, hot chocolate and a Santa walking around handing out candy canes. The tree would be wrapped, and we would truck it out to the pickup. The drive back was more subdued, due to the fact that we had spent the afternoon running about in foot deep snow. We would carry the tree in through the sliding glass doors we had, and stand it up in a large bucket, filled with sand. My father had worked out long ago that a sand filled bucket was far better than a plastic or metal tree stand; our tree would remain green well into the new year. The tree would then be untied, and left to stand over night.

Some time the following day, my mother would haul out the box of decorations and we would begin trimming the tree. We would pop one of several Christmas cassettes into the player, which would belt out standards; to this day, as much as some people revile the song, "simply having a wonderful Christmas time" complete with synthesized chorus, is still my favourite Christmas song.  We had a variety of ornaments, many of which we still have today, tucked away in boxes somewhere. The lights would be the first to go on, and we had a couple of different styles of strings; some which were flower shaped, with small foil petals which would reflect the light, others of a more traditional variety where if one bulb failed, they all would. One year we bought a little timer, which would allow the lights to come on in patterns, and the that was very cool. Our tree topper was always a star, and when I think of it now, the thing was awfully gaudy. Five individual lights, with small reflective foil, and ornamented with blue tinsel fringes, but it was OUR star, and I have yet to see another like it. Our ornaments ranged from the traditional glass balls, or various sizes and colours, a growing number of ornaments made by myself or my brothers, those which commemorated each of our first Christmases, these sort of ridiculous stuffed men who had hockey jerseys on, and my mothers favourites, small glass birds which had fiber-optic wings and attached to the tree on these little clips. They were ancient, and very fragile and we couldn't touch them, but there were something to behold. We would then add either strings of metallic garland, or metallic beads. Finally a liberal draping of tinsel "icicles" would complete the trimming. We would then spend the rest of the day decorating the rest of the house.

To me, that was (and is) what Christmas was about; spending time with my family, expending hours of time in an effort to deck our home in Christmas cheer. I may be overly sentimental, and frankly there is little that I am really sentimental about, but at the end of the day it wasn't about the gifts, or the food, or the jingles or spirituality, it was about spending time together as a family. And really, that is why I continue to celebrate the holiday, and hope to pass on my family's traditions.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Oh those Victorian sources...

Alas, it is still a work in progress, though I now find myself with a good deal of free time as I am free of classes for three weeks. I have started thoroughly reading through a good number of texts, and am finding a lot of very useful information.

However, I am also continually reminded of the hindrance that comes from relying on sources from the late 19th century. I can easily look past the sun worship references, that is very easy. It is all the other little Victorian biases which are so glaring as to make me have to really dig for useful info. A "Fijian" tribe of aborigines practiced cannibalism, as apparently all other barbaric savages, and so it is to be expected that the early Irish, being only slightly removed from such status would have done likewise. Oh, and tying the Fomorii, Fir Bolg and Tuatha De Danann to the extent that remains found MUST relate to this or that story we happen to have, are amusing at first, but soon become very irritating.

At least the bits pertaining to what was then contemporary folk practices is a lot more useful once you get used to the unabashed "anti-Irish racism" (you'd think someone would have come up with a better term for this by now?) and general superior attitude so common among Anglo commentators. Still, with little recourse, and a very critical eye, and an inordinate amount of cross checking with more modern sources, I am learning quite a lot which will be of great use overall.

Monday, December 6, 2010

"Jesus loves you"... Really?

I stopped into a grocery store this afternoon, on my way home form school. It was all rather mundane, until a chipper girl with a sing-song voice came up from behind me and told me that "Jesus loves you". She preceded to literally skip away, repeating this message to other shoppers. I was at an utter loss for words. I simply had no idea how to respond without: seeming like a jerk or being unnecessarily glib. Off the top of my head I could think of several theological reasons why such a statement would be untrue, but I did not want to get into a discussion about theology while I was shopping.

Upon reflection, I am not sure why I did not want to engage. I will engage in conversations with people who happen to be discussing theological issues, people handing out tracts, manic street preachers, and even those folks who deliver themselves right to you door. What was it then that kept my tongue behind my teeth in this instance? If it is anything it would probably be civility; I could not think of an appropriate response which would have instigated a conversation without seeming overly hostile. Civility is a very good thing, and I do wish it was practiced in a more general way. In this case though, did I let someone make a statement with a good deal of inferred meaning, say so without response, simply because I was worried I would be looked upon as a jerk? I believe this is the case, and it is only upon reflection that I realize I have done a great disservice to myself.

I will preclude this next bit by saying that I may very well in fact be over-analyzing the whole scenario. What is entailed in the statement "Jesus loves you"? There are the obvious elements of omnibenevolence ascribed to Jesus, and the Christian god; "their infinite love for you is only a conversion away, and they want you to know they are concerned about you, well actually they are concerned for your immortal soul. For while they love you dearly, they will not tolerate disobedience. So if you reject their love, well eternal torment is the least you deserve for refusing such a divine gift." That sums up my position on the implied meaning, or logical conclusion of the initial statement. It also touches on the "alright, well why should I care?" angle, as their is an implied value to this "love" in so much as one should care becuase "it is only through the love of Christ Jesus that you can be saved". I am curious what the response would have been to: "Well my gods are fairly indifferent to you, but wish you no particular ill will?" I suppose not having "soundbites" makes for a more awkward delivery.Likewise for not revering deities who seek universal worship.

As always, I question whether this proselytization effort was intended to develop into a discussion, or simply a "drive by" proclamation? Was the girl cognizant of the implied message behind her words, or was she simply trying to spread a little good will? Does intent matter more than meaning? Does ignorance of the problematic nature of a given message excuse an unintentionally condescending comment? Or am I simply reading far too much into this?


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rememberance Day

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh month of the year 1918, the sounds of artillery and gunfire were silenced across Europe. The Great War had ended. On this day, at this hour, we remember those who gave their lives fighting for the ideals that our country were founded upon. We remember all the men and women, who gave all that they were, and all they ever would be, who paid with their blood, that we may continue, and our nation endure. War goes on, our soldiers continue to fight and die, we continue to remember. I am heartened, that despite it all, people continue to honour our ancestors and our heroes, and Canadians do so in grand style, with somber reflection. In a culture full of endless white noise, it is remarkable that people, even the very young, will for but a moment in time stop and listen to the silence, and with due gravitas reflect on the sacrifices of all those who came before us, and all those who continue to serve us.

I thank the gods I live in such a nation.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Polytheism and "everyone else"

We are alone, and we have only each other to rely on, because outside our small circle of fellow polytheists, the world for the most part, has no idea we even exist. It used to be that we could point to Hinduism as a beacon of polytheism stretching back for thousands of years, and in some ways this is still true. However, the more I converse with western Hindu's, and the more one actually researches the religion, the clearer it becomes that Hinduism in a broad sense, is pantheistic at its core, and polytheistic at the periphery.

"Ekam Sataha Vipraha Bahudha Vadanti," which may be translated: "The truth is One, but different Sages call it by Different Names" 

This concept is also reflective of many inclusive forms of monotheism, especially that found among Unitarian Universalists. "Everyone is free to worship as they please, because at the end of the day, we're all worshiping the same force or divine spark." As someone who participates on a number of interfaith forums, I have lost count of the number of times these kind of condescending platitudes have been trucked out, in the name of inclusiveness. I find myself repeating, ad nauseum, that this just doesn't encompass my beliefs at all, that it is a simplistic dismissal of an outlying position, and that most folks simply do not care to contemplate the idea any further.

Often, people will admit that I may be worshiping actual, potent beings, but not gods; or at least not "top of the heap", "proper" gods. Those same people will then point to the only sort of polytheism they know, and wax about how chaotic the universe would be if the forces behind it behaved as the Olympians or Roman deities. Little more than squabbling gods who are seen as selfish, petty and tyrannical (yes, these attributes are found only among polytheistic deities, a monotheistic deity could never be any of these things...) Of course, such folks often have little critical understanding of those deities or the myths we have of them.

That last bit is really my point in all this, people have no clue that my gods are not their god(s). Why is this so horrendously difficult for people to wrap their heads around? I have listed a few ideas but there are any number of others.

Do not get me wrong, I'm used to being an outlier; being that (often) solitary voice in discussions on theology who throws a wrench into the monistic language. I'm just mildly agitated with this insipid notion of inclusiveness based on some unified godhead which I am unknowingly worshiping, and only if I truly understood, would the truth become known to me. Because, all those different conceptions of deity couldn't point to their being, you know, different deities?

I am not blindly groping an elephant, and I'm on a totally different mountain!


Monday, November 1, 2010

Elegy for the ancestors

The twilight of age gives way to death, and loss becomes the center of our lives in the spaces between. It is important to remember though, that grief in its time will also pass away. Those who have gone on before us may have abandoned their bodies, but their memory remains. They remain with those of us who knew them, who loved them, and whose lives they touched.

For what is remembered, lives.

The road ahead is long, and those who walk along it are no strangers to pain. Loss and separation are antithetical to us as social animals, yet death itself is no more abhorrent than being born or growing old. For in the end it is not death, but rather, the seeming finality of that "last separation", which is at the center of our grief. I think back to the ancients and their perspective; and for all our "advancements", those who came before us in all their "superstition", did not treat death as an aberration, but understood it as part of the process of living, if the final act therein.

I am not certain what comes next, though I do have my opinions on the matter.

I honour the dead this day,
I give thanks and praise
to those who came before me:
It was they who fought
but who also had peace
It was they who suffered
but who also had joy
It was they who sacrificed
but who also prospered
It was they who died
but who also lived

If I am able to live as they did
with honour and courage
with wisdom and justice
with hospitality and truth
when on the last day
I am to stand before them
in their hallowed halls
and be asked what did you do
I can answer with pride
that I lived as they lived


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Giving Thanks

This weekend marks the Canadian celebration of Thanksgiving, and this evening my fiance and I had the pleasure of hosting our very first Thanksgiving dinner. It was not a lavish affair, and her mother prepared the Turkey, though we did make some ham, maple glazed carrots, mashed potatoes and home made cranberry sauce. The conversation was muted as people seemed to be enjoying their fare, which is always an excellent method of telling if they liked your cooking or not ;).

I do see this time as a period of reflection, and seems fitting that it leads up to Oíche Shamhna and the beginning of the dark half of the year. I am beginning to make a habit of including civil holidays into my practices, and understanding them through a GP context. I do usually cook a nice meal on Oíche Shamhna, fitting as it is the traditional end of the harvest in Gaelic communities.Thanksgiving has been a staple celebration in my family, where feasting is mandatory, for as long as I can remember. It is also a decidedly family oriented event, about sharing the bounty of the harvest and the blessing we have received, and hope to receive in the following year.

I find it is an excellent time to begin intensifying the inclusion of worship of the honoured dead, culminating on Oíche Shamhna, and extending into November for Remembrance Day, when we honour those who fell in defense of our nation. Of course for those who are not Canadian, Thanksgiving occurs later in the calendar year. There being no Rememberence day, Veterans Day is celebrated at the same time, and Memorial Day occurring in May, its applicability is perhaps less so. Nonetheless, I do find myself very mindful of the ancestors around this time of the year, but then again liminality will do that.

So what am I thankful for? I am thankful for my fiance, for my hound and for my family. I am thankful for being on the road to what I am supposed to be doing with my life. I am thankful for the guidance of the gods, the sacrifices of the ancestors and the beneficence of the land spirits.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Theism and popular culture

So I just finished watching an episode of Glee, which I watch with my fiance, but I also enjoy; sarcastic humour has always appealed to me, and I am a sucker for show tunes. However tonight's episode focused on "spirituality." What I (and the shows writers) mean by spirituality, is monotheism.

I'd be naive to say I did not see this coming, in fact I "called it" soon after I read the program description. No, I was not surprised, but still, a slight disappointment did creep out as I watched the episode. For a show that is considerably tolerant with its treatment of minorities and acutely culturally aware (if in a tongue and cheek manner), their treatment of "spirituality" was decidedly homogeneous. The prevailing message of the episode was that "everyone believes in something"; do you hear that atheists, apparently even you believe in "something". Just in case you were wondering, that "something"? Turns out it is the god of monotheism.

The writers were very careful to limit their use of "religion", and so instead they peppered the episode with "spirituality". They were not so careful with the object of spirituality, God. Of course they come at the topic from different religious perspectives: Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism. "Three different religions, so someones prayers had to reach God." Yes, lets all marvel at the lovely interfaith work of people who, while members of different religions, all still manage to worship God. Hooray for inclusiveness! "Spirituality" then, is simply how people learn to express their love and devotion to the god of monotheism, with or without a religious filter. So you're not Jewish, or you're not a Protestant, well you can still believe in God; how lucky you are! It was never stated in the episode itself, but the idea that, "You don't believe in God? Well, He believes in you!" was certainly there in spirit.

So when I constantly talk about the overt cultural dominance of monotheism in every facet of discussion on the subject of religion? When I sigh and wish there was a little more diversity in the discussion of theism? That I get excited when someone who isn't a polytheist, includes polytheism in a discussion of theology? This illustrates why.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Religion and Reason

There exists a climate these days, nothing new mind you, in which people will often call into question the religious beliefs of another.I have no problem with critically exploring religious beliefs, but more often than not the kind of attitude I am speaking about is based on little more than a knee jerk reaction. Often this reaction is built upon a very shallow understanding of some aspect of that religion. If this sounds familiar, wait until I've finished the rest of my intro; because this is not an attitude which is found only among the "usual suspects." No in this case those who often criticize the fundamentalist's intolerance, are found in their company when confronted with a religion that is too "out there". Religious tolerance it seems is a fickle thing, even among those who claim to defend it.

My favourite "whipping boy" in this case is Scientology. You will notice that I did not use a $ sign to replace the S, but it happens more often than not. I am, of course, not a Scientologist; nor do I ascribe to any of their beliefs even in the slightest. I am also critical of the structure of their religious organization, the Church of Scientology. Though unknown to most people, there are many Scientologists who are not members of the Church; so called "Free Zone" Scientologists. I can accept, and in fact share, most of the criticisms of the CoS, however I may differ from most in not finding anything particularly odd about their beliefs.

I mean really think about it, how odd are their beliefs compared to any number of world religions? Judaism; why they pray to an invisible sky man, who revealed his universal wisdom by turning into a burning bush, seen by one guy. Christianity; well they worship the same sky man, but also his zombie son; many of them do this through ritualistic cannibalism. Islam; same sky man, but this time revealed to a guy in a cave who ended up having a lot of wives. Hinduism; a million gods who are all the same god, but then you're not even you, but we. Buddhism: try to emulate a Indian prince who decided poverty was awesome, and owning things is the root of all evil; they seek enlightenment by thinking about weird things.

Part of my point is that anything can be made to sound ridiculous or terrible if you word it the right way, and focus on some detail, taken out of context. Many people would dismiss my points as shallow, erroneous and mischaracterizations of their religious traditions, and they would be right because they are. However there remains a kernel of truth in each statement, skewed as they may be. So people are also willing to ignore, or explain away the odd things which may exist in their traditions, but are not willing to extend that to others, especially minority religions.

Aside from this is a notion of efficacy, or reasonableness. I will provide a short comparison, between one of the oldest forms of religion, animism, and the default in the West, Christianity. From the Christian perspective, worshiping rocks, trees, rivers and mountains is the height of primitiveness; ignorant, superstitious and backwards. Why worship some dirt and pebbles, when you can pray to the supreme creator of the universe, and his son who died to give you the gift of immortality in the life to come? Well from an objective standpoint, it is the Christian, and not the animist, who hasn't got a leg to stand on. While one can not prove that rocks, trees, rivers and mountains have spirits, it can be proven that they exist. The Christian god on the other hand can not.

The practical effects of the objects of worship for the animist are tangible and far more influential than those of the Christian. A tree for example, can provide shelter from the elements, protection from predators, fuel for a fire, sticks to make tools, fruit to sustain you. The Christian god can not provide shelter, protection, fuel, tools or food, except in abstract or symbolic ways. Is it not eminently more sensible, since there are objective material benefits, to give praise and thanks to the objects which allow you to survive, rather than some disembodied sky man? Why then is animism held to be primitive or superstitious, when it is so much more practical than many so called modern religions? Little more than special pleading, or appeal to authority.


Monday, September 27, 2010

The extent of "Paganism"

This blog was inspired by a recent discussion I have been having on an interfaith forum.

The discussion focused around the need for a spokesperson to speak for Paganism. My position on the idea was that it was at best misguided and at worst, terrible. The crux of my opposition is that Paganism is so disparate, so varied that the idea of a spokesperson trying to speak for all, would result in a huge swath of those who find themselves under the umbrella ignored. The problem of course is that Paganism is an almost useless term when it comes to describing a belief system; because in its modern conception it means whatever one wants it to. The fact is that there are always outliers who throw a wrench into any kind of consensus among those who use the term.

Think about it, I mean really think about it; what do so called Pagan religions actually have in common? Nature worship; a vague concept in and of itself, but there are those who would not call their practices nature worship, I'm one of them. Polytheism; yes a lot of those religions under the umbrella are polytheistic, but some are monotheistic (admittedly rare), duotheistic, pantheistic, panentheistic, agnostic and even atheistic. Okay, no Pagans worship the Abrahamaic god right? Nope, there are both Christo-Pagans and Judeo-Pagans. Belief in or practice of magick; again many "Pagan" religions do not. Holy days which are based on the natural rhythms of the earth? Certainly more often than not, but again not every day is linked to seasonal patterns, they may in fact be based on a particular deity. Worship or belief in "the Goddess", certainly not, but indicative of the popular imagination and relative influence of eclectic neoWicca and "Paganism 101" books. A shared developmental history? True in some cases but not others, Asatru for example developed independently from "Paganism" and only later was placed under the umbrella. Of course not all Asatruars were happy with their inclusion, and so the use of the term Heathen came to prominence, as a way to differentiate between them and other Pagans. There is a similar push among many in the reconstructionist camp to do something similar.

The other consideration is that even if many "Pagan" religions share some of the above, they are also not the only ones who do so. Concern for the environment, different conceptions of deity, use of magic(k), seasonal holy days, etc. are found among many religions which do not fall under the umbrella. Yoruba and Santeria, for example may have many parallels to some of the "Pagan" religions, but are decidedly not classed as such.

What then is the use of "Paganism" as an umbrella term, when it does not really describe anything? We could certainly go back to more classical definitions; all those religions and beliefs outside the JCI model, but again that does little to impart meaning other than they aren't worshiping the god of Abraham (and then what about those poor Christo/Judeo-Pagans?) A friend of mine pointed out that even the old "getting Pagans to agree on anything is like herding cats" is not apt; cats at least are all the same creature. It is, she contends, more like herding cats, dogs and ferrets.

What then do "Pagan" religions really have in common with each other than they do not have in common with other religions? What do "Pagans" get from grouping themselves together, that other interfaith networking would not achieve?

Personally I think the existing structures and communities (web forums, mailing lists, conventions, PPD, etc.) more than anything prevent many from understanding how disparate "we" really are. Not that I am opposed to groups like the Pagan Pride Project, or interfaith online forums, I'm not. I am aware that differences exist, and are not mere quibbles or hair splitting; they are core beliefs which are not readily glossed over. I have participated in my local PPD for almost as long as I have been a polytheist, but I have not participated in their group ritual, because it is little more than a Wiccanesque framework with a variety of different deities called upon depending on the officiants that year. I do not blame them, but it is a ritual framework which is as foreign to me as a Catholic liturgy, and so I abstain from participation.

It has taken me some time to understand just why so many in the CR community are distancing themselves from "Paganism" as a label which describes their beliefs, but it has become fairly apparent.


P.S.: I would also like to point to an essay by Devyn Gillette and Lewis Stead, The Pentagram and the Hammer, which explores the differences between Asatru and Wicca.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Polytheism and you

I'm used to the typical discussions about religion where they happen; after all religion and politics are the two things not to be discussed in polite company. In most cases some people may be sitting around a table and drift onto some "out there topic" which gets tied into religion and peoples opinions on God. That is usually it, monotheism by default. "Are you religious ?" is code for "what church do you belong to?". So unless you are a visible minority (in which case Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist), the default assumption is some denomination of Christian. Even in the off chance that one extends the discussion to include non-believers, the discussion is couched in terms of monotheism. "Oh, you're not a Christian, so why don't you believe in God?" is something I have been asked on several occasions.

The either/or dichotomy, and the defacto monotheistic perspective are facts of life for those living in western cultures, I understand that. I get that a lot of people do not spend absorbent amounts of time contemplating the divine, and if they do, it is a contemplation of the nature of the Abrahamaic god. Understanding this however, does little to soothe my ire at having any discussion, be they layman or scholarly, couched in terms of a monotheistic conception of deity. There are other options, and for someone who is a dyed in the wool polytheist, it gets old. So most of the interfaith discussions I wind up contributing to are among pagans or other polytheists.

However, something amazing occurred today. I was in my ethics class, and the instructor was lecturing about how to make a strong argument, and got to talking about making an argument without facts. Someone asked what sort of arguments one could make without facts, and she replied, "well, arguing for the existence of a god...." My ears perked up, had I heard right? Maybe I had, for the remainder of the class I had that statement gnawing at the back of my mind. After class I approached the instructor and asked her why she worded her statement that way. She looked at me with a kind of flustered look, unsure of what to say, then simply said "some people believe in more than one god." Elation! I found out shortly after, that she had been concerned that she had somehow offended me by stating her phrase just so.

Why does this matter at all? Well that little "a" makes all the difference. For all of the times I have ever discussed religion, or the nature of deity, unless I was speaking to another polytheist I was always the one mentioning that there were perspectives other than monotheism. That someone who is not a polytheist (as far as I know) casually stated her argument to the class as "a god" and not just "God", makes all the difference. It means, in some small way, that people (who are not polytheists) are actually accepting that polytheism is a valid way of understanding deity.



Friday, September 17, 2010

Judging others...

I ought to start by saying that I may in fact be a dick.

Having gotten that out of the way, I often come across the sentiment that "judging others" is bad, and I have a hypothesis as to why many feel such an opinion has merit, but I find it decidedly hypocritical. People judge others all the time, what seems to throw people off is the context. I have found (this is anecdotal of course, ymmv) that few people have difficulty judging criminals, or people who cut them off while driving, or people who are rude to them. However were someone to turn the judging eye upon such folks, they are often the first to say, "You can't judge me!" or call you a condescending "bleep". Why is it fine for some people to be judged, but not others? Hypocrisy more often than not is the reason. What remains to be answered, though, is why the idea of judging itself is held to be problematic.

I can think of a number of reasons, and the two which come to the fore are relativism (and its stepchild, individualism) and the influence of Christian ethics. To explore the first in its entirety could (and has) fill several volumes of texts, but I will discuss it in short. The individualist perspective, that ones opinion is as valid as the next is not necessarily a bad thing, and forms the basis for many constitutions and charters. However it is also often untrue, the opinion of an expert in any given situation is stronger than the opinion of Joe Everyman on the same subject. Why do people seek out specialized professions for their needs (be it education, auto-repair, law, medical aid, IT, etc.) if everyone's opinions or knowledge base is equal? It could be argued that knowledge or skill is a separate category from opinion, but opinion is simply how one expresses their perspective, itself informed by their knowledge or skill set. The fact is that people who are more knowledgeable are recognized as being the people to ask for advice or services, and so their opinions are given more weight than others. Clearly then, not all opinions are equal.

Standards then, are the other part of the individualist dilemma. What is good or bad, what is proper or sloppy, what is noble or craven? It depends entirely on the context, and the values of a given society, culture or group. What each means does vary from individual to individual, and so the idea of judging someone else becomes problematic because one can not possibly know what paradigm they are coming from, right? Well no actually. Most of us live in nation states, with laws which provide a basic guide for acceptable behaviour. I do differentiate between law and ethics/morality, because law is a bare bones approach to develop a standard, while ethics/morality are often exemplary models for behaviour; doubly so because I do ascribe to the idea of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics are an interesting thing, because they differ from the more common deontological ethics, that being ethics as adherence to rules (often held to be universal). One is virtuous because they embody certain virtues, rather than following rules; one is focused on the individual, the other on what everyone should be doing. The great irony is that many people would find their conception of ethics are deontological, yet the same folks often do not believe in "judging others."

Why would people who believe that good behaviour is based on adherence to laws or rules, find judging others a problem? Doesn't the fact that there are guidelines make judging easier? It does, but you will note that I said many people would conceive deontological ethics as ethical system they follow, but this is more to do with how they conceive what constitutes ethics, as opposed to what they believe is actual ethical behaviour. This in itself stems from a hybrid holdover of a predominantly Christian world view. YHWH established a set of laws for humanity, and humanity utterly failed to live up to those standards. YHWH had to send his son to absolve people of this fact, people who accept this sacrifice are absolved of their "sins", people are then free to try their best again, but understand they will never be good enough on their own. This entire belief is alien, and belittling to me, but I'm not a Christian.

One would think that in a religion where there are innumerable laws and commandments from their deity, that they'd be willing to jump at the chance to judge others. In reality, this is actually often how it plays out, though again we come to the problem of standards; I consider myself an ethical person, but from the perspective of a Christian, I would be wholly unethical. The verse most often quoted is Matthew 7:1-6, itself depending on the interpretation of the Christian. More liberal Christians (again ymmv) would claim it is a condemnation of judging altogether, conservative Christians on the other hand, would claim it is a statement about avoiding hypocrisy. In this case, I tend to agree with the later, in its context it speaks about ensuring you are not condemning something you yourself have done. Likewise, John 8:7, states that he who is without sin, may cast the first stone, a slightly better example of what I am getting at. Since everyone is guilty of sin, humans (alone) are not able to judge others because they themselves are naturally awful. If we extricate the religious aspects, we find a common belief when it comes to ethics in the modern West, nobody's perfect.

Since nobody is perfect, how can people then turn around and judge others? "What gives you the right to judge me, you're no better than me!" I would make the argument, not being beholden to holdovers from a religious perspective I have never accepted, that this is a sentiment which accompanies someones actions who refuses to admit their mistake or take responsibility. If I have never stolen from someone, based on general cultural standards, I am in fact better (that is in terms of ethical behaviour) than a thief. If this was not the case, why is thief a pejorative and not neutral or an honorific term? If I am able to live by the ethical standards I believe in, this by default makes me an ethical person. It also means that I am more ethical than someone who has ethical standards, but does not adhere to them, regardless of my belief in a plural of ethical standards and situational ethics. Thus it provides a reasonable basis for judging others.

Why should I be held to be condescending if I live an ethical life, by someone who claims to believe in ethics, but not live by them? I accept that people fail; I have failed at any number of things. When someone has pointed out that I have failed, I do not consider them condescending for pointing out my failings, they are simply being honest. While "brutally honest" is often a euphemism for "I'm a dick"; I appreciate a tactless, but honest opinion over sugar coated platitudes. Don't get me wrong, tact is useful and it is far better to be eloquent than brash, but even this can be interpreted as being a dick.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Busy, busy, busy

I've been lax these past weeks in my blog, due primarily to getting back into the swing of school, but I've got my bearings now and hope to get back to some kind of regular schedule.

Having said that, one of the greatest aspects of being enrolled in a college program is access to their library, and while the physical library is decent enough, the access to online journals is what I am most excited about.

JSTOR, how I have missed thee!

Now, the down side is that because of the limited practical value of the area's I am interested in to a non-research oriented college; so I haven't got full access to all those wonderful folkloric and cultural studies journals. However what I do have access to is still vastly more than I had as an individual. In the future I may just purchase an alumni library card for the UofT's system, but until then I will be happy with what I can access.

Needless to say I found a huge number of articles (both recent and archaic) while flipping through the electronic periodicals, so I hope to have somethings to blog about in the near future.


Sunday, September 5, 2010


So I find from time to time a moderate degree of anti-Reconstructionist sentiment among the wider Pagan community, and paradoxically sometimes from those who claim to be Reconstructionist's themselves. There are a number of reasons why people dislike Recons:

1. Reconstructionists are elitists.
2. Reconstructionists do not care about practicing a living religion.
3. Reconstructionism is no more authentic than any other form of Paganism
4. Reconstructionism is a waste of time because ancient religion has no value in the 21st century.

I shall address each reason below, but they all feed into one another to some degree, perhaps why they continually crop up among those who are opposed to the idea of Reconstructionism.

1. Reconstructionists are elitists: This is more of a sentiment, than an argument, but it permeates most of the arguments and really amounts to no more than an ad hominim attack, but a common one. Reconstructionists are elitist because they dismiss the opinions of other people and think their opinions are better then everyone else. This is a bit of a misnomer, because there is a difference between the weight of say a scholars opinion on a subject they have researched thoroughly vs. someone who has read a book on the subject but little else. I have no problem believing that someone who has spent the time researching something has a more informed opinion than one who has not. As such, because Recon's tend to be better read and eminently knowledgeable on the cultures they are reconstructing from, this can come across as being "elitist" because they know what they are talking about, and do not simply accept the claims made by someone who has not done the research.

2. Reconstructionists do not care about practicing a living religion: This criticism has to do with the "presence" of Recons, and the kind of discussions they tend to be involved in. Often involving academic topics of considerably specificity and minutia, often on understanding of cosmology, framework and mythology. As such topics like the practice of the rituals or an application of the understanding of cosmology is left for more private or personal conversations, and so the perception is that Recon's are only concerned with the scholarship, and not the application of religion.

3. Reconstructionism is no more authentic than any other form of Paganism: This is a bit trickier, as it needs to be clarified as to what "authentic" means. I would certainly say Reconstructionism is closer to the beliefs of [pre-Christian culture], than other forms of Paganism. The entire basis of Reconstructionism is the study of archeology, folk belief, literature and history in order to try and as accurately as possible reconstruct the earlier beliefs of a given culture; many forms of Paganism have no such focus. When it is pointed out that "we [Recon's] can't really know anything for sure" or "you  [Recon's] are just stating an opinion, and it is no better than mine", what is really being said is that the one making such accusations give no heed to scholarship, yet we should be treating their opinion as equal to that of someone who has spent a concerted amount of effort studying. I think this is preposterous. I have no problem with Pagans who have made the decision to not try and incorporate historic elements into their practices; or have even developed a religion based on more modern discourse (such as many of the forms of neo-Druidism, largely derived from Victorian and early 20th century scholarship). The problem arises when one then argues that such a belief is (despite its modernity) the same as it was in [pre-Christian culture], when it is clearly not the case. Not everyone who denounces Reconstructionism necessarily does this, but it is disconcerting how frequently this particular claim is made especially in the guise of "The [pre-Christian culture] made it up as they went along, so why can't I?", the answer of course is that you'd first have to prove that "they were just making it up", which is simply not the case when one has actually studied [pre-Christian culture]

4. Reconstructionism is a waste of time because an ancient religion has no value in the 21st century. This is becoming a more frequent claim, as many sensible Pagans realize the fallacious nature of argument 3. Unfortunately this criticism has its own problematic issues. The chief concern I have is if ancient religion (and the deities they worshiped) have no value, or no applicability to the modern Pagan, why bother with the worship of those deities at all? I have yet to see a compelling response to this question. I believe that if one is going to worship a pre-Christian deity, then they ought to learn as much about the culture that knowledge of said deity was developed in. This gets back to fundamental issues of cosmology, and how one see's and understands the cosmos; as in any scholarly, effort context is of vital importance. Understanding the cultural context in which worship of a deity occurred historically, provides the best means of trying to understand said deity within the larger cultural framework in which it was originally understood. This is doubly important for GRP's because the mythic texts we have are all Christianized to some extent; understanding what is [supportably] pre-Christian then is dependent on one's knowledge of the pre-Christian culture of the Gaels and corresponding cultures which share cultural and linguistic roots. Without this knowledge, one is going to come away from the myths with a very different picture of pre-Christian deity, which will unfortunately be wrong.
There is certainly room for innovation, there are certainly aspects of pre-Christian culture which is so wholly divorced from the modern, that recreating it would be difficult, to say nothing of he wisdom of doing so. This often comes with accusations of "selective arguing"; based primarily on an "all or nothing" gambit. Why is it okay for you [Recon] to pick and choose what elements to recreate, but not okay for me [eclectic] to do the same? I would argue that this is decidedly a wrongheaded approach. As far as I have experienced Reconstructionism, the central component is found in recreating and adopting the world view of [pre-Christian culture], everything else follows from this. So for example, many have commented that [pre-Christian culture] performed human or animal sacrifices, had slaves, engaged in blood feuds, had trial by ordeal, and so on. The argument then becomes for Recon's to have any meaningful claim to authenticity, they need to do these things as well, or the whole effort is moot. However, with an understanding of the why behind such beliefs as the necessity of sacrifices, or the context in which blood feuds arose, provides a good reason as to why these elements need not be recreated (or could be adapted) to suit modern sensibilities.



Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Joy of Work

I began my new part time job as an FDA on Thursday, but I had my first full day today. It was certainly a busy day, and I did more cleaning than anything else (two vans, a lead car, fully detailed) and about 14 caskets, polished to a high sheen. I realized during my 40 hour observation, that a great deal of an FDA's (and FD's) time is spent cleaning. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining; I relished every moment (even when I cut my finger open when cleaning a hubcap).

I consider myself extremely lucky, because not only do I already know what to expect, and have no problem with starting at the bottom, but I am working in the field of my career path. It certainly helps when you understand this is what you're supposed to be doing, and I am truly blessed to be firmly on my path.


Monday, August 30, 2010

The "illumination" of Fír?

Fír is one of the central concepts of the Fálachus tradition, approximately it relates to way in which one best lives their life according to the natural order of the cosmos. It is derived from the fír flaithemon, that is "rulers truth", as mentioned in the wisdom text, Audacht Morainn. It is a concept which posits that a king needs to behave in such a way, that upholds the function of his position, and by doing so maintains the proper ordering of the cosmos, enabling him to rule justly. The fír of an individual then is going to differ from person to person. I have read, and participated in, conversations where fír has been compared to possible cognates of other cultures; I have seen it compared to dharma, wyrd/ørlǫg, and fate. The modern Irish word for fate/destiny is cinniúint, but I have not come across much on the subject of cinniúint among GRP's (if anyone would care to enlighten me...) There is however a tendency to try and "square peg" culturally specific ideas into general molds, and while there may be benefit to cross cultural comparison, trying to understand the concept from within is better.

How then does one come to know their own fír? For myself it has become evident through a number of recent decisions as to where my life was going vs the direction I expected it to go in. The strangest, and definitely most UPG based, aspect of this has been akin to a literal emotion occurring before/during/after choices were made. It has often happened spontaneously, a thought comes into my head accompanied by a specific feeling (to try and describe it, semi euphoric and warm) and an intense urge to act on that thought; the resulting action results in a change, which upon further reflection or speaking with others, was oddly (almost frighteningly) a seeming inevitability.

I'll give you an example which occurred to me today actually: I am returning to school in a weeks time, to pursue a career in Funeral Directing, but needing to pay off my current debt, decided to leave my job as a clerk in a book store and landscape for the summer, as the pay is much better (though the work much harder). I had originally planned to work until the 3rd of September, but then a few things came up which I needed to sort out before I went back to school on the 7th, so I informed my boss that September 1st would be my last day; I did this last week. Today, however I suddenly "got it in my head" that today should be my last day on the job; I was not sure why exactly, only that the urge to no longer work for the company (which was a good company, and a decent enough job) was overwhelming. I made up my mind, called my boss and informed him of my choice. We had an amicable exchange and he sort of chuckled. I asked why he was laughing, to which he replied, "Well it's weird, I was actually going to call you this evening and ask if this could have been your last day." This threw me for a bit of a loop, not that I couldn't understand why he would have asked that (aside from myself, another fellow returning to school next week was also working, though he was working until the 3rd, and my boss had recently hired two new employees, so it did not make a lot of sense to pay an extra guy to work for two more days when he  was notl really needed), but that it so perfectly coincided with my inexplicable (and sudden) urge to quit.

Recently, these "sudden urges" have been occurring more frequently, and with similar coincides, to the point where I have begun to suspect that they are no longer mere coincidence. I find it a very odd state of affairs, as I have been a considerably skeptical person all my life, and have brushed off other people's experiences as coincidence or "selective seeing"; but then again I also used to be an atheist, and until I experienced the presence of a deity for the first time, such a notion was laughable to my mind. Once again however, I find myself faced with an experience my skeptical mind is unable to simply explain away. I have looked over a number of terms and concepts, and so far, fír seems to be the best choice. If anyone else has had similar experiences or can think of a better concept to understand my upg, I would be most grateful to learn of it.


Friday, August 27, 2010

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

I picked this up some time last year, while I still worked at the book store, it was a bargain book and I got my discount so it worked out to three dollars or thereabouts. After having read it, I must say I'm glad I paid so little for it.

I'm familiar with some of Armstrong's other works: "A History of God" and "The Great Transformation". I also realize she writes for a general audience so I was not expecting the discussion to be particularly scholarly, but I was expecting more than I got.

Now, it may bear mentioning that prior to Armstrong's turn to religious books, she was a Catholic Nun. I bring this up because her interpretation of everything which follows is clearly coloured by a tendency among western authors of religion to speak of religion in monotheistic terms. I've come to terms with the fact that YHWH gets top billing in such discussions, but when one considered the scope of the book, it becomes rather disappointing and problematic to her overall narrative. She almost entirely skips polytheism (arguably it could be counted among her discussion of neolithic animism, and in a brief discussion of different Canaanite deities), to the point of when speaking about the religions of ancient Greece, she mentions the proto-monotheism of Plato and Aristotle and little else. Considering the profound significance of polytheism in ancient religion, it is a huge gap to cross, and presents a major flaw in her work.

Secondly her idea of what a myth is, "...myth is make believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking 'what if?' is not only terribly unhelpful, but I think considerably pejorative. When I think of myth, I think of a narrative structure, a framework for understanding the world, and giving it meaning; but I also think of it as true, if not always in an objective sense and here I find myself at variance with Armstrong, in the first two chapters she continually posits that "myth is make believe", that early humans knew that there really were no gods, but liked to pretend there were, to comfort themselves about their "terrible lot". Here again we see the Catholic worldview coming out in her observations; the world is a really awful, terrible place and humans will do anything they can to escape it, even concoct invisible friends to provide catharsis to the harsh realities of this wretched planet. Life is tough, life is a constant struggle, but for all that I think the world is a decent place and I have no desire to escape it. In a book whose central thesis rests on the merit and worth that myth offers to human cultures, Armstrong does as much to point out myth is nothing more than fantasy, but because it helps people, is still worth holding onto. I don't know, perhaps I'm just a theist set in my ways, but I happen to believe that the gods have an objective existence and are as real as you or I. Again, my bias I suppose.

Her framework for interpreting myth falls square into the Jungian/Campbell mold; all depiction of deity or hero is allegorical, and meant to be understood only in an allegorical sense. She establishes early on a dichotomy between allegory and literalism when it comes to understanding myths, and it is clear she believes it to be an either-or question. I prefer a more nuanced perspective (of course since I disagree with her definition of myth, I would); myth is not literal, because it is not history; myth is a narrative from which we impart meaning into the world and our actions within it, but this does not mean that all myth is allegorical either, because the myths are not necessarily describing anything other than themselves. Armstrong is also under the impression that myth is "dead" for all intents and purposes, and that it does not inform the modern, secular world view at all. This has more to do with how she defines myth (yet again showing her definition to be problematic), but the idea that myth is not still a way modern people in developed countries understand the world is at best naive and at worst symptomatic of Armstrong's own bias towards rationalism. One does not need to look far to see myth at work in any number of given subjects. J.M. Greer in his seminal "A World Full of Gods", provides an excellent example of this fallacy by speaking about the "myth of progress". One can see all sorts of other examples; the myth of America (aka manifest destiny) or the myth of linear time (as opposed to circular), each is a way in which people understand their world, but both are also mythic.

My other major problem with the book is that she seems to make a lot of conjecture and passes it off as fact. Most of the sources she cites in her chapters on the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods are considerably dated, and she makes rather sweeping generalizations. She also largely focuses on middle eastern cultures (with a few references to Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and some Greek), and wholly ignores any sort of Indo-European or P-I-E mention; to the point that when she speaks of early Greek myth, her interpretive framework comes from a middle eastern view point, which is simply untenable, knowing what we do of P-I-E mythology and how it informed the development of Hellenic religion and myth. To ignore such an important (especially to the western world) aspect of the developmental history of myth, in a book on the subject, shows the sort of tunnel vision Armstrong has.

Well those are the bad bits, how about some of the good? I do appreciate that Armstrong thinks myth has value, and is something which can have a positive impact on peoples lives. She adamantly refutes the idea of scriptural literalism and does a fair job of arguing some of the pitfalls of rationalism. I can certainly relate to her notion that myth can be used a a means of conveying important truths, especially when it comes to behaviour and ethics:
"The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation."

Overall I'd say that the book isn't worth a read, for the small bits of useful or insightful information there is a lot of other opinion which provides little useful insight into the development of myth. Frankly there are far better books on the subject out there.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A man [and woman] can stand up

 "If you approach the Celtic gods with the attitude of 'I'm not worthy', they're going to respond, 'Well come back when you are.'"

I came across this a few days ago on one of the pagan forums I frequent. The context of the thread was a discussion of "Worshiping without shame, and some members who had come from a Christian theological perspective who were not used to idea of doing anything but grovelling to a god. This notion is actually a core belief of many of the Christians I know, especially those of an Evangelical Protestant persuasion. I do on occasion listen to the local Christian radio station (perhaps more on that in a future post) and the message that humans are not deserving of salvation, and are by their very nature horrible is something which is repeated ad nauseum. I simply can not fathom why anyone with even a shred of self respect would buy into such a nonsensical message.

Comparing this approach to worship with that of Gaelic Polytheism shows just how different GP's act towards their deities. I'm of the view that the basis for that relationship is one of patron-client; deity and worshiper. There is of course an implied hierarchy, and this is fine because after all we are not gods, and they are bastions of knowledge and power we simply do not have. That the gods are greater than we are does not, however, mean that we are to prostrate ourselves before them, it means that we are the "junior partners" in the relationship. The texts are replete with examples of humans in conflict with the déithe, however this more often than not leads to disharmony and suffering. There are even examples of mortals overpowering otherworldly figures, Cúchulain's quarrel with An Morrigan, Fionn's defeat of Aillen, and the victory of the Mileseans over the Tuatha Dé Danaan (A Christian gloss, but an example none the less). What this shows is that in some rare cases humans are capable of even overcoming the gods themselves, though the last time I checked, there wasn't one equal to Cúchulain or Fionn nowadays (plus each had semi-divine parentage to boot.) What is clear however is that even after the Milesans gained the favour of the goddess of sovereignty of Ireland, they then suffered at the hands of the gods, because without their blessing, their crops would not grow, their cows would not produce milk, and things were in a really sorry state. As such, efforts were made to placate the déithe , and the crops flourished, milk flowed freely and things began to look up. The long and short of it then, is that it is far better to be in harmony with the gods, than not.

Our relationships with the gods then, are based on our willingness to provide hospitality (among other things) to them, and they to provide wisdom (among other things) to us. However, nowhere in this relationship is there a call for groveling, cow-towing, or thinking ourselves less than worthy. The gods do not crave our worship (the way some other deities seem to), they do not want clients who think themselves worthless, after all what use would we be to them? It is not a difficult concept to grasp; considering the importance that honour and courage were afforded in early Irish society, one can not grovel and maintain their honour, one can not be courageous when they are bowing and scraping. This is not to say that we ought to be rude or think ourselves equal to the gods, because the first violates hospitality and the second is hubris. Rather we are to stand before our gods and we are to act with honour and courage both before our gods and in our day to day lives. We can do this, not because the gods allow us to, but because they know that we are worthy of being their clients.

Our gods do not expect us to bow, they expect us to stand.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Gorm reads the Gospels I

The Gospel according to St. Matthew

Overview:  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Deities: Coming as I do from a Polytheistic perspective, I'm listing the major deities as depicted in the texts.

Jesus: aka. Emmanuel, son of David, son of Man, Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. A child of prophecy who has come to decry the corruption and hypocrisy he has seen in the established synagogues of the Pharisees and scribes. He spends a lot of time admonishing "this generation" and predicting his own death and resurrection (which he does a lot). Miracles performed: raising of the dead, healing the sick, casting out demons, making the blind see, letting the dumb speak, feeding multitudes of people with little food, walking on water, letting Peter walk on water, calming a storm, prophecy, the mere touch of his clothing also has miraculous powers. He is also capable of summoning "twelve legions of angels", but he does not. Following his "death", an earthquake occurs and the dead (saints) rise and walk the earth. Christ also resurrects himself.

YHWH: aka.God, the father. He shows up twice in the account, the first time after Christ's baptism (to Christ alone) and claims him as his son. The second occurs on a hill top to Christ and three of the Apostles (Peter, James and John), and once again YHWH claims Jesus as his son (though as a "voice from the clouds". Other than these instances he communicates through dreams, Angels and Jesus. Christ speaks of "the father" most of the time when he is referencing YHWH, and depicts him through parables concerned with the lord-servant roles (though these often allude to Christ himself as well.) Jesus states one of the major attributes recognized by most monotheists, that being omniscience in Matthew 6:8.

Satan: aka. The Devil, Mammon. He shows up early on, and tempts Christ three times while he wanders the dessert. Interestingly enough, in Matthew 4:10, Christ tells Satan that he works for "the father". I find this worthy of mention because it reflects the Judaic depiction of Satan as an accuser of men before YHWH, but acting on orders from YHWH. In most of the other depictions he is referenced as "the Devil".

Other divine agents:

Angels: Coming primarily in the form of dreams, but in some instances as visible beings (such as at the sepulcher of Christ).

Devils/demons: Christ and many of the disciples spend much of their missionary work "casting out demons". The Pharisees constantly accuse Christ of using demonic influence to perform his miracles.

Otherworldly Locals:

Heaven: Spoken of in rather abstract terms, usually as "life everlasting" or "the next life", the reward of the faithful for their suffering, to the extent of being rewarded "hundredfold (Matthew 19:20).

Hell: Again mostly in absract, there is an interesting allusion to the "burning of wheat", and `the casting off into a lake of fire" in Mathew 13:33-43; hell then is equated with burning in a fire.


Seeing as this is the main source of verses used in proselytizing, and most often quoted in most of the interfaith debates I've participated in they bear mention. The first thing I noticed was how often Jesus repeats himself, he does this, a lot. He will be quoted in one chapter, and in another will repeat the exact same thing he said. At first I figured this was because he was traveling a great deal and speaking to new "multitudes", however in almost all cases he is speaking to the Apostles, so yes according to Matthew, Jesus repeated himself. Secondly he was under the distinct impression that even the Apostles were "faithless", he says "ye of little faith" at least a dozen times, and explains that their unbelief is stopping them from performing the caliber of miracles he does. Jesus says many things which seem to contradict other statements he has made; in Matthew 13 he claims he " has not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." This to me implies that there are people who are righteous and therefore do not need to repent, yet he also says to a rich man (who is not a sinner) that he needs to follow him (and give up all his possessions), and when the man decides to not do that, he is condemned.

Minutia: Jesus claims that unless a woman has divorced her husband for adultery, she and any man she marries is guilty of adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

Chapters 23, 27 and 28 are pretty good example of the kind of scripture which would create (and propagate) much of the antisemitism which has plagued the Jews for centuries.

Chapter 24-25 is Christ's foretelling of the end of the world, and an excellent example of Christian eschatology.

Closing thoughts:

In terms of the virtues I personally see Jesus embody in this text, his compassion and willingness to heal the sick, as well as his determination are admirable qualities. I find his pettiness in some cases (the episode with the fig tree) problematic, and the "do as I say not as I do attitude, since he is exempt from the Laws (Matthew 12:1-9). Again because of the seemingly contradictory views he expresses, his "teachings" are not as clear as they could be. Also the issue of his willingness to be a sacrifice to save all of mankind is not expressed overtly here, rather he goes to his death (and does not resist) to ensure prophecy is fulfilled. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm going to guess that this aspect which is so central to Christian belief is going to be emphasized in the other Gospels.

Join me next Saturday for part two of "Gorm reads the Gospels."


Friday, August 20, 2010

Sacred Saturdays

Over the next little while it is my goal to survey a number of the sacred texts of various religions and cultures and give my opinion on them from a polytheistic perspective. After a randomized selection process (utilizing a d20) the first installment is going to be the Christian New Testament (monotheism keeps cropping up here, but we'll get to a polytheistic topic soon enough ;p). A bit of background then; I wasn't raised in a religious home so most of my experience with Christian scriptures have been on the receiving end of proselytizers, religious tracts, advertisements, attending religious services of friends (and my fiances family) and through general exposure to Western culture. So I've never done anything more than look up a specific verse, and have never actually read the NT through, the one exception being Revelations (but that`ll be covered in the blog on that book.) I have decided to use the King James Version, because while I understand that as far as translations go it is riddled with errors, it is one of the more literary versions and arguably a classic of the English language. It may also bear mentioning that I will not be reviewing the Christian OT, preferring to use English translations of the Jewish texts (a personal choice on my part).

So this week begins "Gorm reads the Gospels."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Park51/Cordoba House

You may find it odd, even ironic that the first topic I've ever blogged about on a blog with a subtitle like "polytheism without apologies" involves the controversy surrounding the building of an Islamic cultural center. But stay with me, it all ties in.

It has been little over three weeks since the issue of the construction of Cordoba House in lower Manhattan became national (and in my case international) news. A firestorm of opposition has erupted across the American political and religious landscape, ranging from questioning the "wisdom" of building so close to Ground Zero to claiming the construction (and its supporters) were "spitting in the face of Americans". A central theme which has permeated the entire discussion is the questions of religious freedom, or rather it should have. Frankly the kind of rhetoric which is being bandied about by those in opposition to the construction seems to be little more than xenophobia, disguised as "concern" for the victims. The usual suspects of course have voiced their concerns, conservative luminaries like the ACLJ, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and John McCain. All have couched their opposition to the planned construction as being "sensitive to victims and their families". Claiming that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero is akin to constructing a "Japaneses cultural center at Pearl Harbor" or "a Museum to Bach outside Auschwitz".

There is however a problem with such analogies, they are patently false. I'll be the first to admit that I did not lose anyone in 9/11, nor even knew anyone who was killed. Not being an American, I've been considerably removed from the emotional impact of the entire situation. It is wholly reasonable that people emotions still run high, and the pain and anger continues to linger almost a decade after. However it is far from reasonable, disgusting in fact, that politicians have managed to turn a non-event into something so divisive. Lets look at the essential facts.

1. The property is privately owned. This by itself ought to be enough to show the hypocrisy coming from commentators on the right. In any other case they would be out trumpeting the private property rights of an individual and decrying any attempt by the "government" to curtail these rights. It is endlessly amusing to see such a stark about face, with many attempting to use the vary governmental apparatuses they have unequivocally campaigned against.

2. People have a right to freely exercise their religion. Enshrined in the American Constitution (and in just about every other constitution or charter in democratically elected nations) is the freedom of religious expression. Muslims have every right to construct their mosques, on their own property, if they want to. This gets to the crux of the issue, because if this were a group planning to build a Church, Synagogue or Buddhist Temple, no one would have batted an eye. No One. Zero. Zilch. Nada. However because the group is Muslim, and because the terrorists who brought down the towers were also Muslim, it is supposed to be very clear that this is a case of Muslims being insensitive or even "rubbing it" in victims faces.

To expand on the last bit of the second point, many opponents claim that this is not an issue of either private property rights or religious freedom, and that it is about sensitivity to victims families. I think this is bull pocky and a clear example of cognitive dissonance. Of course this is about property rights and freedom of religious expression, because if this were a Christian church being built in Wisconsin, no one would care. However because the proposed building is two blocks from Ground Zero, and is going to be an Islamic cultural center, it suddenly becomes a huge problem. The center has so far fought off any legal attempts to prevent its construction, but it has stirred up really problematic sentiments across the US, Islamophobic sentiments.

I suppose this is as good a place as any other to say something about my personal feelings about Islam. Being a polytheist, I'm about as enamoured with Islam as I am with Christianity, which is to say not much. I disagree with several of the core principles of the religion and especially those regarding Shirk (polytheism) and how to treat those who have committed Shirk. Having said that, I believe in the freedom of religion and people are entitled to worship a Middle Eastern deity as readily as a Gaelic one.

Freedom of religion means freedom of religion all the time, not only when it is convenient or the majority favours it. Frankly this debate has me considerably questioning how dedicated the average American is to protecting the religious freedom of those outside their own religion; and since Christianity is the closet thing to a majority religion, it becomes a Christian vs. Other issue. An article I read after I began writing this blog is rather telling; most New Yorkers do not support the building of the center, but recognize that the builders are protected by the constitution, which is why all attempts to stop the construction have failed thus far. However the issue seems to have been blown up enough to become an election issue in November. We will get to see firsthand the impact of xenophobia in what is supposed to be one of the "home states of liberalism" in the US. My guess is that the sort of people who would oppose the center were already voting for a right leaning candidate anyway, but time as always will tell.

I see this entire episode as nothing more than an excuse to erode the rights of religious minorities, or failing that, remind people that religious minority A hates America. The end result is that just a little more fear and a smidge more of mistrust seeps into the mind of the average American when it comes to the dread other, and the lunatic on Youtube or CNN screeching about the Islamization of America or Terror babies moves that much closer to becoming normalized as reasonable viewpoints, instead of the madness which they are.