Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Holidays

Merry... Celtmas?
I suppose it just gets to be that time of year, and once again the Pagan blogosphere is rife with opinions, essays and critiques of all things Christmas. Star Foster has written a wonderful rebuttal to the Christmas time triumphalism espoused by another contributor on Patheos. Helio Pires, of the Golden Trail blog, responds to the same article with, you know, those pesky "facts". As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time inside Catholic Churches, I must admit that I do get a little pleasure (albeit, perhaps a bit perverse), that around this time of year boughs of evergreens, or advent wreaths, are featured prominently, usually in very close proximity to the altar...

Seren, on the other-hand, has made a post about the significance of Christmas in her past, present and (hopefully) future. I had posted some similar thoughts (if perhaps a tad more saccharine, last year) about the significance of Christmas within my own family. Of course, my post did not feature a thought provoking examination of the (often times problematic) nature of ancestor worship.

I highly recommend having a gander at all three blogs; I think, however, that I'm going to stay out of the "War on Solstice" this year. After all I did my part for the "War on Halloween". I'll let other people who actually care about the religious significance of the day, fight the good fight; I shall be cheering from the sidelines.

Lately I find myself to have less and less of that innocuous "Christmas spirit"; which in earlier years was in abundance. It may have been the years spent working in retail; terrible, horrible, soul destroying retail. It may be that for the first time in my life I will not actually be seeing my family on the 25th. Perhaps the teenaged "jadedness" which has lain dormant for the past decade or so has finally decided to end its hibernation and in its ravenous hunger, devoured my defenseless nostalgic sentiments. It could also be that, as significant the day is for me as a holiday to celebrate family, more significant days, actual holy days, have become more important. I find myself less and less excited about Christmas, but when it comes to days like Lá Fhéile Bríde or Oíche Shamhna, my youthful exuberance seems to be in ready supply. I suppose it is possible that I've undergone some sort of "Christmas spirit transference"; and so now the days I get really excited for are ones which actually have religious significance. I admit, now I've gotten myself all curious to see if anyone else has had similar experiences.

An now, insipid Paganizations of beloved Christmas carols:

 "Gods Rest Ye Merry Pagan Folk"

"Dancin'In A Wiccan Wonderland"

"Sun God Rise"


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Anatomy of a "Gospel Tract"

I will admit it, one of my hobbies is collecting religious propaganda. Whether it be Christian, Muslim, New-Age, etc. I find them to be both troubling and hilarious, and whats more they provide a very useful window into the worldview of those who publish and distribute them. I'm not even talking about something as infamous as the "Chick Tract", nope the disturbing/hilarious dichotomy is just as present in your everyday tract left on a bus seat or on a pay phone.

I'm going to be using one I recently found entitled, "IS JESUS CHRIST YOUR SAVIOUR?", published by the Fellowship Tract League out of Lebanon, Ohio; it was distributed by the Pentacost International Worship Centre, a local Pentacostal congregation. The front is red, with an image of a cross set before a cave with a rock that has been moved from the entrance. It also features a quote from John 1:12, "But as many as recieved him, to them gave he power to become sons of God, even to them that believeth on his name." So lets begin with an examination of the front. Typically the tracts are tricolour, black white and red. The red is either an accent or features prominently on the cover. Since the most common means of distributing the tracts is leaving them where people can pick them up, it makes sense that an eye grabbing colour like red would be used. The title of the tract, again speaking in broad terms, is either a question or some kind of "offer". In this case, the question is fairly obvious. From the title, it is relatively easy to discern the message within; in this case the emphasis will be on the necessity of Jesus as a saviour figure. The image, as described above, is not as important in this instance, but will resonate with anyone who has even a little knowledge about Christian myth. Likewise, the scripture quoted relates to the question, and introduces the idea of just how "great" an offer is being made. This same theme, that of an "offer" is a recurring theme, usually around the winter holidays tracts adorned with red gift boxes tend to appear.

The inside of the tract is significantly less flashy than the cover, as the curious reader will have already been drawn in. To guide the reader, there are headings which are all in caps and a bold text. In this case there are four headings (three inside: "THE ONE SAVIOUR", "THE ONE SINNER", "THE ONE SOLUTION", and one on the back, "THE ONE SIN"). Each provides a topic which will be addressed in the subsequent paragraphs, but generally there is a common theme even in these titles. In this case, if it is not already clear, the concept of a singular "way" is being emphasized, highlighting the bifurcated worldview inherent in Pentecostal Christianity.

The first title, "The One Saviour", begins by asking a question: "My friend, are you saved?". Again, a common, "folksy" method of written communication is utilized through the inclusion of some imagined witness speaking to the reader. The first paragraph explains that this imagined, but seasoned Christian, knows that most people do not know what "salvation" means in a "Biblical context". The second paragraph explains what is necessary to be "saved": a belief in the Christian god as the only god, that said deity has agency to effect change in the readers life, and that the Bible is this deity's one and only means of communicating his desire for humanity. Then a scriptural excerpt is used to "prove" the above assertion, in this case Acts 4:12. The third paragraph explains that "salvation" is not an intellectual activity, but one from the "heart". It reinforces this idea by asking if the reader loves their spouse with their "head or their heart". The final paragraph is an interesting one, in which the witness throws out some famous "thinkers": Plato, Aristotle and Einstein, and shows how they "came up short", and that the only real source of knowledge is the Bible. Again, the anti-intellectual tone of this tract is in keeping with the literalist Pentecostal worldview.

The second title, "The One Saviour", explains what a "sin" is to the reader. The first paragraph again opens with our folksy witness asking the reader a question,"Have you ever sinned?". Seeing a pattern emerging? The question-answer provided on the readers behalf format is the standard one for Christian religious tracts. The first paragraph explains that "sin" is universal, and posits the "original sin" as infecting the rest of humanity. The second paragraph explains what it means to be "saved", and explains the necessity of being "saved" from "damnation". It then turns back to the witness asking a number of questions, and implying that anyone would "give up", but wait, you're not doomed yet!

The third title, "The One Solution", is what this whole tract has been building towards. It explains why the figure of the Christian messiah, Jesus, is so special, and explains how he was/is able to absolve the reader of their "sins". The symbolism used is that of blood and purity, and the dichotomy between the "first sinner", the progenitor of humanity in Abrahamaic myth, Adam, and that of the figure of Jesus, is made abundantly clear. It ends, once again, by asking the question of if the reader wishes to be "saved". Again, snippets of scripture are liberally sprinkled throughout, providing a "Biblical" basis for the points being made.

The fourth, and final title, "The One Sin", offers a final bit of explanation. The witness lays out why people go to "hell", which it turns out is because they reject the offer being made in this tract; namely "salvation through Jesus". It ends with the line, "It's your decision."

The final bit of text on the back is separated into two sections; the "prayer" and the "mailing address". The prayer is provided for those who have read through the tract, found it convincing, and have decided to "accept Jesus into their hearts". This is followed by a small note, asking that if you have been "saved", to write to the ministry which provided the tract. This is usually left blank by the publisher, and stamped with the name and address of the aforementioned church. Subsequently at the very bottom is the publishers information and some disclaimers about how the tracts are not to be sold.

So there it is, a quick overview of a four page Christian tract with a little bit of analysis as well. To continue on with that; I've mentioned it a couple of times, but this format is the "gold standard". A question is presented, it is then elaborated on and some evidence in the way of scriptural references are used to support a foregone conclusion. The context is then personalized by explaining why the reader ought to be concerned with the question, which is again backed up with scriptural references. The answer to the question is then provided, and the answer (regardless of the question) is conversion to Christianity, or at least which ever version of Christianity is providing the tract. Finally the personalization is reinforced and the choice is left to the reader. For those who have been convinced, a prayer and contact information is then provided. I can not think of a tract that doesn't follow this pattern, even Chick Tracts, wacky as they are, follow this basic format.

So now the fun part; because nothing says fun like a disembodied stranger explaining how awful you are and why they know better than you. I mentioned it before, but despite their simplicity, a lot can be gleaned about the worldview of the author (and generally the church distributing them). So from this tract I've picked out a couple of aspects I touched on in the summary: the logical fallacy of bifurcation, appeal to sola scriptura/ Biblical literalism and anti-intellectualism.

Fallicious bifurcation:

The reader is presented with a choice, but the choice is bifurcated: on/off, black/white, "saved"/"unsaved". In this case either you "accept Jesus as your personal saviour" or you are "doomed to hell". As complex as an entire worldview can be, it turns out many people seem to have a very simplistic perspective, and this is exemplified by this (and other) Christian tracts. Of course, what the publishers and distributors have going for them is western culture in general. The assumption is that whoever picks up the tract will have some degree of familiarity with Christianity or the figure of Jesus. With that "hook", the entire discussion is couched in terms which take for granted the model of the cosmos where you are either "saved" or "unsaved". Any other perspectives are soundly ignored, never entering into the equation. Those other perspectives, or more accurately, strawman depictions of them, are fodder for other tracts.

Sola Scriptura/Biblical Literalism:

The tract takes every opportunity to try and support the points it makes, or ground its explanation in Biblical scripture. As such, all arguments made are followed by some citation of a verse from the Christian Bible. Once again, the assumption made by the author, is that this will have some weight behind it. Which is not as odd as it may appear at first blush. Remember these tracts are written for an audience that is inundated, even infused with a cultural view which is coloured by the prominence that Christianity has had historically. Most readers of the English language will know what a "Bible" is, and so too its status as A, if not THE, most important book on religious matters. The author, however, takes it a step further, and here is where an observation can be made about the special place of privilege the Bible inhabits in the authors world view. The arguments do not rely on logic, or rhetoric, or even established facts; they rest on the trustworthiness of the Bible. Actually this needs to be taken a step further, the inerrancy of the Bible is the basis for all arguments. To quote, "God knew we needed something to go by, so He put everything there is to know in His Bible." This simply screams sola scriptura, that is in religious (and I suppose in every matter actually), the Christian Bible (and I think it is safe to say that it can be specified to whichever interpretation of whichever version of the Christian Bible the author accepts) is the final arbiter. It is the basis upon which their world view is constructed, and so is obviously going to be the standard upon which the writer bases their arguments. Regardless of how nonsensical or facetious the claim may be; after all there is nothing written about making ink, making paper, printing presses, computers, bus seats or telephones within the pages. This does tie into the final aspect of the world view.


This is the bit that got me hooked into collecting tracts in the first place, the sheer asininity of the arguments or statements contained within the tracts. Long before I realized they were small windows into the minds of their authors, statements like "Saved is a Bible word, not a term thought up by man.", "Plato, Aristotle, or Einstein could only think as far as their finite minds were able. They could not even solve the problems of this life, such as sickness, disease, pain, hunger, and death, let alone know anything about eternity." Though I think it is summed up perfectly in this quote, "Believing must come from the heart, not the head." So lets unpack these statements. The first one is a good example of cognitive dissonance; to claim that the Bible is not the product of human hands, human minds, human writers and editors, that the concept of "salvation" simply appeared ex nihlo, betrays a very basic ignorance of history and reality. The middle quote is as anti-intellectual as this particular tracts gets, and makes use of three very well known thinkers. Completely unaware of the fact that the writings of two ancient philosophers not only predate the Christian Bible, but are still in print and have been hugely influential in western thought, they are trotted out and shown to be lacking because they did not solve any of those problems. But hold on, if Jesus solved those problems, why are they still around? Is 2000+ years not enough time then? This is a very good example of "special pleading"; that these points disqualify these people, but not this other person. Why? Because I said so. That's really all there is to offer as a rebuttal, and advocates will fall back on a combination of jargon/rhetoric (Biblical ages, physical v. spiritual death, Biblical innerency, etc.) while offering nothing else as a basis to support their perspectives. The last quote is pretty clear in its intent, and while probably not a literal belief that "belief" comes from ones heart; the sentiment that feelings matter more than reason is implied. Of course, that goes by the wayside the minute ones "heart" finds itself at odds with "scriptural knowledge".

Well that about wraps it up, I hope this has been enlightening, or at least entertaining. Perhaps the next time you find yourself on a bus or walking past a phone booth and you spy one of these little pamphlets, you just might spend the two or so minutes it takes to read them. If not for the laudable goal of understanding someone else's perspective, then do it for the lols.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Won't (or the English language is insane)

I was sitting on a bus today, reading the various advertisements and came across one in particular which made use of the word, "won't". I paused and thought about the word; obviously it was a contraction in the same vein as "can't" or "don't". But wait, I thought, "can't" is a contraction of "can not", "don't" is a contraction of "do not" and "won't" is the contraction of "will not".

So wait a minute, how does one get "won't" from "will not"?

The "ill" is dropped completely, the "n" and "o" flip positions and we add an apostrophe to stand in for, well nothing, clearly the "o" is still there. This makes no sense.

Etymologically, he root terms are wo'n't, wonnot or willn't, and all are archaic and generally obsolete. Somehow it seems that this bizarre contraction has managed to survive, where its slightly more sensible precursors have not.

I can think of a similar example, albeit few actually use the word outside of a mocking tone with some sort of highfalutin accent attached. The word, "shan't" which is a similar contraction of "shall" and "not". Even then the contraction is not quite as terrible as "won't".

English, as I have long believed, is a ridiculous language.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Untitled Moon"

The long night stretches out before me
Winter's chill shivers my bones
Yet warm is my soul

Piercing the very heart of the night
The bright beauteous moon
A pearl of purest silver

Shadows retreat at the sight of her
Mounted in the sky by the gods
A shimmering jewel

Through the dark and chill night
A lovely lamp to guide me
On my way home

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Rabbit's Prayer (or the art of Elegy)

"My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today" - Richard Adams
Simple yet profound, and probably my favourite "prayer" from any work of fiction; I also don't seem to be alone, a quick Google returns around 173 million hits. For those unfamiliar with the novel the quote comes from, Watership Down, which contains some marvelous mythology and folklore, some explanation may be required. I believe the prayer is straightforward, with the exception of "the thousand". The progenitor of all rabbits, according to their own folklore, is named El-ahrairah, whose name translates to "Prince with a thousand enemies". He garnered this name by ignoring his god's (Frith) warning that his children were multiplying too fast, devastating the land and the other creatures. El-ahrirah ignored Frith, and so as punishment, Frith endowed the other creatures with a ravenous hunger for the children of El-ahrirah. "The thousand" then, refers to all of the creatures in the world who seek to do harm to the rabbits. In the context of the prayer, then, the rabbits essentially "die" a little bit at the loss of their friend; the rabbits are heart broken. The simple eloquence of equating death with the image of a still lying rabbit (the antithesis of what a rabbit ought to do, according to their own folklore), is very powerful, even profound. The very palpable loss is expressed in terms even a child could understand, but is in no way talking down to the reader, or diminishing the grief felt by the characters.

El-hrairah, Prince of the Rabbits
Structurally, the prayer is very personal, "My Heart... My Friend", yet can be spoken by a larger group; again, as rabbits are by their nature, social animals. The established folklore surrounding "the thousand" is understood, but there is no mention of any sort of "persistence of personality" found within the prayer. What remains is a strong sense of loss, very appropriate for a lamentation or elegy. Perhaps it is this, that the sense of loss is so central to the prayer that it does remind me of many examples of "Celtic" elegiac poetry, and "Celtic" death narratives (or generally oitte). These texts are, again generally, not happy affairs (very much at odds with the frivolity associated with the tradition of wakes). There is no joy or happiness in them, jut the ever present companionship of grief. Consider the following poem "The Unquiet Grave":
"I am stretched on your grave, and you'll find me there always; if I had the bounty of your arms I should never leave you. Little apple, my beloved, it is time for me to lie with you; there is the cold smell of the clay on me, the tan of the sun and the wind.
 There's a lock on my heart, which is filled with love for you, and melancholy beneath it as black as the sloes. If anything happens to me, and death overthrows me, I shall become a fairy wind-gust down on the meadows before you
When my family thinks I am in my bed, it is on your grave I am stretched from night till morning, telling my distress and lamenting bitterly for my quiet lovely girl who was betrothed to me as a child.
Do you remember the night when you and I were under the blackthorn tree, and the night freezing? A hundred praises to Jesus hat we did nothing harmful, and that your crown of maidenhood is a tree of light before you!
The priests and the monks every day are angry with me for being in love with you, young girl, when you are dead. I would be a shelter from the wind for you and protection from the rain for you; and oh, keen sorrow to my heart that you are under the earth!" - Traditional Irish folk-song. 260-1
This is downright depressing; the grief and despair leaps off the page. There are countless examples, but some from the myths. Brigid, upon learning that her son Rudhan had been killed, screams. A primal, visceral reaction to her loss (especially that of her child), the consequence of which was the establishment of the caoineadh or keening, as a practice which would be continued in Ireland until the early 20th century*. Personal experience, leads me to believe that while not keening per se, that screaming (especially from females) is still rather common when confronted with the loss of a loved one, across a considerably diverse swath of cultures. There is a very moving text in which Emer laments for Cúchulain upon learning of his death:
"... Then Cenn Berraide arose and brought the head to Dún Delgan, and gave into Eimher's hand; and she had it washed and put on its own body, and Eimher took it to her, and she clutched it to her breast and her bosom after that, and began to bewail and lament over him, and began to kiss his lips and drink his blood, and she put a silken shroud about him.
Cú Chulainn.'
And she took his hand in her hand, and began to tell forth his fame and renown, and she said: 'Sad is this,' said Eimher, 'many of the kings and princes and champions of the world were sent to death and dreadful doom by the swift blows of this hand, and many of the birds and witless creatures of the earth fell by you, and much of the riches and wealth of the earth was scattered and given away by this hand to the poets and sages of the world.'...
Again we read of the grief at loss and the retelling of what was great and good about the deceased, which unfortunately makes the gravity of the loss all the heavier to bare. There is another text, which also recounts Emer's reaction to learn of Cú's death. Essentially, once Lugaid returns with the recently liberated head of Cúchulain, to be reunited with his body, Emer dies of a broken heart on the spot. It is both a tragic, but terribly romantic sentiment, and something I have always loved about Gaelic literature. People are sometime so overcome with emotion, so overwhelmed with their grief, that their hearts literally break. There is just something I find so genuine and touching in this sentiment; however impractical or romantic. This idea relates to an earlier post I wrote: Men can cry too..., albeit in a slightly different light.

Even in cases where the loss is not one of love (or is perhaps agape as opposed to eros), but of ones friends or comrades, the loss is no less severe. Cáilte mac Rónáin, in the narrative of Acallam na Senórach, spends just as much time retelling of the deeds and adventures of Fionn and the Fianna, as he does quietly weeping. This ties back to something I mentioned above, that the weight of the death is often equated with the worth of the individual. In Cáilte's case, he laments for his friends and family, to be sure, but he also laments that such a generation will never again be seen on this side of the veil. This motif is something which echoes across the centuries, and can be found in what is my favourite of all of the works of W.B. Yates, "The Municipal Gallery Revisited", a poem about Yates solemnly touring the aforementioned gallery, and recounting the luminaries he had the honour of calling comrades, I think the spirit is best summed up in the closing stanza.
Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.
Grief, at least in the Gaelic tradition, is personal, but also has a very social or communal element to it. This best expressed in the tradition of "Waking the dead", which I could go on about for quite a while (but that is another matter). Suffice to say that the juxtaposition found in Elagic literature and poetry is also found in the wake. The blending of the joy at a life well lived and the significance of the loss, the frantic frivolity of the guests and the manic wailing of the bereaved combine to provide a catharsis of sorts. The notion that one would be hard pressed to find a more ripping party than an Irish funeral, is of course a bit hyperbolic. While we have innumerable examples of wake games, dancing, drinking and some even less savory activities (and they say folklorists never get to have any fun), it should be noted that the immediate family would seldom participate in the merriment, if at all. In fact, there is a telling line in a traditional song from Newfoundland entitled, "The Night that Paddy Murphy Died", which states this rather emphatically; "As Mrs. Murphy sat in the corner, pouring out her grief...". The song is, itself, considerably ribald, but maintains that the guests in all their raucousness are honouring the deceased in the appropriate way.

It was expected that family members would be despondent, but the wake provided a way to release not only their own grief, but the communities as a whole, and what better way than surrounded by friends and family. The frivolity was understood to be, in no way, an act to diminish the family (or the guests) own grief, but that letting it go was easier during the frenzy of a party. Here again, I suspect the centrality of liminal states comes back. The period between a death and burial, the point between the grief of loss, and the joy of a well lived life, and the very mixed emotions which can build to an explosive, unexpected result. Some have commented on the fact that a lot of Gaelic literature can be terribly depressing, but so to is it equally compelling and joyful. Perhaps that is the point (or a point, at least), that grief and joy are both our constant companions and seldom far apart from one another.

Loss and separation are sad events, and it is perfectly natural, not to mention reasonable, to be saddened by a death. What is important though, is that we recognize the loss and acknowledge it; be it the complex process of a wake, or a simple rabbits prayer.

* A relatively recent, albeit fictionalized, example of a keening can be seen early on during the appropriately depressing film, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley".

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

War on Halloween 2011 edition: News from the Underground

Another innocent victim of the War on Halloween
"Halloween: Everything you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask"

Local daily. Check.
Cringe inducing title. Check.
Proximity to Halloween: Close enough. (you'll get the joke later)
Outdated encyclopedic references. Check.
Samhain, Lord of the Dead. Check.
Token Pagan spokespeople. Actually, the author appears to have actually done some research on this one.
Hyperbolic Christian explaining the "real" origins. Double check, and in fine form.

Yes, its Halloween origin article season, and this particular article comes courtesy of the Cleveland Daily Banner. Now I found this article, because I got a hit for "Celtic Reconstructionist" in my Google news search, so right away it scored some points for even mentioning CR. That, unfortunately, is about the only positive thing about this article.

For starters, the article is written by William Wright, author of "The Little White Book Of Light", which according to its Amazon plug: "This is at last an inspiring piece of work with solid Scriptural and practical advice from some of the greatest minds of the past." Red Flag. Upon perusing more of his columns on the Daily's site, we get reassuring titles like: "That Old Black magic", "What is Heaven Like?", and "Planet of the Apes". Alarm bells, at this point, started going off. But he actually quoted Druid authors, I say to myself, maybe I'm jumping the gun?

The article starts off in a typical fashion, some people are interviewed and they mention how fun Halloween is, and how much their grandchildren enjoy dressing up. Seems like harmless fun, right? Nope, the very next paragraph we are told how macabre and eerie Halloween is. Insert just quoted grandparent providing typical, "we know there was some evil in there, but we just want our grand kids to have fun". Yup, next comes the many people are very concerned with the true origins of Halloween bit, and this outdated encyclopedic entry from the 1970's will surely not fail to provide.
The Encyclopedia Americana says, “Elements of the customs connected with Halloween can be traced to a Druid ceremony in pre-Christian times. The Celts had festivals for two major gods — a sun god (called Lug) and a god of the dead, called Samhain, whose festival was held on Nov. 1, the beginning of the Celtic New Year.”
An artists depiction of Samhain, Celtic Spirit of Death
Alright, so he uncritically accepts an outdated encyclopedia article, but then he quotes some books by real life Druids, so it can't be all bad, right? Wright quotes from Carr-Gomm's, "Elements of the Druids in England":
“Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men ... children would knock on neighbors’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Halloween.”

He added, “With the coming of Christianity, this festival turned into Halloween, Oct. 31, All Hallows (All Saints Day), Nov. 1 and All Souls Day, Nov. 2. Here we can see most clearly the way in which Christianity built on pagan foundations it found rooted in these (British) isles. Not only does the purpose of the festival match the earlier one, but even the unusual length of the festival is the same.”
 And from Issac Bonewit's, "Bonewit’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca", (Alright so he quotes a Druid from a book said Druid wrote about Neowicca, so yes I should edit my list and throw in the Wiccan reference too).
Bonewits said, “Halloween is a time to lift the veil between many material and spiritual worlds in divination, so as to gain spiritual insight about our past and futures ... to deepen our connection to the gods and goddesses we worship.”
Such fine examples of backhanded references are rare, but to elaborate just a tad: The uneasiness which permeates the article, and the implied horror that one ought to be feeling are well served from these quotes. The funny thing is, the quotes do imply an actual aspect of the significance of Halloween (or Samhain), that it is a marked period of liminality. Unfortunately, Wright then spins this concept to come across as weird, even sinister. For starters he was sure to mention the aspect of cross dressing, guaranteed to cause a twist in the britches of his readership. The other aspect is the assertion of survival of those scary pagan elements into the modern day activities associated with Halloween. Yup, the Iron age Celts would celebrate their dark lord of the dead by going door to door and tick or treating, nothing modern at all to see here, move along.
Here we see the "trick" of arson being played when the inhabitants failed to provide an appropriate treat
Wright then goes into serious investigative journalist mode by quoting a book by Colonel J. Garnier, "The Worship of the Dead", or (and Wright fails to mention the alternative title) "The Origin And Nature Of Pagan Idolatry And Its Bearing Upon The Early History Of Egypt And Babylonia". In it, you wil learn all about the fact that ancient celebrations of the dead can all be traced back to after the Biblical deluge, and this is shown by the proximity for these festivals to happen around the same time.
This festival, moreover, held by all on or about the very day on which, according to the Mosaic account, the deluge took place, the seventeenth day of the second month — the month nearly corresponding with our November.
Clearly "nearly corresponding" is close enough that a bafflingly stupid argument designed to try and make actual history fit in with the mythic narrative offered by Genesis, has convinced some that this actually makes sense, because apparently this is the reason many people feel uncomfortable with celebrating Halloween. Wrights penultimate paragraph provides some very confused conclusions to boot.
Whether it is viewed as harmless fun, a longstanding tradition, sacred rites or something to avoid, Halloween no longer has any skeletons in its closet. Even unmasked, it is as scary as ever
That's right, longstanding traditions and sacred rites are really, really scary. The fact that some people are not Christian, and may even worship other deities is truly horrifying. If you're interested in either a good laugh/ repeatedly smashing your head against your desk, I would also recommend Wright's "Roots of Halloween", which expands Garnier's ridiculous thesis, posits the universality of global flood myths, the ever popular Nephilim = ancient gods, and that the reason that folks celebrate the lives and memory of their ancestors is because they were all killed, at once; no mention is made of how the tradition survived this global purge. Still, my favourite bit of "look at the incontrovertible evidence, duh" moment is when he says, "But don’t forget the fact that all of this water on planet earth came from somewhere. It wasn’t always here."

I never thought I would find an article that would top Kimberly Daniels "The Dangers of Celebrating Halloween", but her article is so over the top that it almost borders on parody. Wright's article(s) try in a very backhanded way to appear educational and objective, all the while denouncing the perceived evils of Halloween. This to me makes his articles all the more problematic, because your average reader (and mind I've no idea of the demographic who reads his articles, let alone the Cleveland Daily) would glance at this, find its arguments reasonable, and accept it as fact With this in mind, Wright's article is the new gold standard by which all other "War on Halloween" articles will be judged. Not only does it denounce Halloween, it goes the extra mile of revealing the horrors of other religions.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Polytheism is on the fringes. Really, Apparently we don't actually exist...

Ah the convenience (and fun) of "Google news searches". The things you learn from it can be, if nothing else, rather amusing. Like the folks who seem to talk about "polytheism" more than anyone else are Muslims. Or that there is a baseball player named "Angel Pagan"? Sometimes though, you get some decent hits back, and this is one example.

"Texas faith Blog: "Do you think monotheism a superior form of religious belief? If so, why? If not, why not?""
It was preceded by the following blurb:

"The three Abrahamic faiths are known for being monotheistic religions. They worship one Deity, even though they may leave room for several concepts of the Divine. For example, Christians believe in the Trinity.

But other faiths aren't monotheistic. They allow for more than one god. As Texas Faith panelist Amy Martin wrote in an email:
"If you ask a Hindu if they are monotheistic, they will acknowledge the all-encompassing nature of the Brahma and say that all theisr gods and goddesses are simply aspects of that godhead. Even pagans say the same thing. The spiritual-not-religious, like Buddhists, posit an all-is-one divine energy, but do not define it as God."

Over time, these concepts have shaped traditions, cultures and even nations. So, for this week I'd like to hear your answer to this question"
The question posted above was asked by William Mackenzie for the religion blog on the Dallas Morning News web site, to a large number of priests, religious scholars, writers and representatives from around Texas. I say large number, because calling them assorted would be untrue. The respondents are overwhelmingly Christian, then monotheist, then pantheist, then monist. Even the token alt-spirituality panelist is at best a pantheist. Was it so difficult to find an actual polytheist? Are we so few in number that we can not be reached for comment? Well, there may be something to that last question actually. However, I'll touch on that a bit later.

The responses are precisely what I expected they would be. "Yes, monotheism is superior, though we don't like the word "superior", how about this, monotheism is true. Period. Oh, okay, here is every rehashed apologetic argument for the existence of a single, all powerful deity..." I'm not surprised, just disappointed really.

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here, lamenting the fact that polytheism in theological discussions never gets a fair shake, is marginalized and when spoken about is relegated to a passing curiosity of some primitive people.But when it happens over, and over and over again, and when one's focus is on polytheistic issues, this si what I've got to work with.

So, the arguments. They range from the typical, "revealed through scriptures", "revealed through reason", "the unity in nature" to the really odd: "I'm not a theist... but there is a supreme... energy", "polytheists were monotheists in practical engagement" and my personal favourite, "Paganism, Shintoism, Native Americans and other indigenous faiths, and many more paths often described as polytheistic, have at their core an acknowledgement of the one God." I'll address each in measure.

"Revealed through scripture": This is probably the most common argument I've come across when discussing theological matters with monotheists of all stripes. The simple fact of the matter is that different sources say different things, and the only significance of any given source is whether you afford it a special position in comparison to other texts. For those who do not afford a given text that special place, it is just another book. This isn't going to convince someone who doesn't already agree with you. It also depends largely on the hermeneutics one applies to the understanding of a given text. The reconciliation between the OT and NT, for example, is one which is still not really resolved. Instead, it relies largely on what amounts to a Christian retcon (that is, for those not familiar with the geek aphorism, retroactive continuity), where established aspects of a given narrative are displaced, reinterpreted, or removed in order to fit in with a new continuity.

"Revealed through reason": This is a little more theological and philosophical in its scope, and arguments have raged for the reason based belief in a single omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent (and very often omnibenevolent) deity, for centuries. Of course, this flies in the face of theological issues which have yet to be adequately addressed, the problem of evil chief among them. There are other problematic aspects of this as well, which ties into the "unified whole" that would be impossible under the behest of competing forces. Which flies in the face of human history when one thinks about it. Humans have been in conflict for as long as there have been humans (and perhaps even longer), yet the world none the less exists, human civilizations rise, flourish and fall, and yet different interests continue to exist, humanity continues to exist despite this "chaos", and so to does the universe continue to run along, despite the fact that there are any number of different "forces" at work. Such issues, and others are adequately addressed in Greer's "World Full of gods" which argues rather convincingly that such arguments are based less on reason than worldview. I could rehash those arguments here, but for now I'd rather not.

"Polytheists were monotheists in practice": This was at first an odd, and then ridiculous claim. It is far more telling of the ignorance of the commenter on the nature of polytheism, than it is about the superiority of monotheism. The essential argument is that even, so called, polytheists were in fact really monotheists. Has this guy ever read anything about the ancient religions of most of the world? His point about "practical monotheism" states that when a given polytheist would invoke a deity, they chose one based on the area of influence. In such a case, the polytheists were invoking only a single god or goddess, which meant that in practice, one dealt with gods on an one to one basis, practical monotheism. It is baffling, to say the least and hilarious when one thinks of the logical end of such a view. So polyamorists are really monogamous, because they have sex with one person at a time, regardless of the fact that they have multiple partners? I'd chock it up to simple ignorance of what the differences between polytheism and monotheism are. Aside from the contradiction in terms, there is also the issue of invoking "the gods", or invoking multiple deities simultaneously.

I'll be spending a little more time on the last comment, because it really gets my dander up. I can not comment on whether or not Martin is a self identified Pagan. Her website is in essence a new age/ pluralistic one, but specific aspects of theology are lacking, at least without access to the news archives. Though she is guilty of the "Paganism" states X fallacy which so many fall into when speaking to non-Pagans about Pagan beliefs. Judging from her statements, though, I would wager she falls into the pantheistic/monist camp. To be fair, there are a vocal (if not large) number of self described Pagans who do believe in the concept of a unified godhead, or the "one diamond, many facets" theology. Unfortunately, not all who identify as Pagan do. You'd never know that though, which is why the aforementioned statement falls into the aforementioned fallacy. A little tweaking could have placed the comment in context, instead of a sweeping proclamation of belief. However, this strikes me of someone who isn't just generalizing, but wholly glosses over the very idea that there are actually polytheists out there. Towards the beginning of the article, there is a quote from Martin:

"Paganism, Shintoism, Native Americans and other indigenous faiths, and many more paths often described as polytheistic, have at their core an acknowledgement of the one God. Hinduism, the most polytheistic of faith paths with phantasmagorical gods and goddesses, exalts Brahmin, the one God who is vast and beyond capability of the human mind to understand.
In these allegedly poly paths, the myriad aspects of the one God are articulated in the forms of gods and goddesses, who are like us but not like us. Giving these aspects of God unique identities, with songs and stories and temples attached, enables people to have personal relationship with the divine."
What the quote does is reinforce the idea that even those kooky Pagans (who since Martin is the only one who mentions them, becomes the representative of) don't actually believe in polytheism. So the real question ought to have been "How many monotheists does it take to tear down a straw-man?" There isn't a single argument for polytheism in the whole bunch, where polytheism is mentioned it is either treated as a throwback to primitive superstition or something which doesn't actually exist among theists today. So even those Pagans, the folks who identify themselves by a term derived from a pejorative label for those who continued to practice pre-Christian, POLYTHEISTIC beliefs, even they have moved on from that silly polytheism. I can not remember the last time I felt such rage at being marginalized, and I'm an outspoken polytheist who works for a Catholic funeral home.


So then, this whole exercise begs the question, where are all the polytheists at? Are we so numerically insignificant, or so illusive, that we cannot even be found for a comment for which we may actually have something to say? Are there just no polytheists in the Dallas/Austin area? Perhaps there are no established groups of polytheists who were available for comment? Maybe local polytheists don't read the Dallas Morning News religious blog?

I mentioned it before, but this whole exercise begs the question, why was this question actually asked in the first place? If there were no polytheists for comment, it makes sense that a polytheist wasn't there to ask the question to begin with. So what would be the motivation for Mackenzie to even ask such a question? The knowledge that some people said that other people may worship more than a single god, even if that god is actually a facet of the "One True God"?

What this does illustrate, however, is why I get so excited when I find books like "God Against the Gods". Not only do such works actually look at polytheism, they place it as a legitimate way to understand divinity; at least as reasonable as other such theological perspectives as the more familiar monotheism, atheism and pantheism. It also illustrates that just because polytheism may actually be discussed in an article, it doesn't mean that anyone who participates knows diddly squat about it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: God against the gods

I picked this book up about two weeks ago and just finished it last night. It is not a terribly long book, I just happen to read when I have a moment as opposed to slogging through a book in one go. Interestingly enough, I had previously been going through an old text book of mine, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, and had just gotten past the end of Julians reign when I stumbled upon this particular text. It is written by Jonathan Kirsch, and as I own a copy of an earlier work of his, "The history of the end of the world", I knew at the very least it would be a good read. It was.

The book covers in very broad, sweeping terms the development of monotheism as a religious idea tracing the concept from an Egyptian Pharaoh, to an assumed historic Moses, to Josiah and then to Christianity as it was between the first and fourth centuries. Parallel to this, Kirsch does a decent job of providing a glimpse into the polytheism which pervaded the ancient world, especially the variety of Roman polytheism around the third and fourth centuries CE. He also examines two influential historic figures, the emperors Constantine and Julian, as well as the culture, society and politics both developed in. The bulk of the last half of the book actually focuses on each Emperor and how they in essence, shaped the course of Western religious history. His basic theory of the development of monotheism traces the political aspirations of a given monarch and then parallels that with a desire to institute the worship of the "One True God"; in essence if there is a single all powerful deity, than there ought to be a single all powerful ruler. Another strain of thought running throughout the book, and perhaps its actual thesis, is that contrasting the inherent tolerance of polytheism, with the inherent intolerance of monotheism.

He also does a decent job of putting the so called Christian persecutions, in their historic and cultural context. While he does not downplay the significance or immorality of the mass murder of people who held different beliefs, he does explain the reasoning behind them. On top of that he is also critical (as are most modern historians) of many of the accounts of Christian martyrs, and examines the hyperbole in a number of martyrologies.  Further, he also points out that the number of Christians killed by the Pagan Romans over the "10 persecutions" pales in comparison to the number of Christians killed by the Christian Romans in the subsequent centuries. Mind you, any decent text of the period ultimately does the same, historic facts and all that. Though I could understand why many more literalist Christians may find offense with the text, and probably argue that Kirsch is trying to downplay the persecutions. As I said, the facts speak for themselves.

Now for the criticisms. This is by no means a perfect work, and I hinted at its tendencies to gloss over a lot of the details and probably oversimplify any number of issues. My own knowledge of the period and culture is significantly less than my expertise in other areas, so I can not comment greatly on the portrayal of the Religio Romana, and I do question his assertion that traditional polytheistic religion was being replaced with so called "Pagan monotheism", this tends to be a problematic perspective a good number of religious historians suffers from. Though I do think his assertion that mystery cults were gaining in popularity and mass appeal has significantly more merit. My biggest criticism is his portrayal (albeit brief) of the Celts. He mentions them, almost in passing, as an example of the more "barbarous" forms of polytheism:
"...or the Celts of Britain, who enclosed their human offerings in wicker baskets fashioned in the image of a god and then lowered the basket into a bonfire. Such pagan luminaries as Pliny and Cicero condemned these practices, and the Roman generals who conquered the barbarians and occupied their tribal lands expended much effort in suppressing the practice of human sacrifice"

It is unfortunate in that a well researched and adequately footnoted book, such an ignorant and uncritical statement is used to shore up the image of Roman polytheism. I understand that his focus was on the Roman sources, but considering how critically he tends to read the sources, especially when they mention other religions or cultures in a negative light, I was caught off guard by this paragraph. It really was, for me, a blight on an otherwise well reasoned text.

He also tends, unfortunately, to rely on a number of antiquated and outdated texts when examining interpretations of many of the myths and commonalities of the myriad polytheistic religions. He seems to enjoy works by Campbell and Graves a little too much, and a little too uncritically.

Overall I would recommend this text to anyone who is interested in the subject matter. I will also admit that there are better books on the relationship between polytheism and Christianity within the context of the Roman Empire. I will admit, however, that what I enjoyed most about this text is Kirsch's willingness, and perhaps even earnestness, in showing polytheism in such a positive light. Books on polytheism in general are few and far between, and books which show the merits of a polytheistic world view are even fewer. I mentioned before, but even those well written and argued historic texts which examine in greater detail the religion of the Romans (or other polytheists) treat it as something which was inevitably doomed to fail, in the face of the "One True God". Kirsch, at least, illustrates how history could have so easily gone another direction.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The problem of Tethra

The wikipedia article on Tethra reads as follows:
In Irish mythology, Tethra of the Fomorians ruled Mag Mell after dying in the Second Battle of Mag Tuiredh.
There is a second section on a possible etymology of the name, which is actually longer than the entry above. Alright, aside from this wiki stub needing a citation and an expansion, what is the point? Well that is sort of the gist of it, and perhaps a wider issue in researching and perhaps understanding Irish myth; so much of what we have is just stubs. Extensive lists of Names mentioned here and there but no narratives really dealing with those characters. Of course there are many examples of just the opposite, characters who have grand, sweeping narrative who play central roles in the mythology, who wouldn't you know it tend to have the larger modern cults. I can't really fault people for being able to relate to characters we can know something about, as opposed to those who we know little, but it makes me realize just how much we do not have.

I titled this post "the problem of Tethra" because I believe he encapsulates many of the questions which, I believe, can seriously inform or impact how one understands pre-Christian Irish myth and the theology derived from it. The first place I ever came across the name Tethra, was in the LGE where Amergin makes mention of his name:
"Who calleth the cattle from the House of Tethys?
On whom do the cattle of Tethys smile?"
Every interpretation I have read about this line of poetry (which in most versions has "Tethys" as "Tethra") explains that the "cattle of Tethra" refer to fish, which I find difficult to disagree with.  So the logical conclusion drawn from this is that Tethra has some connection with the sea, or at least some environ where fish would live. One could postulate a river, but tradition represents rivers as distinctly feminine, and this in turn tends towards a gender division being observed; the ocean/sea is the realm of gods (Tethra, Lir, Manannan) and rivers that of goddesses (Boand, Sinann, etc.). So the idea that Tethra was (is) some sort of god who is associated with the Sea is a common one. There are other references to Tethra which mentions his "cattle". In "The wooing of Emer", when Cuchulain first speaks to Emer, she asks him where he has slept, to which he replies, "‘We slept,’ he said, ‘in the house of the man who tends the cattle of the plain of Tethra.’" A few lines down, he also makes mention of "Tethra, king of the Fomori." This second association is the one in which we actually learn that Tethra is not only a member of the Fomorians, but also a king.

So, next up are the references we've got to Tethra where he is identified as a Fomorian and a king, which come during the narrative of CMT. While the author expounds on the harsh conditions the TDD were forced to endure under the rule of Bres, we learn who among the Fomorians the tribute is being given:
"Now when Bres had assumed the kingship, Fomorians, even Indech son of De Domnann and Elatha son of Delbaeth, and Tethra, three Fomorian kings, bound their tribute upon Ireland, so that there was not a smoke from a roof in Ireland that was not under tribute to them." (Source, pg. 63-65)
Other than this Tethra is one of the Fomorian combatants who goes up against the TDD. Even in this, though, we get very little information about him.
"In that fight, then, Ogma the champion found Orna the sword of Tethra, a king of the Fomorians. Ogma unsheathed the sword and cleansed it. Then the sword related whatsoever had been done by it; for it was the custom of swords at that time, when unsheathed, to set forth the deeds that had been done by them."
So there is nothing else mentioned about Tethra in CMT, in fact his name only comes up twice in the entire narrative. He is a Fomorian king, and he has a magical sword named Orna. His fate in the battle is never mentioned; the only sure thing is that he looses his sword, Orna. Ogma ends up finding and claiming the sword Orna, which when unsheathed tells him of the deeds it has done, as was the style at the time. Outside of this, there isn't anything which speaks to his fate or his character. On the other hand, Tethra is invoked in some very conspicuous places. Both Amergain and CuChulain make mention of his name, as it pertains to his "cattle". However, in both cycles, the Fomorians had long been subdued by the TDD, and one would assume that deities associated with the TDD, such as Lir or Manannan would be the prime candidates for such invocations. The question then is why was that not the case?

 Again, we dive right into speculation, though some a little more grounded than some idea's I made mention of above. I do think that the notion that some of the names of the Fomorians, and their respective functions are holdovers from older cults, which would be later replaced with "newer" figures has some merit. What other explanation could be offered for the term "Tethra's cattle" or "the plain of Tethra", when much more robust and influential divine figures have more overt associations with the sea? Now, I would not go as far as say the Ree's brothers, and postulate that the Fomorians are representative of indigenous (or pre-Celtic) peoples, or even culture. I would say, however, that I do tend towards a view that the Fomorians are reflexes of more primordial deities, in the same vein as the Jotun or Titans, if not so overtly. I would ague that Tethra is a very good example of a mythic holdover, and while his practical functions were overshadowed or subsumed by Manannan (as we know as little, if not less, about Lir), the poetic or fictive functions survived into the literary tradition. Interestingly enough, the wiki article mentions that Tethra became the ruler of Mag Mell after being killed in CMT (of which there is no actual account). According to MacKillop (pg. 293), however, the three rulers of Mag Mell are: Labraid Luathlam ar Claideb, Goll mac Doilb and Boadach (who it turns out is Manannan in disguise). Again we observe the overlap of association, however tenuous, between Tethra and Manannan as deities associated with the sea. I also find it difficult to believe that a figure like Tethra is solely an invention of the literary tradition, for the same reasons.

Well, it is difficult to be certain about such interpretations. The difficulty lies with trying to determine how best to interpret CMT. Outside the pre-Christian v. post-Christian content (which arguably, is a significant obstacle), there are some strains of thought: does the narrative represent the forces of order (or beneficent deities) overcoming the forces of chaos (or malefic deities), a reflex of a common Indo-European trope? There are some threads within the text which seem to indicate that the Fomorians may have knowledge or influence about or over certain natural phenomena, which the TDD do not. Towards the end of the tale, Lugh corners Bres and asks him while he should not take his life. Bres replies: " 'The cows of Ireland will always be in milk' said Bres, ‘if I am spared.’" Lugh, then takes this information to Máeltne Mórbrethach and asks him what to make of it. Máeltne replies that "He has no power over their age or their calving, even if he controls their milk as long as they are alive." and such a guarantee isn't worth his life. Lugh returns to Bres and basically says "no dice", so Bres replies with another offer, and this is repeated three times before Bres finally tells Lugh how and when to plow. Satisfied, Lugh spares him (although in other narratives Lugh does eventually kill Bres, with a poisoned cow no less). We see then, that the Fomorians have ties to natural cycles or phenomena and that with proper bargaining, the knowledge can be gleaned from them. Thus is later reflected in the LGE, when the Milesians are forced to develop a reciprocal, as opposed to the original antagonistic, relationship with the TDD to properly grow crops and survive in Ireland. The argument could be made in the former tale, of the IE reflex of more beneficent deities overcoming the malefic ones, to the benefit of humans; then again this could be reading into things too much. But what does this have to do with Tethra? A lot, incidentally.

The "problem of Tethra", then, is really a problem indicative of the wider body of myth. Just how much of what we know is actually applicable to pre-Christian myth and belief? Most folks have decided one way or another how to understand the TDD, but the Fomorians are still a large source of mystery and even confusion. Some have opted to see them as near, if not outright, demonic; others have chosen to fall back to comparative myth and understand them as a Celtic (or at least Irish) version of the Titans or Jotun. As I mentioned before and for the reasons stated above, I tend to agree with the latter, though recognize that such comparisons can only go so far in offering an explanation of how they ought to be understood. However, there are clearly ritualized or poetic functions associated with some of the Fomorians, and so trying our best to understand their place within the broader context of Irish myth will help us in developing a more robust approach to mythic figures outside the purview of the figures who are generally accepted as deities.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The ethical limits of "love the sinner, hate the sin"

A bit of a rambling account follows, and I will endeavor to have more overtly polytheistic content in the future, but I write about whatever piques my interest and today this happens to be it.

I'm sure many folks have been confronted with the Christian catch-all "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach to ethics. It implies that while Christians should be discerning of what they view as unethical behaviour, they should never loose sight of the fact the sinner is still a person and so ought to be forgiven for their transgression. This has been an especially visible tack of the Catholic Church, when it comes to dealing with issues which are accepted by society (to some degree or another) but at loggerheads with Church doctrine.

In my case, there is a particular issue which is going on in the parish halls and school board meeting rooms, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. I believe this issue highlights the very real limitations of the "love the sinner, hate the sin" philosophy and creates an eye opening example of the tricky nature of religion and the public sphere. The issue is "gay positive" clubs in Catholic schools.

Now, not to digress too much, but a little history may be necessary for those who were born outside of Ontario. Ontario has, for the majority of its existence, had two separate public school systems; one Protestant and one Catholic. Over the course of the last half of the 20th century, the Protestant school system was gradually secularized, simply becoming "public schools". The Catholic system, however, did not secularize and continues to be publicly funded. As a result of its, unique status, the various Catholic School Boards have had to walk a fine line between government guidelines and Church doctrine. Earlier this year this tension came to a head when the Halton Catholic Schools declined to allow the formation of student run "gay-straight" clubs. The issue was sensationalized (a little) when the Chair of the Board made an idiotic comment which compared such clubs with "Nazi groups". At issue was the necessity of all Ontario school boards to have an "equity and inclusive education policy" in place to stem the rise in homophobic bullying. Eventually the board dropped its ban on such groups and they have been allowed to form. In fact this sparked a much wider debate among other Catholic boards, with the same result in almost all jurisdictions; "gay-straight clubs" have been given permission to form. But, the story doesn't end there.

A recent article in the Toronto Star picked up this topic, with less than three weeks to go before school resumes, to see how it has developed. Not so well it would seem. Despite the fact that the issue of allowing such groups to be formed was agreed upon months ago, the issue at present is what to call them:
“It’s been a struggle; we want to have groups to help these students so they don’t feel suicide is the only option — suicide rates among homosexual young people are higher — but some people get caught up worrying that we’re going to forget about our Gospel teachings, and cause panic, so it’s taking longer than expected,” said association president Nancy Kirby
And there in lies the rub, and my point. The Catholic boards want to help reduce an atmosphere of intolerance and fear for sexual minority groups, and help prevent kids from falling into despair. At the same time, they have a rather clear doctrinal position to uphold as members of the Catholic faith; Homosexuality is not accepted:
2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
However, there is a distinction made between "homosexual persons" and "homosexual acts", one is to be loved, respected and supported, the other is to be abhorred and opposed; love the sinner, hate the sin. According to Catholic teachings, those who find themselves attracted to members of the same sex/gender/ etc. are called to practice chastity, as these attractions are a trial to be overcome. If this is starting to sound a little like conversion therapy, that the moral duty of homosexuals is to suppress (or better yet, overcome) their problematic attraction to members of the same sex, it's because it is. The problem for the boards now is that they have no idea what to call these clubs. Many have banned the use of "gay-straight", "rainbow", or any other names which may give the impression that homosexuality is in anyway being approved of.

I understand, rather well, the complex nature of ethics and their applicability. I understand that ethics are not simple and require a great deal of thought and reflection. I understand the desire of the Catholic school boards to adopt the provincial guidelines, and their honest desire to help students as best they can. I also understand that this issue is as close as one can get to cognitive dissonance without spiraling into outright contradiction. At the end of the day, regardless of how much these school boards try to foster an atmosphere of tolerance or respect towards GLBT students, it is empty. It is empty because these people are seen to have an affliction, one which they must overcome to be inline with catholic teaching. These students are wrong to be attracted to people of the same sex/gender/ etc., and the Catholic boards will simply not move on such doctrinal issues.

At the end of the day the message to students is as confusing as it is infuriating: "You are welcome here, you are safe here; just be aware that you are wrong to feel this way. Understand that there is something wrong with you, and that the negative atmosphere which pervades same-sex sexual identity is caused, first and foremost, because homosexuality is wrong. People shouldn't be persecuted for sinning, but people shouldn't seek to sin in the first place. We love you, we just hate what you are." Think about kids, especially teens, who are dealing with a lot of emotional stress an the pain associated with developing a sense of self and identity. These kids are then told that they have a moral responsibility to love their fellow students, but are also morally compelled to oppose the feelings their gay classmates may have. It is simply cynical, and wholly self serving, and I'm not sure how else it could come across.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to disparage the Catholic school system. I do not doubt that the vast majority of educators, trustees, council members, clergy and others who work for the system want to ensure that students feel safe and are free from bullying. I just recognize that the efforts to do so are contradictory when it comes to GLBT students. I think it is reasonable to posit that the basis of homophobic bullying is the position that homosexuality is wrong.When the institution designed to protect the safety of a given student, is also a root cause of the negative atmosphere that student needs protection from; how can the effort comes across as anything else but hollow?

The notion that one can effectively separate an individual from their actions, is at the root of the "love the sinner, hate the sin" aphorism. Yet actions, better than anything else, define who were are. Belief or thought without action is little more than imagination. I believe the issue described above highlights why such an approach to ethics is at best misguided, and at worst meaningless.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Men can cry too...

Grief is a funny thing, you expect that you will act the way you always do, in any given situation and then suddenly you find yourself in an unthinkable position; it is in these places where grief lives. More often than not, grief manifests itself most powerfully when someone close to you dies. This is something I have come to observe during my work in funeral services. People will often expect that they will react to a loss in a stoic manner, and will be able to suppress their emotions; this does occur, but it is remarkably rare. No, grief will hit you when you least expect it, even those who "society" deems ought to repress their emotions, men. A man is "supposed" to be stoic in such situations, sure he will be sad (or else a heartless monster), but he mustn't show such emotions outwardly, that is the "place" of women. Men, are supposed to grin and bare it, right? Not hardly.

I'm not sure where this notion developed, and while it may be an interesting bit of the history of gender roles, in my experience such stoicism is thrown right out. Men grieve; they weep, cry, sob, yell and scream. Men find themselves acting in a way they did not expect, with their emotions pouring forth, with such fury and violence, that their shock is replaced by shame. They become very self conscious of what they are doing, and try their best to bottle the torrent which has weld up inside them, not an easy feat by any standard. Unfortunately being in such a self conscious state, the fear of being perceived as vulnerable, or weak, will often make those individuals react rather gruffly, even harshly, towards those trying to aid them (like a staff member at a funeral home offering a much needed tissue). Are men, especially young men, correct to feel this way? Should their show of grief become a source of shame? Is their emotional vulnerability a sign of weakness? My answer would be a resounding no, but this is not merely my position as someone in funeral service; no this is also my position as a Gaelic polytheist.

It is during these times, I am reminded of Caílte mac Rónáin as depicted in the Acallam na Senórach. Here we see a mighty warrior (though less mighty than he once was) who is still more than a match for any of the obstacles still left in Ireland. Here is a man who has lived for hundreds of years, has seen all those he loved killed or fall before his eyes, but who still has a story to tell. It is between the many adventures and telling, in those quiet times of reflection, that we see just how burdened with grief Caílte truly is. He bears not only his own past, but the past of all those who has gone before him, and he weeps, openly and unashamedly at their loss. At no point does anyone in the text sneer at how pitiable it is to see such a man reduced to weeping. Upon hearing the tragedies which have occurred, his audience will often be moved to tears right along side him.

Such is the burden of all those who survive, of the old warrior at once proud of his past yet also haunted by it. The burden of carrying on in a world where one you loved is no longer, seems to be well understood by our ancestors. There is no scoffing, no mocking of emotional outpourings; rather there is understanding and empathy, and the hope that we should all bear such a loss with dignity and strength. For while grief can be crushing and seemingly endless, it is something which as time goes by, inevitably becomes a constant companion. There, and never far out of mind, but bearable as we go on living.