Monday, December 17, 2012

Left out in the cold

Last night, my wife and I watched the interfaith memorial service for the victims of the massacre in Newtown. It was good to see so many religions, representative (I assume) of the population of Newtown, get together and try to begin healing their shattered community. As nations (well I am from Canada after all) watched, and most likely owing to the fact that the POTUS was a planned speaker, it was nice to see all of the Abrahamaic faiths come together and offer their own prayers, words of lamentation, words of comfort, words of trying to make some sense out of tragedy. Christian(s), the Muslim pair, the Jewish fellow, and that Baha'i guy, speaking in front of millions of people a message of hope. All very nice indeed.

But utterly meaningless.


A caveat, lest you think me some sort of monster. That presentation, that wasn't for me; it was for the vast majority of people who belong to the demographically superior religions. That presentation wasn't intending to exclude, but was doing its best to include. They had a Baha'i speaker. Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. And good on them for their effort and for there deserved success. The goal, after all, was for a local interfaith council to speak, first and foremost, to members of their community; and to a lesser extent their nation. To offer comfort and perhaps some guidance in the wake of unimaginable horror. As I am not a member of their community, nor even counted among their countrymen, I begrudge them not; nor do I harbor any ill will or resentment. Pleasing a single polytheistic blogger was the furthest thing from their collective minds, and that is perfectly fine.

The truth, though, remains the truth. The inclusivity presented was the sort of inclusivity which can happen. Which is possible. Which is the basis of ecumenical outreach and compromise. It is possible because all of the involved parties share a common belief, and that is the belief in the undisputed correctness of monotheism. They, each of them had their own lens through which to view their god. Their own scriptures to offer solace. Their own theologies with which to understand. But they were all of them united by their adherence to monotheism, and in that their prayers have no meaning or significance to me.

Or rather, they have no religious significance. No spiritual dimension. Not even any great wisdom to confer upon me. They have significance at a human level, as genuine outpourings of grief expressed and couched in their own symbolic languages. There is no issue with understanding; the issue is with meaning.

The most I took away from that aspect of the event, was that the Abrahamaic faiths could put aside their differences and, through common symbolic and metaphoric language, express their unified belief in the ultimate goodness of their god. To remind themselves and their coreligionists that there are more than just the powers of darkness at work in the world. To stand beside one another, putting aside their religious divisions, and be united as children of the same god. That is where the real significance of the interfaith prayers lay.

Such language, though, has no meaning to me. For a monotheist and polytheist to have any sort of interfaith prayers or event such as this, would require that theism be removed altogether. Or of course, never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance, and just pretend you're speaking the same language. Certainly on a cultural, human level, such events can have meaning. On a theological level the incompatibility screams so loud that anything theisticly specific, would be lost. Abandoned would be the gods; lost in a congealing mass of monism or pantheism. Gone would be the supremacy of YHVH, counted one god among many. True there may be a shared desire for healing, for pulling strength from a diverse body of religious or sacred texts, but the commonalities belie an insurmountable gap. There would necessarily have to be a softening of positions one way or another, rendering the whole thing moot.

Interfaith can work, can only work, if all parties involved are capable and allowed to maintain their individual positions, while at the same time finding a compromise that is not at once fatal to those positions. Monotheists can do it, because they can generally all agree on the fact that they are all worshipping the same deity (or at least trying to do so). Polytheists can do it, because they are polytheists; it is after all logically incongruent to deny the divinity of Donn, while advocating for the divinity of Pluto. Common ground is found in the case of the later, in the recognition of the godhood of those beings worshipped, even if not worshipped by the other party. Neither position or the compromise arrived at are fatal to the theological underpinnings of those beliefs. Yet when placed together, the result is at best ignorant worship of a single deity, or henotheism in denial. The best case scenario results in a total breakdown one way or the other, and this is precisely the problem. There is a simple, necessary, opposition in the two belief systems, and this can not be overcome through the best attempts of interfaith or ecumenicism. Theologically, they are incompatible. Common ground, such as it exists, is found outside theology; in morality, in ethics, in compassion and shared cultural signifiers. But then why bother with interfaith at all, if the religious component is set to the back burner, or removed altogether?

To reuse a methaphor I dismissed in a post long ago: Standing atop another mountain, one can appreciate the perspective and views of one (or more) atop another. Yet one none the less remains atop their mountain, and sometimes it gets cold.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Merry Celtmas 2012

Joyous Yuletide!

Piggybacking off my last post, and in an attempt to write about something which isn't based in my disdain for some aspect of religion/politics/media/culture, a slightly more positive post follows.

An associate of mine, indeed probably the most eloquent individual I have had the pleasure of engaging in discussion with, always has interesting things to say. Being an Asatruar, and so fully living and embodying his beliefs, the man is an inspiration. In a recent post of his, he wrote at some length about the "spirit" of Yule (or Christmas), in a way that was the inverse of what passes for writings about the "true meaning of..." While the spiritual aspect is of course necessary (but of course for those who practice a lifeway, spiritual aspects are as necessary as anything else), the "secular" aspects were just as (if not) more meaningful. The feasting, the merry making, the tree lighting and gift giving are all sourced to the idea of clinging together during the darkest day of the year, and shining a little light in the face of such darkness. Truly, the secular aspects of Christmas are sacred rites in the most literal sense.

Being someone who does not celebrate Yule or Christmas as a holy day proper, but one who none the less celebrates the secular traditions as familial ones, this argument has an immense appeal to me. The idea of making offerings to the gods, ancestors and spirits of place, is rooted in the concept of reciprocity. "A gift for a gift" so to speak. Not to reduce the practice of giving offerings to some crass calculation, to curry divine favour with a bribe; such a perspective belies ignorance of what a reciprocal relationship is. No, the act of giving a gift in generosity, in receiving a gift in thankfulness and in ensuring hospitality abounds; all contain an element of the sacred in them.

Commercialism may be rampant, and may have long ago devoured the "true meaning of the season", but there remains a trace of the deeper practice. Many, non-Christians and Christians alike, shun the rampant commercialism, and often attempt to do so by extirpating the gifting element of their celebrations. Ironically though they have the best of intentions, they unknowingly remove a deeply spiritual component, long ago established by our ancestors. Prestige goods can hardly be said to have been shunned. Through such exchanges as were arranged, familiar bonds were made stronger and social order was maintained. Material culture may be paradoxically ephemeral in modern societies where planned obsolescence and mass production are the norm, but the concept of reciprocity still informs many of our most basic relationships. Gifting during milestones such as births, subsequent birthdays, coming of age ceremony's, graduations, marriages, retirement, etc., tend to not be looked at with the same critical eye which is all too often turned towards this particular seasonal festival.

I would posit that the anti-gifting is less rooted in an overall rejection or fatigue with commercialism (as so many claim), as it is in an attempt to ensure the religious component of Christmas is pushed back into prominence in the face of secularization. I certainly have my own biases in this particular perspective, but I believe the trail leads back to those who want "us" to remember the "reason for the season". So give gifts to Jesus, but not to each other.

Fortunately, I'm (and I am sure many reading this) are coming at the issue from a considerably different religious or cultural perspective. Celebrating Christmas as a time for family, feasting (but then what celebration doesn't include a feast, or decent meal, of some kind?) and gifting as a means of creating, reestablishing, and reaffirming the bonds which hold both kin and kith together makes perfect sense to me. Sure, it may not involve the gods in the same sense as the other, more traditional calendar feast days, but their spirit is there. The act of gift giving and receiving extends and imbues, what for me is a secular celebration, with a key element of the sacral relationship I have with my gods, to one shared with my family, regardless of religious affiliation or belief.


Enjoy a cup of Yuletide cheer with family and friends. Light a roaring fire if you can (or sit with the "yule log" channel on and a space heater pointing at your toes). Curl up in a blanket, pour yourself a nice cuppa, tell tales, watch cheesy specials or saccharine films masquerading as morality tales or if all else fails, read a book.

Feast and be merry!


Image Design: Kristen Fox

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Merry Christmas... or invisible entitlement

Every year around the start of December you can be assured of two things, people railing about "keeping Christ in Christmas" and people harping about folks who say "Happy Holiday's", or "Seasons Greeting's" in lieu of "Merry Christmas". The former has been gone over with a fine toothed comb, while the later seems to be becoming more pronounced. They are certainly linked phenomena, and can trace their origins to the same sort of paranoid, god fearing types I write about around October 31st. The problem, as I see it anyway, is that one tends more to the overt and the other, the tacit. What's more, "non-Christians", or white Americans/Canadians who do not see themselves as Christians, are more often than not the ones who are now complaining about "Happy Holidays". It is this issue I would like to address, as I believe it is a very good, and topical, example of invisible privilege, specifically the pervasiveness of cultural Christianity.

A friend of mine posted this photo on her facebook, and the comments below were precisely what you would expect.

At work are two different but ultimately related perspectives; Christian as default setting and xenophobia. In this case, being this specific car decal, I tend to see the xenophobia more so than the Christian as default, but they play into each other so well that it can be difficult to separate them out.

The "Welcome To Canada" line, implies that it is a message to those who have not been in this country for very long, and so the logical conclusion is that the message is directed to recent immigrants. Recent immigrants who are more often than not (at least in the eyes of the car owner) non-Christian. Recent immigrants who in the eyes of the car owner are the reason that people say "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings", because of their desire to overthrow the established traditions and force their own religious/cultural traditions on the "rest of us", or you know have the audacity to have their Charter rights respected. After all, it isn't a conscious decision on others to acknowledge that there are a bevy of holidays celebrated over a wide swath of a given month, and that not everyone celebrates for the same reason you do. Nope, it is PC thugism run amok, and poor persecuted Christmas.

The last refuge of an outlawed holiday

Poor persecuted Christmas which is still an official government holiday, which does not allow retail business to be open unless in specific tourist areas, which used to be a single day of December, but has now devoured the entire month, and in some areas noticeable swaths of November as well. Christmas, whose symbolism and cultural accoutrement's are unavoidable, whose music is played non stop for a month on dedicated radio channels, whose related films and specials permeate the teevee. Whose more commercial deity can be found in ads, on street corners, and in malls of every size. This holiday, truly, is on its last legs and this unrelenting PC assault upon it will destroy one of the last, great north American traditions. This is afterall "their" country, and so people should be adopting "their" culture and beliefs. If they don't like it, they can leave; the Charter be damned.

There is something else, though, something which folks who whine don't know about, but really ought to. The origins of "Happy Holidays" and "Seasons Greetings", have nothing to do with any attempt to down play Christmas, or even in the spirit of inclusiveness. They are rooted in streamlining the mouthful, "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year", into something a little more wieldly, and easily printable. Yeah, so it turns out that New Years is something like 6 days after Christmas, or so I am told, and so for the sake of convenience (and having NOTHING to do with taking Christ out of Christmas), these phrases started popping up in cards and print around the 1920's. And everyone knows what a tolerant and inclusive time that was...

So I've covered the misinformation and stupidity of the xenophobic angle, how about the religious one? What is often surprising about this, as I mentioned before, is that people who do not consider themselves Christian, are still the ones getting their stockings in a bunch over the "rampant accommodation and erosion of our traditions". "I'm not a Christian, but I still say Merry Christmas", "So what if you aren't a Christian and someone wishes you a Merry Christmas? Why would that offend you?", "How dare you be offended if I say Merry Christmas to you"", and so on.  Well, for one, I think the entire "offended at Merry Christmas" is just a tad overblown, and people are seeing offence where there really is none; or where a single anecdote transforms into every encounter, forever. The "why?" though, the puzzlement which accompanies these sentiments is at the heart of the matter. Privilege, entitlement, hegemony, default, are all words which explain the why. Why people who have adopted this attitude do not understand why or how someone could be less than happy about being wished a Merry Christmas. They have never been the outsider, have never been the minority, have never had someone else's traditions and beliefs assailing them, unendingly, for months, if not forever. Or if they have been, they consider themselves exceptions to the rule.

As someone who has a perhaps higher than average interest in things religious, it never ceases to amaze me just how Christian "not really a Christian"'s are, and how much of their beliefs, customs and language is never the less deeply rooted in Christianity. It is not necessarily their fault, being the default religious setting for a thousand or so years can have that effect on a culture, let alone one where the population remains 70% Christian. Nor do they understand how people who do not, either through different cultural traditions, different religious instruction, different upbringings or a penchant for inclucivity, could want to have some validation or at least tolerance thrown their way.

Don't get me wrong either, I do celebrate Christmas, despite not being a Christian, nor being raised a Christian. I wrote about it the last two years running, here (which is a tad sentimental), and here (which is a tad jaded). I just understand the issue of seeking to be more inclusive, of knowing the origins of the phrasing, and the ability to see the invisible privilege so many are simply blind to. Frankly, I tend to say Joyous Yuletide more than anything else, and that tends to be greeted with more blank stares and puzzled looks than anything else, despite (or perhaps due to) its antiquity. I say Merry Christmas when appropriate, I say Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings when in doubt.

I've never gotten offended by someone telling me "Merry Christmas", but I do get irritated when people complain that they "aren't allowed to say it anymmore", aside from the blatant display of entitlement, it simply isn't true.

Joyous Yuletide Folks!

photographic credit: "Lowes Christmas Market"