Friday, December 13, 2013

Happy Celtmas 2013

Frankly, I'd rather be under the mistletoe...

I'm actually at a loss as to what I ought to write about this festive season. I've commented previously on a sort of seasonal ennui about not having a particular "holiday" to actually celebrate while many others do, and then one learns about tings like Grianstad an Gheimhridh, and suddenly there is a cultural "reason for the season", beyond ones familial traditions. The so called "War on Christmas" continues to be a non-issue, and Christmas is in no danger of being cancelled this year. There has been a bit of a dust up with some Atheistic/Humanistic groups utilizing pre-Christian symbols and figures in an attempt to get a fair shake when it comes to public displays of, well non-faith. They've every right to, and while it does get tiring that deities many of us worship are used especially because they are seen as being "dead" or "forgotten" gods, demographics have never really been kind to the modern polytheistic community. We need to get out more, and so the upshot of these sorts of things (like that "god graveyard" back in October) is that since we tend to be a raucous bunch, certainly more Atheists are aware that some still hold to some older ways.*

I suppose it also relates to my current situation and that while this is the first time I will actually be home on the 25th in three years, it is going to be a relatively low key affair.

Still, there will be feasting, there will be gift giving, there will be merry making. The little things do make all the difference; the smallest of lights in the midst of so much darkness**.

*I didn't realty write anything about the "god graveyard" thing, seemed rather pointless considering all the coverage it was getting. Still it has resulted in one of the single greatest and most powerful responses one could do, in the face of ignorance. My heartfelt thanks and admiration goes out to whomever left that offering on the "grave" of Freya. You make your ancestors proud.

**Not that I actually have anything against the Dark, per se.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Pagan" Literacy Project

I often make assumptions, though my experience has been that I am usually proven correct, this is not always the case. With that in mind, anecdotally anyway I have begun to find, well not a growing problem, but one which is becoming more evident.

Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box that is marked with his name.
Unlock it. Open the lid. Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli.
 Read how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

 "Pagans" as a group are a diverse and disparate lot, and who does and does not fall under what seems to be an ever growing umbrella is often a matter of great contention. One aspect, which I would make the case for, which more often than not is a shared aspect of the "Pagan" identity, is some degree of enmity with  Christianity. To be sure this would be best seen as a gradient of enmity; ranging from outright hate to basic theological differences, and everything in between. As such, there tends to be a reasonable degree of familiarity with the Christian Bible and some other aspects of their theology among "Pagans" in general. I know I'm not the first nor the last to make light of the fact that I know more about the Christian holy book than many of the Christians, whom I know and discuss things religious with, do.

I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile,
who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy
to the shores of Lavinium...

Each of us, or those of us who find ourselves in "the west" will necessarily have some familiarity with Christianity and its mythology. It is engrained in our societal customs, calendar, holidays, literature and language. It is simply inescapable. This is not, necessarily, bad. For example, while the Authorized King James Bible is one of the poorest translations available, it is none the less one of the single greatest works of literature ever written in the English language. I own a copy (the Oxford edition), have read it, and enjoyed much of it. As someone who enjoys literature, the work has great value, as in individual work as well as its influence on the development of writing in the English language.

'What wonder' Fiacha mac Fir Febe said,
'that the one who did this in his seventh year should triumph
 against odds and beat his match today,
when he is fully seventeen years old!'

So whether you've read it for enjoyment or to pick apart some contradictory theological argument you'll be having with aunt Pauline at Thanksgiving dinner, the fact is you've read some of it, read a book which makes allusions or references to it, seen a film which depicts an episode from it, or have had it quoted at you, you will have some experience of it.

But what do you know about the "Epic of Gilgamesh"? What was the point of the Illiad? Where was Odysseus trying to get back to in the Odyssey? What is the Aeneid all about? Why was a second battle fought at Moytura? What was the Cattle raid of Cooley? How did Thor end up in a wedding dress? Why did Sigurd fight a dragon? Why would Sita sing the Blues? Why did Son-Goku journey to the West? Why should anyone care about the Tale of Genji? The list of questions goes on, but the point is this: How literate are you when it comes to the works of pre-Christian cultures (and in many cases Christianized versions of those cultures tales) and your familiarity with them?

I do not doubt for a second that recons will have a very good grasp on the materials which informs their worldviews, both the primary materials as well as secondary texts and commentaries. How much then, would those same folks be cognizant of when it comes to the tales from other cultures? How would that knowledge then stand up against their familiarity with the Bible? What of "Pagans" who are not as interested in mythology as others?

My point is this; I think there is a need to educate ourselves about a rather large body of myth that ought to have a greater impact than it currently does. Is it not worth considering that many of us are far more familiar with the Christian mythos than that of the Hellenes, Romans, Celts, Germanics, Kemetics, etc? Would it not be worth developing a better working knowledge of the mythology which informs the worldviews of fellow polytheists and "Pagans"? Certainly there is a treasure trove of mythic literature available, and while I know I've already got a lot of reading and study on my plate, it behooves me to make just a little time to broaden my horizons and read some myth which isn't Gaelic in nature.

As such, I'd like to make a modest proposal and I'm calling it the ""Pagan" literacy project". It can be as narrow or as broad as you'd like to make it, but the goal is to read a work of myth or legend which does not have a direct connection to your own cultural tradition, or perhaps for those who are not Reconstructionists or more culturally minded polytheists, a deeper examination of the foundational mythology of the cultures you draw inspiration from. Even just one work will go a long way to broaden your understanding and perhaps appreciation of the mythology of your fellow polytheists.



Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tinker Bell Theology... or if you just believe.

I've not come across any sort of formal use of the term, though most folks seem to understand what I'm nattering on about when I make use of the expression. The "Tinker Bell Doctrine" or "Tinker Bell Theology" or "Tinkerbell effect" is a term I utilize when I encounter a peculiar, if pervasive, perspective when it comes to the nature of the gods. The origin of the term denotes the character Tinkerbell, originating in the works of J.M Barrie and most popularly, the 1953 Disney animated film, "Peter Pan", and in particular that the more an individual (or group) believes in something, the more potent it becomes. This is a concept which, while not necessarily a major strain in theological thought, is none the less pervasive, especially in fictionalized representations of mythic beings.

There are a number of fictional works where this approach to deities can be observed, ranging from stories by Douglas Adams, to Neil Gaiman, to the show "Supernatural". Jason, at the Wildhunt blog, has already explored some of the problematic aspects of the practical application to gods some of us actually still worship (in the case of the later); it is one reason why I dislike the show and despite the protestations of my wife and others, will not "give a chance". I'll touch on this in a little more detail later on.

I wanted to touch on and explore in a little more depth the approach Gaiman in particular takes. I really, really like the fiction of Neil Gaiman. I am at a loss to name any other recent author who so thoroughly "gets" what many refer to as "mythical thinking". The love the man has for mythology, in and of itself, permeates all of his works. Coupled with the understanding that myth is a framework, a lens through which to understand our experiences, to provide meaning to those experiences, is a thoroughly refreshing approach, normally only found haunting academic approaches to the subject itself.

Having gotten my fanboy gushing out of the way, Gaiman does make substantial use of "Tinker Bell Theology", smatteringly throughout his "Sandman" graphic novel series, but centrally in his novel "American Gods". In particular, his framing of the origins and extent of deities in particular (sometimes conflated with genius loci, sometimes not) fully adopts this perspective. The basic framework outlining the "life" of a god or goddess is as follows.

1. Humans have something they begin to believe in strongly.
2. This belief manifests itself in a physical form.
3. This form will follow the humans who believe in it, or another localized form will do the same.
4. The level of offerings/sacrifices/ influence directly correlates to the potency of the god/ goddess.
5. As the level of devotion wanes, so too does the god.

In conclusion, the mitigating factor in the existence of a deity is the extent in which Humans actively/inactively believe in them. The more people who believe, the stronger the deity is.

While this creates an interesting framing of the origins and nature of gods, and certainly works as a plot device in a number of fictional universes, it is at its core, incompatible with a truly polytheistic approach to theology. Pantheistic, Panentheistic, Monistic, even perhaps so called "soft polytheism", but not polytheism in and of itself.

I personally think such a theological approach to the gods is an almost textbook definition of self-importance and solipsism. That we create the gods, that they are beholden to us, that they need our worship to sustain them speaks far more to the ascendency and dominance of monotheistic thinking, than to the actual nature of the gods, from a polytheistic world view.

If the gods are little more than thought projections, delusions of a fevered mind or mass imagining, then what value do they have, really? How can these mere mental (and later physical) constructs, or idols, hope to compete with the supreme being, with the "author of creation"? In a word, they can not; they are literally straw(god)men, built up specifically so they can be torn down by the obvious truth which can only be found through the worship of the "One true God". Monotheists, while trying to explain away the historic context of the struggle monotheistic systems had in dealing with contemporary polytheism, will argue that references to "gods" do not refer to deities aside from their own, but the metaphorical idols of the human condition: money, greed, power, lust, etc. In the same breath, the gods of our ancestors are explained away as at best base superstition and at worst demon worship. The gods of polytheism necessarily have to be imaginary friends or hallucinatory monsters, because they do not fit anywhere else.

While I can appreciate the more sympathetic approaches in some of the other theistic frameworks I listed above, they all tend to have one thing in common; they reduce the existence, the nature of the gods, as being sourced to the human mind. The gods become archetypes of human endeavour, they become names of power, they become explanations of natural phenomena to a primitive people, they are relegated to a bygone era, they are shelved in storybooks, and they are proclaimed to be dead (especially when compared to the "living" god of monotheism). Is it any wonder, then, that people will often look askance at those of us who mention that we not only "believe" in these gods, but that we actively worship them?

This turns back to one of my major criticisms with the show "Supernatural", and also why I balk at it, but give Gaiman a pass. The narrative framing of the series is from a monotheistic theological perspective; gods when they do show up, are little more than glorified monsters and readily dispatched by the recurring heroes/villains. Living in a culture steeped and saturated with the superiority of monotheism, I'd rather spend my time in fictional universes more sympathetic to my own view of theology. While Gaiman does us similar framing, and is just as guilty of utilizing 'Tinker Bell theology", he applies it equally across the board. For those of you who like me have the 10th anniversary edition of "American Gods" and have read the Apocrypha, you'll understand what I'm getting at. For those who have not, suffice to say that Jesus is "stretched", just a little bit, not unlike an aged Bilbo Baggins. Gaiman gets a pass for having a good grasp of the myths his characters are sourced from, and not just using them as magical (and recognizable) names, to be disposed of at will for plot convenience. In addition, his sympathies lie with mythic thinking, and not mythic name dropping.

I am firmly of the perspective that the gods are both real and external to us. They do not require our worship, nor do they require our belief in order to exist. At least not anymore than I require your belief to exist. Subjectivity is fine and good, and context is always relevant, but one needs to have a grounding in what is, so as to not fall into the trap of solipsism. Why then worship the gods, if they do not need our worship to sustain themselves?

Because it is better to live in harmony with the gods than to be in opposition to them.
Because they enrich our lives and provide us with models and guidance to follow.
Because they offer to us a connection to something far greater than ourselves.
Because their worship establishes a connection with those who came before us.
Because they, and their stories, provide us with meaning and purpose.

I believe in the gods, because they believe in me.



Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Oisin or Cailte?

Fenian lore, in all its longevity and folk charminess, bears the distinction of being the mythic period which overlaps more than any other, with the coming of Christianity to Ireland. While the accounts themselves, and the exploits of the Fianna under Fionn mac Cumhaill, take place in the centuries proceeding the mythic start of Christianity, Padraig's mission, the tradition ends with two accounts which are both some of my favourite literature, as well as quite inverse to one another.

These are Acallam na Senorach  (Or "The Tales of the Elders of Ireland") and Agallamh Oisín agus Phádraig (Or "The Dialogue of Oisin and Patrick". The former dates to the 13th century, and I would highly recommend Anne Dooley and Harry Roe's Translation. Oisn and Patrick, on the other hand can be found in Lady Gregory’s adaptation of the Fenian Cycle, Gods and Fighting Men (1904), itself derived (in large part) from Jerimiah Curtin’s “Myths and Folk-lore of Ireland” (1890). Curtain based his translations off of Agallamh Oisín agus Phádraig, which was published in Duanaire Finn, by Aodh Ó Dochartaigh, in the 17th century.

Acallam na Senorach, is the larger of the works, and it contains a treasure trove of Fenian lore and legends. The basic premise is that Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisin, as well as a band of unnamed followers, are all that are left of the Fianna. Oisin and Caílte meet one last time, and Oisin decides he is going to stay with his family in the Sidhe. Calite and the others are then left to wander about, when they happen to stumble upon St. Patrick, who is in the process of missionizing to the whole of Ireland. Patrick inquires as to the giant, yet aged figure of Caílte, and he recites a few tales of the exploits of the Fianna. Patrick is naturally enamoured by the stories, when two angels descend and instruct Patrick to record all of the tales Caílte recites, for the betterment of Ireland. The story then has Caílte and his cohorts travelling from place to place with Patrick and his followers, while Caílte recites tales about the Fianna at every single place they inquire about. This story, among other things, is the source of the oft-quoted:

Truth in our Hearts, Strengths in our Arms, Fulfillment upon our Tongues.

"Patrick and Oisin", on the other hand is really an end piece of the Fenian lore, dealing specifically with Oisin upon his return from the Otherworld. Oisin, having become an ancient upon his touching down upon the earth, is now blind and decrepit. He is taken in by Patrick and his monks, and the story revolves around the debate which occurs between Oisin and Patrick regarding the merits of their pre-Christian and Christian beliefs. It is somewhat reminiscent of "The Madness of Suibne", in that Oisin as the Suibne figure, is the man out of time, enamoured of the wilds and the wonder of nature. Patrick is a joyless, at times cruel figure, giving Oisin only the meagerest of food and drink, and chiding him for his fondness of his heathen past. Patrick is very much the fire and brimstone preacher, condemning the Fianna to hellfire and Oisin himself will share their fate if he does not convert. There are some different versions, usually Oisin relents and converts, but sometimes he refuses and dies unbaptized.

We are presented with two very different accounts of a similar type of event, and two very different approaches to the subject (or subtext) of the religious conversion of the Irish. The later is fueled by animosity, contrast and Patrick being an all around git. The former, on the other hand, does its best to showcase the very best of the Pagan and Christian worldviews, and how they (could have been) reconciled. The nobility of the past, the heroic days of valour and adventure, the dignity of an old warrior mingled with the peace and joy of the new faith, in its magnanimity and charity to those who, while not "saved" in life, are deserving of heaven none the less.

I am by no means a fan of Christianity, as any who have a familiarity with my blog and me personally, are certainly aware. I'd not go as far as some who recognized March 17 as a day of mourning, but theologically there are some very real and problematic elements of the religion, and the world view that has developed, which I find myself at odds with. Truth be told, and it ought to be, I rather liked "Oisin and Patrick" precisely because of the animosity which permeates the narrative. It presents a side of the "argument" which has for the most part been omitted or left out, that of the pre-Christian. Even in the older manuscripts and texts, primarily the Ulster cycle, there is an underpinning of the "natural evolution" towards the new faith. All having been written long after the conversion, there none the less remains an undertone of "we know what's coming, and it has little to do with magical folks in mounds". The inevitability of the coming of Christianity, written with the gift of hindsight, precludes a lot of the value of the pre-Christian world view. Oisin and Patrick presents that rare voice of the conquered, who still clings to a way which is no longer seen as feasible or worthwhile by contemporaries. Make no mistake, Oisin is the conquered: aged, debilitated and crippled, at the complete mercy of Patrick. This is not a robust, full bodied defense of pre-Christian religion or world view; it is a man on his deathbed, lamenting for a bygone age, in the face of his own misery and the bully pulpit of Patrick. None the less, the criticisms made by Oisin are both poignant and even of value today. Who among us has been fortunate enough to never encounter Christian triumphalism? None to few, I would wager. Oisin and Patrick appeals to that part of me which seeks to stand against the hegemony, which wishes to see a broader return to the religion of my far distant ancestors in a more robust way. It appeals to the part of me which has endured for decades the notion that Christianity was and is "it" when it comes to religion, and that nothing before or since has any value.

On the other hand...

It would be foolish to ignore the centrality of the Christian religion, and in particular Catholicism in the history and culture of Ireland, both historically and today. Certainly, like many western democracies, there is a gradual shift towards secularism occurring; albeit in Ireland's case it is remarkably slow. The majority of the population of the republic is Catholic, and most of the rest are Protestant to some extent or the other. Certainly those of us who find ourselves in the Diaspora, whose ancestors left Ireland some centuries ago, have to face up to the fact that by and large, our ancestors were staunchly Christian. We really do need to go back to times immemorial to find those pre-Christian connections, and almost certainly any individual in our family tree's with a name would be Christian.

Christianity is also still the dominant religion in the world today, certainly this is not going to change in western countries any time soon, and so we find ourselves faced with the reality of demographics and being a rather tiny minority, have little recourse but to learn to live with it. Well, reality check time again, we already are living with it, have been and will continue to do so far into the future, so this will surprise exactly no one. I suppose the point of all of this is how ought we to proceed? The way of opposition and confrontation or the way of cooperation and pluralism? Do we walk with Oisin or Caílte?

In my youth, unabashedly, I would have sided with Oisin in this matter and there remains a part of me which still wants to. Being a little older, and by proxy more experienced, I think the best choice lies, however, with Caílte . Well for the most part; Caílte did after all become a Christian, and that's simply not something a GPR can do. Our textual traditions are the product of a gradient of pre- and co-Christian world views, but this does not prevent us from holding them as being central and relevant. We need to understand that we will never have a purely pre-Christian textual tradition, and do our best to sort the bits out which can in fact, be sorted.

The history, the "bad blood" between the pre-Christians and the Christians, is all but absent from our history; texts like "Oisin and Patrick" are extremely rare. By and large we simply do not have much evidence to support an antagonistic relationship between the ancient and slightly less ancient religious traditions of the Gaelic world. There is no evidence of the sort of religious conquests or mass conversions under the sword which is evident in the lands further to the north and to the south. I can understand why an Asatruar or Heathen may balk, why a practitioner of the Religio may be understandably hostile, but our own anger and frustration is a byproduct of a modern worldview which is noticeably absent in our own records. Try as some may, black armbands on March 17th and all, there simply is no basis in the evidence we have for such theatrics or outrage. This is because the process of conversion was gradual, peaceable and highly syncretic. Yes, in later hagiographical accounts the image presented of the "noble pagan" is replaced by conjurers of demons and other Christian bogey-men, but an examination of such "events" reflects far more the retooling of existing Biblical stories or of continental hagiographies made local, than disdain for actual pre-Christians. The largest victim of the coming of Christianity to Ireland, was Christianity itself; it would become quite literally, its own worst enemy. Christians have carried out far more unspeakable things to each other than they ever did to the pre-Christian Gaels.

I like to think I'm not so naive to see everything as sparkles and rainbows, but historically speaking, the Celts had a lot worse done to them by other polytheistic cultures (in fact one of the only clear examples of religious persecution from a polytheistic culture was that of the Romans towards the Celts, and in particular the Druidic functionaries) then they ever did from Christians. Yet, I've not seen any sort of the vitriol or disdain among some GRPs (and CRs) which is held for Christianity, aimed at members of the Religio.

Returning to the main thrust of this post, however, this entire piece is written primarily as an exploration of mythic ways in which figures who represent disparate world views interact with one another, and what (to some kind of extent) follows. The real world applicability is of relatively small consequence; not because the question is one that need not be explored, but because of demographics. It may have some wider applicability beyond the scope of GRP, perhaps extending as a model for CR’s or even more broadly neo-Pagan traditions stemming from the Celtic cultures. If nothing else, perhaps something to consider before slapping on a black arm band or celebrating “All Snakes Day” on March 17 as a knee jerk reaction to the imagined horrors of the conversion of the Gaels to Christianity.
Practically speaking, the vast majority of Christians aren’t even aware of our existence, or have some vague notion that people actually believe in those silly fairy tales they read as children. Anecdotal as it is, most of the people I encounter have such a poor grasp of their own religion, they’ve not even thought about other traditions, let alone how to interact with them. Pre-Christian perspectives are just that, pre-Christian, and as such are relegated to the past and have little to no bearing on the present. Patrick in which ever version outlives both Caílte and Oisin after all.
Ours is presently a rather insular community, already awash in a lake of polytheism, itself surrounded by a continent of monotheism. At the end of the day, I direct my message to the GRP’s, CR’s and Celtic influenced neo-Pagans. We decide how we want to understand and interact with the Galileans (albeit this could certainly be broadened to interfaith relationships in general), by understanding how the (mythic) “last Pagans” chose to do so. Perhaps it will largely depend on context, as so much often does. It is rather easy to abide alongside an open minded, pluralistic styled Christian, and this is reflected in the Patrick from the Acallam. The fellow who is not only willing to attentively listen, but to discuss and recognize the merits of a world view outside of their own. Of course is also helps when the other side is represented by someone who is also willing to listen, who is up to the task and capable. Caílte, while ancient, remains a staggeringly powerful figure throughout the narrative of the Acallam. It is another matter altogether to sit idly by while the fire and brimstone preacher lambastes everything one holds dear, and demeans and debases what is considered sacred. It does not help when the other is reduced to decrepitude  at the utter mercy of his host, that the host thinks nothing of the words being spoken, and only hears the last mewling of a long broken worldview.
I have come to understand that while the later is certainly the most vociferous, the most bombastic and the most influential, there are folks who are willing to listen. There are those who are willing to not only listen, but to learn and understand; to see the value in the worldview of another. This is really the only basis upon which we can build any sort of interfaith dialogue, and I think the best way forward.



Sunday, August 4, 2013

You are your words

I'm a bit miffed while writing this, a couple of things have transpired in a group I belong to, where folks have said unbelievable, stupid things, are called out on it and held accountable for their words. In a community where the bulk of interactions are through an electronic medium, you are your words. People can not judge you by the things you do outside of the context with which they have shared experiences with you. Regardless of how much of a decent person you claim to be, or how much you speak of virtues like honour, if you act like a dick when I'm around, a dick you will remain.

I'm starting to think, really believe, that for many people concepts like honour are just so totally foreign, that they have no idea what the word even means. They believe they do, but their actions/interactions, say otherwise. I think the problem comes down to rampant romanticism coupled with a wholly separate notion of the concept. From a GRP perspective, honour is "what is known", your value is determined by what you do, who you are, and some other mitigating factors which are not applicable/ appropriate in a modern context. Yes, it is related to someone as an individual, but it is the reputation of that individual within the context of a given community, that creates the concept of honour. It is not a self proclaimed, individualistic, value judgement. You can make the claim that you are honourable, but it is determined by others. Honour is a communal value, and this is where I think the divorce from the concept occurs. Because the hyperindividualism which is the core of  so much of the modern, Western image of the "self", overshadows every perspective on value and ethics, this can be something which is lost on those who have only a tertiary understanding of the ethical underpinnings of GRP.

It isn't enough to read the wisdom texts, because you need to understand why the values which are espoused in them, matter. If you lack that, then you'll come away from them with many a misguided notion of proper conduct, with platitudes and trite quips, instead of wisdom and understanding.

Honour walks hand in hand with responsibility, and if you tit about and do something dishonourable, it is your responsibility to fix it. Yours and no one else. At least from a practical standpoint; since honour is a communal value and by proxy your dishonourable behaviour reflects on your group, it may be their burden as well to make proper restitution. Within the context of the core group one belongs to, however, it is entirely upon yourself.

Forgiveness has its place, but it is a tertiary value and it is certainly not the moral underpinning of our world view. Given the centrality of it within Christianity, and so within the general cultural milieu, I get that it can be difficult to divorce oneself from it, but it has to be done if there is any chance of developing a different perspective. Honour can not flourish if the moral underpinning is "we are all equally terrible, and so have no basis to make judgements upon others."

So if you decide, even brashly, to make a statement, you had better be prepared to deal with whatever consequences transpire. If you made a mistake, it is upon you to rectify it. Do not expect others to be forgiving, especially where forgiveness has not been earned. Accept the responsibility your actions have, and the repercussions of those actions.

Words, once spoken, can not be taken back. Our ancestors understood this, we should do likewise.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Shouting from the Hilltop: a perspective on La Lunasa/Lughnasadh

Lugh inspires the very finest quality of fan art.
Image by el-grimlock
La Lunasa/Lughnasadh

With the end of July and beginning of August rapidly approaching La Lunasa will soon be upon us and with it, well folks like me talking about it.

In terms of more mainstream "Pagan" holidays, it has been my experience that Lughnasadh often finds itself as being one that many folks are unsure of what to do with it; la fheile brigid/ Imbolc being the other. Whereas Oiche Samhana/ Samhain and lá bealtaine/Beltane remain two of the more popular feast/festival days, the others find themselves playing a sort of second fiddle.

I think it is primarily to do with the fact that each day has direct associations wih a specific deity. So, if one finds themselves not being particularly devoted to either Lugh (Tailtu, but we'll get to her later) or Brigid, then there is little impetus to celebrate, other than they are supposed to be holy days on that "wheel of the year" calendar. For GRP's, on the other hand, we've only really got the four days... so you had bloody well do something you lazy wretches!

I mean, I am certainly "closer" to Brigid, than I am to Lugh; Brigid, after all is the focus of my hearth and has the added significance of a probable functional connection to my profession. I thoroughly enjoy lá bealtaine, as it is a bright spot in an otherwise drab, freezing, somewhat miserable point in the year; February being the "heart" of winter in Toronto, such as it is. Lugh, on the other hand, I'm not remotely devoted to, strictly speaking.

Lugh was, at one point in my life a very significant deity, and in my neo-Pagan days often the centre or focus of the majority of my prayers/ meditation. Nowadays though, prayers going his way are either for specific reasons (safe travel, chief among them) or during la lunasa. Don't get me wrong, Lugh is a pretty awesome god. He has one of the most detailed and epic of all mythologies, he is all skilled, and so far as the reports from his devotee's go, a pretty nice deity all around (except, of course, if you've murdered his father). In fact the priest who married my wife and I is a devotee to him, and if the company one keeps is any indication of the quality of an individual, that he is counted among Lugh's devotees speaks volumes. I think in my youth it really was the "star power" that Lugh had which initially drew me to him, but as I progressed a bit deeper into things, I came to realize that my experiences were leading me to other, darker places.

Having said all that, La Lunasa is the one time of the year where Lugh is front and centre (other than some of the more spectacular thunderstorms which crop up around this time of year). I often find myself going over his tales a little more closely, and certainly I do enjoy my generally low key activities on the day itself.

I will generally get up early, and go to a particular local, which happens to be one on the the highest points in the region. There is a small parkette, itself a terminal portion of a trail which extends south, along the Humber River, to Lake Ontario. At this northern end, there is a very large hill, and so for the past few years I have taken it upon myself to go down into the river valley, find a nice broad stone to carry with me, and traverse up the hill to its summit. I will make a small shrine, pour out some offerings and offer prayers and song to the lord of victory. I'm going to be moving in the autumn, and so travelling distances on a daily basis are going to be much further, so this year I think a little more emphasis will be required on the safe travel aspect as well. Again, being isolated and not part of any local sporting leagues, opportunities to offer up my victories are few ad far between, but Lugh does recieve those as well.

It is also a pertinent time to reminice about our ancestors (then again, when isn't it pertinent?) and particularly their sacrifices, their struggles in which they made our coming into the world, and our lives within it, that much easier. Tailtu, the foster mother of Lugh, ought to also be given offerings and prayers. Though if you want my thoughts on her, you can find them in my La Lunasa post from last year.

Hail to the lord of Victory!
He, whose hand is far reaching
He, whose skills are many
He, whose blessings produce victory

May he continue to watch over and
guide us in our efforts to restore:

Honour to the gods!
Nobility to the ancestors!
Peace with the kindly ones!

Hail Champion!
Hail Balors bane!
Hail Lugh!


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

(Not) Alone in the dark

I've written before about the sort of ennui which can accompany belonging to a minority religion or theistic perspective in the face of a dominant religious/cultural paradigm. This sense seems to have followed me to within the sanctum of our small little community as well, because I have never come across another devotee to Donn. Ever.

It is not at all surprising, given the relatively little mythology and folklore which has been written about him. Given the lack of grand narrative. Given the functional, and lets face it understandably depressing, role of lord of the dead. Even the allusions to him are scarce and you have to be looking out for them to really notice at all. Yet, for all of that, there is an almost universal (as small a universe as it may be) consensus of Donn being a definitive example of a pre-Christian god, and not just a literary invention.

Having said that, it ought to be mentioned that the scant amount is scant only when compared to more luminary mythic figures, especially those who are generally counted among the Tuatha De Dannan. To have information, and a fairly concrete mythology to boot, however, is in itself a rare thing when it comes to the mythic texts. Donn is unique in that he is not counted among the TDD, yet is none the less recognized as a deity. The exemplar of a deified ancestor, albeit there is nothing said about his own line (whether he had sons or daughters), but the line of his brothers did indeed continue. With folklore holding his residence as the destination of all the Gaels after death, it is certainly reasonable to view it as such. The interesting thing about this, is that the ancestral nature is not used to justify anything in the present (contemporary) accounts; no one gave Donn as their ancestor to legitimize their rule, the same way that say Nuada has been utilized.

I suppose that, given all this, Donn still lacks the star power of An Morrigan, Lugh, Brigid or An Dagda; then again Cthonic deities are seldom seen in the light, let alone the limelight.

On the other hand, if the gods are in the habit of reaching out to us (and personal and anecdotal evidence certainly support this conclusion), then perhaps Donn is simply a very selective god? Wow, that must make me really special and unique...

The Dark Lord Favours Me!!!
...or, more reasonably, perhaps the relationship between function and worship overlaps in such a way that few (and this is based on anecdotal, Internet sourced research. Who knows, maybe there is a full blown cult of Donn out there somewhere, and they just shy away from the Internet?), if any other GRP's find themselves in a similar place as myself. Then again, a lot of people (swarms, it seems at times) have written about their experiences with deities like An Morrigan (and Babd, Macha, Nemain, Annu, etc.), and seem to lack functional associations one would normally expect with a goddess known primarily for slaughter. On the other hand, I'm not a devotee of An Morrigan, so can only speculate. Perhaps the functional aspect is not something which many others find particularly compelling or the basis of their association with a god or goddess.

It makes sense that from "our" end, the deities with more interesting or compelling stories are the ones people seek out, and inversely are the same who seek "us" out. It is an interesting theological line of inquiry, that there is an observable correlation between the popularity of a deity, and the size of its devotee's/worshippers. Well, actually that isn't interesting, as much as its blatantly obvious. No, the interesting aspect is that because the relationship is (supposed to be) a two way street, that the more popular deities are also the more extroverted ones. So judging from the litany of UPG and SPG detailing these personal or shared experiences, and taking them at face value, the gods are reaching out to us in a very real, arguably observable way.

I expect this to be somewhat disconcerting because lets face it, GRP's (and CR's in general) are a rational lot and (my own biases definitely showing) the idea that we are actually being sought after by deities can be, well overwhelming to say the least. I posted the image above in jest, because it is all too easy to fall into delusions of grandeur and self importance. Yet there is something very comforting in the realization that the gods want us to seek them out, and they seek us out in return. We are not just praying, singing or screaming into the void. We are rebuilding something precious, something sacred, and it is difficult to articulate the significance of this in words alone...

The night may be long, and full or terrors, but we are not alone.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Give it up already!...Why (apparently) Reconstructionism is doomed

I have written about this topic a few times before, but people taking issue with Reconstructionism never really seems to go away. Truly the label is one which seems to breed criticism based on binary positions: if we aren't being "stodgy academics", we're being "closed minded bullies"; if we aren't "trapped by the past", then we "have too little to go on"; we're "too dismissive", or we aren't "dismissive enough"; the list goes on.

Just what is it that makes Reconstructionism, and to be clear I am referring primarily to Celtic Reconstructionism, elicit such vitriol and dismissivness? I have comes across several criticisms, and like I have in the past, will address them.

1. CR has a methodology which is too restrictive too allow it to be a living tradition.
2. A)There is not enough material to even meet the criteria needed for reconstruction to take place.
    B) Therefore, CR's are as prone to imagination/idealization as any other "Celtic Flavoured" tradition.

1. The second link explores one component of this criteria, namely that UPG "supposedly" has not place in CR methodology, which is patent nonsense. I'll not rehash it here, suffice to say that UPG is as important as good scholarship. Continuing on this line of thought, and we come across the criticism that the methodology is too restrictive to allow for any living, and especially public, form of CR. Funny, all of the GRP's I know seem to think they are members of a living religion, and certainly their daily prayers and rites seem to corroborate this fact. Even those in the broader CR camp seem to have no problem with engaging in prayer, ceremony, rites, festivals and other celebrations which are part and parcel of the world view. The organization I belong to (An Chomairle Ghaol Naofa) identifies its core ideology as Ár nDóigh Bheatha Ildiach is Gaelach " (our Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway). This means that it informs and shapes our theological worldview, as well as every aspect of our lives. There isn't a partition between "religious life" and "profane life", there is no "turning it off", so to speak, because it is part of who were are, both as a community but also as individuals. So when I am told matter of factly that what I do on a daily basis is not possible, I'm going to be a tad irritated at the folks who are talking out of their asses.

Now, having said all that, it is anecdotal. Maybe there are those fabled CR's who are sitting somewhere, in a library no doubt, who are simply too busy reconstructing to actually go out and do it. I've yet to come across them, or have yet to meet anyone else who has, (and perhaps this is because they are so very busy being studious), but others claim they exist and since they are always trotted out as the "typical" example, they must exist somewhere.

Or, you know, maybe it is a case of people creating straw dollies out of season and making pronouncements from their posteriors.

2. A) This is a variation on the "it's too hard" argument, but one which refuses to go away; and not surprisingly this arguments tend to come from the same types. "We can't really know", "Just speculation", "Not enough material", are all trotted out as criticisms, and the responses (by folks like me) are then trotted out again to refute them. Every GRP (and CR) who has been able to get beyond scratching the surface, would be able to rebut these claims. We are eminently aware of the state, quality and caveats which accompany the entire corpus of mythic text. We are aware that nothing pertaining to the myths, can trace their writing to the pre-Christian period. We are aware that other Reconstructionist communities have it better in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. We are aware that it isn't "easy", but I tend to think that few things which are worthwhile are. This is where a fundamental skill, something which is necessary to understanding, comes into play; the faculty of critical thinking. Critical thinking allows an individual to look at a source, understand the authors/redactors biases, perspectives, translators preferences, and based on their knowledge, make an informed decision about the relative merits of a given source, and how much use said source is in reconstructing. This does not pertain just to medieval manuscripts, but to accounts of folklore from more recent times, secondary texts which explore these mythic writings and have their own perspectives upon them, and so on. All things considered, there is a wealth of information available, and enough of a scholarly consensus to merit the so thorough examination it receives.

2. B) This, of all the criticisms I have come across with regards to CR, is the one which is the most valid; in that it is, in fact, a valid criticism. There are those CR's and GRP's out there who do romanticize and sanitize their image of the Celts, and the Iron Age Gaels. This is due, in  no small part, to the romanticised image of "The Celts" which developed during the "Celtomania" of the late Victorian period. The issue stems from utilizing sources which were sanitized and tidied to appeal to Victorian sensibilities, and so for some of those GRP's (especially folks just starting down this path) out there, they may not be aware of this fact. This criticism does tie into 2.A) to some extent, because for a number of reasons, there are GRP's who tend to take a far less critical eye to the texts then may be necessary.

In fact a troubling, I'll not call it a trend, but perhaps a tendency of observation has developed wherein textual literalism is not only lauded, but championed, by some. My experience of this tendency of observation has led me to a couple of conclusions in regards to why this is happening at all, and why this is the wrong approach to take.
  • GRP's, despite the stodgy academic stereotype, are in reality very passionate people. This passion and enthusiasm can, unfortunately, be channeled into well meaning, but flawed endeavours. The mythic literature is important, and an understanding of it is a core component of even being a GRP. The misstep is in holding the mythic texts to be sacred, and yes you read that correctly. THE CORPUS OF MYTHIC TEXTS ARE NOT SACRED. How could they be? Their authorship is far later than periods which they are describing, and were recorded, redacted, written, exaggerated, altered and invented by scribes who were not polytheists. They were Christians, and while the texts themselves are evidence enough that they had nostalgia for elements of their mythic history and tradition, they were theologically hostile to varying degrees to the old gods. The texts themselves have been translated, retold, rewritten and a host of other literary issues, and so it is simply foolish to hold them as being sacred. The figures behind the stories, the framework and worldview gleaned from a proper understanding of the stories, are where the value of the texts lie. To hold them as being sacred, though, is to romanticize and fabricate a state of affairs that simply cannot be.

  • The above argument also underlies why the idea of textual literalism, from a GRP standpoint, is not only stupid, but (properly) impossible. I say properly, because it is possible in the same way that those who interpret the Christian Bible literally are able to do so, by cherry picking and cognitive dissonance. Literalism would require one to first accept all of the Christian framing present, and by default this enhumerizes the depiction of any figure who is representative of a deity. One could then step up on a ladder and begin harvesting the bits they like, but then they need to be able to determine what elements are actually pre-Christian, and which have been added in, requiring a critical examination, rendering literalism null and void. This is not to say that believing in the existence of the gods is wrong, far from it. I believe the gods exist as much as I myself, my wife, my family, friends or you reading this do. It is simply that the very nature of the mythic texts precludes any sort of functional literalist interpretation.

  • Some GRP's are still beholden to a foreign (i.e. not Gaelic) approach to understanding the place and function of religion. The enthusiasm is channeled in the same way that, say, Born Again Christians channel their energy following the conversion experience. The problem is that not all religions function in the same way, and so trying to use the same sort of behavioural models will not work. Literalism, as I explained above, can not work. Proselytizing in the endeavour to convert others, will not work. Fundamentalism as a practical expression of belief, will not work. None of these things will work because GRP is not based on believing the "right things" or having exclusive access to "the truth". It is based on the fostering and maintenance of proper relationships: with the de ochus ande, with our families, with our community, with society, with the cosmos.

Reconstructionism itself is often accused of being the "fundamentalist" branch of paganism, precisely because we maintain a degree of criticism when it comes to our understanding of the gods. The goal of doing our best to understand the worldview of our ancestors, is difficult, especially when the  information we have to go on is flawed. To pretend otherwise is to do precisely what our critics accuse of doing, and on top of that, ignoring a basic principle of Celtic Reconstructionism altogether: a rejection of the romanticism that has plagued the image of the Celts since the 19th century. But we are not beholden to an erroneous belief that the texts we work with are perfect, are infallible. We know (or ought to know) better.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Down by the river

As today was the only day off I am going to get in a two week span, and seeing as the weather has decided to become May again, as opposed to the two day hit of January (complete with snow) we had in my area earlier in the week, it seemed like as good a time as any to head over to the Humber river and spend a little time there. I am fortunate enough to live in a city that while heavily urbanized, maintains a significant amount of green space, thanks in large part to the three large rivers which run down to the lake; the Rouge, The Don and the Humber.

I've always had a fascination, an inexplicable attraction even, to streams, creeks, rivers, pond, lakes and other bodies of water. Be it exploring the banks, fishing, swimming, canoeing, boating or a host of other activities, water and its surrounding geography holds a special, if nostalgic, place in my heart. Not surprisingly then I find that, beyond the altar found upon the hearth of my dwelling, rivers and their environs are the locus of my ritualistic activity. I have developed a mannerism that when ever crossing over a bridge, provided there is a river/stream beneath it, I give a short prayer. I have also written about my relationship with The Humber River before, and find that it is the first locale that springs to mind when I make offerings or prayers to the spirits of place.

The symbolic and ritualistic associations of water, again usually embodied by rivers, lakes and streams, found in Gaelic tradition is well attested to. This sacrality is based, in large part, by the liminal nature of the boundary between earth and sea, the shore (or bank). We find in the mythic literature that many of the interactions between the denizens of the sidhe and mortal folk occur on or near shorelines, beaches and river banks. Forming natural borders and in many cases barriers, rivers and fords also feature prominently in the narrative of the Tain bo Cuilagne, as the setting for the single combats upon which the story focuses. Archeological evidence also showcase waterways and their sacral nature as many ritual deposits (of coins, swords, jewelry, etc.) were found in these areas (both on the continent and some locations in Ireland).

Symbolically and metaphorically, rivers are most often associated with female deities, spirits or personages. Many of the dindshenchas which speak about the naming of rivers or lakes revolve around the activities of mythic women, such as Boann and Sionann, after whom the rivers Boyne and Shannon are held to be named. Rivers and streams have also traditionally been one of the locations of female labour, and many are familiar with the folklore surrounding the "washer woman at the ford" or bean nighe.

So I went to my usual ritual spot, just under a footbridge which cross over the river, and said a prayer followed by an offering of nine hazel nuts. Maybe I even got a little shade of imbas from the experience. While certainly not poetry by any means, it did inspire me to write this post.


Friday, May 3, 2013

Doing better, now with more GRP content!

I recall with some regret, that my first crack at blogging was a dismal failure, owing to the fact that I never really updated the one I had. Sure, I had some decent enough posts which I transferred over to here when I started up TSOAHT, but I got to the point where my drafts would almost all start with "I really ought to be writing more", and decided that being an absentee blogger was pointless. Blogs, after all, enable us to communicate to people with like minded interests in a more focused/personal capacity than say a given religion/interfaith forum would. It doesn't make a lot of sense to maintain a blog if you don't actually blog on a somewhat regular basis. Certainly, if the issue is that other projects/personal life gets in the way, and keeps you from posting, well that's a reasonable enough excuse. If on the other hand, it is a matter of running out of things to blog about, or a complete loss of interest sharing your ideas/opinions, than it might be time to "hang it up". Of course, the Internet being what it is, inactivity does not necessarily result in erasure or disappearance of material in its archived format, nor of people losing interest entirely. I haven't published a post since January, but I still get a decent enough amount of page hits on a daily basis, considering how insignificant my blog is, so in that respect I'm comfortable with not being as active as I ought to be.

Having said that, I ought to endeavour to be more present with my own blog and post more often. Certainly some of my original ideas/intended schedule did not at all pan out. Really, who the feck cares if some snide polytheist has some commentary on the canonical Christian gospels? I have found that with one or two exceptions, most of the traffic and certainly the vast majority of comments come from posts, articles and opinions relating to, surprise surprise, Gaelic Polytheism. So first and foremost, I should bloody well redouble my efforts to post content pertaining to the original purpose of this blog, to write about my perspective and experiences when it comes to being a GRP.

So, in the first of what I hope is a semi-frequent posting schedule, some observations I have had, gleaned largely from participating on an interfaith forum I joined a little over a month ago, as well as experiences beyond the Internet.

Being really, really enthusiastic about mythology no one knows anything about, is frustrating

While not the most reliable, scientific or quantifiable method of gathering data; several informal surveys posted inquiring people to "name a Celtic mythological figure" returned dismal results. Among numerous people who were quite willing to respond and discuss issues pertaining to deities and mythology, the only response in the positive was a mention of "King Arthur", and in many ways that has a lot more to do with Zimmer Bradley than earlier Welsh material. On the same forum, a fellow polytheist could name Lugh and Cerrunos, but that was about it. A vague notion that some of the Arthurian material was Celtic in origin, and two gods, was the best anyone could do. Comparatively, when asked if they could then name mythic figures from Greek, Roman, Norse or Egyptian lore, the responses were overwhelmingly in the affirmative. So why is this the case?

A definitive answer would be far beyond the ability of myself, or of my simple survey to conclusively arrive at, but I have a few basic explanations:

1. Hellenic and Roman civilizations form the bedrock of much of Western culture, and so their influences are lasting and much more permanent than a relatively peripheral culture that was essentially conquered by the later, and subsumed into the fold of that own cultures inheritors. To put it succinctly, Celtic culture did not have even an iota of the impact upon the "western world" that Greece or Rome did. As such, when it comes to basic historic education, if the Celts are mentioned at all, the Druids are the focus, because everyone loves odd fellows in robes.

2. Iron-age/Early Medieval Scandinavian culture is presently overt in popular media. A lot of this is owed to the efforts of Marvel Studios to push their film franchises, and so Thor (for all of its liberties) pushed into the public consciousness a slew of mythological figures. Sure, being able to name a god from Icelandic mythology hardly constitutes a deep, personal connection with either the material, culture or divine figures; but it does signify a much broader knowledge of those things. It has relevance (as geeky or pop-y as that knowledge may be) to a modern audience and so illustrates cultural significance. In addition, films like "Valhalla Rising", "Pathfinder", "Beowulf" (yes, not technically Scandinavian, but popular attributions/associations count in this context) and television series like the less mainstream "The Almighty Johnsons", and more mainstream fare like "Vikings", Icelandic myth is reaching a far greater audience than at almost any period in the past. With the up coming release of HBO's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", this interest is only going to get larger. Certainly this has, for good or ill, resulted in some people taking an interest in the material behind the modern versions, and perhaps even a questioning as to why not worship Odin?

3. Celtic materials already saw their populist heyday. Celtomania is something that can be discussed, analyzed and dissected, because it is something that has already happened. Victorian audiences couldn't get enough, and the raft of English translations of old and middle Irish texts spawned versions of the tales that are still read today.

4. Attempts at more modern popular representation have been non-starters, or small scale. Disney's "Brave", which could have helped, if but a little, was not the film everyone had been hoping for. It did very well at the box office, but the critical and popular consensus was "good, not great". Added to this is that the "Celtic" elements were set pieces more than anything to do with the story, and a mythological component so generic it could have been just about any country that had bears in it certainly didn't have anyone rushing out to read up on mythic figures. I loved "The Secret of Kells", but most of the folks who saw it (and talked about it) were animation fans more than fans of Irish history/folklore. Other than this, a bunch of relatively low budget films focused on single elements of Irish/Scottish folklore round out  content for the last decade. Okay, so "Centurion" ought to be there as well, but it hardly counts, owing to the Roman angle. Face it, when people think of "Celtic" warriors they think of "Braveheart" first and Cuchulain and Fionn second (if at all).

A few reasons to none the less be hopeful that more people will be exposed to Celtic myth

1. Breakthru Films will, eventually, release "Hound", their retelling of the Ulster Cycle, focused of course around Cuchulain. It has been sidelined for a few years now, but hopefully it will not sit on the shelf for too much longer and they'll try to capitalize on the "Viking" stuff, as well as the resurgence in "Fantasy" genre materials.

2. HBO's "American Gods" which is set for a number of seasons, is going to have to develop original material for the later seasons (as they have a single, and not multiple novels to work from regarding source material). Plus, there are two characters who are present enough in the text to merit expanded roles in the show, maybe. Mad Sweeny will likely be as present in the show as he was in the book, but my hopes are pinned on An Morrigan (who does show up in the book towards the later third) getting an expanded role in potential later seasons.

3. Will Sliney's forthcoming "Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cuchulain", while indie press, will see a North American release. Could wind up being carried by book sellers to reach an audience outside of its likely demographic.

4. There could be a Hollywood adaptation of Cuchulain's exploits in the works, though details about the development is murky at best.

Why ought a devotee of the gods care if some of the material is bastardized, mass marketed and generates an interest in the source material and culture?

I can not answer this one for anyone but myself, but it ties back into what is held to be important and relevant. Whether more people know about Jupiter over An Dagda, has no bearing on my continuing devotion to An Dagda himself. The road of popular representations is one fraught with peril and the likelihood for wholly inaccurate and terrible misrepresentations of the source material is all but certain. "Thor" is not at all a good representation of the Eddas, the film especially (the comics depend on the era/ writer, and only get close to the spirit of the source). None the less, "Thor" instills a sense of significance, permanence and immanence of a character who is, despite the CGI and gaudy costume, the representation of a deity. A deity who seems more realistic because of the surreal fantasy world he inhabits. A deity who is given a degree of empathy and pathos because he is depicted through a popular medium like film.

 Further, popular enjoyment and appeal will often lead to expanded interest in perhaps more specialized ways. I doubt we would be seeing a stellar show like "Vikings", were it not for the interest in material derived from Icelandic myths being popularly represented. Considering all the sex and violence which permeates the mythic texts, all the political intrigue and beautiful set pieces just waiting to be filmed, there is no reason to doubt that a similar period piece could easily be made, focused on the Irish, Scottish or Gaulish cultures.

Again, my expectations are low and I do not expect swarms, drove, or even many people to see a commercialized, sanitized and fictionalized representation of our mythic figures and suddenly want to make daily offerings to the de ochus ande. What it may accomplish, however, is the re-emergence of the idea that these figures are being popularly represented because they are valuable; their stories are ones that can and should be told and remembered. The people who valued them thousands of years ago, and those of us who value them today, had good reason to, and here is a little slice of the "why".

I know how I feel about it, how about you?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In between... Faith and Family

No, not another post on liminality, but just some random musings. I do have an article in the works, and not on my usual subject matter for a change. But its progress is slow as my ability to buckle down and focus is impeded with a hectic work schedule and little downtime. I think it is an interesting subject and haven't seen much written on it from a GRP perspective, so look forward to it. Moving on...

So I, like most anyone who lives in the "west", has relatives who are Christian. I happen to have almost an entire "side" of a family who is not only Christian, but considerably firebrand Pentecostal. As such spending any time with them is always a very mixed experience. Specifically my aunt, my fathers sister, who has been a firebrand Christian for as long as I have been a polytheist; a strange sort of concordance. Knowing my general feelings towards this particular sort of Christianity and the theological trappings, a few provisos are in order.

I can say without a doubt that my aunts conversion experience saved her life, and she is for me the perfect example of "end of the rope theology". That point in an individuals life where even getting out of bed is an ordeal and while there is that sliver of hope, it has almost become a mocking, cajoling impossibility. Standing on the precipice and staring out into oblivion, who should appear, but Jesus. Or Jesus in the form of a woman with a conversion story of her own. Again I am conflicted about the whole thing; while "finding Jesus" unquestionably saved my loved ones life, the conversion is almost predatory. Take someone who is at their lowest point and throw them a bone, and they'll follow you to whatever ends. Religion and spirituality is not something to be taken lightly, nor can one be expected to make the best decisions when one is at the absolute lowest point of their existence. Normally contracts made by an individual who is under mental duress are null and void, yet those made with deity seem to be the rule, rather than the exception. I find this troubling, because it smacks of exploitation and preying upon the most vulnerable.

Think about it, most of the conversion experiences extolled by the most zealous Christians are far from Paul on the road to Damascus, rather they run the gamut of "substance and narcotic abuse, sexual promiscuity, a life of thieving, or occult dabbling". Being pulled back from the brink, "getting saved" in an almost literal sense is the bread and butter of the Born Again conversion circuit. Their own lives a metaphor for sin and their conversion salvation from themselves. So why are these stories the ones which seem to breed the most vehement, the most zealous of theists? Why, because their very lives depend on it.

You see one of the ideas which is built into the theological concept of salvation through another, is that the saved are unable to save themselves. They have agency only to self destruct, and are unable to effect any sort of positive change in their own lives; their "demons" are too strong for them alone to conquer. The same ideology is at the root of Alcoholics Anonymous, that they need to trust to a "higher power", because they can not trust themselves. All the good which come after the conversion experience is attributed not to the individuals own ability, but to their new found saviour. "I give all the glory to god" is a phrase which I am fairly certain my aunt has framed somewhere in her home. Any bad is understood as a manifestation of their transgression and seen as backsliding. Knowing what their life was like before, the idea of going forward without divine blessings is terrifying. Shame of their own weakness coupled with dependence upon divine favour makes for very devout followers. As someone standing outside of this sort of religious dynamic, I can`t help but see the dysfunctional, if not abusive, nature of the "relationship".

Spreading from this perspective is the desire, and ultimately need, to share their new found life with others. Sharing their own conversion narrative, they reaffirm in their own minds the necessity of the outcome, and hope to convince others that their lives can be better to, if only they "get saved". Except for those people who are not in the same situation, who did not have the same life experiences, who have been able to live ethical and stable lives, the "it gets better" hook lacks the power and appeal it may have on those in dire straits. Enter the fire and brimstone, fear of death and eternal torment, argument. But that's getting a little too off topic.

Owing perhaps to the passage of time, or even a grudging acceptance, my aunt has in the last few years ceased to try and convert me. Owing to a desire to simply not beat my head against a wall, I generally do not discuss theological or religious issues with my aunt. I know her perspective, understand her reasoning and know that discussion would turn to argument in a matter of seconds. The best bet is simply not to expend any effort in talking about things neither of us are going to change our perspectives on. Sensible as it may be, it can at times be very, very difficult. Like trying to explain why discounting other forms of Christianity which are not Pentecostal or Evangelical, as not being "real Christianity", is a blinding ignorance of the development of ones own religion. Nope, apparently the apostles and early Christians were all Pentecostals, and it just took a few thousand years to get back to it. Or that the idea of Sola Scriptura, being an underpinning of the Protestant Reformation, was not something present in early Christianity. Nope, Jesus was walking around with a KJV in hand; those early church fathers had nothing to do with the compiling and composition of the Christian Bible at all.

Yet my aunt is a loving, caring and hospitable woman if I ever met one. She at least embodies the sort of "Christian charity" which is supposedly the exclusive purview of Christianity in general. Always warm, and always welcoming; pleasant and gracious. She is a good woman who has had a lot of awful things happen in her life who was able to turn it around because she "found religion". For her, the conversion was one of the best things that ever happened to her, and certainly she owes a great deal of what she now has to her unyielding faith. At the end of the day she is family, and so despite our widely divergent perspectives on the nature of deity, on politics and culture, family she remains. It is a part of that having to deal with difference, which can be that much more difficult because they are kin, and so not as easily ignored or brushed off as random user on a religion forum.