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.