Sunday, December 7, 2014

Marginalized voices and generational consequences

When we, and in particular the "we" I am referring to are those who enjoy a great degree of cultural, social and economic privilege, are confronted with the voices of those "others": the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the less privileged (and this is a very wide spectrum, cutting across a number of groups), what are we supposed to do?

It is soon told...

A very long time ago, in Ireland, there lived a man of great means, and his name was Cruinniuc. Now Cruinniuc had been married, but his wife had died unexpectedly, leaving him a widower to raise his children alone. One night, also quite unexpectedly, a woman arrived at Cruinniuc's house and took to performing the same duties as his wife would have, all without saying a word. That same night, they laid down together and she was with him ever after that. Her name was Macha, and so long as she dwelt within Cruinniuc's home, he flourished and became even wealthier.

Now, after this arrangement had gone on for some time, Macha was with child, and it came to pass that a great meeting of the people of Ulster was called. Cruinniuc informed Macha, now his wife, that he had every intention of going. Now she spoke against his going, but upon his insistence she relented, only cautioning him to not speak of her to anyone. The day was as boisterous and splendid as any fair had been, with races, games, combats and other tournaments; the horses on display were as fair as the people themselves.

As the day drew on, Conchobar, the king of Ulster, had his own magnificent chariot brought forward, with his two swift steeds pulling it along. Now the uproar from the assemblage was fierce, and the crowd exclaimed that, "never before, nor ever after shall there be two horses who were swifter of foot or splendid in appearance!" Cruinniuc exclaimed, "My wife is faster!"

The king demanded that Cruinniuc be held, and his wife be summoned to race against his own horses. Messengers were dispatched to Cruinniuc's household and made demands of her to attend to the king and the assembly. Macha protested that her husband had made an unwise boast, and that she was yet with child, due at any moment; but the messengers told her that if she would not attend her husband would be put to death. So she went with the messengers.

Despite her condition, Macha was paraded in front of the assembly and once more told, that despite her protests of being ready to deliver her child, if she refused to compete against the kings horses, her husband would be put to death. Conchobar had his men draw their swords and began to advance upon Cruinniuc. Desperate, Macha at last appealed to the crowd, exclaiming, "Help Me! For a mother has borne each of you! Give me but a short respite, that I may have my child, and I shall compete for you!" But Conchobar would not relent, and so Macha made ready to race the horses, ere her labour pains came upon her.

Macha admonished the assembly, crying, "Shame upon you all, who show so little regard to me. Infamy shall you have for your pitiless deeds!" Conchobar asked her what her name was, and she replied "Macha! And so this plain shall so be named ever after!" With that the race began and Macha beat the horses of the king so swiftly, that with a cry she delivered a son and a daughter, ere Conchobar's horses cross the line. And so to this day that place is named Emain Macha.

Now, all who were present at the assembly were assailed by her cries, each growing as weak as a woman in labour. Macha then cried out to the assembly a final time, "For your pitiless deeds, and the dishonour shown me, whenever your people are in dire need, these pangs shall come upon you for five days and four nights, and weak and helpless as a woman in labour shall you be, for nine generations hence!" Ere Macha died, and her children were given to Cruinniuc, who for his stupidity was now twice widowed, and much aggrieved.

Thus it was, until the time of Forc, son of Dallan, son of Mainech, son of Lugaid, whenever the people of Ulster were at their greatest need, the pangs came upon them. So were the people made to suffer for the indignities suffered upon Macha.


This tale is known as Noínden Uliad, or "The Debility of the Ulstermen", and often appears as a pre-tale (remscela) of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. As a pre-tale, the primary function of the tale is to provide an explanation as to how the Ulstermen came to suffer the "curse of Macha", setting a very dire and dramatic context for CúChulain to single handedly stymie the invasion of the united provinces of Ireland under Medb and Ailill, as the men of Ulster suffer through the curse.

The wonderful thing about stories, however, is that they can certainly have more than one function or interpretation. The greatest of stories will have the ability to produce within an audience, even one removed from the original context by centuries, emotions and pathos. Myths matter because they are windows into the periods and cultures they spring from yet have the power to be meaningful to us in the present day.

Contained within this fairly short story, is a dearth of meaning, and several moral lessons. Macha is generally held to be from the otherworld, if not a personification of the goddess of the same name (though this depends on how one looks at it). Her odd mannerisms and ability also belie an origin in the otherworld or from the sidhe, so we are made aware that she has some power behind her warnings and threats. Yet she remains a victim; she remains marginalized because those she encounters do not have the "gods eye view" of the events in the story, and so she is to them but a pregnant woman. Her protestations go unheeded and her cries for help fall upon deaf ears, yet because of the love she has for her husband, she continues on knowing that she will suffer because of it. Cruinniuc is almost a non-entity in the story, but he is the catalyst which drives the action, and it is his carelessness which starts the tragic chain of events.  Conchobar, as a figure in Irish myth is rather enigmatic, and a lot more complex than he seems at first blush, but in this story he is simply the king who feels his honour is being sullied, and so because the dictates of the law and society (the crowds at the assembly) demand it, he forces the events to unfold as they will.

So we have the King, the wealthy landowner, the gathered people of Ulster, Macha, a tragic series of events and finally an unforeseen outcome which reverberates for nine generations. So why did this happen? It happened because no one who had any power listened to Macha. Her husband failed to heed her warnings, because his pride got the better of him and he was careless. The King dismissed her calls for delay, because he had to enforce "the law". The crowd ignored her pleas for mercy, because they did not want to second guess the king. No one listened, and everyone suffered because of it. Not one voice among them asked for pity, called for mercy or tried to understand; rather they utterly ignored Macha's circumstances, or knew but did not care. Yet these actions did not just effect those involved, but remained in effect for generations afterwards.

I think of all the arguments I've heard explaining away all the anger and fear which is today being expressed, and I can't help but see parallels to Macha's circumstances.
  • Macha's husband broke the law, if he hadn't spoken out of turn, none of this would have happened.
  • Macha should have made a better choice when it came to husbands.
  • Conchobar had the right and the duty to uphold the law, even if that law unfavourably effected Macha more so than other people.
  • Having a pregnant woman race against the kings horses was an appropriate response, we weren't there so we can't "armchair" quarterback the kings decisions.
  • Conchobar's job was really stressful, we need to understand he felt his sovereignty was threatened.
  • The problem wasn't that forcing a pregnant woman to race against horses was horrible, but that Macha's husband made poor choices.
  • The crowd had no obligation to listen to Macha's pleas, because she chose to associate with a law breaker.
  • Macha's curse was unjustified, her anger not merited, because she brought these events on herself.
  • Macha's anger and screaming did nothing to solve the problem.
  • The Ultonians can't understand why she would curse her own community, but because she did, have no obligation to take her cries seriously.
  • It was the Ultonians who were the real victims here.
When those of us who find ourselves in positions of power, of privilege and influence are confronted with the voices and protestations of those who are less so, of those who are marginalized, we need to listen. We need to hold our tongues, open our ears and really listen to what it is being told to us, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We need to hold our tongues because while we may "think" we have an idea why things that happen are, why people may be angry or upset, we need to listen and try our best to understand. We need to avoid making pronouncements which are informed by how we believe things are while simultaneously ignoring what is being said to us. We need to acknowledge that we who are privileged have a responsibility to do what we can, especially if we make proclamations extolling justice and morality. We need to understand that law is not the same thing as ethics, and unjust laws or laws that unfavourably target marginalized communities are unethical.

This is necessary because events do not happen in a vacuum, and unforeseen consequences can have a lasting impact far greater than we can even imagine. If we fail to stand up for what is just, for what is right, how can we claim to speak about justice? If we do not try and heal the hurts which have been passed on and systemically reinforced for generations, how can healing occur?. If we turn yet another blind eye and deaf ear to the injustice which occurs right in front of us, then nothing will ever change.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Our" Values: Subversion, Paradigms and the need to change them

My lover's got humour
She's the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody's disapproval
I should've worshiped her sooner

If the heavens ever did speak
She's the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday's getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week

'We were born sick,' you heard them say it

My Church offers no absolutes.
She tells me, 'Worship in the bedroom.'
The only heaven I'll be sent to
Is when I'm alone with you—

I was born sick,
But I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

[Chorus 2x:]
Take me to church
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

If I'm a pagan of the good times
My lover's the sunlight
To keep the Goddess on my side
She demands a sacrifice

Drain the whole sea
Get something shiny
Something meaty for the main course
That's a fine looking high horse
What you got in the stable?
We've a lot of starving faithful

That looks tasty
That looks plenty
This is hungry work

[Chorus 2x:]
Take me to church
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I'll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife
Offer me my deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

No Masters or Kings
When the Ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin

In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am Human
Only then I am Clean
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

[Chorus 2x:]
Take me to church
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

Above are the lyrics to the song "Take me to church" by the artist Hozier. Presently, in my city anyway, it is getting a lot of radio play; to its credit it is a rather catchy song and Hozier is a skilled lyricist and vocalist...

So what does this have to do with anything?

Recently some folks who either read this blog, my tumblr , and a host of other related blogs and tumblrs, have been talking about developing resources to help those who are now polytheists identify and address theological baggage from their days as monotheists. The goal being to help them more fully adopt a polytheistic world view. I intend to help as much as I can.

So in this effort I thought it would be useful to examine a [currently] popular song which is steeped in religious imagery, and to illustrate just how ingrained and pervasive certain theological concepts are in our culture. First, though, a little background on the artist and the song.


Andrew Hozier-Byrne (aka Hozier) is an Irish musician from Bray in Co. Wicklow, and "Take me to Church" is his debut single from his first album. The song itself, according to Hozier:
“If I was to speak candidly about it,” he said, of how a relationship influenced his writing, “I found the experience of falling in love or being in love was death – a death of everything. You kind of watch yourself die in a wonderful way and you experience for the briefest moment – if you do believe somebody and you see for a moment yourself though their eyes – everything you believed about yourself is gone.”(1)
What is missing from this particular statement about the song "Take me to Church", is why he chose to use blatantly [Christian] religious language and imagery in describing these sentiments and emotions. The most obvious would be the often used "sex as a religious experience" trope, which is clearly utilized in the song, but within there is also a very visible degree of subversion and inversion. The themes and common phrases which in a [Christian] religious context would have well defined and understood meanings are turned to double entendre.

In an interview about the music video which was made to promote the song, Hozier had this to say (emphasis my own):
... the video “references the recent increase of organised attacks and torturing of homosexuals in Russia, which is subsequent to a long, hateful, and oppressive political campaign against the LGBT community. The song was always about humanity at its most natural, and how that is undermined ceaselessly by religious organisations and those who would have us believe they act in its interests. What has been seen growing in Russia is no less than nightmarish, I proposed bringing these themes into the story and Brendan liked the idea.”(2)
So a song that was written by a straight man, about his own experiences in heterosexual love/relationships, had lyrical content which when paired with a visual narrative about a homosexual couple facing oppression, blended seamlessly. That's pretty nifty in an of itself, but the sentiment expressed in the visualized version of the song also provides some clarity about why the subversion was so important to the song writer. Hozeir has a rather dim view of organized religion, and the institutions which symbiotically thrive because of it. Returning to the earlier article (again, emphasis mine):
In March of this year, an interviewer in New York Magazine probed whether there was a personal reason that Hozier was outspoken against homophobia, “No, and I don’t think there needs to be,” he answered, “To me, it’s not even a gay issue or a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue, and it should offend us all. It’s just simple. Either somebody has equal rights, or they don’t. and certainly in the Irish constitution, marriage is genderless. There’s no mention of a man and a woman. I didn’t even have that many close LGBT friends or anything like that, but I suppose it was growing up and becoming aware of how you are in a cultural landscape that is blatantly homophobic… you turn around and say ‘why did I grow up in a homophobic place? Why did I grow up in a misogynistic place?’ You grow up and recognise that in an educated secular society, there’s no excuse for ignorance. you have to recognise in yourself, and challenge yourself, that if you see racism or homophobia or misogyny in a secular society, as a member of that society, you should challenge it. You owe it to the betterment of society.” (3)
Hozier understood that the social and cultural context within which he grew up prioritized a specific set of values, which were homophobic and misogynistic. One of the chief cultural architects of this perspective, in Hozier's opinion, is the Church (and in this context the Roman Catholic Church). Yet, there is no indication that Hozier himself was particularly devout, so such sentiments and observations are coming from within a society that Hozier understands as being secular, but is nonetheless beholden to cultural and social values which are religious in origin and nature. So the secular constitution, which makes no distinction of who can be legally married, which as Hozier himself says is "genderless", remains beholden to cultural values which originate with the distinctly religious nature of the society in which they developed, and so same sex marriage remains prohibited despite the secular values which are supposed to be guaranteed by such a document.

In protest then, through the recognition of the impact that distinctly religious institutions have upon his own culture, Hozier crafted a song which utilizes the very language of "religion", and subverts it to his own purposes, advocating for the values he feels ought to be argued for: " have to recognize in yourself, and challenge yourself, that if you see racism or homophobia or misogyny in a secular society, as a member of that society, you should challenge it."(4) As many musicians before him, subversion of established meaning, was his "weapon of choice". Yet, and here is where my real point begins to emerge, subversion in and of itself necessarily reinforces the existing cultural power structure. That subversion via pop song can happen necessitates that a wide enough segment of the listening population will understand. Subversion needs a hegemony to counter; so while it can act as a critique of the culture it is subverting, it nonetheless reinforces the structural and cultural language it seeks to subvert.
Lyrical Analysis
I'm not going to delve too deeply into analyzing the lyrics of the whole song, nor of explaining how they are visually represented in the music video. I do, however, want to explore some of the lyrical devices which are utilized and their subversive meaning. I begin with the chorus:
Take me to church
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
So the first line, and the title of the song, really underscores my point in all of this. "It is well understood what "church" is, what "going to church" entails in our culture. The term "church" refers specifically to Christian religious structures, and "going to church" refers of course to attending a service (which elsewhere in the song is Sunday, again relevant to Christian tradition) at such a structure. In the context of the song, however, "take me to church" is used as a double entendre for sexual congress. Worshiping like a dog, denotes a subservient - dominant power dynamic, which could entail whimpering, begging, etc.. The second half is a bit more difficult to interpret with any certainty. There is no indication in the song itself what, precisely, "shrine of your lies" is supposed to represent. On a purely speculative basis, I have no idea. The third line refers to the admission of sin and the expected punitive measures associated with confession/ absolution, again reinforcing the power dynamic already established, with the woman he is singing about acting as the "priestess". The sharpening of the knife likely also corresponds to the following two lines (and some later parts of the song), and the idea of love being a "deathless death", which nonetheless requires a death to occur. Now the final line does refer to "God", except the phrase is used as an exclamation to emphasize the desire of the singer to "give you my life", which again is either about letting him love her, or having sexual congress, as opposed to speaking to the Christian God.

'We were born sick,' you heard them say it

My Church offers no absolutes.
She tells me, 'Worship in the bedroom.'
The only heaven I'll be sent to
Is when I'm alone with you—

I was born sick,
But I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

 These lines precede the first two repetitions of the chorus, but contain a lot of subversion of established concepts and theological principles. "We were born sick, you heard them say it", refers to the theological concept of "original sin" and that man's nature is fallen. The proclamation that his church, "offers no absolutes" is a critical reference to the typical orthodoxy found in Christian churches, and a rejection of that precept. Later on the line "I was born sick, but I love it", again subverts the concept of "being born into sin", to refer to being "love sick".

No Masters or Kings
When the Ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin

In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am Human
Only then I am Clean
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

The juxtaposition of "no sweeter innocence" to "our gentle sin" is of course deliberate, yet retains some sense of the "gentle sin", being sexual congress, as having some degree of depravity. The closing lines are very interesting as they essentially make the case that it is only through these "sins" and associated "rituals" that the singer is in fact absolved of said sin and made fully human, or complete.

Cultural influences

I have no idea of Hozier's education, how much knowledge he has of matters of theology, mythology or cultural studies. From my own analysis, however, there are at least two very interesting parallels that can be made with reference to the song in and of itself, as well as the theme of the song (or one of the themes.)
The idea of sex as a sacred, ritualized and humanizing act is something which is reinforced throughout the song, but particularly towards the end. This concept is rather ancient, and one of the best mythic examples is contained within the narrative of "the Epic of Gilgamesh", where the titular hero's friend, Enkidu, is originally a "wild man", and it is only after he is brought to Shamhat, who engages with him in sexual congress for seven days, that he is finally "civilized", and made fully human. (5) Again, I have no idea if this had any bearing whatsoever on Hozier's writing of the lyrics, but it was too similar to pass up.
In a broader sense, which again ties into the religious themes of the song, the way in which the singer is speaking about his lover is very reminiscent of the "Song of Songs" as found in the Old Testament and Tanakh. The "song of songs" at its core is about a singing dialogue between two lovers, albeit later allegorical interpretations have the content being about God's love for either Israel, or Christ's love for the Church. It would be fitting then for Hozier to have seemingly returned the "Song of Songs" (or a new version of it) to its original meaning. Again, purely speculative on my part, but since this particular bit of Abrahamic scripture would be known  (and much more so than Gilgamesh) to someone who grew up in "the Church", and given the use of subversion, it is not unlikely.
How Subversion reinforces cultural hegemony
Subversion as a means of offering or altering the established cultural or social narrative, seeks to undermine the established meaning of words and symbols through the introduction of alternative meanings of those words or symbols.This can be a very useful and effective tool when it comes to cultural criticism and examination, because it has the ability to be understood within the very cultural context it is in turn critiquing. None the less, its effectiveness to enact change is limited precisely because it relies on the existing structural framework of the culture to make sense and still reach a wide enough audience to have any sort of impact. Let me give an example of what I mean:
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin

This particular element, I would go as far to call it a trope or cliche, is found throughout the lyrics of the song, and it involves the inversion of the concept of "sin". A sin in Christian theology is some action (or thought) that occurs in ignorance, indifference or defiance of the Christian god. In the song the idea of the "sin" or "sickness" being sung about is love and/or sexual congress, which in many Christian doctrines is in and of itself something which can only occur within specific, sanctified, contexts and remains problematic to a large degree. The inherent "dirtiness" of "sex" is something which is very easily observed in a larger Western cultural context. Within the song, however, sexual congress is made into a purifying and holy act, enabling the singer to become "fully human". In this way is the concept of sin subverted. 

The limitation of course is that it necessarily acknowledges the existence of something called "sin", and so is beholden to the worldview where it developed and is promulgated. Which is fine, really, when one seeks to retain that cultural perspective, but perhaps becoming more aware of it. Removing or subverting the cloying prejudices engendered by the structural cultural institutions (like organized religion) to speak to the possibility of a better state of affairs. However, for those who seek to foster and promulgate a different cultural world view, this is not enough.


I would certainly make the case that for polytheism to be presented as a meaningful theological perspective, it necessarily has to be done so from a position which acts as if it is a meaningful perspective. Polytheism cannot be properly understood or defended if the position one comes from is one which (again necessarily) holds polytheism to be impossible, i.e. monotheism. Polytheism has to be understood from within a worldview where the gods are many, otherwise what will be described is some bastardization which will present the gods as something other than gods. They will be reduced (angels, giants, demons), excused (delusions) or ignored (being substituted for money, power, etc.) because they can not logically be existent in a monotheistic context and still be gods. Which is not to say that a monotheist cannot write about polytheism and its gods, because we'd be pretty bankrupt scholastically if this were the case. Rather, you will find that most books of mythology, and the best ones, speak about the gods from the perspective of those who worshiped them, and not the author themselves (albeit this too happens often enough, particularly when issues of folklore and tradition are recorded via more "civilized" [read Victorian] folklorists.)

So, what has to occur is that we need to begin to understand theological concepts through the eyes of a polytheist, and if they can not be, then we need to develop (or restore) additional concepts. We also need to be able to identify those theological "holdovers" which remain from previous perspectives, which again is not to say that everything from the older perspective needs to be discarded. Only those elements which have no place within the new context, and these can range from considerably large theological conceptions: original sin, man's fallen nature (which again may depend on cultural context), Salvation, God/Satan (or other such dichotomies), heaven/hell (also dependent on cultural context), ethical frameworks, etc., to more subtle things: The gestures you use to accompany prayer, which "cuss" words, or "punctuated exclamations" you utilize, cosmological reorientation (if, for example if the realms of the dead are cthonic and not celestial), and other linguistic and symbolic adjustments which no longer make sense.

The goal, ultimately, should be the internalization of the polytheistic worldview, even to the point that if you were to smash your thumb with a hammer, you would automatically shout something other than "God damn it!". It seems rather "small" to focus on something so, well small but it is a necessary development to fully embrace a new world view and leave the old one behind. Which is not to say that you need to then vociferously and zealously reject other peoples own views. I can fully appreciate the pathos and emotion which is conveyed in a song like "take me to church", I can understand what it is the singer is singing about; I simply do not share the same conceptual/theological framework that he does, but what is more I understand why.

When you begin to understand something from your own perspective, then you can begin to appreciate how necessary such a change is.
1. "Hozier: An Interview", Irish Times. /20/hozier/ (accessed 11/23/2014)
2. "Video Premiere: Hozier - Take Me To Church", State. (accessed 11/23/2014)
3. see 1.
4. ibid..

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Our" Values Series

In conjunction with some recent discussion on tumblr, I have taken it upon myself to write a series of blogs which will speak to and about many theological and ethical issues, with a polytheistic outlook in mind.

For anyone who has read this blog, or its companion tumblr, you will be very much aware of the fact that I am a Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheist. My rationalization and understanding of things like ethics and theology are then, necessarily informed by the cultural filters engendered by being a GRP. Keeping this in mind, I have sometimes out of necessity, but more often out of curiosity, researched quite a bit into other polytheistic worldviews: Hellenic, Roman and Heathen in particular. I intend to write as broadly as possible about polytheism as a distinct "system", and while I will have to rely on preexisting theological concepts and terms, I will do my best to speak in general and not cultural terms.

As this will be broad, there will almost certainly be gross generalizations and broad, sweeping claims. I fully acknowledge that there will be a lot of exceptions, be they individual or cultural, to such statements. Yet I do believe that there is enough of a theological framework common among polytheism as a theological position, that such generalizations can be made and still be true, most of the time.

Again, if I do speak to something which seems strange or incorrect based on your own understanding, by all means let me know so it can be addressed.

With that said, I really do think that speaking about "Our" values can be something that is useful, especially as polytheism slowly creeps its way back into the world. Very often the criticism labeled against many in the modern polytheistic (and Pagan) community is that we spend all of our time speaking about what is absent from our religions, rather than what is entailed. Unfortunately, this is something which HAS to happen, because the very language that has developed to discuss theology, has been geared towards monotheism as the default (and in a binary way, default is on, off is atheism).

Many of the following blogs will be discussing precisely these issues, theological concepts, which are part of the discussion of religion and religious identity. These will be addressed, discussed and then shown how they may apply, or are inapplicable, to discussions of polytheism. Showing how much a concept does not fit is as important as showing what concepts do, because it then provides a means to discuss "Our" perspective with those who do not share it. It also allows us to examine and define our own approaches and perspectives.

Wish me luck!


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A good life is the best defence

A friend of mine, well maybe that's too strong a word at this time, how about an associate of mine, a nice guy I knew in high school who ran in the same social group, is a Christian. Always has been, always will be. So, he is still grouped among "friends" on my Facebook, and often enough he would post typically Christian things: scriptural passages from the Bible, how a particular passage was reflected in his own experience that day, praise and thanks to his god, extolling how great his god is, and every now and then links to blogs or articles by like minded Christian bloggers. Which is how I happened upon a testimonial, a story, by a Preacher, called "Will God Protect My Children?"  ( I won't link to it, I have standards after all, but you can find it easily enough).

The tale is prefaced by briefly recounting a misspent youth of a somewhat debauched nature (or enough so that our stalwart preacher was wallowing, if not participating), with his then atheist comrade. Being a good Christian, his duty to convert his chum was ever present, but was relatively unsuccessful, and flash forward some years. The atheist friend is at a similar point in his life, but something is missing: family, friends, gainful employment and material security are not enough. No, there is a hole in this mans being, and our Preacher knows that it is Christ shaped. Everything is primed for the conversion, to score that big W for Jesus.

Next come the feeble, halfhearted attempts to explain away why this atheist friend dislikes Christianity: Christians are legalistic moralizers. Bang "Grace theology" slays that one. Next, Christians are naive and can't really hold up to intellectual scrutiny (just what sort of atheist is this guy, anyway?). Poof, drop some books which repeat the ontological argument. Finally, the man is ready to relent; the I need something deeper atheist has relented and he's coming down, ready to make Jesus his personal lord and savior. Suddenly and without warning, he is confronted with the grim reality of death. Not death, in and of itself, but loss, grief; our Preacher's sister had died unexpectedly. The tragedy reverberated through the family, touching everyone in the way that only grief can. The liminal Christian is now overcome with doubt with fear; for if the Christian god could take away the sister of such a devout family, what hope was there for his own children? The preacher then goes on to talk of three "typical" Christian responses, but himself makes the case that "His will be done" and you hope for the best. You become a Christian because it is true, not because you get stuff (like divine protection, prosperity or security). Which is a refreshing answer, if rehashed and simply fallen from favour. We never do find out if the liminal Christian took the plunge, though I would suspect he did.

So why do I care?

I care because, despite the message of "I don't know what [the Christian] god's will is", at the end of the day the take away message from this whole piece is still "don't doubt, trust Jesus". Despite the admission of not having all the answers, "Jesus is still THE answer". I accept that this story, and the figures in it are real enough, but they could just as easily sprung from the pen or keystrokes of a preacher. The necessary tropes, the framework for conversion narrative is all here, you can almost feel the thin, neon pink paper of the tract between your fingers. Let's do a quick run through of the conversion narrative flags our "atheist" has activated:

1. Previous life of (youthful) debauchery. Check
2. Seemingly happy life beset by absence. Check
3. Current worldview no longer enough. Check
4. Life altering event (like having children). Check
5. Faithful friend who is among the faithful. Check
6. Religion [our convert it converting too] so much more than he thought it was. Check
7. Conversion. Check

The most significant difference from your typical conversion narrative is that it is not the conversion, in and of itself, which changed the man's life. No, his life from appearance seemed to be pretty good. He was happily married, with children, stable employment and martial security; true our "atheist" is presented as having had a youth of excess, but that seems to be just that, in his past. His life is not in danger and he is not suffering through any sort of physical or financial crisis. No his crisis is existential, one of seeking for some way out of his ennui; seeking the profound with no idea where to begin on his own, but he has this one Christian friend who is also a preacher...

Proselytization, the promotion of ones religion with the goal of winning converts, is and remains an act of disrespect, hostility and depredation. Even a cursory examination of conversion narratives, like the one I outline above, would support this assertion. It is an act of well intentioned arrogance which seeks to find and exploit weakness. Whether it is a weakness of physicality (i.e. substance abuse or addiction), a weakness of character (i.e. criminality) and even a weakness of mind (i.e. existential questioning), it does not change the fact that it is exploitative and opportunistic. As the Preacher stated in his blog:
"He’s thinking about bigger, more profound things. I’m teaching about bigger, more profound things."
Which is not to say that seeking out meaning, asking those questions of profundity, are necessarily bad or necessarily make you vulnerable to people hocking (easy) answers; only that they can leave you vulnerable. If something is missing and you have been culturally conditioned to recognize the spiritual or philosophical authority of a given group of people, and they are also "friends" with you, and they have been making subtle suggestions about what questions to ask, and where to find answers, well if you happen to find yourself being swayed by such arguments, it isn't exactly shocking. Coupled with that the fear, the gnawing fear about the future and what may be, and then won't somebody please think of the children!
Truly, parenthood has produced far more cowards than war ever could.
I do not wish to speak down to, nor minimize the very real anxiety that parents necessarily feel about their children. I hope to be a parent myself one of these days, and expect much fear and anxiety to come. Except that I hope, I believe, that my courage will be sufficient to allay my fears. That my sincerity in my ethics will outweigh my hypocrisy, that I will not abandon everything I believe in because they will be "MY KIDS!!!".

I do wish, however, to bring this discussion full circle and at long last bring in the title of this post. We can observe that the "atheist" (an this seems as good a time as any, but I sincerely doubt just how much of an atheist this fellow could have been, if his mind was so easily swayed by reading a couple of apologetic monographs coupled with gentle pastoral cajoling) appears to have a nice enough life, all things considered. Yet, it is always worth the time to remind ourselves that enjoyment of life is not the same thing as "the good life", because clearly this man believed his life, his worldview was insufficient. There was something missing, and in this case it was profundity and meaning; a spiritual and philosophical void that needed to be filled, and how lucky to have a "friend" who could help him with that.

I propose then, that in the case of missionizing and proselytizing, the single best defense is to already have a good life. Yeah, you will say, and the best defense against poverty is to already be wealthy, and against sickness to be healthy. Thank you Capt. Obvious! You would be right to point out such obvious truisms, but hear me out. What I mean in this idea, is that proselytizers prey upon the perception of weakness, of deficiency. Seeking out any and all means of penetrating their target's defenses and attacking their self. They need to find that hole in your "being", and then they need to convince you to fill it with Jesus.

Proselytizing is the only real tool that such folks have at their disposal in this day and age to gain converts, and they have a formula and the means to carry out their missionizing efforts. The keystone to the whole scheme, however, is that there needs to be a "chink in the armour" which they can exploit. Without it, well they have nothing. How are you going to sell someone on the necessity of Christ who already has a fully developed worldview that does not involve him? How can a weakness be exploited if there isn't one? Enter fear, malaise and doubt.

I've linked above to a much older post of mine where I examine some examples of "Ex-Pagan" conversion narratives and the one thread which links them all together is that in the mind of the converted, their current worldview was lacking in some respect. It failed to deliver, was revealed to be empty or could not offer what the ex-member expected it to. The fault was not in the ex-member, of course, but in the religion (gods, ritual, lack of community, etc.). It could not fill the Jesus shaped hole because... well because what they were trying to fill it with was not Jesus shaped. This is where the juggernaut of cultural force comes into play, and here in North America, Christianity remains the default setting for "religion". Most of the folks who are "ex-Pagans" had previously been Christians or had some manner of Christian up bringing, and so their expectation of how other religions, other gods ought to work, was skewed from the beginning.If the filters and biases of the previous worldview are not replaced by something else, by an internal adoption of the new world view, then the malaise and creeping pessimism will fester until they crawl, walk or run back into the arms of where they used to be.

Superficiality, it turns out, is what the key exploit is in cases of "ex-Pagan" conversion narratives. Even among those who have been immersed in, promoted by, and made a name for themselves as "BNP's", none of this will produce immunity from something which, by its very nature, is insidious. If you have a Jesus shaped hole in your being, ain't nothing other than Jesus gonna fill it. No matter how sure you are in your outward convictions, no matter how often you lie to yourself and state otherwise, if you fail to internalize a non-Christian world view, you will fail at being a non-Christian. I'm not saying that it is an easy thing to do, only that it is necessary.

It is necessary because for those who have no part of the Christian perspective on divinity, afterlife and ethics, no matter how compelling the argument for, there is nothing a proselytizer can offer (except, perhaps, a personal relationship with Jesus). What I am getting at is that if there is no weakness in your worldview to exploit, the arguments and tactics will fail because they are not enough on their own; the proselytizer needs that "in". If you have a meaningful relationship with the gods, if you live a life of honour and morality, if you are aware of your faults and have a means to address and improve upon them, then what could the proselytizer "sell" you that you do not already have? You will be offered theological arguments that are designed to appeal to the default setting, but so what? You reject the most basic of assumptions that will be offered (monotheism, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, ethics, etc), so there is no intellectual, spiritual or emotional argument to compel you when your perspective is held to be sufficient.

Which is not to say, then, that polytheists are necessarily without flaws or weaknesses. The gods know I have many, and I am certain that you all may as well. This isn't about some self aggrandized, self perfection that only we special snowflakes can obtain. This is about having an intrinsic perspective which informs our thoughts and beliefs, and allows us to understand why we believe what we do, and further, how this can then relate to other peoples perspectives. It may be easier for me than it has (or will be) for others because I've never had that Jesus shaped hole. I was never a Christian, nor were my parents, or immediate family (until well after I had begun forming my own opinions about things), and so those creeping doubts and longings never occurred, and in this respect I am lucky.

What we need then is to instill in ourselves, in our communities, a sense that our worldview is worthy of existing, of being maintained and then passed onto our descendents. But saying it, shouting it at the top of our lungs will amount to nothing, if we do not believe it and if we do not act upon it. We need to instill that our gods have a place in our lives, that our ancestors are worthy of reverence and our interactions with the spirits of place are necessary. That such views inform and instruct our actions, that our lives are lived and lived well. For when it comes to standing firm against proselytizers, those who would knowingly exploit the vulnerable, a good life is the best defense.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Only a fool...

Not so long ago I wrote about morality, the gods and their behaviours in the lore. I concluded my examination and analysis of the mythic texts with a rather forceful entreaty that the gods had earned my trust and I had no reason to doubt their fidelity. I like to think myself as someone who is not a fool and so I also provided a caveat. This proviso was that my unequivocal statement was based upon my reading of the lore and personal devotion relating to the gods of Irish myth and culture alone. I stand by that statement, but so too do I stand by my caveat, because when it comes right down to it:

Only a fool would trust Odin
For his plans may be for the best
But what is best may not be for you
If you value a long life
Grímnir is best avoided
Honour and glory are his reward
But they are bought at a heavy price
I say this with the utmost respect and gravity, and my intention here is not to impugn the gods, to cast aspersions upon Their persons or to belittle those who are devoted to them. Rather, it is simply through a desire to understand Their natures and tendencies that theology and herumenics can be developed in a polytheistic context.

Not all gods have YOUR best interest at heart
It is made mention in the short stanza above, but it calls for a nuanced comprehension. Providing that the gods we are talking about are limited to those with which human endeavor coincide (i.e. gods that represent war, justice, agriculture, art, magic, love, law, government, sovereignty, child birth, the dead, etc.), because those with functions or associations outside the realm of human endeavor will more often than not ignore humans (and those gods who are malicious are best entreated with or avoided). Therefore I limit my scope to those whose business relates to our own, and it is in this context that a more nuanced appreciation is needed. For while the gods may seek to aid in our actions where our functions or desires overlap, this does not mean that they always will, or that our need outweighs Theirs.
If you want to be a warrior, par excellence; seeking battle, bloodshed and above all victory, then few gods will be as well suited to your endeavors as would Odin. Odin is a god of many names (over 200) and a considerable number of those epithets relate directly to his function as a god of war and battle. Yet there was always a purpose to war, a reason that he would incite hatred in the hearts of men and urge them to battle:

From "Auda's Art Blog"
More often than not, being one of “Odin’s Chosen” was as much a blessing as a curse; a life of fame and glory bought with blood and untimely death. This motif of glory and honour in exchange for a short life is one of the more common threads among the heroic literature of several Indo-European cultures and can be seen also in Irish and Greek sources. The All-Fathers motivation, however, is considerably different than those heroes desire for honour, he needs an army.

While the exact nature of where and how the concept of Ragnarök came into being, if its conception was wholly pre-Christian or mingled with Christian eschatology is debatable, what is not is that the mythic lore has been framed with this most awesome of inevitabilities. As such, it could certainly be argued that Odin’s entire motivation for causing war and strife is to collect the valorous dead and mold them into a fighting force to stand with him on the last day. In this light, Valhalla is best understood as a temporary reprieve and not as a final, paradisiacal “heaven”. Only death and slaughter await those whom Odin chooses, but by their valour and sacrifice is a future made possible. Often enough Odin would cause weapons to fail, provide disastrous military advice or other such nefarious ploys in order to ensure those he needed died in combat.
So while I believe the All Father is worthy or respect and devotion (even if I do not worship him personally), it behooves us to recognize that beings with a “long view” perspective of things will inevitably have their own agendas and purposes. So too is it worth realizing that even when our desires or needs overlap with Theirs, that we may be supported by those same gods in our efforts, our ends may be the price we pay for that support.

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Our" Lady of Sorrows

                This was not the first time she had witnessed this, nor would it be her last; yet something moved within her, profoundly. True, so much time had passed between where she was now, and where she had been, that the pain had become a dull ache, but still she remembered. There had been so much blood that she had at first believed that it could not all have belonged to him, but as the grim reality of the situation donned on her, as she held her son’s pale, still cooling hand, she broke.
 She screamed.
                Everything had stopped and what was going on around her no longer mattered. She did not care that her husband was standing by her side, that her in-laws were but a few feet away or that her friends had gathered around her. There was only the pain, there was only her voice. Her cry split the very air through which it moved; a resonant wail that echoed into the valley floor, spread across the lake and into the sky above. The sound was suffocating, her moan became a roar.
            She screamed.
Her body began to revolt against her, her eyes streamed as though her being had been up to this point, nothing but tears. Her throat burned, as if her lungs had become great furnaces and each piercing wail that escape her lips was a dagger, carving away as they passed. Her legs had long ago given out, and she felt as if she were rooted to the earth upon which her crumpled body had fallen in despair. Her fists had clenched to tightly that her nails had dug deep, torn through the worn flesh and her hands streamed nearly as much as her eyes.
                      She screamed.

                Men, women and children fell dead at the sound, cattle miscarried and many of the horses bolted from their camp in sheer terror at this otherworldy wailing, tumbling into the lake, mad with fear. The skies began to grow dark, the earth seemed to be slowly undulating under foot and the lake seemed to be growing more turbulent, frothing and bubbling in unison with this stricken mother. Those around her, who had been struck dumb by her cry, took notice and realized that if something was not done they would all perish.

                                        She screamed.

                He would never again speak to her, never again laugh or cry, never again be held in her embrace. Her tall, handsome and strong son had been laid low, felled in the prime of his youth; stolen from her. Stolen from her by whom she knew not. Stolen from her for no reason she could then understand. Stolen so recently that she could still hear his laughter echoing in her ears. Now, her once proud son, her most precious possession, was gone.
                                                   She screamed.

                They looked around at one another, still paralyzed by the sheer force of her wail. The sky had gone from a deep black to a burning red. The sun appeared a sickly, misshapen disc and its warmth now seemed a mere memory. Her tears and her blood had begun to mingle with the rising waters of the lake, which was steadily approaching in small waves. They realized that if something were not done, if this uncanny shrieking was not stopped, they would all of them be no better off than her poor son. The fear of their impending doom spurred a fire in all of them, and the fetters which had frozen them in place shattered.
                                                                    She screamed.

                The pain was there, and her head was swimming from her strain, but it was staring to fade. Her voice began to crack, her lungs that had burned like a need fire was now burning out. Her body ached and her bosom heaved, the pain was being dowsed with the loss of sensation; numbness began to creep along her limbs. But she would not be stymied, and as her own guilt for failing to protect him welled within her chest, the pain redoubled and the flames roared back to life.
                                                                                 She screamed.

                They sprang upon her, shook her, struck her, cried out to her, only to be drowned out by her lamentations. Nothing they did was of any avail; no shouts could quiet her, no arms could hold her, not twenty of their strongest could move her. Her grief was weighing her down, as if she shared the same roots as the mountains. Realizing that no force could stop her, that no reason would reach her, they broke and fled for their lives.
                                                                                               She screamed.

Alone she was left, with no company but her poor, dead son, his head resting on her lap. The streams that had issued forth from her eyes had washed away the ichor that had caked his clothing, discoloured his gleaming hands and obscured his shining face. His wound, that had streamed with the same fury as his mothers tears, was so small it was hard to believe that it such a thing had killed her hale, boastful, splendid son. But he was still, he was quiet as no boy should be, and with her son in her arms, she finally relented.
                                                                                                                    She screamed.

Then all went dark, all sensation ceased and all that came after was quiet and silence. Her body was spent, her very soul a hairs breadth away from joining with that of her son, she collapsed. She dreamed of him then; of her bright, happy, joyous boy. She watched him leaping through the air as he dashed through the fields, climbing over hill and rock, and diving into the deepest of pools, a bundle of lightning in boys’ clothes. Then he stopped, he aged suddenly into a fine, handsome young man and he turned to look at her; he said something her ears did not hear and with a final wave of his hand, stepped through a sudden mist, and was gone.

After that, she remembered very little until long after he had been laid to rest. The pain she felt on that first, terrible day had eventually subsided. The pain became numbness, numbness became sadness, sadness became a deep grief, grief that gripped her heart as she had gripped the earth. Yet, little by little, the grip loosened on her heart. Light slowly flittered its way back into her life and while she would not, could not ever truly be whole again, she discovered that joy had stealthily creeped back into her life.

This was all so long ago, ages it seemed now. Much had happened before, and much had happened still after. Yet her she was again, surrounded by those with whom she shared a terrible kinship, for they like her, had also known the pain of death and loss. Yet, in the end, this made her stronger; strong enough even that she could now be a source of strength for those who needed her. For those to whom it seems as if time has stopped and life itself had come to an end, who ask how this could have happened and how do I go on?

For all of us who mourn, for all of us who grieve, for all who question why; she is there. She offers no easy answers, no platitudes, no quick fix. She cannot turn back the capricious nature of fortune, nor take away the pain of loss; she had no power over those claimed by death. Yet tall she stands, strong she remains, and a balm for the soul is her gift. She, above all others, understands the sorrow, knows full well the feeling and remembers the hurt.

In her compassion, may we find consolation.
In her wisdom, may we find meaning.
In her courage, may we find our own.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Theodicy (or coming to terms with the existence of tragedy)

(I had originally started to write this a few weeks ago, but lost my focus. A personal loss has brought this topic screaming back, so if you come across bracketed, bolded text that is more recent.)

Of all the "big questions" which religion is supposed to be able to answer (or at least provide some guidance) second only to "Why am I here?" is "Why do bad things happen to good people?". This is the single question which, perhaps more than any other, allows us to discover the very boundaries of our beliefs, the limit of our faith and the depth with which we trust.

Who do we lose, that it becomes unbearable?
What depth of grief can one person be expected to experience? 
How much tragedy can befall someone before their once unshakable trust in the gods entropy's into nihilism?

Today, this morning to be precise, as I listened to the usual channel on my AM dial as I drove my wife to work, it seemed that the top stories were categorically grim:

A man estranged from his wife, murdering her and another adult, four children and an attempted fifth.

Another man who had in past days, murdered his two small children and then killed himself, finalized by setting the car they had occupied alight.

A reminder that a small child had been neglected to death, by his own grandparents.

As I said, categorically grim.

I though of a friend who had experienced great loss, suddenly, without warning; at a time of unbridled joy and hope for a future that will never be.

(I think of my friend, his life cut tragically short, the grief of his family and my friend who was much closer that I was.)

I thought of all those who walk through the doors of my place of business, all being touched by death and loss and the grief that clings to your very being.
And then I thought of the gods.

As I said before, the question of tragedy and ill fortune, of hardship and suffering is an old one. There are many answers, and some shed a little more light than others.
Cultural/Religious Examples
Job, the paragon, the avatar of the good man wronged by a god, his god. Never having done wrong, never having said a word against his fate, is answered by even greater suffering and loss. When he finally comes face to face (or a tornado) with his god, and asks him why he has allowed such suffering to befall him, he is strong armed into silence and supplication.
The lord works in mysterious ways

Heracles, being the ultimate antitheses of everything Hera represents, is cursed and sent into a mad rage. In his maddened fury he murders his son and daughter (in some versions, so too his wife). He is eventually cured of his madness, but realizing what he has done, flees. As penitence for his crime, he is forced to serve the king Eurystheus (often described as an archrival of Heracles) and performs his Twelve Labours.
Mortals are but the playthings of the gods

Baldur is beloved of all the Aesir, and through the efforts of his mother, Frigga, he is nigh invincible. The gods make great sport of attempting to harm him, but baleful Loki discovers the one way to lay low the shining god of youth. Malice in his heart, he tricks poor, blind Hod into participating in the sport, and armed with a dart crafted from mistletoe, Baldur is felled.
Malice and hatred are bedfellows of tragedy and grief

Kisa Gotami had lost her only son, and grief stricken, begged anyone who would listen for a way to restore her son back to life. Finally she was instructed to speak with the Buddha; and he told her that if she could find mustard seeds from household who had never tasted death, he could revive her son. Filled with hope, she returned to her village and asked at every house, yet soon discovered that all had experiences of death. Despondent she returned to the Buddha, and informed him she had failed.
Suffering and death are inseparable from this (impermanent) life

For death has entered the world through the fault of one man, the first man, Adam. For sin is part of human nature, and the wages of sin is death. Yet the strength of sin is the law, and since all fall short of the glory of the Lord, all men are doomed to die. Yet, for the believer, death is not the end; for the corruptible must put on incorruption and the mortal must put on immortality. The price for sin was paid by one man, the perfect man, Jesus.
This world was corrupted by sin, and from sin flows tragedy, suffering and death

These are well and good, and they may be powerful, even thought provoking ideas and sentiments, but they are necessarily rooted in their own theology and mythology. Their responses, their attitudes and answers all stem from their worldview. So where do we turn?

In this case, as ingrained in western culture as the endurance of Job is, as terrible the murder of Baldur, as transcendent the wisdom of the Buddha or Christ, and as Herculean the struggles of Heracles, the Gaels have 'em beat hands down.

You will be hard pressed to find a collection of myth and legend as infused with tragedy as the corpus of Gaelic lore. Tragic lives and tragic deaths, love triangles, kin slaying  and murderous vengeance, it has it all.
Gaelic Examples
Chief among such tales of woe, are the "Three Sorrows of Storytelling": The exile of the sons of Uisliu, the Fate of the Children of Lir and The Fate of the Sons of Tuireann.
The later comes first chronologically, and while I did mention it not too long ago, a brief summary. Lugh's father, Cian, is murdered by the three sons of Tuireann, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, due to strife between their families. Lugh discovers their crime, and acting as King, demands they undertake a perilous journey to obtain magical artefacts to aid in the war against the Fomorians. The brothers succeed, but through Lugh's thirst for revenge, does not to save them from their mortal wounds, and they die. Their father Tuireann then dies of a broken heart.
The "Fate of the Children of Lir" looks at how the goddess Aoife, tried to kill her step children because of the love that was showered upon them by her husband, Lir. At first she tried to have a servant kill them, but he balked. She then attempted to kill them herself, but lost her courage and instead cursed them into the forms of swans for a period of no less than 900 years.
"The Exile of the sons of Uisliu", follows the tragic heroine Dierdre, her lover Naoise and his two brothers as they evade the wrath of king Conchobar, by settling in Scotland. Difficulty and circumstance drive them back to Ireland, and Conchobar tricks them into returning to Ulster, where they are betrayed to their deaths. Dierdre survives the assault, and is to be given to the man who slew Naoise, but enroute leaps from a chariot and dashes her head against a rock.
Yet these tales are not in the least all the tragedy there is to tell, what follows is a brief list of other tragic circumstances in larger narratives, but not necessarily self contained stories:
  • Rúadán mac Bres, son of Brigid, is killed while spying upon the gods during the events of CMT2, and upon this discovery Brigid wails out the first caoine to be heard in Ireland. 
  • Cúchulain fights and kills his own son, for the honour of the Ulstermen.
  • Cúchulain is forced to fight and kill his best friend (and arguably lover) Ferdia in single combat, due to the machinations of Medb during the Táin Bó Cúlaigne.
  • Emer dies of a broken heart while she is in the process of burying
  • Diarmuid is gored by a boar fated to kill him, and because of a past transgression, Fionn lets him die.
  • Oisín lives in the otheroworld for ages with his wife Niamh, but grows homesick and takes a magical steed back to the mortal realm. He is warned never to dismount, but forgets himself and upon touching down upon the earth, he is instantly aged to blind decrepitude, never to return to Niamh again.
  • Oisín then wanders the countryside, until he is found by St. Patrick, where he is abused until he either dies unrepentant or is baptised.
  • Caílte, in a parallel/alternate narrative to Oisín, is the last of the Fianna, and spends his final days recounting the glorious time of his youth while mourning all that has been lost 
  • Characters in many narrative will die literally die because of the sadness of the situation and the resulting "breaking of their heart".
This is barely even scratching the surface, but it provides at lest some specific instances of tales within the wider lore to contemplate and explore the subjects of grief, tragedy and loss.
So, what are we to do? What does the lore have to say about the problem of theodicy, and why do we suffer as often as we rejoice?
Sources of Suffering
Simply put, there is no single answer as to the "why" of suffering, at least from a GRP perspective. It is not the theological dilemma that afflicts monotheistic religions; after all polytheism in general does not ascribe the classical "omni's" to its deities. We are not trapped by the need to reconcile the existence of suffering with the existence of the gods, because the gods are not all powerful, ever present, all knowing or all loving. We can accept that suffering happens for a number of reasons:
  • The capriciousness of circumstance
  • The wanton cruelty or carelessness of people 
  • The agency of a malefic spirit or deity
  • The passage of time
Circumstance, random chance and ill fortune can account for the champions portion of suffering which we are forced to deal with at any given time. For those of us fortunate enough to live in countries which have stable governments, the fear of war and famine is tertiary. Natural disasters, medical emergencies or illness tend to be the more common forms of suffering we are exposed to, as much as these account for destruction and death.
Wanton cruelty/ Carelessness of those we interact with and are beholden to would be the second most common source of suffering. Whether it be those who wish to do us harm through acts of violence, abuse, economic exploitation, etc. or those who through their callousness or ignorance do so too, much of our suffering can occur at the hands of another.
If we accept that the na trí naomh do have agency, and this agency has some impact upon our lives, then we must also accept that those deities or spirits whose purview is at odds with our own, can have the same impact. I believe that these kinds of occurrences are exceedingly rare, and that other perspectives place far too much emphasis on the power and influence of malefic entities. Yet to discount them all together is to deny a very real aspect of the numinous which is reasonably attested to within folklore and tradition.
Finally, the passage of time, the progression from youth to old age, while related and influenced by the three sources listed above, has elements of its own which merit acknowledgement. As one grows older, the likelihood of those we know dying around us becomes more and more common. Survivor's bare the burden of those who came before them, and those who have been lost along the way; keepers of collective/familial memories become saddled by those experiences and can almost literally be haunted by ghosts from the past.
Responses to Suffering

The courage to go on
Sorrow, unabashed and fully embraced grief, are as natural a response to loss as any other human emotion. Grief needs to be understood on a number of levels, but one thing which many people outside the grief counselling (or related) field, ought to know is that grief is, among other things, a physical reaction to loss. The lump in the back of your throat, the loss of appetite, the headache, shortness of breath, inability to stand and of course crying, are all physical responses we can experience when we are confronted with the reality of loss.

There is no shame in this, it is not weakness, it is not "too much". It is as much a part of life, as dying is, and for too long has it been seen as being weak, emotional and "over the top". Yet ritualized expressions of grief were a regular component of wakes; the practice of keening has gone out of "fashion", but how much this had to do with conceptions of propriety in an anglicised world, and how much it had to do with no longer having any value, is debatable.

So what grief represents is the coming to terms with your situation, and accepting it for what it is. Recognize the loss, accept the loss and understand that things will necessarily be different from this time on. It is only when the reality of the situation is ignored, when emotions are not processed, but rather suppressed, that complications related to grief arise.

I think the idea of literally dying of a broken heart or sorrow is a romantic literary device. The purpose of which is either to show the extent of grief over the death or in the case of musicians playing powerfully sorrowful music, their skill. This does not mean that we ought to do the same, rather it can symbolize that not dealing with your feelings of loss can inexorably alter your life in very negative ways.

A component of accepting the reality of the loss, and finding the strength to go is, is a call to courage in the face of adversity. Life can be horrid, painful and full of sorrow, but this should not prevent us from trying to live as best as we are able to. Our lived will be tinged by sorrow and joy, and not always in equal measure. It may never, truly "get better", but still we are called to stand tall and carry on. 
The gods are not perfect
This is one of those "gotcha" points that many a monotheist likes to harp on about, that they sensibly worship a god which is superlative in all of his capacities. Yet their god, the god of classical monotheism [henceforth GOCM], and these characteristics are the basis of the perennial problem of theodicy. The four characteristics which are touted are the "four o's": omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence.  Yet, with the undeniable existence of suffering, all four characteristics can not be inherent in the same being. The rubric generally follows:
  • If GOCM does not have the power to stop suffering, then omnipotence is lacking
  • If GOCM does not know that suffering is occurring, than omniscience is lacking
  • If GOCM is not present to stop suffering, than omnipresence is lacking
  • If GOCM can prevent suffering, but chooses not to, than omnibenevolence is lacking
Many use this as a logical "proof" that GOCM does not exist, I simply think it shows that a tribal war god who has through centuries of hegemonic monotheist theology and philosophy been ascribed characteristics not inherent in the experience of his worshippers. A lofty ideal which falls apart in the face of reality.
Being a polytheist, I can accept that the gods are not perfect, all powerful beings. That there is none the less great mystery of their being, of the extent of their power, the breadth of their knowledge, their localised character and the limits of their compassion. Our morality may be sourced to the gods, but we are not gods and gods are not us. We euhemerise them in the stories we tell each other about them (or have this done for us by scribes), but we should not mistake these stories as a literal history of the gods.
The myths we have, the lore we pour over and study, are the single best resource we have for trying to understand and relate to the gods, to attempt to know them, but the gods are beyond the literary characters we read about. I can read about the final great battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorii, I can have it retold to me how Rúadán is killed by his Great Uncle Goibnu, and how his mother Brigid let out the first keening ever to be heard. I can read this and puzzle at the idea of gods being killed, but that isn't what the story is really about, intriguing a theological mystery as that may be. No, what the story tells us is that the gods themselves can experience loss and grief, and that we are made that much closer to them by this. That Brigid knows the sting of grief, that a goddess of her stature is overwhelmed by emotion, is a great comfort to those of us asking why, of trying to make sense of it all. I know too, that Brigid in her grief is also full of compassion and understanding, and that she has the power to mend broken hearts and balm shattered spirits.

Both of these ideas, that we have within all of us the courage and the strength to flourish despite the losses and tragedy we must all face and that while the gods are alien and separate from us by their very nature, they understand and relate to our experiences of loss, are how I square the existence of tragedy in my life with my worship and trust of the gods.



Sunday, July 6, 2014

Living in a world without sin

Continuing with my current tend of exploring values in GRP in a rather roundabout way, we find ourselves having to deal with the concept of sin. Or rather, the lack of sin present in the GRP worldview. This does not mean that actions have no consequences, or that we are not capable of offending the na trí náomh, only that the repercussions of such actions tend to be immediate and not tallied in some invisible counter to be used against us when we die. In fact, there is no moral component which determines our fate once we die; virtuous or detestable, we all journey to the House of Donn. More on this later, however, let us examine precisely what constitutes sin, its consequences and the overall impact the concept has had upon the discussion of religion as well as the wider culture in the west.

A sin, according to Abrahamic tradition, is any action (or thought in some traditions) which intentionally violates a rule or law as established by the Abrahamic god (according to such mythologies). In accounts of Temple era Judaism, sins were atoned for by offering an animal sacrifice in the temple, in penance and reconciliation for wrong doing. In later Rabbinical tradition, this atonement and reconciliation for sins would be accomplished through confession (ashamnu) and the avoidance of such sinful actions in the future.

In Christian tradition, Sin and how to atone for them depend greatly on the delineation one belongs to. One of the central rites in Catholic doctrine is the rite of contrition/confession, whereby a parishioner is absolved of sin through the acts of confessing to their wrong doing, acknowledging that they have deliberately perpetrated these actions or thoughts, will make some penance for those thoughts/actions and will strive to avoid such thoughts/acts in the future. This is all accomplished via the priest, who is singly ably to absolve their members of sins through apostolic succession. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the means and way is almost identical to that of Catholics, albeit they tend to be a bit more fluid on who is able to hear and absolve their members of sins (including monks and lay people, etc.); albeit only an ordained Priest may provide absolution for sins.  I will single out Anglicanism, as it is one of the few Protestant denominations which maintains the tradition of a confessional rite, similar to Catholic confession but more general. Finally, the vast majority of Protestant denominations/ churches do not hold that any sort of intermediary is necessary for the absolution of sins, and this is done through the initial act of contrition (as is common among Pentecostal churches, the process of accepting Christ as their personal saviours) or is incorporated into regular worship services (corporate confession). Many Protestants will also include a confession of their daily sins in the evening prayers.
In Islam, sin is again seen as any act or thought which violates the law as established by their god, and seeking forgiveness for sin is known as istighfar, and is one of the integral components of worship for Muslims. A spirit of admission and contrition is necessary in order for the sin to be forgiven, and if the sin is against another person it often requires their forgiveness as well.

In terms of necessity, the existence of sin in the case of Christianity is the core problem of ones existence, and it is only through the sacrifice of Christ (or through the power given to his representatives through apostolic succession/ tradition) that Christians can establish a spiritual position to reconcile themselves with their god. Yet, in general, the act of contrition and repentance alone are clearly not enough on their own, and theologically make the person of Christ the central figure in their world view. This is of course one of the many intrinsic differences between Christianity and Judaism and Islam. Sin, humanities natural state as being sinful, originated with the progenitor of the human race, Adam. So while the concept that Adam's transgression caused sin to become part of human nature, referred to as original sin in Christian tradition, is a component of the Abrahamic understanding and development of the term, the emphasis given to the single act differs amongst the religions considerably. Having said that, we can certainly appreciate the significance of precedent and its symbolic power, albeit appreciation is not the same as recognition.

For us, there is no concept of original sin, there is nothing which intrinsically keeps us separated from the gods. Of course the reason we seek out and worship them  is very, very different from the Abrahamic approach to the divine. Yet, this is not our cosmology, nor our theology at work. We are not a fallen people and our natural state is not one of depravity. We are meant to live in the here and in the now; our lives are spent not seeking some future eternal reward, but rather for a rewarding life in the present. We accept ourselves and our humanity and seek to do right by the Na Tri Naomh, not because we fear some eternal punishment, nor hope for some eternal reward. We choose to do so because it is simply the richest, most beneficial mode of living for us. Now, a caveat is also required, because Judaism's approach to the why of living is quite similar to our own; while there are beliefs about the afterlife, the focus is on living in this world.
Sacrifice is offered not as propitiation or extirpation, as payment for some cosmic crime or slight against the gods; sacrifice is offered as an acknowledged price for the maintenance of the world; quite literally. Or rather, there are very good reasons to understand the act of human (and animal) sacrifices as a means of providing to the gods the raw materials with which to stave off the entropic nature of the cosmos. Bruce Lincoln has made the case that when exploring the nature of sacrificial offerings, and in particular that of livestock or rare cases of human beings, IE cultures did so as a reversal of the divine process of giving shape and form to life:
primordial sacrifice => cosmogony => anthropogny => sacrifice => etc..

Which is not to say that the idea of punishment for crimes against the community lacked any sort of religious connotations. While there is little insular literary evidence of it, if we turn to the continent and explore some of the sources pertaining to the mannerism of the Druids and the communities they served we can make some observations. According to Cesar (not the most reliable of witnesses) one of the most feared punitive measures a Druid could inflict upon a criminal, was the prohibition of their participation in the communal acts of sacrifice. So while the crimes or transgressions are not seen as religious in and of themselves, the consequence of being unable to participate in the communal rites an sacrifices was seen as a very serious penalty. What is important to recognize, however, is that the decision was not oracular, was not some divine missive, but rather a decision rendered and enforced by the Druids themselves; a temporal penalty for a temporal crime.

Now, with this in mind and upon closer examination of many of the contemporary continental accounts from Greek and Roman sources, they certainly believed that the Celts they encountered did in fact offer up sacrifices (animal and especially human) in propitiation of the gods. As payment for victory in some coming battle or for the victory they had already received, they would offer up human sacrifices (usually prisoners of war).
What it all comes down to is the cosmological and theological framework ones point of view is informed by. The Abrahamic's understanding is that humans are a fallen species; either through their mythic progenitor, their own failings, or a combination of the two; their natural state of being is sinful. They also understand their god as being perfect and the origin of the law codes that inform their understanding of morality. Their failings necessarily make them separate from their god, and so acts of repentance and contrition are mandatory to close this distance called sin.
This life chose me; I'm not lost in sin.
This is not to say that we are "perfect", that we have no room for improvement or betterment. We struggle, we hurt, we fail, we die; yet all of these things are part of the deal. We are not perfect, because life is not perfect, and I rather think that setting up an impossible ideal as attainable (if only through divine intervention) is just that; impossible. You can feel bad about your shortcomings, but you can choose to wallow in them or overcome them. While the term (and philosophy behind it) are purely Greek, eudamonia ("the good life") is something which is attainable, and further does not require any impossible ideals of perfection to achieve. Rather, it requires dedication, effort and the realization that it is something which is a reward in and of itself. As virtue ethics is something which is reflected in the medieval literature and is a component of GRP, utilizing the most robust VE system in western philosophy as a means of informing our own approach to ethics is (in my mind) a reasonable adaptation of a pre-existing model.

The middle way is where virtue lives, and it is through living virtuously that we are able to flourish. We relate to and with the gods through mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationships. Make no mistake, we can offend the gods, we can offend our ancestors and we most certainly can offend the spirits of place. There are countless examples from folklore especially, so most of the "feedback" relates to prohibitions against certain actions or the use of particular items when coming into contact with spirits of place.
The destruction of a hazel was often avoided as much as possible, the avoidance of fairy mounds during construction projects was common in the 19th century, and the prohibition against the use of cold iron in any capacity when dealing with the fair folk are all examples of the fear with which folk practices reinforce the simplicity by which we could offend. Violations of the laws of hospitality, of bringing dishonour to ones self (and by proxy their family and group), disrespecting or desecrating the graves of the dead are likewise examples of the means by which we may offend our ancestors. The means by which we may offend the gods is a bit trickier, violating the rules of hospitality would be among those which are more obvious, as would be the violation of geasa. Yet none of these acts carry with them the same sort of punitive cost found among those religions which contain dogma relating to sin. Certainly the violation of ones geasa will result in ruination and more often than not death, yet this is once more a temporal (if rather fatal) end. No where do we find evidence of further punishment of payment owed beyond the loss of ones own life or honour; no punishment awaits those who violate their sworn oaths, their geasa or give other offence to the gods once their life ends.
Whether one has lived a fully flourishing life of virtue, or a craven, cowardly life of vice, their ultimate abode is the same. All of us will travel to the live under the care of the Lord of dusk, in his hallowed halls. This is because our behaviour in this life only matters in this life, because for all we know, this is all we get. I believe quite strongly that I will sit with my lord when my time on the mortal coil ends, but I am not certain. I'm repeating myself, but it bears repeating: Never forget that we seek to do right by the na trí naomh, that we uphold dírgas, not because we hope to gain admittance to a paradisiacal hereafter, nor for fear and avoidance of eternal penitence and pain, but because by doing so we are allowed to flourish and be excellent. Our live are meant to be lived as best we can, in the here and now, for the sake of living good lives. We have been given the gift of life, the beauty and the horror, that we may stake out a piece of time and space and say, "We were here, we lived, and this is what we were able to do". If we fear for the future, once we are no longer here to contribute to it, than all we have to fear is leaving behind a legacy of ignominy.
Live freely, fully and fight to win a place for those who come after us, while we honour those who came before us. We are not a degraded, fallen and callow species vainly begging our gods for their forgiveness for not living up to their unobtainable standards. Our gods ask much of us, but never more than we can bear. We are not a repentant lot, asking and receiving the blessings of a sacrifice we have not asked for, nor earned. Our gods accept our sacrifices, but they are ours, we do not ask someone else to pay them for us. All we can do, all that we would ever be expected to do, is live as best we can.
Thank the gods we live in a world unburdened by sin.