Last Sunday in our “Spirit Circle” discussion at the UU Church, we had one of our typical discussions that was all over the place and is difficult to summarize. It started with the question, “How do your beliefs play out in your daily life.” We rapidly got off that track and at some point one of the Christians in the group said something to the effect that “If you don’t believe in God then you can just do anything.” While not an unusual comment from a Christian, it was a strange comment considering the audience, many of whom are atheist.
But what struck me was the response of one of the Buddhists in the group. He responded that one did not have to believe in God, because the Universe itself is structured in such a way that people who only think about “me, myself, and mine” will always get “kicked in the butt”. The sentiment was that, whether or not you are a theist, there is Justice in the Universe and, therefore, a reason to conform to his ideal of a “good person”. The belief in ultimate Justice always seems to be accompanied by a particular version of the “good person” ideal. It struck me how little changed from the Christian to the Buddhist perspective. Both believe in ultimate Justice. And both had very similar notions of what a good person is: someone that is selfless.
The same thing bothers me about Paganism. I remember one Sunday when a couple of witches came down to our Spirit Circle to share what Paganism is and they said that the one thing that all Pagans agree on is the “Law of Threefold Return”, the belief that what you put out into the world returns multiplied. Well, I’m Pagan and I absolutely do not believe that. And I know that there are witches who also do not believe that and who reserve the right to curse others when appropriate. The Law of Threefold Return is just another example of the belief in an ultimate form of Justice.
After hearing the Buddhist’s response on Sunday, I felt compelled to wonder aloud if anyone else felt, like I did, that there is no ultimate Justice and that we have to find our own reasons for behaving with honor and dignity. I thought of Nietzsche’s challenge:
“You will never pray again, never adore again, never again rest in endless trust; you do not permit yourself to stop before any ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power, while unharnessing your thoughts; you have no perpetual guardian and friend for your seven solitudes; you live without a view of mountains with snow on their peaks and fire in their hearts; there is no avenger for you any more nor any final improver; there is no longer any reason in what happens, no love in what will happen to you; no resting place is open any longer to your heart, where it only needs to find and no longer to seek; you resist any ultimate peace; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace: man of renunciation, all this you wish to renounce? Who will give you the strength for that? Nobody yet has had this strength!”
What if there is “no avenger … nor any final improver.” What if there is no Justice? As John Lennon sings:
Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Of course there must be law and order, rules and customs which structure our social interactions. But what if we took away the divine sanction behind those rules? What if people understood laws as social conventions and nothing more? And what if people sought within themselves for a moral compass rather than looking forward to reward in heaven or punishment in hell? What if there was no ultimate justice? What if the mass murderers and the fascist dictators could live and die and suffer not at all? And … and here’s the real question I think at the heart of the hope of Justice … what if you could get away with it? Honestly, I don’t think much would change. I think a few people would have a little more sex, and a few people might have a little less sex, and that would be it. We would pretty much act the same, but with more authenticity.
In her Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice’s main character, Lestat, theorizes that there is no ultimate moral law, only an aesthetic law that he calls “the Savage Garden”:
“Beauty, rhythm, symmetry, those are the only laws I’ve ever witnessed that seemed natural. And I’ve always called them the Savage Garden! Because they seemed ruthless and indifferent to suffering—to the beauty of the butterfly snared in the spiderweb! To the wildebeest lying on the veldt with its heart still beating as the lions come to lap at the wound in its throat.”
Rice’s books, The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, can be read as an exploration of how the different characters cope with essential meaninglessness of their existence, i.e., the absence of a “final avenger” or ultimate Justice. Most of them are overwhelmed by it at some point. Rice’s books chronicle Lestat’s own search for what he calls “goodness” in the midst of the Savage Garden. At one point in the story, Lestat’s best friend in mortality, Nicholas, goes mad when he is made into a vampire. As Lestat watches his friend’s collapse, he wonders:
“Maybe deep inside Nicki had always dreamed of a harmony among things that I had always known was impossible. Nicki had dreamed not of goodness, but of justice.”
Nicholas’ very existence as a vampire flew in the face of his hope that the world is a just place, and the contradiction drove him to insanity. I believe that the hope of justice can drive us all to beliefs and actions which are in some sense “insane”.
During our discussion Sunday, someone asked me why I chose to behave ethically if I did not believe in any ultimate Justice, and I responded that my actions were basically hedonistic, in the sense of the ancient Greek school of Epicurean philosophy, not in the modern sense of unrestrained consumption. To the extent that I receive pleasure from other people’s happiness, then I act in accordance with their happiness as well.
The Buddhist called this “enlightened self-interest”, and I would agree with that term. But there’s more to it than that. There are certain aesthetic motivations for living my life according to a moral code, any moral code in fact. Aldous Huxley wrote:
“[I]f we must play the theological game, let us never forget that it is a game. Religion, it seems to me, can survive only as a consciously accepted system of make-believe. People will accept certain theological statements about life and the world, will elect to perform certain rites and to follow certain rules of conduct, not because they imagine the statements to be true or the rules and rites to be divinely dictated, but simply because they have discovered experimentally that to live in a certain ritual rhythm, under certain ethical restraints, and as if certain metaphysical doctrines were true, is to live nobly, with style. Every art has its conventions which every artist must accept. The greatest, the most important of the arts is living.”
To live under certain ethic restraints is to live “nobly and with style”. According to Huxley, we are artists and life is our medium. And we must impose some rules, any rules in fact, as we work with our medium, if the product of our effort is to be worthy of the title of “art”. This is, I think, what Rice mean when she wrote that the only laws are aesthetic laws.
As a Naturalistic Pagan, who believes in no supernatural or natural Justifier, neither God nor Karma, I am amazed at how nearly universal the belief in an ultimate Justice is. And I am more than a little disturbed that this belief also seems to be one of the core tenets of belief for most contemporary Neopagans, with whom I identify in so many other respects.
I wonder how much of this is a public relations issue for Neopagans. Since the beginning of the Neopagan revival, Witches and Pagans have been fighting against the prejudice that we are “bad people”. And while I am sympathetic to those who have experienced this prejudice, it seems ironic that people who intentionally chose the names “witch” or “Pagan” for their faith, names which seem intentionally designed to provoke Christians, would be so quick resort to identifying with their oppressors. “We’re just like you,” say the Witches and the Pagans. “We have own own version of the Golden Rule, the Law of Three Fold Return. You have nothing to worry about from us. We’re safe. We too believe in a form of ultimate Justice.”
I applaud those who resist this defensive strategy, like Zsuzsanna Budapest, who is in a minority of witches who reserve the right to practice so-called “black magic.” In this way, I think may be closer to LaVeyan Satanists than most Neopagans. But that is a post for another day.