Hearing voices or talking to ourselves?

All revelations are personal.
That’s why all revelations are suspect.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

In my last post, I reviewed some of the recent controversy over the issue of so-called pop culture Paganism, and tried to make sense of the varying perspectives of those participating in the debate. I concluded that post by observing that both “sides” of the debate (polytheistic recons on one side, and a variety of non-recon polytheists, magickal Pagans, and archetypal Pagans on the other) had valid points: I think the recons have a legitimate concern about danger of trivializing or desacralizing Pagan religiosity by conflating it with pop culture. However, the problem that recons face is how to distinguish true worship from profane fandom; in the process of trying to draw the distinction, they ended up excluding whole groups of people whose religiosity is arguably genuine.

The most common mistake made by recons participating in this debate was trying to draw the distinction based on the object of one’s religious attention. Obviously, reconstructionists privilege older religious forms. But the fact is that one person’s worship of Superman might be genuine religiosity, while another person’s adoration of Odin might be an example of what Galina Kasskova calls “spiritual puerility”. PSVL writes that just because something may be sacred, does not mean that it is. I think that’s right, but it applies just as much to ancient Greek gods as it does to pop culture icons. There is a difference between worship and fandom, but I think that the difference is not in the object, but in the subject — in the worshiper, not the worshipee.

How sacred is Superman to you?

I think at least part of the difference between sacred worship and profane adoration is to be found in the experience of sacredness. As Frater Inominandum writes in his short essay, “Why Not Invoke Superman”:

“You must hold the object of evocation as being sacred and powerful. You may think that Superman is powerful, but is he sacred? Is he sacred the way that a goddess is sacred? Can you be caught up in his rapture like Nuit? Do you really look upon it with awe? These are the things that separate spiritual beings from fantasy.” (emphasis original)

What does “sacred” mean? There are a lot of definitions of sacredness, but one definition that works for me is “something that has value aside from any instrumental or practical usefulness”. Think about the things or relationships in your life that matter most to you, and I think they will satisfy this definition of sacred. An encounter with the gods, if it is to be deserving of that name, should be of the same quality as the other things in our life that we call sacred.

Dver, a spirit-worker and devotional polytheist, argues that, whatever we think about the nature of the gods, what we should all be able to agree upon is that there is a “difference between slaughtering a pig over the bones of your tribe’s legendary ancestor in holy awe and supplication for a good year ahead, and liking what Superman stands for.” I agree, but on the flip side, I also think there is a difference between conducting a sacred rite to honor the divinity which has manifest for you as Superman, and liking one of your famous ancestors. The real difference is not the object (legendary ancestor or Superman), but the experience of awe felt and the attitude of reverence expressed in the presence of the object. This is, I think, is what PSVL means when e writes that the difference is one of presence or absence of “cultus”, where “cultus” means those practices of evoking, recognizing, and honoring that which we find sacred.

“Otherness”

The other difference, I think, is that genuine worship involves an encounter with the “other”. This is true whether you are a hard polytheist who believes the gods are beings which exist completely independently of the human mind, or a magickal Pagan who believes the gods are created by human minds but then take on an existence of their own, or an archetypal Pagan who believes the gods are part of the human psyche, but that the psyche includes parts that feel separate from what we identify as “us” (or in the words of Lon Milo Duquette, “It’s all in your head … You just have no idea how big your head is.”).

Philemon from Jung's Red Book

Philemon, one of Jung’s divine “others”, from his visionary period, as recorded in The Red Book.

Dver explores this in a a brief but powerful post entitled, “Worship Them”. She argues that the difference between between fiction and worship is that the former is an act of imagination, while the latter actually involves the experience of interacting with something other than yourself:

“Not the characters in your head, but the real, bigger-than-you’ll-ever-comprehend, powerful, life-changing GODS. When that happens, all else pales in comparison. You stop being in control. You are not the one writing the story or making the rules. (Maybe that’s why so few people do it – it’s scary and dangerous.) But, you become part of a much bigger, more significant story. You begin living mythically. But you can’t do this alone in your safe little world of imaginary characters. You need to engage with the real, independent, divine beings that exist outside of any of our limited ideas of them. You need to let go and WORSHIP. That’s when the really good stuff happens.”

This question of control is really critical, I think. Control is the difference between an encounter with your own ego-self and an encounter with the “other”, whatever the nature of that “other”. Even though Dver and I disagree about the degree or quality of the separation between us and the gods, I agree 100% with everything she says above. Even from an archetypal perspective, a true encounter with the gods is not something that we can consciously control. It is dangerous and frightening, and it can transform a mundane life into a mythical life.

This experience of otherness, combined with a sense of sacrality, is what Rudolf Otto called the “numinous” (a term adopted by Jung). And the numinous is what seems to be missing from a lot of archetypal descriptions of the gods, to the extent that they reduce the gods to mere metaphors. This is something at Jung himself warned against:

“Their numinosity gives the contents [of the archetypes] an autonomous nature. [...] Not only is the existence of archetypes denied, but even those people who do admit their existence usually treat them as if they were mere images and forget that they are living entities that make up a great part of the human psyche. As soon as the interpreter strips them of their numinosity, they lose their life and become mere words.” (CW 18: P 595-596)

I suspect this lack of numinosity is what causes many polytheists to reject archetypal descriptions of religious experience out of hand.

Hearing voices?

If you’re seeing things
running through your head
Who can ya call?
Ghostbusters!
– “Ghostbusters”, Ray Parker

But what does it really mean to have encounter with an “other”, especially when the “other” is one that can be heard, but makes no sound, can be felt, but not touched, and can seen, but not with the eyes? This is how most polytheists have explained their experience to me, and this is consistent with my own experiences of encounters with the divine, previously as a Christian and more recently as a Pagan — intangible, invisible, inaudible, and yet somehow still present in a way analogous to sensory experience.

Of course, we all can “hear” a voice in our head when we “talk to ourselves”. And we can “see” things when we imagine them or remember them. But what happens when we experience these things without willing them? What happens when the voice we “hear” or the thing we “see” feels like something that is happening to us, rather than something we are doing? What happens when these experiences seem as “real” or as significant (or more so) than things that everyone agrees are real? As Druid Nimue Brown writes in her her recent post, if we admit this publicly, then we are labelled “insane”. But this is merely a social judgment: “Insanity has never been purely a measurement of mental health,” writes Brown, “It is a measurement of deviance from consensus.”*

The irony is that we all hear voices and see “things that aren’t there” when we dream, voice and visions that we do not consciously create — and that’s considered socially acceptable. It’s even acceptable, to a certain extent, to look to dreams for personal direction. But for some reason, it’s not acceptable to listen to these voices or pay attention to these images when we are awake. And the truth is that everyone hears voices and sees image in their head, even when we are awake. And I would hazard that most people have had the experience of hearing a voice or seeing an image which did not feel like it came from them. And sometimes these experiences feel … well, significant. Pagan Judith O’Grady describes this in her book, God Speaking, as a kind of “reverberation” or “mystical echo” which causes her to pay more attention to certain experiences.

The difference between a person who is considered sane by our society and one who is considered insane is not that the purportedly sane person does not have these experiences; rather the “sane” person is the one who dismisses these voices and images as “not real” or not significant. We are socialized to disregard them, in fact. We are encouraged to distract ourselves from them, to drown them out with television, pop culture, addictions, and interpersonal drama.

But if we are quiet, if we listen, if we attend to these experiences, then we can begin to hear and see them more clearly. As Nimue Brown writes, “The voice of spirit does not go away just because our current culture has no place for it.” We can sometimes hear them as “loudly” than other people talking to us. And we can also learn to tell the difference between the voices of the divine “others” and the sound of us talking to ourselves. We can eventually learn to appreciate different degrees of depth, or levels of meaningfulness, in these experiences — just like how we can sense that some dreams are more significant than others. This is called “discernment”, a term I see used increasingly by polytheists, many of whom are working to develop an experientially-based methodology for identifying genuine encounters with divine presences. I think this is something that Neopagans (speaking as one myself) can learn from polytheists.

Discernment

To learn to separate these experiences of “otherness” from our conscious thoughts and to to distinguish the more meaningful experiences from the random flashes of our imagination is, I think, a key to distinguishing sacred worship from profane pop culture. Dver references an earlier post of hers entitled, “Discernment”, where she distinguishes talking to imaginary people in your head from really interacting with the gods:

“I read a lot from people who appear to be having constant conversations with the gods as if They were simply invisible friends, always near and always interested in everything we think or do. …

“The gods are not just people who happen to be invisible and inaudible to most (despite our tendency toward anthropomorphism), and They are not limited to our ideas about Them. If the god you’re hearing never seems to stray (in appearance, tone, message, etc.) from what one would expect based on other people’s experiences, if They never surprise or even shock you, never challenge you, and if They are always there whenever you happen to turn your attention toward Them, then you are probably not touching the true nature of that god. To reiterate, you don’t always need to be doing so. But if you never go further, if you fail to recognize the limits of this everyday chit-chat sort of approach and thus fail to push yourself to access a deeper level of communication, then you will never really know the god you love as thoroughly as you could, and that is a shame, especially for one who aspires to that sort of mystic relationship.

“… If I want to get Their full attention, I work for it – I do ritual, I put power behind my words and actions, I choose potent times and places, and then I shift my own consciousness to a receptive state in which I can listen and see more clearly. And I never, ever assume I have reached the end of this work to get closer to Them.”

In other words, there is an experiential difference between talking to yourself and hearing the voices of the gods — even though both may take place “in your head”. And the same is true for those experiences which are more visual or tactile (or those that involve that bodily sixth sense that Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense”).

And contrary to what many polytheists claim, I don’t think it matters what you call the gods, or what you believe about their existence. For the polytheist, these voices are the gods or our ancestors. For the monotheist, they are God or God’s Spirit or the Holy Ghost (or sometimes the Devil/Satan). For the archetypal Pagan, they are the powers of the autonomous psyche. But whatever we call them, I think we are experiencing the same thing (except that I think polythestic Pagans are more open to a diversity of voices than monotheists). What matters is (1) that we learn to listen and (2) that we exercise discernment. Polytheists and Pagans do the first step through ritual. Jungians and some Pagans do it through active imagination (not to be confused with what is commonly called “imagination”) and dreamwork. The result is the same.

The next step is to exercise discernment. Here are some questions that I think might serve s a kind of litmus test for discerning whether you have really encountered the presence of a divine “other”. This is a work in progress, drawing primarily from the posts of Frater Inominandum, PSVL, and Dver, all individuals with significant experience interacting with gods and spirits:

1. Is the experience “sacred” to you? Is it similar to other things that you consider sacred.

2. Does the experience evoke a sense of awe or reverence or of being overwhelmed (i.e., with joy)?

3. Do you experience a presence, a strangeness, or a sense of “otherness”, something or someone distinct from what you identify as your conscious waking self.

4. Does the experience feel beyond your conscious control?

5. Are there aspects of the experience that surprise you or challenge you in some way?

6. Is the experience difficult to explain using everyday language? Is it mysterious or ineffable?

7. Does the experience sometimes require effort on your part to evoke?

8. Does the experience sometimes not respond to your effort to evoke it?

9. Does the experience tend to occur when you are in a more receptive state?

10. Has the experience ever occurred regardless of your level of receptivity?

11. Does the experience humble you? Does it move you to bend your knees or bow your head or remove your shoes or “kiss the earth” (Rumi)? Does it move you to worship?

Not every experience will conform to all of these, of course, but the more of these questions that you can answer affirmatively, I think, the more likely it is that you are having a genuine encounter with divinity — whether you call it a god, or God, or Self, or whatever — as opposed to just talking to yourself. And the same test can be used to separate genuine religiosity from profane pop culture. If your relationship with Superman meets most of the criteria above, then I think it’s wrong for anyone to say that your “god” is less real than anyone else’s.

Worship

Finally, I want to address briefly the idea of worship. The last question above, #11, is an awkward one for archetypal and naturalistic Pagans. Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of worship, at least to the extent that it seems to imply a surrender of our reason or our critical faculties. In a follow-up to her post “Worship Them”, Dver argues that worship is the appropriate response to a genuine encounter with the divine:

“I am suggesting that we not only acknowledge and honor those beings, but that we get down on our knees before Them – not because we must grovel for being pathetic and small, but because Their presence should bring us to our knees.” (emphasis original)

While I disagree with Dver about the relationship of these presences to our psyche, I agree that a encounter with them should evoke feelings of awe that move us to … well, worship. There is a kind of surrender involved in worship. At the very least, an acknowledgement of what lies beyond our control and beyond the grasp of our rational minds. It can be discomfiting, to say the least, especially to those of us who are are overly reliant on our left-brains. Nevertheless, I think it is the natural and appropriate response to an encounter with the divine “other”. I think a level of comfort with kneeling before this presence is something else that archetypal and naturalistic Pagans (speaking as one myself) can learn from devotional polytheists.

* The real difference between the sane mystic and the insane person is, in the words of Jung to James Joyce: one is swimming, while the other is drowning.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    Fascinating as always. With regard to “worship,” my stumbling block with that word remains. It seems to connote a sense of duality, a subject-object relationship. In my practice I’m aiming to realize unity and participation, not separateness before some “divine other.” I have met the other, and it am us. The appropriate response is celebration, not worship. Or so it seems to me.

    • http://herlanderwalking.wordpress.com syrbal

      I have some of that same issue with the subject-object problem. Being panentheistic (close as I can get to accurate description), I do believe we all participate in that Other, but there is yet something beyond as well. And that, we MAY experience if we reach some inexplicable level. And yes, very on the “celebrate”….because if that spiritual “it” does not bring joy as well as whatever else? It isn’t the “real” deal and should be run from as if it were an angry/frightened skunk.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      I think the experience of “otherness” is important. It reminds us that there is something fundamentally beyond our control that exerts a determining influence on our lives. It is a call to humility. It is a reminder that the world (including the natural world and other people) is not an extension of our ego.

      Having said that, I think it is important to hold this idea of otherness in our mind as we simultaneously try to tear down the subject-object barrier to realize our essential participation with the world — they are both truths, I think, in a paradoxical way.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    Fascinating as always. With regard to “worship,” my stumbling block with that word remains. It seems to connote a sense of duality, a subject-object relationship. In my practice I’m aiming to realize unity and participation, not separateness before some “divine other.” I have met the other, and it am us. The appropriate response is celebration, not worship. Or so it seems to me.

    • http://herlanderwalking.wordpress.com syrbal

      I have some of that same issue with the subject-object problem. Being panentheistic (close as I can get to accurate description), I do believe we all participate in that Other, but there is yet something beyond as well. And that, we MAY experience if we reach some inexplicable level. And yes, very on the “celebrate”….because if that spiritual “it” does not bring joy as well as whatever else? It isn’t the “real” deal and should be run from as if it were an angry/frightened skunk.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      I think the experience of “otherness” is important. It reminds us that there is something fundamentally beyond our control that exerts a determining influence on our lives. It is a call to humility. It is a reminder that the world (including the natural world and other people) is not an extension of our ego.

      Having said that, I think it is important to hold this idea of otherness in our mind as we simultaneously try to tear down the subject-object barrier to realize our essential participation with the world — they are both truths, I think, in a paradoxical way.

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  • http://herlanderwalking.wordpress.com syrbal

    I really enjoyed this article and those eleven questions. Even tho’ I’m sure it will make the atheist readers of my blog roll their eyes in despair, lol, I answered the questions as one of my posts for the day. Let me just say briefly here, I don’t think such events need to be either/or on the external or internal scale — I believe one can experience BOTH kinds of an altered state. I think the effort to so precisely quantify such occurrences is understandable, but can devolve into what William James also called “snarling logicality”. I think it would be more fruitful to learn to DISTINGUISH between the two and analyze the differences.

  • http://herlanderwalking.wordpress.com syrbal

    I really enjoyed this article and those eleven questions. Even tho’ I’m sure it will make the atheist readers of my blog roll their eyes in despair, lol, I answered the questions as one of my posts for the day. Let me just say briefly here, I don’t think such events need to be either/or on the external or internal scale — I believe one can experience BOTH kinds of an altered state. I think the effort to so precisely quantify such occurrences is understandable, but can devolve into what William James also called “snarling logicality”. I think it would be more fruitful to learn to DISTINGUISH between the two and analyze the differences.

  • Dhiosdh

    The bio on Dver’s blog says: “*her*main practices include oracular trance, pathwalking, bone-working, and devotional worship.”

  • Dhiosdh

    The bio on Dver’s blog says: “*her*main practices include oracular trance, pathwalking, bone-working, and devotional worship.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/fritterfae Eric Riley

    Nearly everything you talk about on here is covered in TM Luhrmann’s book “When God Talks Back” where she looks at Pentecostal Christian church The Vineyard and analyzes their mental process of discerning an intangible God. Our Pagan book club in DC is reading this book and myself and other people are having “whoa” moments with it. Thanks for this article, I’ll try and mention it when we do our get together in a couple weeks.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      I haven’t read it yet, but want to. I do recall hearing a review some time ago and it referenced part of the book where Luhrman describes evangelicals sitting down to coffee with Jesus and actually pouring him a cup. And I thought, “Wow! That’s like polytheists making offerings!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/fritterfae Eric Riley

    Nearly everything you talk about on here is covered in TM Luhrmann’s book “When God Talks Back” where she looks at Pentecostal Christian church The Vineyard and analyzes their mental process of discerning an intangible God. Our Pagan book club in DC is reading this book and myself and other people are having “whoa” moments with it. Thanks for this article, I’ll try and mention it when we do our get together in a couple weeks.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      I haven’t read it yet, but want to. I do recall hearing a review some time ago and it referenced part of the book where Luhrman describes evangelicals sitting down to coffee with Jesus and actually pouring him a cup. And I thought, “Wow! That’s like polytheists making offerings!”

  • thalassa

    I once saw a poster at a UU congregation we were visiting that said “When in doubt, pray. When in prayer, doubt.” It pretty much sums up my view towards religion as a whole–doubt is just as sacred as faith. In my lifetime, y experience and understanding of the gods has run the gamut from hard polytheism to indifferent monotheist (I actually consider my current POV of pantheist to be somewhere in the middle)…and really, my experience of the Divine has never been dependent on my intellectual opinion on the matter. I can’t help but think that If Poseidon doesn’t care if I think he’s “real” or not (and still chats with me aplenty), then why should anyone else?

    • http://herlanderwalking.wordpress.com syrbal

      You provided my feel good of the day! I am nearly always in doubt, and just about as often in trouble with someone for daring to say so, lol! Nonetheless, I continue to doubt!

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      I like that UU phrase. Another one I like even more I came across recently:

      “Hold your beliefs lightly. And hold your doubts lightly too.”

      It was in a comment by Philip Anderson in response to a post at Humanistic Paganism entitled “Truth and compassion: Which takes priority?”: http://humanisticpaganism.com/2013/05/19/truth-and-compassion-which-takes-priority/

  • http://oneofamyriadfaces.wordpress.com Myriad

    Thank you for this post on discernment—I’ll bookmark that checklist, because in a long time, it’s been the first thing to have actually boosted my confidence in my own experience :) [I know, not your job *grins* But I thought I'd let you know.]

    • http://oneofamyriadfaces.wordpress.com Myriad

      Perhaps one more thought (that I’ve been contemplating for a while): discernment for me also has the meaning “being able to tell apart ‘fandom of the Sacred’ from ‘actual devotion to the Sacred’”. And in this capacity, I think what really helps is taking it slow.

      I know, that sounds boring and a lot of people would argue that it was the Gods who made the moves and there was little they could have done to slow that down. I don’t know how to respond to such claims really, but: in my opinion, discernment is (also) a long term thing.

      Fandom (of any sort) does not last. Slowing down, especially if you’re considering making life-altering decisions, is a good idea. For how long, I don’t know. But my fandom things usually last a several months up to a few years (significantly less than five). It should be possible to negotiate that kind of time with your Deity. After all, They have much more time than you do. [From my perspective as a hard-but-not-super-reconstructionist polytheist]. And it might spare you the problems that arise from having sworn an oath to an actual Deity while “in the throes of fandom obsession”. Small price to pay, really, if you weigh those options.

  • http://oneofamyriadfaces.wordpress.com Myriad

    Thank you for this post on discernment—I’ll bookmark that checklist, because in a long time, it’s been the first thing to have actually boosted my confidence in my own experience :) [I know, not your job *grins* But I thought I'd let you know.]

    • http://oneofamyriadfaces.wordpress.com Myriad

      Perhaps one more thought (that I’ve been contemplating for a while): discernment for me also has the meaning “being able to tell apart ‘fandom of the Sacred’ from ‘actual devotion to the Sacred’”. And in this capacity, I think what really helps is taking it slow.

      I know, that sounds boring and a lot of people would argue that it was the Gods who made the moves and there was little they could have done to slow that down. I don’t know how to respond to such claims really, but: in my opinion, discernment is (also) a long term thing.

      Fandom (of any sort) does not last. Slowing down, especially if you’re considering making life-altering decisions, is a good idea. For how long, I don’t know. But my fandom things usually last a several months up to a few years (significantly less than five). It should be possible to negotiate that kind of time with your Deity. After all, They have much more time than you do. [From my perspective as a hard-but-not-super-reconstructionist polytheist]. And it might spare you the problems that arise from having sworn an oath to an actual Deity while “in the throes of fandom obsession”. Small price to pay, really, if you weigh those options.

      • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

        Good advice for all spiritual practice!

  • Kati

    I agree with this post and found it very useful. But do you know, is anyone talking about people who get BOTH genuine spiritual experiences AND delusions? With the number of manic depressive Pagans out there, it seems like this would be discussed more than it is.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      That’s a good question Kati. Not having experience with clinical depression, bipolar disorder, or the like, I would not be able to speak intelligently about it.

  • Kati

    I agree with this post and found it very useful. But do you know, is anyone talking about people who get BOTH genuine spiritual experiences AND delusions? With the number of manic depressive Pagans out there, it seems like this would be discussed more than it is.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      That’s a good question Kati. Not having experience with clinical depression, bipolar disorder, or the like, I would not be able to speak intelligently about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

    Even fiction isn’t just fiction, except to the people consuming it perhaps. If you’ve ever tried, or succeeded, in writing a novel you can probably answer in the affirmative to all eleven questions. If your own fiction doesn’t surprise you, if your characters don’t do things you don’t see coming, writing fiction would be a bore. Julia Cameron and Steven Pressfield both write about creativity from very different perspectives, one like a drill sergeant and one like your grandmother who is into crystals. Both write about the feeling that creativity comes from ‘out there’, Pressfield talks openly about the greek muses.
    As much as I feel pop culture worship is, in some way, lesser? I can’t even put it into words, which is a sure sign it’s more of a bias rather than a reasoned opinion, you can’t deny the sheer weight and resonance of certain characters. Is one more ‘real’ than the other. Tolkien gives us a much more complete pantheon and world view in his writings than we have left of any european pagan faiths. In the sense that you are ‘making things up’ is trying to revive these faiths, as many do, where exactly does the difference lie. As in good fiction I think the difference is one of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. A good writer tries not to pull you out of the narrative by making obvious factual mistakes, by including details that lend their story verisimilitude. Worshiping old gods allows some of us to more easily suspend disbelief, to bypass our skepticism as we search for spiritual experience, Good for us. Some don’t need that, find their inspiration other places, in a worldview without gods at all, or in the costumed heroes of comic books and movies. If it works for you and you’re not trying to impose your worldview on me in some way, more power to you.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      Tolkien is an interesting example. Have you ever read his *Silmarillion* — it’s a full blown mythology, vast in scope, poetic and epic. And it is based in Tolkien’s vast knowledge of northern European pagan myth. (I had a funny exchange with Kenny Klein recently. I said that worshiping Tolkien’s gods — the Valar — did not make you Pagan. But then he changed his mind when he realized that the Valar were basically the Aesir.)

      “Worshiping old gods allows some of us to more easily suspend disbelief, to bypass our skepticism as we search for spiritual experience …”

      That is an interesting thought that had not occurred to me. I had not thought about poly-recons needing to suspend disbelief — but I guess we all need to do that.

      • http://www.witchesandpagans.com Anne Newkirk Niven

        Authorial intent, I think, has to count for something. And Tolkien would have had a screaming hissy fit over people worshipping the Valar, as he was a devout and orthodox Roman Catholic Christian. (Ok, so I may have overstated things — he was far too British and old school — for a “hissy fit.” But still.) Found this fascinating post about Tolkien’s views of myth — or even fantasy — as an expression of the Truth Faith (of Christianity) here: http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2004/08/myth-as-truth-jrr-tolkien-and.html

        • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

          Authorial intent is like strategy. Everyone has one, until you get hit in the face. Or let a third person, or millions of them, read your work.Then, it’s out the window. You can say it would drive the author nuts, and you are right. But it would sooooo work really, really well.

        • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

          >”Authorial intent, I think, has to count for something.”

          What do you think it counts for? Does that mean an author should have some control over what people do with his/her fiction? Should people not worship the Valar because Tolkien was Christian? Should Heinlein should have been able to have some say in the Church of All Worlds? Or what about how a chauvinistic author like Robert Graves had his work appropriated by the spiritual feminist movement?

          I find Paul Ricouer’s hermeneutic compelling. According to Ricouer, the work of a reader is not to unveil the ‘true’ meaning hidden in the text. Instead, the act of reading opens up a possible world, one that is not identical to the author’s intention, but is a product of the reader interacting with the text.

          • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

            Similar, perhaps, to literary critic Harold Bloom’s concept of “strong misreading”? Briefly discussed in the Wikipedia article, sorry I don’t have a better online reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Bloom

      • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

        The Silmarillion is one of my favorite books of all time. His Catholicism does show through on close reading, and yet Snorri was also a Christian, so a very close thing.

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          Mine too! Have you read *The Book of Lost Tales* (not to be confused with *Unfinished Tales*)? It’s one of the earlier drafts of the Silmarillion. It’s much less polished of course, but much more pagany, in content and style.

          • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

            I have indeed. I also loved Sigurd and Gudrun and I wish the fragment of the King Arthur poem was much longer. I want his translation of Beowulf, the fragments I’ve seen are beautiful. I found Seamus Heaney flat and modern.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

    Even fiction isn’t just fiction, except to the people consuming it perhaps. If you’ve ever tried, or succeeded, in writing a novel you can probably answer in the affirmative to all eleven questions. If your own fiction doesn’t surprise you, if your characters don’t do things you don’t see coming, writing fiction would be a bore. Julia Cameron and Steven Pressfield both write about creativity from very different perspectives, one like a drill sergeant and one like your grandmother who is into crystals. Both write about the feeling that creativity comes from ‘out there’, Pressfield talks openly about the greek muses.
    As much as I feel pop culture worship is, in some way, lesser? I can’t even put it into words, which is a sure sign it’s more of a bias rather than a reasoned opinion, you can’t deny the sheer weight and resonance of certain characters. Is one more ‘real’ than the other. Tolkien gives us a much more complete pantheon and world view in his writings than we have left of any european pagan faiths. In the sense that you are ‘making things up’ is trying to revive these faiths, as many do, where exactly does the difference lie. As in good fiction I think the difference is one of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. A good writer tries not to pull you out of the narrative by making obvious factual mistakes, by including details that lend their story verisimilitude. Worshiping old gods allows some of us to more easily suspend disbelief, to bypass our skepticism as we search for spiritual experience, Good for us. Some don’t need that, find their inspiration other places, in a worldview without gods at all, or in the costumed heroes of comic books and movies. If it works for you and you’re not trying to impose your worldview on me in some way, more power to you.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      Tolkien is an interesting example. Have you ever read his *Silmarillion* — it’s a full blown mythology, vast in scope, poetic and epic. And it is based in Tolkien’s vast knowledge of northern European pagan myth. (I had a funny exchange with Kenny Klein recently. I said that worshiping Tolkien’s gods — the Valar — did not make you Pagan. But then he changed his mind when he realized that the Valar were basically the Aesir.)

      “Worshiping old gods allows some of us to more easily suspend disbelief, to bypass our skepticism as we search for spiritual experience …”

      That is an interesting thought that had not occurred to me. I had not thought about poly-recons needing to suspend disbelief — but I guess we all need to do that.

      • http://www.witchesandpagans.com Anne Newkirk Niven

        Authorial intent, I think, has to count for something. And Tolkien would have had a screaming hissy fit over people worshipping the Valar, as he was a devout and orthodox Roman Catholic Christian. (Ok, so I may have overstated things — he was far too British and old school — for a “hissy fit.” But still.) Found this fascinating post about Tolkien’s views of myth — or even fantasy — as an expression of the Truth Faith (of Christianity) here: http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2004/08/myth-as-truth-jrr-tolkien-and.html

        • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

          >”Authorial intent, I think, has to count for something.”

          What do you think it counts for? Does that mean an author should have some control over what people do with his/her fiction? Should people not worship the Valar because Tolkien was Christian? Should Heinlein should have been able to have some say in the Church of All Worlds? Or what about how a chauvinistic author like Robert Graves had his work appropriated by the spiritual feminist movement?

          I find Paul Ricouer’s hermeneutic compelling. According to Ricouer, the work of a reader is not to unveil the ‘true’ meaning hidden in the text. Instead, the act of reading opens up a possible world, one that is not identical to the author’s intention, but is a product of the reader interacting with the text.

          • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

            Similar, perhaps, to literary critic Harold Bloom’s concept of “strong misreading”? Briefly discussed in the Wikipedia article, sorry I don’t have a better online reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Bloom

      • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

        The Silmarillion is one of my favorite books of all time. His Catholicism does show through on close reading, and yet Snorri was also a Christian, so a very close thing.

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          Mine too! Have you read *The Book of Lost Tales* (not to be confused with *Unfinished Tales*)? It’s one of the earlier drafts of the Silmarillion. It’s much less polished of course, but much more pagany, in content and style.

          • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

            I have indeed. I also loved Sigurd and Gudrun and I wish the fragment of the King Arthur poem was much longer. I want his translation of Beowulf, the fragments I’ve seen are beautiful. I found Seamus Heaney flat and modern.

  • http://www.witchesandpagans.com Anne Newkirk Niven

    This is a brilliant, thoughtful, and highly meaningful post. I have only one question: ethics. If a god/dess visits you and tells you to do something our culture considers immoral — oh, let’s go straight to the point and say, human sacrifice — what happens then? Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the divinities you are contacted by were known to ask for human sacrifice as part of their historically-attested rites? I’m uncomfortable with any religious experience that doesn’t have moral limits grounded in humanistic culture. I’m also not seeing anything that points to a way to distinguish between genuine mysticism and the ravings of the Son of Sam. It’s hardly fair to expect you, a Jungian/humanist, to answer these questions. But since you are the one person who seems to be doing the best job of elucidating the various arguments, I’m laying this on your plate.

    • http://dreamsandbass.wordpress.com darakat

      Does the god let you have “free will” or not? If you do, you can refuse to do anything they ask. If this means you part ways, so be it.

      • http://www.witchesandpagans.com Anne Newkirk Niven

        The question I’m raising isn’t one of coercion, per se, it’s more a question of blasphemy or contravening the will of the god(s). My question relates to whether morality applies to the gods, and if so, who’s morality? And if not, what limits are there on Divine Monsters?

        • http://dreamsandbass.wordpress.com darakat

          But what of the will of the god(s) if your will is to be expunged by thier ideals? If this devine monster can ask you to give up your morality, are they truely worthy of your continued worship? The ontological idea that we are faced with here is “sin” and the idea that going agaisnt the gods will is ‘blasphemy’, are we to face “sin” because we are expressing our own will? Are our gods guides to help us on our path or simply dictators whom we never question?

          • http://www.witchesandpagans.com Anne Newkirk Niven

            Precisely my point.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      That is a very good question. My post was focused on discerning whether an experience is genuinely from a divine “other”. The question of whether that divine “other” is to be trusted and followed is another question entirely. Once we determine whether a communication is divine, I think we have to exercise our critical faculties again and apply our liberal/humanistic values to decide what to do about the communication.

      This issue came up not too long ago when Hellenic polytheist Elani Temperance where she described her own if-they-told-you-to-jump-off-a-bridge kind of faith at her own blog, Baring the Aegis [http://witchesandpagans.com/EasyBlog/self-in-relation-to-deity.html]:

      “[...] when it comes to the Theoi–I say ‘how high’ when They say ‘jump’, regardless of what is requested of me. It also means that I put my faith in Them. When I pray and sacrifice to Zeus the Thunderer for a day without rain as I do my rounds outside, I don’t bring an umbrella. I trust that Zeus will either honor my prayer through kharis, or will have good reason not to. Who am I to go against His wishes and stay dry, regardless? To me, that is hubris.”

      My response was this:

      “You are a beautiful and incredible human being is who you are. Who is he to say you have to get wet? The polytheistic gods, as I understand them, are not necessarily ‘good’ and they are not omni-benevolent. They are as flawed as human beings, but they just have more power. Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”

      Elani explained that she is able to maintain boundaries with human beings, but not with the gods. That kind of faith makes no more sense to me in the context of divine beings than it would in the context of human beings. As a Jungian, I think the gods can be just as destructive and evil as humans. We can never abandon our moral responsibility to exercise judgment.

  • http://dreamsandbass.wordpress.com darakat

    I have lengthy thoughts on the dreaming aspect of your post, will hopefully be able to addres them soon.

    Otherwise a thought provoking post.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      I would love to hear your thoughts about dreaming.

  • http://dreamsandbass.wordpress.com darakat

    I have lengthy thoughts on the dreaming aspect of your post, will hopefully be able to addres them soon.

    Otherwise a thought provoking post.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      I would love to hear your thoughts about dreaming.

  • http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com aediculaantinoi

    Very good and useful discussion, John!

    I’d just add that you should try and be more consistent in your pronouns with Dver: last I heard, though she is not one’s typical modern female, she does identify as female, not as gender-fluid or trans. You’ve got several male pronouns for her scattered throughout your quotations and references to her above.

    [I hate to be playing "pronoun police" lately, alas...1]

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Thanks. Already corrected. I appreciate the heads up. Sloppy on my part (again).

  • http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com aediculaantinoi

    Very good and useful discussion, John!

    I’d just add that you should try and be more consistent in your pronouns with Dver: last I heard, though she is not one’s typical modern female, she does identify as female, not as gender-fluid or trans. You’ve got several male pronouns for her scattered throughout your quotations and references to her above.

    [I hate to be playing "pronoun police" lately, alas...1]

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Thanks. Already corrected. I appreciate the heads up. Sloppy on my part (again).

  • http://enicsidheag.livejournal.com Eilidh Nic Sidheag

    I love that line from Jung – I must make a note of that somewhere I will remember it!

  • http://enicsidheag.livejournal.com Eilidh Nic Sidheag

    I love that line from Jung – I must make a note of that somewhere I will remember it!

  • Necole Witcher

    Excellent! I wanted to show my appreciation John even though I have yet to fully consider and properly reply.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      Thanks Necole!

  • Necole Witcher

    Excellent! I wanted to show my appreciation John even though I have yet to fully consider and properly reply.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      Thanks Necole!

  • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

    Nice work, and a potentially very fruitful set of questions. I notice one person has already answered them on hir blog; perhaps others will engage in a similar exercise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

    Nice work, and a potentially very fruitful set of questions. I notice one person has already answered them on hir blog; perhaps others will engage in a similar exercise.

  • http://valielsurlavoiedesdieux.wordpress.com/ Valiel Elentári

    This is a highly impressive post. Synthetic, clear and very well structured. The title was tricky because in fact you tackle many topics here.

    It was very nice being given conceptual keys to understand what troubles me in my relationships with other pagans, which you call “neopagans” or “Jungian pagans”. =>

    “This experience of otherness, combined with a sense of sacrality, is what Rudolf Otto called the “numinous” (a term adopted by Jung). And the numinous is what seems to be missing from a lot of archetypal descriptions of the gods, to the extent that they reduce the gods to mere metaphors. This is something at Jung himself warned against”

    Indeed, when I listen to or read neo/Jungian pagans, my trouble is that I don’t see this feeling of otherness or sacrality. Thus, I don’t feel the “realness” of their experience, which means something exterior of themselves, a terrible feeling that they don’t deal with Gods, whatever the definition they have for that. Maybe they do, and they just don’t convey it, that’s what I try to tell myself. Maybe the confusion is that there really are atheist pagans, who consider the archetypes to be “forms” and not living entities. Which is totally incompatible for my hard polytheistic view.

    Any way, very interesting post, thank you for sharing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      “… a terrible feeling that they [neo/Jungian pagans] don’t deal with Gods, whatever the definition they have for that.”

      I agree. Many don’t. That was the reason for my post about “re-godding the archetypes” [ http://humanisticpaganism.com/2011/09/18/the-archetypes-are-gods-re-godding-the-archetypes-by-john-h-halstead/ ].

      Just as I am learning that there are a variety of different types of polytheists, there are also different types of archetypal Pagans, including those who believe that archetypes are cosmic divine beings to those who believe they are mere metaphors to those, like me, who believe something in the middle.

  • http://valielsurlavoiedesdieux.wordpress.com/ Valiel Elentári

    This is a highly impressive post. Synthetic, clear and very well structured. The title was tricky because in fact you tackle many topics here.

    It was very nice being given conceptual keys to understand what troubles me in my relationships with other pagans, which you call “neopagans” or “Jungian pagans”. =>

    “This experience of otherness, combined with a sense of sacrality, is what Rudolf Otto called the “numinous” (a term adopted by Jung). And the numinous is what seems to be missing from a lot of archetypal descriptions of the gods, to the extent that they reduce the gods to mere metaphors. This is something at Jung himself warned against”

    Indeed, when I listen to or read neo/Jungian pagans, my trouble is that I don’t see this feeling of otherness or sacrality. Thus, I don’t feel the “realness” of their experience, which means something exterior of themselves, a terrible feeling that they don’t deal with Gods, whatever the definition they have for that. Maybe they do, and they just don’t convey it, that’s what I try to tell myself. Maybe the confusion is that there really are atheist pagans, who consider the archetypes to be “forms” and not living entities. Which is totally incompatible for my hard polytheistic view.

    Any way, very interesting post, thank you for sharing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

      “… a terrible feeling that they [neo/Jungian pagans] don’t deal with Gods, whatever the definition they have for that.”

      I agree. Many don’t. That was the reason for my post about “re-godding the archetypes” [ http://humanisticpaganism.com/2011/09/18/the-archetypes-are-gods-re-godding-the-archetypes-by-john-h-halstead/ ].

      Just as I am learning that there are a variety of different types of polytheists, there are also different types of archetypal Pagans, including those who believe that archetypes are cosmic divine beings to those who believe they are mere metaphors to those, like me, who believe something in the middle.

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  • http://alexissolvey.wordpress.com Alexis Solvey Viorsdottir

    Hat dies auf Alexis Solveys Spirit- und Alltagsblog rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Absolutly worth reading!

    Ein kleiner Einblick in die aktuelle Debatte in der englischsprachigen Heidenszene zu dem Thema “Paganismus & Pop-Kultur”. Sehr gutes… ich sag jetzt mal Fazit oder Ergebnis. Ich selbst weiß zwar ganz gut wo ich in dieser Diskussion stehe, beteilige mich aber nicht daran. Spannend zu beobachten.

  • http://alexissolvey.wordpress.com Alexis Solvey Viorsdottir

    Hat dies auf Alexis Solveys Spirit- und Alltagsblog rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Absolutly worth reading!

    Ein kleiner Einblick in die aktuelle Debatte in der englischsprachigen Heidenszene zu dem Thema “Paganismus & Pop-Kultur”. Sehr gutes… ich sag jetzt mal Fazit oder Ergebnis. Ich selbst weiß zwar ganz gut wo ich in dieser Diskussion stehe, beteilige mich aber nicht daran. Spannend zu beobachten.

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  • Pingback: Addressing the “Reality” of dreams | Brain of Sap

  • http://finnchuillsmast.wordpress.com finnchuillsmast

    A good, fair-minded overview and roundup of the positions.! One other aspect of the pop culture issue that I’ve written a bit about is how it can keep people firmly locked into a consumer-culture mentality,; superheroes are franchises after all.

    One thing of importance regarding reconstructionist polytheists, like myself, is that besides being gods-focused, many of us are also nature-focused, seeing the very land and rivers as gods/goddesses.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      finnchuillsmast:

      Thanks. I’m including a link to your post here: http://finnchuillsmast.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/pop-cultus-heroes-consumerism-posing-as-religion/

      I really like what you wrote here: “Our minds are powerful and have many usually hidden or unacknowledged dimensions. To say something rises from our subconscious is not to be dismissive, not at all—but acknowledge that is its source.” I wish more polytheists felt this way.

      And thanks for the reference to Bruce Lincoln’s *Theorizing Myth*. I’m definitely going to have to check that one out.

      I think you really hit on the difference between worship and fandom here: “And on some level, instead of opening onto the Other, instead of that extraordinary task of getting outside of ourselves, the fan stays within their own mind and maintains consensus reality”

  • http://finnchuillsmast.wordpress.com finnchuillsmast

    A good, fair-minded overview and roundup of the positions.! One other aspect of the pop culture issue that I’ve written a bit about is how it can keep people firmly locked into a consumer-culture mentality,; superheroes are franchises after all.

    One thing of importance regarding reconstructionist polytheists, like myself, is that besides being gods-focused, many of us are also nature-focused, seeing the very land and rivers as gods/goddesses.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      finnchuillsmast:

      Thanks. I’m including a link to your post here: http://finnchuillsmast.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/pop-cultus-heroes-consumerism-posing-as-religion/

      I really like what you wrote here: “Our minds are powerful and have many usually hidden or unacknowledged dimensions. To say something rises from our subconscious is not to be dismissive, not at all—but acknowledge that is its source.” I wish more polytheists felt this way.

      And thanks for the reference to Bruce Lincoln’s *Theorizing Myth*. I’m definitely going to have to check that one out.

      I think you really hit on the difference between worship and fandom here: “And on some level, instead of opening onto the Other, instead of that extraordinary task of getting outside of ourselves, the fan stays within their own mind and maintains consensus reality”

  • Urban Pooka

    I know that this post is quite old, but thank you for posting this list of questions. I believe that they will be very valuable to me.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/ John H Halstead

      My pleasure. Thank you for your interest.

  • http://herlanderwalking.wordpress.com syrbal

    You provided my feel good of the day! I am nearly always in doubt, and just about as often in trouble with someone for daring to say so, lol! Nonetheless, I continue to doubt!

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

    I like that UU phrase. Another one I like even more I came across recently:

    “Hold your beliefs lightly. And hold your doubts lightly too.”

    It was in a comment by Philip Anderson in response to a post at Humanistic Paganism entitled “Truth and compassion: Which takes priority?”: http://humanisticpaganism.com/2013/05/19/truth-and-compassion-which-takes-priority/

  • http://dreamsandbass.wordpress.com darakat

    Does the god let you have “free will” or not? If you do, you can refuse to do anything they ask. If this means you part ways, so be it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.h.halstead John Halstead

    That is a very good question. My post was focused on discerning whether an experience is genuinely from a divine “other”. The question of whether that divine “other” is to be trusted and followed is another question entirely. Once we determine whether a communication is divine, I think we have to exercise our critical faculties again and apply our liberal/humanistic values to decide what to do about the communication.

    This issue came up not too long ago when Hellenic polytheist Elani Temperance where she described her own if-they-told-you-to-jump-off-a-bridge kind of faith at her own blog, Baring the Aegis [http://witchesandpagans.com/EasyBlog/self-in-relation-to-deity.html]:

    “[...] when it comes to the Theoi–I say ‘how high’ when They say ‘jump’, regardless of what is requested of me. It also means that I put my faith in Them. When I pray and sacrifice to Zeus the Thunderer for a day without rain as I do my rounds outside, I don’t bring an umbrella. I trust that Zeus will either honor my prayer through kharis, or will have good reason not to. Who am I to go against His wishes and stay dry, regardless? To me, that is hubris.”

    My response was this:

    “You are a beautiful and incredible human being is who you are. Who is he to say you have to get wet? The polytheistic gods, as I understand them, are not necessarily ‘good’ and they are not omni-benevolent. They are as flawed as human beings, but they just have more power. Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”

    Elani explained that she is able to maintain boundaries with human beings, but not with the gods. That kind of faith makes no more sense to me in the context of divine beings than it would in the context of human beings. As a Jungian, I think the gods can be just as destructive and evil as humans. We can never abandon our moral responsibility to exercise judgment.

  • http://www.witchesandpagans.com Anne Newkirk Niven

    The question I’m raising isn’t one of coercion, per se, it’s more a question of blasphemy or contravening the will of the god(s). My question relates to whether morality applies to the gods, and if so, who’s morality? And if not, what limits are there on Divine Monsters?

  • http://dreamsandbass.wordpress.com darakat

    But what of the will of the god(s) if your will is to be expunged by thier ideals? If this devine monster can ask you to give up your morality, are they truely worthy of your continued worship? The ontological idea that we are faced with here is “sin” and the idea that going agaisnt the gods will is ‘blasphemy’, are we to face “sin” because we are expressing our own will? Are our gods guides to help us on our path or simply dictators whom we never question?

  • http://www.witchesandpagans.com Anne Newkirk Niven

    Precisely my point.


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