My love/hate relationship with Neopaganism, Part 2

My love/hate relationship with Neopaganism, Part 2 October 21, 2011

Why I love Neopaganism:

#1   I love that Neopaganism honors the dark as well as the light. Jung wrote that “one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,but by making the darkness conscious.”  Probably the most significant realization of my life has been that I am not one; I am many seeking to become one; and that true power does not come from setting the parts of myself at war with one another, but from integrating my many parts into a whole in which every part has its place and time.  This does not mean romanticizing the dark.  But it does mean recognizing that these parts will not go away, and we can either find a way to integrate them  into a healthy whole, even the the destructive and totalizing parts — or they will tear us apart.  As Jung wrote, “The coming of the Anti-Christ is an inexorable psychological law.”  I know this from experience.  Neopaganism expresses this idea in the honoring of a multiplicity of deities, some light, some dark, but all in their season.

#2   I love that Neopaganism seeks to re-enchant the world.  By “reenchantment”, I mean an expanded consciousness of the radically interconnected world of which we are a part.  In her book The Nature of Magic, Susan Greenwood explains the goal of nature spirituality to be overcoming cultural alienation and relating to nature as a living cosmos.  Neopagans are materialists, but, for Neopagans, matter is not inert; it is vital.  The re-enchantment of the world is a countercultural response to both a reductionist and positivistic science, which views nature (including humans) as mechanisms, and a capitalism which reduces nature (including humans) to commodity and resource.  Neopagans, in contrast, consider nature (including but not limited to human beings) to be the embodiment of divinity and the localization of sacrality.  Magic, when understood as control over nature, is not at all countercultural, but is part and parcel of the technocratic paradigm to which Neopaganism stands as a challenge.  But there are other ways of understanding “magic”: magic understood as a re-enchantment of our way of understanding the world, of seeing and celebrating the subtle connections between ourselves and the natural world — not for the purpose of controlling that world, but for the purpose of appreciating it, celebrating it, and attuning ourselves to it.  This is the magic we experience when we see a sunset or a child laughing and we are compelled to say: “It’s magical.”  This is not merely a poetic expression; it is an expression of one of the most meaningful human experiences, and it is at the center of what we call Neopagansim.

#3   I love that Neopaganism consciously uses ritual.   I love ritual.  When I was Mormon, and I went to through the temple “endowment” ceremony, a Mormon initiation ritual, at 18, I felt like I had come home.  As far as I knew, there was nothing else like it in the Christian religious world.  I once read it compared to the mystery religion initiations of antiquity.  Many Mormons find it disturbing and out of sync with the paucity of religious symbolism elsewhere in Mormon religious life.  Mormons don’t use crosses, their meeting houses are utilitarian, and the few rituals like the Mormon Eucharist (“sacrament”) and baptism are relatively informal.  But the Mormon temple ceremony is a whole other world.  And I loved it.  When I left Mormonism, I needed a religion with high ritual.  I actually considered attending a Catholic church, just for the ceremony.  What is unique about Neopaganism, though, is not just the importance of ritual, but the importance of intentional and idiosyncratic ritual creation.  Ritual, in the Neopagan context does does not mean dry, formalized, repetitive events, but rather a symbolic action which is intended to communicate with those powerful parts of ourselves that cannot be experienced on a rational level, the parts that, in the words of Z. Budapest, have been ignored, that do not speak English (at least not prose), that do not care about television, but do understand candlelight and color and nature.

#4   I love that Neopaganism is a Dionysian religion.  I am Apollo’s man by nature.   My natural religion is that of the perfect square and the Golden Mean.  I am comfortable in the classroom where rationality prevails.  So why not choose an Apollonian religion like Mormonism?  Because comfort is not what I seek from religion.  I want challenge.  I want danger.   I want to be shaken to my depths.  I want to be scared shitless.  A Dionysian religion breaks down social structures and breaks down the walls of the ego.  As Harry Byngham (aka “Dion”), chief of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, wrote:  “Our Dionysian morality is not ‘safety first’, but ‘vitality first.”  Neopagan religion is not a religion of good behavior, but a wild religion, a religion of “drums, moonlight, [feasting] rather, dancing, masks, flowers, divine possession” (Robert Graves).  It makes me very uncomfortable — and it is what I need.

#5   I love that Neopaganism affirms Life and death.  Neopaganism affirms Death-in-Life and Life-in-Death rather than a life after death.  A Dionysian religion is one which above all affirms Life — not the eternal, unchanging, and deathless life of the Olympian immortals, but Life which embraces death: ever-changing, struggling, striving, transforming life.  Nietzsche wrote about the pagan cult of Dionysus as the deification of life, but the whole of life, with nothing split off, life which includes the will to annihilation.  Dionysus according to Laszlo Versényi in Man’s Measure, that

“may be called a god of life, but only in a special sense.  He represents life exploding beyond all boundaries, life undifferentiated and formless, life disjointed, disoriented, disorganized–a life that is hardly distinguishable from death.  Supremely indifferent to any form of life here and now, or even hostile to its confining particular manifestations from which Dionysian ecstasy saves man, Dionysus is, as Heracleitus saw, as much a god of death as of life.”

Through this Neopagan understanding of Life, I have begun to come to terms with my individual death.  And in the process, my life has become more real to me.

#6   I love that Neopaganism honors the feminine divine.   I was raised Mormon, and Mormonism has a concept of a “Heavenly Mother” — but Mormons are not allowed to pray to her or even talk about her.  So the feminine divine was something dangled out in front of me, but something I never experienced consciously.  My experience with the divine in Mormonism was always patriarchal.  When I left the Mormon church, but before I discovered Neopaganism, I began collecting and decorating our apartment with paintings by William Bouguereau of the Madonna and Child.  My wife thought I was obsessed.  I couldn’t really explain it myself.  But now I understand that I was unconsciously searching for the feminine divine in those paintings.  Neopaganism gave me license to embrace both the male and female aspects of the divine and to recognize those aspects in myself.

#7   I love Neopaganism’s eclecticism.  Neopaganism has a long tradition of stealing from any source that is not nailed down.  I love that I can read Melville’s Moby Dick and Jung’s “Seven Sermons to the Dead” as  religious texts, right along side the translations of tablets from the Assyrian library of Ashurbanipal and the Old Testament.   I love that I can find inspiration in Greek, Celtic, and Hindu myths, taking what I like and discarding what I do not, filling in the blanks as I see fit.  This kind of “borrowing” has become unpopular in Pagan circles, and eclectic practice is increasingly treated as inauthentic.  But I don’t want to practice a revival of an ancient religion.  Mormonism claims to be a restoration of an ancient Christian truth.  I am through with ancient wisdom and revivals.  I want a 21st century religion to meet my 21st century spiritual needs.

#8   I love the this-worldly orientation of Neopaganism.  I spent far too much of my early religious life looking forward to a future life in a heaven and, in many ways, missed the point of living this life.  I was guilty of what Albert Camus called the “sin” of “hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

Not in Utopia, — subterranean fields, —
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, — the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
— Wordsworth

Even those Neopagans who believe in reincarnation do not view the cycle of life as something to be escaped from.  And those who believe in the Summerland, the place where souls rest between incarnations, do not view it as any kind of “heaven” where one would want to stay.  Ultimately, for the Neopagan, this life is all there is.  But where this would cause some to despair, the Pagan shouts with joy.

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