Embarrassment and the twin threats to Paganism: Shallowness of the mind and of the heart

Embarrassment and the twin threats to Paganism: Shallowness of the mind and of the heart November 24, 2012

In my last post, I wrote about “Being Ashamed by Paganism” (which was really about “embarrassment” not “shame”).  For me, the most interesting and challenging response came from Alison Leigh Lilly, who suggested that embarrassment can be “an invitation to growth”.  Alison discusses her own experience of embarrassment (at poorly executed ritual) and being the subject of someone else’s embarrassment (because of her enthusiasm).

I agree with Alison that my embarrassment says more about me than it does about the object of my embarrassment.  Specifically, it says more about my relationships with those whose judgment I am anticipating than it does about the people whom I find embarrassing.  Alison writes, “The times when I felt most worried about being judged as shallow or silly because of my associations were the times when I was least secure about my own reasons for doing and believing as I did …”  That’s definitely true in my case.  My embarrassment at some aspects of Paganism cannot really be separated from my own unsettledness over my religious identity.

I also agree with Alison that embarrassment can be a sign of a shallow engagement with the object of one’s embarrassment.  Although I don’t think this is always the case: Sometimes embarrassment is a expression of a legitimate concern.

Alison sets up a dichotomy between the values of “sincerity” and “competence” (reference to an earlier post of hers), suggesting that those who value competence more than sincerity are embarrassed by any form of sincerity:

“I’ve noticed that those in the Pagan community who worry overly-much about the competence or incompetence of others are often just as embarrassed by expressions of sincerity, regardless of the competence with which that sincerity is expressed.”

She then equates the sincerity side of the equation with the (feminine) “emotional, nonrational aspect of the self” which is devalued by the (masculine) “detached, professional, rational” self.  Allison places me in the latter category:

“While John locates his love of Paganism in the feminist and process theologies that have informed his understanding of deity as the nondiscriminating All-of-All, it seems his response to his own embarrassment is to step back into the role of the discriminating gentleman of refined tastes who finds himself discomfited by the overly-emotional and seemingly irrational exuberances of his fellow Pagans.”

I think it it is critical to emphasize here that emotional exuberance is not what I find embarrassing about Paganism.  In fact, as I have written before, one of the things I love about Paganism is its Dionysian character:

“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, dancing, masks, flowers, divine possession’ (Robert Graves).”

(See also my post on “Why I Don’t Dig the Buddha”, in which I contrast the serene image of with Buddha with the image of the passionate and ecstatic Dionysus.)  My issue with public Pagan rituals is not an excess of emotion.  For example, the one CUUPS ritual that I do attend with my family is the Beltane celebration at which we dance around the maypole, which is the most exuberant celebration of the year.

Having said that, I believe that the Dionysian and the Apollonian sides of any social movement need to be balanced.  As Walter Kaufmann writes in his Critique of Religion and Philosophy: “Undisciplined vision, unexamined intuition, and sheer passion are the fountainheads of madness, superstition, and fanaticism.  And cleverness and patience without vision are the expense of spirit in a waste of subtlety.”

Alison is correct that I do understand deity as the “nondiscriminating All-of-All”, but I don’t think that means we’re not supposed to discriminate.  Starhawk writes in her novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing:

“One of the names of the Goddess was All Possibility, and Madrone wished, for one moment for a more comforting deity, one who would at least claim that only the good possibilities would come to pass.

“ ‘All means all,’ she heard a voice in her mind whisper.  ‘I proliferate, I don’t discriminate.  But you have the knife.  I spin a billion billion threads, now, cut some and weave with the rest.’ ”

The “knife” Starhawk refers to above is the power of discrimination.  Healthy growth comes from a combination of Dionysian vitality and Apollonian discrimination.  Just as a fruit tree must be pruned to produce healthy fruit, so must a religious community.

At the end of her post, Alison too comes to the conclusion that self-analysis is critical for community building:

“Creative endeavors falter under the yolk of constant editorial critique and oversight. If we cannot allow ourselves to be whole, messy people in public when we are in community with each other, then our spiritual community will remain largely an excuse for private posturing and play-acting. […]

“But even though creative work is hindered by constant criticism and self-analysis, it is equally handicapped if attempted in isolation. Creative work engages with the resistance of the medium, and the creative work of community-building absolutely demands that we overcome our embarrassment to have real conversations with each other about the things that matter, and that we do that openly and publicly. We can’t do that if we are politely escorting those who disagree with us to the exit, but we also can’t do that if we expect those disagreements to be pleasantly shelved for the time being while we all light candles and hold hands in a circle together. The one is a recipe for intolerant theology, but the other is a recipe for shallow practice.

Indeed, it is precisely the shallowness of the public face of Paganism that embarrasses me.  And it was to this that I referred when I contrasted the silliness of much of public Paganism with the “seriousness” that I longed for.  The “seriousness” that I have been talking about does not exclude sacred play or ecstatic self-forgetfulness.  (In fact, I recently wrote about the “one needful thing” in UU worship being “enthusiasmos or personal abandonment”.)  It does exclude both uncritical belief and shallow engagement.  It does exclude ritual and practice which only engage the “light” side of ourselves, the parts of us that we are comfortable facing.  It does exclude naive appeals to invisible parental figures in the sky (whether one or many) or to irrational “magical” technologies to save us from the difficult challenges of life.  And I believe that circling the wagons, imaging white light, and handing our “protection stones” is a shallow response to the challenges that our community faces from the wider culture — both emotionally and intellectually.  There is an emotional shallowness and an intellectual shallowness, and both should be discouraged for our community to thrive.

As Starhawk says in The Spiral Dance:

“If Goddess religion is not to become mindless idiocy, we must win clear of the tendency of magic to become superstition.  Magic — and among its branches I include psychology as it purports to describe and change consciousness — is an art. […] The value of magical metaphors is that through them we identify ourselves and connect with larger forces; we partake of the elements, the cosmic process, the movement of the stars.  But if we use them for glib explanations and cheap categorizations, they narrow the mind instead of expanding it and reduce experience to a set of formulas that separate us from each other and our own power.”

If we are to avoid “mindless idiocy”, as Starhawk says, we must discriminate.  While we should place a high value on inclusiveness, inclusiveness cannot be our highest ideal.  A community which exercises no discrimination is no community at all.  Where we draw these lines has to be negotiated in community, but there should be no doubt that the lines have to be drawn.  Discrimination means saying no to the extremes — on both sides.  We need to say no to “rainbow-chasing smurf-worshipping” (as someone phrased it in the comments to my last post), just as we already say no to the more racially-motivated forms of heathenry.  For some reason, the Pagan community seems more comfortable drawing these lines on the right than on the left, but both extremes are just as damaging to the health of our movement.  Just as intellectual competence is no excuse for emotional shallowness, so emotional sincerity is no excuse for intellectual shallowness.  We need a religion which manifests both intellectual and emotional depth, and I believe (with my heart and my mind) that Paganism can be this religion.

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