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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  • Thanks for such a thoughtful response to my response to your piece, John. 🙂 Clearly, I need to familiarize myself more with some of your past work — and it’s always a pleasure to be able to say that about a blogger.

    I do have one small quibble, and that is that I think in some places your paraphrases of my post are a bit lacking in nuance. For instance, I definitely don’t mean to say that people who are concerned with the issue of competence are embarrassed by sincerity — what I said (and meant) was that people who are overly concerned with competence (especially other people’s competence, more so than their own) tend to also be embarrassed by expressions of sincerity. (Sorry for leaning on the italics so heavily, but all of those qualifiers are really important to the point I’m making.) Another way of looking at this might be to say that being embarrassed by public displays of sincerity is a symptom of being overly concerned with competence. F’ex, if I’m trying to determine if my interest in competence has gone from legitimate concern to unreasonable discomfort, one way of determining that might be to look at my attitudes and reactions towards expressions of sincerity.

    Another thing I want to clarify is that I am not equating sincerity (or the nonrational, what you refer to as Dionysian) and competence (the rational, or Apollonian) with the feminine and masculine aspects of religious community, respectively. I am calling out what I see to be a gendered and potentially sexist attitude within mainstream culture and pointing out how it may be influencing the Pagan community. I do not agree with this attitude, in fact I think it’s deeply problematic precisely because of the false dichotomy it creates between public and private life, political and personal action. (I might also be wrong in my concern that this underlying sexism is behind some of the conflicts over embarrassment and competence in the Pagan community, but I think it’s important to take a critical look at our attitudes and ruthlessly root out any lurking systemic sexism that might be lingering.)

    In general, I think you and I are mostly in agreement on this. I really appreciate your focus on discrimination as important to deepening spiritual community — though I might suggest using the word “discernment” for this process instead. The word discernment already has a history of being used in a religious context in the way that you mean here, and the word discrimination carries a lot of connotative baggage you’d probably want to avoid, especially when in conversation with other Pagans. 😉

    When you talk about the shallowness of the public face of Paganism, my first reaction is to object that the “public face” of almost any community will tend to appear shallow or silly in some respect. (How anyone takes the Pope seriously is beyond me.) But that just leads me to ask, what would a “non-shallow” public face for Paganism look like? There are certainly examples of communities that seem to successfully present non-shallow faces to the public — what determines whether something appears shallow or not, and exactly how do we tell if the appearance of shallowness is an accurate reflection of real shallowness? The answer to that question I think says just as much about the attitudes and values of the mainstream as it does about the depth of the Pagan community. Are those mainstream values even worth embracing? We can’t answer that until we’ve at least tried to answer the previous questions.

    Your post also brings me back again to the curious role of kitsch in Paganism, and in religion more generally. I’m reminded of a time when I was a kid, when I found myself deeply embarrassed by the plastic rosaries being sold at my family’s church. Maybe it’s the cheap, mass-produced quality of much of Paganism’s public face (and the sentimentality that kitsch appeals to and capitalizes on) that gives it the appearance of shallowness? Can there be “kitsch” ritual, and what would it look like?

    I have no idea. The topic intrigues me and it’s something I keep coming back to, but now this is just me trying to outsource my thinking to other intelligent people who might have intriguing insights. There are too many fascinating issues to explore and not enough hours in the day or neurons in my brain to follow up on all of them. 😉

    • Thanks for taking the time to work through this with me Alison. I apologize for glossing over the important qualifiers you used. Also, I appreciate now that you were not intending to perpetuate the rational-masculine/emotional-feminine dichotomy. I may have been reading your post with gendered ears so to speak — the “discriminating gentleman” comment strike close to home.
      You raise some good questions about what constitutes shallowness in religion. For me, I think that mirth needs to be balanced with an attitude of reverence. Ritual doesn’t need to be somber, but it should be clear that we’re not play acting or LARPing. How do we do that though?
      The kitsch question is a good one too, and one I’ll have to give more thought to. I’m a big fan of the painter Bouguereau. His paintings played an important role in my spiritual development. A few years back I had an good friend tell me that Bouguereau is considered kitsch by artists, and I had this weird feeling of shame that I still haven’t come to terms with.