The questions that led me to Neopaganism

The questions that led me to Neopaganism December 15, 2012

When I left the Mormon church, I felt a strong need to justify myself.  A Mormon can request to have their name removed from the church records by putting the request in writing.  You don’t have to state your reason, but I wanted to, so I wrote a lengthy letter (10 pages) itemizing my issues.  I had issues with Mormon dogma (specifically is patriarchy and its Christology) and with the LDS Church’s failure to come to terms with the less shiny parts of its history.  Later, the list grew.  Although I styled it a statement of beliefs, it was really a statement of non-beliefs: 25 single-spaced pages of me disagreeing with Mormon doctrine and policy in 10-point font.  I’m glad I got it out of my system.  At the end, though, I included a list of 9 things that were big question marks for me.  I titled it:

“What I do not know (but intend to find out)”

I went back to this list a few months ago and realized how these questions led eventually to embrace Neopaganism and Jungianism.  When I left the Mormon church, it was because I could no longer accept the answers that it offered.  But soon after leaving, I realized that my questions had changed.  It was no longer that the LDS Church’s answers were wrong for me, it was that they were answers to the wrong questions.  My questions had changed.  I still don’t know the answers to these questions, but my Jungian Neopaganism has been a better vehicle for me to wrestle with them.

Here’s the list I wrote:

“1.  I do not know how to reconcile beauty with violence.  I do not know how to reconcile my belief in a benevolent God with the bloody competition that I see in nature.”

Charles Darwin wrote, “I cannot persuade myself that a benevolent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”  I had a law professor that talked about “the truths of blood and violence”.  This is an idea that I first encountered in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and then more personally when my wife miscarried.  Neopaganism has taught me that the cruelty and suffering of nature are inseparable from its beauty and grace, and that both are faces of the divine.  My Goddess is the Slayer, as well as the Mother.  She is the Greek Furies (the Erinyes).  She is Medea who slayed her own children.  She is the Celtic Morrigan, who persecuted the hero CuChulainn, in the form of a she-wolf.  She is the dragon bride of Gawain.  She is the Phrygian Kybele, who drove Attis to madness.  She is the Canaanite Anat, who waded in the blood of her enemies.

“2.  I do not know how to avoid the danger of creating God in my own image.”

Heidegger once asked, “Who can guarantee that man in his present-day self-conception has not raised some mediocre aspect of himself to the status of a god?”  Voltaire and many others realized that god-making is a quintessential human activity.  “Man is born to believe,” wrote Benjamin Disraeli, “and if no Church comes forward with its title-deeds of truth to guide him, he will find altars and idols in his own heart and his own imagination.”  Jungian Neopagan polytheism is unique, though, in its conscious embrace of this fact.  However, the form of Jungian form of Neopaganism that I embraced has taught me that I need to distinguish the gods of my own conscious creation from those potencies of the unconscious from which spring from my dreams and the myths of the ages.  We do not create these things, any more than we create our own dreams.  As W. H. Auden wrote: “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.”  Jungian Neopaganism taught me to look deep within, to my unconscious, to find the gods.

“3.  I do not know why the body is essential and what we are to learn from our incarnation.”

Back then, I still was caught in the trap of believing that “I” had an existence separate from my body.  Since then I have come to believe that the body is inseparable from spirit.  Jung wrote: “If we are still caught by the old idea of an antithesis between mind and matter, the present state of affairs means an unbearable contradiction; it may even divide us against ourselves.”   That’s exactly what I felt.  Jung goes on: “But if we can reconcile ourselves with the mysterious truth that spirit is the living body seen from within, and the body the outer manifestation of the living spirit – the two really being one — then we can understand why it is that the attempt to transcend the present level of consciousness must give its due to the body.”  My Pagan practice development out of what I call an “incarnational mysticism”, a term I borrowed from Alan Watts, and as such it seeks to “give the body its due.”  Somatic practices is something that I discuss in my post on “Soul-Centered Paganism”.

“4.  While I believe that we are all connected, I don’t really know what this means.”

The ideas of connectedness and disconnectedness are, I think, an important part of the Pagan experience.  It’s at the core of what I mean by the word “sacred.”  But I am still working this out.  I think that is because it s something that has to be experienced first.  But I believe that it can be experienced, ironically, by going deeper into oneself and “out the other side” so to speak.  The possibility of moving to a more encompassing sense of compassion through experiencing a deeper sense of self is something I wrote about recently in my post on “lateral transcendence” and and earlier post distinguishing “navel-gazing” from the “journey to the world navel”.   It’s also something that I’ve been reading about as I have been consuming John Dourley’s writings on Jungian theory (several of which can be found on the Jung Resources menu to the right of this page).  More on Dourley’s ideas in a future post.

“5.  I do not know how to balance the individual and community spheres in my spiritual development.  I do not know how to reap the benefits of spiritual community (broader spiritual horizons) while avoiding the dangers (group think and orthodoxy).”

This is still something that I struggle with.  It took me 7 years after I first began identifying as “Neopagan” to seek out other Pagans.  But most of my in-person interactions with Pagans, at festivals and at open rituals, have caused to become disillusioned with Paganism.  Increasingly, I am leaning toward a small-“p” pagan identity.  I have also tried to find this community in the local Unitarian church.  And while I still find that experience to be very beneficial, I find that something important is missing.  Admittedly, part of this has to do with what Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein calls the “consumer mentality” toward religious community.  The strongest connection I have experienced has been with the online community that brings these two cultures together: the humanism of the UU with the myth and ritual of Paganism.  This includes the Humanistic Paganism community blog and Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group.  Of course, online community is a very limited form of community.  Jason Mankey touched on the nature of online Pagan community recently on his blog, and I have been meaning to respond.  While Jason observes that the Pagan blogosphere is not synonymous with the Pagan community as a whole, I would point out that any notion of Pagan community which excludes the online community is incomplete.

“6.  I do not know when it is time to stop thinking and start feeling (in religion).”

I think I can answer this question at least.  The answer is: “now”.  Critical thought was extremely important to me when I was leaving the Mormon church.  But learning to let go is the “one needful thing” for me right now.  And the idea of Paganism as a Dionysian religion has helped me move in this direction.  As I’ve said here before, it’s Nietzsche’s “glowing life of the Dionysian revelers” that I want.

“7.  I believe that God works within nature, but I do not know how man evolved.  I believe the current theory of evolution is unsatisfactory.”

I now believe that God is nature.  I believe in evolution, but I do still have questions.  I’m not looking for intelligent design, but natural selection as the sole mechanism of evolution seems incomplete to me.  Emergence is an idea that has great appeal to me.  Honestly, this is something I have not studied enough to really have an opinion on.

“8.  I do not know whether or not reincarnation occurs.  It does strike me as significant that half the world has always believed in reincarnation.”

I don’t believe in reincarnation or any personal form of immortality.  While our elements and maybe even some part of our psyche may be recycled by the earth, I believe everything I know as “me” will cease at death.  John Vickery writes: “To recognize death and mortality and to live fully with that awareness is to know the only true idea of the holy available to man in this or any other century.”  Maybe an overstatement by Vickery, but achieving true death-consciousness is one of the goals of my Pagan practice.

“9.  I do not know what truly makes men and women different and what it is that God wants us to teach one another.”

Exposure to the Pagan community has simultaneously increased my exposure to the LGBTQ community, which has relativized my notions of gender and sexual orientation.  As far as what makes us different, there are the biological differences which exist for most of us to varying degrees (i.e., anatomy and hormones) and then there is socialization, much of which happens when we are still pre-verbal.  But that’s not to say its a shallow difference or even an unimportant difference.  As a Jungian, I do embrace a kind of limited psychological gender essentialism.  And as a heterosexual male, I do still find the idea of sexual polarity to be important for me.  But more on that in a future post.

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