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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  • Whew! That’s some heavy thinking. I think your first point was my first clue that I needed more answers than my Catholic church could provide. I still employ some distinctly Catholic modes of thinking and probably always will, but I had to turn to paganism to realize the holy necessity of darkness as well as light.
    I’ll admit I’m not really sure what you mean by the body and spirit being one and the same. It may be the Catholicism talking, but I’ve always felt that while the body is vital and necessary it is not the whole thing. The spirit is the body but the spirit also extends past the body. This, of course, is neither truly Catholic nor truly in line with the few pagan ideas I’ve heard on the subject. You’ve made me stop and think about some of the similar ideas I’ve come to hold. This is useful and beneficial 🙂 Much appreciation!

    • I’ve come to this opinion after a long struggle with what I would call the ghost-in-the-machine complex that caused me to feel disconnected from my body, the material world around me, and other people. So, I hold to it this conception of mind-body, not because I think it is objectively true, but because it is therapeutic for me. I now think of spirit, not a some other kind of stuff or meta-matter, but as my subjective experience of being a physical body. And slowly I am coming to appreciate that both my spirit and my body extend beyond the boundary of my skin. Or, to put it another way, that boundary is more porous than it seems. My body swims in a sea of matter of which it is a part, and my spirit (or my experience) extends outward into the world in a very non-Cartesian way. David Abram’s writing has helped me move in the direction of this understanding.

  • Kelley Shelton

    John, I think the thing that sent me searching is the idea that for instance in the Christian faith they treat the writers of the holy books as if they are better than us living today. I mean these guys and gals were regular joes and janes out doing what they did and then eventually met up with Jesus and at the point of their so call salvation and sainthood became divine perfectionist. I mean, in my mind, I think all revered individuals should be honored and their stories and adventures should be studied, but also we should balance out things (you know as lady imbrium puts it, realize the holy necessity of light and darkness, since you can’t have one without the other). I mean, I am sure that people like Joseph Smith, St. Paul, St. Peter, and even Jesus had bad days like the rest of it and those are not really documented. I am sure all of the above woke up one day in their lives, feeling bloated and gassy and had a pounding head ache and was like “man it looks like its going to be a shitty day”. When I was a kid, I brought up this point, and it was not very popular and I was told that the Saints were destined to greatness and then everything else was brushed off. It was things like that, that made me start searching to fill in the pieces I felt were missing. I dig honesty and the fact that they world is not just sunshine and rainbows. I dig the fact that balance and practicality can be 100% a part of my pagan path. I think a little honesty and realism goes a long way. People engage in spiritual endevours to answer big questions in their lives, the last thing they need to to feel like people are blowing smoke up their asses. I would like to believe that Thor for example was based on a Nordic/Germanic ancestral hero before he became the stuff of myth and legend. I would like to think he was more like us and could be related to like a human before we made him a God and put him up on a Pedestal. But this is just my humble opinion. Sorry for the profanity, guess you post really touched something in me. GREAT POST! Kelley.

    • I find the humanizing of these “saints” to be very powerful too. There is a portion of the New Testament where Paul talks about a war among the parts of himself (Romans 7:15-23), and that really humanizes him for me and helps me connect with him.

      “I am sure that people like Joseph Smith, St. Paul, St. Peter, and even Jesus had bad days like the rest …”
      Yeah, I think they all had one really bad day in particular. 😉

      So what prompted you to start pedestal smashing? Was it something external (like something you read or heard someone say) or more internal?

  • Ken

    I loved your answer to #6. Right on.

  • Dave

    Growing up I was taught to view God as a family of separate, individual persons who were united in moral purpose and divine nature. There were 3 major persons – only 2 of whom were to be worshiped, 2 major forces, and legions of non-human spirits broken up into two groups – good and evil.

    The creator-father was the chief person of the god family while the uncreated-son was seen as equal-but-willingly-subordinate-to the father. Our not-god, non-human spirit-of-evil was essentially our devil and the ruler of the evil spirits. There were also not god, non-human good spirits who were messengers for the father and the son. The first of our important forces was the power of the god family which was seen as both divine power and being. The second was the created natural world which was seen as temporarily ruled by the spirit-of-evil but nevertheless embodied divine power.

    Eventually, it was said, the Earth would be the throne of the son, the rest of the planets in the universe would be the god-thrones of the faithful who would join the god family after the resurrection, heaven would be the throne of the father, the lake of fire would annihilate the souls of the unfaithful – to become dead for all time, and the evil spirits would be cast into the cold darkness of space.

    For me, the questions that lead me to Paganism were different and it wasn’t so much that they lead me to Paganism so much as they lead me away from my old religion.

    Why did the father allow the king of the evil spirits free reign over the Earth? Why couldn’t I stay with my beloved brothers* when I was brought back to life? Did I get to pick out what planet I ruled over and did I get to create my own version of humans? Why was the son so important if he was just another brother among many? What were the good spirits for and why didn’t they help us?

    Questions like those were the beginning of the end for me. Ultimately though I was probably drawn to Paganism because it is so much like my old religion in so many ways. The most essential thing for me was the Pagan belief was the this-worldly focus. My old religion didn’t draw a hardline between natural and supernatural and people didn’t go to heaven after they died, they just moved planets or died permanently. Coming to terms with letting my old religion go meant it wasn’t likely for me to be able to accept an other worldly religion and that as they say is that.

    Great to see more of your perspective John. 🙂

    *In my religious culture brothers means male relatives. Men in my culture are highly valued and the taboo against calling ANY man your father (and thereby failing to worship THE father properly) meant that we did not know our fathers but we nevertheless put great value on male relatives – spiritual brotherhood of men and all that.

    • Oh I had a lot of questions that led me *away* from the LDS Church. Polygamy was a big one. Not that it was practiced, but that the Church today could not admit that it was not divinely inspired. And the lack of a concept of grace in Mormon Christology was another one. Some Mormon (neo-orthodox) authors have attempted to address this, but Mormonism is very works-oriented. I actually liked all the worlds-without-end, eternal progression mythology.

      “The most essential thing for me was the Pagan belief was the this-worldly focus.”
      That was it for me as well. I was way too focused on earning my place in the celestial kingdom and missing out on life.

      • Dave

        We didn’t practice marriage. The current discussions about same-sex marriage are weird to me, why would anyone want marriage? The marriage optional feature of Paganism was a cool perk, as was the relative tolerance of non-monogamy.

        What does grace mean religiously speaking?

        Our religion taught that life was practice for becoming gods. I thought that would be a lonely way to live, plus I liked life just as it was. I think we ended up Pagans for very similar reasons.

      • Dave

        Additional question, do you consider Jungianism a (applied?) psychology, a religion, both, or neither?

        • I think for Jung it was neither a religion nor merely a psychological theory, but a psychological approach to the numinous. For me, it is a myth. It performs all the functions of a myth: It organizes my experience into a meaningful cosmos and it provides me with a vehicle to approach the numinous, one that does not conflict
          with my bias against supernaturalism.

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